Friday, June 25, 2010

Sanity in D&D

P.S. Mangus’ cthuloid approach to D&D got me to thinking about how in the world D&D characters maintain their sanity through all the gore and weirdness and terror they experience. I would certainly have some sort of PTSD after seeing my buddy’s face getting chewed off by a ghoul. While D&D characters are usually considered to be hardier than average peasants, it would be an interesting shift in the dynamics of D&D if there were some sort of psychological fallout from strolling through a supernatural meatgrinder every week.

One option for including a sanity metric in D&D is to simply add a Sanity attribute like in Call of Cthulhu. But, in order to preserve the simplicity and spirit of old school D&D, I might argue for using Wisdom as a measure of sanity. Wisdom is a sadly underutilized attribute anyway, why not do something fun with it? Potentially madness-inducing situations could call for a roll against Wisdom -  roll your Wisdom or under using a typical bell-curve d6 attribute check:

Somewhat creepy: 2d6
Pretty freaking nasty: 3d6
Brain meltingly horrific: 4d6

Rolling over your Wisdom would result in losing a point of Wisdom. To adjust for experiential adventure-hardiness, a character's level can be subtracted from the dice roll.

Once a PC goes below 4 Wisdom stressful situations would induce side effects similar to a Confusion spell. If Wisdom gets to 0 the PC goes permanently insane. To soften the effects a bit, Wisdom lost in the dungeons could be regained through some DM-determined period of R&R after the adventure.

There are a lot of ways DMs could house rule the effects of horror-induced Wisdom decay. Fear? Confusion? Paralysis? A psychotic reaction each time a Wisdom point is lost, or maybe only when certain lower Wisdom thresholds are crossed...? Interesting to think about.

Of course this would all change the flavor of the game tremendously, and bring it more in line with the nihilistic tone of Call of Cthulhu where most PCs end up dead or insane. I'll be the first to say this would not be to the taste of many traditional D&D players. It would make sandbox-type "elective adventuring" very difficult - PCs would have to be on life-threatening do-or-die missions to justify the risk of madness. For this reason it would probably not be desirable to include a sanity mechanic into my own campaigns at this time - it would make the players too timid I think.

Or maybe D&D PCs should be assumed to be insane from the start? Who else would wander into a place like The Tomb of Horrors?



  1. Despite my love for CoC (and degrees in Psychology) I am not a fan of sanity in D&D.

    The pulpy, swords and sorcery world of D&D does not seem to mesh well with the modern ideas of sanity. After all, you should be a little crazy to go off and search for treasure and hunt monsters.

    Plus after all the monsters that the adventures encounter, not to mention the ideas that magic and other species co-exist side by side with them, what would unhinge them?

    I like fear in D&D and even some horror and terror. But I don't think sanity is a great mix. At least not as it is portrayed in CoC.

  2. We used to play a lot of GURPS and when it came to fantasy, we thought long and hard about using the sanity rules. Eventually we decided not to, arguing that the PCs were pretty much an armed band of homeless sociopaths who were quite comfortable with violence and horror.

    Looking back, I find it odd that there are no guidelines for handling the mass slaughter during adventures. I think this is one of the reasons why our D&D games turn into slapstick melodrama from time to time. The whole set up is kind of absurd at times. How can people not be tempted to play a drunken scottish dwarf when that dwarf's occupation is murder and plunder. :)

  3. Hey, thanks for the mention. As the article you linked to states, I just let spell like effects handle sanity and horror in my games. Once I began approaching it this way things got much easier on the GM side of the screen. Having these things take a toll on a character's Wisdom is something I have used in the past, and it is a logical way to track mind shattering experiences the characters face, but in the end I decided not to add any additional rules as there were plenty of rules already there.

    Nice article!

  4. I think a sanity mechanic might or might not be useful depending on the tone/style of one's game. After all, Rio Bravo, Unforgiven, and Blood Meridian are all Westerns with violence, but they very different takes on the level of horror, and personal toll they horror might take on those involved.

  5. As far as sanity and horror go, remember that the real reason there is a Sanity mechanic in Call of Cthulhu is because characters who drop to 0 Sanity Points are lost to the player. This creates a cost to reading forbidden tomes, using magic and even to facing many of the monsters in the game, so that players become reluctant to do so. It creates player behavior that models the behavior of HPL/mythos characters: "I'm not going in that room!"

    That's why I don't use any sort of Sanity rules in FRP. Game mechanics should always reward genre-positive play. D&D gives out XP (reward) for killing monsters and horrors. If they also lose Wisdom/Sanity (punishment) for essentially the same activity, what are you telling people your game is about?


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