Review of the Call of Cthulhu supplemental Bouts of Madness Deck by Aaron Sinner and Todd Walden of Ruined Relic Games.

Bouts of Madness Deck Review – Call of Cthulhu

Review of the Call of Cthulhu supplemental Bouts of Madness Deck by Aaron Sinner and Todd Walden of Ruined Relic Games. Text version here: Buy on DriveThruRPG:  And credit to CryoChamber for use of their album ‘Cthulhu.’ Check out their youtube and bandcamp: 

In-Short: By far my most used supplement for Call of Cthulhu (despite fierce competition), enhancing the core mechanic of the game – insanity and madness.

Spoiler-lite for Players and Keepers:

Ruined Relic’s Bouts of Madness Deck is exactly what it says it is – a deck of cards that replaces the Keeper Rulebook’s Bouts of Madness. And it does an absolutely fantastic job at that, fixing almost every issue I had with the vanilla Bouts and improving everything great about them.

Despite insanity being Call of Cthulhu’s real core mechanic, and the Bouts of Madness being the main meat of insanity, the bouts don’t get too much attention. A few paragraphs on how they work, two small 10-entry tables for real time and summary bouts, and then two extensive lists of manias and phobias. Too extensive, really, as most of the phobias/manias make little sense in the situations they would arise (Ex: go mad seeing a Mi-go and suddenly gain a fear of dentists) and would then have little to no impact on the player’s future roleplaying of their investigator (how often does dentistry come up in a scenario?).

It’s always fun both as a player and as a Keeper when an investigator has a Bout of Madness, but after only a handful of scenarios, you’ll have seen all the whopping ten bouts and a lot of the anticipation for chaos is lost to ‘there’s the red mist again.’ I also got immediately tired of either having my investigator be ripped from my control for 1D10 rounds, or having to take control away from a player, not only because it’s not enjoyable to watch a player be bored for however long they have to wait out the Bout, but also because now I as a Keeper need to deal with another NPC.

The Bouts of Madness Deck does away with both issues with a much wider number of bouts and by giving agency back to the players, and it being a physical deck of cards (or a digital one if you can get it working on a VTT) also gives some fun options for house rules.

There are 54 cards in the deck, though with 8 of those devoted to manias and phobias (4 cards for each, and each card with 4 options), leaving 46 unique cards. That was my main hesitance before purchasing, as I worried that the cards could have just been the manias and phobias spread out across the cards, but that is thankfully not at all the case. With dozens of outcomes, there is far less chance of repeats, reenergising the chaotic anticipation of a bout. The deck also explicitly says players are meant to keep control of their investigators when acting out the bout, getting rid of weird loss of agency (and overburdening the Keeper) the vanilla mechanic has. The cards are almost all written in a way to encourage roleplaying as well, with only a couple knocking an investigator temporarily out of play, and one of those does so in a very fun manner anyways. While not mentioned in the description, almost all the Bouts also work as an underlying sort of mania or phobia, giving more roleplay juice even after the bout ends.

Being a physical deck, there are a couple ways of dealing the cards. The instructions, short as they are, suggest players not reveal what they drew to their other players (and perhaps Keeper), instead just doing whatever mechanical steps the card might ask for, then incorporating whatever the card says into their roleplaying. This not only gives the target player some fun roleplay fodder, but also draws the other players in as they try to figure out out-of-character what the bout might be, while in character their investigators may or may not immediately notice something is going horribly wrong with their companion.

There are few fun house rules that can be used with the deck. Some of my favourites are 1) allowing the players to keep the cards they draw through the session, stopping  repeats and also making a fun minigame of seeing who can collect the most cards before the game ends 2) not showing the Keeper what card the player drew, giving the Keeper some of that same chaos-energy confusion as an investigator unpredictably acts out, and 3) allowing players to draw two or three cards and keep the one that best applies to the situation (or they just find to be the most fun).

The cards vary in goofiness, with some being quite goofy indeed, but never tumbling into outright parody. They never fall too far the other way either, as despite a warning on the short description to have Keepers look over the cards before hand and remove any sensitive topics, there’s only really one potentially problematic outcome. Impressively, I only found one card out of the whole deck to be mechanically iffy, and it has an easy enough fix. A few manias and phobias are also not particularly useful, but those could be swapped out for something else without too much issue.

I’ll get into some specifics of those cards and suggestions below, as well as call out some of my favourites. Overall though, Ruined Relic Games’ Bouts of Madness Deck is now my favourite supplement for Call of Cthulhu, beating out some very tight competition from both Chaosium’s own published material (like the Malleus Monstrorum or Grand Grimoire) or third part and community material (like Sixtystone Press’ weapon catalogues, David Trotti and Amy Kate Conolly’s fantastic Japan Empire of Shadows, or my other favourite supplement, Heinrich Moore’s Call of Cthulhu Guide to Character Creation). Outside of scenarios that come with bespoke bouts, I don’t see my self ever not using the Bouts of Madness Deck. It’s not particularly bound to Call of Cthulhu either, and could easily be ported into other horror games.

A final note – I originally purchased just the pdf, being a bit worried that DriveThruRPG’s cardstock might be a bit shit like their POD book paper stock. While printing out the cards double-sided and cutting them out worked fine enough, after getting the chance to see and feel out the cards at Chaosium Con, I went ahead and ordered a physical deck. The cards are sturdy enough, look pretty good, and seem like they’ll last an acceptable amount of time. I do worry they wouldn’t survive contact with liquid and would fade if left in direct sunlight, but such is print on demand. For me, the trade off was worth have them available to shuffle and draw for in person games.

The Bouts of Madness Deck is available as a pdf or physical poker card deck on DriveThruRPG.

Before you go, maybe you would be interested in some of the below reviews or replays?
MJRRPG scenariosChaosium-released scenariosMiskatonic Repository scenariosJapanese scenarios




Spoilers Call of Cthulhu

This will be a short spoiler section, just covering a couple cards that could use a bit of tweaking, as well as some of my favourites.

The only potentially problematic card in the bunch is a ‘Self Harm’ bout. Everything else is fairly tame.

Mechanically, the only card I found to be a bit iffy is ‘You Only Live Once,’ which has the investigators pursue whatever hedonistic fantasy they have. Fair enough, but it only lasts for 1D10 rounds, which in most cases would mean the investigator wanders off for a bit then snaps out of it and comes back before managing to actually indulge in anything fun. I’d up that to 1D10 hours, but make it clear the investigator doesn’t need to immediately flee the scene to go eat ice cream or whatever, just whenever it feels safe to do so.

For manias and phobias, most of the options available are useful, but three of them are extremely situational and likely won’t give a player much to use. The two manias are Doromania (obsession with giving gifts) and Sesquidalomania (obsession with using long words), which are funny but would get old pretty quickly, and the phobia is Coinmetrophiba (fear of cemeteries) which would be pretty dull if the scenario takes place anywhere but a cemetery. With 31 available manias and phobias, those three can be avoided fairly easily, or replaced with any of the 200 listed in the book.

And now for some of my favourite cards, mostly the sillier ones:

  • The investigator is paranoid of birds and must try to destroy any they see.
  • Short term memory loss, where the investigator forgets everything that’s happened since they were last safe every round, not just for however long the bout is like Amnesia.
  • The investigator thinks their fellow investigators have been replaced by imposters.
  • The investigator thinks they are a secret agent and tries to make contact with their imaginary handler.
  • Trying to go back in time, the investigator tries to sneakily turn back clocks they see by one hour.

And many, many more. While the sillier ones won’t fit every group or situation, there are plenty more general-purpose ones, and allowing a player to pick two or three and chose the one that fits (or have the Keeper chose) can eliminate tonal lurches. Or, give into the silliest part of Call of Cthulhu, and let the bouts really go mad, even if it means the investigators start going on about spying birds or have a psychosomatic IBS. What a better way to die than to be eaten by a Shoggoth while desperately running for a toilet?

Again, the Bouts of Madness Deck is available as a pdf or physical poker card deck on DriveThruRPG.

Before you go, maybe you would be interested in some of the below reviews or replays?
MJRRPG scenariosChaosium-released scenariosMiskatonic Repository scenariosJapanese scenarios

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