Indoctrination and Sanity in Mothership

For “Gates of Despair”, I designed a simple mechanic to represent the influence of the Unseeable God on the minds of the folks there. So as to keep things extremely straightforward, the mechanic is just a track of conditions as you go down it. After discussing it in the Mothership Discord, somebody pointed out that it reminded them of the influence of the Leviathans in Mass Effect, so I called it “Indoctrination”.

Multiple exposures of a woman illuminated by red light with her eyes closed
Photo by pawel szvmanski on Unsplash


In the presence of a powerful eldritch presence, the Warden should call for a Sanity save from time to time. Good times might include when first arriving in the presence, or seeing some manifestation of the presence, or (as in the case of one character) when they intentionally open their minds to the presence.

On a failure, the character takes an additional level of Indoctrination and takes the condition indicated.

  1. Vaguely disquieting feeling. There’s something you haven’t uncovered, and it’s close by.
  2. Nightmares, possibly waking or at the next rest. The module “Dead Planet” has a d100 table for this.
  3. Sanity saves are now made at [-].
  4. Hallucinations of something specific to the storyline. (In Gates of Despair, this was the tentacles in the ice.)
  5. Stronger delusions related to the storyline. (In Gates of Despair, the Society believed that the moon is a ship and it will leave soon.)
  6. Called to action by the presence. (In Gates of Despair, some people would be called to the Frozen Conclave for processing. The PCs didn’t get to this point.)

To recover from this, the player can make a Sanity save at the end of a rest. On a success, they lose one level and the condition associated with it.

Players had mixed feelings about knowing their level or the effects. One player thought it worked better if they did (much like knowing the possible effects of failing a Panic Check); the others liked discovering it through play.

Thoughts on Sanity

When we played with this, I used Fear saves instead. My thought was that Sanity was about trying to rationalize something, and Fear was about emotional response, so the latter applied better. But since I originally designed it, I have a different perspective about how to use Sanity in games without getting icky about mental health. Sanity as “think quickly under pressure” in particular doesn’t feel right to me, although I very much appreciate that Fear covers “emotional trauma” and “depression”.

Specifically, I want to change the definition of the saves in my games so that Fear is about “mundane” threats (risks that a normal human can understand) and Sanity is about things that exceed our view of reality (mind-warping eldritch presence, primeval chaos, et cetera). I don’t necessarily like the implications of “sanity”; Call of Cthulhu in particular tries to model different manias and phobias, and I’d rather not play with the implications of real-life mental illness due to the impacts of that topic on real life. (Mothership doesn’t do this nearly to the same extent, to be clear!)

This makes it easier to differentiate in the future which save to make, depending purely on the cause. Is it something we can reasonably conclude exists in real life? Then it’s Fear. Is it something we would immediately reject as being unreal? Then it’s Sanity, with no implications about the ability to reason our way through things versus react emotionally.

Panic Checks can still happen as normal: Critical Failure on any save, exceptionally terrifying encounters (mundane or otherworldly), and the other things listed in the Player’s Survival Guide.

This isn’t really a major change or anything, but I like it for my games. And of course I’d love any feedback on this, including whether this is actually a better approach.

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