I’ve been playing Roleplaying Games for a long time now, starting off with the “Big 3” (Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, Call of Cthulhu and Traveller) back in the late 80s and now (mostly) 13th Age and Dr Who. Over those years, bits and pieces of particular games have stood out as being better than other games at handling particular things – systems to handle a character’s sanity, the magic they can wield, how fast combat flows and the suchlike.
The first in my cherry-picking posts regards Chapter 3 from Call of Cthulhu: Sanity. For those of you not in the know, Call of Cthulhu is a game largely based on the works of the American writer H P Lovecraft. His stories concerned horrific and alien entities from beyond time and space and their effects on the world we live in. The stories are bleak, humanity rarely has a chance against these creatures and the protagonists – assuming they survive the story – are never quite the same again. Loss of sanity plays a big part. Lovecraft went on to inspire a whole host of other authors who expanded what became known as the “Cthulhu Mythos” and people are still writing in his universe to this day. Charles Stross’s “Laundry Files” novels are some of the more recent entries into this field. The John Carpenter movie, “In the Mouth of Madness” is the only really good, properly Lovecraftian, film out there, though “Reanimator” has a pretty good stab at things.
Anyway. Sanity. Over the course of the game, as the player characters encounter assorted Mythos entities (or other, more mundane, scenarios such as a corpse at a crime scene) they lose varying amounts of sanity depending on how (mentally) strong their character is. “You open the door to the old house. Err… Make a Sanity check?” is a common phrase you come to dread as a player. Botch that roll and you’ll be gibbering in the corner for a while.
I love the Sanity chapter. There’s no game with even a smidgen of a focus on horror that couldn’t be improved by giving a character a Sanity score and using those rules. The phobias alone are worth reading (rather like the Critical Hit tables in Rolemaster, for those who remember them).
The real kicker for characters, and one that pretty much guaranteed a safe and quiet retirement in a room with padded walls (assuming your whole reason for being there didn’t turn out to be demonstrating how the monster works), was that the more you learned about the entities you were facing, the lower your sanity score became. Your Sanity was measured out of 100. Your Cthulhu Mythos skill, your knowledge of the entities, started at 0. Your maximum Sanity was 100 – Cthulhu Mythos. So the very knowledgeable became the very unhinged very quickly.
You could use this sort of mechanic in games like Hollow Earth Expeditions to represent the alien (by which I mean not-human) influences of Atlantean technology, in Traveller (or Serenity and the upcoming Firefly) to deal with the effects of staring into the void of deep space, in Dungeons and Dragons to show how magic-using characters are affected by wielding powers beyond their character’s control.
Next week – Magic…