In a previous post I talked a little bit about a mechanic I use in my Trail of Cthulhu campaign, Masks of the Dreamer, called Paranoia. Paranoia represents the overall mental state of not just the player characters, but also how quickly and how much attention their enemies are paying towards them at a given time. Paranoid characters are more likely to make mistakes, leave tell tale evidence of what they had done exposing themselves to authorities or, well, worse and so on. Paranoia also represents how strong the main antagonist of the game is overall and how much of a grip they are getting on the psyche of London.
At the start of Masks of the Dreamer Paranoia is at 0, but as characters do certain actions and notably fail stability checks (or lose sanity to monstrous effects) it begins to slowly climb up. Initially it is a d6, which goes up a notch whenever a player’s character fails a stability check, does something notably evil or perhaps loses sanity by means of a monstrous encounter (losing sanity due to increasing Cthulhu Mythos won’t raise it though). This slowly represents an overall “psyche” damage done to the party, as whenever the die reaches a 6 it becomes a full Paranoia point and starts the next die in the chain.
Paranoia has several effects on how the investigators behave, with its most notable effect the investigators already know about is that it increases the difficulty to bind monsters effectively. Each full point adds to a creatures pool of inertia, which makes life especially difficult if you are trying to control any kind of monster. Additionally paranoia interacts with monsters in a lot of ways to make them overall scarier, but my players have generally not encountered many monsters yet so I can’t be too revealing. One thing I will say is that from Night’s Black Agents I took the concept of “Aberrance” and integrated it into Trail of Cthulhu’s monsters.
Aberrance replaces athletics and is basically a “Any weird physical stuff a monster does? It uses this pool to do it if it actually needs to make a test to do it”. Kind of like magic, but for physically wandering around and performing supernatural feats. It’s a great idea and I immediately brought it into Trail of Cthulhu, which also meant a nice easy way for Paranoia to interact with monsters: Paranoia inherently increases their aberration pool as well. It might even work better for particular *kinds* of creatures…
As an aside, GUMSHOE systems are wonderful to just mix and match mechanics like this. Because everything is quite straight forward and so similar mechanically at the core, it’s very easy to customize things to your liking such as this. Especially because it also makes monsters feel a bit more different to characters inherently by having this stat. It also provides an easy way to limit creatures that have supernatural abilities, but probably can’t do them constantly and need some kind of logical limit in a scene to make them more interesting. Not all monsters of course in Trail should have such a limit: A Hound of Tindalos for example should always be pursuing investigators as relentlessly as possible.
To continue with praising Night’s Black Agents, I had a total “Eureka!” moment the second I saw the mechanic called Heat in the book. Heat is basically a check that the director (the GM of a NBA game is called a director instead of keeper) can call for after any particular scene. Say your characters blew up a building or got into an especially dramatic parkour chase plus gunfight through the markets of Paris. At this point, you are called upon to make a test based on the level of Heat attracted by whatever activities the agents have done. At low levels, it’s easy to avoid but at high levels you need to deliberately cover up what you did, call in favors with politicians or bribe police officers. It’s a great mechanic and my eureka moment with Paranoia.
Paranoia is similar to heat but different in some important ways. Like Heat, I can call for a test against Paranoia after any scene the characters have just finished – typically one they caused a fair amount of chaos in. The test is the same, they roll a d6 and try to roll equal to or more than the amount of Paranoia that is around with modifiers for how destructive they were (blowing up a building notably makes it more difficult) or if they tried to hide what they did (dispose of evidence and so forth, like Anastasia’s actions with the now infamous insinkerator and human hand) they get a bonus to the roll.
Ironically the only test they failed was the first one I asked for, when the amount of Paranoia was at 2. Anastasia just happened to roll a 1 and this event directly led to the events with Brian where he was threatened, then exposed and finally an attempted murder was carried out against him. This complication represented the investigators enemies noticing them and trying to send them a message – without acting directly against them. This is the primary consequence of these tests, as sources of stability becoming compromised, police start to sniff around the characters activities, the cultists are armed and ready for the investigators arrival into their lair, or far worse things can occur as a result of a failed test.
The main difference between Heat and Paranoia is that Paranoia never goes away. It slowly builds over each investigation as investigators fail stability checks and things generally go wrong. Why does it never go away? Well it’s the name of the mechanic: Like in a good horror movie where tension is constantly building, Paranoia’s slow and steady increase makes the characters increasingly worried. It sits on its own little “Doom track” now as well and is always visible to the any of the players.
The “Doom Track”, which now the Paranoia has started to become more relevant at 4 total dice, is the final part of the Paranoia mechanic and what the investigators really need to be scared of. It is once it builds to certain levels that they have become unmistakable in their goals and opposition to particular forces operating in London. Once this happens their enemies act directly against the investigators and in a…. bloody fashion at that. Returning to the horror movie analogy, like with anything that slowly builds tension and drama the sudden rush of action – like seeing the monster in full for the first time – also releases it.
It’s worth noting that while the Doom Track goes to 10, only the first 6 Paranoia points are the most important. I found that while I wanted to go above 6 for certain reasons, which as my Trail of Cthulhu game plays out and I describe on this blog will make sense, I didn’t want the test to be more difficult than 6. So all mechanical benefits like bonuses to inertia or aberrance stop at 6, but certain other effects come into play at higher amount of Paranoia instead (and of course, none of them pleasant).
In any event, once the events are triggered by the amount of Paranoia reaching the level required on the doom track, it collapses back down to 0 and then needs to build again. This has two overall purposes: The first is to ensure that later investigators aren’t basically failing the Paranoia test too routinely once it gets around that 5/6 rating (as it rarely goes down, unlike Heat). The second represents the investigators mundane and supernatural enemies using their gathered knowledge of the group, such as what the investigators have been afraid of due to failing stability tests or encountering horrifying monsters, against them. It’s basically spending their resources to strike at the investigators in a strong and meaningful fashion, but it takes time for them to rebuild once they’ve used it (assuming the investigators have thwarted their machinations).
Of course there are some mechanics that can also reduce Paranoia in important ways. Some characters following their drives to accomplish certain “behind the scenes” goals once they start appearing can certainly have this effect. Additionally, destroying or banishing certain monsters or dealing with the cultist groups who support said monsters also reduces Paranoia (rather like that horror movie analogy I gave earlier). These are things that will become more important as the party is generally more crazy and unhinged in later scenarios.
Overall Paranoia basically has a primary effect of keeping the investigators players worried, but it also adds another level of tension to even the most mundane of stability checks. Any check that fails potentially increases paranoia (6 failed checks = 1 die, which is 1 more point of overall paranoia to the pool), so this encourages my players to spend stability on these checks more or make harder decisions (like deliberately try to avoid stress inducing situations). The “Doom Track” in particular gives investigators an idea just how dangerous the situation is becoming, where at certain points their enemies will just not ignore them to let them do whatever they want without consequence.
Again, this mechanic in play simply builds more tension and helps to make the party worried about what their enemies might be up to. It also temporarily strengthens monsters and has a net effect of encouraging players to spend more stability on more routine tests, which is more likely to drive them crazy sooner (always a good thing). It also helps to make spellcasting and magic more risky, because giving stability for casting spells and say, failing and getting a mythos shock losing sanity in the process also increases Paranoia faster (losing sanity advances paranoia much faster than failing a stability checks!).
Other nuances to this system do exist, but largely in some of the behind the scenes effects that I have customized to this campaign. Suffice to say the way Paranoia works is heavily tied into the very plot of the campaign as well: So a lot of the actual nitty gritty isn’t something I can just go into without spoiling the whole game! In any event, continuing to follow my Trail of Cthulhu campaign posts here will eventually reveal the whole terrible truth! Of course once I finish this campaign – quite a way into the future I should add – I will make another post with all the precise mechanics.
Of course by that point I will even have the benefit of hindsight and be able to discuss what did or didn’t work. So it will be much improved from what I have here! That’s the fun of a long running campaign like this, seeing how your ideas play out over time!