If you want to Ask Angry a question, see this page on how to Ask Angry!
Oh, mighty all-powerful Dungeon Lord, I beseech thee to hear my plea. Thine exposition on Honor enlightened me in the extreme, but I fear for my Sanity. I pray, therefore, that thou wilt help me discover what Sanity is and how to use it.
Okay, what the actual f$&%?! Why can’t people just ask questions like normal people?! Why are people always trying to be cute and clever with their phrasing? Or trying to give me clever names and titles? Or giving themselves idiotic pseudonyms? Save that crap for Strongbad’s E-Mails, all right?!
So… sanity. Sanity mechanics. Honestly, there are few game mechanics that evoke such mixed emotions in me as sanity mechanics. So, if this is a little rambly and thinky-out-loudy, forgive me. I’ve got a lot of feelings and they aren’t super focused. But, I hope somewhere in all of this crap, you’ll find something actually useful.
First of all, sanity mechanics are a feature of certain horror RPGs. Well, let’s be honest, they are a feature of one particular horror RPG; namely Call of Cthulhu. The basic idea is this: whenever you encounter something horrifying or incomprehensible, you suffer a certain amount of Sanity loss. That is, you lose a number of Sanity points. When you lose all of your Sanity points, your brain is broken. You become permanently and – for all practical purposes – irrevocably insane. The character is basically unplayable. Further, if you lose too much Sanity in too short a period of time, you will suffer various other ill effects. For example, suffer too much Sanity loss in one hour, and you’ll have a temporary mental breakdown. You might become insensible with panic. You might end up in a temporary catatonic state. Whatever. If you suffer too much Sanity loss over a longer period, you might develop a specific mental condition such as an enduring phobia, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, mania, or some other condition out of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
Cutting through all of the specific mechanics, the basic idea is that the human brain can only suffer so much stress and strain before it breaks in some way. And everything in Call of Cthulhu is inherently mentally stressful and straining. Thus, sanity works out to be a sort of Mental Hit Point system. Take enough damage and you suffer from ongoing specific mental injuries. Run out of Mental Hit Points completely and your brain is dead. Simple, right?
Now, that system is fine. I mean, insofar as it’s basically just Hit Points for your psyche. It works just as well as any RPG HP system. In fact, it works better. Notice that, interestingly, most RPG HP systems don’t go as far as causing specific or lingering injuries as a result of taking too much damage. In fact, that might be an interesting feature. Suffer too much damage in one go and suffer a temporary condition as a result of a specific injury. Too much damage over a moderate period of time without healing, suffer some sort of permanent condition like a limp or scarring or loss of strength or agility or chronic pain or whatever. It’d actually be kind of interesting to see a system like D&D take some of that on, no?
But the system has never quite sat well with me. And, if I’m honest, HP systems don’t sit well with me either. And there’s a lot of reasons for it. And one of the biggest reasons is the fact that absolutely every other f$&%ing game that decides to do any sort of horror decides it absolutely must have a sanity mechanic. And that sanity mechanic is always basically the CoC sanity system. The fact is, it’s being ripped off thoughtlessly. And, that isn’t good. There are very specific reasons why CoC includes a sanity system, but that doesn’t mean that every horror game even needs a sanity system. Hell, it doesn’t even mean every game of cosmic or Cthulhu horror needs a sanity system. Hell, I’m not even sure Call of Cthulhu NEEDS a sanity system.
See, I suspect that the reason that sanity ended up in CoC is because it was a common theme in the horror stories on which the game was based. If you somehow don’t know, Call of Cthulhu is based on a specific series of horror stories written by H. P. Lovecraft in the 1920’s. The first work of the so-called Cthulhu Mythos is called Call of Cthulhu. Other short stories and novels followed thereafter, taking place in the same universe and building on the themes introduced in the first book. Lovecraft’s unique brand of supernatural became so enduring and so often imitated that it has become a genre of horror of itself, often called Lovecraftian or Cosmic Horror.
The central feature of cosmic horror is that the universe we think we live in is an illusion. Underlying the world we think we understand is a complex, ancient, incomprehensible reality. The reality is at best indifferent to and at worst actually hostile to humanity. And it is beyond any human understanding. For example, the revelation in Call of Cthulhu is that sleeping beneath our world are terrible, undying abominations of vast mental and supernatural power. These things render moot all of our scientific understanding of the world. They have been worshipped as gods in the past. But they are dangerous to humanity, either by their very nature or because of their malevolent motivations. And they come from universes based on completely different laws of science, so we are ultimately powerless against them.
Thus, in most Lovecraftian stories, characters who start to understand the true nature of the world find themselves unable to cope with the revelation. Many are driven insane as a way of coping with the trauma of the revelation. Others still SEEM insane because, as they have gained an understanding of the nature of reality, their minds are necessarily warped and twisted. They really do see things in a different way because their perceptions and understanding have been bent to accommodate an alternate reality. It comes down to the old question about whether it can be called paranoia if people really are out to get you.
Because the fragility of the human psyche was at the core of many Lovecraftian stories, any RPG based on Lovecraft would seem to need a way to model the breaking of the brain by the revelation. But the sanity mechanics in Call of Cthulhu serve another purpose as well. See, the hallmark of a good horror game, especially a good Cosmic Horror game is hopelessness, powerlessness, and the inevitability of defeat. Often, in a CoC game, you’re trying to hold on as long as you can. You know your character is doomed. The moment you start exploring the reality behind the Cthulhu universe, you’re doomed. It’s like fighting a landslide. And the sanity mechanic provides a nice way to model that inevitable slide into destruction. Sanity can’t be restored easily. In fact, it really can’t be restored at all. And the more sanity damage you accrue, the more broken your character becomes. You end up fighting against your character’s phobias, hallucinations, manias, compulsions, and all of those other mental disorders. It gets harder and harder to function in the game.
And that WORKS for Call of Cthulhu. Kind of. We’ll come back to that. Basically, the farther you go in the game, the more broken your character. You’re just trying to stave off the inevitable.
But sanity mechanics stolen from CoC have started to crop up in other games as well. Often, they work exactly the same way. Hell, D&D 5E includes an optional sanity mechanic that is basically a photocopy of the CoC sanity system. Other games, like Shadow of the Demon Lord by Robert Schwalb include similar mechanics, but in the case of Shadow of the Demon Lord, a subtle change was made that I think makes a lot of difference.
If you’re not trying to run a game of inevitable destruction, where the characters are forced to learn the truth even though it is absolutely assured of destroying them and it is only a matter of time, the sanity mechanic is just a millstone against which you will grind down the PCs. Because that’s what it’s mean to do. So, you need to think long and hard about whether that’s what you want.
And, to be honest, maybe you don’t even want it in Call of Cthulhu. Because, frankly, the sanity mechanic isn’t as interesting or thematically appropriate as people think it is. But then, I would argue that most people that run Call of Cthulhu off the shelf and by the book don’t understand the horror they are trying to emulate. Let me see if I can explain.
CoC’s horror is built around the idea that this revelation that the universe contains vast, incomprehensible powers indifferent to humans is utterly horrifying. And it was a response to the intellectualism and rationalism of the time. It was a time when scientists were claiming that science was done, that it literally understood everything. Seriously. Until the quantum revelation that started in the early 1900s and continued for a century, people thought we were done with physics. We had all the answers. Technology had given us unparalleled mastery over the world. Explorers had shined a light over every dark corner of our planet. To discover that it was all for nothing, that none of it was real, and that we would never understand it all, those are horrifying discoveries. Today, we have a much more enlightened view. We haven’t deluded ourselves into thinking we have all the answers or that we are the masters of the universe. Well, unless you hang out in certain corners of the Internet atheism and skepticism communities, but you wouldn’t want to. Trust me.
Cthulhu isn’t as horrifying as it once was. Simply put, we have different things to be horrified about today. But beyond that, most people who play CoC actually know what it’s about. They know it’s about malign entities beyond mortal comprehension and a hopeless struggle against them. They know it’s about the failure of human understanding and the inevitability of madness. There is no revelation at the core of Cthulhu that the players aren’t already expecting. That they aren’t prepared for.
The sanity mechanic exists to tell players “and this is really horrifying, you guys.” When your PC encounters a shambling horror and discovers that it has been controlling all of the members of the Arkham PTA, the players aren’t horrified by that revelation. That’s what they expect in CoC. And, frankly, that sort of crap is just par for the course in most RPGs anyway. Mind control? Horrible supernatural entities? Yawn! So you need the sanity mechanic to tell players “no, no, this is really terrifying! It’s horrific! Your character is breaking because of it!”
In short, sanity mechanics allow jaded players to play simulations of actual terrified people.
Anyway, fine, right? After all, it’s not like when the PCs take damage, I break the player’s arm. They can simulate playing a physically injured character. They can simulate playing a mentally injured character. What’s the big deal.
And again, that’s where I come down to saying “well, it’s fine, I guess.” Sanity mechanics are as good a way as any to handle it. But still, I feel kind of unsatisfied.
See, the thing is, if my players really want to play a cosmic horror game, I feel like f$&%ing with the PCs isn’t really enough. I can’t help but feel I should be f$&%ing with my players’ heads. Sanity mechanics are very clinical and mechanical. The player knows the character is getting insane. They know the phobia exists. They know the hallucinations are hallucinations. Their characters don’t know, but the players do. And, try as you might, just giving characters quirks that rob them of their player agency isn’t enough.
First of all, if you really want to run a good Cthulhu horror game, the last thing you want to do is run Lovecraft. There’s nothing horrifying about Lovecraft anymore. Because the players all know the deal. You need a different revelation. The Matrix, if it had been structured differently, would have been a great example of Cosmic Horror. It had a revelation that changed everything about the world and made people inherently powerless and worthless in the world. So, you need a revelation that the players DON’T know beforehand. And they need to gradually discover it.
For example, if I were going to run a Cthulhu horror game, I might decide that my revelation is this: there is a terrible, malevolent entity beyond space and time and it was imprisoned by another entity also beyond space and time. Somehow, all of the human brains on Earth make up the psychic matrix of the prison. Life on Earth was specific evolved to culminate in a race of sentient beings whose combined psychic energy could counter the evil entity beyond space and time. Its sentience is divided up amongst all the human brains that have ever existed. But it can also assert control over humans. It doesn’t matter. Humans are on Earth. Unless humanity manages to destroy itself, the prison remains intact whatever evil things the malevolent entity makes specific humans do through its limited control. That’s why we got so close to nuclear war during the Cold War. And the other entity manipulated other brains to prevent nuclear Armageddon. But the “good” entity only cares about us insofar as it will prevent us from completely wiping out all of humanity. Whatever limited horrific evils the “evil” entity causes on Earth are trivial to it. And this is the truth behind “god vs. the devil” in most major world religions.
See? That’s pretty horrible. And the players don’t see that coming. And you need something like that at the core of your horror game. Something new and unpredictable that they can gradually unearth. Like, first they realize that some humans are being psychically controlled by something. Then they discover there’s an evil entity inside the world. Then they discover that all human brains are connected to it. Then they discover it can control anyone. Even themselves. And that the good entity of the universe did it. And there’s nothing they can do. It’s especially horrible if the players discover that their own characters can be warped, twisted, and manipulated by the evil entity.
It is literally hopeless. The players have to keep fighting, but at any time, the GM – via the evil entity – can just end the whole game and say “you failed, the evil entity figured it out and made you all kill yourselves, sorry.”
In a game like that, you don’t even need a sanity mechanic anymore. The sanity mechanic doesn’t do anything worse to the players than what discovering the twisted world you stuck them in does. Especially if the malevolent entity just does horrible things at random for no reason. If the entity’s actual motives are incomprehensible to the players, that’s pretty scary.
But, okay, it’s hard to come up with something new that is utterly horrifying every time you want to start a new campaign. And if you do want to run a good CoC horror type game, you’re going to be starting a lot of new campaigns. So, how can you handle sanity?
Here’s the thing: if the players know their characters are insane, that is less terrifying than if they don’t. I’ll admit I’ve been thinking a lot about sanity mechanics because of two things I’ve been playing recently: Bloodborne on the PS4 and Shadow of the Demon Lord, the RPG by Robert Schwalb.
Shadow of the Demon Lord provides a great sanity mechanic for a non-horror game. What I mean is that it takes the CoC sanity mechanic and takes away the inevitable slide to destruction aspect. Your character can get broken, but destruction isn’t assured. The way it works is this: you lose sanity points as a result of certain terrifying things in the game, like encountering horrifying monsters or discovering certain horrible things, but when your sanity points run out, you don’t become a gibbering mess. Instead, you suffer a temporary mental breakdown and then, after you recover, your sanity heals somewhat. You can also choose to recover some sanity by adopting a permanent mental quirk like a phobia or addiction.
In that respect, insanity is like a pressure valve. When your character suffers too much sanity loss, something has to give. Your character blows off some steam and then their brain recovers. Insanity is a coping mechanism, it’s a temporary shutdown that lets your brain heal. And I think it works well to create non-horror horror. That is, horror without inevitable destruction.
See, the thing is, lots of mental disorders do work exactly like that. They are coping mechanics. People develop mental disorders as a way for their brain to cope with something horrible, whether it’s a way to avoid a particularly horrifying event (like multiple personality disorder) or a way to assert control over the world when the brain feels like it’s losing control (like obsessive compulsive disorders). Blackouts, catatonic states, memory loss, those are all ways for your brain to shield itself from horrible events. And the Shadow of the Demon Lord system models “insanity as mental coping mechanism” very well.
Call of Cthulhu, by contrast, is more about insanity as your brain breaking under the strain. And certain mental disorders are like that. Post-traumatic stress disorder, flashbacks, depression, mania, schizophrenia, those can represent a brain that is literally breaking under stress.
But what neither system handles well is insanity that isn’t really insanity. The paranoia that comes from people really being after you. That is, insanity that isn’t insanity at all. The insanity that comes from seeing things as they really are. Sure, people think you’re crazy, but you really can see dead people. You really do have psychic powers. You really can hear the thoughts of others.
Bloodborne actually does something very interesting with its sanity mechanics. It has a stat called Insight that represents your character’s ability to see the world as it really is. Once you’ve gained a certain amount of insight, you can see terrible monsters that weren’t there before. Monsters gain new and powerful attacks. There are literally enemies that don’t exist in the world until you have discovered they exist. And then they can hurt you. But they aren’t hallucinations. They really exist.
And, honestly, if I wanted sanity mechanics in my game, I’d never want my players to know whether they were coping, breaking, or gaining insight.
For example, imagine at a certain point, I pulled a player aside and told him he’d gained a new power. Basically, whenever he wants, he can roll a special sort of insight check to discover if someone is hiding something during social interaction. It’s a sort of psychic ability. But I get to roll the dice in secret.
So, the player uses the ability and I roll the die. If it’s successful, I tell the player the truth. If the roll fails, I lie. He doesn’t have to know that part. All he knows is he has a magical power to detect deception. Sometimes, he’s going to be right. Sometimes, he’s going to be wrong. And it might take him forever to discover that he’s wrong.
I have just mechanically created paranoia without telling the player that his PC is paranoid.
Here’s another one. I give the PC insight, a revelation. I tell the player that she’s figured out that all the spiders in the world are extensions of the malevolent spider-goddess. She has hidden plans. But the important thing is that the PC has gained the ire of the spider-goddess because she knows the truth. All spiders do triple damage to the PC. And the spider-goddess might have other agents among many-legged denizens as well.
Is that stuff about the spider goddess true? Who the hell knows? The important thing is that the PC is now arachnophobic.
You can model almost any insanity as a combination of a special power and a drawback or a revelation and a consequence. And, as a GM, if you’re willing to lie to your players because the character’s psyches are unreliable, you can create insane PCs without the players knowing for sure if their characters are coping, breaking, or gaining insight. Especially if some of the lies are true. It’d be interesting to create a slew of “powers” and “blessings” and “boons” and “feats” that are all just mechanically disguised forms of insanity.
But, to be quite honest, even in a Cthulhu horror game, I’m not convinced sanity mechanics are really useful or necessary. And I certainly don’t think they add very much to the game. The problem with most sanity mechanics is that they generally come down to the GM saying “you see this terrible, horrible thing, make a Will save,” and then the PC fails the save and the GM says “you take X sanity damage, now you have snake phobia. If you fail a fright check, you have to run away from any snake for 1d6 rounds.”
That’s boring for a couple of reasons. First of all, insanity is, by definition, a loss of agency. The player is forced to adopt a certain type of behavior in certain situations. They no longer get to make rational choices. And because RPGs are about rational choice, that just doesn’t excite me. Even if the point is horror. Second of all, the loss of sanity is often something controlled by dice and GM fiat. There are few things the players can do to avoid losing sanity. There are no tactics they can adopt, no preventative measures they can take. They just see the terrible thing, read the terrible truth, or hear the horrible words, and their brain breaks. Contrast that with HP loss. In combat, players can adopt defensive tactics. They can search for traps. They can wear armor. And they can use resources to heal. Sanity loss in Call of Cthulhu is basically the equivalent of booby traps in D&D. They spring up, do their damage, and disappear. All the player can do is roll a saving throw and hope.
Frankly, if I didn’t want to do something really interesting by f$&%ing with the players with clever lies disguised as game mechanics or I didn’t want to adopt a more forgiving system like that in Shadow of the Demon Lord, I’d just give up on sanity mechanics. Instead, I’d just make sure the story is actually horrible and everything the players learn just makes it worse. In other words, I’d just write a good horror story and let the players decide how to cope with being trapped inside of it.