Fear In Your Campaign

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear”
–H.P. Lovecraft

Fear and anxiety are two of the oldest, most instinctual emotions we possess. Survival depends on both. It overrides both reason and logic, which make it a powerful thing, especially in the experience of role playing. It manifests in several different ways; sometimes as an almost tangible force, such as athe aura that emanates from an elder wyrm. In D&D, there are saving throws to counteract fear effects. There are bards to sing songs of encouragement, and paladins to radiate courage. There are spells to help dull the effects of fear. Other role playing games (with which I’m a bit less familiar) have similar options.

It’s much different in “real life,” of course. Obviously, we don’t often find ourselves encountering fire-breathing dragons, but we do find ourselves encountering things that make us afraid. There are plenty of things that scare me. I’ve never particularly been fond of mirrors. Spiders and ticks give me the heebie-jeebies. I grew up feearing vampires in the night (and really, who’s to say they’re not out there, waiting for us to blunder down a deserted alley all alone? Not I!).

So with that all being said, what are the best methods of introducing fear into combat and other situations of role playing games? Combat tends to be the hardest part of most RPGs to keep scary – once players start dealing damage to the lich, it usually becomes more of a stat block than a fearsome enemy. Preserving a sense of fear through every encounter isn’t necessarily right for all campaigns, but most games benefit from the occasional infusion of horror and dread.

Introducing a touch of terror into combat can be tricky. There’s a lot of building up of suspense to be done, but after the initiative is rolled, what do we do? My favorite trick is to isolate the characters from each other, giving them that nice ol’fashioned feeling of being alone. The players usually have a strategy of sending in the heavy hitter first, with the healer directly behind him. That way, the hitter can take abuse while dealing out damage, at the same time being constantly healed. They used the same technique one time against a vampire wizard I had introduced them to. I decided to spice things up a bit…

The party encountered the vampire while investigating the sewers system below a major city. Knowing they were in for a fight, the dwarven tank rushed forward to start the battle, with the cleric prepping spells. Vampire won the initiative competition and the first thing he did was plop a wall of stone between the dwarf and the rest of the group. Whoops! Suddenly, instead of a heavy hitter being healed by cleric, there was a very strong meat bag standing alone with a very pissed off vampire. Needless to say, Mr. Heavy Hitter had a rough evening. What was worse, Heavy Hitter could hear his comrades frantically trying to get rid of the wall while he was taking all kinds of punishment. Plus, the other party members could see nothing, and could do little as they listened to their teammate fight desperately on the other side. Fun, huh?

Isolating a character, heightening his sense of vulnerability, can be a great way to guarantee a little fear into the combat, but be careful of using tricks like this too often, les they become gimmicky. Using the trick sparingly preserves its impact, too – the first time a character has to face the vampire alone, it’s frightening. The second time, it starts to become routine. Also worth mentioning, an isolated player with a series of bad rolls suddenly becomes a dead isolated player, and sometimes players can take harshly to this kind of thing, believing they’ve been wronged or “cheated.”

How do you do it? How do you make the characters (and players) fear the enemies? What are your tips and tricks?

10 thoughts on “Fear In Your Campaign

  1. Make those level drains permanent, no save like the good old days and you should have no problem with getting your players to fear Liches and Vampires.

  2. It also helps to have unexpected villains. If a controller-type villain stays away from the main action and casts occasional weird spells, the players may well get nervous. “Why does he change his skin color every round? Why did he just make the floor slippery?” (DM grins mysteriously.)

  3. Another Lovecraft quote I like: “Never state an horror when it can be suggested.”
—H.P. Lovecraft

    Lately, similar to brining fear into a game, I’ve been thinking of how to create real horror in games. This largely comes down to creating fear.

    I like Lovecraft’s advice – it’s somewhat similar to ‘show don’t tell’. It’s scary to be give the raw sensory facts to players, as this is how their characters would perceive, and not simply say something like “Four zombies are standing in front of you.” This makes the treat of zombies sound mundane. Instead describing the stench of the corpses, the way their faces are rotting, their jaws hang loose might cause more fear.

    Another way to take what he says is to just hint at the horrific undertow. Let the players know true horror exists just behind the curtain, but make it somewhat intangible. Something that can’t simply be beat by their fists. They might stop specific horrific threats, but something deeper, darker, and alien is still there despite their success.

    Good post! It really gave me something more to think about. I like the idea of isolating the players. Especially in combat because it makes their very lives feel threatened.

  4. Brent has a good point…every horror writer, especially Lovecraft, knows that what the audience imagines is much scarier than what’s actually described. So you want them filling in the blanks with their imagination as much as possible. Unfortunately, though the villain taking incomprehensible actions may make them a little uneasy for a bit (just like your rolling dice for no obvious reason), if nothing comes of it they’ll either shrug it off or the combat will end and they’ll be all “wonder what that was about?” I think the best time to have them jumpy and second-guessing themselves is before they actually get to see the monster and roll init. Mysterious noises that track the party, doors suddenly slamming shut and locking, sudden plunges into darkness, a stench that gets progressively worse eventually making them gasp and retch, cold water on the floor that gets deeper as they penetrate further, things that scuttle across the ceiling too fast to get a good look at, and so forth, are good ways of heightening the tension.

    Basically, though, there’s only so long that the mere illusion of peril is going to actually work on the players’ nerves. The biggest reason Call of Cthulhu works, when it does, is that the players know that they don’t have any kind of script immunity; in fact, if they have any experience with the game it can be hard to get them to invest in the characters because they assume that some or all of them will be killed or driven mad.

    If your players are going to feel wronged or cheated if their characters die without a fighting chance at defeating the whatsis, then it may not be a great idea to try to inject fear in the campaign in the first place.

  5. The problem i see in fear in combat, is that players tend to know a lot about meta-game stuff.

    In combat what i do that gave me the best results are modify the msonter to something new, and the surprise itself was fear enougth.

    But the best i get is when the fear is about not knowing a thing…

    not knowing what is in the shadows
    not knowing who is throwinh eneverting rays
    not knowing who is a freind and who is foe

    and stuff like that

  6. Oh, absolutely agreed that the weird behavior should have a purpose. Some of it can just be weird–can’t villains just *like* to do things?–but it should fit in to how the villain acts and behaves.

  7. @Joshua – I’ve always liked using ambient noises and sights to bring about uneasiness in players and characters. I remember in a campaign I ran years ago, I had created a certain type of undead who magically trap the sounds of their victims deaths, and play them back (like a cassette loop) whenever they approach new victims. So, the PCs would be walking through the forest, and then suddenly hear the dying screams of men and women, repeated over and over again, until the undead came out to attack. Sound is a great motivator of fear. The only thing I ever found scary about the Grudge movie was the croaking sound the little girl made – that freaked me the frak out!

    @Brent – The unexpected is a great way to spook people out. It’s a little bit of a different subject, but the Dragons in my setting are not “color-coded” like typical D&D dragons. The first time a group of mine came up against Anaelgart, the Great Black Wyrm of Fyorshul, they had prepared to fight a black dragon. When the dragon began breathing fire and casting elemental magic, it freaked them out a bit.

    @Jack – Yeah, Lovecraft was a genius with that stuff, and every quote you can find of his is bound to bring wisdom. I really like what you mentioned about the “deeper, darker intangible undertow,” and believe I will have to definitely incorporate that into some adventures soon.

    @Leandro – You bring up some good issues. Meta gaming can ruin any moments, whether they be suspenseful, romantic, or whatever. It helps to have good players that can learn to play appropriately when the situation calls for certain things. Welcome to the Blog!

    Thanks for reading!

  8. Mixing up monsters is a great way to go.

    The one that really creeped my players out was the two-headed kobold drider. A small swarm of the things charging along the ceiling while throwing woven-spiderweb nets at them…

    Of course, a big part of it is the description. Atmosphere helps, too.

  9. I’ve always found that if a battle evolves beyond just the character’s stat block, that’s when things start to get a little frightening. For example, take any Zelda game you’ve ever played, where the BBEG does one trick for a while but then transforms and can do a lot more tricks!

    Or having something that the party just plain isn’t expecting, like a ring of spell-storing charged with a heal on the BBEG’s finger. That can be pretty scary.

    If you have an NPC with the party, it never hurts to have them die in one hit 🙂

  10. @Scott – That kobold drider sounds pretty icky – what’s the story behind that thing? 🙂

    @Storyteller – Very true, I once did something similar with a BBEG who had a henchman hanging out behind a curtain with a Wand of Cure Moderate Wounds. The players couldn’t figure out how the guy kept healing himself without speaking or anything. 🙂 And by the way, OUCH? Killing an NPC (especially one that’s given himself to be quite a badass) may be a pretty awesome thing to do to throw some shock down!

    Thanks for reading!

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