Grimdark psychology 101

@GrimDarkJames and @GrimDarkMike host an excellent podcast (GrimDarkPodcast) which is devoted to roleplaying in the Warhammer40K properties of FFG (and occasionally discusses other lines/publishers.) Despite not currentlyplaying in the 40K milieu, I still tune in for all the reasons I discuss below…

GrimDarkPodcast logo used w/o permission

The podcast is well laid out – each one is thoughtful and unique, and they follow a consistent pattern such that even those who aren’t enthusiasts of 40k can dip in and pick up useful concepts and gaming advice. Personally, I like the industry updates, often skip the mechanics section, and re-tune into the conceptual segments and gaming tips. However, in the post I have reviewed the game mechanics for ‘Fear’ and ‘insanity’ which were covered for two of the product lines…

In episode #35 ‘Fear and Loathing‘ they discuss the Fear and Insanity rules for Only War (OW). The OW rules for Fear could be considered a baseline for the whole set of product lines, because OW characters are all ‘grunts” in a very disposable army, and probably the most accessible and ‘like us’. In OW a creature/scene could have a Fear rating. I find it a bit odd that different types of Fear are distinguished only by their rating, not by how they are applied. There are even a game Talents (like ‘feats’) that allows you to treat your specific skills (E.g. Command) as Fear inducing, for the express purpose of opposing an enemies Fear by being even more Fearful yourself (it raises the amusing idea of two terrifying people/creatures scaring each other to death if this tweak in the mechanics did not exist ; ) Interestingly, it is in the Talents that enable you to resist Fear, in the description of how they are applied, that different types of Fear are treated differently. Deliberate or not, this way of applying the mechanics creates a niche/place for the Insanity rules to kick-in. After all, randomly stumbling upon a gruesome scene will not impact your sanity nearly as much (I suppose!) as encountering a scary demon/warp-phenomenon!

In episode #43 ‘Insane in the Sus-an Membrane‘ the hosts discuss the Fear and Corruption rules in the Deathwatch (DW) product line, which also makes this episode a candidate for this blog. Mechanically, certain Characters (being hardy ‘Space Marines’) can be immune to each different Fear type, and then each Fear can have a specific intensity which resolves as a negative modifier on the relevant Character trait (in 40k this is Willpower.) This seems to be close to how Fear is handled in OW, except that it closes the gap in the sense that different Fear types now operate differently.  There is also a decent ‘horde’ mechanic in most of the the FFG product lines and specifically focused upon in DW, and Fear of a horde of creatures, as opposed to fear of a single creature, is elegantly handled by simply increasing the Fear rating of the horde by +1 above that of the scariest creature. (In fact the more I learn how simply the FFG horde mechanic works the more impressed I am!) Fear is also the gateway to the Insanity points in the system. The Insanity system works on a tiered table, and the line between each tier is a (progressively more difficult) threshold that invokes a dice roll to avoid psychological trauma. I think one thing the system misses out on is the opportunity for a successful threshold test to be cathartic (have a positive result). Maybe this was missed, but possibly it was a deliberate design decision in line with keeping the game ‘grimdark’.

One quirk I think this will lead to is that the attributes that help to pass Insanity threshold tests are more prominent in less ‘combative’ archetypes (which is all relative, in a game featuring Space Marines) so that inevitably the longer survived characters will all be those with less combat proficiency. Is the trade-off for combative characters surviving more combats, thus making them the more longer lived characters in that sense? It isn’t clearly stated but I’d be intrigued to know how it was play-tested?

Corruption is the third mechanic in the Fear-Insanity-Corruption ‘rules triangle’ for DW, but it strikes me as being very product-line specific and thus less valuable in terms of analysis.

As well as the mechanics, your hosts (Mike and James) also touch on how to apply them using common sense, and I reckon that you will get more out of the rules just by listening to them explain their approach to rules application, because they provide a lot of quite insightful examples (which makes thema good example to any game designer!)

In my final analysis of how FFG have packaged up their psychological rules, I think they are really well done. They are obviously heavily setting-specific and (from passing my Forbidden Lore (40k Setting) skill test) they have done a great job of matching the effects of the rules to the cannon. The only suggestion I’d make to FFG is that the core terminology reads as rather ‘generic’ and the whole thing would have gelled better for me if the core language of the rules (as opposed to Talent names, and Character Template titles) was also expressed in a setting-specific manner. In the game about “the grim dark which is only about war” it’s hard to believe that neither ‘grim’ nor ‘dark’ are used as mechanical attributes 😉


One thought on “Grimdark psychology 101

  1. Hey JiaoshouX, first off – thanks for the shout out about our podcast.

    Secondly, if you’re talking about systems for fear & psychology in role playing games, you’ve got to mention the Stress system in Unknown Armies, created by Greg Stolze and John Tynes.

    The system breaks down “Stress” in to several categories – Violence, The Unnatural, Helplessness, Isolation, and Self (the last being the fundamental belief we try to have that we are all inherently good people). Each Stress field has 10 “Hardened” boxes and 5 “Failed” boxes. Any time a character might experience a form of Stress, it is listed with a type and a value. For example – the act of killing someone is a Violence 4 check.

    If the character succeeds, they tick a Hardened box, and if they get enough, they no longer need to worry about rolling (ie – a person with 4 Hardened ticks in Violence no longer has issues with being the cause of another person’s death). If the character fails the check, they get a Failed box, which means that the trauma has struck them so badly, that it stays with them and may cause them to react even more poorly to future stresses of the same type.

    The psychological system in Unknown Armies is a balancing act – get too many Failed boxes and your character becomes so paranoid they can’t even leave the house, but get too many Hardened boxes and your character becomes disassociated and effectively becomes a sociopath – which has the added drawback in the game of making them unable to wield magic.

    With that being said, there are benefits to a few Hardened boxes – you don’t want to be rolling for stress every time someone pulls a knife on you or you see a ghost.

    Overall, I think it’s one of the best systems I’ve seen in RPGs for managing the psychology of fear.

    Don’t stop blogging!


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