Friday, April 19, 2013

A Sanity Mechanic for D&D Type Gaming

The other day I looked at the role of the Sanity system in Call of Cthulhu, and how it creates another mechanical stress on the players and one that helps enforce the horror genre.  How would it work in something like D&D?

First - let's be clear on the goal.  In a horror-soaked D&D game, monsters are rare and otherworldly.  The experience of the supernatural is not commonplace - they represent a disturbance to the status quo and a violation of the natural order (from a human perspective).  A system that attempts to model the mental effects of horror implies that even hardened soldiers could be unnerved by direct exposure to the supernatural that defy categorization or understanding.  A mechanic would be put in place to attack the characters from an alternate angle and put pressure on the players as they face down supernatural threats.

In general, I prefer "less is more" and don’t like adding sub-systems so  I'd like Sanity mechanics to be simple, familiar, or both.

My first thought is something like this:  all characters have a permanent starting Sanity value equal to their Wisdom; from that point on, Sanity and Wisdom are not correlated.  Temporary Sanity goes up and down over the course of an adventure, but permanent Sanity rarely decreases and represents a hard cap.  There are some ways to heal temporary Sanity during an adventure, and lost temporary Sanity usually recovers completely between adventures.

Whenever a character is subjected to a horror, there's a chance their temporary Sanity decreases; the DM rolls a d20 against the characters current Sanity score (like an armor class), and if the roll meets or exceeds the score, the character loses some temporary Sanity.  (Conversely, if players prefer to roll, they're always trying to get under their temporary Sanity and 'miss' their Sanity).

Here's are some sample Sanity losses.  The amount is rolled randomly similar to weapon damage:

  • Seeing a monster at a distance, witnessing a mundane killing or a fresh corpse - 1-2 points.
  • Seeing a monster up close, finding a grisly murder scene, or experiencing unnatural omens or haunting effects - 1-4 points.
  • Attacked by a supernatural threat or seeing hundreds of corpses - 1-6 points.
  • Attacked by an overwhelming threat, like a horde of monsters or a giant thing; seeing the corpse of a loved one or friend; witnessing a supernatural killing - 1-8 points.
  • Seeing a good friend gruesomely killed by a monster - 1-10 points

Cumulative losses within a single encounter caps at the maximum for the worst loss.  If the characters are attacked by a supernatural threat (loss 1-6) and one of the party members is gruesomely killed (1-10 loss), the maximum loss for both events is 10.

Furthermore, extremely weird and otherworldly monsters would have a kicker - seeing something like Great Cthulhu might add 1-6 points of loss to the roll (seeing Great Cthulhu  rise out of the harbor and scoop up a handful of sailors and toss them back like popcorn would cause potential 1-8 and 1-6 points altogether).  Really outré monsters like the Outer Gods or Great Old Ones may always strip a point of permanent sanity.  I haven't decided if there should be a minimum loss associated with certain encounters, even if the Sanity misses.  Since we’re treating it more like Sanity attacks and damage, it might be good to stay away from "auto damage".

Once a character gets to zero temporary Sanity, they receive a -2 to all of their rolls and saving throws.  Once a character gets below -5 temporary Sanity, they're in deep shock and lose a point of permanent Sanity - an are they unable to function?  Do they gain a phobia or mental derangement?  I don't know yet - I need to see how other games have handled similar things and then run the ideas through some paces at a home game  (For now I'd treat "deep shock" as a Fear effect).  I'd also suggest a saving throw versus Death to avoid the loss of permanent Sanity.  At some point I'd expect a character might go permanently mad (at permanent Sanity = 0).

Anytime an NPC retainer or henchman loses half or more of their current Sanity, they need to make a morale or loyalty check.

Xameck the Mage and his small crew of mercenaries (Bart the Fighter, the priest Montjoy, and a retainer, Squire Deegan) are hired by the Burgomeister to discover the source of the grave robberies in the lonely cemetery beyond the village.  Climbing atop the Sarkhov Mausoleum, the group huddles down for an overnight vigil.  A village goodwife, recently deceased, was interred earlier in the day, and the lookout is spying on her fresh grave across the moonlit ghostyard.

A shambling, lurching figure emerges from the mists down below, startling Squire Deegan (make a check due to Seeing a Monster at a Distance).  Raising the alarm, the characters get to their feet and prepare missiles, but the monster lurches off into the darkness, tearing up clumps of earth with its hooves.  Since these guys are adventurers, they quickly climb down and begin to follow the monster's tracks.

The monster's path leads to an opened mausoleum, and the characters take a moment to light torches before entering the black interior.  There's only a large sarcophagus with a skewed slab for a lid within the decorative chamber.  Fearing an unholy terror, Montjoy waits at the end of the sarcophagus with a vial of holy water, while the two fighters get on either end of the slab and slide it open.

With a speed belying its ungainly size, the monster springs out of the depression and slashes Montjoy down the front of his chest with iron-hard claws.  As a 1st level cleric, Montjoy doesn't have too many hit points, and the other characters watch him drop to his knees, gurgling on his own blood before he dies.  While everyone in the group makes Sanity checks and prepares to draw weapons, the monster (in this case, a Lovecraft-style ghoul) barrels down a set of narrow stairs beneath the sarcophagus, and into a subterranean realm.

At this point, the characters have been threatened by a 1-2 Sanity loss (seeing the monster), a 1-6 point loss (attacked by the monster) and a potential 1-10 loss (seeing a friend killed right in front of them by the monster).  The cumulative maximum is still 10 points because these would all count as a single encounter.  It's possible some characters with low Sanity scores are "shaken", taking a -2 to rolls, and Squire Deegan might need a morale check before being willing to enter the ghoul's realm.

Obviously, we need to try the rules on and refine the approach, but just reflecting on the sample encounter, I can see that adding any kind of Sanity mechanic changes the complexion of even a "mundane" supernatural encounter into something different and makes each encounter more impactful.  I didn't spend much time with the Ravenloft 2E rules back in the day, and I've been thinking of checking those out as well to see what the mothership was doing to support horror-flavored D&D back in the 90's.  Anyone familar with the 2E Ravenloft setting?  (Someone pointed out Crypts & Things has a Sanity mechanic too - I'll have to check it out and see how it's implemented).

In the interests of carousing rules and soaking loose cash, the primary way to recover lost Sanity is to spend some money in between adventures - each day of spending 100gp (per character level) recovers 1-6 temporary Sanity points.  This money could be spent on any appropriate activity stipulated by the player as something relaxing or important to the character, but it can't provide other material benefits.  Examples include carousing, tithing to the church, research, or training.

Once per day while adventuring, the party leader can give a rousing speech to each character.  If the leader succeeds on a reaction roll (rolling a 9-12 on a roll of 2d6, modified by Charisma) the characters are inspired and gain 1-6 Sanity back.  Consider it a once-per-night pep talk or morale boost.

I'd have to go back through the clerical magic system and identify appropriate spells that should interact with Sanity hit points and damage; spells like Fear may cause Sanity damage in addition to their other effects, whereas Remove Fear could recover Sanity damage similar to a Cure Light Wounds.  Maybe high level spells like Restoration can restore permanent Sanity points.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Swords & Wizardry Appreciation Day

Here's a nice story.  It was a few summers ago, I was heading out to Gencon for the first time, and I had decided to run The Spire of Iron and Crystal at Gencon as a scheduled event, using the Swords & Wizardry (complete) rules.  It's a fantastic adventure, and I was looking forward to running a couple of groups through it to see how they did.  It's a strange adventure, with plenty of interesting puzzles.

At the time, Matt and Frog God Games were just getting started with their team up, but when they heard about my events, they sent a (free) copy of the module and a copy of the complete rules to help the cause.  Very cool.

I've managed to rate and review a fair number of adventures over the past few years, and since my opinions change over time, I sometimes shift ratings around when my perspective changes.  The Spire of Iron and Crystal has always kept the top spot on my personal scale, the Beedometer.   The Spire exemplifies the free wheeling creativity enabled by rules such as S&W.  It showed me how awesome can be a blend of fantasy and weird sci fi elements, and it inspired me much more than the Barrier Peaks.  It's an adventure that exudes Heavy Metal Magazine and Omni and 1970's Roger Dean Yes Albums.  It's full of things to push, prod, and pull; levers and dials to turn, tokens to insert into machines, and otherworldly mutants and evolutionary weirdos.  Perhaps my highest praise:  there are many elements in the Black City campaign that owe a spiritual debt to The Spire.

So that's my story - it's truly just a short S&W appreciation post and a shout out to those guys to keep on trucking.  If you've somehow missed out on this adventure, what are you waiting for - the Frog Gods have it over on their site as an inexpensive pdf (link to store:  The Spire of Iron and Crystal), and there's even a 25% discount today (coupon: SWApprDay).  This one is a real old school treasure.

Links & Notes:
In case someone is wondering, "What is this Swords & Wizardry of which you speak?"

Swords & Wizardry is a retroclone of the Original 1974 D&D rules published under the OGL.  It was created by Matt Finch, and is presented these days in nice hardcovers by Frog God Games.  Matt is also known for some quirky and excellent old school adventures like the one featured here, and The Quick Primer for Old School Gaming.  Frog God Games is a publisher that evolved from the 3E era publisher Necromancer Games to lead a number of large and successful projects for Pathfinder and S&W.  S&W Appreciation Day was organized by Tenkar over at Tenkar's Tavern.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

An Appeal for Sanity

One of my evergreen goals is to integrate more horror style play into whatever adventure  fantasy game I'm running at the time.  We could just skip out on the D&D experience entirely and run Cthulhu Dark Ages or Cthulhu Invictus, but the familiarity of levels, experience points, and archetypal classes is a powerful draw for the D&D style.  So the investigation shifts towards how to incorporate more of the horror experience into D&D.

I'm reconsidering if it's time to look at the sanity mechanic and it's role in the Chaosium games.  Just to establish a starting place:  the best approach to running a game that scares or unnerves the players themselves is through atmosphere, mystery, and mounting dread in the presentation, and not mechanics first.  But unnerving the players is a rare feat, even in Cthulhu gaming, as the social nature of the tabletop makes it hard to maintain narrative tension.  Regardless of how grim things might seem in the shared narrative space, you're most likely sitting in a brightly lit room, crunching chips, and someone is going to crack a joke.  Or two.  It's the nature of the thing.

But if genuinely scary moments are an elusive and infrequently seen vista, there are more common effects that can be achieved by way of mechanical challenges that keep things tense and horrifying for the characters, even if the narrative side of things isn't firing on all cylinders for the players.  Horror encounters in D&D usually involve powerful monsters with nasty status effects like Energy Drain or Save vs Death.  In Cthulhu gaming, there is greater asymmetry between the physical investigators and their physical opponents, and this is further exacerbated by a sanity mechanic that whittles away the character's mental state.

Call of Cthulhu's sanity system serves a number of purposes - it's a form of mental hit points, and as such, it attacks the player character from an unexpected angle.  Mere exposure to otherworldly horrors or gruesome finds leeches sanity points.

Sanity effects are also the primary mechanical statistic for quantifying the terrible impact of a monster or encounter; the more unearthly or gruesome the encounter sequence, the greater the minimum and maximum sanity loss that could be inflicted.

The sanity system provides guidelines for roleplaying behavior.  When too much sanity loss occurs, player characters will be stricken temporarily or indefinitely insane, and the game offers ideas on roleplaying such affectations.

Finally, the sanity system incarnates some of Lovecraft's bleak nihilism.  Sanity never fully recovers, and Sandy Petersen's initial vision involved no capability to regain sanity in between investigations.  Kinder, gentler editors have added various mechanisms and explanations for regaining sanity, although the typical player character still loses more than they gain over a career.  Sanity  itself is used to resist the effects of further sanity loss, so it becomes a bit of a death spiral as the losses pile up - you lose sanity, making you more susceptible to the next sanity loss, which makes you even more susceptible, and so on.  Madness or death is inevitable.

Much like alignment in D&D, I have a few isues with the sanity system.  First off, we don't have a lot experience of people seeing awful things and going stark raving mad in the modern world; the whole mechanic can seem a bit goofy to a modern player.  The era of the fainting aesthete seems long gone.  (PTSD and similar mental states is an entirely different matter).  A larger problem is that "temporary insanity" in Call of Cthulhu frequently becomes a license for silliness, undermining whatever atmosphere the referee was creating.  "I'm insane, that's why I'm wearing a chicken on my head."  I don't think investigators quacking like a duck and the ensuing hilarity are what Sandy Petersen had in mind.

Trail of Cthulhu introduced a complimentary statistic, Stability, that represents a character's short term mental state.  Whereas sanity represents the character's long term world view and belief system, Stability is a short term mental state.  Loss of stability doesn't lead to temporary insanity and blabbering; it reduces a character's overall effectiveness , especially in combat, as the characters self-control and confidence is worn away by shocks to the system.  Stability and dice modifiers for effectiveness could be a simple enhancement to D&D style adventuring, without worrying about roleplaying and adjudicating insane behaviors.

This is getting on the longish side, so I'm going to save specific ideas on introducing sanity or stability mechanics skewed for D&D for after the S&W appreciation thing tomorrow.  Apologies for a brief absence from the blog world!  A number of factors have conspired to keep me from posting here regularly - the biggest reason is that the D&D game has been on a short hiatus as we try and jump-start a Friday Night Magic scene at the local comic shop - that's been drawing away a lot of time. I've also been putting more time into writing upcoming bits of the Black City campaign offline, which aren't appropriate for the blog (seeing as my players frequent here these days).  I'm still working on getting the balance right across the activities.

PS:  Thoughts and prayers go out to anyone caught up in the very real horror that happened at the Boston Marathon yesterday; bombing a crowd with kids around is more horrifying than any fiction.  I put this post together yesterday and thought the title was so clever; gaming matters seem fairly trivial today in the aftermath of such a senseless act.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Review: The Stealer of Children

I had the chance to read a review copy of The Stealer of Children, written by Peter Spahn of Small Niche Games.  I've enjoyed Pete's work in the past, and with a name like "Stealer of Children", I had to think this one had the potential for some horror, so immediately prioritized it to the top of the reading list.  Here's a brief review, seeing as it was just released, and it's available at the usual suspects:  The Stealer of Children at RPGnow.

In order to do the review justice, there will be spoilers.  Go ahead and skip if you expect your referee to be buying this one sometime soon.

I enjoy reviewing several pieces from the same author over time, and getting the chance to see the author's style and voice revealed over successive works.  Pete Spahn's formula has involved presenting a detailed area, lots of NPC's with varied motivations and interactions, and a set of events running in the background; if the player characters don't do anything, things are going to unfold with or without them.    There was a similar structure in both Inn of Last Heroes and Blood Moon Rising, two adventures I reviewed sometime ago.  I like to run the sandbox with some parallel events going on in the background, as it helps put the campaign world into motion, so this is a structure I enjoy quite a bit.

The overall arc in The Stealer of Children is likely to unfold in this way; an ancient evil has awakened near a small village, and children begin to go missing - they've been taken.  It's quite likely the players explored the evil lair at the outset, and noted that it was empty.  If they return a second time, the enemy is there now, but is essentially invulnerable.  Only after completing a suitable side-quest (and the interesting twist that ensues) will the party be capable of winning through the final confrontation.

Many OSR writers have eschewed fairy tales and folklore for weirder blends of sci fantasy and outré horror; (hey, I'm especially guilty).  This one unfolds like a folk tale and has many classic elements; the monster itself is an evil fairy like "the boogeyman", with the kinds of vulnerabilities you'd expect from a fairy tale monster, and the need for a heroes quest.  As such, I think this one would work especially well with younger gamers; because it involves the predations of a fairy monster against ordinary villagers (and their children), you could dial up the horror for an older group by escalating the pace at which children are snatched and eaten.

The adventure itself is short, and involves only a few combat encounters - it's ideal for 1st or 2nd level characters as an introductory adventure.  I'd expect this to be played over 1-2 nights.  There is a blend of investigation and interviews, interactions with NPCs, and even a potential wilderness trek, that keep the play experience varied and interesting.  The small village featured in the module, Leandras Row, has plot hooks  for additional adventuring and could function as a nice home base.

The book is 26 pages, with minimal art and a simple layout.  The pink cover makes me cringe, but I'll try not to hold that against the author.  I really enjoyed this one and definitely see it in our rotation for use with the kids in the near future; if you're interested in folklores and fairy tales for your game, an under-used theme, this is a nice one to try out, as it reflects that atmosphere quite well - I recommend it.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Thinking About the End of the World

Another season of The Walking Dead is in the books.  Many zombies died and people were mean to each other.  By the end of the season, Rick has abandoned the law of the jungle for democracy rule; The Governor massacred a bunch of people; Rick's son, Carl, appears to be heading down the kill-or-be-killed path that has created men like The Governor in the post-apocalypse.  I'm still enjoying the show, but it feels like it's drifted from gritty survival horror into character-driven drama, with traditional dramatic character arcs.  Even Mearle had a change of heart this season, before becoming zombie-Mearle and having one of the best death sequences on the show.  Or maybe the show was always this way and I'm only noticing.

Near-term apocalypses are well-represented in popular culture.  World War Z will be coming to theaters this summer, adapted from the best-selling book from a few years back.  In recent years, we've had TV shows like Jericho (nuclear apocalypse),  Falling Skies (alien apocalypse), The Terminator franchise (machine apocalypse), I Am Legend (vampire apocalypse), Revolution (the no-electricity apocalypse), and the aforementioned zombie apocalypses.  Stephen King's The Stand is an old favorite (plague apocalypse).

I have to wonder why there hasn't been a dominant RPG that has enabled tabletop play in such a target rich environment.  Just about the only game I can remember getting a lot of traction when it came out was Twilight 2000, which spawned a host of setting books and even the Dark Conspiracy spin-off.  Lets not forget everyone's favorite tentacle monstrosity, Great Cthulhu himself.  Pelgrane Press had released a Cthulhu Apocalypse adventure a few years ago, The Dead White World, and I noticed they've been trying to revive the series and continue the story.  If you want the world destroyed right, dial up the Elder Gods.

It seems to me the tools and techniques of old school gaming - hex crawls and resource management - could play well in a near-term apocalypse game, but getting away from elves and magic and amazing psychic powers is a big leap.  We get to be ordinary folks every day and want to be somewhere else during game time.  Gamers are quick to say they don't play for power-fantasy escapist reasons, but the fantasy gaming has been king of the mountain for a long time.  Just saying.

For similar reasons, it's not surprising the post apocalyptic game with the most name recognition is still Gamma World, a game set hundreds of years after a far future apocalypse, creating so much distance between us and that future world that it's fantasy all over again.  There certainly is a dearth of media based in far future post apocalyptic settings - I can think of Thundarr, The Planet of the Apes, and Stephen King's Dark Tower series.  Maybe The Matrix trilogy would qualify, tangentially.

I'm still on the lookout for that lightweight system that lets you play your own range of near-term apocalyptic gaming - or even better, combine your own destructions!  The aliens arrived, bringing a virus that turned the dead into zombies, which triggered the defense computers to take over and evolve into artificial life forms that nuked the major cities and started making humanoid robots to fight the aliens.  Wahoo.

In the meantime, I'll keep hoping WOTC reprints the 1st Edition of Gamma World.