Heart of Darkness – An Exposition on Horror

by | Mar 7, 2023 | Articles

I had a long and fruitful discussion with Jesse the other day about COREthulhu. That came on the heels of something I had been pondering on, concerning the nature of horror and how we, as players, navigate that in play. It made for a good bit of synchronicity and has left me in a contemplative space regarding the next iteration of COREthulhu. I have a number of projects that need to be completed before attempting to tackle Version 3 of COREthulhu but like a dog worrying at a bone I have begun making preliminary notes and sketching out some ideas.

So, as we were talking about COREthulhu we came to realize that unlike other Cthulhuesque RPGs it really lends itself to, in fact was unconsciously designed for, long term play. Not only that but it also focuses more on how the characters deal with the Trauma brought on by the things they uncover. That may seem like a subtle distinction but it’s an important one.

I really wish I had recorded our conversation because Jesse said it more eloquently and simply than I could. Right now for me I’m still processing this on more of a “feeling level” if that makes sense, so I’m probably going to jump around a lot. Sorry, not sorry.

Alright, where to start? With the mechanics is probably the best spot and we can move out from there.

Most, probably all, Cthulhu games use some kind of Sanity mechanic. You see horrible things, you lose Sanity and eventually go “crazy”. Along the way you may act out, in character of course, various manias, phobias or murderous rages. As Doctor Evil would say, “Pretty standard, really.” But does that make it good? Comme ci, comme ça. In some sense it’s a relic of 40 years ago when sensitivity to mental health issues and neurodiversity was not as prominent as it is within our current zeitgeist.

If you squint and don’t think too hard about it, it’s probably fine and I think a lot of players just kinda go with the flow. I’m not pointing fingers or casting dispersions, I’ve done it too. It’s just a game after all, right? Mostly yes, but in recent years there has been some push back on the way that Sanity is portrayed in games and I think that’s fair. Just because something doesn’t affect or bother you doesn’t mean it’s not an issue for someone else. It speaks to the fallacy that if I don’t see it then it doesn’t actually happen. That however, is a whole different discussion and not pertinent to the current dialog.

Getting back on track then.

With those things in mind I decided to opt for a different kind of mechanic for Sanity when designing COREthulhu. Whether or not it’s better is subjective at best and left up to you to decide for yourself.


What I wound up with is two different but complimentary systems, Shock and Trauma.

Shock represents the initial, well, shock of seeing something weird, horrific or supernatural. It’s the moment that the adrenaline dumps into your system, your blood feels like it’s turned to ice and all of your senses are cranked up to 11. Anything from discovering a dead body, being attacked or seeing someone attacked, witnessing actual magic, having a run in with a supernatural creature, etc, etc, you get the idea. When those things happen we’ll roll some dice and see how your character reacts. Yourlizard brainhas you covered for you basic reactions of Fight, Flight or Freeze as well as Fainting (come on this is based on Lovecraft’s works after all) taking damage to your Psyche and even gaining Trauma.

Speaking of which, that leads us into our next mechanic, Trauma. What Trauma represents is the long term exposure to the Shock you’ve experienced and by you I mean your PC, I think we all get it. It also represents the fact that you have begun to correlate and understand the insignificant place that humankind has in the universe. It is the existential dread your characters feel when they know that super natural creatures exist, they can influence our world and they are inimical to our very existence.

In COREthulhu, Trauma exists on a track or scale of increasing severity. It starts with the feeling of being Unsettled and eventually ends with a PC hitting their Breaking Point, most likely resulting in their removal from play. Now, does this in any way, shape or form represent how people actually experience Trauma? Unequivocally NO. Everyone experiences Trauma in their own way. The tricky bit is trying to mechanize something so extremely personal for use in a game. There’s an argument to be made that says we shouldn’t even try. I can’t really argue against that other than to meagerly counter that it’s just a game. (See every other Cthulhu game on the market.)

Given that anything we try to do will be flawed at best, what I have done instead is to say, “Hey if you don’t want to use this mechanic, for whatever reason, then toss it out and just play with Shock.” There’s nothing wrong with that. This is your game as much as it is mine. That goes for any game really, take the things you like and toss the rest.

The other aspect of the Trauma mechanic is that it’s pretty much strictly a roleplaying conceit. There aren’t any other mechanics directly associated with it. It functions as a narrative device or a prompt for the player (and the GM) as their PC interacts with the world around them. A character that is suffering from Nightmares might be described as bleary eyed, tired, or restless. The GM may ask the player what their PC dreamed about last night. They may even use elements of that nightmare during play to engage that player. If the PC is required to make a roll to perform a complex mental task, the GM might impose a penalty like a -1 to represent the PC’s lack of sleep and focus. So while there is no inherent penalty imposed by the mechanics, you have the ability to be creative with your approach. Just makes sure everyone at the table has the same expectations.

Alright, so lets recap.

Cthulhu games have Sanity mechanics. That can be good or bad depending on who you’re talking to but regardless of how you feel about it Call of Cthulhu set the bar back in ye olden days. COREthulhu does not have an explicit Sanity mechanic but instead models both Shock and Trauma. Whether or not this is better is debatable and entirely up to your preference.

Great, we’re all on the same page but what does any of this have to do with my conversation with Jesse? Everything and nothing I suppose but with a clear understanding of mechanics we can talk about more abstract ideas.

Now the thing I had been noodling on before our conversation was about how players (myself included) deal with horror, trauma, monsters, etc. Most of our games are based in the real world. Not necessarily modern but on Earth in some era. Most of the Cthulhu and COREthulhu games are set in the 1920’s-30’s, DayTrippers in the 2100’s, Runners in the nearish future, so what I’m saying is “real” people on a “real” Earth. I’m using quotes around real but when we play, and I mean this specifically about our games on Legends and the MFGCast, the PC’s are real people doing stuff. Their decisions matter, the emotional resonance matters, they exist in time and space. This might be something to come back to later.

Since it’s a “real” Earth, that leads to some other presuppositions such as there are no monsters, the gods don’t randomly talk to you, actions have consequences. There’s a subset of gamers that hate that last one but I digress. But wait you might say, there are monsters and gods in Call of Cthulhu or more relevant to this discussion, COREthulhu (thankyouverymuch). Yep, you’re right but the PC’s don’t usually know that before they start investigating some mystery or another. They might even rationalize it away when they do see something that shouldn’t exist.

So this kind of gets into the crux of the thing I’m pondering. Let me give you an example, not game related. We’re establishing that you have a dog. One morning you wake up before the alarm and you’re just laying there in the dark trying to decide if it’s worth it to try and fall back to sleep. Just as you decide to get up, covers half thrown back you hear a crash in some other part of the house. Now intellectually you know you have a dog and most like it’s probably his dumbass but in that moment your lizard brain is in full control. Your balls contract and your blood goes cold, your heart rate skyrockets and you wonder if someone is in your house or maybe if there’s some thing in your house. That moment would be terrifying, right now, today, for most people.

OK, so what? That’s probably what most of you are thinking, I don’t blame you. Let’s think about this mechanically though. In COREthulhu when you have to make a Psyche check, you roll against a set Difficulty Level using the dice pool represented by your Psyche Stat. What would the DL be for something like this 2, 3, 4? Honestly, it doesn’t really matter. My point is that in that 5-10 seconds you’re scared because you don’t know what that is. Then logic reestablishes itself and you’re fine.

Moving back to games. You’re playing COREthulhu and your character is a plucky private investigator trying to make a name for themselves. You trail some guy down to the seaside at night. You’ve been lucky so far and made all your stealth rolls so you’re up pretty close to this person. The wind is flapping their coat around their legs and they pull something out of their coat pocket and throw it into the water. Then they start chanting something in a language you don’t understand.

Maybe that’s an easy Psyche check, maybe it’s not a check at all. Could be that this guy is batshit and you’re no linguist maybe they’re saying something in Latin. Sure it’s weird but you wouldn’t be following this guy if he was on the up and up. Next thing you know three “people” walk out of the surf and onto the beach. Wait, that can’t be right? How could people walk out of the ocean? Then the clouds aren’t covering the full moon anymore and you see a bunch of fucking monsters on the beach. Holy shit there’s fucking monsters on the beach! Oh Fuck, Oh Fuck, Oh Fuck. You fail your Psyche check and luckily for you the result is that you run away screaming.

What am I trying to say? That’s a good question because I may have lost the thread here.

Essentially what I’m trying to say, I think, is that these things should have more weight, more punch. Yes, I know it’s a game but your PC’s don’t. For them this is real life. The same is true of consequences. If the same private investigator came home and found a cultist rummaging though their bedroom what would most players do? Either kill the cultist or better yet torture them for information. Partially because this is game about finding information but also because there are no consequences. Generally speaking of course. Some GM’s love holding players accountable and enforcing consequences.

It should be a morally reprehensible act to take another life but in games we do this all the time with never a second thought. Not only should there be in game ramifications for such actions but the PC’s should also be making Psyche checks when they do decide on this course of action. I can hear you whining already but it’s just a game. I get it and you’re not wrong. Sometimes you just want to punch monster/bad guys and have a good time. There’s nothing wrong with that.

I think this really speaks to how I’m thinking about games and game design/theory. I don’t expect everyone to play this way. I can’t say that we would always play this way but this is where I am right now. It feels right to me, it makes sense. We all have our own personal relationship with gaming and what we expect to get out of it. Hell most of us on the channel, low key, use this as a form of therapy.

Quick aside here. In our Runners game this came up, exactly what I’m talking about. Our group got jumped and there were two people shooting at us. My dude, Huxley, ran for cover and Kurt and Kevin’s characters decided to fight back. If I remember correctly they double teamed the one guy and brought him down. Huxley took a couple of potshots from behind the wall. The other “bad guy” who was still up started to draw a bead on one of my companions. Huxley stood up pointing his pistol at the antagonist, screaming don’t shoot, don’t shoot and I held my action. Jesse, being the cheeky GM that he is, had the guy fire his rifle and at that point Huxley reflexively emptied his magazine into the guy killing him.

This caused Huxley to have a bit of breakdown, as it should. It was a great scene and Kurt and Kevin did a great job getting Huxley settled down and steering him away from the body. Later in the session when they eventually crashed I rolled a Psyche check for Huxley to see if he would have nightmares. I passed the check so he didn’t. In their home enclave Huxley sees a therapist so I’ve been waiting for us to get back so that I could roleplay a vignette with the therapist about what happened. Again, to me it makes sense. It feels right. It was traumatic for the character and we’re not even using those rules in Runners.

Are you thinking, what a pretentious asshole right about now? I thought you might but it’s ok, I’ve been called worse. See here’s the thing, this article is about me probably as much as anything else. It’s how I’m thinking about engagement with the system, setting, violence, horror and a bunch of other stuff. Ultimately though, there’s no wrong way to play and I’m not telling you that you have to play this way. I am of course intimating it on some level I suppose but more in the way of a metaphysical discussion of sorts. Have you considered, if you will.

If you want to play a hardened Private Investigator who thinks life is cheap, then do it! That may be a Lifeshaper for your PC and could lead to some very interesting roleplaying situations. Same if you want to play a Solider with “Shell Shock” read here, untreated PTSD. They may not give a shit about anything including themselves. Again I feel like this is Lifeshaper territory but definitely a valid choice. The stuff I’m talking about isn’t a one size fits all deal, even at the same table.

Players want to be heroes and that’s cool. I dig it too. Pulp exists and it’s super fun but it’s different. It’s written to be evocative of a particular kind of experience. A certain fantasy RPG is nothing but a power trip fantasy game. Kill stuff to get better abilities so you can kill stronger stuff, rinse and repeat. I played a lot of that game through a number of different editions. It’s not where I’m at anymore but that doesn’t mean it’s not fun or worth playing.

I feel like I’m rambling a bit here. It’s not so easy to get this down on paper so lets move onto long term play.

Jesse was the one who pointed out that COREthulhu was different than other Cthulhu games and seemed to be more geared to long term play. Specifically because of the Trauma mechanic. I had never really thought about it and said so. Jesse said I must have since I designed it but it was kind of an unintended consequence. It makes sense now that we talked about it but I hadn’t thought that far out when designing the game.

In most of the other Cthulhu games everything is happening all at once. You fail a San check and it makes it harder to make the next one. It’s a slow descending spiral and once you reach critical mass you’re “insane”, at least temporarily. That can have some really bad consequences or really fun consequences depending on your group. It doesn’t happen later though and that’s the difference.

In COREthulhu Trauma is a long term roleplaying affect. Sure it starts to kick in when you acquire it but it generally doesn’t have the same effect as it would in, say Call of Cthulhu. The meat of it, you could say, is how Trauma effects the PC as they exist in the world, which is to say after the adventure happens. Now realistically most of the time that we’re going to see the PCs is when they are actively doing stuff. In COREthulhu that means investigating weird shit but CORE has mechanics for downtime. This is when you’re learning new skills, healing up, going to therapy, generally getting on with your life. How big or small a part that plays in your campaigns is up to you.

Dovetailing into Downtime, one of the things we’re talking about adding in the next edition is Bonds. Bonds exist as a mechanic in CORE Micro but I’m not sure that’s exactly what I’m looking for so this will be specific for COREthulhu. I don’t have anything other then a vague idea at this point how this will work mechanically so anything I proffer here is subject to change.

As Tod always says, Story First and then figure out the mechanics.

Essentially these are your significant relationships, your sources of stability, the people who help to keep you grounded. This does a couple of things. It begins to populate world around the PCs, it gives the player investment in the world by creating these relationships and it gives the GM a potential hook to drive story. This isn’t breaking any new ground here. This is game theory 101 stuff.

What I envision for long term play is that Downtime has it’s own significant place in the narrative. Players would engage in vignettes, either describing what they’ve been doing since we last saw them or roleplaying scenes with the GM or even other players, playing various NPCs. Again other games have done things like this so this is in no way revelatory but lets be fair, there’s not a lot that’s new under the sun.

This is one place that Bonds could have an impact depending on how they get mechanized. If for example you are able to modify a Psyche check by damaging a Bond then when you next talk with that Bond it’s sure as shit going to have an effect on the conversation. By necessity it would begin by being one sided, that is the PC’s attitude has changed towards the relationship because of the stress of what they’ve seen. As things play out though the Bond’s attitude would also change. Now you have not only the existential dread of the unknown plaguing the PC’s but also the potential loss of key relationships. This is great story fodder because……these things should matter to the PC because for them it’s “real”.

What we might end up with is players starting with a single Bond at +1 and that they can buy that Bond up like they would a skill. That seems the easiest but forces players to use XP on a non-tangible resource. The other option might be to place the Bond on a scale that moves up and down, positive to negative based on the PC’s actions. Either of those could work or we might come up with something completely different. This is all spit balling here but I like where it’s going.

Another thing I’m toying with is how Trauma is healed. The basic mechanic would stay the same. When you finish an adventure and get into your Downtime, you can make a Psyche check against a DL of 4 and if you succeed you can remove a Trauma symptom or two on a Yes And. Narratively you need to say or roleplay out what it is you’re doing to treat that Trauma.

What I’m thinking is that once you acquire a Trauma symptom for the first time and it’s subsequently removed, the next time you get it you can’t remove it. So there’s this continual forward pressure driving you towards your Breaking Point. I like the idea of it, it feels thematic and appropriate to the setting. The flip side is that you could argue that someone could become hardened to Trauma. That’s a valid point and I don’t disagree. I think it comes down to what kind of experience we’re trying to curate.

And again, if you don’t like this then don’t use this new aspect or hack it so that someone could be hardened to the horrors. Hmmm, that could be interesting to play around with. Maybe I’ll include rules for that too. Off the top of my head I think there’d be a Lifeshaper involved. You’re resisting the Trauma but at the cost of your “humanity”, which could translate into negative modifiers on any sort of Charm based rolls. I’ll really have to think about that. Trauma is the main mechanic just like Sanity is in Call of Cthulhu. It’s the hinge of the engagement but that seems like a tomorrow problem I guess.

Well, I guess that’s it. I might have some more stuff rattling around in the old noggin but I think I beat this one to death. As always YMMV.