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.