Ask Angry: Driving Your Players Crazy

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Banner Patreon 800 x 100

Category Ask Angry 800 x 450

If you want to Ask Angry a question, see this page on how to Ask Angry!

James asks:

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.

Banner Patreon 800 x 100

49 thoughts on “Ask Angry: Driving Your Players Crazy

  1. I did something like the ‘lying to players’ mechanic, where failing a perception roll resulting in the character perceiving creepy things, like hearing someone whisper in their ear, or a hand on their shoulder. I think some of the players figured out, but it worked well for the horror location. Having a rolls made in secret would have preserved much of the horror, I think

  2. Does this also fall under the “not being mainstream and putting out Halloween content in October” I wonder?…

  3. “That’s boring for a couple of reasons. First of all, insanity is, by definition, a loss of agency.”

    I believe this phrase summarizes the entire argument against traditional insanity systems.

    And again I find that you can explain my thoughts on some subjects in a way that I would never be capable of. With every new article I begin to understand some things that I had a notion, but couldn’t quite put my finger on before. It changes the way I run my games and the way I see the act of GMing. To be frank, sometimes it is like realizing everything I thought I knew about GMing was a lie. And in that way, everytime I read something you write I get a little more insane.

    Not sure if it is safe to have this knowledge, but my games are better, so I’m willing to take the risk.
    Thanks for one more great article, Angry.

    • “Second of all, the loss of sanity is often something controlled by dice and GM fiat.”

      And this phrase also, of course. Forgot to include it.

  4. I’m working on a Changeling: The Lost game. For those not familiar, it has a Clarity stat which serves some similar functions. It’s not an inevitable decline into insanity, since there are ways to recover Clarity, which includes facing breaking points and passing the roll. Appropriately, gaining Clarity involves reinforcing your sense of agency.

    The main book recommends giving occasional strange descriptions of events to low Clarity players so that they’re not sure how to react, while potentially making them act inappropriately to otherwise normal situations. With known breaking point triggers, it hopefully makes players act out their characters’ aversions.

    • Sounds like you’re playing the Second Edition playtest material, so you might already be aware of this fact, but the lead developer for Changeling 2e had an interesting comment on his view of Clarity. Something along the lines of “you’re not exactly going insane if the monsters you hallucinate can actually eat you.” I think this shows that the particular type of sanity mechanic (for lack of a better term) that he is aiming for in second edition is what Angry calls “horror that isn’t really horror”, the Bloodborne style Insight. At the same time, high Clarity gives Perception bonuses and low Clarity gives Perception penalties, reflecting a loss in faculties for discerning the “insane” revelations from mundane “reality”, which plays into the concept Angry discusses of not really letting the players know if it’s insight, coping, or degeneration.

  5. I love hearing your thoughts on religion and faith, Scott. You seem to me to be an intellectually honest man and I really appreciate that, in that you share exactly what you think. I thought the following was interesting:

    “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.”

    Admittedly, I’m not sure if the last sentence is referring to major world religions in *our* world or in the world you’re making up in this example, but it would seem to me that you’re making an observation about *our* world.

    That being said, I don’t think that God, the Great GM in the Sky, is running a horror game on us who constitute His players. This is a horror setting, sure, but God’s not a horror/adversarial GM. We earthly GMs chuckle about the terrible things players have their characters do in fictional worlds, but the real people who live in this real world actually do horrible things that affect all of us.

    To protect human/player agency, the Great GM in the Sky allows this. In the framework of his ruleset, this is OK, as a principle of Divine Compensation exists that gives life experience and blessings to those adversely affected by the evil decisions of others. Evil exists as a necessary opposing force to being Good.

    Being and becoming more like God and gaining what He has to offer us beyond death is hard. Being Evil is the easiest thing in the world; the path of least resistance. The consequences suck, but the initial Evil is easy.

    So to God, I don’t know that the “limited horrific evils” that we encounter are to Him trivial, but necessary for our growth. As humans, we have the unique ability to choose our response to a stimulus instead of being slaves to instinct. How we use that ability is what makes the game important and interesting.

    • I don’t think Scott was really commenting on religion in our world, regardless of his own views on the topic. He was presenting that idea as a horror setting, and as a horror setting it’s appropriately horrific. I find it odd you take this as an observation on real-world religion and then proceed to explain your views on religion as if correcting him.

    • Not gonna get into religions in general here, but he was making a statement about religion as a generality, especially of those that have a “god v devil” mindset. What would make the game a “horror setting” would be finding out the truth of the matter; the truth in this case being something you weren’t expecting or didn’t think could be the norm. That’s what makes it horrific; that it’s somehow unthinkable to us.

    • Yeah, Ben, you’re taking things out of context. I’m proudly Christian, but yet, I still play RPGs. Specifically, the setting I’m running for D&D 5e is one where some 2500 years ago, ALL gods lost their power and died. In addition, those that would become gods through apotheosis find that they cannot. It’s all because of a cataclysmic event.

      We still have characters that are clerics and druids, who firmly believe (the characters, that is) that their gods live and their powers are drawn from those divine wellsprings. The truth is deeper than this.

      Working my way back to topic, I’ve been careful about how I reveal these “truths” to the players. When talking about it, I talk through an NPC who may or may not be truthful or accurate.

      Even though the truth may be horrifying to some of the characters, I leave it up to the players to learn and play those characters accordingly. While I’m not running a “horror” game, there are still terrifying moments,

      As for having or incorporating a sanity mechanic, I’m wholly against the notion in D&D 5e. Angry is right that the implementation of it takes away opportunities for choice. If the character needs to act terrified, I’ll give them a little hand-written note that says, “You’re really terrified. Act accordingly.” From there, it’s up to them how they express it. I think it is very entertaining to see how different players react to this sort of thing!

      • I can see what you guys are saying, but my intention wasn’t to correct Scott. I mentioned in my comments that I wasn’t sure what specifically he was referencing. That said, I wanted to contribute and share my views on a portion of the article that hadn’t been addressed, just like everybody else does.

        I have no bone to pick guys :).

  6. I love this post like pancakes. One thing that I think would make sanity more interesting is to have it interact with actual choices a player can make. For instance the use of the spell True Sight should allow a player to gain eldritch knowledge (oh god there are Amygdala/Cthulu monsters everywhere), but also lose sanity as a result. Unfortunately, I haven’t thought of any other examples.

  7. The best sanity rules I’ve seen are from Unknown Armies, or, for a free variant on RPG Now, NEMESIS. It has separate ‘gauges’ for tracking different types of stress, and you can grow ‘hardened’ to each. There’s agency in trying to become more hardened without going insane, but becoming too hardened has consequences to your personality. It’s pretty easy to drop into other systems, too.

  8. Have you played Darkest Dungeon? Doesn’t have sanity checks but has a stress meter. Was thinking about implementing a system like this.

  9. This article is pure gold!

    I mean, very rarely something entertaining has come from telling a player “You are afraid of shadows now.” Some players create interesting behaviors out of this, the ones that can see this as a valid improv challenge. But many players, especially those coming from a D&D instead of a CoC background, mostly ignore these inconvenient things and go on hoping the GM can’t micromanage all the insanities he or she assigned to the players.

    Since the GM actually is all of the senses of the players combined, all the feedback they ever get, whether these senses are classic or imaginary, he or she wields tremendous power over these perceptions. Just like describing a castle on the hill or a wayside gazebo can direct players’ perceptions, anything a GM might chose to describe in more detail will, in some way, draw the players’ intention…

    … Well, unless you’re in the habit of reading the read-out-aloud texts from for example Wizards’ adventures, which combine bad prose/writing with a habit of f*cking with players who don’t pay attention to that mono-drone. No quicker way to train players to stop paying attention during setting a scene.

    Anyway. A good description and things that are sometimes true and sometimes aren’t… perfect. Especially if you don’t let other players interfere with the description. I think it should be mandatory for horror games for players to shut up during anything described to one player. The player might chose, given the information, to shoot at a shadow. The player might chose to not shoot at an actual monster because he or she is not sure if it actually exists. Trying to make valid decisions based on faulty information is an interesting experience and players will find it disconcerting. Each decision should of course have consequences. Opening fire in an empty room clearly marks you as insane and makes others discount your input in any scene even if you have valid psychic perceptions. Similarly, not opening fire on a monster you see first exposes you to physical harm. Both actions seem insane from the outside but from inside the character’s mind they are best effort approaches to deal with reality.

    A far better way to even approach mental disorders in my view than any of the mechanical ones. It requires disciplined and great GMing, but I think nobody would want forget having taken part in such sessions!

  10. Good article. Too bad you misrepresented the history of science, not to mention atheists and skeptics.

    • If it’s a misrepresentation of the history of science, it is not a tremendous one.

      Some at the turn of the 19th century famously declared that only two interesting problems remained in physics: the blackbody problem and speed of light problem. Furthermore, it was believed that these problems would be resolved quickly. They weren’t. Their resolution led to the quantum mechanics and to the theory of relativity, respectively.

      QM and Relativity were the death of our belief in deterministic Newtonian universe. We now understand that our universe is fundamentally probabilistic, and that geometry is fundamentally non-Euclidian. To Lovecraft, these revelations were truly horrific. What if the universe is truly unknowable? What other horrors lurk just beyond our scientific understanding?

      (Aside: it’s no coincidence that positivism was a real and influential philosophical movement at the turn of the 19th century. One interpretation of the modern Skepticism is that it is simply positivism rebranded.)

      • Yes, it is a tremendous one. Never, in the history of science, have scientists thought we were done, or that we understood everything. It’s unscientific to think that way, period. It’s contrary to the nature of science to ever assert an endpoint. “We have all the answers” is fundamentally uncientific. Aside form that, to this day, explorers have yet to shine a light over every dark corner of our planet (and those corners change over time, regardless, so it wouldn’t even matter if we had).

        Regardless of how many people claimed that science was almost “done,” it is always unscientific to think that way. There are always big questions hiding under the current big questions.

        Most of the rest of what you say is pretty egregious. But I’m not going to waste more of Angry’s blog space with it, so feel free to have the last word.

    • He specifically said “certain corners” of the Internet atheism and skepticism communities – not “all” or even “most.” Just certain corners.

      • Fair play, but then why even bother? If some corner community of the internet is X, and they are also atheists and/or skeptics, then why bring atheism or skepticism into it, unless it is somehow connected?

        It’s plainly not.

        • As far as “why bring it up?” I’d guess that he went to those corners in the past and had a bad experience. Also, these things are connected by correlation; it’s similar to how, in any sufficiently large group of people, some of themy are bound to have weird sexual fetishes, but you’re much more likely to encounter those people (and see them openly discussing their fetishes) in the parts of the Internet dedicated to manga/doujinshi

          • No, being a know-it-all and being an atheist are not correlated (but the same cannot be said of being a theist). If you want to criticize someone for being a know-it-all, go for it. If you want to criticize someone for being an atheist, go for it. But connecting the two is nonsense, and destroys credibility.

            Theism can only be maintained by asserting exclusive (to some degree) access to the truth – a necessarily smug position.

          • Quite frankly, being agnostic, I have had worse experiences with athiests than any other group.

            To quote one asshole, “At least the christians are confident in their retardation.”

            No, thanks, I have had my fill of atheist looking down upon me for not knowing what to believe.
            Not saying that all theists are a credit to humanity, but many actually do good by the “We are all bothers in humanity” creed.

            And BurgerBeast, neither group is “Know-it-all” as you seem to be claiming of the theists. Many Christians will openly admit that it is their belief, not a full fledged knowledge. Most Buddhists will tell you to walk your own path to enlightenment. Many members of Islam are just as tolerant as well. So, I bid you, good day, and I hope that whatever corner of the internet you come upon, is more tolerant than most of the atheists I have had the displeasure of meeting. Electronic or otherwise.

            And a good day to the rest of you too.

          • @Bennytops

            Your described personal experience is pretty insignificant compared to the history of real damage done to societies, by particular people and particular schools of thought.

            I don’t care what one asshole said to you, and neither should you. Assholes say stupid things. But they say them because they are assholes, not because they are atheists.

            If people “look down upon you” then hate them because they look down upon you. Don’t associate it with atheism, unless you want to be wrong. There is nothing inherent in atheism that requires atheists to look down on others. Atheists who choose to do so are assholes. But atheism and assholism remain mutually exclusive.

            And, Bennytops, belief in divinely revealed truth fits the defintion of “know it all” better than anything else on earth.

            Buddhists are not “theists” in the sense referred to by the word “atheists.”

            Members of Islam who are tolerant are not adhering to their book. (Nobody who has read the Quran should even try to claim that it is tolerant. The evidence is decidedly against them.) They are getting their tolerance from somewhere else, and I commend them for it.

            I hope you realize the bigotry of your words. Just replace “atheists” in the second-to-last sentence of your second-to-last paragraph with any of the following: (1) black people, (2) lesbians, (3) transgendered people, or (4) Buddhists. It becomes pretty obvious how bigoted it is. None of these have anything to do with intolerance. If the problem is intolerance, then say “intolerant people.” Don’t say atheists, unless you want to be a bigot.

  11. I have been wondering lately whether Horror itself can actually ever work in an RPG and I’m not to sure if it can.

    Horror is all about well the inevitable, you cannot change your fate and there are always things out there that will get you. You can never change that world.

    RPGs, the best ones at least, are the opposite. It’s always about deciding and changing fate. You can change the world. And by god you will stab that creature to death out there.

    So yea I don’t think RPGs can be horror.

    • Thing is, by that logic, you can’t make a horror game in general because games are about choices and agency.

      Yes, it’s a challenge because the disempowerment of horror is directly opposed to the idea in games that you have choices and can “win.” But I think it’s still possible because you can make hard choices between different sub-optimal outcomes. Which sacrifices do you make? Does Decision X have a good answer, or is that hope a trap?

      Of course, there’s a spectrum of horror. Sometimes, like in the Cthulhu mythos, everyone is doomed, and it’s about the ride into insanity as well as finding out why the bad stuff is happening. On the other end, victory is possible, but it’s going to be costly in some way or another, and that’s if you succeed.

  12. What corners of the atheism and scepticism communities are YOU hanging around in!? The ones I see are accutely aware of how small we are in the grand scheme of things.

    • That I can agree on. The “worst” I’ve seen from my corners is the not-unreasonable assertion that we’ve got the broad strokes down on the fundamental forces: Any other forces would wreck our accuracy and understanding when we can get high precision. If there are any additional fundamental forces out there, they’re extremely weak, extremely subtle, and/or extremely rare.

      The devil is in the details and how all the forces and entities add up in complex interactions. That will never run out of oddball counter-intuitive situations to throw at us.

      Usually when I hear people saying that we think we know everything, it’s something like this:

      Dingbat: Well, how do you explain [supposed mystery phenomena]?
      Skeptic: [Series of detailed, mundane explanations, followed by what WOULD be unusual enough to merit further investigation.]
      Dingbat: IMPOSSIBLE! [Well-understood common phenomenon] can’t explain it all!
      Skeptic: Why not? Do you know something about the situation we don’t see here?
      Dingbat: Stop suppressing the truth by asking me questions! We’re not supposed to look deeper in, we’re supposed to ooo and aaah and think about how magical [phenomenon] looks from superficial impressions! You’re less human than me because you came up with an answer I personally find boring!

      It’s not that we know everything, it’s that we know a little bit more than the people who are quick to label anything they don’t immediately understand as magic.

  13. “if I’m honest, HP systems don’t sit well with me either.”

    Please, can you write an article on HP systems and alternatives to then?

    • I was fairly surprised Angry didn’t go into this any further, but i think I’ve got a quick-and-dirty explanation:

      Imagine you got stabbed. It’s not fun. I have friends who have been there, and I’ve gotten close. A single stab. You’re bleeding. You think you’re gonna die. That was just one stab. How many times does your character in D&D get hit before you’re rolling death saving throws, or whatever mechanic you’re used to? Not realistic at all, is it? RPGs, tabletop or otherwise, give you a “pool” of health. Therein lies the problem. As for solutions…

      There aren’t too many I can think off the top of my head. For my own group, as a way of making battle more intense, speeding things up, etc., I’ve got my monsters hitting the PCs far more often, doing a lot more damage. They have lowered defenses and lower HP, so that PCs can wallop them more quickly as well. If the dragonborn barbarian brings an axe down on you, you better expect an arm to come off.

      • I have a friend who runs a home-brewed hybridization of Role Master (aka Chart Master). In it, nearly every time there’s a hit with damage in combat, there’s a roll on a critical hit chart. These charts are individualized based upon damage type (bash, slash, pierce, fire, cold, etc) and severity level (A through E). Once the appropriate chart is identified, a d100 roll is made to see what the specifics are. In most cases, an exact roll of 66 is lethal (a head shot), and anything over 91 is really bad for the victim (lethal in a lot of cases, especially in the higher severity levels).

        Admittedly, reading the flavor text on the chart is entertaining “Your character’s head has been chopped off. Too bad, so sad.” However, this REALLY slows down the game, since nearly every hit with damage requires at least one roll against these charts. (More if there are multiple damage types involved, etc.)

        What breaks it, for me, is that most of the results require additional maintenance and affects game-play. “…and bleeds for an additional 3 hp per round.” or “no longer have the use of your left arm.” Not to mention, a lucky (unlucky?) roll, even with a low-level crit and low damage could still kill a character outright.

        On balance, it makes combats more lethal and realistic. But for game pacing and role-play, it really sucks.

        In my own home-brew, I’ve experimented with scaled modifiers for damage. If you’re at half damage, you get a -1. If you at 3/4, you get -2, and so on. Savage Worlds and Shadowrun do similar things. What fails here is it requires math which slows things down and detracts from the “moment.”

        I’m not a huge fan of the current 5e HP system. However, once it was explained to me that HP doesn’t specifically mean “damage,” but rather “stamina,” it actually makes more sense. The idea is that your HP represents how long you can last before you actually do take a severe hit. That severe hit takes you to 0 or less HP, where you fall into to the death-watch protocol.

        While the argument could be made that D&D’s system needs improved, I’m really at a loss as to how it could be done without sacrificing game pacing and immersion. The current system is simple and is applied equally for characters, NPCs, and monsters. Yes, it does suspend reality somewhat, but we’ve already done that by having spell casters and fantastical monsters. So what’s one more detail?

        • We run a 4e and never get this crazy with things. It’s extremely rare that my characters take this kind of damage, either (the losing hands and such). Though I did once have a player badly lay out a plan and chop their own character’s foot off. Don’t even ask. The Cleric joined the foot back to the leg, and only a scar and a funny story were left.

          As i said, our high hit, high damage has let us breeze through battles. I tend to send enemies out in waves, too, so as not to have 30 initiatives on paper. Because ridiculous.

          I agree with you on the the “suspension of disbelief”. I personally SEE why people have a problem with HP and such, but it’s never bothered me too much. It is a game, after all.

          • If you are running 4e, consider this solution. I used the disease mechanic to design a number of injuries, which I key to death saves. Where you start on the injury track depends on how many death saves you fail: fail one, start at stage 1; fail 2, start at stage 2; fail 3, start at stage 3.

            Think of it as rewriting every monster so that it gives a disease, but only if your character drops, and only if you fail a death save. Recovery works normally, except that there is no change of the injury worsening (unless the character has been doing something that might exacerbate it). There are several different types of injury, and I select one based on the type of power that caused the PC to drop.

            With this tweak to the system, it allows me to treat HP as a measure of fatigue, not injury. As you tire, your status changes. If you drop below half HP, you are presumed to be tired enough to have let a blow slip through, and become “bloodied”. Drop to 0 HP and you are knocked down for a few moments, and maybe injured.

            Viewing HP this way makes things like second winds and healing surges make more sense, because you are recovering energy, not healing injury. Natural healing of injuries now takes days rather than minutes, during which time you are working slightly below peak efficiency (at stage one), well below peak efficiency (stage 2), or are pretty much incapacitated (stage 3). Since stage 3 injuries are an alternative to death, they can be pretty severe, like blindness, comas or amputations. Many stage 3 injuries don’t heal naturally.

            As with having a disease, you have to choose between spending time to heal, spending resources to heal, or taking the risk of carrying on. It also means that in combat, the choice as to whether to check on your fallen comrade is a real one, because even a single missed death save can have an impact on the party.

            There is a ritual to heal state 1 or 2 injuries that is equivalent in level and cost to Cure Disease. As for dealing with stage 3 injuries, no-one has received one yet, but solutions will generally cost the same as a Raise Dead ritual, and range from magical grafts and prosthetics at low level(which may also take up an item slot), to Regeneration rituals at high level. Or the player can decide that his character picks up a peg leg and retires to open a bar.

          • It occurs to me that my injury mechanic could also be used as an insanity mechanic for characters that drop from psychic damage. There are already a number of 4e diseases that cause PCs to take particular actions based on particular events, it would be easy to riff off of those to build an injury that mimics a mental illness.

    • I can’t speak for Angry, but I’ve seem talk of “crititical existence failure”. You can be fighting fit from a billion HP all the way to 1 HP, suffering no real ill effects from everything that’s happened to you. But as soon as you lose that last HP, even if it’s from somebody sneezing too loud near you, BANG!, you’re capital-D Dead.

      There’s a page on TVTropes about it, I think.

  14. Just a couple of comments – and one that I hope spurs some more discussion:

    Although it is probably picking nits (and specifically CoC Nits), there are things you can do to avoid many SAN losses in CoC – they are generally character role driven (e.g. I’m not going to learn to read Latin and look up things in the Scary Section of the library, I’m not going to try to learn to cast spells, etc) – those are some key sources of durable SAN loss. Temporary SAN loss (and the usually temporary insanity that can come with it) is a bit of a different issue…but are also much less dangerous.

    When it comes to the other topic that I wanted to mention, I’m at a bit of a loss. “Player Agency”. Yes, sometimes conditions or situations limit what actions a player character may take – or decisions they can make. I don’t understand how a temporary insanity is any worse than a hundred other situations/game elements – spell effects (entanglement, petrification, charm, sleep, fear, etc), limited path “dungeons”, creatures with unusual defenses…all of these can limit the “rational choices” a player can make.

    Suddenly having a fear of snakes, or entering a brief fugue state, or having sudden auditory hallucinations in response to an attack on mental hit points (I like that comparison) is worse? Being forced to flee from such a horrific scene is worse than a spell cast by a bad guy that does the exact same thing? In both cases there are PC checks (SAN check/Saving Throw)…so what am I missing?

    I do think there is a greater expectation of buy-in to that potential risk for players of CoC…and maybe that’s part of what I am missing – since in CoC games I accept the risk of rapid onset agoraphobia that may toss me for a loop, I don’t see it as any greater a sacrifice of agency than having my dwarf fighter being unable to cast Fly on himself (or suffering from that wizard’s fear spell).

  15. “When it comes to the other topic that I wanted to mention, I’m at a bit of a loss. “Player Agency”. Yes, sometimes conditions or situations limit what actions a player character may take – or decisions they can make. I don’t understand how a temporary insanity is any worse than a hundred other situations/game elements – spell effects (entanglement, petrification, charm, sleep, fear, etc), limited path “dungeons”, creatures with unusual defenses…all of these can limit the “rational choices” a player can make.”

    Angry just posted an entire article about player agency! But in context of sanity, I’d like to make a couple comments:

    RPGs are replete with things that take away “agency,” but so is reality. If I’m walking in a long, straight hallway, and take a sharp left turn, I’m going to bash my face into the wall. Have I lost agency because I made a choice and suffered the consequences of my stupidity? Not really. However, if the GM says to me, “Every ten steps, no matter what, you make a sharp left turn.” Because, “You are insane, and the only way to deal with that insanity is to make sharp left turns and smash your face into the nearest wall.” Then I have lost Agency.

    What I see here is that the Sanity Mechanic is nothing more than a tool the GM has to take away a PC’s agency. I’ve only played CoC one time (and I’m really not sure that’s what we were playing, but I went along with it. It was late. It was GenCon. Need I say more?) and my character was overcome with the desire to eat the raw flesh of one of the other PCs. I’d lost agency. That other character struck back defensively, and my character was killed. End of game for me. It was enough for me to say that I’d rather not play that type of game again. Like Kirk with the Kobyashi Maru, if I can’t find a way out of the no-win situation, even through “cheating,” I’m simply not going to participate. It’s not fun for me.

    On the other hand, I’ve played, and enjoy, board games that use a Sanity Mechanic. In these games (I’m referring to the Arkham Horror series) Sanity is basically an alternate HP system. Since you’re playing pre-made stock characters, my agency as a player involves (first) choosing which character to play, based upon their stats, special abilities, and starting location. As the game progresses, I have numerous choices as to what actions to take, which is weighed against the increasing threat mechanic of the game and my willingness to risk ever-decreasing odds for success. In this type of game, Sanity works fine as it is part of the game’s core design.

    • To the best of my knowledge/memory, the level of activity you mention (the left turn face bashing) – even though clearly an exaggeration for effect – just really isn’t supported by the game/rules. What *could* do that, though, are a few spells from D&D, a few powers from [insert Supers game here] and the like…not a temporary paranoia, or a sudden dose of OCD…even though that would could be close.

      What the insanities do, in a proper set of hands, is provide more opportunity for roleplaying, not fewer. Yes, they come about because of something bad that happened, and some potential failure on the part of the player (as in a failed roll)…but that doesn’t make them WRONGBAD.

      The “must cannibalize your party member” sounds like it should either have been part of the final encounter/failed resistance against the Foozul or was a poor attempt at (something?) by a Con GM.

      Anyway, off to read the Agency article and see what I learn.

      • “provide more opportunity for reolplaying. not fewer”

        I think many would disagree. While being forced to fear snakes now gives you an opportunity to roleplay a fear of snakes, it wasn’t by choice. Players can feel easily goaded. It all rounds back down to CHOICE.

        I’m a huge Lovecraft fan for various reasons, so when I heard of CoC, I was ecstatic to say the least. And then I played. And boy was in not for me. I just felt so ‘along for the ride’. Thankfully, the group I DM for has a very story-driven dynamic, but they’re not all into the ‘role-playing’ aspect of the game in the most literal sense. This is why Angry said something to the point of “know your players” if you’re doing this kind of thing.

  16. It always slightly frustrates me when people try to create an archaic sound, but fall down on some crucial points:

    O (no comma necessary, and O, from Classical Greek, is used for the vocative case) mighty all-powerful (omnipotent?) Dungeon Lord, I beseech you (thee is informal; this is certainly formal) to hear mine (might as well go all the way) plea. Thine exposition on Honour (this is an archaic form of British English, so don’t drop the u) enlightened me in the extreme, but I fear for mine (ditto) Sanity. I pray, therefore, that you might/should (subjunctive mood) help me to discover (don’t shorten the infinitive) what Sanity is, (Oxford comma is optional) and how to use it (perhaps: what Sanity, and how I might use it).

    There; now I am satisfied.

    • The “thine” should be “your,” as well. Might as well throw in some long esses, e.g. “I beſeech you,” as well.

    • ‘Thou’ is also traditionally used for talking to God, so it’s not necessarily wrong to use it here.

  17. I think any discussion of “mess with the player, not just with the character” wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the Game Cube classic, Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem. It’s become a bit cliche, but at the time it was surprising, and did what it did really well.

    The game had a sanity meter. Among other things, when you encountered a monster you’d lose some sanity, then when you killed it you’d regain some (generally less than when you encountered it). As your sanity meter got lower weird stuff would happen, with more extreme stuff at lower levels.

    You enter a room and the whole room is tilted about 15 degrees.

    You enter a room and your character’s head is sitting in the middle of the room, quoting Shakespeare.

    Those are standard “sanity effects.” However, there were others…

    You enter a room, and are getting swarmed by zombies, as you try to react the game informs you that it can’t detect your controller. Right when you’re scrambling to check the connection there’s a flash as your character recovers and sees the room properly empty.

    A fly starts walking across the front of the TV. Annoying, but it happens. Then there’s another fly. Then 5 more.

    You save your game. “Save files deleted.”

    All of those were not real, none had lasting or prolonged effect on the gameplay, but it was wonderfully paced, and varied enough that it hit the “what the? WAIT! Oh, OK, you got me” effect it was going for, without using jump scares.

  18. Concerning your last bit of info, I would make sure all the players are in on running THAT type of horror game first. Otherwise the players’ solution to “how to cope with being trapped inside of it” might be “leave the game”.

    (Granted, this is a risk in any campaign where you put the PCs through the wringer.)

Comments are closed.