There are role-playing games (RPGs) designed to take horror as the main theme, similar to horror novels. These games are designed around the concept that there are events and things making people jump, or squirm, or go mad. Elements of horror are important in storytelling because they help in creating the mood for the people experiencing the story as it unravels to them. A problem with many RPGs is the elements of horror aren’t used, are skimmed over, or are even more commonly just missed by the players.
The party of adventurers break through the doors of the unholy shrine after fighting through the cultist minions. They are facing the evil high priest who is standing behind a sacrificial altar. Spread before the priest is a scene of gruesome proportions: blood and body parts spread out and beyond the altar—blood has splattered to the corners of the room. The iron scent from the blood mixes with the incense and charcoal burning in the five braziers set at the points of a pentagram. And, the air is full of the moans of more cultists chained to the walls on either side. The wails take on an unworldly proportion. Each moan escaping their lips comes out a black wisp moving and curling together to make a cloud above the sacrifice.
The next move is, the party attacks the priest and dispatch the chained cultists.
The element of horror designed into the encounter becomes lost on the players as they are involved in the building of the story. The goal here, therefore, is to provide a mechanic that helps players experience some level of the horror without slowing down the action or story-building.
The following mechanic is based on a d20 system and it can be easily translated over to other systems. It is designed to give guidance and not to be an absolute rule.
The Sanity Score is an independent score that is adjusted like hit points through game play. The score reflects the mental health/strength/sanity of the character at the given moment in time.
Characters start with a Sanity Score of 4. A game master (GM) can start scores at a higher level if they feel the characters have a better grip on events, or lower if they want things to be a bit more challenging.
As characters advance, their Sanity Score increases by +1d4 per level. This reflects the increasing mental fortitude of the character as they are exposed to more horrific events and scenes. This combined total is the maximum Sanity of the character. More on this when talking about recovery of sanity.
Encounters are given a Horror Rating by the GM. This is purely a subjective number. At first, I put together some guidelines for how to score this rating, but after some discussions, it was easy to see each GM had a different concept of what they classify as horrific for the campaign they were running.
Not every encounter needs a Horror Rating. When running an adventure and the scene is fitting to the campaign, the characters would probably not consider it to be horrific. Placing a slaughterhouse in an adventure would have very different impacts on characters from different eras.
Exposure to extremely horrific scenes (Horror Rating of 15 or higher) will always have an impact on a character (explained below).
[Editor’s note: I particularly like the idea of horror ratings being 5, 10, 15, 20, or 25 for ease of play].
Sanity Score Vs. Horror Rating
If a character’s Sanity Score is greater than the scene’s Horror Rating, there is no effect. That character is mentally strong and sane enough to deal with the encounter.
If a Sanity Score is less than or equal to a Horror Rating, a check is required. Players roll [d20 + Sanity Rating], with a target number equal to the Horror Rating. Failure makes the character subtract 1 from their Sanity Rating.
Horror Rating 15 scenes are particularly horrific! Any encounter that has a Horror Rating of 15 or more always takes 1 sanity point from the character when they succeed, or 2 if their check fails.
If a player rolls a 1 on the d20, it is an automatic failure.
The party rushes into the room encountering the evil priest amidst a sacrifice. The GM has decided the mixture of sight, sounds, and odors are enough to warrant a horror rating of 20.
Diane, playing a fighter, has a current Sanity Rating of 25. The scene shakes her up a little, but because her sanity score is higher than the rating, she doesn’t need to make a check. She loses 1 point and her Sanity Rating is now 24.
Bob, playing a wizard, has a Sanity Rating of 16. He makes a check d20 roll, gets a 15, adds that to his rating of 16 for a total of 31. This was a success, but since the scene is so horrific his rating still goes down by -1.
Dave’s character comes into the room with a Sanity Rating of 14, and he rolls a 4. Dave missed the check. He loses 2 points (1 for missing the check and 1 for the scene being above a 15) and his score adjusts to 12.
What This Does for the Players
There isn’t an absolute rule or results table that tells the players what is happening to their character and how to play them. The Sanity Rating is provided as a guideline; a score to help them stay in the story with what the characters are encountering.
Consider any positive score as maintaining a sane state of being. The higher the score – the more grounded the character is in their reality. The closer to zero the score gets – the less stable they are becoming (the stresses of adventuring is slowly and steadily wearing their mental state down).
If a character reaches zero on their Sanity Rating, their mental state is in question. The further negative they go, the worse they become. At -10, they are insane, which can only be cured magically or through serious therapy.
Each player decides for their character how the character reacts. This might sound a little loose, but everyone responds differently. One person might develop a phobia, while another might do the opposite and embrace what they are seeing. Character quirks and flaws can develop over long or short-term. They might go quieter, hoping to hide away from more encounters, or get louder. Giving the players the liberty to develop how they play allows the character’s individual “sanity” to play a part. In playtesting, one player started using it to argue for the group to turn back, even though most everyone else had been unaffected by what they had encountered.
Regaining Lost Sanity
Regaining points to a character’s Sanity requires the character spending time doing something to put balance back in their life. Of course, one’s Sanity Rating can’t be improved beyond what they’ve rolled naturally from leveling.
Personal activity can be done to restore a sense of well-being, or balance. Exercises (like yoga, mental exercises, performing kata, martial training) or meditations (spending time in a comforting surrounding) or common forms dealing with stress. The surrounding would be a place the character is comfortable. This provides 1 point over 4 days of rest or activity where a least 2 hours a day are spent on the activity. This type of activity is individualized. What some people find relaxing, others don’t. The idea is to have the characters take some down time, relax, and deal with some of the stress they have been living through.
Counseling can be done in a group, or individually with a trained counselor. Counseling sessions are at least 1 hour in 1 day. And, a character needs 2 sessions (2 days of counseling) to regain 1 point. This is with a group or counselor who understands that what the character is seeing is in fact real. If the group or counselor don’t believe the character, then the number of days is doubled (same as doing it on your own, but with less time each day).
Some activities can combine the personal and group activity and the best of the combination would help restore a person.
When dealing in magical settings, clerics could be used as counselors and spells can be used to restore sanity. This can be done along the same lines as curing wounds with spells designed to help the mental state instead of the physical (i.e., Cure Light Mental Infliction, Calm Nerves).
This sanity score works in different settings equally well and can be easily added in at any time. Along with the player who was trying to talk the party to retreat from possible more encounters, another play-tester used their misses as a guide to how they responded in the encounter. Both players used the score in different ways to enhance their role-playing.
The party advances into the room. The fighter charges forward letting out a war cry of her Amazonian tribe. The wizard steps to the side of the doorway and starts casting a spell targeting the evil priest. The cleric enters and stumbles a little from the scene. While the cleric gathers himself to focus on the gathering dark mass above the altar the thief pushes around him. The smell rocks him back on his heels for just a moment and he stuffs a cloth in his mouth to breathe through as he moves towards the cultists…