Episode 113: Out on the Sharp and Bitey End

This month, Mike and Roger contemplate madness in gaming, and attempt to don a veil of ignorance.

We mentioned:

Hostile at the Bundle of Holding (until 4 May), the official Alien RPG, Colonial Marines Technical Manual, the Fanny Adams case, the M’Naghten rule, the X-Card, Sexual Homicide: Patterns and Motives (not mentioned out loud but a key part of research into realistic serial killers), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, that parody tract, the veil of ignorance, FATE, Microscope, Blue Rose, Gini coefficient, Hillfolk/Dramasystem, Fiasco, My Life With Master, Transhuman Space, and En Garde!.

Here’s our tip jar. (Please email or leave a comment as well; they don’t always tell me when money’s gone in.)

Music by Kevin MacLeod at incompetech.com.


Being as I am one of the people with whom you have gamed who is mad, I have more reactions to your item than I care to express, or even for that matter to sort out. So I will confine my remarks to two comments.

First: the representation of madness in RPGs and other stories that I find most unsatisfactory and irritating is when it is used as a cheap excuse for not making sense, the cackling madman and omnicidal maniac. Placed as the motivation of the antagonist it results in a plot not making sense, and disempowers the character-players from affecting their characters’ situation. In fixed-plot stories it is disappointing; in RPG improvisation it robs the character-players of agency.

Second. Just as mental illness is quite a different thing from legal insanity, it is also a different thing from irrational belief and destructive behaviour. The normal human mind isn’t anything like as rational as philosophers would have you believe. Illusions, cognitive biases, rationalisation, steadfastness in belief contrary to evidence, irrational economic behaviour (sunk cost fallacy etc.), spite, rage, cruelty, malice, homicidal tantrums, and even to a degree confabulation are common features of psychologically normal people. The most terrible criminals of history were in fact neither insane nor mentally ill (though their doctors injecting them daily with methamphetamine and testosterone can’t have helped things). They were psychologically normal gangsters and thugs whose early successes led them to paint themselves into truly terrible corners. I reckon that it is more interesting an effective in a story or RPG to research and employ normal human failings than to focus attention on the comparatively rare and ineffectual flailings of the mentally ill.

À propos, here is an interview that I found interesting, with a psychologist specialising in the study of serial killers.


My life with Master looks fun :slight_smile:

Wow, En Garde! That brings me back. Have just added the book to my wishlist for nostalgia purposes.

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Thanks! That was one of the things I was trying, and quite possibly failing, to get at: behaving badly doesn’t mean mad, mad doesn’t mean behaving badly, and there are lots of sorts of “behaving badly”, so being bad for yourself need not overlap with being bad for other people.

There are behaviours one can point at and say “that helps nobody, not even the person doing them”, and that person might even agree. (I’ve heard this from someone with a compulsion to go back and check that the door is locked, the cooker is turned off, etc., to the point that it took him an hour to leave the house as he turned back multiple times; he eventually helped himself by making checklists and following them rigorously.) There are chemical states that will stop other stuff from working right. I think “insane” is at least as slippery a term as “addicted”.

But going in a different direction, while “mad” people are scary to “normal” people, their existence is reassuring: he did that, but he was mad, and I’m not mad, so I’m not at risk of doing that. I think that’s the same mental evolution that likes to depict Nazism as a sort of one-off national insanity, and we all know better now so it can’t possibly happen again. (I was arguing against this before it was cool.)

I do sometimes use serial killers in police-focused games – realistic serial killers. They aren’t figures of cool. My villains are much more likely to be people who have a goal in mind – in an ideal adventure, a goal the PCs might even agree with – but whose means involve actions the PCs cannot allow to happen. (I often start this sort of adventure writing with a timeline: if the PCs didn’t get involved, how would the villain’s plan work? Then I work out the things on that timeline that will draw PC attention.)


As the GM of that Aliens game I felt you guys were less fighting the system than fighting the setting. Because the party included several Colonial Marines, some of you wanted to do rigorous and realistic military tactics… and as a result everything ground to a halt and it took about 90 minutes to get to the plot. The game wants the Hollywood version, where you leave the NPCs to do the boring but sensible stuff… and then those NPCs forget to do said sensible stuff (e.g. close the ramp on the dropship) and everything goes amusingly/dramatically pear-shaped.

Mental illness is a part of the Summerland RPG, and the first time I ran it one of my friends (spectator not player) nicknamed the campaign “Care in the Community the roleplaying game”. The game expects you’ll play someone coping with mental trauma, for setting and angst and scenery chewing purposes. What the first campaign actually had was a cartoon version of multiple personalities, a guy with an invisible friend and someone using ‘claustrophobia’ as an excuse to avoid any plots which took place indoors. It’s been a bit more successful in subsequent games.

I never really got on with the going insane part of Call of Cthulhu. It just seemed to be another way to cripple your character and deny player agency, in a game where failing to achieve anything was a fairly common consequence even without the sanity rules.

I’m keen to see how you get on with the Pressure and Breaking Point rules in The Last Fleet (PbtA variant). There is player agency in that there are scenery chewing Moves which can eliminate Pressure, which are not plot driven. Like you go and get blind drunk and start a bar brawl. Plus if and when you reach Breaking Point there is a choice of actions to take. (Though as your take each one, it gets crossed off the list).


I think genre was a big part of the friction, which I’d also describe as “the Hollywood version” but in a slightly different way. When we tried to do normal soldier things, advance in teams with cover, sneak up on a sentry and knife him before he can raise the alarm, it not only didn’t work but I felt a sense of the system being surprised anyone would even try; when we gave in and started to act like emotional idiots, it did work. In other words, it felt to me as though the game wanted us to be that pop-culture version of the US in Vietnam, and while that might be true to the specific story shown in the film, it didn’t feel true to our backgrounds as experienced Marines.

(But this is partly my problem with author-stance vs immersion, and I’m trying to get over it - similarly with The Last Fleet. You in particular have run a bunch of systems I wouldn’t touch with a bargepole with most GMs, and made them fun.)

I played a Summerland one-shot of yours, and it was A Bit Weird, but that is no bad thing…

The topic of insanity and mental health was also recently talked about on a relatively new role-playing podcast, Modern Mythos Episode 11.

I think the approach taken in Trail of Cthulhu is pretty good - there are two stats: Stability, which is a measure of something akin to real-world mental health, which is affected by seeing/experiencing upsetting and horrifying thing; and Sanity, which is a measure of how much your character believes in human consensus reality, as opposed to understanding the Mythos horrors underlying everything in a Lovecraftian reality. I believe Ken Hite has said that “Sanity” is not the best term, but was used in homage to Call of Cthulhu, and no-one has suggested to him a better but still succinct and understandable word yet.

GURPS Pedant Note: I think that Roger confused On the Edge with Daredevil

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As thelibrarian says, one or two recent Cthulhu RPGs have taken a quick and simple stab at the problem you mention with Sanity by dividing Sanity (the fundamental reasonableness of your assumptions) from Stability (your ability to function from day to day without emotional collapse). They tend to assume that only the Cthulhu Mythos can abrade the former, because that’s kind of the point of Mythos games, but it wouldn’t be a great stretch to treat serial killer types as managing to hit zero Sanity (as the game defines it) their own way.

As to definitions of insanity — “Not thinking and behaving like everybody else” might well be too narrow, but one can flip it; ask “If everybody thought and behaved like this person, could we have any kind of functioning society?”

Of course, once upon a time, some people would have said that giving women the vote would render a functional society impossible. But I still think it’s a valid thought experiment. A society made up entirely of mild eccentrics might not function terribly well, but a society made up of serial killers would clearly collapse into a hellscape.


I think that’s a combination of (a) my inexperience with GMing the Aliens system and (b) hit points.

There is a definite ‘this NPC has too many hit points’ thing happening in Aliens - and to be honest, a metric tonne of other games. For instance, stabbing the sentry does 3 points of damage, but the sentry is a rufty, tufty unobtainium miner, so he has 5 hit points. Therefore stabbing him doesn’t kill him, it just causes him to yell “Ouch!” very loudly.

What the system expects the player of the stabber to then do, is mutter “Oh bugger” and opt to Push their roll: reroll all the failed dice to get some extra successes and boost the damage to 5. But they’ll also get a Stress dice. There is no “critical hit does double damage” results in the system. You can’t get an “insta-kill” result unless you reduce them to 0 hit points. And they are out of the fight at 0 even if they are not dead.

I’ve learned via another group not to play Aliens with risk averse players. A group who refuse to lean into re-rolls and accumulating a small mountain of Stress dice are liable to flail and fail on skills, and then stall on the plot.

Meanwhile in your group there was also a side issue that some players were ignoring that it said on their char sheet that Sgt X was their rival, and Mr Y was their bestest friend, and were instead RPing as if Android Z was their rival and Mrs A was their bestest friend. Which resulted in fun scenery chewing RP, but did mean a chunk of personal agenda stuff never made it into the game.

In future I think I am going to steal Brass Jester’s idea and let players pick their own, much more generic, personal agenda from a pre-set list. So it won’t be “This scenario contains your granny - go rescue her”. Instead it will be “Find something valuable to steal” or “Look after PC X”.


I don’t recall any early version of D&D that I saw having random social class determination. En Garde may well have got in first, but the game I’d name here is Chivalry and Sorcery.

The version I met was in the infamous Unearthed Arcana, which isn’t “early” by my usual standards but sitting here nearly 40 years later…

Ah, right. 1985, after I drifted away from AD&D, but still actually first edition. Still, I think that C&S has precedence (and randomised everything).

Regarding sanity in games, I quite liked the Unknown Armies madness meter, where one could tip off of 5 different axes (experiencing violence, the uncanny, sense of self, etc) either becoming overly sensitive or overly hardened to them in ways that cost the PC agency and/or social problems.