I have an itch to run Call of Cthulhu, largely as a result of loving How We Roll’s podcast actual plays. I also know that my spouse likes Call of Cthulhu, or has in the past. One result of this is I have to decide which version of CoC to run. I own 5.1.2 and 5.6; they also recently released 7th edition, which looks awesome, and is also expensive.
Thinking of running Call of Cthulhu leads to me thinking about the Sanity mechanic. It has existed for a few decades now, and it is interesting, and sometimes controversial I think, and overall troublesome, and not just personally because I struggle with mental illness. It is troublesome because of the changing way we have come to understand mental illness since the game first came out in the 80s.
Morality and Sanity
One of the things that I think are missing from Call of Cthulhu’s Sanity mechanic is the idea that morality can insulate you from some kinds of trauma. If someone suffers for the sake of a higher ideal, it is different than just suffering as a victim of violence or abuse. Onyx Path games represent this, in that you often roll a dice pool based on your morality score to resist suffering derangement. It is far from a perfect system, but I like that it gives a motivation to have a high morality score, and also represents something I think that is a real part of how trauma works – that moral growth and moral commitment can insulate a person from some psychological harm.
Honestly, I don’t think that this can easily be added to Call of Cthulhu. A morality mechanic would be out of place in the system, which basically depends on a high starting Sanity score and careful play to keep investigators sane longer. (This is one of the reasons that we have a Conviction and Fear mechanic in Reckoning, a horror game designed in part due to frustration with other horror RPGs. It’s also a reason that I decided to use Mothership’s Stress mechanic in the hack I linked to above)
One idea would be to have ways to increase one’s Sanity between adventures through self-cultivation, which of course could take a lot of forms. Another idea could be moral ‘armor’ to protect against Sanity loss. Say you take a sacred vow, and it gives you a Sanity Armor score of 1, reducing all Sanity losses rolled by 1 as long as you maintain your vow. That’s a rough example, and I’m sure there are better ones, but I imagine you get the idea.
What Sanity Represents In Call of Cthulhu
When I think of insanity in Call of Cthulhu, I think of detachment rather than drooling or gibbering madness, much less the various things we’d think of as mental illness now. The horror in Lovecraft’s mythos is meaninglessness, or insignificance. There is the immediacy of fear and revulsion, but what follows is worse. There’s the famous quote from The Call of Cthulhu that I’ve seen so many times:
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
That is the horror of detachment. It is the horror that causes the psyche to retreat from what it knows but doesn’t want to know – specifically, that one is adrift in an uncaring universe populated by monstrosities that are beyond comprehension. I also see this as an emotional detachment – one who has learned of the meaninglessness of human life and striving in the midst of the mythos hardly cares much about other people or even themselves. They are cut off, and those affected by the Mythos in the various stories seem to isolate themselves, or to become isolated, in various ways. They tend to disappear, or become hermits, or are committed to psychiatric wards (such as they were in the 20s and 30s).
Sanity and Empathy at The Mountains of Madness
One of the most interesting missing elements in Call of Cthulhu as a game is something reflecting the empathy shown in At the Mountains of Madness. A great example is this quote:
“Poor Old Ones! Scientists to the last — what had they done that we would not have done in their place? God, what intelligence and persistence! What a facing of the incredible, just as those carven kinsmen and forbears had faced things only a little less incredible! Radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star spawn — whatever they had been, they were men!”
Compared to the Shoggoths, the Old Ones seem like men to the narrator, geologist William Dyer. He has learned something of their ancient civilization, and though they first struck the expedition as dangerous monsters, by learning about them he comes to empathize with them. This empathy is what is missing from every version of Call of Cthulhu the RPG, as well as every Mythos story I can think of. I think that At the Mountains of Madness was something Lovecraft wrote late in his writing career, and that would make sense, as it shows some of his development as a writer and thinker.
Maybe it is that very empathy that enables Dyer to come out of the ordeal sane enough to write the story, framed as a warning to future expeditions to leave what was found in Antarctica alone. It would be interesting to see something of that empathy reflected in Mythos-inspired game design.
Maybe greater empathy would help keep us all sane.