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. 

You lucky, lucky bastard… On luck mechanics in Old School Games

You lucky, lucky baaaastard…

The first RPG I played that included luck was Cyberpunk 2013. At the time I liked it a lot, but I never thought to port it over to other games.

Lately, I’ve come across some kind of luck mechanic in Mongoose RuneQuest (now Legend), OpenQuest 2, RuneQuest 6, Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play 2E and Dungeon Crawl Classics.

I think it’s kinda cool that the player can use his luck to influence his fate, at least to a degree. Call it Fate, Luck or like me…Karma.

Why, you might ask, would I ever want this for my games?

If you, like me, loathe “Sticks of Healing”, “Shoes of Wishes” and other magic ass-saving items, this is a way to give the PCs some control over their fates, while not having to hand out all those magic items all the time.

And the would-be-dead PC will still be badly hurt, but miraculously not dead. And the hopelessly insane Dwarf will still be insane, but curable given the right circumstances. For me, it fits the less magic, and much darker tone I strive after these days.

Here’s a simple system you can bolt on to your OSR Game of choice:

At character generation, all PCs get 2 Karma Points. No more.

These can be used to:

  • Re-roll a botched roll (be it a Save, To Hit or Skill Check).
  • Downgrade the effect of such a roll (for example downgrade a Fumble to just a miss, or a Death Result on that Crit Table to a Serious Damage instead).
  • Make another player, or the GM to re-roll a dice roll (for example a Critical Hit on your character).

Downside is, though, that ONCE GONE, KARMA POINTS STAYS GONE.

So use them wisely, Adventurer!


If you like, of course you could use Karma as a serious reward from the Gods after they have managed a Brütal campaign, foiled that über-boss Demon or whatever you deem fit. However, I’d recommend that the amount re-gained in these circumstances would be  1 (one) Karma Point and not more.



Are you experienced? – Some ideas for an alternative XP system for Old School games

When we played Caverns of Thracia using the Rules Cyclopedia a few years ago I went nuts over the old school xp system, and ever since I’ve been thinking of a good way to solve it. For a while I was going for Akrasia’s house rules variant in Crypts & Things (also on Akrasia’s blog, here). Then, I started meddling with OpenQuest 2 (a d100 variant) and was very pleasantly surprised, as the system presented there was the best I’ve seen for d100 games. The more I thought about it, I think it will work just fine for Old School d20 games as well, with some tweaks.

So, here’s my ideas, based on OpenQuest 2 (d101 games) and Renaissance (Cakebread & Walton). Basically, I wanted to get away from xp for monsters and above all, xp for gold. Why? Because if killing monsters and take their loot is the only thing that will yield xp, then that what’s the PCs will do. Exclusively, in some games. Other that that, the whole xp economy makes the game feel like “Papers & Paychecks”, to paraphrase the DMG.

Alternative XP rules for Ye Olde Game

Improvement Points, not Experience Points

In the first stage, xp is gone, replaced by Improvement Points (IP). This is what you get, and then you can “buy” xp with them.

These are the things you get IPs for:

Participating in a game session: 1
Reward for showing up and playing with the buddies.

Minor goal achievement: 1
Minor goal achievement examples: Minor, but important goals such as: finding out whodunnit, sneaking past the cultist guards, impressing the princess etc.

Major goal achievement: 2
Major goal achievement examples: Catching the guy whodunnit, stealing the blasphemous item the cultists were guarding, having a relation with the princess etc.

Über goal achievement: 3-4
Über goal achievement examples: This is only for achievement of overarching campaign goals, like finishing a difficult adventure, banishing the most evil demon, saving the Kingdom etc.

Being the player that helped the others have the most fun: 1
The players vote for the session’s top player!

Monster xp (optional): Monster HD minus PC level = IP
If you use Monster xp, then it follows that it’s only by defeating monsters that are more powerful than the PCs, that will yield IPs. Alternatively, use Monster HD minus mean PC level.

Buying xp with IP

Each IP is worth: 100 xp × current level +1

(Example: For a 3rd level PC each IP is worth 400 xp). In my opinion, average IP/session should be 2-5 or something like that.

You will want to adjust exactly how many xp each IP is worth in your game, depending on how fast you want the PCs to level up, and what rule set you use. The table below shows xp needed for the various levels and the progression of IP vs. xp value/level. Also shown is the number of sessions needed to level up using the rate above and assuming an IP “income” of 5 IP/session. The xp table is from Fantastic Heroes & Witchery (FH&W), and the numbers in parentheses in the right column is corresponding values if Swords & Wizardry Complete is used (Fighter table).


Level xp for this level 1 IP worth in xp No of sessions needed to next level (assuming 5 IP/session)
1 0 100 4 (4)
2 2000 300 3 (2.5)
3 4500 400 5 (4)
4 10000 500 10 (6.5)
5 25000 600 16.5 (10.5)
6 50000 700 28.5 (18)
7 100000 800 50 (25.5)
8 200000 900 66.5 (57)
9 300000 1000


FH&W in the example use a 13-level system, so xp demands go up faster than in most Old School variants. In the table below I’ve collected xp (fighter) from some different games.

Level FH&W B&T LL S&W
1 0 0 0 0
2 2000 2000 2035 2000
3 4500 4000 4065 4000
4 10000 8000 8125 8000
5 25000 16000 16251 16000
6 50000 32000 32501 32000
7 100000 64000 65001 64000
8 200000 128000 120001 128000
9 300000 250000 240001 256000
10 600000 500000 360001 350000
11 900000 750000 480001 450000
12 1200000 1000000 600001 550000
13 1500000 1250000 720001 650000
14 1950000 1500000 840001 750000


As you can see, the power curve differs some, but as a rule xp needed to level up increase a lot as levels go up. Traditionally, this has been handled by (i) handing out more and more treasure, (ii) increasing monster difficulty (and I still think the xp:s for monsters defeated are ridiculously low). Using this system, the same problem persist. My solution is either (i) hand out more IP, (ii) increase the IP xp worth over time, or accept that it will take long time to level up after some time.
The approach below would smooth out the increasing xp curve some:

Each IP is worth:
Level 1-5: 100 xp × current level +1
Level 6-10: 200 xp x current level +1
Level 11-15: 300 xp x current level +1

Yet another way is to skip the xp entirely and use the IP directly by assigning a certain required number of IP to level up, for example 20 IP between each level if you want a flat level increase rate. Or make your own IP Table:


Level IP to next level
1 10
2 10
3 15
4 15
5 20
6 20
7 25
8 25
9 30


The more mathematically inclined may want to compute the original algorithm behind the progression rate the xp tables of their preferred game, and apply the same rate in IP instead.

So. Food for thought, huh?