Why I Love Madness

by Mike Shea on 13 November 2018

As part of the work we did on the Lazy Dungeon Master's Workbook, I surveyed the Kickstarter backers of Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master and asked them which references, charts, and tables they found most and least useful while preparing and running their 5e games. The three madness charts trended towards the bottom of the list.

I'm not completely surprised but a little sad at this. I love the madness charts. Ever since using them in Out of the Abyss, I've used madness here and there throughout my D&D games and always found them to be an enjoyable addition. Today I'm going to dig into why I love these charts so much and what they can bring to their game.

Regardless of the results, I stuck the madness tables in there anyway. Hell, it's my book. Today I'll talk about why.

(art by Walter Brocca)

The Great Equalizer

Madness is a strange effect. It isn't technically a status effect but when it hits a character, it acts very much like one. We don't know exactly what that effect will be should a character fail a madness check but it sure won't be good.

When we have high power characters, it can be hard for us dungeon masters to challenge them all the time. Many times that's perfectly fine. It's fun to carve through all sorts of monsters when you're a high level and high power character. Since D&D isn't tuned around magical items, the items characters acquire push them outside of their expected power level and that feels great.

Sometimes, however, particularly for really powerful monsters, we want to show the danger. We want players to be scared of things. If Demogorgon rises out of the black waters of Dark Lake, we don't want the characters to just start preparing their attacks and jumping in.

That's where madness comes in. Some creatures are just too horrible to behold. Their very presence pushes the mortal mind outside of the bounds of sanity. The walls of reality crack and in seeps the horror of worlds beyond.

It doesn't matter how many attacks a round you can dish out, a DC 24 Charisma saving throw will turn just about any fighter into a slug-eating buffoon, at least for a few seconds.

The round a demon prince comes out and that aura of madness hits the characters, that's the most dangerous round in D&D. And that danger can be really fun.

When To Use Madness

Madness is an effect we should keep in our back pocket and not use all the time. The appearance of a demon prince or lord of hell is a great time to drop in madness. The arrival of a powerful entity of the Far Realm might be another. Should Slarkrethal the kraken rise from the depths of the seas, it's psionic wave will crash on them like water tearing down mountains.

Other circumstances might also warrant a madness check. Opening up and gazing upon a book of terrible rituals, maybe the Book of Vile Darkness itself, could crack the minds of the strongest wizards. Staring into the shifting planes of a portal to an outer world might invoke madness. Some Fantastic Features containing the depths of evil and studied too rashly might drop waves of terror upon those who gaze upon them.

Again, madness should be used infrequently but, when the situation is right, it's a powerful effect.

Tuning Madness for Fun

As written, madness might be too powerful. The biggest reasion is that it offers no saving throw at the end of a turn to get rid of the effect. We can easily add this end-of-next-turn saving throw when a character is hit with a short-term madness effect during combat.

If the saving throw is too high, though, as it might be for characters who have poor charisma scores, this might not even help. A fighter is going to have a hell of a time beating a DC 24 Charisma save even if they get it at the end of any round. A number of spells can remove madness, as described in the Dungeon Master's Guide including calm emotions lesser restoration, remove curse, dispel evil and good, and greater restoration. We might also argue that damage done to the character can snap them out of their daze or at least give them advantage on the check.

The Creativity and Improvisation of Madness Effects

One of the reasons I love the madness effect so much is that it's full of flavor. While a stun is generally just a stun, madness carries such flavorful effects as "the character experiences an overpowering urge to eat something strange such as dirt, slime, or offal." Hard to beat that for flavor!

Other status effects too have such flavor but it's tied to the way it hits the character. When a drow mage casts web on a character, we know more than just that the character is incapacitated. We know that they are cocooned in a magical sticky web, stuck to the wall or ground and gasping for breath. We might forget this when we're deep into the mechanics of the game but it behooves us to go there and remember what is really going on in the game's fiction.

Likewise madness brings flavor to the game beyond its mechanical effects, which are substantial. Think about the source and describe what happens. One of my favorite questions is to ask the player to describe their happy place when they retreat into their own mind due to a madness effect. A player will describe a nice leatherbound book, sweet pipesmoke in the air, and the familiar softness of a leather chair in front of a warm fire while the rest of the party is being shredded by the tentacles and mental probes of a cyclopean titan risen from the depths. Oh what fun!

Though we tend not to use it often, short-term madness is a wonderful flavorful effect to add into our games from time to time. The next time a character witnesses something outside the bounds of the mind, time to hit that madness chart.

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