Scary Shit Mechanics in Old School Games – part 1

Medieval trepanation to let the evil mists out

This post has been living on my hard drive as a draft since March 1, collecting dust. Since RPGPundit made a post about sanity mechanics in Old School Games yesterday, I’d like to add my thoughts on the topic, while it’s hot.


Ever since we started playing Call of Cthulhu my players fear one thing more than bodily harm: Sanity loss.

Indeed, more of our former Call of Cthulhu Investigators now reside in Asylums around the globe, than in graveyards.

Should you want something similar in your Old School Game of choice, there’s no built in mechanic for this. Some more recent versions of the game offers solutions though, and it’s my intention to comment some of them here. I’m sure there’s more variants, but these are the ones that I own.

So without much further ado, here’s my OSG list of “Scary Shit Mechanics”

Ravenloft 2e

The Ravenloft 2e book “Domains of Dread” was my first encounter with fear & sanity mechanics for OSR games. In fact, it was my first contact with Ravenloft other than the original 1e module. In Ravenloft, the horror mechanic separates between “mental conditions” called Fear, Horror and Madness. Fear is used when the PCs encounter something scary, but not with too much supernatural overtones. Horror is defined as a more intense feeling, such as when the mind rejects what the senses are telling him. While Fear and Horror are passing states, the most severe mental condition is Madness, which lies beyond fear and horror. This kicks in when the PC has experienced things which the mind cannot cope with. Madness is also a more permanent state. To handle all this, characters have 3 new saving throw categories (Fear, Horror & Madness) that are used to avoid the effects of respective scary category. The concept is that if you miss your saving throw, you roll on the appropriate table to see what befalls you. There’s also a huge list of modifiers to the saving throws.

Crypts & Things

Crypts & Things by d101 Games are a Swords & Sorcery variant of Swords & Wizardry. The game introduces a sanity mechanic (derived from Akratic Wizardry) which much mimics the rules in Call of Cthulhu. Basically, characters have a new statistic called “Sanity”, which starts out equal to the Wisdom stat. When experiencing sanity-blazing stuff, characters most roll a successful save or lose 1d6 Sanity. When Sanity reaches zero, the character goes temporarily insane, and is run by the GM until the characters Sanity is raised again. This can be done by resting (1 point/day) and magic. However, any further Sanity loss when at zero Sanity is deducted from Wisdom and if this should reach zero the character is permanently insane and becomes an NPC. In this game, the casting of black magic also abrades the character’s Sanity.

Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque II

In TotGaD II, a mechanic resembling the one in Ravenloft is suggested. Similarly,it is split into Fear, Horror and Madness, but instead of special saving throw categories, the ordinary saves are used, and it is basically a simplified version of the one presented in Ravenloft.

Fantastic Heroes & Witchery

FH&W takes the same approach as Crypts & Things, using a Sanity stat, equal to Wisdom. However, the author proposes a more modest sanity loss of 1 or maybe maximum 1d3 Sanity point loss when overcome by scary things. However, there’s some differences when it comes to the effects of Sanity loss. Lost Sanity can be regained by rest (1 point/week), prayer and repentance and magic. Characters can also use drugs and alcohol to regain temporary Sanity points, allowing them to function, but with the usual nasty side effects . When a character reaches zero Sanity points, he will collapse into hysteria or catatonia and basically will be incapable of adventuring. Here, FH&W suggests a new variant: by accepting an insanity, the character can stay operational even into negative Sanity points (1d6 for a Minor Insanity, 2d4 for a Major Insanity). There’s also a few suggestions for what these minor and major insanities could be.

Summary and comments on the systems

As can be seen there’s basically two different philosophies here:

1. The Ravenloft/TotGaD variant separates Fear, Horror and Madness on an increasing “threat scale”. When scared, you roll a save, and if you miss something bad happens and you get to roll on some tables to determine the effects. Madness is the result of severely botched rolls. This is a dichotomic mechanism. Either you make or you don’t.

2. The Crypts & Things/Fantastic Heroes & Witchery adds the Sanity point pool, which can be viewed as “mental hit points”, which absorbs “mental damage” and erodes over time, and when gone…well…you are too.

Insanity and it’s effects on role-playing

Some OSR games have lists of insanities that can befall a character. The latest, I saw in my shiny new “The Complete Vivimancer” (awesome book, by the way). There’s also a list in the 1e Dungeon Master’s Guide and I’ve heard that there’s one included in Adventures Dark & Deep (although I don’t own that book).

What is often lacking, even in horror-based games like Call of Cthulhu, is advice on how these mental afflictions affect a character and advice on how to run insane characters.  This issue is something I’d like to come back to this in a later post, to discuss some ideas I’ve used in Call of Cthulhu.

Are fear & insanity rules even to be used in OSR gaming?

When I posed the question of where to find fear & insanity rules for OSR games over at Dragonsfoot a few years ago, there was a lot of people feeling that these kind of rules had no place in Old School games, and that these things should be “role-played”. Of course, that may be your preference, but I think that there’s definitely a place for these mechanics, especially if you run dark fantasy games.

I’ve never (not even in Kultwhich is a scary scary game) managed to inspire (as a GM) or managed to experience (as a player) the kind of horror that a scary movie can invoke.

Some GMs recommend scary music, playing candlelight and other gaming tips in order to invoke the right feeling of dread. For me, this is an anachronism, as Old School d20 gaming is pretty far from this style of gaming. In my opinion, if you want to run dark or horror fantasy, some kind of fear & insanity system is of great help to get the players in the right mood. Not only having to worry about death and maiming at the claws of some cave monster, there’s also the threat of literally shitting your pants or abandoning your friends and run to mama.

I’ve never, ever seen a player spontaneously going bazonkers and drop the weapons and run, or starting to attack his buddies in a frenzy or just sit down and weep. Players don’t do that. They see themselves as invincible heroes. They are all Aragorn or Conan. That’s where the mechanic comes in – to facilitate role-playing.

And that’s my take on it – I see the fear & insanity mechanism as an incentive for role-playing these kinds of things, and it’s also an alternative way to step up the danger level in your games. Basically, it’s about “mental critical hits & fumbles”.

Final comment

Which path to take? Personally, I like to keep the SAN mechanic for my d100 and Call of Cthulhu games, and use something else for Old School Games. I think the “save or take the consequences” are more in line with Old School d20 gaming, but that’s just my personal preference. I also think that acute fear and reactions to that fear is one thing, while more long-lasting effects like insanity is something else. This is also catered for in the first variant. Whichever variant you choose, I think will enhance the scary parts of your game, and in turn enhance the gaming experience for all.

There will be a Part 2 of this post, where I discuss insanity and some simple mechanics to help running insane characters.


4 thoughts on “Scary Shit Mechanics in Old School Games – part 1

  1. There was a thread on a few years ago, where people were debating if and how players could feel SCARED, instead of just a mechanic that simulated fear for the characters.

    Well, I’ve known fear in old school play. You get a character up to 4th level, nearly a year of playing the campaign and then you see wraiths come out of the walls? I was a dwarf cleric/thief, and knew that with my armor class, turn ability and saving throws I was the anchor of the party. But holy shit did I not want to lose levels! That was tense.

    But you know? This was Apparently level drain is a bad mechanic.


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