02 January 2014

Madness checks

The tabletop roleplaying game Unknown Armies has a great system for dealing with the psychological shocks of the characters' adventures, a more complex iteration of the sanity system from the classic Call of Cthulhu game, in which characters can be expected to eventually go mad from exposure to Nameless Horrors.

There are five kinds of madness in Unknown Armies, representing different types of psychological stress. Shocking experiences can make a character either hardened to them or fragile about them (or both!), depending on the way the dice fall. Thus a character can become hardened against experiences of the unnatural, but fragile in the face of violence. (Get hardened or fragile enough, and the character goes insane.)

In the game as written the player rolls percentile dice against the character's Mind score when something shocks them; rolling over the Mind attribute number makes the character snap temporarily. In my games, I have a house rule where I make characters roll against different attributes depending on the nature of the shock:

  • Violence vs Body
    a frail character is more likely to panic in the face of violence
  • Unnatural vs 100-Mind
    an intelligent character is more vulnerable to being troubled by seeing something supernatural
  • Helplessness vs Soul
    a person with a grounded spirit can better face this threat
  • Isolation vs Mind
    an intelligent character has more to think about while alone
  • Self vs 100-Soul
    a person with a strong spirit would be more shaken by having their sense of self violated

Here's another idea that comes out of a conversation with Zed Lopez about a game based on 2d6 rolls, rather than percentile rolls.

As in Unknown Armies, shocks are ranked on a scale of how stressful they are. Seeing the ghost of someone you know to be dead might be a Rank 6 unnatural stress, while a Tentacle Monster From Another Dimension which speaks in that person's voice might be a 10. As in Unknown Armies, if your character's Hardened score for that stress is greater than its rank, you don't need to roll. (“Bah! I've seen weirder!”)

When you do have to roll, you determine the effect like this:

  • Under Hardened:
    The character keeps their cool and gets another point of Hardened
  • Between Hardened and the Stress Rank:
    The character snaps (fight, flee, freeze, or freakout) and gets another point of Fragile
  • Above the Stress Rank:
    The player gets to choose:
    • Snap (fight, flee, freeze, or freakout)
    • Take a Hardened point
    • Take a Fragile point

This makes it so that a more severe stress not only overcomes the defenses of more hardened characters, it also makes characters more likely to snap and become more fragile, which makes sense. Hardened characters tend to get more hardened still; less hardened characters are more likely to become more fragile. And rolling well doesn't completely protect a character, it gives the player a hard choice about the consequence of the encounter, which is fun for roleplaying.

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