Thursday, January 13, 2011

Fear at the Gaming Table

This is really more of a 'general' gaming topic than one solely found in Star Wars games, but it still does apply in those times where you have an adventure that is supposed to be 'scary' or even 'horrific'. As I've said before, Star Wars is an all-inclusive setting. Having one or even a series of 'horror' adventures within a Star Wars campaign is perfectly acceptable in my book. That having been said, I find that there are certain elements of horror adventures that lose something in translation to a game setting- most importantly: Fear.

Media, like movies or tv or even books are much more effective in causing fear than playing a game. In the former two, you have visual and audio stimuli to aid in creating fear. In the latter, the reader is effectively 'alone' in experiencing whatever fear they're facing within their own imagination. A gaming table, however, is far-removed fear. You're typically in a comfortable, well-lit room surrounded by friends. So right off the bat, a GM is at a disadvantage in creating a mood of fear and conveying a true 'horror' experience to his players.

There are a variety of methods that can be used to help create a mood of 'fear' at the gaming table. First and foremost are the descriptions the GM gives. As always, the way he describes a situation 'sets the stage' in the player's mind. Creepy imagery simply delivered is the best way. As always, this is one of those times when details are important- i.e. don't say "the mansion is scary looking", describe how the vines overgrow it, how you catch a faint glimpse of movement in the windows, how the broken door swings in the faint breeze, creaking back and forth on its rusty hinge, etc.

Turning down the lights, playing creepy music, rolling dice even when there is nothing out there- there are dozens of other methods that can be used to help generate a sense of 'fear', but even these can only go so far- especially if your players are prone to joke and talk at the table (as most players are). Banter between players is a great way to defuse fear (just as talking helps to defuse it in real life). Thus, its probably for the best if you try to come to an agreement with your players before running a 'horror' scenario. Try to keep their 'banter' in character and limit other table talk.

This is all well and good, but no matter how much a player buys into the creepiness you're putting out there, there is still a disconnect between the fear they may be feeling and the fear their character is experiencing.

In real life, when a person is faced with a dangerous/frightening situation, they respond viscerally- and often not in a rational manner. They might freeze up, or turn and run, or do something else 'stupid' and possibly even counter-productive to getting out whatever situation they find themselves in. In most games, however, a player remains in full and quite rational control of a player's actions, even in the most dire circumstances. And honestly? This bugs me a little bit. Even the best role players don't always react 'in-character', especially to a stimulus like fear.

Therefore, I wonder if it wouldn’t be fun to include a mechanic that simulates the not-always-rational-and-in-control aspect of fear. In dungeons and dragons, they implemented something like this in the Ravenloft campaign setting, where characters had to make a ‘saving throw’ versus the various horrors they faced, and depending how well they did, they would flee or freeze in terror, etc. In D6, this could be something as simple as rolling a character’s Willpower skill (a skill I use in my games) versus a difficulty number based upon the ‘level’ of horror they encounter. Depending on how they roll, they could respond in any of the above-mentioned ways. Honestly, in a game like Star Wars, I don’t see this coming into play very much, but if you were using D6 for a more strictly horror-based game, then I think something like this would be warranted.

I realize this could (at first, at least) be an annoyance to players, who like to have ‘total control’ of their character’s actions. But I think they’d get over it. I mean, there are a lot of other game systems that depend on a roll of the dice, why not instinctive psychological reactions? Heck, it might even create some more interesting RP situations that otherwise wouldn’t have happened. Considering my own dislike of killing off players, it wouldn’t even have THAT much of a detrimental effect on the mortality of a character (i.e. I wouldn’t use it as just ANOTHER way to kill off my players).

Were I to ever run another horror based D6 game, I would love to test out this system.

p.s. And yes, I realize one way to generate fear at a gaming table would be to up the lethality of a system, or at the very least make the system totally indifferent to character death. But I am also of the opinion that killing off players on a regular basis tends to ‘numb’ any sense of real connection with a character, which even further removes the player from any sense of fear. The old “Well, I’ll roll up a new one” idea, to me, doesn’t offer the kind of dramatic attachment that I enjoy in most RP games.

1 comment:

  1. I think fear in games is like torture; not a biggie for a player in most cases.

    In D&D, it has usually been a badass monster that brings fear - fear of losing a character.

    My 90's CoC games had the fear factor. With setting nice retro mood, low tech protection, and weak PS's, there was some good fearful moments for players.