Aside from a lack of fear, one of the biggest problems in having player characters act realistically in a combat situation is the use of hit points (or a similar mechanic). The player knows how much damage her PC can soak before falling and can make tactical decisions based on the amount of damage that a creature/armed villain/martial artist/trap doles out.
Ultimately, this is a matter of security. Players aren’t “afraid” of a frightening monster because they feel secure. After all, they’re just sitting around a table listening to you narrate or, at worst, offer a picture of the “creepy horror of the week.” Similarly, a player is reasonably sure that her PC will survive at least one round with a creature because killing the PCs with a single blow isn’t fair, right? If the creature seems too powerful she’ll have time to retreat and if the creature seems manageable then she’ll switch to tactical mode until the creature is dead.
My solution in this case is a simple one: take away the PCs’ hit points.
Most games give the PCs a measure of how much damage they can take before falling. By handling hit points yourself and not sharing actual damage totals with the players, you rip away that security blanket. The players now have to rely on your narrative descriptions as a general measure and this chips away at their tactical confidence.
There are a couple of issues with this method:
Great, something else for me to keep track of.
Horror adventures generally have a lack of combat encounters (or, more specifically, a lack of combat encounters where the victim is able to survive the initial attack). Thus, keeping score of PC wounds shouldn’t be that much of a problem, especially if you, like me, generally allow the players to keep track of monster damage. If you are running a game with lots of combat scenes, such as a zombie horde overrunning a small town, then you probably don’t need this method; the players will be wary enough about how much damage they’re taking from multiple attackers as it is.
How do I describe this?
The grandaddy of all RPGs uses hit points in the abstract; it’s a combination of physical health, avoiding getting hit, and fatigue. Other systems make hit points/health/wound points/etc a measure of physical health. In any case, the method is the same: use a list of descriptors that communicates the PC’s overall health. For example, you might decide that a PC is only scratched until 10% of her hit points are gone, lightly injured until 30%, moderately injured until 60%, seriously injured until 90%, and critically injured until she drops. All of these percentages can be quickly worked out in advance (heck, let the players do it for you), and since you’re not being too specific you can always eyeball it.
Similarly, you can describe attack damage as light, solid, or exceptional, especially when using random damage. If you roll close to minimal damage, it’s light; if you roll close to maximum damage, it’s exceptional. Everything else is solid. You can alter your assessment with any damage modifiers (“The mercenary barely scratched you with his vibro-knife, but damn it still hurt like hell coming from him!”).
Now the dirty little secret of this method is that it enables you to fudge a bit in order to squeeze the maximum drama out of a situation. For those of you that don’t mind fudging, this method offers a way to hide it, as the players can’t challenge you with numbers. Did a PC wander head-first into the horror and is now in way over his head? Knock him into serious damage with one swipe and then chip away at him, never passing critical, until he manages to escape for now.
So the next time you want to instill fear and uncertainty into your players, take away their PC’s hit points and see what happens. And please, by all means, share your stories with us here at the Stew (especially if you’re reading this and saying “hey, I already do that!) and with other GMs.