Insane in the Membrane – Sanity in RPGs

eternal-darknessRemember the video game Eternal Darkness? It was on the GameCube back in the day, and it was probably the only reason why I didn’t regret skipping the Playstation 2. Eternal Darkness was a multi-story videogame that explored a coming darkness. It was all about people throughout time being forced to confront the incomprehensible. The story was great, the gameplay was fun, but the thing that sold Eternal Darkness for me was the sanity meter. The more ‘bad’ that you experienced, the more your sanity would go down until you were finally experiencing ‘glitches in the matrix.’ In one instance, you’d walk into the room filled with zombies and then your television would say it couldn’t detect your controller. And as you charged to try to check the plug of your controller, the zombies would be hitting you until a flash would happen and your character would be in the room alone screaming “THIS ISN’T REAL!”

The game was in my head! And I loved every minute of it. And the best part was that, if you were to cast a glance here at, you’d understand that the elements are akin to the runewords in Diablo 2.

The first time I experienced anything like a sanity meter in a roleplaying game was in Vampire: the Masquerade, where it was the Humanity scale. While it wasn’t exactly a sanity meter, it was a meter that wasn’t dependant on health levels. Rather, it was a meter that affected a character’s attitude and personality, and I absolutely loved reading about vampires falling to the beast. I later moved onto games like the Laundry, Call of Cthulhu, and Warhammer that actually had a sanity meter built into the game. In later renditions, World of Darkness took it upon themselves to make something similar – especially for the God Machine Chronicles.

I’ve been a huge lover of using sanity in my Billyverse games, and I’m very fortunate that I have players who are willing to not only play along with my delusions but also have their dimming sanity reflect in their characters. Unfortunately, not all GMs are so lucky.

The biggest fear I’ve encountered with sanity meters is the player who just doesn’t seem to get madness. They either treat a sanity or humanity meter as just another stat they need to keep above a certain number in order to avoid negatives, or they go from sane to bat-shit zany “I’m-a-Malkavian-so-I-hit-a-prince-with-a-fish” bonkers at a drop of the hat. Or worse, someone who takes their dip into insanity as a reason to try to creep players out in the most uncomfortable ways. These people I don’t enjoy gaming with, and I have seen their type ruin a perfectly good table.

Insanity in a game can cause some wonderful bits of horror. During one of my games, Shattered Reflections, I used madness and ‘glitches’ to make the characters slowly doubt themselves. They had a hard time distinguishing what was truly failing them – the world around them or just their mind. To me, that’s the scariest part of my stories (and I admit I sometimes draw out too often.) I love to make the characters wonder if their reality is wrong or if they are just cracking under the pressure. I love for them to question if what they are experiencing is real or not. And maybe that’s what I try to show when we play my games; people questioning their sanity instead of caricatures of mental health.

Insanity can have some humor into it, sure. After the terror passed in Eternal Darkness, it was fun to share stories with friends about how we reacted to the controller disconnect scene. For the more classically minded, see the part of the Fool from many of Shakespeare’s plays. However, it’s important to remember that mental illness is a real life issue and may affect players at your table in different ways. In fiction, madness can supply insight, but like many real life issues that influence our games, remember that the fun of your players comes first before any story elements..

So, how do you like insanity in your game? You a fan? You not a fan? Oh – and who hear thought Eternal Darkness was a bad ass game? We should get together with some beer sometimes and play it together, am I right?

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About the Author
Billy started out his roots like many roleplayers - D&D. Playing it and then Vampire all through highschool and college, Billy picked it all up again when he made the move from Michigan to New York. Now working in publishing, Billy does what he can to view roleplaying games through a narrative's lens. Does that sound classy as balls? It should.

9 comments on “Insane in the Membrane – Sanity in RPGs

  1. TrystonG33K says:

    I’m running a NWoD game soon and I want to get it right with the Integrity loss. I’ve listened to many of your games and really appreciate the way everyone responds to sanity rolls. How much is too much though? I know you sometimes require characters to go batshit crazy before they can see what’s really going on, but if they kept passing rolls, would you go with it or just keep hammering them with more rolls? I know that some of my players are going to want to win at stuff, so how do I strike the balance of letting them do cool stuff and making them suffer?

  2. Barsher D Barsher says:

    I would say the best thing you can do is realize that sometimes a roll isn’t a win or lose. Sometimes there are shades within those rolls. If a person continues to pass their roll, then fix what you are having them roll for. Instead of having it pass/fail, do something like if they succeed against the insanity check, have them see the craziness but suffer no deplorable results from it. If they fail, make it haunt them via giving them a negative on their next rolls or two.

    Sometimes people are going to succeed though. Reward them, sure, but if a vision needs to happen then just make their punishment for seeing the vision less than if they failed.

    I think I made sense?

  3. Warren says:

    You did. Also, don’t you know he’s loco?

  4. TrystonG33K says:

    Yeah, that works for me. Thanks for being a super scary GM.

  5. Decarcassor says:

    Speaking of players who just don’t get madness, how about systems that try to portray it but fail spectacularly ?

    For instance I like the idea of roleplaying in a Lovecraftian setting but I really dislike the classic Call of Cthulhu rpg system. I have many issue with CoC, and one of them is the dreadfull sanity system. I feel it is way too random, completly arbitrary and that it sort of force the insanity onto the players while also taking away a lot of control from them. At its worse CoC sanity can actually be a very painfull fishmalk behavior generator.

    In general I feel that rolling on random tables is the worst way to handle insanity in rpg and CoC is kind of my worst experience in that domain.

    On the other hand I like the various morality scales of the WoD. They make sense and give an important mental health dimension to games that are not primarily about madness.

    I also tend to prefer an insanity meter that go up rather than a sanity meter that go down. The idea of sanity being some kind of quantifiable and finite thing just seems weird to me.

    I feel I also have to mention the Patient 13 rpg. Its a small french rpg where you play as patients in a very, very strange mental hospital. The game challenge your sanity by constantly making you doubt what you see and encounter around the hospital. Its the “is this really happening or am I really insane ?” approach. There is no sanity or insanity meter and you don’t get insanities as character flaws. Instead you have a lucidity meter and a composure meter. The fun part is that you obviously don’t want thoses meters to drop to zero, but most of the time you don’t want them to go too high either. Maxed out composure mean your character is so calm he barely react to anything and high lucidity mean you start to see how the hospital around you really is… wich is bad for your composure. A big part of the game involve using the various meds available in the hospital to try to fix your meter to some acceptable levels.

  6. CallmeIshma3l says:

    Sounds like a good time, where can I pick it up?

    Also, Billy, I remember Shattered Reflections. That little old lady can stil go fuck off and die.

  7. CallmeIshma3l says:

    Gah! She’s back, fuckin run!

  8. Jake says:

    Well, I’ve never played Vampire the Masquerade, but damn did I love me some Eternal Darkness. It’s the only video game that I actually bothered to play through to get all the multiple endings (in pre-YouTube Let’s Play days, we had to play our damn games to get our endings!) and I still wished there was more to unlock because it was fantastic.

    All hail Xel’lotath!

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