A sanity mechanic for D&D 4e


A couple of weeks ago I won an old Call of Cthulhu game book on eBay. As I was flicking though the book, I realised that this game provided something that I have struggled to present in my D&D 4e game: a feeling of fear and impending Doom, as well as true fear of the unknown. I almost immediately began considering ways to introduce these factors into my game.

I considered simply running my players through a haunted house, but soon realised that the investigation and exploration of the house, while being ripe sources for role-playing, were not going to put the player’s characters in any real danger of repercussions, other than succeeding or failing to find their objective.

What was needed was a way to present the build up of fear, the danger of making connections, and the impact that all of this would have on the player’s psyche.

After reading through the Sanity rules in CoC, it was clear that this sort of idea could be modified to work in 4e, but it would take a little work.

I considered the skills and stats that the players had available to them. It seemed pretty clear that the best stat to base a Sanity score on was Intelligence. This represented the player Character’s ability to make connections and recall information, as well as their ‘book smarts’.

I got the players to roll their INT mod + half level worth of d6s. The players a level 6, so the lowest INT mod was 2 and the highest was 8.

I allowed the players one re-roll if they thought the score was too low, but with the condition that they had to keep the second roll. Interestingly, almost all of them rolled a second time, and nearly all ended up with a lower score as a result. I’m sure there is a psychology study in there somewhere.

Now that the players had their sanity score, I explained the method I had for rolling a check. Each of the players had 3d10. If they rolled above their SAN score, they were unable to make a connection or deduction about what had just happened. In this way, the players with super low scores were protected from death, and the players with really high scores, reflecting their greater intelligence, were more likely to lose sanity.

One thing I did change from Call of Cthulhu was the much reduced chance of permanent insanity or death. Once a player got below three, they were virtually unable to lose any more sanity.

The final factor to consider was the effect of losing a large amount of sanity in one go. To deal with this, i used to random tables of insanity from CoC. This gave some really good results, with a wizard becoming obsessed with fire and an artificer looking for a reasonable explanation for a wardrobe attacking him.

All in all I think the experiment went fairly well, with the players genuinely worried by what was going on, and a little frightened about what was waiting in the basement.

I found the weakest aspect of the mechanic was having to enforce SAN rolls, as well as finding reasons to have the players roll. It requires a much more complete idea of an adventure than I generally prepare, and if I were to do this again, I would have to prepare to a much greater extent.

Does anyone else know of attempts to play sanity in 4e? feel free to comment below and discuss.


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