You’re going to face a lot of threats out there, and not all of them are physical. You’re going to be exposed to stresses that are beyond the normal, experiences that challenge your mind’s ability to fit them into your view of how the world works.
These stresses are measured on the madness meters. These are five gauges that measure how resilient or susceptible you are to different mental threats. First, let’s explain how challenges to your sanity are handled.
There are five categories of mental stress: Violence, Unnatural, Helplessness, Isolation, and Self. It’s quite possible to be very casual about, say, violence, while being a basket case when it comes to the unnatural.
Each stress has two types of notches you can mark off. Hardened notches represent stress checks you’ve beaten, and they are numbered 1-10. Failed notches represent stress checks you’ve blown, and they are numbered 1-5.
Different stresses have different power levels, ranging from 1-10. These are called ranks. The higher the rank, the more extreme the stress and the more you’re likely to suffer if you fail the check.
If you already have a hardened notch at the same rank as the stress, and in the same meter, you don’t have to roll. You automatically beat the check because you’ve faced this down before and prevailed. Failed notches don’t affect stress checks.
If you don’t have a hardened notch at the rank of the stress check, make a Mind roll. If you succeed, mark off the lowest unmarked hardened notch on the appropriate madness meter. If you fail, you mark off the lowest unmarked failed notch instead and choose one of the three reactions: panic, paralysis, or frenzy. A failure may have other long-term effects as well.
It’s common to have both hardened and failed notches in the same meter. Someone who’s deep in both directions to Isolation probably has a highly ambivalent attitude toward being alone, which is perfectly in character for people who have been repeatedly exposed to that mental stress. Someone with the same situation for Violence feels little or nothing when exposed to most forms of bloodshed, but when something is so shocking that it gets through the hardened barrier, the result is devastating.
The Violence Stress
You have an instinctive revulsion towards actual violence. It’s stressful to hurt others, to watch others get hurt, and to get hurt. This stress also covers the fear of death that everyone suffers from in varying degrees.
The Unnatural Stress
It hurts your brain to think of things that don’t belong in your concept of the world. Contemplating infinity for too long, seeing proof that sometimes 2 + 2 = 5, and realizing that magic actually works are all unnatural stresses. It’s more subtle and unnerving than Violence. Everyone recognizes that violence exists, even those who are insulated from it. Unnatural stresses don’t just attack your idea of safety. They attack your idea of how the universe works.
The Helplessness Stress
A sense of control is crucial for feelings of safety, even when it’s completely unmerited. When you have been challenged by helplessness, you can lose your ability to gauge how “in control” of a situation you are: you may feel powerless when the situation is not completely lost, or you may ignore real impediments from a misplaced sense of capability.
The Isolation Stress
Isolation is a subtle danger: it corrodes your sanity by denying you input. You rely on other human beings for feedback. Without the opinions of others, you do not know how to judge yourself. When you become resistant to isolation, you overlook social morés and unwritten rules because you’ve forgotten how to conform to the expectations of others. If you’ve suffered from isolation, you become very needy. These are not mutually exclusive: it’s possible to be very clingy and still be unable to pick up hints about when your behavior is unacceptable.
The Self Stress
This is the trickiest one. It’s your guilt and self-loathing, but it’s more than that. A major stress is when you find out you’re not the person you thought you were, by breaking a promise you honestly meant to keep, or by standing idly by when your values (or what you thought were your values) are desecrated. It’s your sense of alienation from self that provides, perhaps, the deepest terror. Where other meters measure how traumatized you are by things that happen to you, Self measures how traumatized you are by your own reactions to those things. To put it another way, the only thing you can ever really be 100% sure of is “I think, therefore I am.” The Self meter measures how uncertain you are about the “I” in that statement.
Cops, coroners, and social workers know about getting callous. When you’ve seen enough horror, it loses its power to horrify you. The more hardened notches you have on a single meter, the more it takes for that kind of stress to rip up your head. Once you resist ten incidents on a meter — that is, all ten hardened notches on that gauge are filled in — you’re so jaded and blasé about it that nothing in that category of stress can endanger your mind.
This is not a good thing.
Mental stress makes us vulnerable. But it also makes us human. If you fill in too many hardened marks, you become so completely callous that you are unable to feel fear at all. That’s because you are now cut off from a broad range of emotional experiences that everyone else shares. You’re “hardened” all right: hardened into an emotional fortress, completely isolated, unable to make a fundamental connection with other human beings.
You’re a sociopath.
You become a sociopath when you have all ten hard marks in two or more gauges, or when your total sum of hardened marks exceeds thirty-five. You can no longer use your passions — the Noble, Rage, and Fear events that represent you at your most intense. You just can’t relate to them anymore, and you don’t get to flip-flop those passion-related rolls.
When you fail a stress check, you mark off a failed notch on the appropriate meter. You also freak out in one of three ways: panic, paralysis, or frenzy.
If you panic, you run away at high speed. You can take no action except to run full out in the direction farthest from what made you panic.
On the other hand, disturbing events often produce paralysis: indecision, terror, and a general “deer in the headlights” effect that persists until the stimulus ceases. This can be completely silent, or accompanied by screams and moans.
Frenzy is just what it sounds like. You attack the source of discomfort with any means at your disposal. You can’t dodge or attempt fancy moves, like multiple attacks on a single target. You just shoot or punch or start biting.
You act like this until the stress that triggered the behavior is gone. Until then, you must follow your choice. If you frenzy against someone who can beat the holy heck out of you, you are not able to run away. You fight until you or your opponent is dead.
While you’re in this state, you don’t have to make any more stress checks. You’re too screwed up to process any other stresses.
Once you have five failed notches marked in a single meter, you don’t have to make stress checks when confronted with that stress any more. You just flee, fight, or freeze as if you’d failed the roll. The only exception is when your hardened notches are enough to void the stress check anyway, in which case you suffer no effects at all. Otherwise, you have your short-term freak out, mark no notches, and life goes on.
Of course, it’s not really that simple. The first time you hit five failed notches in a single meter, you pick up some kind of mental aberration. Your GM will help you figure that out when it happens.
You can get counseling to help you with your mental problems before you become certifiable — that is, before all the failed notches on one of your meters are filled. To do so, you need a psychotherapist, social worker, philosophical counselor, or another professional you can trust. Even if you’re a mental health professional, you cannot perform this on yourself. The basic result of this is erasing failed and/or hardened notches from your meters.
Another option is to get psychological first aid, though this only works to erase failed notches, not hardened ones. If you’ve got a friend with psychological training, he can attempt to counsel you right away — as long as you talk to him within an hour of your failed check. Anecdotal evidence indicates that people who get counseling right away tend to do better in the long run. After all, if the counselor can put things in perspective right away, it saves the effort of uprooting an entrenched and sick attitude.