Fear at the Table

It's October, and that means it's time for a very special theme month. This month's theme is: Fear. The sheer terror and trauma that can accompany a truly gripping life or death adventure. Fear is a simple concept that all of us have felt and experienced, butsomehow when we move it into a roleplaying game it seems to get very complicated.

Let's start with the uses of fear at the table. From there we can explore all sorts of other themes, but we want to start with the basics. Let's look at the reasons to inflict fear at the table, both on players and their characters.


Excitement: The easiest reason to give your players a fright is for simple enjoyment and fun. People like being scared to some degree and under the right situations. In most roleplaying games there's a strong focus on victory, on success, on planning to be accomplished. But when you take that focus away, when you make them wonder if they can win, if they can even survive, then you've really changed the game. A terrifying monster, a deadly trap, a sudden betrayal, these sorts of things snatch away the comfort that many games are built. Instead players are thrown intoan excited rush to find a way to get back in control.

Advancing the plot: Fear is the simplest of all motivations, and as a storyteller it is your job to motivate players. When your party needs a reason to go on to the next quest, that reason often falls to fear. The only way to defeat the necromancer, the only cure for the spreading plague, the only jump gate out of a collapsing star system, these are quests for survival, driven by fear. This use of fear is very easy because you only have to scare either the players or their characters in order for it to succeed.  To some degree a great number of adventures are built on this premise.

Tactical effects: Of course a number of games also use fear as a status effect or condition, which I'll talk about in another article. Though obviously different systems will have different rules it's fairly universal that fear effects are meant to debuff and drive away opponents. They also serve as a flavourful way to inflict certain statuses. An attack that pushes everyone back, like a giant wingbeat, feels very different from an effect that scares you into fleeing the same distance.

Tone: Sometimes fear exists just to set the proper tone for a game. A murder mystery is hard to do when everyone is laughing and making jokes. A bit of nervousness, anxiety, and tension can help create the ideal atmosphere for your game. This is perhaps the hardest to pull off but also the most rewarding use of fear at the table and I'll be covering more of it soon. Sometimes the difference between a casual beer and pretzels game, and a gripping thrilling campaign is a sharp sense of danger, importance and weight.


So now that we know some of the best reasons to include fear it's time to actually get into the real guts of the issue. Keep your eyes peeled for more spine tingling articles coming soon!