Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Tension, Stress, Fear, And Fatigue

I've been wanting to do a mechanic for stress and tension in the game to add a bit more atmosphere to my games while having mechanical bonuses/penalties for such things. In making this, I'm looking at something that is easy to run and adjudicate and adds a bit of difficulty and nuance to adventuring. An extra complication to consider before setting off into the great wilds. Much of this is inspired by Darkest Dungeon, a really great game where stress and fear play a big part of adventuring. Some of the rules part and rules decision is inspired by Goblin Punch's sanity rules here as well as the rules in Torchbearer. A lot of this is also inspired by reading my brother's journals about fatigue and mental stress and how the two combine. Here we go!


Fatigue is when your character pushes themselves too hard mentally and physically and their body suffers from it. Forced marches, constant adventuring, dungeon delving, starving themselves, staying up for 24+ hours... these are all physically and mentally taxing on a person. Whenever someone overdoes it and fails their Constitution save, they become Fatigued. Fatigued means you gain a -2 to all d20 rolls made.

A character can still continue to go even when fatigued. Caffeine, adrenaline, and stim packs could be very useful for keeping you up. Every hour you spend doing something while Fatigued, make a Constitution check (DC 10 + 1 for every additional hour active). Failure means you are Exhausted. You take -4 to all d20 rolls and can only move up to half your speed. You also lose your Dexterity to your AC.

If the character still keeps going while Exhausted, then they make the same Constitution checks as before (DC 10 + 1 for every additional hour active). Failure means you are Disabled. You take a -6 to all d20 rolls. You can't make any physical action without making a Constitution check. People that attack you automatically hit. If your GM does coup de grace, then that can happen to you. You're just a human lump at this point, and every hour spent awake or active forces a Constitution check like normal. Failure means you die of exhaustion.

Getting rid of Fatigue generally requires a couple hours of rest. Getting rid of Exhaustion is a whole day affair of rest and relaxation. Getting rid of Disabled is a week minimum of bed rest and some medical attention. 


Adventuring is a dangerous and stressful career that can be cut short if you don't keep a level head. Any time you encounter something that can make you uneasy, cause some stress, or surprised/shock ed, you gain a point of Tension. This is like a tally mark. Things like seeing a dead body, or the lights going out on you, or hearing the sounds of a crazed monster in the woods at night can all add Tension. Then, the players that gained the Tension Point roll 1d20 + Wis, against a Target Number of 10 + the amount of Tension points. If you meet or beat the TN, your character is fine. If you roll below it. then you get Stressed. Most scenarios should really only give 1 or 2 Tension Points to each player, but some truly gruesome and horrific stuff could give 3 or more.


When your character gets Stressed, they have a sort of minor breakdown. They might panic a bit, need to sit down, or vomit. That's up to the character. A Stressed character becomes Fatigued. Being Stressed doesn't go away until you take a couple hours to chill out and relax, generally away from the thing causing stress. Every time your character fails a Tension Roll, they get more Stressed. This becomes Exhaustion, then Disabled, then Death. Eliminating these stress levels can take much longer.

Being Stressed can also be a form of fear, depending on the situation. This works out like normal Stressed, only with some different reactions. Generally, reactions to being stressed out go under the four F's: Fight, Flight, Freeze, or Fawn.

  • Fight: You engage the source of fear in combat, with disregard for the situation.
  • Flight: You panic and flee away as fast as humanly possible, leaving behind anyone
  • Freeze: You are paralyzed with fear and cannot move, hoping that the thing doesn't notice you
  • Fawn: You beg, flatter, or try and reason with the source of fear, praying it will spare you.

A player can choose which action their character takes, or you can roll randomly. I prefer the former, but they have to commit. Sometimes one of the F's works out. Other times it lands you into trouble.

A GM can give a madness to players. This is optional and there are plenty of sites and books with examples, from manias to phobias. I'd suggest picking one that fits the situation, instead of rolling.

Reducing Tension

It's hard to reduce Tension while you are in the scenario causing it, but it is possible. If out adventuring in a dungeon or wilderness, taking a break to shoot the shit with your fellow PCs and NPCs can help drop it by 1 or 2. Finding a safe spot to rest also helps. In a more urban, social adventure, maybe taking an hour or two in the castle courtyard can help you find your center before tackling the corrupted vizier, dropping your Tension down 1 or 2 points. These also make great points for roleplaying with your compatriots, or other friendly NPCs that you know. Leaving the scenario that is causing Tension lets you reduce it all to 0.

Adrenaline Rush

Tension isn't all bad. When the chips are down and you need a boost, you can activate your Tension and get an Adrenaline Rush. For a number of rounds equal to half of your Tension Points (round up, minimum 1 round), you gain advantage on all attack rolls and ability checks. In addition, you ignore all Fatigue effects for these rounds. At the end of your rush, however, you are immediately Stressed out and gain a level of Fatigue. If you were Disabled and did an adrenaline rush, then you die. You pushed your body too far.


Adventurers that survive have seen it all and don't get as easily spooked as veterans as they did when they were novices. When players survive a tense scenario or adventure, they can become jaded. That same scenario won't give them any Tension Points. So a player that keeps a level head while getting attacked by zombies won't get Tension Points when encountering future zombies. The only way to affect a jaded individual is escalating the scenario. So a jaded character won't get tense when being attacked by zombies, but maybe seeing them slaughter an entire village trapped in a church might. Fighting ghouls may be fine, but seeing a ghoul drag off your good friend while he's screaming and begging for help will make you Tense. It's all about context, and I encourage GMs not to overly abuse it.

Design Notes

One thing people might notice is that I've created the Fatigue, Exhausted, and Disabled conditions and tied them to stress and fear. Why is that? Well, my brother was once a Marine and I remember reading and hearing him talk about the humps and the fear and tension of being out in Afghanistan. And one thing that stuck from him and other soldiers is how the fear and fatigue really go hand in hand out there. So that's why I united the Fear/Stress mechanic with Fatigue. It simplifies the mechanics and I can use the Fatigue model for other things, like a project I'm working on for clerics.

In addition, I was looking for something a bit less drastic and more down-to-earth with these mechanics. I didn't want random madness tables or sanity scores. Just something a bit more low key.

These rules have been used in one game and were okay, but not enough to test them out. I think they work fine, but I can't wait to put them through their paces more. Tell me what you think about them, and any changes to the ruleset.

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