“for Earth alone was lawful and constituted of ordered matter, drifting in the sea of Chaos-stuff as it had done for aeons.”
M. Moorcock, Earl Aubec
“We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.”
H. P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu
Our baseline is an alternate 1920’s Earth, and the milieu is broadly the same. We are between two great wars. The Americas (the “Young Kingdoms”) have been independent for more than 2 centuries, and the British (Melnibonean) Empire will shortly be in decline. Britain is part way through introducing Women’s Suffrage. Al Capone is bootlegging alcohol in Chicago.
But it’s an alternate earth, and one that straddles Moorcockian and Lovecraftian cosmology. The outlook between the two is more similar than different; Earth is a small island of stability in an infinite sea of change. But aside from being rather more optimistic than Lovecraft, the principle feature of Moorcock is that this fundamental philosophical concept is more or less out in the open. There’s no comforting veneer of human faith (Christian or otherwise) to cushion the mind from a black eternity; and while humans may fool themselves that siding with Law or Chaos will win them some kind of afterlife, it’s more of a business arrangement than an act of devotion.
One of the significant themes of Moorcock’s Eternal Champion is the transition from mankind serving the whims of gods to forging its own destiny; however this would be just as unplayable as a truly Lovecraftian setting where mankind’s destruction was inevitable and outside the control of the protagonists. Instead we need to consider the human attitudes towards Law and Chaos and what motivates humans to do good, rather than just being self-serving.
Sanity goes hand in hand with the notion of a Veil between the mundane world and the supernatural, a staple of most horror and certainly horror-themed RPGs.
Here in our alternate Earth, there is no Veil. In Call of Cthulhu the loss of SAN is the human mind being confronted with a reality that it cannot comprehend, as the narrator in the original story alludes to. But this starts to make less sense when Cosmic Law and Chaos are overt concepts. Our alternate 1920s accepts the vast and unknowable nature of gods (well, more or less), and humans may not understand their gods, but they understand smiting.
Still, you can expect that most humans will never be in contact with their gods, and will deal for the most part with powerful proxies. Being in the presence of actual Chaos (or indeed Law) may have a profound effect on the observer. Whether you rationalise that effect as actual loss of sanity, or some physiological effect is up to you. I’d like to avoid any implication that people serve Law and Chaos because they’re insane, however. In the books allegiances were mostly either rational choices or contracts the protagonist could not break.
The in-game role of SAN is to direct a PC’s action when they go insane, and this is still viable even if the definition makes less sense. In Elric! (and presumably Stormbringer 5e) the old system of “Elan” was replaced with Allegiance to Law, Chaos and the Balance, and under this system it’s possible for PCs to maintain some level of allegiance with all three (being free willed). However when the difference exceeds 20 points in any direction, that PC is said to be allied to one of the three powers and may make use of such an arrangement with supernatural boons from their patron.
What happens if the difference between Allegiances exceeds the character’s current SAN? Are they forced to unswervingly obey their new master? Does SAN give man the capacity to maintain conflicting viewpoints, and ultimately maintain free will?
There’s opportunity for some interplay between the various Allegiances and SANity. Allegiances grow as a consequence of character actions; SANity is lost mostly through bad luck, with the occasional foray into forbidden tomes that Man Was Not Meant To. Speaking of forbidden knowledge…
One cannot have CoC without the Mythos. But if Law and Chaos are generally understood, what place does the Mythos have?
The modern 20th Century character may be living in a world that has evolved from the wild and dark fairytale of Elric’s time, but they have thousands of years between that time and the modern day. Context has changed, and humans no longer have Aubec’s perspective on the finite nature of Law and the vastness of Chaos. Law and Chaos are to a large extent what the Earthly priests tell the population they are. The society may be broadly secular with devotion to Law or Chaos being more of a business arrangement (and we’ll discuss the influence of the two sides on national and international politics later).
The Mythos then becomes a measure of how much closer the character is to the fundamentals of Law/Chaos compared to the average citizen. Rather than deny the existence of the Elder Gods, humanity simply glosses over the true horrors of Law and Chaos. The net result is not a lot really changes in this interpretation from CoC, although it’s more akin to priests of Yig and Shub-Niggurath practicing their faith openly in human society. The priests are still human, and any presentation of their god will place it in a human context.
Now we come to the really big question: what relationship do the Elder Gods have to the Lords of Chaos and Law? We’ve already noted that humans do not deal with the gods directly but through earthly proxies; therefore the Mythos is seen through the filter of those individuals. Are Arioch, Arkyn and others truly gods, or are they powerful and manipulative humans? Are the Variable Eight of the Chaos pantheon a modern reinterpretation of the Elder Gods, or are they a younger pantheon of usurpers?
Regardless of the answers, we also need to decide why the current political structure would want to keep the Elder Gods a secret, and what the consequences of discovery might be. My first game focused on the Mabelrode Commission and investigations into “Old Chaos” (as distinct from “New Chaos”, q.v. Old and New Labour) and for the most part functioned like a CoC police procedural with “licensed magic” alongside badges of authority and .38 revolvers.
I wanted to get this part out of the way, because the treatment of Sanity and the Mythos will colour the rest of the game. The decision points are
– what is the relationship between the deities of Law and Chaos and the Elder Gods?
– what does Sanity represent?
– what is the Mythos to an early 20th Century citizen?
– how many degrees of separation are there between the Chaos Gods and the mortal population?
– what do the “new” gods of the Earth gain from keeping the Elder Gods a secret?