Fear and Loathing in a World of Madness: the Loss of Sanity in Sword & Sorcery Gaming

I believe it goes without saying that Dungeons & Dragons has the “sword” part of sword & sanity covered very well. There are rules and optional rules for combat that have been written and tweaked, and written again for decades now. Combat rules for D&D range from being simple and almost narrative, to verging on the edge of being considered wargaming. The great thing is that you can pick and choose what you like, and use the rules you feel most fits your gaming style.

What about sanity? This is not an area that has been covered as extensively in the development of D&D. Sure there are rules out there. The sanity rules included with the Freeport material is an example of this, as are the rules for Call of Cthulhu d20, and also with the Ravenloft setting. There may be other variations floating around, but these are the three I am familiar with, and also the games I took inspiration from when compiling the rules presented below.

What follows is a proposed system for tracking a character’s sanity (with some minor tweaking this should work with any of the various editions of Dungeons & Dragons. As stated before, these rules were written for Castles & Crusades, and are considered Open Game License):

Fear and Loathing in a World of Madness: the Loss of Sanity in Sword & Sorcery Gaming

While adventuring in a sword & sanity campaign it is assumed that eventually the characters will face the Outer Dark, and their mental health will be challenged and possibly compromised or even damaged. This system will help track these unfortunate occurrences.

The sanity rules being presented are designed for sword & sorcery gaming, where the action is furious and the situations potentially deadly. A minimal amount of rules are being presented to keep the pacing of the game fast. This means that concessions have been made, and in some areas reality compromised. These are not simulationist rules, just as D&D combat rules are not written to simulate every swing of the sword.

When will a characters Sanity be tested?

  • Encountering the Unknown – fantasy gaming is filled with fantastic creatures and situations, and characters face these things head-on almost nonstop, so in many ways the “fantastic” becomes commonplace and tends to loose that which made it fantastical in the first place. When characters face something from the Outer Dark that is truly alien, demonic or macabre they are facing the Unknown. In addition to a Sanity check the character will also need to save vs. Fear (see Fear checks below).
  • Faced with an Extremely Shocking Situation – seeing a person brutally killed, or facing a foe that is truly horrific can cause a sudden shock to the system. This is where a character’s fight or flight instinct kicks in and takes over. In addition to a Sanity check the character will also need to save vs. Fear (see Fear checks below).
  • Reading Forbidden Tomes – society has deemed certain occult literature as blasphemous. Research into the Cthulhu Mythos, the Outer Dark, or the black arts can compromise a characters mental stability.
  • Black Magic Spell Use – when dabbling in the black arts (sorcery, necromancy, etc.) there is always a price to pay, and a character’s mental health is almost always affected. There is a potential for sanity loss when a black arts spell is researched, learned or attempted to be cast.
  • Worshiping Great Old Ones or Demons - practicing religious ceremonies in honor of the Great Old Ones or to demonic forces has an insidious and corrupting effect on ones psyche.
Sanity Checks
  • Making a Sanity Check - a Sanity check is made against a character's Wisdom (adjust roll with WIS bonus + Level).
  • Challenge Level - this usually equals a creatures Hit Dice, or the game master will assign as needed.
  • Situational Modifiers - the game master will adjust the target number for the Sanity check according to the situation.
  • Successful Sanity Check - the character suffers no loss of Sanity Points.
  • Failed Sanity Check - the game master rolls for the appropriate Sanity Point loss. This is situational, and should be approached carefully.
  • Critical Failure - while making a Sanity check if a natural 1 is rolled the character suffers double the Sanity Point loss.
Examples of Sanity Point loss:
  • Encountering a Deep One = 1d4
  • Facing a minor undead creature = 1d6
  • Watching a close friend die a violent death = 1d8
  • Undergoing sever torture = 1d10
  • Making a pact with a minor demon = 1d12
  • Reading the Necronomicon = 2d10
  • Encountering a Great Old One = off the charts

Fear Checks
  • Making a Fear Check - It is suggested that a Fear check be made when Encountering the Unknown or Faced with an Extremely Shocking Situation (see above). This will translate a truly horrific situation into game terms, and it helps illustrate how a character handles that situation. A Fear check is made against a character's Charisma (adjust roll with CHA bonus + Level).
  • Challenge Level - this usually equals a creatures Hit Dice, or the game master will assign as needed.
  • Situational Modifiers - the game master will adjust the target number for the Fear check according to the situation.
  • Successful Fear Check - If the character succeeds the check then the urge to flee is overcome, and the encounter can proceed as needed. Remember, just because the Fear check was successful does not necessarily mean Sanity Points are not lost. The game master will make this judgment call depending on the situation being faced by the character.
  • Failed Fear Check - If a Fear check is failed, then roll a 1d10 for results:
  1. = faints and is unconscious for d10 rounds
  2. = run away for 1d10 rounds
  3. = begins to cry uncontrollably for 1d10 rounds
  4. = falls to the grounds and begins praying to the gods for 1d10 rounds (even if an atheist)
  5. = begins to hyperventilate, takes 1d10 rounds to catch breath
  6. = to shocked to react for 1d10 rounds
  7. = begins to shriek uncontrollably for 1d10 rounds
  8. = babbles incoherently for 1d10 rounds
  9. = goes completely berserk and attacks the nearest combatant with no regard for tactics or alliances
  10. = goes completely berserk and attacks the source of the fear with no regard for their own well being
  • Critical Failure - when making a Fear check if a natural 1 is rolled the severity of the results are doubled.
Examples of Sanity / Fear Check Situational Modifiers:
  • +4 = a loved one is in danger
  • +2 = a friend or ally is in danger
  • +2 = the character has researched what he is about to witness
  • +1 = the character is of evil alignment
  • -1 = the character is alone
  • -2 = the character has already lost over half his hit points
  • -2 = the character has already failed a Sanity / Fear check in the last 24 hours
  • -4 = the character is in some way responsible for the events unfolding

Sanity Points

  • What are Sanity Points - much as Hit Points represent the physical well being of a character, Sanity Points represent mental well being and stability.
  • Starting Sanity Points = INT + WIS + CHR (the total of a character's mental attributes)
  • Current Sanity Points - this is the total number of Sanity Points a character has remaining at that moment in the game. This total will constantly rise and fall as the game progresses.
  • Recording Sanity Points - make sure Starting Sanity Points and Current Sanity Points are recorded for each character in the game, as these totals will not always be the same.
Sanity Loss
  • Temporary Insanity (Short-Term) - for every 10 Sanity Points lost the character has the potential to experience short-term Temporary Insanity. Roll a Sanity check with a -2 penalty. If successful the Temporary Insanity is avoided. If the check is failed then the character will suffer a symptom of the Temporary Insanity. If a natural 1 (Critical Failure) is rolled then roll twice on the chart. To determine the effects roll 1d10:
  1. = faints for 1d10 rounds
  2. = flees the area in uncontrollable panic for 1d10 rounds
  3. = becomes physically sick and nauseated for 1d10 rounds
  4. = begins to deny the situation is real, and cannot accept the truth of the matter for 1d10 rounds
  5. = babbles incoherently for 1d10 round
  6. = becomes unhinged and unable to control their own actions for 1d10 rounds
  7. = begins to hallucinate and becomes delusional for 1d10 rounds
  8. = becomes catatonic for 1d10 rounds
  9. = goes berserk and attacks the closest combatant without regard for tactics or alliances
  10. = becomes suicidal and tries to kill oneself
Note: A roll of 10 will also result in long-term Temporary Insanity (see below).
  • Temporary Insanity (Long-Term) - if half a character's starting Sanity Points are lost in a single round another Sanity check must be made at -5. If this check is failed then the character falls into long-term Temporary Insanity. If a natural 1 (Critical Failure) is rolled then roll twice on the chart. To determine the effects roll 1d10:
  1. = compulsive behavior (hand washing, constantly checking over equipment, etc.)
  2. = crippling flashbacks (requires a WIS check at -2 to overcome)
  3. = severe phobia (requires a WIS check at -2 to overcome)
  4. = uncontrollable nervous tic (requires a DEX check at -2 to overcome)
  5. = becomes dependant on drugs or alcohol to cope with day to day life
  6. = sever paranoia (requires a WIS check at -2 to overcome)
  7. = overwhelmed with severe depression and melancholy (requires a WIS check at -2 to overcome)
  8. = looses ability to speak
  9. = sever insomnia for 1d10 days (GM decides how this will effect gameplay)
  10. = amnesia for 1d4 weeks
  • Zero Sanity Points - when a character reaches 0 Sanity Points they will be trapped in a downward spiral of growing madness unless treated immediately.
  • Sanity Points Below Zero - for every new round after reaching zero Sanity Points the character will loose an additional Sanity Point until -10 is reached or the character is somehow stabilized. If a character reaches -10 Sanity Points then he is permanently insane.
  • Immediate Sanity Loss - there will be certain situations where a Sanity check is not needed, because the situation or creature being faced is so traumatic Sanity Points are drained no matter how hard the characters tried to fight it. This should be a very rare occasion, and the game master should tread lightly when making this call. Reading from a blasphemous tome is a good example of a situation that calls for immediate loss of sanity.
  • Permanent Sanity Loss - certain occasions will arise when a character's Sanity Points are lost and cannot be regained. Again, this should be a very rare thing, and the game master should only make this ruling when extreme situations warrant. Facing a Great Old One is a good example of a situation that calls for permanent loss of sanity.
  • Becoming Numb - once a character has experienced something that has compromised their sanity it is assumed they will not be required to make an additional Sanity check when faced with the same experience if this occurrence happens again within a "reasonable amount of time". This is a situational call that the game master will have to make. A reasonable amount of time could be a game session, or extended to encompass an entire adventure. In some cases this could be the entire course of an adventurer's carrier. It all really depends on the situation and what is being experienced, and comes down to a judgment call. Of course there will be some horrors that a character cannot become numb to.
Recovering Sanity Points
  • Rest and Relaxation - Sanity Points are difficult to recover. Most of the time Sanity Points can be regained if the character has uninterrupted rest and relaxation. A Sanity check is made at the end of each week the character has rested. If the check is successful a mental breakthrough is achieved that week, and 1d6 Sanity Points are regained. If this rest and relaxation occurs in a facility that provides constant care then the character has the potential to regain 1d10+2 Sanity Points per week.
  • Regaining Sanity Points Through Magical Aid - the sword & sorcery genre has varying degrees of magic depending on the setting. The GM will outline ways Sanity Points can and cannot be recovered. This could be through the drinking of potions, casting of spells, the use of magic items, or visiting sacred or magical places.
  • Through Hypnosis - either through the use of the Hypnosis skill (see below) or with the hypnotism spell a character's madness can be treated and lost Sanity Points regained. If Hypnosis is successful then through the power of suggestion the character can move past the trauma and regain 1d10 Sanity Points. This can be attempted once per week, and can be combined with other methods of treatment. If the Hypnosis is a failure then the hypnotist will need to wait a week before trying again.
  • Battling Temporary Insanity - once the character begins to show signs of Temporary Insanity it is very hard to escape the effects. For long-term Temporary Insanity a character will need to recover at least 75% of the total of their starting Sanity Points and make a successful Sanity check (adjust with a -2 penalty) to shake off the symptoms. If a Critical Failure (a natural 1) is rolled the character slips deeper into madness, looses 1d10+2 Sanity Points and must immediately roll for an additional long-term Temporary Insanity symptom.
Awarding Sanity Points
  • Sanity Point Award - when advancing to a new level the character automatically gains back 1d6 Sanity Points that were lost. The Sanity Points gained back can never exceed the character's starting Sanity Point total.
  • Raising Sanity Points Higher Than Starting Total - the only way to gain additional Sanity Points beyond that of the character's original total is by raising a mental attribute (INT, WIS or CHA).

Suggested Game Additions

Skills – it is suggested that if a skill system is present in the version of D&D you are running then these skills should be added to that skill list:

  • Forbidden Lore (Wisdom) – this skill represent the character’s knowledge in certain fields society as a whole has shunned and rejected due to their extremely dangerous nature. This skill can only be raised by spending precious Sanity Points. The exchange rate is 2 Sanity Points for 1 point in Forbidden Lore. Each point represents a bonus when trying to research and understand areas of Forbidden Lore. The game master can also require a specific level in Forbidden Lore before a tome or scroll, or even item is understood, and can be used. Also, when Facing the Unknown, and Sanity Points are lost permanently, Forbidden Lore is raised automatically and immediately at the same exchange rate listed above. This represents how the character gained some sort of dark twisted insight from the experience. Examples of Forbidden Lore: demonology, the black arts, mythology of alien and monstrous deities, eldritch tomes of a blasphemous nature, etc.
  • Hypnosis (Charisma) - this skill allows a character to probe into another character's psyche by inducing a deep trance. For Hypnosis to work, the subject must be calm, relaxed and willing to be hypnotized, and able to remain in a relaxed state uninterrupted for several minutes (1d6 x 10 minutes). A Hypnosis check is made as an opposed check against the target's Wisdom. If the subject is a trusted friend then the Hypnosis check is at +2. If the subject is not a friend then a successful Bluff check with a -2 modifier is required for the subject to be a willing subject and open to Hypnosis. Once the subject is willing then a Hypnosis check can be attempted at a -2 penalty. If the Hypnosis is successful then a suggestion can be planted, as per the hypnotism spell, or the subject can be aided in recovering Sanity Points (see above).

Feats / Abilities – depending on the version of D&D you are running it is suggested that this "power" be added either as a Feat or as an Ability, which is available to every character in the game no matter race or class:

  • Sensing the Unknown (Charisma) – this is the character’s natural talent that alerts him when a supernatural presence is near. This ability can be used in many ways, and can be improved upon through use. The Game Master can adjust the situational modifier as needed. Entities with stronger supernatural powers tend to have a stronger presence, which would give the character a bonus on their check roll.


"The Mist" Filtered Through the Sword & Sanity Lens

Pablo Picasso has been credited with uttering the phrase, “good artists copy, great artists steal.” This is an interesting thing for someone who was such a unique artist and individual to say. It is also great advice for a game master who is looking for inspiration for their next game. I am constantly inspired by the movies I watch, books that I read and art that I view, and when it comes to designing an adventure I am not afraid to steal a good idea when I see one. Having said that, I always try to put my own spin on things, and somehow make it my own.

For those who don't know, “The Mist” is a novella written by Stephen King, and the screen adaptation was recently released. It has been years since I read the story, so I am a bit fuzzy on some of the details, but I was very pleased with the way the movie turned out. I think the director did a fine job creating the proper tension, and over all creepy atmosphere the story needed. I have seen it multiple times now, and I think it is a great flick.

This brings me back to my original point, that “The Mist” is an excellent example of a story that would translate seamlessly into a sword & sanity adventure, and with little effort the plot can be pilfered outright and adapted for your next game. Being that this is one of Stephen King’s most Lovecraftian stories makes your work easy as a game master. Peel away the modern facade, replace it with the appropriate backdrop and you are golden. The grocery store can easily be exchanged for an inn where your weary adventurers have stopped in for rest. All that really needs to be done from there is adding in all the necessary non-player character (NPC) types this story calls for and let the mist begin creeping in.

Remember, the key character that helps build the needed tension is the religious fanatic who feverishly spouts off about doomsday and the end of the world. This individual relentlessly reminds the adventuring party that the end is near, and the situation is hopeless. This could be a regular person who happens to be working or staying at the inn, or it could be a local priest or nun who came looking for refuge from the mist.

When adding in NPCs make sure the player characters are the only real competent people in the story. If it is a small party then lightly pepper in a town guard or two. The whole point of this story is to drive the characters into a desperate situation that might not have a happy ending. Make sure to add several children and old folks into the mix. This will draw out the need for the adventurers to protect these people who are perfect strangers to them. Also remember at some point there needs to be certain individuals who insist on venturing into the mist, and no matter what the party does they will not change their mind. Think of ways to build tension and atmosphere by driving the party out of the safety of the inn.

As for the creatures coming from the mist and how they translate into the game, this really depends on the game you are running. The beauty of "The Mist" from a game masters stand point is that anything is possible. Don't be afraid to get a little crazy with the creature design. The players will realize they do not recognize their opponents, and this will help build the anxiety at the game table, because they will be unsure how tough the creatures are or how to handle them.The trick is knowing when to introduce creatures, and gauging their power level accordingly.

In future posts I will share other examples of inspiration (granted some may not be as obvious as "The Mist") that can be used in a sword & sanity game.