This latest episode is all about insanity in gaming. No, that doesn’t mean we’re going to talk about that bloke in your group who always plays lesbian ninja stripper catgirls, even in Call of Cthulhu campaigns.
Instead, we discuss real-world mental illness and how it relates (or doesn’t) to insanity in Call of Cthulhu, how insanity has traditionally been handled in Call of Cthulhu, mechanical changes to the insanity rules in 7th edition and how other games deal with madness.
There is the usual amount of digression, reminiscence and general irrelevance, but we think we’ve managed to provide some interesting ideas you can work into your games. And even if that isn’t the case, think of it as your chance to join us in a group therapy session. Maybe next time Paul can lead us through some art therapy.
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Interesting, as always. I think that it’s worth considering that the models of mental illness that existed in Lovecraft’s time were extremely primitive by modern standards, and even when the observation of symptoms was good the taxonomy and structure were so wrong-headed as to be mostly useless. One could fairly say that using a realistic system for insanity would therefore be out of keeping with the period.
In classic CoC, insanity serves an efficiently wide set of purposes: it’s the ultimate killer of a character who avoids combat, it’s a reason to keep players afraid of the nasties (always tricky in a horror game), it’s a direct hazard when confronting nasties, and it’s a way of adding characterisation.
The sanity system I wrote for GURPS distinguishes between Mythos and conventional sources of stress, but keeps the PC’s stability all on one scale — conventional sources of stress are easier to inure oneself against, and less damaging when the check is failed.
It struck me that in CoC 7th you’re very much amplifying the effects of the SAN stat: not only does it determine whether you go mad in the first place, but having low SAN greatly impedes recovery and indeed can make things worse (all those corrupted ties).
Worth mentioning I think that getting hardened in Unknown Armies can actually be useful: yes, you’re broken as a human being, but you are able to face certain classes of horror without flinching. This sort of balance is very handy to hold out to players as a temptation…
I don’t think the death spiral aspect of SAN is any worse in 7th edition, but you’re definitely correct that going insane is now a double-whammy. You can still get SAN back as per the old methods of psychoanalysis, rewards for defeating Mythos threats or getting over 90% in a skill, for example.
I love the double-edged sword aspect of hardened notches in UA. Mechanically, they’re only really a danger for Avatars, but it’s still a nice way of showing that becoming inured to horror isn’t always a good thing.