A corruption mechanic is a common device of pen-and-paper roleplaying games in which player characters are prone to some form of physical, mental, or moral decay over time. As the corruption deepens, a character’s personality or behavior shifts and, if they continue down this path and do not purge themselves of the taint, they are removed from play. Often a character must juggle a short-term benefit that increases corruption against the long-term consequences of making that choice.
A corruption mechanic creates a thematic game element that transcends the particular adventure or mission, forcing the players into more “global” thinking and providing an initial goal for the campaign from its first day: Do not fall to the corruption.
The Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game tracks sanity points, which are lost through encounters with Lovecraftian horrors or exposure to Mythos lore. As a character loses sanity points she risks bouts of temporary insanity–uncontrollable fainting, fleeing, or screaming fits–followed by permanent psychoses or personality quirks. If her sanity points drop to zero, she slips into permanent madness.
In Cyberpunk 2020 cybernetic enhancement leads to a slow loss of humanity and a descent into cyberpsychosis. Each character maintains an empathy stat, a measure of his ability to empathize and interact with other people. As he implants more and more technology, his empathy score falls and he becomes cold and calculating, more machine than man. If his score reaches zero, he slips into a violent and sociopathic rage, consumed by a hatred of humanity and organic life.
White Wolf’s classic World of Darkness games featured various corruption mechanics. In Vampire: The Masquerade, immoral or vicious choices cause a loss of humanity and a strengthening of the beast. A vampire given totally over to their beast is a force of violence and hunger. The ghosts in Wraith: The Oblivion struggle against their inner shadow, a tendency towards nihilism and hopelessness. If their emotional energy or pathos is totally spent the ghost transforms into a spectre, an agent of oblivion.
In The One Ring from Cubicle 7, a roleplaying game set in Tolkien’s Middle-earth, Sauron’s corruptive will preys on the innate flaws of the characters. Suffering or witnessing tragedy or traveling through regions under Sauron’s control will increase the characters’ Shadow score. The results of the Shadow depend on the driving forces and flaws of the characters: treasure-hunters grow increasingly greedy until they descend into thieving madness, those that seek the power to protect their people descend into tyranny.
These corruption mechanics fall into several categories:
- Innate to the character. The struggle is part of the character’s nature and must be suffered regardless of the character’s choices. Examples: Vampire and Wraith
- The result of an adventurous life. If the characters stayed home, the dangers could be avoid, but by choosing to adventure the characters endanger themselves. Examples: The One Ring, The Call of Cthulhu.
- The price of power. The danger of corruption is the cost of additional power and abilities. Examples: The Call of Cthulhu (learning and casting spells), Cyberpunk 2020.