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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Fear - Why It Is Difficult to Replicate in an RPG (and a method on how to do so)?

Fear - the final frontier of RPGs. Often attempted, rarely replicated except as game mechanics, which is pretty much a failure if you ask me.

Why does fear fail so often in RPGs?

Well, you have to be invested in the character - no investment, no return of fear. Movies draw you into the character (and add mood music and such) to draw you into the fear. Sure, the PC is yours, but until you've played him / her for a few sessions, you probably aren't as invested in it for real fear of loss to occur. Fear of loss is about the only kind of fear that works in an RPG.

RPGs tend to go for the immediate threat. Immediate threats result in fight or flight. Most situational conditioning in RPGs is to fight in these situations, even against overwhelming odds. From my own personal experience with 9-11 - when you don't have time to think, you do what you are conditioned to do. Without time to contemplate what I was fairly sure was my impending death, my training kicked in and I went into rescue mode. Believe me when I say I'm very invested in my own life, much more so than any player is in their character. Players will tend to react as they are conditioned - to stand and face the immediate threat despite overwhelming odds. I'm not saying they might not run, especially as parts of the party start dropping like flies, but that won't be the first instinct.

If you want to invest your players into their characters, if you want the stink of fear to permeate the gaming table, you have to make the object of fear a long term fear. If players are conditioned to handle immediate fears, they are rarely able to shuffle aside the long terms ones. From my own personal experience, my diagnosis of cancer a few years back (all gone now) caused me to curl up in a ball in the hallway to my kitchen and cry like a baby. Why? Because there was a distinct possibility (not a probability, but a possibility - less possibility than on 9-11 i would think) that I wouldn't make it past 12 months. I was looking death in the eye and running scared. Long term fear. I'm not conditioned for that. Too many possibilities. Too much time to worry. Heck, worrying was a luxury I had plenty of time for.

You want to put fear into your players? Hit them with a long term, debilitating curse after they've become invested in their characters. Finding the cure will become their immediate, short term and long term goal. Success and failure will have meaning. Heck, even immediate threats may get a response similar to that of a long term threat - time to run away, so as to survive long enough to overcome the long term threat.

Successful fear in an RPG is a long term situation that you need to put your players in, and much more effective (and enjoyable) than the short term "Save vs Fear."


  1. I find if I let myself get a little spooked, that unsettlement communicates itself non-verbally to players. If I can give myself goosebumps and play on my own fears, I'm much more likely to get under their skins.

    It is also worth thinking about the difference between suspense, terror, and horror. The jump scare is fun but if overused gets old fast.

    Terror is that fear that something bad is going to happen and you will not be able to protect yourself or those you care about.

    Then there's horror; that sick creeping feeling of unavoidable awfulness. Like when they get a single piece of information that changes how they interpret a whole string of events (think the Architect reveal at the end of the second Matrix movie.) Or when they've been close to someone who commits suicide. Or they are mutating and can't stop it.

    So many flavors.

  2. I developed some house rules for fear while playing WH40K Dark Heresy. I believe that the trait I developed does a pretty decent job of capturing some longterm effects. Check it out on my blog, here:


  3. Still what ever evil might be said about level drain in d20 systems - it really mechanically replicates that dread of contagion. You can't make players afraid of touching unpleasant creatures by narrative alone but having those creatures steal their hard earned xp does go a long way in replicating that reaction. It's faking a smile to make your self feel better.

  4. There is no longer term effect than death. The possibility of permanent death should always be on the table.

  5. death is not as scary a mechanic as loosing a level because its too drastic. death on the table triggers a different feeling from the player, either it is sudden in which case they are more shocked than scared or it is projected, in which case they feel either excited or disgruntled. level drain might not simulate fear exactly but it maybe simulates a feeling of horror

  6. I had a great campaign where for the first 4~5 sessions I had my players have foreshadowing dreams about an evil wizard at the start of each session. they would then try to interpret the dreams in to material actions they could take. Get that spell, find this sword and so on. I then had an NPC who was coming to give them an update on a disease that was travelling through the mainland arrive by boat. Then everyone in the castle got sick, vomited blood for 2 days and died. At this point I made them all save versus disease. the fear was palpable.

    I then messed up, and didn't kill a PC who had failed. It was 4e. Had it been 2e or earlier, the expectation of death would have made it acceptable to the players.

    Lesson learned...

  7. very nice stuff. I've been trying to tackle this myself for a couple of blog posts, and I'd love to get some more feedback.