Scary Shit Mechanics in Old School Games – Part 2 – Mental Disorders

The Werewolf of Bedburg, 1589

Since I wrote the first post on this topic, I’ve been trying to figure out the perfect Fear & Sanity system for my Old School games.

Actually, there’s a whole lot of good stuff to find out there, and some good RPGs to nick ideas from:

OpenQuest 2 by d101 games has a dead simple mechanic.

Renaissance by Cakebread & Walton has a simple, yet very playable mechanic built on the one in OpenQuest.

Call of Cthulhu is the original. A bit dry, but good for designing your own system.

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 2e has their own mechanic, but basically very similar to both the above. Furthermore, flavorful descriptions of the insanities, and the consequences for the afflicted player, as well as for the GM are included. Good stuff.

I know that I promised “advice” on how to run insane characters. I have also realized how silly that idea was. Instead, I’ll discuss some ideas on how to construct your own ultimate Fear & Horror system.

Fear & Horror system worklist

The first thing is to decide whether you want a Saving throw → direct consequence system, or if you want a Saving throw → Loss of Mental Hit Points (SAN) → direct consequence system.

The next step is to make a distinction between direct consequences of Fear & Horror, and the more long term serious consequences of insanity. I’d make a table of Direct Consequences, which would be the result of a missed saving throw. These could be things like Flee, Soil Your Pants, Rage, Repulsion etc. Also, define the direct game consequences of these afflictions, and their duration.

If you use some kind of Sanity Points system you also need to define the amount of Sanity Points the PC would loose. I’d make an easy list like: 1 SAN for scary but trivial things, 1d4 for more scary things etc. Of course, you will need to scale this against how many Sanity Points your system includes.

After this, you need to define what it takes to make a hero go loco. In a Sanity Point based system this could be when SAN reaches 0. In a Saving throw direct consequence system, Insanity could happen if you roll a Critical Failure (1) on your Save. You now need one (or several) table(s) with different Insanities and their consequences for that PC.

Some games dictate that insane PCs are out of play and handed over to the GM. I don’t agree. Playing these sometimes erratic and random characters are great fun, and present lots of opportunities for rememberable role-playing events. 

So how to create such a table/list?

One way is to look to science. Here’s a list following the DSM-5 system, but much simplified. This is one way of classifying these conditions:

Adjustment disorders – Stress disorders

Anxiety disorders – Fear, worry and anxiety disorders. Phobias are found here.

Dissociative disorders – Disassociation in consciousness, personality including memory/identity.

Eating disorders – Obsessive concerns with eating patterns and weight.

Factitious disorders – Acting as you have an illness, even damaging self.

Impulse-Control disorders – Inability to control impulses.

Mental disorders due to a general medical condition – Mental disorders due to other disease.

Neurocognitive disorders – Disorders that affect memory and cognition.

Mood disorders – Characterized by changes in mood.

Neurodevelopmental disorders – Intellectual disability, autism, ADD are found in this group.

Personality disorders – Maladaptive patterns of thoughts, feelings and behaviors.

Psychotic disorders – Loss of contact with reality. The classic example would be schizophrenia.

Sexual disorders – Those that impact sexual functioning.

Sleep disorders – Interruptions in sleeping patterns.

Somatoform disorders – Mental disorders that involves physical symptoms without a physical cause.

Substance-related disorders – Related to use/abuse of various substances.

Just by looking at this broad classification system I get a lot of nefarious ideas…

Of course, such a list is kinda dry for game use, but as a source of inspiration or knowledge for the GM it’s a treasure trove, I think. Also, some of these are more appropriate for PCs, while others are hard to link to game events.

Once you have made your list or table, you can of course use it randomly (the gonzo option), or  the GM could assign a fitting Mental disorder (the ambitious option). For example, for the PC that was almost drowned by that Water Elemental, an Anxiety disorder – Phobia vs. water would be a nice fit. Or maybe a sleep disorder involving water would be better. This approach would maybe also allow for the player to immerse in the role-playing better, but of course depends on the thematics of the game.

Your list should also mention the in-game consequences of these afflictions. For our water-phobic friend above, it could mean that (i) he must roll a Save when encountering “watery” situations. If missed, you make use of the Fear & Horror mechanic discussed above. In this case, the insanity makes an ordinary situation into a fear situation for the afflicted character. Of course, there’s the chance of even more SAN loss…

Here’s a more detailed list of diagnoses to help building those tables/lists.

The Saving Throw

For the important Saving Throw I would use the Petrify/Polymorph (harder) or Poison/Death (easier) or Will (FH&W and B&T) saves for Mental Saves. Maybe adjusted by the Wisdom modifier and other mods you see adequate.

Mental Hit Points/Sanity Points

Another question, if you want to use Sanity Points is how many SAN the characters should get. Several OSR games recommend that you start the game with Sanity points equal to your Wisdom score. If so, the Sanity loss couldn’t be that great. Maybe 1-2 points per fear-inducing encounter. Renaissance (above) uses a system where you can go down to negative the positive score. So a PC with SAN 12 could function down to SAN –12. However, there is one list of consequences and insanities when you’re above 0, and a much more severe one that is used when you’re into the negatives. Of course, the potential SAN-loss can be greater, up to 1d6 or 1d8 for really sanity-blasting stuff.

A last remark

The use of a Fear & Horror system must of course be adapted to the style of the game you wish to play. I would definitely tone it down in a high fantasy or gonzo style of game, while for a darker fantasy game I would definitely use it.

Personally, I use Jack Shear’s system from Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque for my OSR games. It’s in line with those types of games, and dead simple. And free.

Writing this gave me some cool ideas, and maybe, if I come up with something cool, I’ll publish a PDF with my Fear & Sanity rules. Also, stay tuned for part III of this series – about insanity in medieval times and how to cure your insane character. 

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