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In-character Mental Strain; or I Can't Stress This Enough

In-character Mental Strain; or I Can't Stress This Enough

Hi Weavers.

I'm currently running two D&D 3.5e games IRL, and my players are really enjoying it all, BUT, I really want to bring in an element to bring out some of the horror of the stories, beyond just "spoooooky undeeeeaaaad" and "moooonstrooouuusss deeeemoooonnnss" [insert spooky theramin music] and wanted to bring it in with a gameplay element.

I'm a big fan of Lovecraftian elements in horror, and have been playing the frankly sublime "Darkest Dungeon" by Red Hook Games a lot recently, and both love and hate the stress system used within that game. For those that are unfamiliar with the game, the premise is that you take groups of adventurers (ranging from crusaders, highwaymen, occultists, graverobbers and antiquarians) through a series of dungeons in the lands surrounding the crumbling ruins of "your family's" manor, fighting various horrors all in preparation for daring to venture into the titular Darkest Dungeon; an antediluvian cavern of indescribable horror and madness, hidden beneath the manor house. All the while, you struggle against the odds at the whim of the cruelest god (RNGesus), trying to keep your heroes alive and as unstressed as possible. Stress if almost like a second set of HP, at 100 stress, the character faces a "Resolve test" where they either develop an affliction (debilitating mental states such as "paranoid", "abusive", "fearful" or "irrational" causing debuffs and acting in specific ways) or a smaller chance of becoming "virtuous" (buffs that prevent their stress going beyond 100 and can sometimes reduce the party's stress). If stress levels become too high (150+ from my experience) up to the maximum level of 200, a character can suffer a heart attack and die. Stress can be inflicted by certain attacks, environmental factors (such as the light levels, or walking backwards through the corridor you're in), interacting with certain objects, or running out of food and beginning to starve. Overall it creates this entertainingly tense and literally stressful atmosphere that I would love to emulate.

So, I'm looking for a way to incorporate a similar mechanic into my games. The only ones I can think of within the 3.5 system currently are the rules for Sanity, as presented in Unearthed Arcana and based off of the Call of Cthulhu rules, and Taint (from Oriental Adventures and Heroes of Horror). The HoH version is quite tempting, though I would make it strictly Depravity only.

I've also, with a bit of Googling, found this idea elsewhere, any thoughts?

Have any of you run or played games using these rules, or have your own mechanic in place that would fit what I'm after?

Thanks in advance for any input/suggestions!


The Spycraft game also has some rules for stress damage.

Here is the relevant stuff...

Each time a character suffers 1 or more points of stress damage, if his current stress damage total exceeds a multiple of his Wisdom score (e.g. 1 his Wisdom score, 2 his Wisdom score, etc.), he must make a Will save. The highest threshold exceeded by the total stress damage accumulated to date determines this save’s DC, as shown on Table 5.8: Stress Damage DCs (see below). With failure, the character suffers the listed condition (see page 340 for each condition’s effect).

Threshold Healing
Exceeded DC Condition Rate
1 Wis score 12 Shaken I 1 point per minute
2 Wis score 16 Shaken II 1 point per 10 minutes
3 Wis score 20 Shaken III 1 point per hour
4 Wis score 24 Shaken IV 1 point per day
5 Wis score 28 Drained (1 level)* 1 point per week
* This effect lingers even if the character’s stress damage drops below the threshold required to trigger it. A drained character may only recover at the end of each mission.

At any time outside combat, stress damage wears off according to the character’s current stress condition, as shown on Table 5.8. Stress damage does not wear off during combat. When a character’s stress damage drops below a threshold, he loses the corresponding condition.

There are two games that do stress well, though in different manners. Torchbearer and Unknown Armies.

Torchbearer is the directly more applicable game, as it revolves around D&D-style dungeon crawling. It's a grim, gritty world and the mechanics of the game make dungeon crawling a grueling, punishing affair, stretching the players and their characters to the limits. It's a game well worth checking out, but I don't think you can adapt its mechanics into D&D: the base foundations are way too different for it to be an easy job. But it's still a game that comes to mind. Can't really give any solid examples of how the mechanics work, but the game revolves around failure giving harsh, negative consequences onto the character, and only once all those consequences are tagged (there's a list of them, including "hungry", "angry", "sick" and "wounded"), does the character die. However, failure is far more common in the game than in D&D, and you even need to fail to advance your character as it grants XP.

Unknown Armies, on the other hand, does psychological issues in the best way I've seen games handle it. In UA, you have tracks for different kinds of trauma. Violence, horror, etc. Characters progress those tracks individually. They gain both the traditional "sanity loss" things when witnessing too many horrible things, but also grow hardened towards them eventually, making them less susceptible to further instances of it - at the cost of being able to function like a "regular" person. It's a very intricate and well conceived system without being overly complicated, and while it's made for modern settings it's something well worth checking out.

That said, I don't think trying to port Darkest Dungeon's mechanics directly into a tabletop game will net positive results. It's a bit too detached and impersonal a system to make much sense - after all, in Darkest Dungeon you're not playing as those characters, you're playing as the descendant of the ancestor.

For those interested, here is some additional information regarding Actana's comments, an overview of how trauma works in Unknown Armies.

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