Most people play dungeons and Dragons to be heroic. They want to save the day while staring gruesome monstrosities and certain death in the face over and over again. Their characters just grit their teeth, look demons in the eye, and spit. Unlike real life where I get startled when there is a knock at the door, nothing scares a D&D character.
But what if it did? What if, instead of just being vulnerable physically, they were vulnerable mentally as well? Perhaps the sight of an abyss spawned demon rising from the pit is enough to shake their concentration. Maybe seeing their comrades cut down in a particularly gruesome fashion threatens to unhinge their mind. How do you handle it?
First, this is the type of things to talk to your players about before you start a game. It definitely is not for everyone. If you just spring it on your unsuspecting players, there is likely going to be some negative feelings. Most people tend to play DND to be powerful. These type of rules lend themselves to a very specific type of feel.
If you’ve played Call of Cthulhu, you know what I mean. In that game, your character feels constantly assailed by cosmic forces outside of their control. You are a weak little fleshy sack just waiting for some elder god to come and make them a memory. If it doesn’t do it physically, it’ll do it mentally. One of the most common things the Gm says is, “roll sanity.”
Applying this to your DnD game means it’s likely going to be a lot less heroic. There are a lot of interesting stories you can tell in this fashion, but they become stories of human (or elf, or dwarf…) frailty and their struggle against a much greater world as opposed to how they are kicking ass and taking names. Talk openly and honestly about this with your players. They might feel bitter about the powerlessness of it.
If it is something that sounds fun, let’s go mad! The mechanics for this aren’t too terribly difficult. There are actually rules in the DMG that are easy to use for madness that involve making Wisdom or Charisma saves to avoid madness effects. You see something terrible, you make some saves, and you roll on some tables to see what type of madness you are afflicted by. Done.
I didn’t write this article to just tell you to read the DMG, however. I’m more interested in exploring some other methods. One of them that really inspired me was that used in Modiphious’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of. In that game, you can go crazy until you die.
To make a long story short, you basically have two types of hit points, mental and physical. This is a simplified abstraction of the system so that it makes sense, but roll with me here. Things can hit you and kill you, just like most every RPG game. More than that, though, they can “hit” you mentally. One of the themes that Robert E. Howard often touched on was that there are things that man was not meant to know or see. There are things not of our world that the human brain can not comprehend. In the Conan RPG, those things can literally kill you.
The last time I ran that system, one of the players specialized in yelling at people until they “died”. I’d generally play it off that he would make them so fearful that they would run away rather than try and fight him. A few even did themselves in rather than chance whatever torture that the PCs threatened them with. It was really fun thematically.
In DnD, there is only one type of hit points, however. What you do have is psychic damage, which seems a natural use of these type of mechanics. When the players are presented with a true terror, have them make a Wisdom or Charisma save or take some psychic damage. The DC will have to be set depending on just how bad it is. Seeing a severed finger might be a DC 5 save, while seeing the dark god themself taking form on the physical realm might be a DC 30 save.
How much damage one might take is also at your discretion. Personally, I think keeping it toward the lighter side of things is wise. Losing 1d6 hit points for witnessing something heinous drives home the horrific nature of what they are seeing without making it too much of a threat. That balance is something to work out with your own players.
Of course, it doesn’t have to end at damage. The tables in the DMG can give you a lot of inspiration. Status effects are also a great mechanic to utilize for this without just pouring on more damage. Making a character paralyzed as they can’t move due to fear, or deafened as they can’t hear over their own screaming… it’s fun and thematic.
I might have a strange idea of what fun is.
Once a character deals with the fear effect of a situation, you can likely put it to bed. Seeing an indescribable horror for the first time might be terrifying, but it becomes a little more common places the second time. The initial shock is over. If something is particularly heinous, you can have them save each round until the save is made, but I wouldn’t utilize that too often.
Obviously, this is optional. You can play DnD your entire life and never worry about madness. If you want to try a darker one shot, or even a campaign, give it a try. We can all go mad together.