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Chop Shop

Mad As A Hatter

by Eric Brennan
Jul 24,2003


Mad As A Hatter

The last time I waxed loquacious about a specific implementation of a game mechanic was when I discussed the Buffy RPG's take on Drama Points. This month, I'm talking about the Madness Meter, used in Atlas Games' Unknown Armies and pretty much the end-all, be-all of sanity systems. This month, we're going to look at how the Madness Meter ticks and get it to do some roadwork for us, and we're going to bend, fold, spindle and mutilate it until it begs us to stop

First, let's establish a little background. If you don't know it already, Unknown Armies was designed by Greg Stolze and John Tynes, and is a game of "Transcendental horror and furious action" or "Power and consequences," depending on what edition you pick up. It is, without a doubt, one of the best horror/modern occult games on the market today, and any discerning gamer of good taste should have it on their shelves, or at least have a good excuse why they don't. I cherish my copies of the rulebooks and supplements, if only because they include some of the best game-fic prose out there -- "Roll the Bones" was up for an Origins Award, and the prose-work has just gotten better each book since.

Unknown Armies is also, for my money, a textbook example of good game design, demonstrating conclusively to the "rules-light" crowd that you can have a fairly simple and elegant system that is structurally powerful, and demonstrating to the rules-heavy crowd that you can have a powerful game engine and still manage to keep it simple. The system is structurally sound enough to allow any amount of tinkering.

The Madness Meter used in Unknown Armies to track the mental well-being of a character is a great example of the kind of "sound-structure/simple execution" I'm talking about here -- each player has a meter at the bottom of her character sheet, broken up into several categories. Every time the player's "worldview" is shattered by mental trauma in one of the categories, she stands a chance of either breaking down and getting a "failed" notch on her madness meter, catapulting her one step closer to insanity. If she doesn't fail the test, she gains a "hardened" notch, and pushes herself one step closer to disconnection with her fellow man and life as a psychopath.

Dark? Yes. Incredibly evocative in actual play? Hell yes. Perfect fodder with which to mess around and add to other games? Yup.

Tell Us, Eric, How Do Madness Meters Work?

Glad you asked, grasshopper.

It's quite simple -- each character has several categories in which their sanity can be threatened. "Unnatural" is the track you monitor exposure to the occult and various monsters with, while "Self" is where you monitor your own self-image -- if you think you're a good Christian, and then you go out and pee on a crucifix on a dare, you get a Self check. Besides "Self" and "Unnatural," there's also "Isolation," "Helplessness," and "Violence." You have two tracks, which amount to sets of points, in each category -- you have 5 Hardened and 10 Failed.

If you fail 10 tests in a category, thus getting 10 Failed marks, you're insane. In addition, when you fail any single test, you either fight, fly, or freeze -- you get to choose. That means you can either go berserk, run like hell, or go into temporary catatonia as the action passes you by.

If you pass a test, you get a Hardened in that category, and then if you get 5 Hardened in a single category, you become a cold-blooded sociopath. The good news is that all threats to your sanity are ranked by their category and their level, and if the level is lower than your "Hardened" rank in that category, you don't even have to roll. You've become immune -- one might say "hardened," even -- to the stimuli.

The only way to remove boxes in Unknown Armies is therapy and the like, which simulates the "feel" of the setting perfectly. This means that these stimuli really add up, and you really accrue issues to deal with the more you're in combat and fighting the supernatural -- in essence, your battles have consequences beyond mere victory or failure.

Making It Work For You

What the nature of the Madness Meter effectively means is that you now have a way to track people either becoming more vulnerable, or more inured, to a type of stimulus. This stimulus, for Chop Shop purposes, could be anything -- violence, religious phenomenon, cultural contamination, giant monster attacks against Tokyo, whatever. Pick your genre, pick your game, and you've got the basis for choosing the "categories" you want your Madness Meter to reflect.

Second of all, the "track" of five Hardened and ten Failed boxes can be modified to suit your tastes. Want a nice, long, slow degeneration? Work it out so you have twenty Failed boxes before hitting "crazier than a bedbug" level. Want people to go crazy easily? Five Failed boxes will do it. Finally, the nature of success and failure on the Madness Meter checks allows you to fit it into any system that gauges things a single success. That means most RPGs can use a Madness Meter-like system, even ones with simple success/fail outcomes like d20, rather than just those systems that rely on grades of success, like Storyteller. Basically, the number of systems that won't take to a Madness Meter system is very small indeed.

Possible Problems

The only possible workaround you might have to find when integrating a Madness Meter in your game is the fact that in Unknown Armies, you have two possible destinies without resorting to therapy-- insanity or sociopathy. That's cool, since that's what Unknown Armies is really about when it mentions "power and consequences" -- you mess with the bull, you get the horns.

There are a couple of ways around this problem if you want the ends of the Madness Meter to be a bit gentler on PCs. One way is to have an in-game method of removing Failed or Hardened boxes, such as completing quests, therapy, expending Drama Points, downtime, or just falling in love. A second way is to define the price of failure or success differently from the way Unknown Armies does -- in Unknown Armies, becoming Hardened is a bad thing, despite the advantages. In a high fantasy game, however, Hardened might just be synonymous with "toughened," and mean the PC is more resistant to shocks, more experienced and jaded in the ways of the adventuring lifestyle. You might even change the term from Hardened to "Veteran," if it makes it easier for your players to accept .

Show Me, Don't Tell Me

Okay, what follows are my meanderings on where and when you can use a Madness Meter. I cite a few specific games, and I cite some genres. By all means, let me hear your choices in the forums, below.

Cyberpunk: For those of you looking for something a little different from the usual "Humanity/Essence" trait seen in Cyberpunk gaming, and really want to simulate disconnection from the rest of the human race, a Madness Meter is the way to go.

In this case, I'd stick with the Hardened/Failed notches as they stand in Unknown Armies, and their resulting consequences of "Insane" and "Sociopathic." I'd play with the categories a little -- I'd make them Self (for when you add cyberware or commit some heinous act that goes against your self-image -- thus the corporate weasel and the street samurai both have to worry about Self checks,) Violence (for firefights and the like,) and Substances (because people are always getting addicted to something, be it drugs, electronic stimulation of the brain's presence center, or online forums.) Want to add some cyberware? Make a roll. Add too much and you either go nuts or become a psychopath. Like to fight? Keep rolling, because eventually you're going to become a murder machine unless you find something to keep you from breaking down, which probably means therapy. Want to ride the wire, and zap your brain for a high? Make a roll. Eventually, you're going to burn out, baby.

Sanity-Blasting Horror: Sanity-blasting horror, for any kind of horror game, is simple -- use a single Unnatural category (change the name if you like) and if you blow enough rolls, you go nuts. For long-term campaigns, make the number of slots in the failed category more numerous than in games where you want people to go crazy quickly. Getting Hardened in a "Call of Cthulhu" style game means becoming a stone-cold killer, willing to sacrifice anything -- or anyone -- to get the job done. That makes the Hardened aspect of the Madness Meter particularly useful in a Delta Green style game where what the characters will do to stop Mythos threats becomes nearly as awful as the threats themselves.

D&D: To cover an actual conversion of the Madness Meter to a specific game system, rather than a mere genre, I chose the ubiquitous and ever-loveable D&D3e. Strangely enough, when thinking about what to do with a Madness Meter in D&D, I went beyond the obvious "Sanity/Violence" ideas, because we've already discussed them. What I'd really like to do is use a Madness Meter-style system to enforce Alignment choices.

Basically, the idea would be that every time a PC violates their alignment without justification, they roll against the Madness Meter. In the case of D&D, I'd make tests on the Madness Meter resolve via success or failure on a standard Will Save, against a difficulty set by how horrific the stimulus is -- or in the case of alignment, the severity of the alignment violation. Every time the PC fails a test, he moves closer to the alignment whose behavior he's actually engaging in. Every time he passes, he hardens his own dedication to his alignment in spite of his violations of it.

But wait -- what if our alignment violation one week takes our player toward, say, the Chaotic axis, and his next violation steers him more toward Lawful? What do we do? If there's one thing that gaming has taught me, it's that we can't count on players to be consistent in their alignment violations -- which is why the DM should only worry about what alignment a PC moves toward after all of their Failed boxes are filled in. Hopefully, each violation will get noted briefly in the DM's notes, and then the DM and PC will discuss what happens next -- taken as a whole, where do the violations point? What new alignment comes out of the whole sum of the actions that resulted in Failed boxes?

The only question left after that is whether or not you want to start the whole alignment meter over at zero Failed/Hardened for the new alignment, and how you answer that will shape the feel of your game -- let players continually switch alignment, and behavior becomes more fluid, evolving over time. Lock them into their new alignment, and the Madness Meter will hopefully lead a player to his character's real alignment, based on behavior, but locks them into it for the rest of the campaign.


So, those are my musings when it comes to porting the Madness Meter over to other games and genres. Don't let the brevity of the column or the relative shallowness of the potential offerings fool you -- you can use a Madness Meter in anything from a Supers game to HDI's Fading Suns (where a category in a Madness Meter that measures cultural contamination would be especially suitable, methinks.)

Next month -- I don't know. I'd like to get to my Bamboopunk idea on crossing-genres out, but the historical research is taking more time than I thought. Maybe I'll go back to the forums and look at more ideas from you readers.

And on that note, let me add that the whole of this column came out of a post by Brand "Walking-Idea-Machine" Robins, and after viewing his posts in the Open forum, he should have a column of his own. Thanks, Brand -- I owe you at least one, probably more. Brand, and all of you readers who have commented in the forums, are the ones who are the real power behind this column.

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