A measurement of character sanity is important for a number of modern gaming styles. The classical fantasy hack-and-slash, where death is a common, careless event that characters inflict upon each other, does not necessarily work in the flavor of modern tales of terror and angst. Vampire has its Humanity system, Cyberpunk 2020 has another one that leads to cyberpsychosis, Call of Cthulhu measures sanity, and Unknown Armies’ system for madness tracks several different ways a character can become disturbed.
This must be balanced by the action-movie flavor of Feng Shui. Characters capable of going out and taking down dozens of mooks and saying “Yeah, but they were all bad!” should not be complete sociopaths, though it’s okay for them to be a bit disturbed. (Player characters are disturbed. Sane people do not go out and risk death on a regular basis like characters in role-playing games.)
We shouldn’t overdo it with this system, giving people challenges every time they duke it out with a bunch of nameless goons. There should be enough realism that sanity does become a character issue, but the game should not turn into Therapyrun. The madness system is important to kick in when people confront real horror, both extradimensional and mundane, external and internal. A Hardening toward violence of 5 should be consonant with most player-character activity.
Madness rolls may be waived by the GM when presented with good roleplaying. (“As the wallpaper goes up in flames, hundreds of thousands of cockroaches scuttle away from immolation, covering the carpet in a wave that looks black in the firelight.” “AAAIGH! RUN AWAY! JUMP OUT THE WINDOW!” “That sounds like a failed Helplessness check to me...” or “If I don’t gilch this guy, thousands will die. Yes, I’ll blow up the school bus.” “Have a Hardened notch for Violence, and another one for Self.”)
The Unknown Armies system is the best treatment of character sanity I’ve seen. There are five sources of stress that challenge sanity: violence, the Unnatural, helplessness, isolation, and the self. Violence and helplessness are the most obvious sources of stress; we are all familiar to some degree or other with the pulse-racing adrenaline surge that accompanies violence or the threat of violence, and the gut-wrenching fear that accompanies the prospect of being helpless before that which we fear. Isolation and the self are more subtle challenges, but they prompt incredible amounts of mob behavior and cliquishness as people try to “fit in.” The Unnatural is all that violates the natural order of things. In order to adapt the Unknown Armies system to a world of mystic martial arts and both good and evil sorcery, we’ll need to meddle with the details of that as well as Violence.
I highly recommend that you pick up a copy of Unknown Armies; it has a lot of great ideas in there. For those of you who haven’t got a copy yet, here’s a quick run-down of their Madness system: each of the five sources of stress has an associated gauge, with ten boxes on the Hardened scale and five boxes on the Failed scale. The more boxes you have on a Hardened scale, the more callous you get toward challenges on that scale. Rank-1 challenges are trivial; rank-10 challenges are mind-wracking; hardening protects you from challenges in that you don’t need to roll against challenges of rank less than or equal to your level of hardening. You generally roll your Willpower against the rank of the challenge; if you make it, you gain a Hardened notch and get a bit more callous; if you don’t, you get a Failed notch and freak out for little while, with three choices of action: flight (run away!), freeze (deer in the headlights), and frenzy (berserk action, no fancy moves). The bonus to freaking out is that you don’t need to make any more checks while doing so.
Anyone who has all their Hardened gauges filled is a sociopath, and has lost their connection with the rest of humanity. Anyone who has five failures in any single gauge has developed a long-term psychosis— not enough to take them out of player control, but a serious problem on the order of serious phobias and obsessions. (Though they don’t need to make any more rolls against challenges on that track— they automatically go into flight/freeze/frenzy mode.)
The intermediate states on these gauges show how far along you are toward insanity. People with 1–3 levels of hardening show few external signs; at 4–5 levels, they have set foot on the path away from normal society; at 6–7, they’re used to being in an extraordinary world, and it shows; at 8–9, they’re pretty obviously around the bend; and at 10, they’ve lost sight of the bend. Failures increase the degree of uneasiness a person feels with respect to the gauge, leading to nervousness, distrust, and paranoia.
Vampiric Humanity is strongly correlated with your attitude toward violence. The adjustment from human life to vampiric existence has to involve some form of assimilation of the fact that you now live on the blood of humans.
Garou have an interesting relationship with Rage and violence. A Garou in full fury is quite capable of negligently shredding a human being.
Cyborgs with large amounts of combat ‘ware acquire Hardened notches rather easily. The rank-10 Violence challenge below is for the walking-tank characters who can get a very good impression of their own invulnerability, whether by being an actual walking tank or using your katana to become a whirlwind of decapitation and evisceration while remaining untouched. (This is the same as a mass execution because it effectively is a mass execution, with you in the starring role.) This does not apply to characters who take more than a few scratches (5 points of damage) over the course of the fight or who put significant effort into avoiding being overwhelmed by the opposition. (You just don’t get that godlike feeling if you spend half your time ducking behind cover.)
|1.||Get attacked with a weapon.||1–3||Pretty normal.|
|2.||Witness torture or a vampire drinking blood. Knock someone out in a fight.||4–5||Your attitude shows when it comes up in conversation— you may turn grim, or intense, or nervous.|
|3.||Get shot at random; be tortured briefly. Knock someone out from stealth.||6–7||You’re used to it, and show little reaction to the prospect.|
|4.||Kill someone in a fight. Witness brutal murder, such as a Garou eviscerating someone.||8–9||Your callousness is obvious in casual conversation.|
|5.||Be present at a battle involving massive carnage. Kill someone whom you are sure is corrupt. Witness grisly murder. Be involved in a pitched battle where only one side is left standing at the end.||10||Your matter-of-fact attitude toward torture and brutality is obvious, or you work so hard to hide it you come off as guarded all the time. Life and death are not important; you may want to stay alive, but that’s just a matter of aesthetics.|
|6.||Torture someone, or kill them in a grisly manner. Transform an unwilling person into a vampire.||Failure|
|7.||Kill a helpless target.||1||You’re a little edgy around the prospect of violence.|
|8.||Be tortured for an hour or more.||2||You’re very aware of violence in the world, and consider people who think Hollywood depictions are accurate childish or fools. You are alert to the dangers.|
|9.||Witness mass execution.||3||You become alert or uneasy at the sight or blood or a reasonable facsimile thereof. You get nightmares.|
|10.||Watch as someone you love is tortured to death. Travel through combat as a lord of destruction, killing all who stand in your path and shrugging off all attacks because they cause negligible damage.||4||You instinctively prepare for trouble whenever you hear a loud noise or raised voice. Your nightmares are frequent, and you constantly perform threat estimates on everyone around you.|
The Unnatural is comprised of experiences that lead a person outside a normal worldview. For those who are not raised with a normal worldview, aspects of the Unnatural that are perfectly comprehensible should not be a problem at all. Characters who have studied a topic and are relatively open-minded about the possibility of certain unnatural phenomena should have a much easier time of dealing with the stresses of confronting unnatural phenomena compared to those completely unprepared. This should generally be modeled by having certain knowledges that make it easier to get Hardened notches instead of Failed ones as long as the level of stress involved matches the level of knowledge.
There will also be times when a character cannot truly understand something without having experienced the previously unimaginable.
Some forms of knowledge may only be possible to comprehend with a particular mix of Failed and Hardened notches. (Cthulhu Mythos, for instance.)
|1.||Feelings of strong deja vu, confrontation with the supernatural behind a veil (“That’t can’t be a vampire, that’s just another Goth...”), witness a person under the effects of a blessing or hex, or perform coincidental magick.||1–3||Pretty normal, though you may treat many New Age topics with derision either as skepticism or elitism.|
|2.||See a vampire, werewolf, wraith, or demon. You might explain it as special effects or tricks of the light later, but it sure seemed real at the time. Experience scrying, aura reading, or shamanic travel.||4–5||You pay close attention to matters paranormal and supernatural, seeking to sort out the truth from the hype.|
|3.||Realize that a vision you had of the future has come true.||6–7||You know beyond the shadow of a doubt that the world is a larger and stranger place than you were raised to believe, and you find it odd that people are unaware of the vast forces that manipulate them.|
|4.||Witness obvious shapeshifting or teleportation. Realize that you have produced a blatant nonphysical effect (lit a candle by focussing your will).||8–9||You can see the fundamental interconnectedness of many things, and may acquire a reputation for amused or thoughtful reactions to what others consider meaningless coincidences.|
|5.||Be successfully attacked with magic.||10||You now expect the unexpected, and have to make a concerted effort to react as if anything unusual surprises you.|
|6.||See someone you know killed by magic, with no sane way to rationalize it.||Failure|
|7.||Have a conversation with a loved one you know is dead.||1||You’ve turned a bit superstitious.|
|8.||See an animal with human features.||2||You have a few nightmares, and have developed a suspicion of or fascination with the occult.|
|9.||See the dead rise.||3||You frequently feel like you’re being watched, and have begun to perceive patterns in what was formerly noise— the noise of water splashing in a fountain becoming voices, or faces in the clouds.|
|10.||Realize that someone who has been close to you for years is an inhuman supernatural being, so totally other that your relationship cannot have been anything but a sham..||4||You often feel as if there are presences around you, but they aren’t there when you swing around at a hint of perceived motion in your peripheral vision. You get frequent nightmares, and often cannot tell them as such until you awaken.|
Human beings are built to function with feedback from their peers. Going outside the bounds of society can have profound effects upon the psyche, whether you are surrounded by soldiers, tycoons, sorcerous eunuchs, blood-drinking murderers, or soul-devouring demons.
Innerwalkers have a particular problem with isolation, since history can change around them, distorting the familiar. Some sever their ties with those who no longer really know them, while others make a conscious choice to love the people they know, no matter the reincarnation, and work to give them a better past.
Isolation is also a problem for supernatural beings and sorcerers. Kindred and Garou have direct and incontrovertible feedback that they are a different sort of being from the passerby on the street, a feral hunter amidst a pack of sheep. Those who wield great forces of magic know that they can do more than others, and that this makes them different. The isolation of power leads all too easily to arrogance.
|1.||Spend a day without seeing a familiar face.||1–3||Pretty normal. You may be a bit standoffish or curt.|
|2.||Spend five hours in a sensory deprivation tank. Conceal your nature as an Innerwalker or supernatural being from a loved one.||4–5||You can be unthinkingly rude at times.|
|3.||Spend three days without talking to another human being. Spend one day lost in the Netherworld (if you don’t know what the place is).||6–7||You lack patience with people who don’t understand what you’re trying to tell them, which you find obvious. (You need to think about it to remember to explain things.)|
|4.||Be institutionalized by someone you love and trust. Return from the Netherworld to find that your personal history— as far as your loved ones understand it— has changed.||8–9||Unless you’re concentrating, you’re completely lacking in conversational skills, and social conventions such as shaving, dressing, and bathing begin to seem meaningless to you.|
|5.||Spend a week in solitary confinement. Discover your home era has changed to a different juncture. (First time only.) Realize that knowledge of your nature would horrify most normal people.||10||You don’t care what people think about you, and you can’t imagine why anybody would care.|
|6.||See someone you thought you knew extremely well acting completely out of character. Experience lateral reincarnation.||Failure|
|7.||Spend a month in a country where no one speaks your language and you can’t make yourself understood, no matter what.||1||You can get along in normal society, though you may be a bit shy, and feel a kind of gratitude whenever a new acquaintance doesn’t reject you.|
|8.||Be deeply, painfully, and violently betrayed by someone you love.||2||You’re a bit nervous around new people, and may become a chatterbox or very shy as you try to make a good impression or at least not make a bad one.|
|9.||Be treated like a stranger by your closest friends.||3||You are uncomfortable with silence, and can have insomnia when sleeping alone. Sometimes you talk to yourself or think out loud when you’re not paying attention.|
|10.||Spend a month in a sensory deprivation tank.||4||Sometimes you have panic attacks when you’re all alone or surrounded by strangers.|
One of the important keystones of responsibility is the sense that your actions can make a difference. Innerwalkers seldom meet the ordinary challenges of helplessness that occur in mundane life; they are folk who go out there and make a difference! The problem for innerwalkers is confrontation with forces beyond their control, and often beyond their influence as well.
NPC’s such as Black Spiral Dancers and Nephandi have often been helped along toward complete insanity by their helplessness before the horrid powers they serve.
|1.||Unintentionally humiliate yourself in public.||1–3||You’re a tad pessimistic or fatalistic; “Shit happens” or the equivalent is prominent in your vocabulary.|
|2.||Get fired from a job you love. Be swallowed whole by a horrific creature, or encased in its secretions.||4–6||When things are going wrong in a big way or trouble just came out of left field, you handle it remarkably well. (This is not incompatible with two failed notches: you can be upset over small things and placid about big ones.)|
|3.||Fail at something when it’s imperative that you succeed.|
|4.||Get dumped into a pit of maggots. Be forcibly transformed into a bloodsucking fiend.||7–9||You have a boundless faith in the perversity of the universe, and may easily mistake conspiracy for the usual effects of Murphy’s Law.|
|5.||Spend a month in jail.||10||You’ve lost sight of the distinction between incident and accident. You may believe that everything is predestined or random; free will is a bad joke.|
|6.||Watch a videotape of your spouse committing adultery. Experience blackmail on the order of “do this or I’ll kill/torture your friends, and it will be your fault.”||Failure|
|7.||Be placed in a situation where you have to cut off one of your own limbs or die.||1||Pretty normal. You may be a bit finicky or meticulous in your attempts to head off Murphy at the pass.|
|8.||Watch someone you love die.||2||You get nervous, upset, or pessimistic when small things go wrong.|
|9.||Watch someone you love die because you tried to save them and failed.||3||You have an intense dislike for surprises, even good ones.|
|10.||Be possessed, yet aware, as your body commits unspeakable acts against your will.||4||You find it very difficult to trust anything; you perceive your tools, your friends, even yourself as intrinsically unreliable. You have a tendency toward compulsive behaviors such as regularly rechecking to make sure your door is locked when you leave the house.|
After having their home and family ripped away from them by the shifting of timestreams, the Self is often all that remains for an Innerwalker. Worlds may change, but honor remains.
The implantation of cyberware is a special case, as opposed to a mere challenge. The presence of cyberware in your body is a Self challenge that leads to hardened nothces, but the implantation causes automatic failed notches, which should lead to cyberpsychosis as a result of the madness system as opposed to direct loss of Humanity. Combat ‘ware is particularly conducive to acquiring Violence notches as well.
Over time, a person’s self-image can change. Old vampires who have assimilated to a particular vampire society have a different scale of Self than younger ones who cannot help seeing the world through human eyes. Of course, those older vampires may have some very interesting twists to their personality resulting from the assimilation...
|1.||Break a minor promise.||1–3||People may find you to be a bit brittle or phony.|
|2.||Be confronted with proof that your self-image is inaccurate.||4–5||Even when you’re telling the truth, people often think you’re lying, unless you make a particular effort to act “natural”.|
|3.||Secretly gratify an urge that is unacceptable to your upbringing and background.||6–7||You’ve lost a sense of connection to those who were previously close to you. You may be able to predict their actions, but you no longer know exactly what you feel about them.|
|4.||Lie to conceal some aspect of your personality from a person close to you who trusts you implicitly. Kill someone who is just doing their job without understanding that they’re supporting something morally wrong.||8–9||Half the time, you only know that you’re telling the truth if you take a minute to think about it. Truth and lies aren’t nearly as important as they used to be, back before you quit lying to yourself...|
|5.||Decide not to act on one of your better impulses because “it’s too dangerous.”||10||Life has been pared down to the essentials for you; you have no aesthetic opinions, and you have lost the ability to enjoy or dislike things, because there’s so little “you” there to interact.|
|6.||Deliberately deceive someone you love in a way that is certain to cause them anguish if they find out.||Failure|
|7.||Discover that you have inadvertantly committed an act of cannibalism, murdered innocents under the impression they were corrupt, or killed an innocent you thought you had only rendered unconscious.||1||Occasionally, you have a sense of dissociation, where you feel dissociated from your own self.|
|8.||Deliberately act completely contrary to your own moral system.||2||You question yourself regularly, and tend to become introspective when someone mentions matters such as “truth,” “lies,” and “promises.”|
|9.||Kill someone you love.||3||Half the time, you feel like you’re an actor playing a role, your actions rehearsed, forced, or fake.|
|10.||Deliberately destroy everything you’ve risked your life to support.||4||You frequently feel as if you’re just along for the ride in your own life.|
The most direct help you can get is psychological triage, where you get some help right away, within an hour of having flipped out. In that hour, your counselor makes a roll; success allows you to erase a failed notch. The counselor has a +3 penalty if they acquired a failed notch as a result of the same experience.
Counseling and psychotherapy can help you adjust to the experiences you have suffered. After a few sessions during which you can establish some trust with a therapist, you make a Mind roll against a target number of the largest sum of your hardened and failed notches on any one gauge or the largest stress you’ve had to assimilate, whichever is higher, and your counselor makes the appropriate roll for their skill against the same number. Any time either of you gets boxcars and then success, or you both succeed, you can rease a hardened or failed notch of your choice. If you succeed and your counselor fails, you can erase any failed notch. If you fail and your conuselor succeeds, you can erase any hardened notch (or none at all, and get told the “light bulb has to want to change” joke and other lecturing). If you both achieve boxcars and success, you can erase up to three failed or hardened notches in any one gauge. (You can’t split the three between failed and hardened; excess erasures are lost.)
Of course, finding a therapist you can trust not to have you locked up and medicated because of the horrifying delusions you’ve described may be tricky. And showing them the horrible truth may get you on the list of dangerous psychotics, or ruin them as a therapist as their reality is undermined...
If you’ve gone off the deep end into five-failed-notches territory, you need serious help. Regular therapy allows you and your therapist to make rolls every six months to erase that fifth failed notch. Residential treatment is more effective, allowing you to make a check every month. However, this means voluntarily letting someone else lock you up, spending time around all the other distressed people who sit around watching television all day, getting up every morning at 8 AM for a pre-planned day that brings some structure into your life, and taking all the little pills they hand you.