What happens when the mind is confronted with something so terrible, so alien, that it alters a person's understanding of reality?
Why, that person slowly descends into madness of course!
This theme, and the exploration of this "descent into madness," is quite popular in literature and cinema. The works of Edgar Allen Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, and Alfred Hitchcock come immediately to mind as exemplary of this genre, and there are no doubt dozens and dozens of other examples. This theme is so familiar, and so pervasive, that sooner or later the question of how to emulate madness in role-playing games will inevitably come up.
In Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons, this question comes up on pages 258 – 260, in Chapter 8 of the Dungeon Master's Guide, under the heading: "Madness." Maddeningly, it also comes up in Chapter 9 on page 266 under the section “Fear and Horror,” which (poorly) references the aforementioned madness rules in Chapter 8, while in turn those madness rules in Chapter 8 reference the rules for “sanity checks” on page 265 of Chapter 9. Unless the intention was to actually drive people mad, there is no reason for these obviously related rules to be scattered and separated as they are by a few unrelated pages. But I digress...
Today, I'll be taking a look at these official madness rules, as well as a couple of other, similar systems that are available for download over at the DM's Guild.
First, I'll touch briefly on the rules presented in the Dungeon Masters Guide. There are tables presented for short term, long term, and indefinite madness, as well as suggestions for when a roll on each table could be called for. Short term effects tend to have severe and immediate consequences, as characters are paralyzed by fear, incapacitated by laughter, or overcome with some similar and temporarily debilitating malady. Long term effects can last for several hours, and can have a wide range of effects such as characters gaining peculiar compulsions, suffering from delusions, tremors, or amnesia, or simply falling unconscious for the indicated amount of time. Most of these conditions carry detrimental mechanical effects, while a few merely provide interesting role-playing opportunities. Indefinite effects saddle the character with extreme and persistent personality traits, such as hoarding, extreme paranoia, or a newfound appreciation of murder. I like that there are three degrees of madness presented, and I like the variation in the types and intensities of possible maladies that are present on each table. Overall, I think these rules do a good job covering madness in a general way that will work well for most games.
The first set of alternate madness rules I want to take a look at are “Corruption Rules for Fifth Edition D&D,” as uploaded to the DM's Guild by Matthew Mercer, who you no doubt recognize from his wildly popular voice acting work as “various characters” in the 1996 animated TV show Mobile Suit Gundam: The 08thMS Team. Even though these are technically rules for "corruption" rather than madness there is very little distinction between the two contextually, as use of these corruption rules can lead to characters with hallucinations, compulsions, paranoia, and other hallmarks of madness.
I actually like these rules a lot, for various reasons. First, they are free, which is always nice, and at only three pages long, they are also elegant. Like the madness rules from the DMG, this supplement presents three different “tiers” of corruption (mild, moderate, and severe), each with it's own corresponding “corruption effects” table. In addition to madness effects (similar to those found in the DMG), there are also physical manifestations of corruption, such as “body parasites” and “seeping sores.” These rules also provide a system for tracking the cumulative effects of corruption, and the difficulty of checks to resist corruption are dependent on the intensity of the corrupting influence, as well as whether or not a character is already afflicted by one or more maladies. This system of accumulating corruption coupled with increasing check difficulties is a simple, effective way to model a character succumbing to a pervasive evil over time.
Another great thing about these rules is that there are only twenty-four conditions presented, and each are only a couple of sentences long. This means that the game isn't bogged down with a lot of extra rules, but it also means that if you wanted to add or remove conditions you could with very little effort. Don't like the conditions that warp a person physically? There are only about ten of them so either replace them with something new or pick another result from the table. You could even quite easily scrap the maladies presented here and just use the charts from the DMG with the corruption point system instead. At three pages and for no money you really can't go wrong with these rules. The corruption points system is good, and the fact that the rules are compatible with the system presented in the DMG is nice bonus.
The second set of alternate rules I want to take a look at, “The Fear, Horror, andMadness Rulset [sic],” are are a bit more ambitious than those presented by Mr. Mercer. However, the PDF is still only fourteen pages long, so it's certainly not an exhaustive text. The stated intention of this document is to convert the fear, horror, and madness rules from 2nd edition (presumably those found in the Domains of Dread setting book for Ravenloft, though this is never clearly stated) to 5th edition D&D. I don't own Domains of Dread, so I'm just going to focus on the material that is presented, and not whether or how well this supplement accomplishes that goal.
The first thing that I want to say is that there are numerous errors in grammar and composition throughout this document. Some of this can be overlooked, and attributed to the fact that the author does not appear to be a native English speaker, but numerous other mistakes point to a general lack of editing and attentiveness. I am not pointing this out to be petty or demeaning, but rather to inform you that this supplement can prove difficult to read in many places. I realize that this product is Pay What You Want, but the apparent lack of editorial attention is still frustrating.
Moving past the technical issues, The book offers a brief explanation of gothic horror and the Ravenloft campaign setting. Those familiar with the genre and the setting will likely find this to be redundant, while those unfamiliar will likely find the explanation presented here to be lacking. After this introduction, the supplement lays out rules for Fear, Horror, and Madness in three separate sections. Each section starts by defining the condition (fear, horror, or madness) and then goes on to provide examples of when a character might be called on to make a check to resist said condition. Sample situations and the suggested DC of saving throws to resist succumbing to the effects of the condition are provided, and in the cases of horror and madness there are tables that you can use to roll for specific maladies if the character fails his or her saving throw.
I'm going to be honest, I didn't find a lot of the information presented here to be very useful. I thought some of the examples of what could trigger a horror check or a madness check were helpful, but I also thought the suggested saving throw difficulties tended to be rather high. Failing a horror check could lead to things like being “frozen in fear” (stunned), taking on a level of exhaustion due to nausea, or suffering from nightmares, where you are unable to benefit from a long rest until you successfully make a saving throw. Some of these are interesting (thematically I like nightmares, but I can see it just bogging the game down in practice), but the results from the DMG tables will net you many of the same effects (and then some), all with a much better wording and more playability. The madness rules are similarly lacking, and make less thematic sense than the horror rules. The rules do provide a points system to simulate the progression of madness, but it's almost identical to the system presented in Mercer's “Corruption” rules, with the latter having more intuitive table results and more reasonable difficulty check numbers.
You can pick these rules up for free and have a look at them yourself if you want to, but I can't recommend them over the system presented in the DMG or the other free supplement that is available which again, I do strongly recommend.
All of these systems rules represent pretty basic was to simulate madness in your Dungeons and Dragons game, which is probably enough for most people. If you are looking for a more in depth approach to madness, you will probably need to look elsewhere, create your own system, or expand upon one or more of these options. While I'm not intimately familiar with any Cthulhu role-playing system, my instincts tell me that such a system is probably a good place to start if your are interested in finding inspiration for a more comprehensive madness system. Do you already have a favorite madness system that you recommend? Let me know about it in the comments!