Hello TopSecret readers!
Today we’re going to cover a very important topic in RPGs: how to cause fear in the players. It’s very easy to invoke most emotions in the players: joy – give a new shiny thing to play with or a couple of awesome scenes; frustration – have a bad guy keep them in the same spot for sessions on end; jealously – have the other players get just slightly more; the list goes on.
But fear holds a special place. Unlike the other emotions, there are very few shortcuts to causing fear. Fear needs build up and lots of it. Things start seeming consistently off and way outside the norm: randomly all the townspeople will stop what they’re doing and stare at the PCs with hallow eyes; lately whenever the wizard casts a spell he sees a gigantic snake-like eye appear above him and voice whispers disconcerting messages quietly into his ear; the animals of the forest are acting strange, when approached by the PCs a harmless squirrel’s eyes glow red and it begins to prophesy the doom of the their loved ones, if they’re paying close attention they may notice that the squirrel is growing steadily larger during its prophesy.
There are many good ideas on build up, but they all share a couple of common themes. Good buildup makes the players feel uneasy, but even more importantly the unease stays with the players: weather it’s through their weapons, their wizard’s spells, the townspeople, the large surrounding forest, the NPC that the party really cares about, etc… making the players face that unease all the time is one of the best ways to build up to the moment of fear.
But what is fear and how do I get my players to feel it? It’s not the moment that the big scary monster jumps out to confront the PCs, they’ll actually be relieved that they now have something on which to take out their frustration. This is your chance to latch onto that temporary relief, to invert it and make them realize the monster/bad guy is so much worse than could have ever imagined.
For this step, there is one surefire way to make your players know fear: remove something that they believe to be constant, something that they rely on. When you do this, the monster doesn’t even need to be strong, it only needs to show that is far outside the realm of what the PCs expected. After a long and tiring chase, the fighter strikes the possessed beast of the forest down only to find that there are now two possessed beasts; in their moment of triumph over the BBEG the wizard hears an otherworldly laugh as demon forces its way into the material realm through his magic, drained of resources the party fights the demon, but they slowly realize that it’s beginning to use all of the spells that the wizards had prepared.
If you want to evoke true and immediate fear this can be taken one step father, but you should be careful when doing so, lest you cheese off your players. The last shortcut to fear is to create a monster that changes or alters the rules of the game:using a 2d6 partial success system? The monster appears and now the players can only roll 1d6. Does the party consistently rely on one single strategy? Don’t just disable it, have the monster become empowered by it: absorbing the spells or growing in size with every wound.
Fear is a difficult emotion to invoke in the players. The level of separation between a player and their character requires a consistent build up of unease and terror to overcome, punctuated by a final moment of panic as the bad guy/monster makes itself known. In the end it takes a delicate approach: do too much build up and you risk becoming cliche, bend the rules too much and you risk frustrating the players.
But if you can make your players feel true fear, they will remember it forever.