Wednesday, March 9, 2016

5E: Fear and Loathing in Fifth Edition

I've been playing a lot of the video game, The Darkest Dungeon, when I get some free time.  It's an addictive little skirmish game with a great Lovecraftian horror theme.  As a player, you're constantly trying to manage the stress and insanity of your squad, which compounds with the length of an expedition and the mounting horror.  Most versions of D&D have some kind of mechanics to enforce rests and exhaustion during exploration (with wandering monsters as another mechanism that creates pressure).  Very few of them have actual horror mechanics (even LOTFP, with all that great horror artwork and scenarios, is about tone and referee style over mechanics).  Surprisingly, 5E has a set of simple but evocative horror mechanics.  (These are cleverly concealed in the depths of the DMG).

5E has two groups of related rules - Sanity Rules and Madness.  Sanity is a 7th 3d6 attribute.  If you're using Sanity, you add another "11" into your array for assigning attributes.  Sanity is there mainly as a source for Sanity saving throws and skill checks against Sanity challenges.  Failed Sanity checks can lead to being frightened (a status) or short, long, or indefinite madness.  Long and indefinite madness also causes the loss of a Sanity point.  There are a few tables with effects for the different types of madness.  Indefinite madness represents a permanent personality issue for the player, much like the "negative quirks" characters pick up in The Darkest Dungeon.

5E also suggest a few basic spells to interact with madness: Calm Emotions, and Lesser and Greater Restoration to recover from longer term madness and recover lost Sanity.  Dispel Evil and Remove Curse still remove magical sources of madness.  I don't think it would be hard to also add a few camp or town-centric mechanics, like carousing, as alternative ways to recover lost sanity and put some choice into downtime activities.  The major missing piece in 5E is a list of example situations (or sanity destroying monsters) that would trigger short or long term madness Saving Throws; the referee that wants to run a 5E horror game has to figure all of that out on their own.  It doesn't sound like Curse of Strahd covered this type of stuff.

The discovery of Madness and Sanity rules tucked away in 5E is intriguing (and speaks to the foresight of Mearls and Co., too, in supporting alternative styles of play right in the core.  Sanity is adjacent to the Laser Pistols and Muskets in aisle 15.)  Anyone who has played 5E knows how hard it is for characters to die in the game.  They're like the old Chumbawamba song - I get knocked down, but I get up again, you're never going to keep me down…  5E characters are remarkably resilient, physically.  One short rest, and they're ready for the boss fight in the next room.  Pretty much the opposite of antagonists in a horror game.  But their brains are vulnerable!

The Sanity mechanics offer an alternative angle to wear characters down over time.  Fear, as a status effect, forces Disadvantage while the character is Frightened.  Disadvantage doesn't rob agency the way "old school fear" makes the character run away, but it's irritating as hell for the players and can be safely overused.  Sanity is an attribute that will degrade over time, which means the character's Sanity saving throws will get worse, and they'll become more susceptible to future fails.  This is the classic Call of Cthulhu death spiral - we're all doomed in the end.

I picked up a copy of Torchbearer to read through; after some internet search, it looked like there was even some talk between Burning Luke and The Darkest Dungeon guys about making a mash-up for table top, but that was a while ago and there hasn't been any news.  The gothic horror megadungeon is still available as a project (Bueller, Bueller?)  In the meantime, I'm going to scan some other editions on how well they anticipate things like stress and madness, versus light, food, and exhaustion.

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