One of my evergreen goals is to integrate more horror style play into whatever adventure fantasy game I'm running at the time. We could just skip out on the D&D experience entirely and run Cthulhu Dark Ages or Cthulhu Invictus, but the familiarity of levels, experience points, and archetypal classes is a powerful draw for the D&D style. So the investigation shifts towards how to incorporate more of the horror experience into D&D.
I'm reconsidering if it's time to look at the sanity mechanic and it's role in the Chaosium games. Just to establish a starting place: the best approach to running a game that scares or unnerves the players themselves is through atmosphere, mystery, and mounting dread in the presentation, and not mechanics first. But unnerving the players is a rare feat, even in Cthulhu gaming, as the social nature of the tabletop makes it hard to maintain narrative tension. Regardless of how grim things might seem in the shared narrative space, you're most likely sitting in a brightly lit room, crunching chips, and someone is going to crack a joke. Or two. It's the nature of the thing.
But if genuinely scary moments are an elusive and infrequently seen vista, there are more common effects that can be achieved by way of mechanical challenges that keep things tense and horrifying for the characters, even if the narrative side of things isn't firing on all cylinders for the players. Horror encounters in D&D usually involve powerful monsters with nasty status effects like Energy Drain or Save vs Death. In Cthulhu gaming, there is greater asymmetry between the physical investigators and their physical opponents, and this is further exacerbated by a sanity mechanic that whittles away the character's mental state.
Call of Cthulhu's sanity system serves a number of purposes - it's a form of mental hit points, and as such, it attacks the player character from an unexpected angle. Mere exposure to otherworldly horrors or gruesome finds leeches sanity points.
Sanity effects are also the primary mechanical statistic for quantifying the terrible impact of a monster or encounter; the more unearthly or gruesome the encounter sequence, the greater the minimum and maximum sanity loss that could be inflicted.
The sanity system provides guidelines for roleplaying behavior. When too much sanity loss occurs, player characters will be stricken temporarily or indefinitely insane, and the game offers ideas on roleplaying such affectations.
Finally, the sanity system incarnates some of Lovecraft's bleak nihilism. Sanity never fully recovers, and Sandy Petersen's initial vision involved no capability to regain sanity in between investigations. Kinder, gentler editors have added various mechanisms and explanations for regaining sanity, although the typical player character still loses more than they gain over a career. Sanity itself is used to resist the effects of further sanity loss, so it becomes a bit of a death spiral as the losses pile up - you lose sanity, making you more susceptible to the next sanity loss, which makes you even more susceptible, and so on. Madness or death is inevitable.
Much like alignment in D&D, I have a few isues with the sanity system. First off, we don't have a lot experience of people seeing awful things and going stark raving mad in the modern world; the whole mechanic can seem a bit goofy to a modern player. The era of the fainting aesthete seems long gone. (PTSD and similar mental states is an entirely different matter). A larger problem is that "temporary insanity" in Call of Cthulhu frequently becomes a license for silliness, undermining whatever atmosphere the referee was creating. "I'm insane, that's why I'm wearing a chicken on my head." I don't think investigators quacking like a duck and the ensuing hilarity are what Sandy Petersen had in mind.
Trail of Cthulhu introduced a complimentary statistic, Stability, that represents a character's short term mental state. Whereas sanity represents the character's long term world view and belief system, Stability is a short term mental state. Loss of stability doesn't lead to temporary insanity and blabbering; it reduces a character's overall effectiveness , especially in combat, as the characters self-control and confidence is worn away by shocks to the system. Stability and dice modifiers for effectiveness could be a simple enhancement to D&D style adventuring, without worrying about roleplaying and adjudicating insane behaviors.
This is getting on the longish side, so I'm going to save specific ideas on introducing sanity or stability mechanics skewed for D&D for after the S&W appreciation thing tomorrow. Apologies for a brief absence from the blog world! A number of factors have conspired to keep me from posting here regularly - the biggest reason is that the D&D game has been on a short hiatus as we try and jump-start a Friday Night Magic scene at the local comic shop - that's been drawing away a lot of time. I've also been putting more time into writing upcoming bits of the Black City campaign offline, which aren't appropriate for the blog (seeing as my players frequent here these days). I'm still working on getting the balance right across the activities.
PS: Thoughts and prayers go out to anyone caught up in the very real horror that happened at the Boston Marathon yesterday; bombing a crowd with kids around is more horrifying than any fiction. I put this post together yesterday and thought the title was so clever; gaming matters seem fairly trivial today in the aftermath of such a senseless act.