Posted on June 1, 2010 by Flames
INSYLUM, a role-playing-game by Dennis Detwiller, has players locked away in an asylum as Patients, with the gamesmaster playing the asylum Facilitator hoping to cure them. The Patients are all linked in a strange and vague way, all recollecting fragments of their past. At night they are able to escape their cells, venturing out into a surreal dreamscape beyond the walls of the asylum, known as The Night World.
I’d suggest the game is for experienced gamesmasters with some knowledge of the background material (see below). The Patients all begin the game with amnesia. They all have the same stats (and only three of those). The core premise is that that they have no memory of why they’ve been locked away, and their key motivation being to discover the truth that sent them there, by regaining first Lucidity and then Memory. Only by regaining Memory can the Patient hope to be cured.
Character creation beyond this point is short and sweet. You are required to give your character a name, apparent age, height and weight and to note any distinguishing features. As the Patient you’re limited with what you can work with here, as the rules state concisely:
“First name and last initial please. Look in a mirror and jot down these facts about yourself. Try to be honest.”
The game is short in terms of rules and, to extent, scope. This does mean that the book is a quick read for the gamesmaster, at 31 pages, including covers (as far as I know this doesn’t exist as anything other than e-book format, hence the irregular page count). Furthermore the system itself takes up just pages 6 to 9. There is, of course, a limit to the sorts of adventures a bunch of amnesiacs can have within an asylum, but fortunately that limit is the Facilitators imagination, which is given tools to do so throughout the remainder of the document.
How It Works
Game play involves only three statistics, or ‘codes’ as they are referred to in the rules: Fatigue (for most physical challenges), Lucidity (for attempting to make sense of the world around you) and Memory (for remembering why you’re locked up). Patients all begin the game with 5 points of Fatigue, 3 points of Lucidity and 1 point of Memory. These scores can rise as high as 20. Which, at the start of a game is a very long way off.
The statistics are all interlinked, in that you can trade points in for points in another. There is a basic hierarchy at work, with Fatigue occupying the lowest rung and Memory occupying the highest. 5 points of Fatigue can be spent to buy you a point in Lucidity, whilst 5 points of Lucidity buys you a single Memory point. The points can also be shuffled back down the hierarchy but with one difference. A single point remains a single point rather than becoming five. 1 point of Memory becomes 1 point of Lucidity and 1 point of Lucidity becomes 1 point of Fatigue.
Fatigue is the statistic that represents the Patient’s energy levels. Physical strength, will power, determination, the drive to kill or be killed – all these things fall within the scope of this statistic. The System section visible to the Patients doesn’t suggest anyway of raising your Fatigue short of exchanging precious Lucidity for Fatigue on a 1 for 1 basis. Although not immediately obvious Fatigue is used on two levels. Your Maximum Fatigue is your Fatigue as discussed so far. Your Current Fatigue defaults to this score and can be brought down by damage – damage from Orderlies, damage from other Patients, damage from creatures in the night. Similarly resting will slowly restore the Current Fatigue at a rate of 1 point per 10 minutes back up to your Maximum Fatigue. A Current Fatigue that drops to 0 indicates that the Patient is unconscious, but will be restored to 1 point of Fatigue after 30 minute. Negative Fatigue is death, pure and simple.
Lucidity is the ability to interpret reality. The Patients are not particularly lucid characters and occasional see things that shouldn’t be there. They have a choice here. They can pick and choose to believe what they want, simply roleplaying the encounters and never quite knowing what is real, or they can gamble their Lucidity. If the Patient risks a point of Lucidity and the threat observed is not real (or not real enough) they keep the point. If, however, the danger is all too real and keeps on coming, a point of Lucidity is lost, with at least the confirmation that the threat is genuine. Note that the Patients don’t have access to any rules that indicate how Lucidity can be raised, aside from spending Fatigue points.
Memory represents the memories the Patient clings to to make sense of the world and their part in it. Again, there’s no clear guide here for how a Patient can raise this stat. It can be spent to determine if events have any bearing on why you’ve been locked away, costing points because of the stress involved in confronting the truth. And yet whatever you sacrificed the point on is now guaranteed to be part of your Patient’s reality. It is one fact of their background that cannot be erased or altered by later events, and they can use this information to help them on the path to greater understanding (or to just manipulate odds in their favour).Once they reach 20 points they finally remember exactly why they were locked away, for better or for worse. The Facilitator considers the Patient cured and able to get on with their lives.
The closest the system has to a system of skill resolution is the section under the Fatigue heading dedicated to fighting. Conflict is based upon a bidding system, where the maximum you can bid is your Current Fatigue, The damage done is the same regardless of weapons wielded – fists, razors, rusty bed posts, brick walls, ALL do the same damage.
Defenseless targets get no bid. They just have their Fatigue dropped by the amount the attacker bids. Unless the defender is unconscious, in which case they can simply be killed.
One final point. Landing a hit on anyone with twice or more points in their Current Fatigue than you is called a Coup and allows you to spike your Current Fatigue up to your Maximum Fatigue, through a sudden blood lust or burst of adrenalin. At the end of the fight it drops back down to what it was before the Coup, assuming it hasn’t dropped lower as a result of taking further damage.
The examples of combat (and of the sorts of weapons that people might want to use on each other) help highlight the game world, or at least the typical Patient mindset, as violent and particularly grim. Which doesn’t mesh perfectly with the surreal dreamscape that the Facilitator is privy to. But perhaps that’s part of its charm.
The secrets come in layers. ‘Treatment’ details ways the Patients can try to recover Memory through therapy, thanks to the good people at the Carlsbad County Schizophrenics Annex (or CarCoSA for short). Therapy sessions can be group or individual (and are perfect ways to kill short amounts of time outside other games), where the Facilitator asks increasingly disturbing questions about the Patient and their past. The Facilitator can ask any question they like, and are encouraged to suggest that the Patient has been up to all sorts of horrible deeds.
A Patient knows, from the previous pages, that by spending a point of Memory they can anchor a revelatory detail in reality, should the Facilitator deem it true. Once they’ve granted a memory this way, it is a permanent part of the Patient’s history. What the Patient doesn’t know is that particularly relevant or disturbing revelations will earn them a Lucidity point. A revelation that is particularly insightful and hints at ‘the truth’ that has led all the Patients to this asylum will earn a point of Memory.
And what is this elusive truth? The Patients have all read, or otherwise been subjected to, the macabre play ‘The King in Yellow’. Furthermore they have been brought together by a Facilitator (the character of Facilitator at CarCoSA, as portrayed by the gamesmaster) who has also read the play and is using the Patients to his own ends – to uncover the truth behind the play, its effects on the mind and its effects on reality.
The section ‘Midnight on Ward 23’ details how, every night, the reality of the play intrudes once more upon their lives. As midnight strikes their cell doors open, revealling the unguarded corridor and a number of unexpected exits, new doors or portals to elsewhere. These are the gateways into The Night World, a disturbing dreamscape that echoes their lost memories of the accursed play The King in Yellow. In the centre of the realm towers the Castle, where the royal court take part in one last masked ball before The King in Yellow appears to claim the castle and the surrounding city at midnight.
Wandering The Night World offers the Patents the opportunity to regain precious points of Memory through interacting with the various ‘Sets’ of the play and their inhabitants. Sets and inhabitant (‘The Players’) are based mostly upon places mentioned in the play but also locations explored by John Tynes and Dennis Detwiller elsewhere. The Facilitator is encouraged to invent his own. However, there is also plenty of risk in visiting the Night World, risks that might cost you the Lucdity and Memory you were hoping to regain. Furthermore anyone being isolated from their fellow Patients has a good chance of being erased permanently from existence.
The design and layout is what you’d expect from Dennis Detwiller – atmospheric photographs, hand scrawled notes and clear layout, with easy to read sections. It’s unfortunate that some of the rules are hard to track down, are unclear or – in one instance – contradict each other. The front cover has a fragment of the Hell panel from The Last Judgement triptych by Hieronymus Bosch, which doesn’t have a great deal to do with the contents but is an amazing pieces of misdirection if you need to hide things from your Patients. There’s also an introductory page, as if written for the Patients, that drops perhaps too many hints for anyone familiar with The King in Yellow and its associated fiction. All in all though, it’s a nice little bundle, and because it’s a short e-book, easy to have printed out and to hand.
I really like this game, though I did feel a self self indulgent since the players were, at times, lacking motivation and direction. The game requires a fair bit of knowledge of the source material to make the most of it. Fortunately a lot of that is available (and free) online. Nevertheless you can use your own sources of inspiration or make it up based around the information contained within the game. Despite this you may find that the ambiguous and whimsical nature of Carcosa and The King in Yellow doesn’t always lend itself to well-paced adventures, particularly if you’re starting off with amnesiac Patients for PCs and the players are feeling a little confused about what they’re supposed to be up to.
I resorted to inspiration from two sources. Firstly I used a pack of tarot cards to produce random images that the Patients had to string together into the vague recollection of dream. I suppose that, had I given it more thought I might have asked the players to refer to an actual recent dream, therefore further blurring the line between player and character. As it is I was quite lucky with the cards people drew, with ethereal veiled female figures and sharp looking blades making an appearance. Additionally, trying to build some vaguely coherent plot into the sessions I played, I interspersed the Night World with scenes from the Call of Cthulhu campaign ‘Tatters of the King’ – my intention being to jump from Insylum into a CoC game proper, and then drifting back to Insylum as an epilogue. Alas real life intruded and the game didn’t last that long.
My main reservations with the game are based on my familiarity with the original Chambers stories, and various stories that other authors have added to the evolving mythology. One is an issue with names, as Yhtill – often considered to be the name of a masked stranger – is the name of a ruined city. The character normally known as Cassilda (the Queen) seems to have become Cassandra, whilst her daughter Camilla is now Cassilda. Additionally, the King seems to quote things that are actually spoken by The Stranger in traditional texts – although its fair to say there’s always been a close link between the two characters.
Are these errors due to a misreading of the original texts? Or do they symbolise a madman’s failure to grasp the true nature of the Play? Or the fluid nature of Carcosa?
Furthermore the members of the royal court, all key characters from the play, are categorised as ‘Repeaters’ – ghost-like figures that repeat their final actions. This, in itself, is fine, but Repeaters can also be banished forever by a PC who takes time to understand the nature of their haunting. Banishing such iconic figures from the Night World forever doesn’t make much sense to me. Much less sense than it would for the figures to be effectively endless in the deep dark depths of the collective subconsious of mad men.
My final reservation is that the rules seem a little jumbled and, in at least one instance, contradict each other. There’s also no real rules for Lucidity or Memory dropping to zero or into the negative, unlike Fatigue. I’d suggest that it counts as instant death in The Night Worlds. Should it occur during the waking hours the nurses might be able to restore a Patient to 1 point – eventually – but until then they’re effectively out of the game. On which note we don’t really have rules for what happens when a Patient collects 20 points of Memory and realises the truth. Do they sit the rest of the game out? Or do they get to use their new found knowledge to bring about some endgame scenario for the rest of the Patients?
These reservations aside, I really like this game. I think it struggles to work as a campaign, but there’s a great feel to the writing and this material would work well as a one (or two) shot, or as a ‘plug-in’ to another game. Even the idea of amnesiac Patients slowly recovering their memories could make a great prelude to a scenario (and in fact has similarities to the set up to the John Tynes scenario ‘In Media Res’, which offers a number of possibilities in itself).
My scores for Insylum are:
Layout: Three out of Five Dice (a few of the details can be hard to find)
Artwork: Three out of Five Dice (some nice dark pieces of photography and scanned text, some a little odd)
Writing: Four out of Five Dice (Great atmosphere in little chunks, but not quite fleshed out enough)
Overall: Three out of Five Dice (I’d love to be able to do more with this – I’d welcome a revised edition)
Reviewed by Simon Brake