Monday, 29 July 2013

Out of Our Minds: The Importance of Madness in Gaming

So, following on from my last post, why is it important to have a madness mechanic at all? Well, largely because it reinforces a horror mechanic like nothing else. Monsters that far outstrip you in power? That's doable if you're careful. Sorcerers impervious to mortal weapons? You can outsmart that. The crippling of your own mental equilibrium as a consequence of your own actions... Well, shit.

To use a media shorthand, games without morality and sanity mechanics are like an eighties TV series. Short of flat-out character death, consequences are limited to the current episode and winning tends to obviate any kind of come back. Failure is penalised, success is rewarded and your methods are only in question if they don't work. Such games can be a lot of fun; they can be exciting, and they can even be tense and a little scary. They are not, however, horrific, any more than - for example - the A-Team is horrific.

Games with these systems are more like more recent TV, where arc plots and character continuity mean that everything that has a consequence has a lasting consequence. Character growth - or degeneration - is ongoing, and watching your beloved character go slowly insane despite - even because of - their success, is part of the fun and about 90% of the actual horror. The erosion of character autonomy and agency allows the players to integrate better with the scene, such that the eerie description of the approach of the Great Old One is not just a cool description and an indicator that a shift of tactics might be in order, but something genuinely scary. Likewise, if filling the cultist leader full of lead is only an expeditious means of ending the threat, rather than an arguably necessary, but heinously immoral action which will have a lasting impact on your worldview, then harming others becomes a serious and daunting prospect.

With mechanics such as these, choices become more difficult, shadows become more scary; the world becomes more realised and alive. It's not something you always want (no WH40K-based RPG should really be concerning itself with morality outside of player-driven contemplation, and there is a strong case to be made for a mechanic which limits the opportunities for a fantasy hero to brood), but for horror games there's nothing like it.

Out of Our Minds: The Many Faces of Madness in Gaming Mechanics

There are now a great many games that attempt, in some way, to model madness and morality, with greater or lesser degrees of success. I'm not aiming to lay down some expert opinion here; these are just a few thoughts on some of these systems.

D&D had its clear-cut axis of good vs evil; characters were good, neutral or evil. In AD&D this was expanded into the (in)famous binary alignment system, with every character's alignment lying on two axes: Good-Neutral-Evil, with good defined as heroic, charitable and giving, and evil as villainous, grasping and dominating; and Chaotic-Neutral-Lawful, defining your attitude to law, order and rules in general. This wasn't a terrible system, although I suspect it led to a massive glut in the Chaotic-Good bracket, since that way you could feel good about yourself and still show a middle finger to the man and embark on epic debauches between adventures, so why not go that route (unless you wanted to be one of the character classes that required you to be Lawful or Neutral in some way).

Call of Cthulhu mixed things up a bit by making morality a player choice and focusing on Sanity as a core mechanic and an ever-dwindling resource. It was a focus of the game and it has always affected the way that players approach the game, possibly too much so when parties of CoC investigators habitually burn books and turn away from the adventure because they know it to be the best survival strategy. On the up side, it means that even in the event of an unlikely triumph, there is a cost to everything.

White Wolf's World of Darkness has a morality system and a madness system, but links them (except in its latest iteration, God Machine, which recognises that linking moral decline to madness was a somewhat Victorian idea, held over from the old WoD, in which the only mechanical morality system was the decaying humanity of vampire characters. Now, some people criticise the absence of a morality mechanic for other characters, but in the setting it made sense. Vampires were unique in that they were not fully functional moral agents. Werewolves and Mages could choose to be arseholes or heroes or anything in between; vampires had to actively strive to be anything other than complete arseholes, such being the nature of their curse.

In the new WoD setting, everyone has a morality stat, although what it is and how it works varies without real consistency. It is clear, for example, why Mages need to hold to the path of Wisdom (of not abusing their power for personal advancement), but not why common human Morality ceases to have any impact on them. I've not played God Machine, but their system - which separates morality and madness entirely - looks better.

Then there is Unknown Armies, which has a system I really like, although it is not without its flaws. The system breaks your mental stability into five categories: Violence, Unnatural, Self, Helplessness and Isolation, representing key stimuli for madness. When confronted with violence, supernatural gribblies, something which makes you question your own self-image, an inability to act effectively or soul-crushing loneliness, you make a roll and if you fail, slip a little further into insanity.

What I like about UA, however, is that if you pass, you become a little more detached; Hardened, in the game's parlance. On the plus side, you can ignore a certain level of that stimuli now; on the minus side, you're a little less human in your interactions. What I like is that whatever happens, these things always change the character.

My final look, and the one that started this line of thought, is Trail of Cthulhu, which again differentiates more, offering both Sanity and Stability, the former standing for your connection to fundamentally human concepts and constructs of moral and right (or indeed wrong) behaviour, and the latter for your ability to act in a functional and directed manner. This is a useful divide in Mythos games, as it allows particularly for cultists - or investigators - to be clinically insane, morally bankrupt, and yet highly functional. Coming from the Gumshoe system, stability is also impacted by violence, so that the pragmatic solution of just shooting that cultist may still have an impact, although if you pass the roll you can shrug it off.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Gumshoe mechanic is that you can voluntarily spend Stability to improve your Stability roll, gambling a smaller loss against a greater, effectively accepting a mad justification to save you from worse.

I'm not sure which system I like best, but it definitely comes down to Trail/Gumshoe and UA. WoD's is the weakest, although God Machine's variation is much stronger. The fantasy games don't have a very good morality system at all, but then again, they don't entirely need it. Fantasy heroes are often not entirely moral agents either, instead being part of a more mythic narrative.