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!

Monday, January 28, 2008

Chaosium Digest Classics -- Trust No One, Especially Yourself

by Geoff Smith
originally presented in Chaosium Digest v29.03, Wed. Dec. 15, 1999

Introduction:

"You drop to the ground drooling."
"You scream and run out of the room in terror."
"You start shooting blindly at everything in the room."

If you're sick of saying this stuff when a character loses his mind, read on. Insanity can add a lot to role-playing. Unfortunately, it's too often glossed over or treated in the most stereotypical of ways. Hopefully, this article will help you make a memorable gaming experience out of a little insanity. Use it as a subplot and seed it into an existing adventure. The next time a character goes mad, just pull this out and away you go. We're going to explore the darker corners of an insane character's mind. More importantly, we're going to try and do it without the player knowing. In the details that follow you will find references to terms used in Call of Cthulhu, but this really is system neutral.

Putting the madness back into insanity:

The party, led by Simon P. Robinson, Esquire enters the old building. Suddenly they're faced with the sight of a semi-rotted corpse which is blasphemously active. In fact, they seem to have interrupted it's awful meal. Everybody makes a sanity check. Simon loses it. Badly. All of the characters are momentarily too stunned to move. The horrid creature (never come right out and say "Ghoul" or give away any information the party hasn't earned with quick thinking, blood and lots of terror) spots the investigators and comes rushing hungrily towards them.

Freeze.

It's time for some fun. We're not going to let Simon off with just a little drooling or wetting himself. No way! We're gonna give him the full treatment. Simon (the character) is gonna lose his marbles. At the same time we're gonna make the player (let's call her Sally) so paranoid she doesn't know what's going on or who to trust. In fact, we're gonna try and make her question the sanity of everyone around her, including her own character. Because of the shock and extreme terror, Simon is now quite mad. Simon (the character) is now suffering from indefinite insanity in the form of acute paranoia. Along with the paranoia are occasional blackouts and hallucinations. Without Sally's (the player) knowledge you must build the framework for her character's insanity. In an attempt to remain intact, Simon's mind has now constructed an elaborate web of lies and delusions. The world must now bend to his perception.

Unfreeze.

The gore-covered fiend is rushing at the party. Now you ask Sally (the player) to step out of the room and leave her character. (Let's get a little Player - Character separation anxiety going.) The fight now progresses as normal, but you run Simon (the character) for the moment. Make sure the character empties his gun, gets scratched, falls and bumps his head, muddies and tears his clothes or some other obvious things. When the smoke clears allow Sally to return. Inform her, "You must have blacked out for a minute there. The creature is lying dead (and remember to sometimes let them think a monster is dead when it's really still alive or unalive as the case may be). You don't remember the fight, but your shirt is ripped and you're bleeding from a cut on your arm." Now let play progress as normal. The other players can fill Sally in on anything else that happened (make them role-play it. From here on your goal is to convince Sally that the other PCs, or at least one of them, have gone mad. This is just one example of how the threshold between the sane and the demented would first be crossed. Try to choose an appropriately traumatic experience to trigger all this. This isn't hard in Call of Cthulhu.

How do we convince the player that something is very wrong? That perhaps the other characters are members of a cult… That for some reason they're trying to make Simon think that he's crazy - of course he knows they're the crazy ones… That THEY are out to get him… That the whole world has gone crazy…

Well, let's try a few things and remember it's your story, these are just ideas. Add your own personal touches. Keep'em guessing and keep it fun.

-- Simon pulls out his gun to shoot something. He pulls the trigger and 'click' it's empty. Although he doesn't recall doing it, he emptied it himself. As subtly as possible he should be led to believe another character is trying to sabotage him/get him killed.

-- While the characters have separated for whatever reason, Simon glimpses (hallucinates) one of the other PCs walking into an obviously seedy/unsavory place. If he goes in he can't find them. If he mentions it to them later they will quite rightly deny it. Was he mistaken or are they lying?

-- A note in crazed and wild handwriting is left for him someplace only he and other PCs go. e.g. He wakes up in his hotel room with the note pinned to his pillow. It says, "IKNOW THAT YOU KNOW SIMON! IF YOU TELL ANYONE YOU'RE DEAD!DEAD DEAD!!!! DEAD DEAD DEAD DEAD DEAD DEAD DEAD" Maybe it's just cultic looking gibberish written in goat's blood. If someone highly skilled in psychiatry and compares the note's handwriting with handwriting samples from the character they'll be able to identify it as the character's own writing.

-- By chance Simon spots one of the feared Cthulhu Mythos texts in the possession of another PC. Maybe at first, he just gets a glimpse of odd writing and troubling pictures. Simon might want to nab and destroy it, or just keep it as evidence. He will remain convinced that the Sears & Roebuck catalog (or whatever it really was) is an unholy text.

-- When another PC gives him a drink of wine (coffee, milk…) Simon gets a fierce headache after just a sip. He even finds himself throwing up while his stomach cramps horribly. Be sure that the player gets the idea that it was an attempt to poison him!

-- Late one night when all the PCs are sleeping at the same place (hotel, tent …) pull the other players aside one at a time very briefly. Ask them some mundane questions about security precautions or whatever. Then talk to Simon'splayer. Inform him that something wakes him up in the middle of the night. Before he can get back to sleep he hears the others outside his door (adjoining room, tent). Have him make a Listen roll and either way, tell him he only catches snatches of their conversation. Something like"mumble mumble …Simon's suspects…mumble…get rid of him…..notyet….."

-- Maybe Simon has a pet parakeet/cat/dog. He should find that friendly companion nailed to his kitchen door. Perhaps, he's got a nasty scratch that he can't rememberwhere it came from.

-- Simon is talking to someone on the phone and after the person hangs up, he hears another person hang up!

-- Pass notes back and forth at odd times with the other players asking them for one bit of information or another.

-- Someone shows up and insists that Simon called them and said it was an emergency. That they had to come immediately. Simon of course knows he didn't call. Someone either pretended to be him or the person that showed up is lying. But why?

-- At some point the other characters will probably become concerned for poor Simon. "He's sure been acting funny." Perhaps another character tries to convince him he needs help, professional help. Maybe he should commit himself for a couple of weeks. Have him make a psychology roll and then pass Simon's player a note saying that the other character seems kind of twitchy and overly anxious to see him put away. Maybe Simon suddenly "notices" the other character is wearing a ring with cultic symbols on it.

Conclusion:

Just how far things go is up to you. Does the character secretly want to be found out and helped? Is he leaving a little trail of clues behind that will eventually point to him? Does his mind deteriorate into further delusions and even murder? Be careful to keep the mystery alive. Most of the overt acts, by necessity, will have to take place when other characters are either distracted or not around. Some of them however are figments of the character's own troubled mind and therefore can happen even in the middle of a crowded room.

"Though this be madness, yet there is method in it."
- William Shakespeare, Hamlet

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