The Cost of Monsters and Magic

Each monster our characters fight. Every spell they cast. Every time they glimpse the horrors or the beauty of the mystical worlds those characters inhabit. They lose a little bit of themselves. Call it innocence or humanity, but either way they are changed by each and every moment. But how do we capture this change in our campaigns?

cocEven if you’re playing a game without that mystical quality, that loss of innocence comes across in other ways. Imagine playing a soldier or a law officer, a spy or an average Joe. Every death a character can’t prevent. Every soul they can’t save. Every horrific action in the real world – has a cost.

Some systems, like the Call of Cthulhu use the idea of “Insanity” – and you gain a little more madness each time you see into the world of the Old Ones and the inhumanity they represent. Other games, like Vampire, track your very humanity. Playing monsters, you must try to keep in touch with those human traits we sometimes take for granted.

Ultimately we as players become jaded by these experiences. We catalog and evaluate, plan and research so we know how to deal with whatever strange beasts or encounters our game masters have planned for us. But that’s the players side of the equation and I think we can defeat it if we come up with some system-neutral method of tracking that quality of these experiences as our characters fight the change hinted at by these events.

Many of us like to roleplay a bit more deeply, finding those story hooks in our own characters. Perhaps it’s as easy as flirting with a line in the sand. The first life a character can’t save leaves a permanent scar and from that moment on I think they become damaged to the point where they begin to lose touch with the innocence they had when they started.

humanityPerhaps a “Humanity” score that the character can track that starts at a number between 1 and 10. Let’s say the average adult may have a “Humanity” of between 5 and 8, while a child may have 7 to 10… And with each life-changing event, they lose that bit by bit. To regain it, they might have to do something like praying or volunteering or whatever.

The GM would designate a point cost. Perhaps a combat encounter with something unusual might lead to a -1. Or a particularly nasty event dealing with human beings (encountering the death or abuse of children, for example) might have a higher point cost of -2 or -3.

So how might this work? Let’s look at a potential example.

A fighter in D&D is on the front lines all the time. Let’s say they start as a 1st level character with 5 points of Humanity. Their point history might look a bit like this…

  • Fight a group of kobolds. -1
  • Fight a few bandits preying on people on the road. -1
  • Shares tales of valor and strength with other fighters in the bar. +1
  • Stop a group of frogmen stealing human children to sacrifice to their gods. -2 (-1 for battle, -1 for the horrors endured by any surviving children and parents)

vintbucket01That leaves this character at a +2. But if they continue down this path, it’s likely the fighter could hit 0 or go into the negative range. What then?

Characters lacking in humanity may face forced changes to alignment or allegiances. Or they may be forsaken by their gods in times of dire need.

Though this does offer yet another metric for the player to use to help balance out the effects of repeated psychological or philosophical strain, it should be a pretty minor thing to include if the GM and players all agree that it works for them. And it may not – players should never be forced to use mechanics they can’t stand. But I think it offers guidance as to how a PC could guard against becoming too hardened to the world around them and offer some interesting role-playing opportunities.

Any thoughts on this? Obviously it has some work to be done, but I think it has some possibilities…

Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>