The SAN Trap

This post is part of the H. P. Lovefest. It is not, however, a review of the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying game, despite the title. It is instead an high-level overview of the game and its affect on both roleplaying and Lovecraft’s legacy.

If you are unfamiliar with tabletop roleplaying games, or have only been exposed to RPGs of the electronic variety, you might equate the entire genre with Dungeons & Dragons: wizards, unicorns, swords, potions, and lots of dice. And that’s not a bad description of D&D, at least insofar as how some groups play it. Players draft characters, form a party, delve into a dungeon, and hack away at the monsters therein, accumulating Experience and losing Hit Points.

“Hit Points”, in the lexicon of D&D and many other roleplaying games, are a measure of physical health, and when they drop to zero or below your character may pass out or even die. “Experience”, on the other hand, is an abstract measure of how much your character has “done” in its life, and is amassed by performing tasks such as killing monsters and completing quests. After you’ve accumulated a certain amount of Experience your character “levels up”, becoming more powerful in the process. As there are many many ways to recuperate Hit Points and few ways to lose Experience, the end result is a game in which characters become ever more powerful and very rarely die.

This model is ill-suited for a roleplaying game set in the world of H. P. Lovecraft for a variety of reasons. For one thing, the entire concept of “Experience”–the rewarding of players for performing tasks–implies that doing things is worthwhile, which flies in the face of the pervasive futility found in the Mythos tales. For another, a game in which death is rare is about as far from Lovecraftian as you can get. And what’s the point of characters becoming “more powerful” when, even at their zenith, they are but specks before the Great Old Ones?

Sandy Petersen, designer of Call of Cthulhu, solved all these problems with one deft stroke of genius. While the core of the roleplaying game is very generic (so much so that it is called the “Basic Roleplaying System)–with statistics such as Strength and Dexterity, a list of possible skills, and yes even Hit Points–it features something that no game before had included: Sanity. Sanity (or “SAN”) works much like Hit Points do, as a measure of someone’s current condition; however it does not track the character’s physical health, but rather his mental health. Furthermore, it is extremely difficult to recuperate Sanity in a Call of Cthulhu game. And as the characters (called “Investigators” in CoC parlance) learn more about the horrors of the Mythos, the maximum that their Sanity rating can reach slowly dwindles. In short, the heroes in Call of Cthulhu grow ever more fragile over time rather than stronger, as exposure to eldritch horrors drives them to the brink of madness and beyond.

To the uninitiated this might sound like a clever twist on the Hit Points formula, but not something that would necessarily set the tone for the entire game. But it does. For one thing, players quickly learn not get attached to their characters–after a few sessions they will be dead, or insane, or–best case scenario–retired recluses with a crippling fear of everything. Needless to say, all of this serves wonderfully to reinforce the sense of existential terror. It also has characters acting in ways striking different than they would in other RPGs; when monsters appear in CoC, players quickly learn that the best strategy is not to attack but to turn tail and run like hell. With brawn all but useless when faced with the omnipotent horrors of the elder gods, Investigators can only succeed by using their wits; when they enter battle at all, they typically do so armed not with knives and guns but with dilapidated tomes and arcane knowledge.

The relationship between H. P. Lovecraft’s legacy and the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game is one of strange symbiosis. The sanity rule, inspired by Lovecraft’s brand of cosmic nihilism, has made CoC one of the most beloved roleplaying games of all time; the popularity of the game, in turn, has sustained the interest in Lovecraft’s works, and the company behind CoC (Chaosium) had expanded the pool of Mythos-related material though the publication of fiction and CoC sourcebooks. And when you consider the overlap between those who play roleplaying games and those who work in technological fields, it’s no wonder that the Internet is rife with Lovecraftia. (Wikipedia alone has hundreds of pages devoted to the man and his creations, everything from Azathoth to Roger Zelany …) How odd that the man who described games as “avenues of escape for persons with too poorly proportioned and correlated a perspective to distinguish betwixt the frivolous and the relevant” would have his own relevance extended into the 21st century by a pastime such as CoC.

2 thoughts on “The SAN Trap

  1. I don’t know if you dabble in video games, but the overtitled Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem was loosely inspired by Lovecraft and gave you a sanity meter along with the usual health meter. If your sanity got too low, you’d start hallucinating things or the game would just start screwing with you, like making it look like the game crashed or the TV got put on mute or there were bugs crawling on the screen. Neato!

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