Wednesday, November 25, 2009

GG PDFs OK, Secret Doors, Sanity Mechanics

The issues concerning the PDFs have been resolved, so clicky clicky on those RPGNow and Your Games Now links up there on the right and purchase The Grinding Gear if PDF is your preferred format.

If you like books, Noble Knight, Sphärenmeisters Spiele, and the LotFP Webstore have it in stock. LudikBazar should have it any day now. We've received word that Leisure Games in the UK has received their first LotFP shipment (several weeks old, so Grinding Gear is not included in it) and those items should be posted to their store by the weekend. I'll have a specific announcement here when that is the case, and do the full Grinding Gear press release here and around the forums once everyone has their current shipments in stock.

There has been a bit of talk about the handling of secret doors from those that already have The Grinding Gear. I thought it was odd when Zak over at Playing D&D with Porn Stars had a question, but now it appears there is a full-on rules issue that I was not even aware of until yesterday morning.

Apparently the Moldvay Basic and Labyrinth Lord state that a character gets only one try to find a secret door, and if that fails, pffft, tough shit! I have never played like that, and as I said was never aware that such a rule existed.

Doublechecking yesterday morning to make sure I haven't been playing wrong for a quarter of a century, I did confirm that OD&D, Holmes Basic, Mentzer Basic, AD&D, OSRIC, and Swords & Wizardry do not have this "one try only" language in the rules for secret doors.

I'm truly flabbergasted that a game that so features exploration as a primary activity would have such a limitation. To me, secret doors are time sinks, and if a party wants to take the time to make an extra check (or five) at the cost of a turn each, running down their light sources and risking wandering monsters, that's great!

My entire style of running (and writing!) adventures just wouldn't work with a "one chance only" approach, and to repeat again, I had no idea this was a rule in any version of the grand ol' game, let alone having any idea that people actually played that way.

And many of my secret doors don't specify a specific way to open them. That's what the roll is for, and generally when I do specify the opening mechanism, a roll will find the door but the opening of the door depends on the mechanism and no mere die roll can open the door. The classic modules are full of undescribed secret doors, and I don't recall problems with them either in my games or online discussion.

How do you handle secret doors in your game?

My post a few days ago about horror games started a bit of discussion. Grinding Gear business has delayed the editing of the followup post (as well as formatting Green Devil Face #4, which has nine fine entries), but I did want to say a few things more about Sanity/Fright mechanics. (this is a retread of yesterday's response on the LotFP message board, plug plug!)

Sanity and Fright systems seem to confuse different things, and to me seem to just be a hammer that games use to enforce genre and force players to "role-play properly." CoC seems to think that being exposed to the true nature of the universe and dealing with monsters and magic leads to the same thing as dealing with mundane horrors that any emergency services personnel might encounter on a bad day.

If it was merely some sort of "Keep Your Cool" characteristic to prevent a mild-mannered accountant from reacting to situations the same way as a twenty year police veteran, that's one thing, but a characters' "Cool" should improve drastically on each contact - that mild-mannered accountant isn't going to be bothered at the end of a rough night by the same thing that freaked him out to start the night.

Same thing with the supernatural and magic and such. The idea that humanity is in its little shell, ignorant of the real truth of the universe and the forces that control it. The tearing of that veil might be stressful, but once you realize the Necronomicon isn't making all of that up, what further mental breaks are there? Seeing your first monster?

In either case, I think that the lowering of the "mental hit points" would mean a character staying more in control as their normal lives as shattered. The "insanity" is built-in to the role-playing experience... PCs dealing the magic and cultists and monsters are going to seem eccentric at best, and most likely absolutely batshit insane to the man on the street, what with their propensity for violence, paranoia, belief in impossible things. No need for a mechanic.

Two SAN 0 characters from fiction: Jack Bauer and Ashley J. Williams.

This of course assumes that CoC's SAN stat, which I do believe spawned the whole idea in horror role-playing, should be taken in an entirely Lovecraftian context, and not as a general "Eek! I shit my pants!" mechanic.

And I consider this sort of thing to be different than actual psychic fear and insanity attacks, mind you.

One more plug: The LotFP RPG Facebook page! Become a fan! Spare yourself the scat humor and general weirdness you get if trying to add yourself as a friend to my personal profile!


  1. To the extent that I understand the argument being made in this post (and I have to confess that I don't think that I do understand it), I disagree with it. Among other things, I don't understand how 'Jack Bauer' could possibly be understood to have a SAN 0 in CoC terms. I certainly do not understand the paragraph that precedes the Jack Bauer remark.

    "The tearing of that veil might be stressful, but once you realize the Necronomicon isn't making all of that up, what further mental breaks are there? Seeing your first monster?"

    No offense, but have you actually read Lovecraft? The idea is that the Elder Ones are so alien to humanity that it is simply impossible to 'get used to them' and carry on as one must. Witnessing them is like taking a hot poker to your gut -- you might heal somewhat, but the scars and pain will always be there. And if you keep witnessing them (they are all different), that is like taking more and more hot pokers to your gut. Until you go die/go nuts.

    I agree with you that something like CoC's SAN mechanic is out of place, for the most part, in a game like D&D (or similar fantasy game). But for a game like CoC, they are entirely appropriate.

    Games that simulate different genres should have different mechanics, IMO.

  2. >>No offense, but have you actually read Lovecraft?

    Lots and often. I have those hardcover Arkham House editions. :D

    The "everyone goes nuts/everyone dies" aura that seems to define the Lovecraftian vibe according to some just doesn't hold up when reading the actual stories. And I'd make my GM eat a four-sider if he pulled a "haha you're really a fish LOL" Innsmouth ending on me.

    I use Jack Bauer as an example because he's seen the True Nature of the World that everyone else refuses to see, and is utterly incapable of normal human interaction because of it. He is a danger to everyone and everything around him, leaving death and destruction in his wake. He is a monster, and that was the inevitable price to be paid for fighting terrorism the way it needed to be fought.

    My reading of Lovecraft, at least the major stories which stick in my memory right now, is that insanity doesn't happen often - these supposedly crazy people are telling the way it is.

  3. Insanity might not happen often, but that's because the rest of the time, the characters usually wind up dead...

    I will also point out that there are mechanics in CoC for recovering SAN. High levels of skill can gain one SAN points, as can vanquishing bad guys, the idea being you have proven to yourself that the Evil Powers can be least for a time. And of course, seeing mental help can alleviate some SAN loss, although it won't altogether halt it completely.

    As for the "mild-mannered accountant", I suggest you do some real research on PTSD. D&D might have the whole "that which does not kill you only makes you stronger" thing going on, but it is a saturday-morning cartoon version of reality at best. For further reading on the subject, I suggest picking up the book On Killing by Col. Dave Grossman.

    Long story short, prolonged exposure to combat sresses and fatigue will render ineffective 97% of soldiers who are placed in those conditionns over the course of an extended military campaign. Of the remaining 3% (and it's been a few years since I read the book, so I might be slightl off on this breakdown), about one third are able to stay "normal" - have functioning healthy relationships with loved ones, friends and family, etc.. They are the guys who can go home and hang the musket on the wall and live a normal life. Another third of these soldiers are the "shepherds to the sheep"; they take on a decidedly us/them worldview, "us" being soldiers, "them" being civilians. These are the guys who froth at the mouth about how their blood bought you your Starbucks coffee, yadda yadda yadda. They aren't quite sociopathic, but they do not view "civilians" in the same light they view their "brothers in arms". The remaining 1% are the guys who can still function and even thrive in combat stresses, but they go sour; they become sociopathic and start down the path of atrocity and trophy-taking and eventually while they may still function as a combat machine in the war cog, they "ain't comin' home", so to speak.

    Rolling this back to our mild-mannered accountant, that guy is never going to be the same again, period. And unless he's one of the lucky three percent, continued exposure to violence and horror and death is not going to no longer be a big deal - it's going to eat away at his mind until he finally cracks and is just a useless human being.

  4. (Comment was too long, here's part two...)

    Funny that you mention emergency services and police officers, and then bring up the accountant. I don't see how you can talk about police and EMTs and all they go through and then point to mister accountant and say he's going to no longer be fazed by what he sees if he keeps getting exposed to it. Have you known a lot of police or emergency medical personnel, and listened to stories of what happens to some of these people emotionally over the course of their careers? Have you heard of "burn out"? Cops ruin their marriages, they turn into drunks or drug addicts. They become abusive, they become corrupt. Some eat their guns. Some start using their tazers or clubs a little too often and a little too easily. The mental stress they go through in the course of their careers is phenomenal, and the only way most of them can deal with it is to "lock it away" someplace, where it will eventually find a way out and eat through that person like a cancer. EMTs might not get exposed to some of the stresses a police officer does, but it can be just as bad; last I heard, the average turnover rate for an urban paramedic was 3-5 years. I would be very interested to see what the turnover rate is like in a major metropolitan police force. In the last 20 years or so I'm sure things have gotten considerably better due to processes being formally put into place to handle PTSD for police officers, but it is still an imperfect system at best. Not every cop turns into a psychological ruin, but not every cop finds himself wrist-deep in the guts of a 10 year old girl trying to stop the bleeding, either. Some are lucky and get through their jobs relatively unscathed; some down a fifth of Jack and put a bullet through their skulls.

    I guess what I'm meandering towards is that D&D has no mechanics for disability, or mental fatigue, or a slow breakdown of a person's ability to function in society. The more you kill and face down the bad guys, the better able you are to kill and face down the bad guys. I posit that this is the very rare exception to the rule and the exact opposite of what happens in any kind of semi-realistic worldview. If you think this can be solved through "role-playing", I would love to see how this solution can be achieved, because aside from players who just want to play "crazy people" because they think it's fun, I have yet to ever see a character properly played as a true sufferer of long term psychological trauma due to the stresses of combat / horror.

    No RPG mechanic is going to be able to accurately portray this complex phenomenon. But then again, no RPG mechanic is ever able to accurately portray any human condition or act of physics, period. You point to the SAN mechanic and stay it's stupid and unrealistic; I point to D&D hit points and say they are stupid and unrealistic. You say hit points are an abstract and imperfect approximation of physical combat fatigue and the slow accumulation of injuries leading up to a character finally being incapacitated or dead; I point to the SAN mechanic and say it's an abstract and imperfect approximation of mental horror fatigue and the slow accumulation of post-traumatic stresses leading up to a character finally being incapacitated or insane.

    But because hit points have to do with "physical injury" and a SAN mechanic has to do with "mental injury", one is perfectly fine but the other is some god-awful anathema to the true path of role-playing?

    And I still maintain that there is nothing wrong with an "Eeek, I shit my pants!" mechanic, either. I mean, even D&D has such a thing; it's called the surprise roll. Not too hard to simply tack on an addendum that says if you're surprised by something particularly awful or unexpected that your chances of being "surprised" go up, since mechanically it'd be much the same thing (shocked and stunned into inaction for a combat round).

  5. I realize it's not very Old School, and certainly not very metal, but Robin Laws' Trail of Cthulhu (Pelgrane Press) and, more generally, I think, his Gumshoe System (of which ToC is an instance), makes the distinction between Sanity and Stability and separates them into two linked but separate traits.

    Stability is, basically, your ability to keep functioning more or less as normal, at a tactical level. It is the "keep your shit together" or possibly the "don't shit your pants" mechanic. Jack Bauer has a reasonably high Stability.

    Sanity, on the other hand, is, in a Cthulhoid world, the measure of how successful you are in perpetuating the self-delusion that you live in an intelligible and orderly universe. The fundamental thing that makes a Cthulhoid universe a Cthulhoid is that this belief is a delusion, and that Horrible Truths Once Learned Can Never Be Unlearned. Bauer's Sanity is 0. This is a mechanic also used for your stock Evil Necromancer--keeps his shit together just fine, has a day job as a high-priced lawyer, and after hours is up to his shoulders in goat blood and prostitute entrails. And probably works pretty well in any sort of investigative game.

    Indeed, now that I'm pontificating: in this mechanic, Stability more or less measures the rationality of your responses to stimuli based on your premises. Sanity measures the alignment of those premises to societal norms. Note that neither one measures "is this really happening?" which seems to be at the heart of your belief that if you're telling it the way it is, you're not crazy. Which is generally not a supportable stance in the sorts of genres in which this kind of mechanic would be useful.

    The downside, though, is that although I've read these rules and liked 'em, I've never actually tried to play with them.


  6. @ Adam: I've been interested in ToC for a while now; this just fuels this interest. I think a stability / sanity breakdown is a sensible one.

  7. Re: "My reading of Lovecraft, at least the major stories which stick in my memory right now, is that insanity doesn't happen often - these supposedly crazy people are telling the way it is."

    Claiming that CoC's SAN mechanic requires every PC to go insane eventually makes as much sense as claiming that hit points requires every PC to die eventually. Both are scores that help measure the 'damage' that a PC has experienced (mental or physical), and facilitate role-playing (IMO & IME).

    IME the SAN score greatly enriches the CoC experience. It helps players understand that their characters actually have been psychologically damaged by their exposure to the Elder horrors. In any case, IME, CoC PCs are far more likely to die than they are to go insane.

  8. I use the Moldvay/LL 'one try only' rule. It makes elven door-finding and dwarvish sliding wall detection more useful. And since the rule is one try per person, it encourages bringing more people on the mission.

    And swords, wands and artifacts that detect secret doors are more valuable if you can't easily find them.

    Also, I like the game to have some roads that are just as real as the one trod by the PCs, but for some reason or another they can never go down them.

  9. I have been part of a game, the game itself was so-so, but it was a CoC game without san, but with which you had to RP all the things you noticed about the supernatural.

    For instance, one type of monster looked like normal people (even people you know, illusion), save they always had a thin amount of red slime under their right index finger nail. So since these monsters were after them (as they knew the secret), PC's now checked under the index nail of the right hand of people they met.

    Another creature they ran into was a form of shadow that would hide under drinking glasses of water, and use that to infect the character and take them over unless they threw salt under each glass before they took a drink.

    The list goes on.

    So by the end of 3 game sessions the players are grabbing everyone they meets hand and staring intently under one specific nail, throwing salt under glasses of them and everyone they meet in restraunts (incase its possession attempt to get them).

    In short, to an outsider they look completely nuts. They have rational reasons for their behaviour, in that they think magic monsters will get them if they don't. But that just makes them insane to outsiders who are unable to function in society.

    Hence each time they ran into a new monster they lost more touch with the "real" world and lost sanity.

  10. Badelaire:

    Can't argue with anything you said as it pertains to reality.

    However, we're not talking reality or realism, but verisimilitude and what is appropriate for player characters of a role-playing game.

    I still see sanity/fright mechanics the same way I see loyalty/morale mechanics for D&D: Appropriate for NPCs and a good way for the referee to be more impartial, but not at all useful for PCs.

  11. Jim,

    Have you ever read Unknown Armies. I think you might like its sanity mechanics. It divides experiences into five types each with 10 levels (I think). Your character is at a given level and items of your level or lower level do not effect you. Items above your level or higher require a save to not freeze for a given time. Success lets you act but raises your level to, if memory serves, that level.

    That seems to perfectly simulate the experienced cop vs. green accountant effect you're describing. There was some penalty to higher levels in terms of interpersonal mechanics and, I believe, magical access of some types, which also carries some verisimilitude...the ability of a coroner to each during an autopsy while everyone gags a TV trope.