Monday, October 19, 2015

Five or So Questions with Jason Pitre on Sig!

Today I have an interview with Jason Pitre about Sig, his new expansion for his previously released game, Spark. It's currently on Kickstarter!

Tell me about Sig. What excites you about it?

What is Sig? That questions has a lot more to it than you might think.

On the surface, Sig is an expansion for my previous game, the Spark RPG. It presents a vast new multiplanar fantasy setting to explore. It offers with mechanical refinements and new tools for storytelling. It's even designed to encourage collaborative world building during play, as characters explore the infinite multiverse.

That's not what the setting is really about though.

Sig is the platonic ideal of a city. Cities are actually rather strange places, when you think about them. Thousands of living, breathing souls crammed together in a small patch of land. Every city has some residents whose roots run deep, with generations upon generations residing in the same neighbourhoods. Other residents are newcomers, from near or from distant lands. Cities thrive based on the industriousness of their inhabitants, creating wonders of art, craft and ideas that spread on an international scale. Cities are hungry places, devouring obscene amounts of resources from the surrounding countryside. They are places where religions clash, where ethnic groups mix, and where languages change.

Sig is a lens through which I was able to delve deeply into what a city really means. It gave me a chance to explore how a cosmopolitan city functions and how the vast diversity of the world interacts. It's a place to focus on those cast out by society, and those laden with privilege. It speaks of how immigration, community-building and gentrification will change the nature of neighbourhoods. Issues of class, of race, of sexuality and of gender identify are all part of the constant dialogue of the City Between.

This sounds fascinating! Can you tell me a little about the mechanical side of Sig? How does Sig tie into Spark, functionally?

So, in order to talk about the mechanics of Sig, I need to give a bit of a primer for the original core system of Spark. Spark was first, big project that I kickstarted back in 2013. It was a game about building worlds and challenging your beliefs within them. The two pillars of the game are those two key activities.

In Spark, you build worlds together. Each person names one of their favourite pieces of media; a book, game, comic, song or the like. Each person then identifies one thing about that media that really inspires them; perhaps the cosmopolitan markets of Babylon 5 or the sass of Rat Queens. As a group, you mix some of those inspirations to create facts about the world you are creating, until you have a solid framework. Those then get fleshed out by discussing the fundamental Beliefs of the setting; things like "Might makes right", "The Emissaries are traitors" or "Love is stronger than anger". These Beliefs inspire the various organizations that make up the world, and drive play. It's a fun mini-game to build exciting settings that contain a little bit of everyone's personal contributions. I even expanded that into a free product titled "A Spark in Fate Core", which adapted that to Fate.

The rest of the game is about challenging, or confronting, your Beliefs. Like the setting itself, each character has three Beliefs. Over the course of a number of scenes, the player collaboratively establish scenes, collaborate to roleplay freely, and enter conflicts when people disagree on what should happen next. Each of these situations gives the characters the opportunities to discover evidence that refutes or supports their Beliefs, which provides a currency known as Influence. Players spend Influence to win conflicts they would otherwise lose, to avoid paying the price of victory for conflicts that they do indeed win, and to change the Beliefs of other characters.

Sig runs off the same basic foundation, but adapts it somewhat. While the Spark RPG presents four character attributes (Body, Heart, Mind & Spark), Sig reduces them to two (Spark & Smoke). Sig cares less about how conflicts are won, and more about why they are engaged in. That's why in Sig, there is explicit discussion of Heritage (ethnicity/species), of urban Factions (guilds) and of the Powers (gods) they serve. These social ties also give the characters more ability to call upon external support through political leverage and divine rituals. The most important NPCs are also expressions of those social ties, sharing heritage, factional loyalty and religious convictions with the PCs.

Can you give examples of stories we could tell with Sig?

The stories of Sig tend to be strangely personal and emotionally gripping dramas with a vast, bizarre multiverse in a backdrop.

One of my friends played a gender-fluid ghost sex-worker who appears to people as lost loved ones and was paid in memories. They aspired to become the god of Lost Children.
Another player was a half-giantess whose conflicted relationship with her massive mother and her frail father drove her.
A third was a bestial, massive man who taught the orphans of Sig, telling himself in the dark of night that his mother hadn't abandoned him.

Now, there may have been homocidal godlings, raging kaiju, or dragon armies involved in some of those games, but the personal stories are what stay with me.

As someone creating an expansion for an original game, what suggestions do you have for other creators, based on your experience?

Expanding on existing games is tough, both for creative and logistical reasons.

First thing to keep track of is the fact that supplements only sell a fraction of what corebooks do. Even in the good old days of the TSR boxed sets, those expansions and settings barely paid for themselves. If you want to build an expansion, you have to be absolutely sure that the product is compelling.

You need to make sure that your expansion aligns with and supports your core game, keeping the content close enough to be familiar. Paradoxically, the expansion also needs to push boundaries, offering new mechanical systems and fictional ideals to work with. It needs to broaden the scope of play, or examine one specific facet of the core book in detail.

Expansions are difficult things to create, but a successful one can breathe new life into a game.

Thanks to Jason for the interview! Make sure to check out Sig on Kickstarter!

This post was supported by the community on

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Five or So Questions with Mike Evans on Hubris

Today I have an interview with Mike Evans on his setting Hubris: A World of Visceral Adventure, currently on Kickstarter!

Tell me a little about Hubris. What excites you about it?

Hubris is a weird, horror fantasy setting that utilizes the Dungeon Crawl Classic rules.  It's a setting of horrific monsters, strange abandoned ruins, and terrifying gods that care little about the world.  Players can be any of the classes from DCC, or they can dive into new races and classes in Hubris such as the mutant, murder machine, shadow dancer, alchemist, or blood witch (to name a few).  I was inspired by horror movies such as The Thing, Tetzo Iron Man, Evil Dead, Pumpkinhead.  RPGs that inspired me are Vornheim, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Cthulhu, Iron Kingdoms, and more.  While writing the setting I had a constant flow of TOOL, A Perfect Circle, Slayer, Type o' Negative, Cannibal Corpse, Anthrax, and White Zombie blasting on my stereo. 

Hubris excites me because I wrote the setting how I would like a setting book to be: usable at the game table.  It's got horror, weirdness, and fantasy.  The territories I've created have just enough fluff to give good flavor, but by and large they are a d100 random encounter chart and a d100 interesting locations chart.  Each territory then has 5 or so locations I've created (with a paragraph of description) and 3-5 plot hooks/rumors.  If you don't like DCC or don't want to use that ruleset, you don't have to.  The territories are largely system neutral and can be used with any mechanics.  I'm also excited because the people who are helping bring Hubris to print.  Alex Mayo is doing the layout, while David Lewis Johnson, Jez Gordon, Jason Sholtis, Jeremy Duncan, Doug Kovacs and Angie Groves (my wife) are doing art.  It's been great to connect and work with them. 

What did you do to help guide your design process - structured templates, blog posting, etc.? 
The biggest hurdle I had to overcome was HOW I wanted to do the territories as far as formatting goes.  I played with several permutations, but I wasn't happy with nothing.  I ended up getting frustrated and put down the territories for about 2 months and went to work on the gods, patrons, spells, etc.  Finally one day I was on a OSR blog and they were doing a list of random encounters that had location and encounters in one table... and it just felt right to separate them and create a d100 of each.  Once that was done, boom- I was off writing again. 

As far as other things- I kept an open mind to constructive criticism and valued the opinion of my peers, friends, and especially my wife.  She was a good grounding... and she's not a role-player so she offered a great perspective on things. 

I put quite a bit of stuff up on my blog ( for others to use and offer feedback and thoughts, and the more I did the larger the Hubris following became.  The interesting thing is I originally didn't intend to publish Hubris, but peeps seemed to dig it and I said fuck it. 

As far as structured templates I used those quite a bit (and tried to emulate the formatting of DCC) for the patrons, spells, etc.

What would you say is one of the most unsettling thing you worked on in the book?

Easily the most unsettling thing I worked on was the Charred Maiden (  The patron was inspired by the burnt lady in American Horror Story the first season, Countess Barthory, nightmares, etc.  I wanted the character description to be "real" so I researched what burn victims look like and read reports on how the body reacts to high temperatures, etc... Tried to capture that a bit in her writing, but I didn't want to go too far.

Can you tell me a little about The Black Queen? She sounds awesome.
I love pictures.  When I started developing ideas for Hubris I was just typing up random crazy words in Google that I had in my head and looking for art to inspire me.  One piece I found was of the evil queen from Snow White ( and it just HIT me that I wanted something like her in my game.  I wanted a strong character that could be a horrific ally or a formidable foe.  I also thought it would be cool to link her to a game mechanic (patron bond to the Floating Island of Terror-  Players can share that bond and that could create interesting situations. 

The queen consumes nightmares, rules through fear, and is responsible for flintlock weaponry being distributed through Hubris. 

Here's a small piece about her" The Black Queen, a powerful sorcereress, sits high on her throne of bones and steam in her floating metal city, satiating her hunger on the nightmares of her subjects.  The Black Queen governs and commands all who enter here; with the help of The Black Guard of Abhorrent Action, a group of devote followers of the Black Queen, it isn’t difficult.

As a designer, you get a different perspective on how games function (from my experience) - what is the best takeaway from a design perspective that you would like to see in a player's toolkit?

I'd have to say that this is a two-fold desire.  One- I hope people use the book at the table.  It's packed full of charts and tables to be used on the fly, and each territory (there are 10 of them) have two d100 tables.  I want the players to say, "fuck it!  We want to go into the Land of Perpetual Stone and Mire and explore!" and the GM can do a few simple die rolls and have a couple locations and encounters ready to spring.  If they want to go deeper they can flip to the charts and use the die drop table to create a horrible ruin or the table to create the alter of an ancient and forgotten demigod... 
The second is that it has been my experience that many authors fall in love with their own campaign settings, as they should as it's their work... however it shouldn't be treated as gospel.  When I read some (not all) settings I get this sense of THIS IS HOW IT SHOULD BE PLAYED!  DO NOT DEVIATE!  And I say fuck it!  DIY!  Hubris is a toolkit; hack it, chop it, mutilate it and use what the hell you want.  The map does not have a scale...  I want the GM to decide the size of Hubris.  Is it a REALLY dense island?  Is it the size of Texas?  Africa?  Larger?  Whatever- I don't need to put something in there to sway your mind.  I'm putting three versions of the map in the book.  A map with no labels, one with labels, and one with a hexgrid overlay.  Some GMs like hexcrawls and others don't.  I want people to play Hubris (or mine from it) what they want. 
If someone uses just ONE idea from Hubris, then I'm happy. 

Thanks Mike for the great interview! Make sure to check out Hubris: A World of Visceral Adventure on Kickstarter!

This post was supported by the community on

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Five Or So Questions MORE with Brendan Conway on Masks!

Today I have an interview with Brendan Conway on his game Masks, currently on Kickstarter and smashing through stretch goals! Full disclosure, I am writing for one of the stretch goals if it gets hit (and it might by the time this is posted!). I interviewed Brendan about Masks last July, and he had a lot to say about it - and he has plenty to say today! Settle in, because one thing Brendan is definitely good at is words - and as we'll see soon, superheroic teen tragedy.

What's new with Masks since we talked about it last year? What's the most exciting thing?
Masks has been changed, revised, edited, modified, and changed again. The core pieces are the same---shifting Labels, young superheroes, influence---but the specifics and the exact forms have changed heavily. The list of labels is down to five, and the basic moves have been refined and strengthened through lots of playtesting. Some mechanics didn't make the cut, and I added other new mechanics. I'm proud of how the game does an even better job of hitting the sweet spot that I wanted, but with much tighter pieces and parts. A lot of the unnecessary kruft was scraped off through experimentation and play. As an example, when I read the old interview we did and I see what I typed about Influence, I cringe. Influence is much simpler now---it's a binary thing now, where either you hold Influence over someone, or you don't. If someone holds Influence over you, it means that you care about what they say and think. It has some mechanical effects, and it's a signal to everybody involved that you care about their words---which matters a great deal when we're looking at the fiction and figuring out if their words could change your labels, or could provoke you into doing something not-so-good.

But the change I'm most excited about is actually the solidification of a setting. Early on, I was extremely hesitant to actually push for a defined setting---I like Metropolis, I like Gotham, I like Marvel's New York, and I wanted to let players make their own decision about which one to play in, instead of forcing them into one or the other. But Marissa Kelly and Mark Diaz Truman really pushed me on that point, and ultimately they were right. Not having any kind of definition to the setting made it harder for folks to dive on in, to have a strong starting point and focus on what the game's really about.

So now, Masks is set in Halcyon City. It's a big city, like New York, with plenty of superheroes and supervillains. It's been the epicenter of the super-powered world for a while now. And most importantly, Halcyon City has seen three relatively well-defined generations of superheroes before now:
- The Golden Generation, the first full generation of superheroes to publically exist, lower-powered, fought in the war, largely black and white morality, many rough spots and dark parts that weren't openly talked about at the time, but undeniably influential on everything that came after, with their statues littering the city. Many of them are dead or retired, now, but their influence still fills the city.
- The Silver Generation, much more powerful than the Golds, the first real cosmic superheroes, and the first superheroes to be much more devoted to fighting supervillains and strange monsters than crime or enemy combatants. They still carried on the black and white morality of the Golds, though. The Silvers are still largely around, and in positions of power and authority throughout Halcyon. When you see someone rocketing through the air to the scene of a giant monster attack, it's probably a Silver.
- The Bronze Generation, children of the Silvers. They never quite got a foothold in the superhero community at large, because the Silvers were so prominent, taking up too much space at the top. The Bronzes filled in spaces where they could find them, becoming extradimensional explorers, street-level vigilantes, and government agents.They were the first cynical generation of supers, the first generation to really question the entire concept of superheroes and the morality of their parents.

When you meet any given adult in Masks, they're going to be a part of one of the three generations. Different generations will act differently, hold different values and believes, make different moves. All of which is especially important to the PCs because they're the next generation---the fourth generation of supers. Not yet defined, but with three prior generations bearing down on them, trying to tell them who to be and what to do.

Exact details of Halcyon City are left up to your group to decide, sure---I'm not interested in telling you where, exactly, city hall is located. But this setting has been plenty to give Masks a real flavor all its own, and to get everyone into the action much more quickly and easily. Plus, it means I get to doodle in my notebooks about supers from the different generations, which is really my ulterior motive.

Let's talk a little about Labels. How do they work now?

There are five labels in the game---Danger, Freak, Mundane, Savior, and Superior. Each one can range from -2 to +3. The higher it is, the more it means that you see yourself in that light, and the more it will help you on its connected moves. For example, when you see yourself as a Danger (with a rating of +2), you're going to be generally better at directly engaging threats than somebody who doesn't see their self as dangerous at all.

Every label is still meant to be double-edged. Freak, for instance, is both about being unique, special, and powerful, and about being strange, weird, and abnormal. Savior is about being noble, protective, and defensive, and about being overly demanding, overprotective, stupidly noble.

That's important because your labels shift when people with Influence over you tell you about the world or yourself. Someone saying that what you can do is amazing and incredible might actually raise your Freak, just as much as someone saying that you're a bizarre mutant might raise your Freak.

Can you talk about a few examples of the major generational heroes?
Sure! I'll have a few examples in the book, and we're going to have a Deck of Villainy with a whole bunch of sample villains for use during play, but I also expect players to make up a bunch on the fly at their tables. Here are some examples of what I'm envisioning, though:

- Torpedo, the Explosive Man! A Golden generation hero with the ability to hurtle through the air at high speeds and slam into his targets with explosive force. Not very nuanced in his abilities, but he didn't have to be in his time---he just pointed himself at "the bad guys," and fired himself. One of the strange side effects of his power turned to be longevity---he wasn't affected by the high speeds and explosions of his power because of some constancy in his body, and that makes him resistant to aging. So he's actually still around and active to some extent, even though at this point, he really is not well-suited to the world around him.

- Starbright, a Silver generation heroine with cosmic powers from the stars themselves! She did some amazing things in her time, from fending off alien invasions to defeating giant monsters. She's still active today, one of the leading heroes of the city and a major member of the Exemplars, one of Halcyon City's oldest and leading superhero teams. She has strong feelings about what makes a hero, though, and has plenty of doubts about the kids she sees getting powers today.

- Mr. Everywhere, a Bronze generation "hero" (kinda). He's got multiplication powers, so he can make copies of himself, and they're all connected as part of a single mind. He turned that power, though, to secret agency activities. He singlehandedly can man an entire spy agency, and with copies of him undercover, he can learn information instantaneously. He's risen to the top of an important organization in the metahuman world, FLAG, and while he's still ultimately trying to act for the good, he's most likely to interfere subtly, or by manipulating more direct players. They call him Mr. Everywhere because at this point, some think his copies are everywhere, spread out in every major city in the world.

- Perfection, a young Modern heroine who might be a bit too effective for her own good. Perfection, in her superhero guise, looks like an all gold metallic figure with no real identifying features. Her eyes burn blue, and her body is completely smooth. She's tough and strong, capable of flight and even some forms of energy absorption, and she's good at being a hero. Good enough to earn a lot of praise quickly. That means it's gone to her head, though, and she hasn't yet found her limits; it's only a matter of time before she pushes herself too far, or butts heads with other young heroes.

And here are some villains:

- The Scarlet Songbird, a Golden generation roguish rascal of a villain. He was always all about theft, not about hurting anybody. He wore red and yellow, and carried his magic guitar. He'd play notes that could break walls, or put people to sleep, and he's always have a catchy line or a wink for a pretty bystander. He was young for his generation, and he never went totally out of the action, but he was also never that big in the city. He tried retirement, but he got bored. So now he's back out there with his guitar, trying one last time to earn a real reputation, even while he's aged and out of date.

- Dr. Infinity, a Silver generation villain, considered such only because that's when she first appeared in historical records. Dr. Infinity is an incredibly powerful time-traveling android, and she travels to dangerous time periods, hoping to cauterize what she calls "time-wounds." She rarely spends the time to explain, considering those around her to be of lower intelligence, and she seems to keep returning to Halcyon City in these time periods---something in this time must make it particularly unstable in her eyes.

- The Spider, a Bronze generation villain. He exists, but he's mostly rumors. Few have ever seen him. He's known as the Spider for sitting at the center of a massive web of criminal enterprise that spans throughout Halcyon City. He's one of the greatest crimelords Halcyon has ever seen, and no one even has his face on file---or if they do, they're not sharing. Tangling with the Spider is bad news. He doesn't fight like the other villains. He comes at you from an angle, where he can hurt you most.

- Cygnus, a Modern generation villain. She's concerned, first and foremost, with her image and her fame. She has an agent, someone who suggested to her that the name Cygnus would be a good brand to take on. She's gone through a phase of trying to be a hero, and now she's dipping into villainy, to see if it drives more attention her way.

How do you handle super-powered conflicts with villains and even between players?
The game is structured, like most Powered by the Apocalypse games, to work like a conversation, and conflicts are no different. Most of the moves that work when you're yelling at your teammates, or chilling at headquarters, will still work when you're in a fight. You can build up your teammate in the middle of a battle, just as you can when it's you and them alone with some pizza. You can defend a teammate from a terrible robot, just as you can when someone insults them.

The one move that is distinctly aimed at superheroic action conflicts is "directly engage". That lets you pummel threats, and gives them a shot back at you. Hitting and being hit most often manifests in dealing or marking conditions. There are five conditions in the game: Angry, Afraid, Guilty, Hopeless, and Insecure. Villains my have anywhere from one to all five of those conditions, depending upon how much of a threat they are. For PCs, marking a condition means that you're going to be at a disadvantage on certain moves. You can clear it by taking some action tied to the condition, like fleeing from something difficult to clear Afraid. For NPCs, when they mark a condition they make a move from a list of possible options. That means NPCs are never static, and inflicting "damage" on an NPC will always lead to some new thing happening in the fiction.

Villains definitely go out of the fight when they've marked all their conditions and need to mark another, but they can always give up before then---it's down to the GM to play the villains according to their drive, and to decide if it makes sense that they would give up. PCs go out of a fight when they've marked all their conditions and need to mark another, as well, but they might go out earlier as a result of the "take a powerful blow" move.

The one other move I'll flag for conflicts---the one that comes closest to saying "We're entering a battle now!"---is the team move. When your team enters battle together, the leader of your team rolls with some modifiers depending upon the situation. The move generates points of team for your team pool. PCs can use the team pool to help each other out during the fight, or to act selfishly and help themselves out. The key to this move, though, is that it signals, "Stuff is about to get serious!" It also means that the team has to tell you who their leader is, and that's always a great source of tension and interest.

What has been your favorite playtest moment?
Oh dear. A LOT to choose from. I'm going to give a couple, because I can't bring myself to choose just one. :)

- The team had found out that an evil giant warhammer was corrupting whoever was holding it, turning them into an enormous, brutish monster. They were desperate to take care of the situation by throwing the warhammer into a cement truck and solidifying the cement. One of their number, the Janus---a vigilante type---tried to do it, but rolled a miss, and it didn't look good. The hammer might have taken him over, driven him to attack his teammates even. Except then, every single teammate spent a team out of the pool to help, and altogether it turned the miss into a hit. The scene became one where the entire team, all together, lifted up the hammer and threw it into the concrete truck, and I could see it all on the comic book panel. It was perfect.

- In a different playtest, we were in the section where we were filling in what happened when the team first came together. It's one of the things you do during character creation, figuring out what the "Avengers moment" of the team was. And this group ultimately came up with a situation in which Dr. Noah---a villain they invented---had attacked a school with his Ark of Doom, a giant floating skyship. And he used his robotic Menagerie, a series of animal robots. Of course, they were in pairs. It was just...amazing. Creative, fun, delightful, and perfectly in keeping with the setting---not least because they talked a bit about how Dr. Noah was actually kind of washed-up, never taken seriously, and still desperately trying to get attention.

- In a third playtest, we had an epic confrontation with another kid, a bullied teen who had pulled out a summoning book and was about to bring a nightmarish creature into our reality. He thought it would help things, had convinced himself that this was the path to real heroism. They had to stop the summoning, and tried to do it by talking the teen down. It led to some great dramatic tension, yelling, and kind words, though ultimately he ran away in anger. In the process, they had to call upon the leading sorceress hero of Halcyon City, who did help them to stop the summoning...but afterward, she kidnapped one of the PCs who she deemed a danger, unable to control her powers. It was the perfect cliffhanger, leading into next issue. Loved it.

- Finally, it's tough to condense my ongoing over-a-year-long playtest into any one specific awesome moment, but one of my favorites had to be when the team got into one giant action scene with each of them in a different part, not quite intersecting, but not separate. One of them had agreed to help her ne'er-do-well thief friends to steal something from a building, and in the midst of the heist, a strange blue armored time traveler appeared and attacked her to erase her from existence---she was the Nova, and apparently a threat to time itself. Meanwhile, the Outsider, another time traveler from the far future, was investigating because the thieves were trying to steal a probe from the Outsider's own future. The Outsider was determined to stop it from happening. And then the Protege became involved when things got worse, ultimately engaging the blue-armored time traveler in battle and being thrown into a different future, where the world was destroyed. All the while, the Legacy was trying to free a family member from the Outsider's ship, which was trying to dissect her to send biological samples back to the future. It was complicated, a mess, full of drama, and wonderful.

Sorry...I could keep going! Every playtest has had a couple of these moments, and the wonderful characters I've seen players come up with have always been awesome to watch.

Thanks Brendan! Make sure to check out Masks on Kickstarter right now!

This post was supported by the community on

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Insanity in Horror and Lovecraftian RPGs

A friend who I don't know if they want to be tagged was discussing mental illness and insanity mechanics in RPGs with Lovecraftian themes on G+, and I wanted to share my original response, and kind of give some more thoughts.

I honestly think that part of the experience of trauma and disconnection with reality that is represented by insanity mechanics in games is a combination of personal suffering brought on by the exposure to a greater existence and comprehension skewed by denial.

I don't know if any of you have experienced real life paranoia or psychotic experiences. It is, from personal experience, completely terrifying. When it happened to me, I had to cope with the things that I knew for sure were not real only because of how unreal they were, and then the things that I could not tell if they were real because how very real they could be. I imagine that the true horror of Lovecraftian exposure would be that the things that definitely could not be real are actually definitely real, and knowing that, and feeling as though you cannot trust your own mind to tell the difference between what you see as "normal" or even "unusual" is now corrupted by the extreme and phantasmagoric. When the unreality is the new reality, what then is truly real?

For me, the experience of paranoia and psychosis may definitely have been unique to me, so I don't mean to speak for everyone.

It was the oddest thing. I have some idea of what triggered the paranoia to seep in, but it's not entirely clear. What I do know is that I woke up after a series of nightmares and found that the mere idea of walking outside the house was nearly impossible to grasp. I knew, I just knew that if I walked outside and, I knew would happen, someone would see me, and they would burst into flames. It's completely irrational. It defies all logic and is impossible. But I knew it. It was true, and I was so frightened. It was even deeper than that, in that I knew people could hear what I was thinking. I could see in their minds what they thought of me, and how vile a creature I was. When I looked in the mirror I did not look like what I previously had thought I looked like, and until the episode ended, I couldn't tell what was real and what I just knew.

The hallucinations I experienced were sometimes silly and simple. My cats talked to me and told me about games they wanted to design and screenplays they wanted to write. Others were not as good, like the movement out of the corner of my eye that became a car crashing into the side of my vehicle while I was driving. Others, they were unbelievable and I denied them, because they were things I knew couldn't be real, but god, they felt real.

When I played Black Stars Rise, one of the breaks that was given to me was a card with a man of shadows who followed me. I laughed when I got it, because I knew that man. For literally my entire life, I have had experiences that lasted long periods of time when the shadow man followed me. He never hurt me, he never did anything to me, but he was there. Watching. It was something that was so startlingly real that I could perfectly imagine it in-game, and it made me think a lot about how we translate real-life phenomena into games.

It can or may be very easy for someone with good mental health or less extreme mental health issues to portray mental illness in a character and portray something like mental illness in a character. For me, when I am having a bad time of it, even something like receiving the paranoia or hallucinations cards in Eldrich Horror makes me anxious, and watching other players portray characters who are "insane" or "mad" can be very difficult.

Working to comprehend the differences between natural chemical imbalances, trauma-induced chemical imbalances, and otherworldly trauma mental impacts is something that I think needs to be worked on. Some games have approached it (one in particular, Lovecraftesque, I consulted on), and others have chosen to avoid it altogether, and I'm not condemning any specific game or way of handling it.

However, we really do need to understand that part of what is experienced in Lovecraftian RPGs is trauma. It is not simply the otherworldly experience, or the defiance of reality. While I agree with myself in my original statement up near the top, I honestly don't think that encompasses the entire experience. Traumatic events in RPGs are often either dismissed or responded to with extremes, like flashbacks or violent outbursts. While those things can be response to trauma, they are not the only response to trauma. Sometimes it results in having triggers, where certain things cause an emotional response - anything from anxiety, to a panic attack, to a physiological response, to rage, to violence. I personally discourage people from playing characters who respond to trauma with extreme responses unless they are willing to play it respectfully. I don't like to see players doing the comedy crazy. If you play a mentally ill character, it should not be for laughs, because those are _real people_ you are mocking. And that is my only real problem with insanity mechanics: they separate us from understanding the differences between the impacts of otherworldly exposure.

Here are the three ways of portraying characters in horror or Lovecraftian RPGs with complicated mental and/or emotional states that I think make sense:

Characters who start out as having a mental illness or mental difference: these are characters who have depression or bipolar disorder or obsessive compulsive disorder or even autism. Their behavior may seem abnormal to other characters and that's okay, if you're playing it with respect it can add a lot to the story, because, like in my case, how would I know whether what I was seeing is a hallucination or a delusion or if it was actually real? Is the obsession with researching and cataloging unnatural events really influence by an unnatural power, or is it a natural compulsion? These are things you can explore, but I definitely advise doing at least a little bit of research before you do it, or taking the time to think about how you would feel if someone had these issues was there.

Characters who have experienced trauma and as a result have mental or emotional response: these are characters who, whether in the course of game or as part of their background have had a traumatic experience either directly related or indirectly related to the horrific subjects at hand. This is a point that is extremely delicate. Post-traumatic stress can be represented in so many different ways, and there are a few important things to think about. One, you need to make sure that it ties together. The behavior is not necessarily logical, but you don't want someone who was kidnapped by a cult to have panic attacks because they are in open spaces, unless you have more detailed justification. There are certain words or experiences that might trigger someone's issues with PTSD or trauma, like with victims of sexual assault, but that trauma can present in multiple ways: shutting down and not responding, panicking, emotional response (crying or distress), or in some cases, yes, violence. The final response is not nearly as common as we see represented. Trauma responses are something that definitely have their place in horror and Lovecraftian games, but they should be handled with care. You never know who shares the table, and who you might hurt. 

Finally, characters who experience otherworldly trauma: these characters, in my opinion, are somewhat different than the previous category because they have a different type of experience that actually may be stacked on top of typical trauma. The otherworldly trauma is kind of like a combination of the previous two, where you experience something so unreal, so disconnected from your reality, that you now question your very existence, and it consumes you. This is the kind of thing where a character might see into the void, and when they return, they are no longer the same. Maybe their behavior will be unusual, or they respond irrationally to normal stimuli, but they are not "crazy" nor have they experienced what we normally would explain as "trauma", because it's not a natural trauma. It is something that they may not be able to explain or even understand themselves. This also needs to be treated carefully because it can infringe upon both of the other types of character behavior and representation. Be mindful of what natural responses to trauma and mental illness people have, and try to show yours as different. Perhaps they do have hallucinations, but because they have seen the reality of the void, they don't react as though they are troubled by them because they are confused and it is unnatural, but instead they have a reaction of discontent and frustration - less "Is this real? What do I do?" and more "Why do you plague me? I wish you weren't real."

This is not a perfect way to do it, I know. I think it's just one of the ways to look at the situation and a way that people can think in more detail about the themes we work with in horror and especially things like Lovecraftian fiction in games. If you choose to play a character who has been scarred by their experiences, think very carefully about how you're doing it, why you're doing it, and how best you can represent it without making other people feel like you're treating them like a joke or like something to be feared. Even the mad have feelings, and darkness only gets darker when you lose trust in those around you.

This post was supported by the community on