Let's Play...an Amnesiac!
Welcome back to the Zurn blog! Today we continue in our advanced character series looking at how to play an amnesiac well. This is a person who cannot remember a critical element of their past, and how that adds to the drama in the scene without hurting the gaming experience with your friends is something we need to discuss.
We will start as we always do by looking at why you would play an amnesiac, followed by how to make it interesting while not causing friction in the gaming group, and then end with considerations you should make as you build the character.
I. Why Play an Amnesiac?
Amnesia is no joke - one of the worst fears a person can have is not knowing who they are, what they have done, and what others may think of what they have done. It also makes it very easy to deceive them, as they don't recall what is true within that period of time.
But this is also half the fun of playing an amnesiac, especially at the start of a new campaign. The issue with new campaigns is not having an extensive backstory of who your character is and what they've done in the world that leads up to that tavern scene where the party first meets.
It is also a great concept for a mystery campaign. I was once a player in an amnesiac campaign where all of the player characters could not remember their past, but over the course of the campaign we slowly discovered our names, occupations, past job that we were contracted to perform, and the danger we were in. But the setting of the campaign was augmented by the amnesia character concept: since we didn't know our backgrounds, we also didn't need a "lore dump" to get us up to speed. We got to discover the mystery and unpack the mystery as we learned about who we were.
It's also a great way to give your game master greater control over your backstory. If the game master wants to introduce a villain, add some ancient grudges, etc., they are free to do pretty much anything they want because you don't remember it. This is not always ideal, but sometimes it can help game masters weave in elements of the story together.
So with this in mind, let's take a look at what amnesia is (and what it is not), before discussing how you build an amnesiac character.
II. How would an Amnesiac Act?
First of all, there are different levels of severity of amnesia. Sometimes it only affects short-term memory: what happened in the past few days, or even hours. At other times it can be more severe, affecting specific types of memories, or all of your past memories. So depending on the severity of your character's amnesia you may recall or not recall specific things.
Second, as far as we can tell, it has little to no effect on muscle memory. So if your character is a masterful swordsman, or a trained dancer, or a person who has learned how to speak a language, etc., you would still be able to handle a sword well, dance well, and speak the language well. So amnesia doesn't turn you into a complete dummy - you just don't recall a percentage of your memories.
Third, amnesia does heighten paranoia. Seeing someone on the street might trigger a, "I've seen you before, but I can't place you" instinct, and when added to an inability to verify the veracity of what someone says through your own memories, it is hard not to go down the path of paranoia. So keep that in mind.
Fourth, amnesiacs tend to be quieter, not drawing as much attention to themselves. Now this is not always true, but tying off of the paranoia point above, since they know that there is a gap in their verification ability there is a tendency to avoid being the center of conversation.
And finally, amnesiacs tend to pull skill out of nowhere, as they don't necessarily remember what they are good at. So an amnesiac may be an excellent locksmith, gunslinger, spellcaster, prophetess - all manner of things - and may not know it. This gives you lots of room to advance the character and suddenly bring out a new skill or ability that the party has not seen.
So with this in mind, let's build an amnesiac.
III. Mechanics for Amnesiacs
It is worth noting upfront as we look at the stats that you do not need to have a low mental stat. Amnesia has nothing to do with the strength of your brain, but rather the ability of the brain to properly recall and process information. So you can have a high-end spellcaster who cannot remember what he did three days ago following a traumatic event. That spellcaster might even be able to recall the words for spells, as some memories do remain while others are blocked due to the damage to the neural passageways.
For your class, you can pretty much play any class if your game has a class system, but keep in mind that some elements of your class may require memories. While muscle memory may exist, remembering how to lead a religious ritual, the right mix of venom to form a poisonous draught, and other things may not be recalled. So bear in mind that you might have limitations (even if only in roleplaying the character) in how you can effectively play a given class.
For your equipment, note how your choice of equipment may clue in your character to their past background. If the character has a heavy crossbow, silver daggers, a wooden stake, holy water, and a holy symbol, there's a good chance that you were a demon hunter or monster hunter of some sort. If you have magical robes and a staff that glows with magical energy, there's a good chance that you practiced magic back in the day.
So keep in mind that your equipment may clue you in as to your history. And this is not bad - it helps to build the mystery, move the progression of realization along, and avoid stagnation and paralysis for the character.
For your skills, you'd normally choose these like you would for a normal character as you learned how to do things normally. The trick is that you don't necessarily have to remember what you're good at, and to simulate this, I'd recommend one of two paths. You could roll a dice to see whether you remember you are skilled in this: top half of the die faces results in doing whatever the optimal thing is, and lower half means you don't do the optimal thing.
The alternative is that you can have the game master secretly choose your skills, and you just try things and see what you're good at. We did this in the campaign where the whole group played amnesiacs, and while admittedly it was a lot of extra work for the GM (so I'm not necessarily endorsing this as better), it was a lot of fun for us. We really felt like amnesiacs in those first few sessions, seeing if we could break down walls, cast spells, fight people - literally anything we wanted to do. And that was fun.
And finally, as regards magic, keep in mind that you will still have muscle memory, so if your game system allows for somatic movements and verbal components, you're probably fine to some extent, though it might be more reactionary and second nature to cast, as the exact words may not be recalled in the moment. A lot of these issues disappear, however, if you have a spellbook, as that would presumably have all of your spells in it, and you'd be able to use that to remember spells from your past.
I mention the spellbook here because for some this may feel like cheating - it's like the amnesia doesn't actually affect the character as much. This is part of why I hedged the discussion on classes: if your class has something like a spellbook for its casting, you may want to forego this for an amnesiac character.
One of the big advantages to an amnesiac is that it gives the game master a lot of freedom to build out things that apply to your backstory. If your game master wants to tie your backstory to the Big Bad Evil Guy (or BBEG) of the campaign, they don't need to work with a name you supply them because you don't remember the person's name. If the game master wants to bring in a past loved one or old friend, they can do it, because you don't remember them. So it's not just a tool for making your game experience different: playing an amnesiac also gives the game master more freedom.
On the flipside, use this with caution: you also don't want your game master to get overloaded coming up with stuff for you. You're still a member of the gaming group, and that means that you should still be an imaginative and creative member of the group. So ask your game master leading questions to help them in attaching your character to things that matter. "Hey, game master: that lady seems really nice to us when we came into town. Do I get any strange inklings that we might have met before" is a great way to do this.
Until next time,