Before his car broke down on a country road in the rain, my Hero must have been an SAS veteran or something. SKILL 12, STAMINA 22, LUCK 11. This guy is one of Britain’s hardest men. But House of Hell is to Call of Cthulhu what Starship Traveller is to, well, Traveller. I remember an article in Dragon, I think (though I have not been able to find it since), in which a Call of Cthulhu Keeper wrote about allowing his PCs to tool up with machine guns and grenades – because, in the end, those aren’t going to help. What matters in Hammer House of Cthulhu (more Peter Cushing, less cosmic horror) is staying sane in the face of mind bending terror.
So… [dice clatter on Android dice roller app] …SANITY, sorry, FEAR 7. What a roll!
My Hero had the psychological constitution of someone already on the verge of a nervous breakdown. So, yes, my Hero is a war veteran, but he’s also psychologically damaged. Sure, he finds various dagger-like implements, and hacks a zombie to pieces (hiding behind the curtain in the Balthus room, of all places), but in the end he is done in by a book. No, seriously, he was frightened to death reading a book on hypnotism. I chose that over the book on black magic as I thought it would be less frightening, but at that point my Hero would have died had he opened a particularly well done pop-up book. Your adventure ends here.
Actually, if that book had been illustrated by Ian Miller, it might well have finished me off. I have always found his art brilliantly unsettling.
I know that some people have far less a taste for fear and sanity rules than I do. They reduce player agency, they say, and in the process they can turn a heroic character into a snivelling coward. I’m not sure about the first (I see a continuity from "I hit with my axe" [roll] "no, you don’t" to "I stand firm in the face of the horrors from beyond" [roll] "no, you don’t"), and, as for the second point, well, isn’t that a good thing? Doesn’t it emulate some of the most interesting elements of fantastical fiction (and make the truly alien horrors of the campaign something more than a big bundle of hit points)? Now, WFRP has a sanity system. D&D traditionally doesn’t, but Ravenloft added one to AD&D2e, and made a particularly interesting distinction between ‘fear’ and ‘horror’. Call of Cthulhu obviously has the grandparent of these systems, one which can be transplanted over to any BRP-based system, while Mongoose RuneQuest II has its own in Necromantic Arts. Now, I like these kinds of ‘psychological systems’ in my games – somewhere on my hard drive is a fear and sanity system for Traveller that I’d written to try to produce an atmosphere of Aliens, Event Horizon, and the like (if you don’t find the horrors of the outer dark out there, where do you find it) – but do they find a place in your fantasy and sci-fi RPGs? In other RPG genres? Or are they reserved for games that are explicitly about ‘horror’?