Mental Health in Roleplaying Games

Please note that this post contains mentions of mental illnesses, ableism, and suicide.

When it comes to the roleplaying games community there’s no shortage of scandals and constant drama. The latest controversy is about Evil Hat’s decision to include a section about the team’s stance on H.P. Lovecraft’s racism and antisemitism in their upcoming game “Fate of Cthulhu“. They also decided not to include any “insanity” rules but opted for a corruption mechanic instead. A lot of very vocal fans of Lovecraft’s work and the roleplaying games based on it, quickly shared their displeasure online. Personally I think Evil Hat made the right decision. Even though I enjoyed some of his writing, his blatant racism is hard to stomach. And don’t get me started on “insanity” rules in games…
Ok, let’s look a bit closer at the subject of mental health in RPGs.

Let’s start by giving you a bit of context. I have struggled with my mental health for many years. My wife has and is still suffering from mental disorders, as are many of my friends. My best friend suffered from depression for most of his life and when he couldn’t cope with it anymore, he took his own life. The prevalence of mental illnesses is about 25%, which means one in four people will suffer from mental health issues at least once in their life. This is no joking matter.

Unfortunately many roleplaying games treat it like one. This is especially a problem in most games based on the Cthulhu Mythos. I am mostly looking at Call of Cthulhu here, since it is one of the most well-known examples of using mental health in a game, but there are many other culprits out there.

You may argue, that the gameplay is informed by the limited knowledge of mental health people had in Lovecraft’s time, but that is a very weak excuse. Especially since there’s a pretty high chance that someone at the game table may actually suffer from something the Call of Cthulhu rules so nonchalantly calls insanity, a term which is often if not always used derogatory.

In games like Call of Cthulhu each player character confronted with gruesome events, the supernatural, or Cthulhu Mythos creatures loses some “sanity points”. If more than a certain threshold of points are lost the character may suffer from short or longer “temporary insanity” which may include effects fainting, stupor, homicidal or suicidal mania, strange sexual desires, paranoia, compulsions, amnesia, and so on. Not only does mental health not work this way, it also takes control away from the player. At the very least a GM should ask for a player’s permission to force something like that on a player.

From my own experience I know that these effects are also often played for laughs. Sure, this is a problem caused by the players and not necessarily the game itself, but this might not happen if there weren’t any “insanity” rules in the first place. People often forget that what they might consider a funny quirk added to their player character, might be a real and constant struggle for someone else. You might think that playing a compulsive disorder in a game is fun, but for someone suffering from it, it’s hell. And now imagine that some one jokingly plays out the “insanity” you or someone at your gametable is struggling with in real life.

Do I think that mental health should never be part of a roleplaying game? No. But you have to a) make sure that everyone at the table is ok with the subject and b) that you treat it respectfully. A good start is not to explain evil behavior away by calling someone insane, crazy, mad, or something similar. Atrocities have been committed by people a psychologist would consider fully sane. One might feel comforted by the idea, that people who commit evil deeds are “different”, but many studies have shown that this is not the case.

So, how can we deal with all of this at the game table? Personally I’d probably just ignore the “insanity” mechanics in most games, or look at what Evil Hat came up in for Fate of Cthulhu and adopt it for the games I play. I’ll also try to avoid such common tropes as the mentally-ill villain. The least any GM can do is think twice before adding mental health issues to one’s game. And don’t forget to make sure that everyone at the table is on the same page when it comes to this issue.

What are your thoughts on this subject? Do you think we should refrain from using mental health issues in roleplaying games or do you think this might even help raise awareness? Please share your thoughts below!

P.S.: Unsurprisingly I already covered this subject in a post from 2014. You can check it out here.

Let's Have A Look At Everywhen

Everywhen by Filigree Forge is a 145-paged genre-agnostic roleplaying game using a modified version of the Barbarians of Lemuria mechanics created by Simon Washbourne. Barbarians of Lemuria is one of my favorite roleplaying games even though I haven’t played it as often as I’d liked. Its rules are simple and it can be easily hacked. So I had some high hopes for Everywhen when it came out. Let’s have a closer look.

The game is available both as a PDF or as a print-on-demand softcover or hardcover book. The interior artwork is in black-and-white only but of a decent quality. From what I’ve seen all the artwork was created by a single artist especially for Everywhen. That’s actually quite rare when it comes to indie RPGs but helps to set a certain style. The layout is a standard two-columned one. Everywhen might not be as fancy as the latest Paizo release, but it’s still a good-looking product, especially in print. I think I should also mention that the PDF version is fully bookmarked and there’s a two-paged index at the back of the book.

The rules of Everywhen are – at their core – rather light and extremely flexible. Unfortunately a lot of the simple mechanics from BoL have become quite bloated during the process of making them genre-agnostic. While Everywhen characters look a lot like in BoL, the devil is in the details.

Characters are described by a set of four attributes (strength, agility, mind, appeal) which are ranked between -1 and 3, four combat abilities (initiative, melee, ranged, defence) and non-combat abilities which are either careers or specializations. In a standard Everywhen game characters start with four points they can distribute on their careers (like noble, merchant, engineer, etc.). These careers are basically a catch-all for all skills and abilities the character may have acquired. In games in which all players share a common career, specializations are used. The example in the book is a game set into the Vietnam war, where everyone plays a US Marine. In this case specializations like marksman, medic, etc. are used. Mechanically both careers and specialization work the same.

The book provides players and GMs with three example career lists. Unfortunately the authors didn’t include lists for more generic settings of various genres, but instead used their upcoming Everywhen settings as examples. Blood Sundown (weird west), Neonpunk Crysis (retro cyberpunk), and Red Venus (communist rocketpunk) sound quite interesting, but not everyone wants to play in those settings. It’s not a big deal, but the decision left me scratching my head.

Aside from attributes, combat and non-combat skills, characters are described by a set of derived values: lifeblood (basically hit points), hero points, arcane points, faith points, psionic points, credit rating, and resolve. Arcane, faith, and psionic points only apply when the setting includes these supernatural abilities, credit rating and resolve are optional.

Hero Points are what players can use to “bend” the rules a bit. You can spend these points to attempt rolls without having an appropriate career, defy death, re-roll dice et cetera. Arcane, faith and psionic points are spent to use Arcane, faith, and psionic powers respectively. Resolve is the mental equivalent to lifeblood, while credit rating is used in settings where you don’t want to track every coin spent.

Last but not least characters get so-called boons and flaws. These traits grant characters additional dice in certain situations, or grant them other advantages or disadvantages. One boon is free, while every additional one has to be paid by taking an additional flaw. The book provides us with a quite expansive list of boons and flaws – no complaints here.

The core mechanic of Everywhen is extremely simple but effective: roll 2d6, add an appropriate attribute and either a career or a combat skill plus any difficulty modifiers. A result of 9 or more is a success. A character’s boons and flaws may add bonus or penalty dice which means you roll with 3d6 and sum up the two highest or two lowest results respectively. Nice! Rolls in which both dice come up as six or one are treated as automatic successes and failures respectively. In certain circumstances automatic successes will be counted as Mighty ones which grant additional advantages to the characters. These may be further leveled up by spending a Hero point. Hero points can be gained back when a player decides to convert failed rolls into Calamitous failures, which add additional disadvantages for a time.

If you need a little bit more granularity to the results, there’s also a simple method to determine the margin of success. Everywhen also contains rules for “Success At A Cost”, group task rolls, opposed rolls, and projects (think of Skill Challenges from D&D 4th Edition).

Personally I think that sometimes less is more, and I think Everywhen would have been better with some of the optional or more complex rules left out. For me this became evident in the combat rules which are way more complex than they needed to be. While melee combat is quite straightforward, especially ranged combat adds a lot of – in my opinion – unnecessary detail. When it comes to distance to the target, Everywhen even distinguishes between Gunpoint (3′ or 1m) and Point Blank (6′ to 2m). Seriously? I also didn’t expect rules for various fire modes, recoil (!!!), bypassing armor, etc. in a game based on Barbarians of Lemuria. Sure, there are people who enjoy this level of detail, but I think the designers somewhat missed the point of Simon Washbourne’s original design. Don’t get me wrong, Everywhen is not a bad game – far from it – but it is definitely way more complex and detailed than the game it is based on.

One of the things Everywhen definitely gets right is that there are rules included for every genre imaginable. You need mechanics for radiation damage for your post-apocalypse game? It’s in the book. Cybernetics? Sure. Arcane Powers? Of course. Vehicle and mass battle rules? Yes!

But there are also a few weird omissions. Rules for adversaries are included, but there are only two (!) example NPCs aside from the ones given in the example settings “True Brit Vampire Slayers” and “Broken Seal of Astarath”. The section on how to create your own settings is also extremely short. Since they also didn’t include a list of truly generic careers, you either have to do the heavy hauling yourself, or rely on the settings Filigree Forge is selling. Hmm.

The example setting “True Brit Vampire Slayers” is a rather quirky urban fantasy. The premise of the setting is that after the death of Queen Elizabeth II. the British monarchy ended and with it the magical defenses tied to the Crown were destroyed. Now the UK are beset by all kinds of supernatural assailants from Vampires to the Unseelie. The setting is not really detailed but there are examples given for fitting careers, NPCs, gear, and optional rules appropriate for the setting.

“Broken Seal of Astarath” is a high-fantasy setting in which all the races of the land must take up arms against a Demonic Horde. Like in the case of “True Brit Vampire Slayers” not much information on the setting is given, but there are various ancestries for the players to choose from (including elves, dwarves, and the like), fitting careers, a short list of NPCs, etc.

The book concludes with a glossary, various useful charts and tables and – as mentioned before – a two-paged index.

When it comes to Everywhen I am truly torn. On the one hand I love the idea of a multi-genre adaption of Barbarians of Lemuria, but on the other hand I think that the game suffers from too much unnecessary complexity. I also get the impression that Filigree Forge sees Everywhen more like a vehicle to sell their own settings instead of a toolbox for GMs. Perhaps I am a bit too harsh. Perhaps I am disappointed that Everywhen is not exactly what I hoped it to be. Even though I had some criticisms, Everywhen is not a bad game. If you don’t mind some tinkering you can easily hack it to fit your needs.

Everywhen is available from DrivethruRPG as a digital download, soft- or hardcover book (POD) and sets you back $10, $23, or $28 respectively.

Star Trek Adventures: Gamma Quadrant – A First look

A while back Modiphius offered me a review copy of their latest Star Trek Adventures sourcebook, Star Trek Adventures: Gamma Quadrant. Since I haven’t touched Star Trek Adventures since I got the core rules when they first came out, I initially didn’t take them up on their offer. This weekend I watched the first episode of the new Star Trek: Picard series on Amazon Prime. With my interest in all things Star Trek renewed I decided to have a look at Modiphius’ new release after all.

Star Trek Adventures: Gamma Quadrant, is – as the name suggests – a sourcebook about the Milky Way’s so-called Gamma Quadrant. The Gamma Quadrant has initially been unreachable by Federation ships because of its distance. Eventually a stable wormhole near Bajor (and Deep Space 9) was discovered which opened up a whole new region of space for exploration. The events leading up to and following this discovery were the subject of one of the most popular Star Trek series: Deep Space Nine.

At this point I have to admit that while I watched some episodes of the series, I never watched it in its entirety. So if I get something wrong regarding the accepted canon, please don’t be too harsh.

Star Trek Adventures: Gamma Quadrant is a 128-paged book or – in case of my review copy – a 128-paged PDF containing all the information you need to run a game set into the Dominion War era. That’s right, you don’t just get information on the mayor players in the Gamma Quadrant, its species, etc. but the sourcebook also moves the games’ default setting’s (which is TNG) timeline up a few years. If you want to run a game in earlier eras this book might not be as useful, but creative GMs might still be able to get their money’s worth out of the book.

The production values are on par with other Modiphius products and with what you’ve come to expect from the Star Trek Adventures line. The LCARS-like look is definitely pretty but is not particularly printer-friendly. Luckily the digital version of the book comes with a printer-friendly version.

The majority of the book is taken up by Chapter Two: The Dominion. The Dominion is the major power of the Gamma Quadrant, a millennia-old nation, controlled by the so-called Founders. Chapter Two of the book describes the Dominion in some detail including but not limited to its history, its political structure, and the major Dominion races like the the Founders, Vorta or Jem’Hadar. There are detailed descriptions of the major Dominion worlds, as well as the Dominion’s allies and enemies.

The biggest section of Chapter Two gives an expansive overview over the Dominion War, from the Cold War before even first contact between the Federation and the Dominion was made, till the end of the war in 2375. The book gives hints on how you can use especially the Cold War era as a setting for your adventures. Especially if you are into cloak-and-dagger stories, this might be an interesting era to play in.

Chapter Three is all about the species of the Gamma Quadrant. Argrathi, Changelings, Dosi, Drai, Karemma, Lurians, Paradans, Rakhari, Skreeaa, Son’a, Tosk, and Wadi are added to the already quite extensive list of playable species in Star Trek Adventures. To my surprise neither the Jem’Hadar nor the Vorta are given that treatment, especially since these species – aside from the Changelings – are the only Gamma Quadrant species I recognize from the few episodes of DS9 I watched. Unfortunately I couldn’t find an explanation why these species were omitted. Perhaps they just weren’t considered fitting for a roleplaying game where you’re supposed to play the “good guys”. On the other hand it’s possible they were already included in one of the earlier sourcebooks.

Chapter Four provides players and GMs with a slew of new starships from both the Dominion and the Alpha/Beta Quadrant species who fought them in the Dominion war.

The book concludes with Chapter Five called “Encounters and Adversaries”. This chapter provides the GM with a lot of hooks for their own games and a slew of non-player characters fitting the kind of game they want to play. Two themes of play are provides here: a game focused on exploration of the Gamma Quadrant and one focused on the Dominion War.

Star Trek Adventures: Gamma Quadrant contains a two-paged index, and the PDF is fully bookmarked.

So, what are my thoughts on this sourcebook? If you are a fan of both DS9 and Modiphius’ Star Trek Adventures, this is a must-have. But if you are more interested in earlier eras of the Star Trek universe you might not get that much out of it. Even then, about 14€ are a fair price for the amount of material players and GMs get with this book. You can get Star Trek Adventures: Gamma Quadrant directly from Modiphius, your FLGS, or digitally from DriveThruRPG. The printed book is about €30, while the PDF sets you back about €14.

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