Awesomify Sanity Mechanics

Last time I started a thread like this, Paul Czege posted and more or less gave me the mechanic I was looking for on a silver platter. Let's see if lightning strikes twice.

I've always loved Sanity mechanics, especially the one from Unknown Armies that builds of the CoC one and makes it 100x better.
For my game, Dark Days, I'm modding that mechanic into something else, by using the game's focus points (Darkness and Madness/Despair) and it works great, but I feel it's not enough. It's almost as if I skinned the UA sanity mechanics with different names and purposes.

So what would the perfect sanity mechanic look like for you? Are there any others out there besides UA and CoC that use them?

Pitch me some!


  • well, i don't know, but i was just thinking that it could be interesting to have a system like UA madness meters, but with nothing else. a system in which, for example, your level of hardness at Violence also determined how effective you were at causing violence, and your hardness (or possibly insanity) in Unnatural determined your effectiveness with using magic. not sure how the other meters would work. it would probably need some different ones from UA.
  • Trail of Cthulhu has a lovely insanity system, or at least some very nice advice for running different types of insanity. Basically mostly relies on getting the other players to co-operate with the GM to reinforce the insanity.

    For instance, if you develop amnesia you are sent out the room and the GM/remaining players invent something that has happened but your character doesn't remember. They then act like it happened without telling you. Works much better than being told to forget something IC, especialy since now you don't know which insanity you have.

    It'd be easy to bolt onto an existing sanity system since it's all about how the effects are played, not how you get them.

  • Insanity shouldn't make you weak. It should make you strong and free you. How about this...

    Your game has this claustrophobic feeling -- and I mean ruleswise. The rules need to be constraining. They prevent you from doing all kinds of shit. Or at least don't give you the tools to get stuff done.

    As you become more and more insane, those constraints start to disappear. You earn traits like "Doesn't care what other people think" and "Makes strange connections between things." Even typical insanity traits like "Multiple personalities" and "Arachnophobia" should offer new avenues for play where traditional games constrain you. Really, if you earn a new trait (with currency or something) every time you slip deeper into nuttiness, then you get more powerful gamewise. Yes, I'm batshit crazy, but I am powerful enough to fight the monsters that made me this way, now.
  • There shouldn't be a problem with ripping, changing, and bolting the UA sanity system onto your game if it really really works.

    But how about this: Tell us more about what your game is about:
    * When does sanity enter the game?
    * What does a "sanity roll" look like?
    * What kind of things make a character more or less sane throughout play?
    * What is in the background of your game that makes sanity so compelling? Why is it a part of your game?

  • fnord, I like your idea. I might actually use it for a smaller game I'm making.

    John, obviously I should check out my copy of Trail of Cthulhu. Thanks for the heads up.

    Adam, that sounds kinda cool and is actually more or less what I'm doing. Getting hardened notches means you get closer to the Darkness. Since I'm using aspects, I can add that kind of quirks as aspects when you reach 5+ notches.
  • Hey Andy, thanks for the questions. Here goes:

    * You make a sanity check whenever you see something violent, horrible and scary. Straight up UA.
    * I'm not set on that yet, but you either roll your Mind stat or your current amount of failed notches. So the more insane you get, the harder it is to go MORE insane.
    * Another thing I'm not clear yet. I don't want to use Psychology and Psychiatry, so I'll probably let them gain back their sanity by ''saving the day'' at the end of a story or by indulging some kind of vice (like drinking or sex).
    *Dark Days is a horror game about people with extraordinary and scary powers that deal with other extraordinary creatures with even worse powers. The game is about remaining human enough to do the job and not go insane or go off the other end and become a monster.

    Hope that covers it!
  • Maybe you can take a CoC-type sanity mechanic and tie it back into your game's goals. For example: One thing I played around with during my heavy Call of Cthulhu period was tying SAN loss to some sort of magical power gain. Inspired by the existing mechanic that tied together tome-reading, spell learning, and SAN losing, I playtested giving characters 1MP per lost SAN. So for a three-session adventure, I handed out useful spells, provided serious supernatural adversity, and we had a blast with the tight death spiral of easy SAN loss into more magic into easier SAN loss. It was distilled Cthulhu, a little too intense for everyweek play but a fun changeup from the usual tone (and survivability!) of the floating campaign I was running.

    Depending on how hard you want to keep "remaining human enough" in your own game, you might enjoy playing around with something similar. Mechanics with feedback, even with death spirals, definitely have a place, especially in horror games.
  • What about "pay SAN to witness something horrible"?
  • More grist: why not focus on precisely how a lower Sanity separates the protagonists from the world at large? For each notch, you could write a sentence about why the character accumulated it, and treat that as a kind of trait (details depending on your system). So for instance, suppose a character fails a Sanity check after seeing some kind of squamous, serpentine Thing from Beyond slither forth from the shadows to swallow a man whole. Her experience could be summed up as simply as "There are squamous, serpentine Things from Beyond in the shadows." The knowledge becomes a trait, giving her a generous bonus on further checks, especially Sanity checks, where the knowledge applies. But it also means that she's at a penalty when she's trying to intimidate a witness in a shadowy alley (Was that a flash of scales? She keeps frantically looking away from the witness, her face twitches.), or ritually bind a malefic spirit in the Reptiles exhibit at the zoo, surely the Most Squamous Place on Earth.

    And the GM will drive the characters toward conflict, right? So at some point, she will need to have a climactic battle in an urban canyon, lit by low-angled light from the almost completely set sun. If she wins that battle, maybe she can buy back that "shadows" Sanity notch. Failing that, she might find solace in benzodiazepines, which allow her to ignore the notch for as long as her supply holds out...
  • Hey ccreitz

    That definitely fits my game. I'm using Aspects from Fate, so I think that giving a player an aspect for sanity loss sounds great. It will probably be only for heavy losses though, as to not gather too many Aspects.

    Bifi, I don't get what you mean exactly. How would that work?
  • Riffing off Colin:

    In Cthulhoid horror games, there is this notion that unspeakable knowledge begets insanity. So instead of thinking "as I learn unspeakable things, I lose my sanity," flip that around and go with, "if I give up my sanity, I can learn unspeakable things." Then characters pay SAN to gain skills that normal mortals dare not touch.
  • Posted By: Adam DrayRiffing off Colin:

    In Cthulhoid horror games, there is this notion that unspeakable knowledge begets insanity. So instead of thinking "as I learn unspeakable things, I lose my sanity," flip that around and go with, "if I give up my sanity, I can learn unspeakable things." Then characters pay SAN to gain skills that normal mortals dare not touch.
    I plan to do something like that in the Trail of Cthulhu game I'm running at Dreamation ("I, Governor..."; or, The Unpleasant Profession of Upton Sinclair). From my rules summary for the players:
    At some point, you may wish to increase your knowledge of the Cthulhu Mythos, which counts as an Investigative ability. You can increase your Cthulhu Mythos score by poring over Mythos tomes or doing similar research; the Keeper will point out such opportunities as they arise. Another way of gaining this knowledge is via “mad inspiration”: anytime you suffer a Mythos-related shock (i.e., fail a Stability test occasioned by exposure to the Mythos), you can give up 1 point of Sanity in exchange for +1 Cthulhu Mythos. In no case may your Sanity pool ever exceed 10 minus your Cthulhu Mythos score.
  • Hi guys

    For what it's worth, here is the core of my own lovecraft-like game (I say lovecraft-like, because we roleplayers as a community probably do not quite understand lovecraft).

    I've played it twice in this form, but it stems from a mash-up of the Pool with the Chaosium Sanity rules which I've played about three or four times.

    All characters have exactly one score: Sanity. It starts at 90%.

    To succeed at a task, you must roll a d% over your Sanity. To succeed at Sanity tests, you roll under.

    There's a bowl with dice in the middle of the table. There are a few in it when the game starts, and the GM must put new ones in it each time he reveals some part of the mythic situation.

    d4 represent dreams and nightmares
    d8 represent hallucinations
    d12 represent unspeakable tomes of inhuman knowledge and other related devices
    d20 represent an invocation to what is best left undescribed

    As a player, you can take a die from the bowl and narrate a mini-scene that goes with the die's symbolic. But this costs you Sanity. If the GM wishes, he can propose you a pact, where he takes over the narration, but you pay less San.

    See the idea? The more colour you add to the shared imagined fiction, the more effective your character becomes and the more likely he will meet a lovecraft-appropriate ending. 0 San means your character becomes an NPC. But you can suicide your character before that and still use the remaining Sanity score to buy scenes to colour in the events.

    So the more you dabble in the forbidden arts and non-euclidean geometry, the more you succeed, which is good, because when you fail, your name goes on a list which the GM keeps. He can cross off your name to put your character in bad situations HE chooses, not you. But the GM can also throw in his own horrendous scenes (that's also when he must add dice to the bowl which resides between the spaces), which cause sanity loss according to some alien algorithm. So you can never quite know if it's safe to increase your character's effectiveness or not.

    The dice you pick up? You give them to the other players whenever you feel like it. A lot of people like giving dice when somebody takes up their previously introduced ideas about the Mythos, so you can get some lasting memes going on. A player may roll a number of gifted dice to attempt success at a task roll or sanity roll (either add or subtract as appropriate).

    An most important bit: a given Sanity score doesn't dictate how you have to play your character (that idea is right out of Sorcerer and Humanity). The fiction should be rich enough that any player may be trusted to play his character's madness in an appropriate way. Some stay seemingly sane a long time and suddenly snap, some become progressively weirder.

    This works quite well in my experience. I still need to polish up some numbers and a technique or two, but the basics are here. Feel free to plunder.
  • So after reading Hot War (which is excellent btw), I've been thinking of adding Relationships to the Sanity mechanics. It make sense that people you love or hate could help you remain sane. I'll expand on it to include objects and hobbies, or passions. The problem is, I want to find a way for the characters to ''sacrifice'' these things when a Sanity check comes up. But I don't see how it would work, logically. Mechanically, it's easy. You lose the conflict, you lose the relationship.

    I've been playing around with the idea for a while, along with the idea of using madness as Aspects, but that too, is tough.

    Any suggestions? My goal is to make the Sanity mechanic something more than 1s and 0s.
  • Borrow heavily from FATE/SotC compels.
  • If you've not read it already, I strongly suggest taking a look at 'Don't Rest Your Head'. That game has one of my favourite mechanics of recent years and deals well with Insanity as part of it. Shame I can't find a group to play it with.
  • I just posted something like this at the forge … Maybe it helps.

    To kill somebody when you want to, roll under your "KILL" stat. To NOT kill somebody when you don't want to, roll over "KILL".
    You choose how many dice to roll. If you roll twice the stat, raise it by 1. If you roll half the stat, reduce by 1.
    Another stat could be "Getting away". Roll under to get away, roll over to stand and fight when it counts. "Magic": roll under to fry the evil henchmen with magic fire, roll over to overcome the horrible temptation to just get her love through wizardry. "Nobility": roll under to rule the easily impressed, roll over to care for the dirty and poor. "Smarts": roll under to see the details, roll over to not miss the big picture. And so on.
  • My SAN mechanics work like this.

    You have character traits (possibly in groups based around occupation, physical body, knowledge etc but also relationships with people and things). These have values.

    When you see something nasty, you start to replace a trait with some kind of madness/mythos knowledge which you can then use in conflicts or scenes to do mythosy things.

    So, for example, you might have Comfy House 4. After the first encounter with the Mythos you might get Comfy House 3/Agoraphobia 1, and you can use that Agoraphobia trait in a Mythos sense. You might also have Physics 4 which might get eroded to Physic 1/ Angles of Time 3 allowing you to do Mythos magic/science. You could even have Health 4 be replaced by Health 2/ Tentacle 2.
  • That's nifty. I had a similar idea when I read Hot War, where if you fail your Sanity roll, one of your Aspects shifts to a negative one.
  • edited March 2009
    Instead of insanity, I want it to be called something like Brokeness. When you fail your roll, you're broken in some way. And the more stress your put under the more that brokeness starts to impact their lives.

    Oh, and instead of a trait like "agoraphobia" or "paranoia," I want it to be more like "I'm having a heart attack" and "That guy's watching me"
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