Today we’ll be taking a look at the mechanic that pretty much made Call of Cthulhu unique: Sanity and Sanity Loss.
But before that, it’s important to note that Sanity as it is portrayed in Call of Cthulhu is not meant to simulate real-world psychological trauma. Instead, it helps to view it as an approximation of how H.P. Lovecraft’s protagonists react in the face of horrifying sights and terrible creatures.
Sanity as Mental Resilience
Mechanics-wise, sanity is your “mental HP” as your Investigator is hammered with encounters involving the horrifying and alien, they are often called to make Sanity Rolls. These checks determine if the character is able to lessen the blow of the Sanity Loss, or takes a bigger hit.
Taking Sanity Loss is a dicey proposition at best, with successively more dire consequences depending on the amount lost and in how short an amount of time. The effects range from involuntary actions, to temporary insanity to being reduced to a permanently insane individual.
Effects of Insanity
As described above, there are a LOT of different things that can happen to an Investigator. Some of these might even mean temporarily surrendering control of an Investigator to a Keeper, or altering background details of an Investigator with irrational entries.
After a bout of madness, the player regains control of the Investigator but now usually has some sort of underlying madness still present. This means that the Investigator may yet slip into more outward manifestations of it should their fragile psyche be bombarded with another mind-blasting encounter.
Thankfully, there are ways to arrest Sanity Loss. Temporary Insanity is resolved with some peace and quiet and decent rest. More… persistent forms of Insanity require Institutionalization.
The Sanity Mechanic is perhaps one of the greatest claims to fame of Call of Cthulhu as a system. While other games have different takes on sanity these days, Call of Cthulhu’s system is elegant in play, and the random nature of how much sanity you lose in an encounter keeps things unpredictable.
In many ways, Call of Cthulhu’s ruleset may be a bit old, but the 7th Edition retains much of what made it interesting in the first place. The mechanics enforce the classic elements of horror: Helplessness, Lack of Knowledge about the Enemy and Fragility, which make it very potent in play.