Wednesday, October 26, 2016
Learning Chinese and sanity loss
Many moons ago I had the wonderful opportunity to take a crash course in Cantonese. Three months of full days of language training taking me from not knowing a single word, to... well... running out of time to learn more Chinese before I went to Hong Kong. You see in those three months, my classmates and I did learn some Chinese. Towards the end of the class I realized that we were in fact speaking a strange secret language unknown to the rest of the world. No one else around us in the language training center could understand us (they weren't learning Cantonese!) but I was pretty sure that no one in Hong Kong would understand us either. Our small group had become separated from everyone else because of the knowledge we held.
So what does this have to do with gaming?
In Call of Cthulhu and many other weird/horror games there is some sort of sanity mechanic. How well can you hold it together when you have encountered the fantastic cosmic horror that doesn't care about you or your cat, Mittens.
Most of the time this loss of sanity is articulated with some mechanic to make the character "go crazy" and true to the writings of Lovecraft it should. His protagonists are often on the verge of committing suicide, being unable to continue on with their newfound knowledge, with others committed to asylums for their discoveries.
Sanity loss needn't be relegated to developing restrictive dementias added to a character sheet. Sanity loss can instead be a measure of how well the character can fit into society. The act of simply knowing (the truth) can be enough to have them locked away in a nut house.
After witnessing cultists, with the assistance of their otherworldly assistants, attempting to summon some eldritch evil, the investigators go to the local police to get help.
If the tell everything they have seen, at best they may be considered a nuisance, at worst they may be locked away as a danger to themselves and others because the claims in and of themselves are outlandish and ridiculous.
A character who has read forbidden tomes and gained magical abilities would be mocked at best or condemned by a church at worst.
So encountering weird and horrific things can be their own curse, but sanity mechanics can still come into play.
Sanity loss can measure how well the character can keep their mouth shut. It is human nature to want to talk. (Most of Lovecraft's writings are couched as some sort of confessional) The more sanity loss a character suffers, the more they feel a need to talk about what they have seen. The therapy rules fit in nicely with this as the character is venting their experience and thus regain sanity points
Sanity loss as a partial breakdown. You don't have to throw out the weird quirks and dementias completely. You can provide legitimate information regarding the horrors the character has encountered. If the character is told that the things can travel through shadows, the character will naturally be apprehensive around them, and may take actions to eliminate them whenever possible. There is a rational reason for the character to perform the act, but to everyone else the actions are the fruit of an unstable mind. Of course you can just as easily provide inaccurate information and let the character react to false information.
Sanity loss as a complete breakdown. Of course the persons mind can just snap not being able to handle what they have seen. Heart attacks from fear, or loss of hope, or ability to function these can all occur as well. But much like character death, as a GM, I find these far more interesting to use as a threat rather than an actual event.
Sanity loss as a measurement of separation from the group is the same as learning Chinese slowly separated my group from those around us until we reverted to the norm of speaking English.
Oh, and one of the high points for me was when I realized that the word "mogwai" from the movie Gremlins was the Cantonese word for demon and not just a made up name for the type of critter gizmo was.