Spelling Out Horror and Sanity In Fantasy Roleplaying

A couple of months back James Raggi over at Lamentations of the Flame Princess discussed his opinion on how to handle the effects of horror within the framework of fantasy roleplaying. This post immediately grabbed my attention, as it did several others who responded with a long string of comments that varied wildly in opinion. Long story short, Jim stated that adding any additional rules that essentially worked as a way to measure horror and its effect on the player characters was a big waste of time. This would include any kind of fear check system that tested morale, sanity check system that tested the mental health of a character, and also the addition of a sanity point pool that would resemble a kind of mental hit points. Jim did share his advice on how he felt horror should be handled by the game master and how it should effect the characters (players) in the game, and that was to "just scare them."

Now, in all fairness I have to point out that I have been guilty of introducing new rules into my Dungeons & Dragons / Castles & Crusades game to handle sanity and fear. I am also a huge fan of Call of Cthulhu, which is famous for introducing its sanity point system to the gaming world, and I think that system works well for the context of that game. Having said this I have to admit that Jim got me thinking with his post.

I gave "just scare them" quite a bit of thought, but I wasn't sold. Let's face it, when is the last time a game master actually scared a player at the game table? Even an expert storyteller would be hard pressed to actually draw out an emotional response of fear from a player, no matter how macabre or frightening the tale. I am not saying it isn't possible, but chances are that the players at your table are too jaded to allow themselves to buy in to the horror of the game so much that they would allow themselves to actually be scared.

I do believe however a good game master can build an atmosphere that promotes an eerie vibe during the game. This is where H.P. Lovecraft shined as a master-builder of atmosphere within his stories. He carefully chose specific words that naturally drew the reader's mind to where he needed it to go, and meticulously crafted them through the methodical building of description of people, places and events. Though not always frightening, his storytelling was always atmospheric and accomplished establishing the weird effect he was after. I feel every game master should adhere to this same approach, especially when trying to run a horror game. The trick is to know when to pull back, and not reveal too much to the players.

As stated before, the "just scare them" statement did not impress me much at first, but I did not dismiss it all together. Now, Jim's sentiment about staying away from adding additional rules and headaches to the game struck home. If there is one thing gamers and game designers are guilty of is over-thinking the game. Myself included. No matter what roleplaying game you look at it seems that over time the game system gets more intricate, sometimes unnecessarily complicated and bogged down with new rules. So what is the solution then?

It occurred to me that the mechanics for handling horror and sanity were already there staring me in the face. When you look at the actual words horror and sanity, and think about what they mean and how they affect people, what are some of the buzzwords that come to mind? Scared, fear, confusion, repulsion, insanity, emotion, feeble-mindedness all readily present themselves. These words also are all represented as spells in most (if not all) fantasy roleplaying games, and this is where "just scare them" began to click, but in a little different way than Jim had suggested.

By using spells that already existed in the game a game master can emulate the effects of horror and sanity loss without having to reinvent the wheel. By attaching spell effects to creatures, situations, items and locations in the game a game master can also send a message of fear to the players by having their characters be physically and mentally affected in actual game terms. If there is one thing I have seen during my years of gaming it is the dread that washes over a player when they realize their character has the potential to be negatively affected in the game. But not just that, the spell effects are a perfect representation of how fear, insanity and the supernatural play havoc on the adventurers within the story, and everything needed for gameplay is laid out within the spell's description.

Here are a few quick examples of how this can be implemented:
  • Fear / Confusion - a party of adventurers stumble upon an ancient temple, and encounter an eldritch creature of the Outer Dark. The game master establishes that the party will suffer the effects of the spells Fear and/or Confusion if they do not make a successful saving throw. Potential outcomes include: fleeing the area, attacking the wrong opponent, dazed and standing frozen in one spot for a period of time, etc.
  • Feeblemind - a blasphemous tome is discovered by the player character. Over the course of the game the character takes the needed time to study the writings in the tome. What is found within the covers is too much for most mortal men to handle emotionally, spiritually or mentally. The game master establishes that anyone who studies this tome must make a successful saving throw or suffer the effects of the spell Feeblemind, or literally loose their mind.
  • Enfeeblement - upon entering an ancient forest the characters begin to realize there is something "off" about the place. In actuality the forest is haunted by the souls of long dead soldiers who died here many hundreds of years before. These poor souls still walk the earth in search of the loved ones they were never able to see again in life. The player characters are suddenly gripped with an overwhelming sadness, and a malaise begins to set in. The game master emulates this by attaching the spell Ray of Enfeeblement to the area and situation. If the characters fail their saving throw they will suffer the effects of the spell, and will be weakened in the process.
How potent the spell-like effects are in game terms can easily be adjusted through the use of penalties or bonuses to saving throws. Assigning a spell-like effect a casting level will dictate other things, like duration and area of effect. Leafing through several rulebooks I see so many spells that can be used to help create a horrific atmosphere in the game. Illusionary spells seem to lend themselves to this process very well.

So, in closing, attaching spell-like effects to items, places, situations and of course creatures to emulate the effects of horror opens up a whole new level of creativity for the game master, and it elegantly does so without introducing any new rules in the process.


Book of Worlds said...

The last time I know I scared my players... I would say at least four or five years ago, playing Vampire the Dark Ages. Before that, I have to go back some fifteen years, or so, to when after a a session of Ravenloft'inspired AD&D one of my players refused to walk home, instead crashing on the couch where we played.

Now I run a homegrown setting, heavily inspired by Lovecraft (amongst other things), and I try to keep a dark mood, and sometimes its even a little scary ;) Still, I agree that most players, even those who are new to the game, are oftentimes too jaded to get spooked.

R.R. Hunsinger said...

Great post, Mangus! I applaud the use of existing rule sets to accomplish the goal. I agree games can be overburdened by too many rules. The examples you give are spot on.
I have only accomplished the "just scare them" once in the twenty+ years I have run games.
You sir, are a genuis! ;-)

Alexy said...

Wow. I know I'm very late to the game, but this is a great post and a great idea. I'm catching up on your blog as I just found it a week or so ago. I am, coincidentally, starting a campaign of LL based on Lovecraftian and weird fantasy...trying to show some fantasy loving friends the other side of the genre--the "not King Arthur and Lancelot" side. Now I find your blog and see that you've developed a similar idea beautifully, both in thought and image. Bravo. Thank you for the contribution, my player-friends will enjoy it immensely.

Shane Mangus said...

@Alexy - Welcome! I am glad you find my stuff helpful. I hope you keep coming back, because I have a lot more in the works.

Greg G said...

Wonderful, thanks for point me to the post.

Noah S. said...

The problem is likely that many people, even good role players, have a hard time delineating between role playing someone whose sanity has been slighted, and one whose sanity has been shattered. In the same way that HP works, how do you play an arrow to the knee vs. one you just shrug off? I think the CoC insanity rules add the dreadful slippage into awfulness that some people crave. Some people don't like the mechanic, and they probably need a little less structure and more rounds of combat. Strange contradiction - I always feel that mechanics and dice rolling only ought to be added to improve the game. Chaosium's CoC does this, in a way that e.g. d20 CoC does not. The latter is chock full of mechanics and rolling.

I have come late to this discussion, but I send you a metaphorical flagon of hideously dark porter to quaff on this beautiful nigh-autumnal night.

Shane Mangus said...

Thanks for the comments, Noah. I agree that d20 games rely too heavily on rolling for every little thing. I guess I went back to using a saving throw mechanic for sanity and horror because it helps give the game a greater sense of pulp action, and my games lean more toward heroic fantasy than straight cosmic horror. I think the CoC has great sanity rules, and they fit the style of game CoC presents very well. This is why I don't use Cthulhu Dark Ages for my game. In the end, my games are still deeply rooted in fantasy, particularly sword & sorcery, with just a tinge of Lovecraft thrown in for flavor. Saving throws, at least to me, model how fear and sanity are presented in the Robert Howard stories.