Sanity in The Wasted Land

Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land info pageI think we’re pretty much there with how we’re going to handle Sanity in our interpretation of Call of Cthulhu.  To recap; Sanity (SAN) is a key part of the Call of Cthulhu RPG.  It is also a key narrative part of Lovecraft’s work, where losing it is an understandable reaction to the discovery of the titanic forces of trans-dimensional beings that are abound in the universe at large and who threaten to snuff the fragile candle of humanity out at any point.  However in a computer game, doing an emotion like Sanity is a much harder proposition.  Game engines are simulations of a world and don’t really deal easily with grey areas like Sanity; games can inspire an emotion in the player, but reflecting that feeling back into the game; that’s much harder.

The solution was to focus on one particular expression of Sanity; Mania.  In the Call of Cthulhu when your character goes into a state of ‘Short Temporal Insanity’ there are several possible outcomes you can roll the dice for; panic, hysterics, phobia, stupor and mania.  We think in game terms, mania is an interesting emotion.  A manic character can be stronger, faster and less susceptible to pain; helpful characteristics in a fight!  Yet, that extra power comes at a cost.  Once a character goes insane, they will get a burst of manic energy and can do more as well as take more damage.  However the candle that burns twice as long burns twice as bright; after a burst of manic energy, the character is burnt-out and lapses into unconsciousness and needs to be revived.

How are the game characters able to focus their emotional reactions so?  That is thanks to Professor Brightmeer’s genius.  I’ve documented more about his skills here.

Fun with Insanity...

So each of the player-characters has a Sanity score (SAN) that is impacted by seeing horror within the game.  As with the Call of Cthulhu RPG, seeing horrific things slowly erodes your character’s Sanity.  The more horror your characters sees, the more SAN they lose.  Where our game will differ is that Sanity cycles will be much more fluid.  Rather than seeing the SAN score as a longer term statistic that erodes over many adventures, with occasional lapses as it progresses, Brightmeer’s interventions mean that Sanity and the lapse into mania will be a constant cyclic-threat.  In The Wasted Land we want Sanity to feature over the levels of the game (something you don’t get in the paper RPG) so we’ve adapted the Sanity score to be something that rises and falls throughout the game.  Unlike in the paper RPG, where loosing a few points can cause temporary Insanity and loosing all your sanity means your character has checked out (or in) forever, in this version of the game Sanity is more fluid.  Loosing a few points has no impact, but then you’ll loose points more often.  Loosing all your sanity means mania and then unconsciousness.  However the burst of power that mania offers will also give players a chance to use the focused insanity in their favour, a strategic emotion, if you like…

The use of Magic will also impact Sanity, as it does in the Call of Cthulhu RPG.  This approach I think gives us the narrative power of Sanity, but re-interpreted to make it work in a game engine.  I think this adaptation keeps the spirit of Sanity from the RPG but makes it work in a game setting.  It should make Sanity both a fear and a boon.

Comments welcome!

About Tomas

Design & Production Director at Auroch Digital. Designer of Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land. Writing and blogging things that surprise, entertain and interest me...
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5 Responses to Sanity in The Wasted Land

  1. juv3nal says:

    I think a neat way to do sanity in a tactical rpg would be by playing around with fog of war. Have enemies appear where there actually are none or enemies appear to be enemies of a different type/power level or even have enemies appear to move out of LOS when the have not actually done so. Although I’ve not played it, basically some of the tricks I’ve heard you can play in RUSE transplanted to a tactical level.

  2. Tomas says:

    We’ve debated Fog of War a lot here. Some Turn-Based Strategy games did it really well, whereas other TBS less so. It does add atmosphere, but can detract from the overall tactical view. It’s a good point…

  3. Using an example you cited in another article, Advance Wars, the fog of war levels in that game were there least tactical (for me) because you are reacting, not strategising. They used fog of war well though because it was an intermittent device in the game. Gave it some variation instead of being the overriding factor. But having said that, fog of war on a map is worse. I personally prefer seeing the whole map, tactically, but encounters are still LoS only. My all time fav XCom used the map fogged out, but I don’t think it needed to, to be great. After a while you learnt the structure of the buildings, the alien ships etc, so hiding them wasn’t necessary. But hiding the enemies was.

  4. Tomas says:

    Interesting, your view echoes with that of our Art Director on Advanced Wars. I’m still undecided at the moment, but you’ve given me good points to think about, so thanks!

  5. To comment on the sanity side of things and not stray off-topic, your suggested implementation sounds good. Sanity in a computer game is really hard to balance. Danger being it just becomes a second ‘health’ bar/points and means the end of your character if you lose it all. Through extensive play of CoC pen and paper, insanity was still hard to manage in a meaningful way. Generally had to resort to petty insanity traits that didn’t cripple a character beyond use, otherwise you ended up playing with PC’s who were afraid to do anything for fear of ending up a vegatable.

    Fears, and short-term incapatitions are one possible approach. Perhaps sanity failures leading to inactivity for a number of rounds, player routed to the spot/runs away to a corner etc. Proof will be in the playtesting. Problems to watch for are scenarios where a player finds his character(s) routinely go mad and fall unconscious, which will probably lead to frustration and player giving up.

    I built ‘half’ of a Cthulhu mythos adventure game, never got to finish it, point and click thing. Planned to use sanity of course, but in that game the plan was to tailor the character responses, and/or the reponse he got from NPC’s to the PC’s current state of mind. It didn’t fluctuate so much as readily deteriorate. Which worked really well for a linier story where the character was in most ways ‘meant’ to steadily go mad during play. Unlikely that could apply here though.

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