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. 

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.