Category Archives: Gumshoe System

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Mental Health in Roleplaying Games

Because of my personal and professional experience I know quite a lot about mental health issues. As you may well know I suffer from depression and anxiety disorder myself and since I work in a psychosomatic medicine department , I learned a lot about all kinds of psychological and psychosomatic disorders over the years. What sometimes bothers me, is how roleplaying games use mental health issues.

There are a lot of games which have rules for psychic disorders. The most prominent example is probably Call of Cthulhu. In most of these games your character gets a random disorder when he or she has lost a certain amount of mental health points. Most games don’t even bother to distinguish between different causes. Being confronted by unspeakable horrors from beyond has the same effect as seeing a loved one die or being close to death yourself. In one case my character in a Palladium Fantasy game was on the brink of death and got traumatized by that. What was the result? He suddenly had a phobia against fey creatures – no kidding!

This of course doesn’t make any sense. It might have, if the almost mortal wound had been caused by fey, but it was because of drowning. One other common mistake is that neuroses and psychoses are randomly thrown together – which doesn’t make any sense. Playing out a psychological disorder might be a very interesting and intense roleplaying experience. But in most games it’s handled so badly that it just becomes an excuse to play “crazy”.

I don’t expect total realism. But I would prefer it if game designers took these matters more seriously. Suffering from mental health issues is no laughing matter. And while some roleplayers can have lengthy discussions about how realisticly guns are simulated by roleplaying games, almost noone bats an eye when it comes to unrealistic “insanity” rules.

I have to admit I haven’t had the time yet to do some more research on the matter. I am sure there are a couple of games who treat the subject with respect. I faintly remember that the Trail of Cthulhu rules did a slightly better job when it came to insanity and mental stability than most games. But I have to double-check.

What is your stance on the matter? Are you bothered by the portrayal of mental health issues in RPGs, too, or do you just not mind? Do you know a couple of laudable examples you want to share? Feel free to post your thoughts below!

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Dust and Mirrors: A soundtrack for Night’s Black Agents

NBA-CD-front-coverOver the last years Pelgrane Press have become one of my favorite publishers. Their games are written by my favorite game designers, the artwork and production quality is excellent, and they are one of the few publishers which release soundtracks for their games. For some of you the notion of scoring a roleplaying game may sound weird, but for GMs like me – who love to use music during the game sessions – it’s brilliant.

Dust and Mirrors, the soundtrack for Kenneth Hite’s Night’s Black Agents is the latest work of James Semple and his team (Marie-Anne Fischer, Thery Ehrlich, and Chris J Nairn). The album contains 19 tracks with a playtime of about an hour. Like Kenneth Hite’s game, Dust and Mirrors combines two genres almost seamlessly. There are fast and exciting  tracks reminiscient of the spy genre and the more dark, brooding and atmospheric tracks that are firmly rooted in the horror genre.

Each track was obviously composed with a certain kind of scene in mind. “The Brief” for example is a slow and peaceful tune that might work well while the players are preparing for their next mission. This is contrasted by tracks like “Heist”, which is much faster, more aggressive, and which makes your heart beat faster. Other tracks like “An Eye for an Eye” are very dark, and almost atmospheric and reminded me a bit of their other work for Esoterrorists and Trail of Cthulhu. Overall Dust and Mirrors contains a wide variety of musical styles, but each of them fit perfectly to the genre-mix that is Night’s Black Agents.

Even though each track fits a certain type of scene Dust and Mirrors can also be played as background music. I actually enjoy the music so much that I even listened to it repeatedly during work. It makes dreary office work so much more exciting and mysterious! Alas the first track called “Night’s Black Agents Theme” is a bit too short. But that’s only a minor quibble. Overall James Semple and team have produced another great soundtrack. I hope that Dust and Mirrors has not been the last album he and his team produced for Pelgrane Press!

The soundtrack is currently available from the official Pelgrane Press store for $15.95 (£9.95) for the MP3 download.

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Review: Night’s Black Agents

Night's Black Agents cover Pelgrane Press’ Gumshoe roleplaying games usually don’t disappoint and Kenneth Hite’s Night’s Black Agents is no exception. Night’s Black Agents combines the spy thriller genre with vampires. The players are spies that have worked for one of the many secret agencies like MI5, CIA, Mossad or even the Stasi. For one reason or the other they left government employment and went into the shadowy criminal underground of Europe. The characters had been highly trained by their agencies for years in espionage, combat, covert operations, data analysis and now they are putting their skills to good use again. They fight vampires!

Night’s Black Agents is a 232-pages full-cover hardcover. As with all recent releases by Pelgrane Press the production quality is top notch. The three-columned layout is surprisingly clear and the interior artwork fits the theme of the game perfectly. I’m not too fond of the cover, but that’s only a minor quibble. Overall the quality of the artwork is great. The binding feels pretty solid to me, although I haven’t put it to the test yet. Usually I treat my books very gently.

As I’ve already mentioned the game uses Robin D. Laws’ Gumshoe system, which is the perfect choice for any game where investigations play a major role. In most games finding the clues needed to unravel a mystery can be a very frustrating thing. The players fail a single important roll and the whole game comes to a sudden stop. In Gumshoe you don’t need to roll to find clues – if you have the right investigative skill, you get the clue and you can move on. In Gumshoe the interesting question is not whether you find the clues but how do you interpret them. For more information on how the system works check out my interview with Robin D. Laws.

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