Active from 2005 to 2007 and dedicated entirely to system-neutral GMing advice, Treasure Tables was one of the earliest RPG blogs. It was also the precursor to Gnome Stew, so we decided the best way to keep all of its content -- over 750 articles and more than 7,500 comments -- accessible to as many GMs as possible was to move it here, which we did in 2012. Comments are turned off, just they as were when Treasure Tables closed in 2007. The GMing material and discussion archived below was originally featured on TreasureTables.org. Enjoy! --Martin Ralya

Without exception, in every RPG I’ve ever played that used a fear check mechanic — a roll players have to make to keep their characters from running away — that mechanic is always incredibly frustrating.

“Fear check” is a general term that covers morale checks, horror saves, fright checks — any core mechanic where failing a roll means that your character has to flee.

Fear checks disempower players and paper over game design issues, and they’re never a good idea.

I draw a distinction between inbuilt fear mechanics and situational fear mechanics. The former (the topic of this post) are part of the core rules — every character has a stat of some sort related to fear.

The latter are not part of the core rules, but instead come up only when certain spells or abilities are involved. Unlike inbuilt fear mechanics, making fear checks in those situations doesn’t disempower the players — it just presents a challenge to be overcome.

From what I’ve seen, game systems employ fear checks to enforce a certain mindset: you, the PC, should be afraid. As a player, that takes an important choice — one that’s rich with roleplaying opportunities — out of my hands. If I don’t want my character to run away (as stupid as that might be), that should be my choice.

Rather than building a game from the ground up to emphasize the fact that there are times when the PCs should be afraid, designers throw in a single mechanic to force them to behave that way. That’s a bandaid to cover up poor game design, not a legitimate solution.

It also provides a crutch for the GM. Instead of having to find clever ways to convey to the players that their characters should be pissing their pants in abject terror, you can skip all that and just say “You failed your fear check? You’re terrified, and you run away.”

TSR’s old Ravenloft setting is an example of the wrong approach. “Gothic horror D&D,” at least as it was presented in the Ravenloft boxed set, wasn’t very scary at all. The solution? Include rules for horror checks, and force a response that the setting didn’t actually evoke.

Any RPG — including D&D in the Ravenloft setting — that features a central fear mechanic would be better off without it. (Call of Cthulhu, with its sanity death spiral, is the only game I can think of that includes a fear-check-like mechanic and doesn’t fall into this category, and that’s because sanity checks aren’t quite the same thing.)

Do you agree or disagree with my take on fear checks? Do you enjoy them as a player, or find them useful as a GM? And am I wrong about Call of Cthulhu occupying a strange, special middle ground?

About  Martin Ralya (TT)

"Martin Ralya (TT)" is two people: Martin Ralya, the administrator of and a contributor to Gnome Stew, and a time traveler from the years 2005-2007, when he published the Treasure Tables GMing blog (TT). Treasure Tables got started in the early days of RPG blogging, and when Martin burned out trying to run it solo he shut it down, recruited a team of authors, and started Gnome Stew in its place. We moved all TT posts and comments to Gnome Stew in 2012.



Tags:

39 Responses to Fear Checks: Always a Bad Idea

  1. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say always, I think you’re generally correct. In a game that’s more “tactical warfare”, I’m willing to accept it– much like units breaking, it mirrors experience, rather than roleplaying.

    It’s usually better to encourage the behavior you’re trying to convey, rather than taking over the character. Bonuses and penalties can encourage what you want… if you give PCs a -5 on their rolls due to fear, it remains the player’s choice, but the system offers an incentive to respond fearfully. If you combine that will allowing the PC to run faster due to that overwhelming fear, you might (by temptation) get the same results you were trying to get– without taking away the player’s choices.

  2. I think having fear integrated into the game because, by and large, players don’t want their PCs to ever be afraid. It’s not heroic, and usually not fun.

    Still, many adventures are going to introduce themes and situations that should set the PCs skin crawling. Hopefully as a DM you can coach your players to have their PCs react appropriately. Perhaps this is an opportunity to trade a negative reinforcement (roll to resist running away) with a positive reinforcement (experience award for good role-playing)? If you take this approach, just make sure the players know up-front so they can decide how to react.

    Regarding “situational fear” as Martin puts it, I think this needs to stay in as much as any kind of physical or emotional reaction is built into the game mechanics. If a creature has a super-natural fear-inducing scream, by all means, make the players roll to save.

    The other thing to keep in mind when dealing with scary stuff is to bulk up on those real-world fear-inducing tricks. If the player is scared (even a little), then they’re more likely to have their PC be scared, too. I recall a topic about this posted here at TT though I’m to lazy to go find it right now. The gist, as I recall, is to take normal things and add something completely unexpected: the swarm of bees that doesn’t sting, the child with an adult voice and nonsensical ranting, the dog with its head coming out of its hip, etc. Describing these things with attention to all of the senses helps drive the point home: this is creepy stuff!

    Pictures and background music can help, too, if not over-done.

  3. I don’t agree with the absoluteness with which you say Fear checks are a bad idea. Unknown Armies has a sanity system which includes a fear mechanic, and I think it’s great. However, in that failing the check means you freak out – you still have the choice of whether to flee, frenzy or freeze.

    As to it being disempowering, that need not be a bad thing. In horror games, the PCs are in horrible situations, not in control. Some of that being passed up to the players can be good for the atmosphere. Or awful beyond measure, of course: it’s a fine line to walk.

    Also, in the hands of a skilled GM, a fear check mechanism’s existence reminds the players that fear is a good and reasonable response.

  4. Rick the Wonder Algae

    Let’s be honest here: I’m not the best DM in the world.

    Shock! Gasp!

    And I could use some work in presenting things as scary. I’ve tried to run games that are scarey and despite my best efforts, when the PCs see something scarey what do they do? They examine it, pocket it, shoot at it, ignore it, whatever. The LAST thing on their mind is fear.

    Yes. This is a failing of ME the GM

    But what if I WANT to run a horror game? What if my players WANT to play one? Are they supposed to guess when they’re supposed to be afraid and humor me?
    Probably. Yes.
    Maybe so, but the existance of a horror mechanic works as a crutch for bad DMs like me until I manage to get it right.

    Ideally, every session in which one of my players doesn’t wet their pants is a session I should be analysing for error and going back to the drawing board until I AM a master of invoking horror.

    And once THAT is achieved, the horror mechanic is invisible. Why? Because as soon as I start describing the spooky basement with the unnatural sounds eminating from within, the players look at each other and say “we… don’t want to go in there. How about YOU Frank? You’re brave… Will you go down and see what’s making the noise?” Fear check: obsolete!

    Once Frank DOES get talked into going down there, and he sees the dark lumpy shambling shape in the dark, or hears heavy breathing getting closer… and closer… and it’s right next to you now!!!! and his nerve breaks and he runs, once again – fear check:obsolete!

    The problem lies in GMs who make no effort to improve their efforts and MAKE fear checks obsolete. If you keep running your game like it were castles and cthulhu instead of call of cthulhu, your horror game will never be anything but a sham with annoying moments of mechanically induced tactical blunders.

    I think CoC, DOES in some way straddle the line with it’s sanity score. Used properly, it’s really a role-playing aide, NOT a mechanical system for making a player flee. Very few of the results on the tables are “you run away” or “you huddle helpless on the floor”. Most of them are “You decide eating potted plants is fun!” or “You suddenly feel amourous towards the fur rug.” Which are meant to simultaniously simulate the random results of a fragmented mind AND provide fertile ground for role playing. In fact both players and GMs are encouraged to pick an insanity that makes sense if they so choose, so the player who rolls “affection for fur rugs” might instead toss back to the GM “How about fear of fire hydrants instead? after all, we were in the sewer fighting shoggoths when I went mad. Maybe I’m convinced that at any moment one of the foul beasts could thrust a noisome pseudopod up through the lines and grab me!”

  5. Burning Wheel’s “Steel” attribute covers fear and a whole lot more. I’ve yet to play, but I think it strikes a good balance.

    1. Obviously, the designer intends for combat to be uncertain and fearful. He says it explicity in the rules.

    2. The “Steel” attribute applies to more than just fear. Wonder or surprise can leave you slack-jawed as much as fear.

    3. It improves when you use it and it can improve when you experience strange stuff. See something freakish? Your Steel just got a tick towards getting better.

    4. There are ways to minimize the effects, if you care enough. A high Will minimizes the duration of bad effects or can eliminate them altogether. Certain traits provide more conditional benefits.

    5. You get 4 choices, instead of just run away: Stand and Drool, Cower, Swoon, or Run Screaming. Cower might not be so hot with a troll about to tear your head off, but it’s nice if a sniper archer has a bead on you. In some cases, Run Screaming is what you want to do. But if you want to tough it out, Stand and Drool is always an option. (The game is pretty generous with some of the less obviously useful options, as well. If you “Swoon”, you might get the chance to roll under a bush and be missed by your opponents.)

    So fear checks don’t have to be disempowering. The player just needs a few interesting choices to make once he fails.

  6. I’ll agree with brcarl, players rarely want to acknowledge fear in their players. I’ve got one player who will never ever ever act out, or acknowledge, any kind of issue with his characters, even though he never plays characters that would be unlikely to be scared. Fear mechanics still suck though. Forcing a character to some sort of action is never a great way of doing things. A special skill that does that, I.e. dragon fear which causes a person to roll or run away in terror, is less bad but still has it’s issues.

    The beast fear inducing mechanic that I have ever seen is in the game dread, where the game mechanic is a jenga tower. You draw from the tower for any hard action, and if you knock over the tower your character dies, goes insane etc. When the tower gets wobbly everyone at the table is holding their breath, waiting, watching, trying to see what happens with the pull. When they go back to acting out the character, that carries over.

  7. I agree – drop the fear checks. In D&D, the DM can require the players to make a will save or take a “doom” like spell effect – a -2 to hit reflects the negative energy of the atmosphere. If you as the DM are using creatures with stat drain and level drain, that will give the players plenty of reason to be afraid without having to resort to fright checks. Still, the ultimate choice to run away should rest squarely with the players – its supposed to be a heroic fantasy experience, after all.

  8. I’ll play devil’s advocate and say that while a fear effect may deny a player a choice about a character *at that moment*, it provides ample choices (and perhaps even meatier role-playing opportunities) later on.

    For example, in my campaign the DM was running us through a dungeon crawl involving sewers that had been tainted by horrors beyond space and time. The party slowly tracked down the antagonist, a jack-o-lantern headed scarecrow (who was almost certainly more than just a scarecrow).

    The scarecrow had a fear effect, and every time my character — a happy-go-lucky bard named Thom — saw it, he failed his save and went running. At the time, it wasn’t a tremendous amount of fun (although it was amusing to watch the party decide who — if anyone — should be dispatched to retrieve him as the battle with the scarecrow unfolded).

    As this happened time and again, I incorporated it into his character. Thom is now deeply disturbed by carved melons and decorative scarecrows. He’s not too thrilled about sewers either, and will go to great lengths to avoid them.

    But if adventure calls (and if it has enough fame attached to it), he’ll reluctantly take up the challenge (and make sure he stays close to the cleric or paladin at all times).

    The character is richer for these failed saves that sent him scampering from the battle.

    So I suppose my counter argument is this: it doesn’t *have* to be a sign of a broken mechanic if the players take it upon themselves to shape their characters based on the results.

    In that, it’s not like any other failed save or check in systems where dice dictate success or failure. Yes, a failed fear check that sends me running may deny me my big chance to act heroicly … but so will that failed save vs. disintegrate that reduces my character to a pile of ash.

  9. Fear checks for PCs — almost never.
    Fear checks for NPCs — almost always.

    As with anything, there is almost always an exception … I just try to make sure it doesn’t spoil the mood.

    AN EXAMPLE OF A GOOD EXCEPTION:

    On the other hand, things like the madness mechanic in Wheel of Time is neither a mood or game breaker, the PC accepts that as part of the price of playing a spellcaster in that game.

    So sometimes, when the fear/madness/sanity/morale check is built into the class’ abilities (because it’s balanced by another special ability) I would say it’s OK in those cases.

  10. I don’t see fear checks in the same light as many. The problem I’m hearing is that it removes choice, but that’s true of many other mechanics in the game. Is a vampire’s power to Mesmerize, a medusa’s petrification, or even a good old huge critical hit any different? These all produce effects which take away a player’s choice.

    To say that a PC being overcome with overwhelming fear which forces him to flee is a poor mechanic to say that anything which compels a particular state for the PC is a poor mechanic. Running away in fear is no different for a player than being dominated and losing all choice.

    What needs to be asked is whether the GM can use the system to impose conditions on PCs (because things like that just happen, like getting mind-controlled) while not taking away all of a player’s ability to act.

  11. Alternative mechanic for fear.
    Use a fear point system for scary stuff, mayby even with a fear roll to see if they get the fear point when they see the scary stuff.
    Have point platues based on attributes and levels or what ever the system uses, lower platues mean negatives to roll due to being a little creeped out, higher platue mean the player has the choice of freaking out or gaining a phobia.
    Then let certin actions lower a players fear points, if they get fear points from seeing the animated scarecrow with the scythe, then when another player jumps up and hacks it into flying straw with a chainsaw, the scared player should get some points back.
    For some extra goodies, give some bonuses to haveing a certin level of scare points, frantic acts of strength, a sensitivity to the supernatural, a better running and dodgeing rate, give the players who don’t make thier characters into men of steel who never fear a chance to shine by playing characters with some normal freaked out reactions to seeing a chest bursting alien pop out of a guys chest instead of calmly chooseing to stick a fork in it right there and then and ending the game abrubtly.

  12. In D&D/D20 games, I think a fear affect that takes away your standard action and ability to threaten your vicinity while you’re in the presence of the fear-inducer would serve a similar purpose as a “you are afraid and run away” effect. A character standing next to a dragon but unable to act would want to get out of the threatened area ASAP.

  13. The problem I’m hearing is that it removes choice, but that’s true of many other mechanics in the game. Is a vampire’s power to Mesmerize, a medusa’s petrification, or even a good old huge critical hit any different? These all produce effects which take away a player’s choice.

    Who said they liked these any more? :)

    Removing choice is bad, IMO. Martin just chose to focus on “fear.” I see a difference in being Dominated in a “Vampire” game as it is (presumably) part of RP versus D&D where getting Mesmerized is nearly always solely a game mechanic that provides a tanglibe reduction in fighting effectiveness (attack your friends).

    My mind always comes back to the joy of a 3.0 D&D combat that lasted about 3 hours of real time and about 5-6 rounds of game time. Fighter was Nausated on the first round for the duration of the encounter. Cue Starcraft and doing his laundry for the next three hours.

    Then there was the wonderful game of Twilight 2000 and the Coolness Under Fire rule. Fail about 3-4 of those on a regular basis Sarlax and your opinion may change… :)

  14. Doesn’t it also matter what “running away” or otherwise losing control of your character temporarily means in game? If it means your character is effectively squashed, not so much fun–unless perhaps that was a risk you knew you were taking when you got into the situation. If it means you as the player don’t get to do anything fun, then obviously bad. If it means that your character gets deeper into the situation and will need to be that much more clever to get out, then some people will appreciate the challenge.

  15. I think fear checks are not that bad, when they are not used in the usual context of: “Miss this roll and wait for 30 minutes for the rest of us to get this combat done”. Forcing a pc to act in certain way is not really a problem if the player can have his say when the character is challanged. Don’t want to run screaming? Don’t go to the vampires castle.

    Limiting character options? Bah I say! ( :) ). Does it limit character options that the character is not good at wrestling? Ugly? No. If you want to play a unflinching bad ass then pick a superhero game.

    About player beeing scared? I hardly think that is going to happen on any reliable basis even with the best gm. And I don’t really think that is even necessary for a good game.

    If the fear checks bug you, try this: Have an index card that reads “Scared! Run like no tomorrow”. Then when there is a scary scene, put some markers on it to represent exp (poker chips are nice). First player to run gets the pot and rest some portion. Add to the pot when things get worse.

  16. I’m going to tuck into some responses now, because I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep up if I wait!

    Thank you to everyone who has responded so far — this is a fun discussion. I really dig the portable alternate mechanics to fear checks that have been presented, too.

    (Rick TWA) But what if I WANT to run a horror game? What if my players WANT to play one? Are they supposed to guess when they’re supposed to be afraid and humor me?
    Probably. Yes.
    Maybe so, but the existance of a horror mechanic works as a crutch for bad DMs like me until I manage to get it right.

    I hadn’t thought about it from this perspective. Like most crutches, I can see how this one has some utility — particularly in the situation that you described. Good point!

    (Jakob) I don’t agree with the absoluteness with which you say Fear checks are a bad idea. Unknown Armies has a sanity system which includes a fear mechanic, and I think it’s great. However, in that failing the check means you freak out – you still have the choice of whether to flee, frenzy or freeze.

    For me, that means it’s not really a fear check — much like CoC’s sanity check isn’t a fear check, either. Fleeing is one result, but it’s not the only or even the main result — and in both cases (UA and CoC), failing a check opens up roleplaying opportunities, rather than limiting them.

    As to it being disempowering, that need not be a bad thing. In horror games, the PCs are in horrible situations, not in control.

    I like victim horror (the PC-disempowering kind), and I agree that disempowered PCs are part of the package. I don’t know how to articulate it (theory isn’t my strong point), but I see a difference between plain ol’ fear checks — you fail, you flee — and more nuanced mechanics, like the Madness Meters and CoC’s sanity system.

    Crazy Jerome’s point about BW’s Steel mechanic — that it’s not disempowering because while it forces PC behavior and is part of the core system, it offers choices when Steel checks are failed — is along the lines of what I’m getting at about the division between disempowering fer mechanics and good ones.

    John Arcadian: Dread was running through my mind when I wrote this post, and I agree that it’s a brilliant device. Having not actually played it, though, I didn’t know if it was specifically a fear mechanic, or just a time lapse representation of a growing mood of panic (if that makes any sense).

    Ken Newquist: I agree with a lot of what you’re saying in Devil’s advocate mode (especially characters growing through what initially looks like a disempowering game element), except that from my POV you’re talking about situational fear mechanics — which I think are just fine. In your opening example, those creatures had that ability, but every scary thing in the game didn’t have that ability. Right?

    Carolina: Right on — fear checks for NPCs are useful shorthand. They’re good stuff.

    As for WoT’s madness wheel, how does it work? It sounds like it’s something spellcasters have to dice against because they’re spellcasters. If that’s the case, it sounds like it falls into the same middle ground as CoC’s sanity and UA’s Madness Meters.

    (Sarlax) To say that a PC being overcome with overwhelming fear which forces him to flee is a poor mechanic to say that anything which compels a particular state for the PC is a poor mechanic. Running away in fear is no different for a player than being dominated and losing all choice.

    I think that like Ken (above), you’re responding based on situational fear mechanics, not core mechanics. I have no problem with fear, domination, paralysis or any other creature- or situation-specific mechanics, which remove player choices but do so only when they come into play.

    Abulia: Yep, I think a lot of what I’m driving at by ragging on fear checks can be applied to other system-related forms of player disempowerment. Although not to creature-specific, situational stuff like mesmerize abilities — I agree that those can be very frustrating, but they don’t fall into quite the same category for me.

  17. (Crazy Jerome) Doesn’t it also matter what “running away” or otherwise losing control of your character temporarily means in game? If it means your character is effectively squashed, not so much fun–unless perhaps that was a risk you knew you were taking when you got into the situation. If it means you as the player don’t get to do anything fun, then obviously bad.

    Bingo! Core fear mechanics resulting in less fun for players is a big part of my complaint about them.

  18. Just a note about things like possession, domination, etc. I don’t like the “Failed your roll, so hand the GM your PC’s sheet.” approach. I prefer to give the player a chance by playing the combat out with the other party members, and then ending the turn with the dominated PC fighting the imposing will in some way from within.

    I also allow a player to try and foil the imposing will’s efforts. Maybe the PC can’t break the control of the imposing will, but he or she might have enough influence to cause that last crossbow bolt to miss their friend and comrade due to a shakey hand.

    By describing the mental scene and allowing the player to still take some form of action I think that you improve the roleplaying aspect of the game. The players are still having fun and are still involved even if their PC’s are not in complete control. You may have to tinker with the rules to pull this off, but it is worth in my opinion!

    With that said, the problem with a fear check that forces a player to take a certain action is that it eliminates all playing of the game whatsoever. What does your character do? That is determined for you. How does the GM handle the player? Already determined by the rules pretty much. I don’t want the game to go on autopilot. I want my players and myself to set the stage and determine the results.

  19. The player’s right to chose his character’s reaction to a situation is a fundamental principle of role-playing. A fear check (with associated, “you must run away now” or even the slightly more generous “Pick from fight, flee, or faint”) essentially tells the player, “You’re not a good enough role-player. We can’t trust you to do the right thing, so we’re going to take the choice out of your hands. We, the game designers, will tell you how your character reacts.” That stabs directly at the core of what role-playing is.

    If the problem is that some players want unreasonably fearless characters and the solution is fear checks, what about players who want unreasonably stoic characters in other areas? Shall we start adding infatuation checks? Amusement checks? Awe checks? Disgust checks? It’s practically a stereotype for a PC to be so jaded with life that they never fall in love, never crack a smile, are impressed with nothing, and are so battle hardened that no level of slaughter churns their stomach.

    As to the difference between a fear checks and mind control, the key is that mind control happens in-game and fear checks happen out-of-game. Mind control represents your character’s volition being taken away. A fear check says that the character still has free will, but takes that choice away from the player.

  20. “The player’s right to chose his character’s reaction to a situation is a fundamental principle of role-playing. A fear check (with associated, “you must run away now” or even the slightly more generous “Pick from fight, flee, or faint”) essentially tells the player, “You’re not a good enough role-player. We can’t trust you to do the right thing, so we’re going to take the choice out of your hands. We, the game designers, will tell you how your character reacts.” That stabs directly at the core of what role-playing is.”

    I sense a fundamental divide that may be unbridgeable. Let me go on a tangent for a moment.

    Some players like to build exactly the character they want, and they play that character exactly how they intend. For them, roleplaying is following that intent.

    Some players like to be thrown curve balls–even to the extent of not having much control over how the character is generated. For them, roleplaying is playing the hand you are dealt.

    Back on topic, I think the same thing applies. If your are “design/intent” person, then I can see how fear checks would feel disempowering, no matter how set up. If you had wanted the character to flee in certain situations, you would have designed him that way. If you are “play the hand” person, then fear checks are empowering–as long as they still leave you choice: “Ack, Freedbush is terrified. Do I play him wetting his pants, or do I bang off both sides of the doorway getting out of here? Cool! I run screaming out the name of the Nine Gods for mercy.”

    It’s not about trusting the player to do the right thing (or at least, it isn’t for me). It’s does the situation produced give them a chance to do something cool or not?

    I had an extended “wizard character is charmed by the bad guys” scene in a D&D game once. The group had a blast. The players all knew what was going on. Given the 3E charm rules, the charmed character even had some inkling of the situation. It didn’t change the basic fact: He could do anything he wanted, as long as it was consistent with being best buds with his old group and the BBEG. That’s a very severe limit in practice, but it still leaves some room for imaginative wiggle room.

    Fight, flee, or faint might not seem like much, but it is infinitely better than having no choices. Even two awful choices is better than no choice. (In fairness to Burning Wheel, it’s fairly generous about GM intrepretation of those options in some ways, not so much in others.) Stand and Drool isn’t merely Stand and Drool. It can be played as shocked motionless for a few seconds or slow to react or whatever you want to do. The game effect is that you don’t get to do anything active for a few seconds.

    I *much* prefer the BW kind of thing to even situational versions of “dominated and now I might as well be an NPC robot.” I spent the better part of an hour at a convention once, where my cleric character was held during the first round of a massive fight. That was not fun. (I did get revenge, though. :) ) So I guess I disagree with Martin that the situational exception is much of an exception. I’ll take highly limited but real choices over situational zero choices any day.

  21. As it happens, I’ll be joining my first CoC game next week and I’ll keep this discussion mind.

  22. I see what you mean about Sanity Checks being a weird middle ground. With the charts (in the d20 CoC at least) some fall into the niche of forcing players what to do, and some can lead to interesting roleplaying on the PC’s part. If you really wanted to solve the “fear check” issue with it you’d just make all the results be related to roleplaying.

  23. Martin:

    In Wheel of Time, male spellcasters who elect to cast spells run the risk of descending into madness, because the magical forces that males tap into are tainted.

    Whenever they cast spells they run a slight risk. When they overchannel — cast spells more powerful than their class level normally allows — they make an ability check roll. If they fail, their sanity and health is afflicted in some way, and you roleplay accordingly. The more they fail these checks, the faster this descent into madness occurs.

    Female spellcasters don’t run the same risk of losing sanity. If they overchannel, they run the risk of losing their capability for casting spells, get “burned out.”

    The hook for spellcasters of both genders in Wheel is that the more they channel, the more they tap into the source of magic, they more they WANT to. In other words, it’s addictive. And characters addicted to spellcasting are constantly tempted to overchannel. And when they overchannel, they risk their sanity/spellcasting.

    In a lot of ways it’s a metaphor for the dark spiral of drug addiction than it is about fear/sanity.

  24. I think the reason that fear checks are even around can be linked to what Alan said up in 21: “…some players want unreasonably fearless characters…”. The nature of a fear check, or anything similar, will vary greatly based on the game. Old school DND? Since it is mainly combat, your major response options are flee. Adding in insanity rules is great, but always just a little perpendicular to the other game mechanics. Other games, with mechanics that suit other situations more smoothly, can accommodate a “fear check” better because they can bring some other penalty/result/response from it, but there might still be some issues with players who want uber-cool characters. “I Hargrave Jennings, Mathematician Explorer, face down the nameless insanity inducing horror from the 12th dimension.” A willpower mechanic works well for characters who want to do this. They can resist it, so long as they make the roll, spend the points, etc. Still a fear check, and not perfect by any means, but a fear check with some reason behind it. They are not rolling to see if they are scared, they are rolling to overcome their fear. Marginally better.

    The best way I have to overcome forcing a character to make a check to see if they are scared is through experience awards. I give out experience for good roleplaying, and extra experience for good roleplaying that is detrimental to the character, but fits the situational dynamics. You ran screaming in terror when it was likely that you would, even though it made you look less cool, or left the party without a cleric to fight off undead skeletons, or took away the shotgun from the survivors in the boarded up house when the zombies came in. That sucks, but it was what you probably would have done, here is the reward for being true to the situation and character.

  25. Fear checks are good for a very simple reason: more than half of the players I’ve dealt with will insist, regardless of the situation, that their characters are absolutely fearless.

    Every single time. No matter how carefully or vividly you describe the scene, no matter how horrific the circumstance or monster… they loudly declare that they Don’t Know the Meaning of Fear, period. They’re HEROES, dammit! Nothing scares them!

    Now, you can say this is bad roleplaying (and you’d be right); you can see “we need a better class of player,” and again you’d be right. But the reality is, these are the players you get. So either use a fear-check mechanic or resign yourself to a game story and system where nothing is ever scary, and just leave that aspect out of all your game sessions.

  26. As discussed here Fear checks generally fall into a lesser category of Save or Die effects and as such tend to be intensely aggravating. They may be even more aggravating than a true save or die effect becasue they only remove a player from the encounter instead of being a remove from game so GM’s are less afraid to use them. They may also be a little harder to prepare counters for so they are more likely to take effect. A counterpoint my be conditions like D&Ds shaken which applies penalties, but doesn’t remove the freedom to make choices from the player.

  27. Fear checks can work, particularly when combined with action points or another system that will allow the player to modify the die roll so that they may decide whether the character flees or does not.

    Another mechanic that did a good job of emulating fear was the Coolness Under Fire attribute from Twilight 2000 which determined how many actions a character would have.

  28. As a PC I don’t really mind being Feared in someway, especially if it is only for a few rounds. Usually it opens the door to roleplaying. However, having been on the other side of the table as GM I’ve seen PCs getting frustrated. So, other than simply making things truly fearful, what can be done to recreate the scary effect.

    In my simple rules system I have a something like a circumstance bonus for ‘having the edge’ that might work for minor Fear effects. The afraid person automatically loses the edge in the fight so the opponent gets a circumstance bonus against them. You can recover the edge by victories in the fights, or by retreating and regrouping.
    This encourages a certain about of tactical play, and it doesn’t seem so much like I am afraid, it is purely a mechanical decision. Of course, a good roleplayer can see it as responding to the situation. Right now the Vampire (or whatever) got the jump on us, but if we retreat and catch our breaths we can turn and face it. If we don’t we are in too much disarray to put up a good fight.

  29. i dunno. i mean, people run in terror. they freeze. there’s a fundamental part of the human brain which takes over in some situations, which is not under the control of the higher thinking bits. fear checks can be seen to work on this, and in that regard are no different than other aspects of your character which are outside your control. when you reach zero hit points, you fall unconscious, no matter how nigh-invulnerable you say your character is.

    that said, there’s room for mechanics to make the character resistant or immune to fear, just as there may be feats or abilities to allow her to keep fighting until she drops dead.

  30. Ever play in a game which makes you do nothing but run away when “feared”? It’s horrible in a bunch of separate and equally annoying ways: first, you run away, which means you aren’t doing damage to your opponent, then your opponent gets to take free potshots at you, and finally, you don’t even get to choose what to do or sometimes even where to go. In a heroic game, it’s a horrible feeling to be effectively told “no you can’t be a hero”, and yes, I’ll admit, if a GM is going to pull a ton of ‘fear checks’ on me, I’ll bring a book with me and look absolutely disinterested in the game when it happens, because I KNOW at that point, it doesn’t matter what I want my character to do, it’s entirely in the GM’s hands how much he wants to screw me over, which is usually a lot. I might talk to him later about it, but if he doesn’t listen to my criticism, I get one step closer to just leaving the game, or just leave flat out. When I want to play an RPG, I expect to play, not spend my time sitting on my rear continually waiting for some game effect to end so I can do stuff.

    Fear Points, or some other mechanic, might make sense, but they don’t really deal with the core issue: a circumstance penalty on actions is ok, but forcing characters beyond that can breed active rebellion. Even with the bennie system, very rarely will players take up the option of running away, because it’s not fun, unless you make it very mechanically attractive, and then that generally means it’s highly overpowered, because the level of annoyance incurred by lack of actions is very, very high, and therefore needs a VERY VERY VERY high benefit to accrue in order to make it work… So either way, a fear system either screws over player and serves as a crutch for GMs that possibly shouldn’t be GMing, or more likely GMing in that genre, or overpowers players and makes challenges worthless.

    So I’m in the camp that fear mechanics suck, and almost universally.

  31. For what it’s worth…

    This has made me rethink fear effects. Sure, if it’s magic or a critter’s weapon, then that’s fine (“Situational” above).

    I don’t think I’ve ever made a player roll against fear when it wasn’t caused by a spell or critter’s ability. If I were to do so now, I think it would be a relative thing… “You failed by 1; your character is a bit unnerved. Take a -2 penalty to everything, including initiative, skills, attacks (but not damage), etc.” vs. “Ouch, you rolled a 1. Your character is hopelessly terrified; you decide what that means.”

    As an aside, I use morale checks for NPCs as a relative thing, checking whenever a significant event happens (their leader is slain, they hit 50% losses, fireball goes off, etc). Roll a d20, and react to the situation, given that they’re feeling brave on a scale from 1-20. It can make the difference between ‘fighting withdrawl’ and ‘drop your weapons as you run screaming’.

  32. > Ever play in a game which makes you do nothing but run away when “feared”?

    gud gawds, yes, you have NO idea. :)

    one’s take on fear mechanics probably correlates heavily with one’s take on gaming in general, and whether you game to be a rock star or feel comfortable playing joe nobody who runs away.

    i’m a rock star in real life, so playing joe nobody who runs away does have some appeal. i don’t have to be directly involved in the game to enjoy it, i watch TV too.

  33. Ooh. So much negative love for fear checks. If you so hate them did you make sure you didn’t:

    a) Make a fear check and when a character runs, dump the player for 30 minutes when the “brave” ones beat the bad guy?

    b) Make fear check mandatory as in “pass this check or you don’t get to fight the boss bad guy and the story won’t go anywhere if you don’t fight the boss bad guy. Make the roll or we’ll be real bored”

    c) Gave no control to the player when deciding how brave the character is?

    d) Didn’t negotiate a bit what the difficulty of the check would be?

    e) Didn’t accept any input from the player as to the outcome of failed roll?

    If you did? Why? Try replacing the fear check in the above with say spot check or carpentry check or what ever and it still wouldn’t be ok, would it?

  34. (drow) one’s take on fear mechanics probably correlates heavily with one’s take on gaming in general, and whether you game to be a rock star or feel comfortable playing joe nobody who runs away.

    I’m not sure about this. I love D&D, where you most often play rock stars, and I love Call of Cthulhu, where even rock stars can beat you up. ;)

    For me, the difference is that I like to have the opportunity to roleplay my character’s fear, not have it dictated to me. In CoC, I’ll run like a little girl when it makes sense and sounds like fun — I don’t need a fear check to make that happen.

  35. One additional thought on fear checks. Forced fleeing tends to split the party. Why is this considered one of the ultimate sins when players do, but acceptable when the GM causes it. I’m not taking a stand on splitting the party becasue that has been discussed here before, I just wanted to point out the logical disconnect.

  36. “I’m not taking a stand on splitting the party becasue that has been discussed here before, I just wanted to point out the logical disconnect.”

    No logical disconnect at all. A party-driven split is apt to go on for a long time, maybe even hours of game time. Both sides are active, and demanding the GM’s attention. It doesn’t matter how well or poorly the GM handles it, this is a bigger drain on his attention than a party that stays together.

    Someone running off because of fear is another kettle of fish. The PC(s) that separate are reacting. Presumably, they will want to return to the party as soon as they possibly can.

    So it’s a combination of how much time the split takes and what the split off party members want to do. Of course, there are other reasons to split that are as easy and short to handle as failed fear checks, but when people talk about avoiding the split, they don’t mean such short, targeted splits.

  37. Drow: for my first character RPed ever, I played a character who was absolutely phobic about being out in the open in natural areas. However, his phobia manifested entirely in ways I chose, rather than ways the game dictated to me. In some cases, it meant taking a sub-optimal shot at enemies in hopes that could get out of the area quicker, others it was repeatedly chanting mantras to keep himself from hyperventilating, and at other times it meant running away screaming for seemingly no apparent reason. The system had no impact in my choice. It was purely my characterization. This kept it fun. It was not a ‘rock star’ character; it was more CoC-ish in that when he was afraid, he started going slightly off his rocker, and his tendencies changed.

    My beef with fear ‘in-game’ is only when it comes with mechanics that force the player to do something and not allow the player to play their role. It’s that which divorces me from the game; I can be interested when I have options for stuff to do later, but when my basic option is “wait X rounds and hope your buddies don’t finish combat so that you can get to do something useful,” I don’t have much love for the game. I don’t even really watch TV much these days; I know I need a certain level of interactivity for me to avoid getting bored with something, and losing that interactivity makes me very annoyed.

  38. When was the last time you looked at a D&D book cover and the PC’s were running away!

    Take a hint from millions of dollars invested into rpg marketing over decades ; )

    I nearly killed interest in a campaign with a single Confusion spell – in D&D most players really resist being controlled in any way (Cthulhu players have different expectations).

    When I wrote ‘The Steam Spire’ adventure for Iron Kingdoms the whole third act was a prison-break. My playtest group railed against the situation so badly I almost tore that act out.
    However, when it was dumped on the web I got a lot of positive comments – moral being that you have to guage your players before you try this (I hadn’t done that with the Confusion spell).

    However, however, Fear checks that /cause/ “decision points” sound reasonable – they reflect the experience of the character, but still give the player choice.

  39. Fear checks are a staple of WFRP (Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay) and it actually encourages characters to build up their WP (Willpower) statistic.

    It does add an element of unknown to encounters and can be a lot of fun. No one wants to be known for being the scared PC but it happens.

    Whether the character is frozen in their spot for a round or two, or runs away and gains an insanity point, it provides a dynamic element of uncertainity that is a hallmark aspect of WFRP combat.

    D&D could easily do the same thing.

Add Comment Register



Leave a Reply