A Walk in the Dark A look in to the mind of an RPG designer

25Mar/11Off

Crazy People Need Love Too

Ever since I saw someone post the question on Twitter I've been thinking about it: how would you treat insanity in D&D 4e?

In order to consider this concept, I of course had to go to the one true source of all things insane... Call of Cthulhu. If you're not familiar, in CoC you have a pool of "Sanity Points", and depending on what you experience during the adventure (by "encountering the unimaginable") you will periodically lose points here and there. When you drop to zero, you are temporarily insane. When you drop to -10 or lower, you become "incurably insane" and you get a nice rubber room at the Arkham Sanitarium.

Before we start to consider what "going insane" might be, there's the need to point something out: not being in control of one's own faculties - even in real life - is not fun. In D&D, besides death the two most annoying and boring effects are "dominated" and "stunned" because they prevent you from doing anything. You can't even roleplay them well most of the time because there isn't anything you can do about the condition. This problem could also be said of a number of effects in previous versions, but at least in those you can kind of play it out for theatric's sake; if your group's meat shield freaks out over a fear effect and begins to run away at full speed, that player has the option of playing it out so long as he's aware of the things he's not allowed to do while suffering the effect. When you're "stunned", you can't do anything besides make a saving throw at the end of your turn. Whee...

So I thought of creating a 4e insanity system that will impose some guidelines on the player, detailing what he's going to do in a given turn in the most general of sense, but it will still allow the player to stylize it in any way he sees fit. Because, let's be honest, it's kind of fun to play a complete wacko every now and then.

Becoming Certifiably Insane

I considered using something like the aforementioned "Sanity Points", but let's face it: this is not Call of Cthulhu... We're not dealing with John Q. Public here, but seasoned adventurers that have seen their share of bad things. Imagine how D&D would be if every adventurer freaked out and ran away at the first sight of a skeleton walking towards them.

Exposure to this could be in any way that a disease could be spread: creature's attack, trap, exposure to something in the environment, etc... It could even come from drugs or poisons that occur naturally.

Levels of Insanity

When I use the word "insane" I'm talking about potentially long term effect. A "dominated" effect may not last more than a handful of seconds (six seconds between each save if you go by the general guideline on how long a turn is). I'm thinking of something more dramatic, more long term, and something that could both be be remedied or get progressively worse. That sounds like a disease, doesn't it?

And there are multiple levels of insanity. Having an argument with oneself or laughing uncontrollably is one thing, while smashing an ally with a broadsword or taking off all your clothes is something else. One doesn't go from mild mannered adventure to "bat-s%@! crazy" that easily.

So I have come up with two separate lists: "minor side effects" and "major effects". Minors are superficial things that affect the target's ability to function like a normal person. Major effects are things that directly affect everyone around him with disastrous results.

Insanity - Disease, Variable level

Stage 0: The target is cured of all effects.

Stage 1 (Initial Effect): The target takes a -2 penalty to Will defense and has one Minor Side Effect (see table below).

Stage 2: The target takes a -2 penalty to all defenses and has one more Minor Side Effect.

Stage 3: The target takes a -4 penalty to all defenses, has one more Minor Side Effects and has one Major Effect (see table below).

Special: Every time the target fails to improve from Stage 3, it gains one more Minor Side Effect and re-roll the Major Effect.

So by the time the target reaches Stage 3, assuming they didn't do any secondary rolls on the tables, they will potentially have three minors and one major. In other words, they're really messed up.

Every time the target improves take away one effect, starting with the Major Effects.

Minor Side Effects

Note: If the result is an effect the target already has, do not re-roll.

Roll a d20:

  1. Target has uncontrolled laughter, takes a -5 penalty to all Stealth checks.
  2. Target has a nervous facial tick, takes a -2 penalty to all Charisma-based skill checks except Intimidate.
  3. Target talks to himself, takes a -2 penalty to all Stealth checks.
  4. Target has a normal conversation with someone who is imaginary, takes a -2 penalty to all Stealth checks.
  5. Target argues loudly with himself, takes a -4 penalty to all Stealth checks. Gains +1 to all Intimidate checks.
  6. Target has an argument with someone who is imaginary, takes a -4 penalty to all Stealth checks. Gains +1 to all Intimidate checks.
  7. Target periodically repeats out loud what someone else within hearing distance has said, even if the original speaker whispered it. Whenever the target does, it takes a -4 penalty to Stealth checks until the start of its next turn.
  8. Target has periodic outbursts (crying, anger, hysterics, incessant ranting, mumbling, etc...). The effects of these outbursts is up to the GM's discretion.
  9. Target begins to have delusions or sees an altered reality, takes a -4 penalty to Perception and Insight checks.
  10. Target has an unnatural fear of germs. Will refuse to touch anything that isn't his until it has been cleaned thoroughly.
  11. Target acquires a major physical tick or mannerism,. Takes a -2 penalty to Fortitude defense, +1 bonus to Reflex defense, and -2 penalty to all attacks that do not target Will defense.
  12. Target has acquired a moderate phobia of any single object or creature within sight. The player can choose the item at his discretion with GM's approval.
  13. Target periodically shouts at the top of his lungs. At the start of each turn roll a d20; on a roll of 1-5, the target screams loudly and takes a -5 penalty to Stealth checks until the start of its next turn.
  14. Target is somewhat unsure of himself and hesitates before doing anything, takes a -5 penalty to all Initiative rolls. At the start of an encounter, if there is a surprise round the character will always be surprised.
  15. Target periodically drops his weapon. Roll a d10 at the start of each of the target's turn; on a 1, the target will drop whatever he is holding in his main or off hand (in that order).
  16. Target zones out periodically. Roll a d12 at the start of each of the target's turn; on a 1, the target is effectively stunned until the start of its next turn.
  17. Target has an obsessive infatuation with another party member (even a party member of the same gender), will do anything to stay near them and win their affection. If the target is more than 5 squares away from the other party member at the start of their turn, they must take at least one move action that moves them closer. If any creature attacks the other party member, the target gains a +2 to the attack roll against the creature until the start of the target's next turn.
  18. Target has an intense hatred of another party member, will go against any actions or decisions that player makes. If any creature attacks the other party member, the target takes a -2 penalty to attacks against that creature until the start of its next turn.
  19. Target has an obsessive attachment to an item within sight will be unable to function properly without holding it or having it on his person. While the target does not have the item in his possession, it takes a -5 penalty to all d20 rolls. The player can choose the item at his discretion with GM's approval.
  20. Roll on the "Major Effects" table below instead.

Major Effects

Note: If the result is an effect the target already has, do not re-roll.

Roll a d20:

  1. Each time the target is bloodied in an encounter, it falls unconscious (save ends) and prone. An adjacent creature can use a Standard Action to shake them awake, and the target will wake up automatically as soon as it takes any damage.
  2. Target has psychosomatic deafness. Every time a noise that he should be able to hear is made, roll a d6; on a roll of 1-5, the target doesn't hear the sound at all. The volume of the sound has no impact on the roll.
  3. Target develops an obsessive eating disorder. Will immediately consume any and all food available in a given area, including any food in his own backpack. If it does not eat every ten minutes, the target is slowed (move speed of 2) until it does.
  4. Target has terrifying fear of danger, at the start of the encounter will flee hysterically in a random direction until it is more than 20 squares from danger. Can not take any actions besides a double run: two move actions, each with move speed +2, grants combat advantage, and can be targeted with opportunity attacks.
  5. Target has acquired an intense phobia of any single object or creature within sight, as determined by the GM. Target will refuse to come within 10 squares of the object in question, and if he is unable to move more than 10 squares away in a given turn he is stunned until the start of his next turn.
  6. Target has extreme paranoia, is afraid that even his allies are going to turn on him. If an ally uses a power that would allow the target to make an attack, the target ignores the action.
  7. Target drops all weapons and removes all equipment, refusing to wear any of it until cured.
  8. Target loses the ability to communicate through speech or writing. Anyone attempting to communicate telepathically with the target must make an Intelligence vs Will attack roll against the target in order to get through.
  9. Target cannot take any actions of his own and will preform melee basic attacks on themselves until they are subdued or unconscious. If they do not have a weapon, they will make unarmed attacks with their fists.
  10. Every turn the target does not make an attack roll, it risks falling asleep while standing. Make a saving throw at the end of the turn; if the save fails, the target falls asleep (save ends) while standing in an upright position. An adjacent creature can use a Standard Action to shake them awake, and the target will wake up automatically as soon as it takes any damage.
  11. Target cannot take any actions of his own and will attack any and all creatures at random within 10 squares with basic attacks until subdued. Each attack takes a -2 penalty to the attack roll, and each melee attack gains a +2 bonus to the damage roll.
  12. Target has selective amnesia. When the target attempts to use a daily or encounter power, make a saving throw before casting; on a failure, the target forgets how to do the action and the power is spent.
  13. Target cannot take any actions of his own and will attack the single nearest creature repeatedly until that creature is dead or the target is subdued. Each attack takes a -2 penalty to the attack roll, and each melee attack gains a +2 bonus to the damage roll. If he does not have a weapon, he will make unarmed attacks with his bare hands.
  14. Target has psychosomatic blindness, is treated as being completely blind until cured.
  15. Target has "Alien Hand Syndrome". The GM rolls a d20 to determine which hand; on a roll of 1-10 it's the main hand, on a roll of 11-20 it's the off-hand. The target can not take any actions of his own with that hand, and the hand's actions are completely dictated by the GM. Target cannot benefit from any bonuses related to having something in both hands (AC bonus for having a shield, Two Weapon Defense, powers that require a weapon in each hand, etc...).
  16. Target becomes a cannibal, electing to eat the flesh of any dead bodies the party encounters. At the GM's discretion this may expose the target to any number of different diseases.
  17. Target crawls in to a fetal position and begins to cry or mumble. Target is aware of their surroundings and can talk to others but is prone, helpless and cannot take any actions of their own until cured.
  18. Target is catatonic. Is awake but is helpless, cannot take any actions of their own until cured.
  19. Roll twice on the "Minor Side Effect" table.
  20. Roll once on the "Minor Side Effect" table and re-roll on the "Major Effect" table.

The above list is moderately inspired by the "Sanity" variant rules in the D20 SRD.

In addition to the obvious effects listed above, this gives the player some artistic liberty in terms of roleplaying. I myself have played a character with an intense phobia of something (cats) in the past, and that led to some rather interesting situations in game; the character might not have been the most tactically sound person when it came to having an encounter with a tiger, but it sure was entertaining.

It was actually quite difficult to come up with two lists of 20 items, and I'm sure some of the above are flawed and I missed quite a few things. I admit I didn't give it that much thought because I wanted this to be posted and start getting feedback.

So what do you all think?

3: Target has a nervous facial tick, takes a -1 penalty to all Charisma-based skill checks.

Filed under: 4e, Design, DnD, Mechanics, RPG Comments Off
Comments (1) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Very interesting idea!

    I think you hit on a good framework by presenting Insanity as a disease that can take on a variety of forms. I think it’s also a good idea to have it progress over time, perhaps to the point where the player can no longer act – such as when a PC become petrified.

    I think this is certainly a good idea to play around with *if* you have a strong roleplaying group. If the group is more about tactics and hack n’ slash, then losing abilities and gaining penalties will just bother them . . . and I doubt they will roleplay the actions.

    I would offer a few tweaks. For starters, I would do away with the minor and major tags. It makes it too complicated for the DM and player to manage. Plus, you did a great job of coming up with 40 illnesses, but it would likely work better if you cut it down to the “best” 20. Reading through them, it seemed like a lot of the minor penalties were to Stealth, which many characters may not even need to deal with. I would think about your party and craft that list that will affect their style of play.

    I really enjoy this idea for a specific setting. Perhaps your party is raiding a tower to stop an evil mage. As they enter the tower, they are affected by an insanity that is spiling from the mage’s mind and his magical equipment. The disease becomes stronger as the power moves through the tower, and they continue to suffer ill effects. THAT could be a fun night or three of encounters!


Trackbacks are disabled.