Category Archives: RPG

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.

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.

Thoughts On Night's Black Agents Solo-Ops

I’ve played countless tabletop roleplaying games over the years, but only a few experiences come close to what Night’s Black Agents Solo-Ops by Pelgrane Press offers. What sets NBA Solo-Ops apart is, that it’s not your regular multiplayer roleplaying game, but it’s meant to be played by one GM and a single player. As I’ve already pointed out in my article about Cthulhu Confidential, another game powered by Gumshoe One-2-One, this is a very intense experience. Please note that this article contains spoilers.

In Night’s Black Agents Solo-Ops you – as a player – take on the role of Leyla Khan, a former MI6 agent who recently managed to escape from the influence of a Romanian vampire – at least if you are playing the official adventures included in the core rulebook. Players and GMs are of course free to create their own characters and come up with their stories.

Last year my friend Ralf ran the first adventure called “Never Say Dead” for me, which started with Leyla waking up in hospital bed with no memory of where or even who she was. During the course of the adventure I traveled to Budapest, uncovered some information about my character’s past, and avoided forces sent both by the vampire who once “owned” her and one of his rivals.

We completed the adventure in a single session and I not only managed to kill my former master, but I also escaped Budapest with a special artifact which supposedly helps against vampiric influence. Yay! Usually I am no huge fan of pregenerated characters but in this case it wasn’t so bad. Aside from some background Leyla is pretty much a blank slate (amnesia helps) and you can mold her into the character you want to play.

During the first adventure I was pretty much on the run all the time. Paranoia was high and most of the time I felt quite helpless, although Leyla is quite a skilled agent. Especially when dealing with mortal foes and regular opposition you feel quite competent, but – oh boy – things change as soon as you have to deal with the supernatural.

The second adventure, which we started playing last Saturday, is called “No Grave For Traitors”. This time Leyla is in Spain following a lead which may eventually lead to uncovering more about the vampire conspiracy. I don’t want to spoil too much, but this time I attended a drug boss’ party, fought members of a Moroccan drug cartel while wearing high heels and a little black dress, continued my research in London where I eventually tried to track down a former Hungarian scholar who was obviously under the influence of another Vampire.

As last time I had a lot of fun. If I hadn’t had a train to catch, I would have loved to continue playing. Playing Leyla Khan slowly becomes second nature and I am curious to see where my investigation leads me. I am a sucker for a good mystery, and the one spun by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan is definitely an intriguing one. The game also makes you feel like a competent spy. You can truly be badass in this game, even though obstacles and opponents still feel like a threat. Having such a balanced experience is rare and I applaud the people at Pelgrane Press for pulling this off.

I also love the Gumshoe One-2-One mechanics, which I described in some detail in my Cthulhu Confidential post. The push mechanic is definitely more interesting than the spending mechanic from regular Gumshoe. I am glad Pelgrane Press decided to introduce it into their newer multiplayer games as well. Overall I am extremely happy with my Gumshoe One-2-One experiences. Cthulhu Confidential was great, but IMHO NBA Solo Ops is even better. One reason is that I get slightly tired of the Cthulhu Mythos, but I also just love the technothriller-meets-Vampires setting of Night’s Black Agents. My recommendation: if you have the chance to play Night’s Black Agents Solo Ops, don’t hesitate, but grasp the opportunity. It’s well worth it!