Category Archives: Advice

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.

Cepheus Subsector Generator

About two and a half years ago I wrote a simple Python script which generates subsectors for me in the Cepheus Engine format. Why? Because I find rolling up a full subsector by hand quite tedious.

So, what does this script do? It’s nothing too fancy. It’s text-only and you can’t save results. But for the purpose I created it for, it works like a charm. The script just rolls up a subsector and outputs the results as a table (in a Traveller Poster Maker-compatible format). You also get a list of all systems in a more human-readable format. If you like the results you can easily copy and paste the output into a text file.

You can check out the source code on repl.it. If you don’t have Python installed you can also run it in your browser by clicking onto that green “run” button. Enjoy!

Don’t Do As I Do – A Tale Of Depression, Anxiety And RPGs

Over the years I’ve posted a lot of GM advice here on the blog. I’ve also shared tips on how to be a better player. Unfortunately I sometimes get the impression that I am having a hard time following my own advice. Don’t get me wrong, I still think I am a reasonably good player, and when I am in the right mood, I am an accomplished game master. But more often than not, especially when I am running games, things quickly fall apart.

So why am I talking about this here? I want you to learn from my mistakes, and it also helps me putting my thoughts onto paper (or rather into a blog post). So let’s start at the beginning.

Even as a kid I was never really confident. I always questioned myself. I felt I wasn’t good enough. I was shy and for the most time I was an outsider at school. But even though I always had strong introverted tendencies, I also had things I wanted to say. The urge to express myself has always been quite strong, and in roleplaying games I found an outlet which worked great for me. As a player I could leave the doubts and confidence issues behind, and imagine – for at least a few hours – that I am someone else.

Sooner than later I wanted to run games myself. There were certain games I’d love to play, but no one in my circle of friends wanted to run them, so I eventually decided to become a GM. But the GM role is vastly different from being a player. Most of the time, players expect you to entertain them. Yes, I know that roleplaying is actually a group effort, but most players are happy to lean back and enjoy the show, while the GM does the heavy hauling.

As a GM I wasn’t that bad. I often sucked at learning rules, because I was more interested in cool stories than mechanics, but I quickly realized that I was quite good at improvising and making NPCs memorable. For quite some time I ran Shadowrun (mostly 1st and 2nd edition), later I switched to D&D 3.0/3.5 which we played for years. In the meantime I ran several other games which mixed success. But overall things were fine. At least during my university years.

Over the years it became increasingly harder to find people interested in playing. Friends who I have played with for years moved away, and while I made new friends, the number of prospective players dwindled. For a couple of years my financial situation was pretty bad, and stress at work was unbearable. Eventually I got a new job and things improved for a while, but then we had a change in leadership, and things went downhill again. It’s probably no surprise I struggled with mental health issues for years. Heck, I still do.

As you can imagine having anxiety and depression is not really helping when trying to be a GM. Roleplaying was one of the things that helped me to stay sane, but over the years, my anxiety attached itself to the GM-side of things. This led to a very strange situation. I still wanted to run games, and my head was full of ideas, but I also had (and still have) extreme doubts about my ability to pull it off. It would have made sense to put some effort into preparations in order to feel more confident, but for some reason I also dreaded doing any prep work. Usually I also kept rescheduling games since I didn’t feel confident enough to run something, or I just hadn’t done any preparations.

My players were very supportive at first, but slowly but surely they got annoyed. Or at least it looked like that to me. So I decided to make it up to them, promising them the next game would actually be better and not be cancelled after just a few sessions. If a player wanted to use a class, race, etc. I was unfamiliar with, I just let them, because I didn’t want to impose restrictions on them because of my short-comings. Of course I did all that while the core issue hadn’t been resolved yet.

Time and time again I set myself up for failure. Instead of taking things slow, I set myself up for failure – every single time. I took on more than I could chew, made promises I could not keep. To get out of what felt to me like a vicious circle, I took a DMing break. Oh boy, this felt great at first. It felt like a burden has been lifted. But if you have been following my blog, you know that this didn’t keep me from taking breaks from my break and stumbling again a few times.

So, is there a lesson in there somewhere? I hope so. The one thing you definitely should not do is bite off more than you can chew. If you’re fighting depression and anxiety, GMing may sometimes be a bit too much. In my case setting myself up for failure again and again was probably caused by my depression. My subconscious wanted to show me how much I suck. And the best way to do this is to destroy one of the things I love most. I know that I am a good GM, and I know I will be able to run great games again, but I also have to make sure, that I don’t fall into the same traps again.

Taking a break was probably a good decision. But if you are an avid GM, you eventually get the itch to run games again. If you feel that itch, feel free to scratch, BUT take things slow.

  • Use a rules system you are familiar with. Don’t try out new games while you’re still not fully back into the saddle.
  • Run one-shots, and avoid campaigns.
  • Run games for your friends, people you are feeling comfortable around. Don’t run games for strangers or at cons.
  • Ask your players if they are willing to run games for a change. Sometimes the best way to recharge your batteries is to be “just a player” for a while and let others take on the GM mantle.
  • Don’t overthink everything.

As you can imagine I am pretty bad at following my own advice. So do as I say, and please don’t do as I do! So, what about you, my dear reader? Have you struggled with similar issues? Do you have some further advice which might help DMs in the same situation? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!