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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.

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!

Kickstarter: Electric Bastionland

Into the Odd is one of the most unique and creative games I’ve played in the last years. It’s a weird mix between an ultra-light D&D clone and a unique, weird science meets fantasy setting. It is also a game focused on exploration and discovery – not combat. Combat is fast – and extremely lethal. I’ve run the “Iron Coral” adventure which comes with the game for various groups and everyone loved it.

Chris McDowall, the creator of Into The Odd, is currently raising money for Electric Bastionland, a standalone “sequel” to Into The Odd. The rules have been refined and expanded upon. A huge part of the book is devoted to 100 Failed Careers, which give your character their background and a reason for adventuring. Or do you think anyone with a proper career and a modicum of common sense would delve into the depths in search of treasures? I’ve followed the development of Electric Bastionland for a few years now, and I am extremely excited about it.

At the time of this writing the Kickstarter project has raised about 3600 € of a 13.926 € goal. The game itself is already written and even in layout, but Chris needs more money for artwork and eventually printed copies. So now’s your chance to contribute and help development of this exciting game along.

If you want to learn more about the game, I recommend you check out the official blog or the Electric Bastionlands Kickstarter project page. You can also check out the free version of Into The Odd to get a glimpse of what the world of Electric Bastionland is like.

UPDATE: A September 2017 playtest package of Electric Bastionland is also still available here. The game has probably changed quite a lot since then, but it might at least give you an idea on how the final product may look like.

UPDATE #2: Chris just let me know that there’s actually a free preview available on itch.io. Check it out!