Rolling the Dice: Trauma as a Play Mechanic

Dungeons & Dragons

This is the second part of “Trauma as a Play Mechanic,” a cursory investigation into the use of trauma as a mechanic in games. Initially, video games and the use of programmed psychological distress was discussed, but now we’re about to delve into pencil and paper entertainments. Just to recap: for the purposes of this article, psychological trauma is being defined as damage to the psyche as a result of distressing events. These can be short- or long-term symptoms, often measured in a hard, quantifiable mechanic within the game’s system of rules.

The term ‘Sanity’ used in this article references a specific characteristic within the physics of a player or non-player character defined by the rules of a game. Sanity often takes the form of a point system that mimics the determination of a character’s physical proximity to death. In these instances, Sanity does not represent the varied uses of the word in real life, though they may be an attempt by a designer at mimicking their perception of a character’s proximity to mental distress.

Unlike video games, the nature of psychological trauma’s effects on gameplay can be tweaked and entirely changed by the Game Master, or some combination of the agency of the Game Master and players during the course of play. Here, I will be primarily covering and breaking down what is printed in the guide books for three tabletop games, supplementing with the creators’ intentions where I can.

How the mundane, yet extraordinary nature of some traumas versus the supernatural is often left up to the GM. Otherwise, those more reasonable fears of the everyday person are treated as lesser when compared to slowly revealing the traumas of a world more dangerous than players ever imagined.

Dungeons & Dragons

Dungeons & Dragons, 5th Edition

The Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide gets to the heart of what would, under normal circumstances, cause psychological trauma to a marauding adventurer.

However, the guide immediately admits that, “In a typical campaign, characters aren’t driven mad by the horrors they face [or] the carnage they inflict.” It suggests that in a horror campaign it might be instituted, but the Sanity saving throw is instituted in magically-induced trauma.

The negative mental effects of psychological trauma in D&D are termed ‘madness,’ and can be short-term, long-term, or indefinite. Each madness type has a table that breaks down the results from a d100 roll. The effects of short and long-term cover an amount of time based on a d10 roll. This way, the character and story development are neatly controlled and the effects are accessible, but also randomized enough to make a unique experience following trauma.

The tables cover a variety of disorders that would be covered in the DSM as well as in-game effects, such as the inability to speak or attack the intended enemy. These are randomly assigned as a character attribute via the dice roll table, making the nature of the incident of lesser import than its outcome.

In the worlds of D&D, the mental effects of trauma can be instantaneously cured with a little spellcraft (assuming the requirements of the spell are met) and a successful roll of the die or dice.

Call of Cthulhu

Call of Cthulhu, 7th Edition

Human interaction within the world of Hd.P. Lovecraft often ends in madness. Call of Cthulhu explores that in role-playing adventures where its Investigators are constantly in danger of losing control over their minds. On top of this, there are possible physical tolls that can play into the lowering of the ‘insanity’ score. In the previous edition, there was a guide to various mental health conditions that may occur when a character loses a large percentage of their sanity in one day.

While this mechanic remains similar on the newer CoC incarnation (currently in its 7th edition), Mike Mason from Chaosium explains that:

“Clearer game mechanics are provided for the effects of ‘insanity’ in the game — we clearly make a distinction between ‘game world’ and the real world — to move away from potential misrepresentation of mental health conditions.”

Similar to the Sanity bar of some of the video games already discussed, characters have a set amount of sanity interpreted into points. Varying dice determine the mental challenge of overcoming encounters with trauma. Should an adventurer mentally lose to the interpreted danger of an encounter, their mind suffers through a loss of points that corresponds with the roll of the chosen die. In the face of the worst possible trauma, a loss of points is impossible to avoid, though the random assignation can be avoided by successfully rolling the percentile check.

Sanity is related to the amount of Power a character is assigned, which the rules describes as “a combination of force of will, spirit, and mental stability.” So, encounters with the Lovecraftian and those dangers corresponding to real-world fears wear down this Power, causing a fluctuation in mental stability throughout play. These flutterings of temporary insanity are determined by a percentile roll where a character’s score determines the possibility of withstanding the pull of the mind’s safe recesses.

Supernatural elements are not the only looming danger for the mind. Gory injuries, near-death experiences, and witnessing other bodily horrors can tear an Investigator up inside. These can be as unworldly as having a spike thrust through a comrade’s chest during the process of becoming a servant of Glaaki, or nearly being injured for the first time with something as physically human as a gun.


Chill, 3rd Edition

Chill is a horror role-playing game in its third edition. Designer Jonathan McFarland broke down the system for trauma in the game via email, writing the following:

Every character has a Trauma scale tied to their mental traits (Personality, Focus, Willpower, and associated skills) with five levels (Distressed, Minor, Serious, Major, Traumatized). Each of the five levels have an accompanying Trauma penalty ranging from -5 to -50.”

Trauma in Chill is incurred during interactions with the Unknown. Generally speaking, these supernatural forces are beyond common human understanding. Player characters already have some experience or knowledge of the Unknown, which possibly means that they are coming into the game with associated trauma.

The Trauma system aligns with the injury system, setting up an almost sliding scale mechanic for mental or physical distress. This “psychic damage” is done by “physical fear, revulsion, and violation of expected reality.” While different contributors of trauma are described, they are handled in the same way on that scale. The differences in the source of trauma becomes important when characters develop advantages and weaknesses during interactions with the Unknown. These are called ‘edges’ and ‘drawbacks.’

Like so many games, characters can become hardened to the hardships put on them over time through leveling up a specific characteristic. A unique narrative device in Chill referred to as “being overwhelmed” creates new stressors for a character. These stressors act as triggers and set off penalties when a character encounters a similar situation.

Instead of too many traumatic situations putting a character out of commission at some point, McFarland notes that, “There is no lethal equivalent for Trauma in the game. No matter how stressed and mentally fractured the characters become, they can work to integrate the Trauma and continue fighting the Unknown.”


Nevermind & Conclusion

The treatment of trauma in role-playing games allows for a more free-form take on its addition to gameplay. However, while the similarities between physical and mental trauma mechanics make for tidy rules systems, some of this simplification is undoubtedly due to the appeal of role-playing games. While they offer open-world chances for exploration, like video games, these worlds are bound by rules that are meant to progress a narrative. The story itself may be more or less collaboratively created, but a linear progression of events must be defined, more or less, toward a defined goal.

These are hardly the only interpretations of trauma in games, both video and tabletop. There have been strides in the interaction between players’ emotional responses and horrifying in-game events happening thanks to recent advances in recognition software. The biofeedback-enhanced game Nevermind bases its challenge rating off the physical fear responses of its player. Game development team Flying Mollusk hopes to develop the game for therapeutic purposes.

However, it suffers from its narrative premise, wherein several assumptions about the aftermath of traumatic experiences sets up a stereotypical situation for a puzzle game too literally physical in its mechanics to explore psychological experience.

Unlike other games discussed, Nevermind seeks to repair damage done by trauma, which is actually a negative innovation in this list of games. Where the relative superhero protagonists of Dungeons & Dragons and the unwillingly chosen few in Chill can continue on their adventures affected, other games cut off all ability of players to continue without seeking to cure the effects of their trauma.

Another side effect of quantifying the large scope of reactions to traumatic experiences is cataloging the results in terms that are far too narrow. While restricted, is either model more correct? It seems that the depiction of trauma in games must first come down to whether the experience should be depicted accurately or toward a purpose, such as characters surviving psychological horror.


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