D&D 5E Brainstorming ideas for a Stress system

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
So, with Van Richten’s Guide out, I’m starting to think about running a Ravenloft game again, and I’m pretty confident that I want it to have a stress system. I like the one in Van Richten’s conceptually - certain stressful experiences trigger a roll to resist gaining stress, which carries ongoing penalties until you can spend time de-stressing. But I find the execution underwhelming - a simple penalty to rolls is a dissatisfying way to express that stress, for a number of reasons.

I’m pretty sold on the idea of using the exhaustion mechanic as a template. Multiple levels, which are cumulative and each impose a unique penalty. I don’t want the final level’s effect to be death, or loss of character due to “insanity,” but I do want it to have some sense of finality to it. Like it makes sense that this is the culmination of the stress system. Maybe some sort of permanent penalty? A new Flaw or Fear? I kind of like that conceptually, but that would mean more opportunities to gain Inspiration and I don’t want reaching the final level of Stress to be a positive thing.

How many levels should there be? 6 to mirror exhaustion? Or would it be better to have more or fewer? What sort of penalties might be appropriate for each level? Disadvantage on certain rolls is an obvious choice, but the question becomes what rolls? Maybe gaining the Frightened Condition (of what?)?

If anyone has thoughts on the matter I would love to hear them. Also, I want to leave the thread open to discussing stress/trauma/“madness” systems in 5e generally. If you have an idea that doesn’t fit the exhaustion level model you want to suggest or solicit feedback on, by all means throw it out there! These are just my initial thoughts, I don’t want them to limit the scope of the discussion.
 

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Steampunkette

Shaper of Worlds
Supporter
The level up system that is currently being worked on has a stress function which mirrors exhaustion but primarily focuses on mental effects.

You could make it so that additional levels of stress make it easier to succumb to fear effects, for example. Giving a player disadvantage on fear saving throws if they already have one level of stress would be pretty thematic I think? Similarly you could have that sort of progress into general disadvantage on intelligence, wisdom, and charisma ability checks, or saving throws.

And then have a separate exhaustion mechanic for fatigue which focuses in on physical exhaustion rather than mental exhaustion.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
The level up system that is currently being worked on has a stress function which mirrors exhaustion but primarily focuses on mental effects.
Oh, awesome! I haven’t really been following Level Up, but I’d definitely like to read that. Which preview packet is it in?
You could make it so that additional levels of stress make it easier to succumb to fear effects, for example. Giving a player disadvantage on fear saving throws if they already have one level of stress would be pretty thematic I think? Similarly you could have that sort of progress into general disadvantage on intelligence, wisdom, and charisma ability checks, or saving throws.
Excellent suggestions, thank you! I definitely like the idea of disadvantage on fear saving throws, maybe advancing to disadvantage on other mental saves and/or checks at higher levels.
And then have a separate exhaustion mechanic for fatigue which focuses in on physical exhaustion rather than mental exhaustion.
I’ll probably just use exhaustion as-written.
 

Steampunkette

Shaper of Worlds
Supporter

Sorry it's technically called strife. It's not actually part of the play test packets yet, but Morrus, himself, posted a preview.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
Sorry it's technically called strife. It's not actually part of the play test packets yet, but Morrus, himself, posted a preview.
Hah, yep, that's right. We have replaced Exhaustion with Fatigue and Strife. I'm not sure when we'll be sharing the final versions (we're likely going to lengthen the number of steps slightly so as to soften the early-on stages -- an initial 'warning' stage, so to speak, before the penalties start to set in, as they're easier to gain than in O5E). And, of course, you can only recover Fatigue and Strife with a long rest at a Haven.
 

vincegetorix

Jewel of the North
I love the idea of stress & corruption being a counter that slowly drains the PC, much like exhaustion. Level Up, as mentioned does something similar, but I'm not sold on roleplay elements being penalties in the table of effect (madness and insanity)

I'd go with something:

Each PC has a Fear in addition to the usual bond/flaw/idea. As always, roleplaying adequately this element of the character can gain you Inspiration.

PCs are subjected to Moral check, from the DMG, when prompted by the DM.

Ex:
Facing an overwhelming force
Seeing pain and suffering
Losing a companion
Being subjected to the Frightened condition.
Adventuring while lost or without illumination in the dark.

When failed, the Moral check gives you 1 level of Stress/Corruption/Shadow/Strife (TBD). You lose 1 level of X when you take a long rest in a safe haven, with access to comfort and support from your companions.

The effects from X are cumulative:

1Disadvantage on Cha/Int/Wis ability check
2Disadvantage on Wis/Int/Cha saves
3You cant maintain Concentration
4You can only take the Disengage, Dodge or Dash action in combat.
5You are unable to see anything farther than 15 feet away from you.
6Death
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
Hah, yep, that's right. We have replaced Exhaustion with Fatigue and Strife. I'm not sure when we'll be sharing the final versions (we're likely going to lengthen the number of steps slightly so as to soften the early-on stages -- an initial 'warning' stage, so to speak, before the penalties start to set in, as they're easier to gain than in O5E). And, of course, you can only recover Fatigue and Strife with a long rest at a Haven.
Awesome, looking forward to seeing how that comes out!
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
I love the idea of stress & corruption being a counter that slowly drains the PC, much like exhaustion. Level Up, as mentioned does something similar, but I'm not sold on roleplay elements being penalties in the table of effect (madness and insanity)

I'd go with something:

Each PC has a Fear in addition to the usual bond/flaw/idea. As always, roleplaying adequately this element of the character can gain you Inspiration.

PCs are subjected to Moral check, from the DMG, when prompted by the DM.

Ex:
Facing an overwhelming force
Seeing pain and suffering
Losing a companion
Being subjected to the Frightened condition.
Adventuring while lost or without illumination in the dark.

When failed, the Moral check gives you 1 level of Stress/Corruption/Shadow/Strife (TBD). You lose 1 level of X when you take a long rest in a safe haven, with access to comfort and support from your companions.

The effects from X are cumulative:

1Disadvantage on Cha/Int/Wis ability check
2Disadvantage on Wis/Int/Cha saves
3You cant maintain Concentration
4You can only take the Disengage, Dodge or Dash action in combat.
5You are unable to see anything farther than 15 feet away from you.
6Death
I don’t love Death as the effect of level 6, but otherwise this is exactly the sort of thing I’m considering. Thanks!
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
I don’t love Death as the effect of level 6, but otherwise this is exactly the sort of thing I’m considering. Thanks!
Maybe Level 6 is the character can no longer lose levels of this and becomes an NPC under the DM's control?

I'd possibly do something about Level 5 (can't see past 15 feet) but that's me.
 


Steampunkette

Shaper of Worlds
Supporter
1Disadvantage on Cha/Int/Wis ability check
2Disadvantage on Wis/Int/Cha saves
3You cant maintain Concentration
4You can only take the Disengage, Dodge or Dash action in combat.
5You are unable to see anything farther than 15 feet away from you.
6Death
I really like this chart. However I would swap number two and number three. I feel like you should lose access to concentration spells pretty early on in stress while having disadvantage on saving throws should come just a little bit later.

So you start out getting distracted and unable to focus on immediate tasks, with the skill check disadvantage. Then you become unable to focus on anything long term. And then you are so rattled that anything which affects your mental state causes further issues.

Maybe have five apply a short-term mental illness and six provide a long-term mental illness?

Could also add another level above one on this chart and split the skill and ability checks out. That way if you're making a strict ability check, like an intelligence check, you have issues focusing on it right away. But when you make a skill check you're able to use the framework of the information that you have gathered and the training you have received to avoid the disadvantage at stress level 1, then your education framework breaks down at stress level 2 all the way down through the list as currently provided.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Maybe... I’m not a huge fan of “your character is too mentally broken to be playable.”
That's fair. I was thinking it was a reasonable parallel to Level 6 Exhaustion being Death. Maybe it works if there's magic that restores people from it, the way Resurrection, et al., restore people from Death. You should by no means use a mechanic you don't like.
 

vincegetorix

Jewel of the North
Yeah I put Death at 6 to mimic the Exhaustion chart. I see it as complete system shock, like in the Massive Damage optional rule from the DMG.

I reaaaaallllyyyy dont like mental illness being something a character is forced to roleplay. I feel it would be too easy to make it a joke, being at best inconsequential and worst, insulting and insensitive.

I think the better would be to replicate the Feeblemind spell as and effect.

'' Your Intelligence and Charisma scores become 1. You can't cast spells, activate magic items, understand language, or communicate in any intelligible way. You can, however, identify your friends follow them.

At the end of every 30 days, you can make a Charisma saving throw against a DC of 20 to end this condition.

The effects can also be ended by greater restoration, heal, or wish''
 
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MarkB

Legend
I kind-of feel like Stress and Exhaustion should have an extra state at the negative end of their tracks, for those times when you're wide awake or super-chill and doing even better than your default state.

For Exhaustion: -1 (Had My Coffee). Double your proficiency bonus on Dexterity and Intelligence checks.
You reach this state whenever you complete a long rest during which you did not need to recover either hit dice or Exhaustion levels. You lose it the first time you spend a hit die, or when you take a level of Exhaustion (which sets you back down to 0 Exhaustion).

For Stress: -1 (Chilled Out). Double your proficiency bonus on Wisdom and Charisma checks.
You reach this state whenever you complete a long rest during which you did not need to recover either hit points or Stress levels. You lose it the first time you fail an Intelligence, Wisdom or Charisma saving throw, or when you take a level of Stress (which sets you back down to 0 Stress).
 

vincegetorix

Jewel of the North
Yeah, that one is a little strange to me too.
Its to simulate panic shock, where you get something akin to tunnel vision and you have a hard time focusing on anything beyond your immediate surroundings.

The mechanic itself is taken from the Arcane Archer's shadow arrow.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
Its to simulate panic shock, where you get something akin to tunnel vision and you have a hard time focusing on anything beyond your immediate surroundings.

The mechanic itself is taken from the Arcane Archer's shadow arrow.
Gotcha. Is panic shock generally a long-term condition?
 


Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
Yeah I put Death at 6 to mimic the Exhaustion chart. I see it as complete system shock, like in the Massive Damage optional rule from the DMG.

I reaaaaallllyyyy dont like mental illness being something a character is forced to roleplay. I feel it would be too easy to make it a joke, being at best inconsequential and worst, insulting and insensitive.

I think the better would be to replicate the Feeblemind spell as and effect.

'' Your Intelligence and Charisma scores become 1. You can't cast spells, activate magic items, understand language, or communicate in any intelligible way. You can, however, identify your friends follow them.

At the end of every 30 days, you can make a Charisma saving throw against a DC of 20 to end this condition.

The effects can also be ended by greater restoration, heal, or wish''
I missed this earlier, but I agree fully about having to roleplay mental illness being a really distasteful effect for a mechanic like this to have, and I really like the idea of replicating the effects of Feeblemind for level 6! I wonder if there are other spell effects we could mine for other levels.
 
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Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
I’m really liking the idea of tying Fears and Stress together. Here’s what I’m thinking:

Each player starts with a Fear. When a PC encounters something that plays on their Fear (as determined by the player), they can gain Inspiration and make a stress save/morale check/whatever. On a failure, they gain a level of Stress.

At a certain level of Stress (maybe 6?) you permanently gain a new Fear. That way, as your stress builds up, you essentially become more susceptible to Stress, gaining new Fears that can potentially trigger it. But it’s essentially opt-in on the player’s part, with Inspiration as a carrot to encourage engaging with the system.
 

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
Maybe Level 6 is the character can no longer lose levels of this and becomes an NPC under the DM's control?
Level 6: character soils armor.

What about a die to roll that acts as a penalty to all rolls that aren't fight or flight? Gain a level, use the next higher die type.
 

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