Five Fingers of Fear

Fear seems like an appropriate topic for the season. But how do you utilize fear in your games? I’m not speaking about running horror specifically, which takes a lot of work to keep the tension up between game sessions. But you can add fear easily to any game you run if you understand some of the most basic, primal fears.

What spurred the idea for this blog? Halloween of course. But beyond that it was a recent game session in which a PC went tinkering with a written communication from the far realm. After an experience that falls somewhere between Shepard’s Prothean events from Mass Effect and Lovecraft the PC was blinded.

Now this wasn’t the Blinded condition you may be used to. There was no save, no stated duration, no knowledge if the effect would be permanent, semi-permanent, or short-term. As this happened I got a little meta and started really observing the effect at the table. There was a blanket of unease over the the table as players began to grapple with the problems of 25% of their party was rendered essentially useless in the middle of a dungeon crawl.

Using fear can give you this ability to evoke very genuine, visceral reactions from your players. Being able to elicit real emotions and reactions in your game is like meth for quality players. They can’t get enough of the stuff and you’ll get more and deeper buy-in by the players for your campaigns.

There are five basic human fears you can utilize in your games

– Annihilation
– Mutilation
– Loss of Autonomy
– Separation
– Loss of Identity

Annihilation: The fear of death. This can actually be difficult to do because you’re fighting an uphill battle. Many rules systems make it very difficult to kill PCs. D&D 5e, negative maximum hit points or three death saving throw fails. Given the basic combat encounter lasts under 6 rounds and the PC doesn’t get one punch KO’d it can be difficult to achieve. Even then there are assortments of skills, spells, and potions to not die. Even a lot of GM advice out there tells neophyte game masters not to go for a PC’s throat.

Why it works?

Because death, the great beyond. Is there anything beyond death? People generally like living because: pleasure. It’s why people feel unease looking down from a very tall building, even when they’re in no real danger. Heck the act of living is basically dying slowly.

How to make it work

You have to shred the safety net. As a DM/GM your duty is to run the game, arbitrate rules, and play the NPC characters and monsters. The PCs are unlikely to pull any punches on the NPCs and the latter are just as rightfully fighting for their lives. Once initiative is rolled put on your competition helmet. But play to what the NPCs would do.* A fight with bandits is far different than say a purple worm. They have goals “GP or your HP” vs. “FOOD!”

Bandits are going to stop attacking PC’s who go unconscious and are not longer a threat. A purple worm is going to eat its food unless threatened. Even then it may drag off its kill for later consumption unless stopped.

Don’t be afraid to kill, or at least make your players believe that. But don’t go too far and make TPKs a habit.

*Just about everything barring constructs and undead are going to flee rather than lose their life.

Mutilation: The loss of an important organ, body part, or invasion of the body by something foreign. Another one that’s difficult to do in RPGs. Most systems don’t have rules for lingering injuries or diseases and generally players don’t like to be permanently handicapped.

Why it works?

There’s something very primal about it. We desire to be whole and to see that wholeness in others. Maybe it’s something in our DNA on how to determine suitable mates for procreation and a fear for self-preservation. After all you’re not going to be doing a lot of hunting gathering without a leg, which would tie it directly not only to fear of annihilation but loss of autonomy and separation.

How to make it work

You have to give someone a persistent injury that affects play going forward. But that doesn’t mean you have to go out there hacking off every hand and foot your PC’s possess. A persistent injury could be a broken arm. They still have full HP, and can do basic tasks but they are definitely impaired for things like fighting (no shields or two-handed weapons), and intensive exploration activities (climbing, swimming).

The end result is to make your players consider their actions, be careful and thoughtful without making them jump at their own shadows. Plus you can incorporate some interesting ideas. Peg legs, eye patches, limps, magic replacement limbs.

Just don’t forget mutilation also covers internal problems. It’s the same fear that makes the facehuggers from the Aliens movies so disturbing.

Loss of Autonomy: Paralysis, immobilization, or being controlled by another entity. When we cannot do the things we want to do when we want to do them: loss of autonomy. Unfortunately most games approach this as a short-term condition. Stunned until end of your next turn? Well that’s just sitting on your hands for a few minutes. It’s not fun sure, but unless your a DM who’s actively trying to murder PCs your player is probably just using the opportunity as a bathroom break.

Why it works?

Nobody likes feeling helpless, especially in the face of danger. If I can’t move how am I supposed to keep myself from being annihilated or mutilated? Being out of control is not fun. Our initiative for self preservation is strong. People can legitimately panic even in benign situations where they don’t feel they’re in control, like claustrophobia.

How to make it work

Threat. Seeing the trend yet? There’s a popular acronym for fear, false evidence appearing real. Give players the opportunity to imagine the worst possible situation and they generally will. Provide a legitimate consequence (or threat thereof) of losing autonomy and fear will do the rest. This also works for domination and charm. As DM’s we love to have PCs stab their friends when possible. But sometimes we need to move beyond the obvious. You could make a dominated person run off on their own (don’t split the party!) or walk them to the baddie and let him put a blade to the PC’s throat to end combat and force a hostage situation. And none of that coup de grace rules that keeps PCs from being insta-killed. One wrong move by the players and someone has to roll up a new character.

Separation: Humans have a natural proclivity to living in groups. We enjoy camaraderie, companionship, hierarchy, and rules in various levels of severity. We enjoy a sense of belonging. Being rejected by a group, feeling unwanted or of no value? That’s the sort of thing that makes high school hell.

Why it works

The problem is that aspect of high school never stops, there are always people who we want to be accepted by and we measure self worth from the validation of others. There is safety and prosperity in numbers. We need at least one other person to procreate and provide for offspring. A sense of purpose, rules, a place in society all gives people a sense of ease and belonging. Take that away and we become isolated and forced to always sleep with an eye open, constantly in flight-or-fight mode and that can wear a person down to death or at least becoming a crazy hermit.

How to make it work

Split the party. An adventuring group is stronger than the sum of their parts, character options were created to complement others. Where one is weak another is strong. Find a way to separate the party. Sometimes players will do this on their own. They may be complete newbies who don’t know better, or the situation may seem safe like running errands in town. Good players, will use the opportunity to share the load among the other players and let them get their fair share of the RPG social interaction pillar.

This gets a little dicey at the table because some players will be inclined to manipulate the situation using meta information to bring the party together again. You can alleviate this by not leaving a map out showing people’s locations, or by having people who are not involved in the current scene leave the table.

The main point is to make use of the opportunity of having the party split. Chase them around with a big enemy, capture one or two (loss of autonomy), slip them something positive or negative they won’t want to share with the rest of the party.

Loss of Identity: The last finger of fear is high brow stuff. Now we’re talking existential crisis. This is the loss of the YOU that comprises you as an individual.

Why it works

I know you were all told as child you’re special and individual snowflakes. Well you’re not, you’re one of a few billion copies of the same meat puppet with a few minor aesthetic differences and mutations. Yay? Like I said, this gets kinda high brow and beyond the purpose of this blog. Go watch Ghost in the Shell, Serial Experiments Lain, there are plenty of other explorations in anime. Or do some reading on ego-death. Or do drugs, you can experience it yourself on acid trips apparently. However, TV’s cheaper, safer, and your more likely to remember the experience.

How to make it work

Well if you’re playing with magical constructs or something aligned with transhumanism it’s pretty simple. The lines get a little fuzzy about where the individual person ends and everything else continues. Is an individual warforged the same as every other warforged? If the essence the ‘soul’ of you nothing but zeroes and ones in data, how do you know where you end and your place in the entire universe of zeroes and ones that comprise all data?

But if your players insist on playing something silly, like elves, you need a different tact. One is riffing plots like Total Recall or Manchurian Candidate. Is it a dream, is it real, are these my memories and thoughts or were they placed by someone else. Is my character a sleeper cell waiting for a trigger?

You can work to do this with a player from character creation forward. Or you can develop it slowly. This one takes a lot of player cooperation no matter what you choose. If you don’t have the player totally on board this one is best left alone.

Bonus Fear!

Fear of the Unknown: Remember the fear acronym? Sometimes the best false evidence is no evidence. This is the reasons scary movies are scarier before they show the guy in the mask.

Why it works

We have some driving desire to know the everything about everything. We want to be able to peel back the cover of the universe and see all its gears whirring. Really this fear just highlights the five basic fears. If I don’t know what it is it’ll probably kill me or at least attempt it (Annihilation & Mutilation). I’m freaked out because I can’t control it and nobody can protect me from it (Autonomy & Separation). Maybe there are larger forces at work, things beyond comprehension. Did I stare into the abyss until the abyss stared back? Am I crazy? (Autonomy & Identity).

How to make it work

Don’t tip your hand. In the beginning I spoke about a PC going blind, unfortunately the DM tipped his hand and ruined the tension by telling us the blindness would only be a short-term effect. Keep your monsters vague, even hidden for a while if you can. Build some tension by telling the PCs they have the feeling something is watching them. When the PCs are delving they’re the intruders, surprise and fear is usually on their side. Flip it around a little bit. You can also help this by not keeping your baddies static. Have creatures move around in your dungeon, not just rooms of fights connected by empty hallways.

That’s all I’ve got for you this week. Let me know what you think in the comments!

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