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A Sanity System for Marc Miller's Traveller (T4)

This article was originally posted to the pre-magazine Freelance Traveller website in 2005 and reprinted in the March/April 2016 issue.

The Traveller Universe has strong horror elements, if and when the referee chooses to use them. This can mean anything from Ancient horrors to the supernatural, from parasitic aliens to more mundane thriller. I see sanity systems as a great tool for enhancing roleplay. In Traveller they can well be used in all campaigns, even those without horror elements, to bring in more realism to the game. Sanity system is as well a great deterrent for psionics in their use of telepathy. Reading wrong minds can have a rather interesting effect on ones own mind.

A character’s sanity is partly based on PSI, partly END. This is reflected both on the maximum sanity of the person, and modifiers when making sanity checks. Just remember, this is a tool to help roleplay and loses its meaning if used merely for crunching numbers.

The choice of whether to base sanity on PSI or END is ‘relevant’ in that the choice can affect both the initial (maximum) sanity score and the penalties imposed on sanity checks when either of the stats is severely reduced—a psion with END-based sanity has less of a sanity check penalty from heavy use of psionics than one with a PSI-based sanity; a soldier with a PSI-based sanity would similarly have less of a penalty from heavy physical injury or fatigue (reducing END) than one with an END-based sanity. On the other hand, choosing the higher stat of the two may result in a higher maximum sanity, but with higher penalties when that stat is reduced.

Maximum Sanity (maxSAN)

The character’s maximum sanity is either PSI×7 or END×7, in either case possibly with a modifier based on the other stat. The player decides which stat to base it on, but once chosen, it may not be changed. The stat chosen will be referred to as the primary stat.

However, if the other affecting stat—the secondary stat—is particularly high or low, the primary stat will be modified as shown in the following table before performing the multiplication.

Sanity Modification from Secondary Stat
Secondary stat value Modification
1 or 2 -2
3 or 4 -1
5 to 9 0
10 or 11 +1
12 to 14 +2
15+ +3

Example: Eddie Sampleton is a psion with PSI 11 and END 8. He chooses to use PSI as his primary stat. We get a maxSAN of (11+0)×7 = 77.

Let’s assume that he’d want to base his sanity on his END instead. He would get a +1 modifier due to his high PSI, and a maxSAN of (8+1)×7 = 63.

Note: There is no upper limit for maxSAN. There’s a lower limit of 40 maxSAN.

Active Sanity (actSAN)

Active sanity is maxSAN minus all the character’s sanity loss that has not been healed through therapy, active rest and relaxation, or other appropriate ways of restoring one’s mental stability.

Any sanity checks are rolled with a d100 against actSAN. A roll of 01 always succeeds and a 100 always fails. If the roll fails, the character loses active sanity according to a case-based combination of dice. If a one-time sanity loss is more than 5% of the person’s maxSAN, it should be considered a very traumatic experience that will lead to phobias or similar disorders. A one-time loss of more than 10% of maxSan should cause temporary insanity—for example, the character falls into a catatonic state. Each sanity loss should be marked separately on a character record to keep track of what the character has experienced and been shocked by. This can be a great help for roleplaying.

An active sanity of less than 40 describes a very unbalanced person. If the sanity score reaches zero, the character is totally insane, without a single clear moment, trapped fully in his madness. Such a character may still recover if receiving successful treatment for a period of time.

It should be noted that a success in a sanity check while, say, confronting moving corpses doesn’t mean the character wouldn’t be afraid or shocked—just that he can keep himself under control. Likewise, failure in a sanity check always represents getting shocked or otherwise affected by the situation, even if the sanity loss itself is only one point. Very low sanity scores should be noticeable to a trained telepath as they sense that the psyche of the character is about to break up. Likewise, there might be ways for a telepath to actually cause insanity in others.

Effect of Fatigue on Sanity Checks

Since sanity is based on END and PSI, even temporary loss of either should be reflected on the sanity checks. If either stat has dropped to half or less of the original value, the character will suffer a penalty on the sanity roll.

If the primary stat on which the maxSAN is based has been reduced to half or less of its original value, rolls against actSAN are treated as though actSAN were 30% lower.

If the secondary stat on which the maxSAN is based has been reduced to half or less of its original value, rolls against actSAN are treated as though actSAN were 10% lower.

The modifiers are cumulative.

Example: Eddie Sampleton is a psion with PSI 11 and END 8. He has chosen to start with a PSI-based maxSAN value of 77. He has not yet suffered any loss of sanity, so his actSAN is the same (77).

However, being a psion, he has been using his powers a lot today, without the chance to rest. As a result, his PSI is now 5, which is less than half of his original PSI. Since PSI is the primary stat on which his sanity is based on, he suffers a 30% penalty on sanity rolls (that is, treat his actSAN as being 30% lower) until his PSI has been restored enough. Thus he has to roll against 54 to avoid sanity loss.

Had Eddie chosen END-based maxSAN instead, his maxSAN would be only 63. However, if his PSI was reduced to half or less, he’d only suffer a 10% penalty, so he’d have to roll against 57.

Once calculated, maxSAN never changes, even if points in PSI or END are permanently lost. However, if the permanent loss reduces the stat below half of its original value (from which maxSAN was calculated), the penalty on sanity checks is permanent as well.

Losing Sanity: Examples of Shocking Situations

The need for a sanity check should always depend on the situation and the characters involved. For example, if Eneri and John witness another man being shot to death, should they be required to take a sanity check? Well, Eneri is ex-Marine and has seen lots of violence during his service, thus, he is not shocked heavily enough to require a sanity check. However John has never seen another sentient die violently before—he is most certainly required to take a sanity check.

When a character deals with the same kind of shocking events repeatedly, loss of sanity should gradually slow down and eventually end altogether. When you’ve seen enough zombies, you get used to them. A long pause (years) between encounters might warrant new checks again, at least in the case of supernatural beings or other truly horrid events.

In the case of John, I would require him to take a 1/1d6 sanity check. This means he will lose one sanity point if the roll succeeds and 1d6 if it fails. Let’s assume that John would see another death the next week—I would require another sanity check, this time 0/1d3 since he has recently seen another death. After seeing several people killed, I wouldn’t require John to take checks anymore.

Now, what if John failed the first sanity check? Well, lets assume that he had maxSAN of 60. He fails the check and rolls four on the 1d6. Well, since his severe trauma limit is only 3 (5% of 60), this means he is very shocked by the sight. Most likely he will react very strongly to the situation itself—maybe be paralyzed with shock, get hysterical or perhaps just become numb? That is up to his player and the personality of the character. The aftershock will leave him with a wound in his psyche, something up to the player and referee to generate.

Maybe he sees horrible nightmares of the event or starts to fear firearms? It should all be just another tool for roleplaying.

However, all traumas caused by a specific event should leave a weakness in the character for other events similar to the one which caused the trauma. For example, if John was shocked badly from witnessing the said killing, his “flaw” might be nightmares. Now, if he saw someone shot to death again in front of his eyes, he should suffer from horrid nightmares the next night and not get proper rest. Phobias should cause a sanity check when confronted by the subject of the phobia, even in “innocuous” contexts, possibly with a penalty on the check, depending on the severity of the phobia.

Referees using the sanity system should be creative with the sanity checks, when to use them, when to leave them unused and who to require to take them. In general, the more disturbing a character would find an event, and the more outside his/her experience the event is, the more likely the need for a sanity check, and the higher the potential sanity loss. Disturbing events need not be horrifying, per se; simply seeing a ritual or custom from a foreign culture that is based on an activity that the character’s culture considers inappropriate or disgusting may be enough to trigger a sanity check (though perhaps only a 0/1 check). In a dispute over whether a character should take a sanity check, the referee’s word is final, but discussion between the referee and the player should be encouraged at a time that won’t disrupt a session in progress.

Here are some examples of different sanity checks, to help you to get the idea and scale of things. Note that this list should be considered neither complete nor comprehensive, and referees are encouraged to change the events and/or sanity check values to fit the needs of their game or style of play.

Sample Events for Sanity Checks
Event Loss on Sanity Check
Encountering a very repulsive alien for the first time (Nuclees, Shrieker etc) 0/1d3
Reading thoughts of a humanlike alien for the first time (Vargr, Aslan etc) 0/1d3
Coming across a corpse for the first time, or by surprise 0/1d3
Be subject of utter humiliation in front of a large crowd 0/1d4
Surprised to find a brutally tortured human corpse 1/1d4+1
Reading thoughts of a strange alien for the first time (Hiver etc) 1/1d4+1
Encountering a grotesque alien for the first time (Sheol interpreter etc) 1/1d4+1
Witness a violent death for the first time/see someone you know die violently 1/1d6
Accidentally killing a sentient being for the first time, at “personal” range 0/1d6
Deliberately killing a sentient being yourself for the first time at “personal” range 1/1d6+1
Be trapped in a drifting hulk of a spaceship alone for an extended time before being rescued 0/1d10
Reading thoughts of a totally strange/horrifying being for the first time (Valkyrie collective mind, Sheol, etc.) 1/1d10
See your beloved tortured to death before your eyes 1/2d6
Witnessing your homeworld destroyed by orbital bombardment, killing everyone you know and destroying everything you love 2/2d10
Being forced to give the order to have your homeworld destroyed by orbital bombardment, killing everyone you know and destroying everything you love 2/3d10

Aliens and Sanity

In Traveller it is possible, even likely, that at least now and then players wish to play alien characters. In these cases, sanity checks should depend on the culture and nature of the species. The same applies to minor branches of humanity (or even divergent cultures from the character’s own branch of humaniti, or another main branch). As an extreme example, for a person living in a cannibalistic society, eating human flesh is considered normal, while it will surely cause a sanity check on mainstream human characters. For the average Imperial citizen, realizing that he has been subject to telepathic tampering should cause a sanity check, while Zhodani proles are used to such events. For a K’Kree being left alone in space, or trapped in a very confining space, would be a subject for series of devastating sanity checks, while a Virushi beating someone to death would most likely be crushed mentally.

On the other hand, some beings might be very rarely subject to sanity checks. The Nunclees are described as being unemotional and cold—one might indeed find it very hard to shock a big pile of worms. Some rare species might have extremely low sanity score to begin with. Valkyrie for example are described as being practically insane due to the continuous whispering of their broken racial memory.

In case of aliens and strange cultures it is up to the referee and players to make up their own rules concerning sanity and sanity checks. Reading carefully descriptions of the society and psychology of the species can usually give very good guidelines.

Supernatural Events

Though Traveller is considered to be a science-fiction role-playing game, the system is flexible enough to handle things outside the normal realm of science fiction proper, such as magic or supernatural horror. In general, handling sanity checks for such events is the same as for more “normal” events—the need for a sanity check would be based on how disturbing the event is and how unusual it is in the character’s experience. An additional factor that may need to be accounted for when dealing with magic or the supernatural is how strongly it “breaks” the “rules” that the character “knows” about how the universe works. For example, when confronted with inarguable evidence that magic exists, a scientist might have a stronger reaction, and need to take a more severe sanity check, than might a religious mystic or primitive shaman (and the shaman may not need to take a sanity check at all).

Recovering Sanity

The medical technology in Traveller is very advanced. It would seem logical to assume that at TL 15 there are multiple ways to treat mental problems as well. The Zhodani Tavrchedl’ would be especially adept in this, being able to combine psionic treatment with medication and therapy.

At Imperial TL 15 treatment a character put in to mental care would recover around 1d6 sanity points per month treated. Treatment in the Consulate by the Tavrchedl’ would most likely bring back even more sanity points, but then, it would have loads of other effects too… Treatment at lower TLs would be less effective. Here I see TL not only as the level of gadgets available, but as a description of knowledge about human psyche and other such subjects. In a world clinging at TL1 the treatment for the insane would be very ineffective indeed—possibly even harmful, if it had any effect at all.

The most likely way for player characters to recover sanity points would be resting. Depending on circumstances, a character finding mental rest and not being subject to any kind of shocks might recover something around one sanity point per month to 1d3 per month. In the latter I would require total concentration on relaxation, with not even a faint trace of anything connected to the shocks that has caused instability in the character.

If the referee wishes, he might well decide that a minimum amount of sanity loss from each specific shock is permanent and never heals. So, for example, if the character has killed someone brutally with an axe (1/1d6+1), one point of sanity loss is permanent while the rest might heal. Recovery from traumas and phobias should be much more difficult than simple recovery of sanity points. Recovering fully from them should require long periods of treatment, while rest and medication might be used to suppress them temporarily.