The Chaosium Digest

The Chaosium Digest supports the role-playing games produced by Chaosium Inc. and all content is fan submitted. Begun in 1994 by Shannon Appelcline who passed it to myself in 2000 and previously distributed via email, this is the newest incarnation of the Chaosium Digest. Enjoy!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Chaosium Digest Classics: Ethical Dilemas in Call of Cthulhu

byMichael Schwartz
Originally appearing in Chaosium Digest v28.07 on Sunday, August 1, 1999

A thread on the DELTA GREEN mailing list concerned the resolution of ethical dilemmas and matters of conscience in CALL OF CTHULHU campaigns. Without delving too deep into the so-called "angsty" White Wolf style of play which many DGML subscribers seem to abhor, I would like to offer this quick-and-easy mechanic, based around pre-existing CALL OF CTHULHU rules, with which gamemasters may adjudicate the psychological consequences of characters' actions.

CALL OF CTHULHU uses Sanity as a gauge of the character's absolute psychological health. As part of the mechanic, a character who loses sufficient Sanity to warrant Temporary Insanity must then make an Idea Roll to determine if he or she, in fact, is aware of the implications of whatever events caused the Sanity loss. A successful roll reflects the character's sudden recognition of the inherent"wrongness" in that which occurred, with a corresponding retreat into blissful insanity. A failed Idea Roll reflects the character's incomprehension of that wrongness, although Sanity still decreases. The character does not lose control of his or her faculties, even though he or she is rather unsettled by the situation.

The mechanics for resolving ethical dilemmas and matters of conscience are more-or-less the reverse of the Sanity mechanics. The character first must make an Idea Roll. Failure implies that the character is unable to separate right from wrong *for the moment*, and can proceed as he or she chooses. The truly fiendish gamemaster will bring the matter up again, once the character has opportunity to reflect on his or her actions. Success means that the character recognizes the morally dubious nature of his or her behavior, either intended or acted-upon.

If the Idea Roll succeeded, a Sanity Roll becomes required. Success on this roll indicates that the character experiences a crisis of conscience and is wracked with guilt. The rules effect of this anguish is a variable loss of Sanity, the amount lost being dependent on the severity of the moral lapse. Failure indicates that the character feels little or no remorse for his or her actions, representing a sort of "depraved indifference" toward morality like that displayed by psychopathic or sociopathic individuals. Only the minimum Sanity is lost.

Witnessing a friend or relative's violent death costs 0/1d6Sanity, but inflicting a friend or relative's violent death personally might cost 1/1d8 or 1/1d6+2 depending on how close a tie the character felt toward the victim. A sense of proportion is vital, as penalizing the character too much or too little will ultimately undermine the delicate balance of fairness vs. responsibility which these rules require.

I recommend using the "Sanity Loss Guide" from page 78 of CALL OF CTHULHU 5th Edition for inspiration, but be prepared to fudge when necessary. These guidelines comment that "few experiences other than Resurrection should so mangle the Sanity of any investigator" as to inflict a 1d20, 2d10 or 3d6 Sanity loss, while "single-handedly and willingly causing the destruction of the entire human race" *might* qualify for a Sanity loss of 3d10.

I found the Madness rules from John Tynes' and Greg Stolze's splendid game, UNKNOWN ARMIES, to be very inspirational in the writing of this piece, and would recommend it to those who may be interested in an alternative mechanism for Sanity. The rules presented therein could be fairly easily adapted for use with CALL OF CTHULHU.

Thoughts? Opinions?
Michael Schwartz

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