Friday, October 23, 2009

Are You Scared? Maybe You Should Be...

A quick note; I'm extending the deadline for the Halloween One-Shot Adventure Contest until through next Friday, the 30th. Contest results will be posted Halloween morning. If anyone is still interested in submitting an adventure, please check out the Contest Link in the upper-left hand corner of the blog.

Although I've never seen a lot of it, I've always been a fan of the Sci-Fi Channel's (and yes, it will forever be the "Sci-Fi" Channel in my mind) show Scare Tactics. I know people have mixed feelings about these sort of candid-camera type shows, especially one where you're setting people up to think they're about to get ripped apart by serial killers or abducted by aliens or some other freakish encounter. However, I was watching a couple of episodes the other day, and I just wanted to share some observations.

First, it's interesting to see how people react to the first signs of "something's not right here". By and large, the response most common seems to be "freezing and staring". One thing that people tend not to do is "investigate the scary noise in the basement with a weak-bulbed flashlight". Our primitive animal instincts for staying still and quiet and paying attention to what's happening are still very much alive within us.

However, once the threat is blatant - the serial killer is screaming at them waving the chainsaw, the aliens are coming through the windows, bigfoot is shaking the camper, whatever - the most common reaction people seem to have is...curling up into a little ball of incandescent panic and screaming their lungs out. Now, I'm sure that no one sets up their friend the ex-Navy SEAL to be scared on the show, and I'm sure the producers interview the conspiratorial friend of the victim extensively to make sure the victim doesn't habitually carry around a knife, or mace, or a stun gun (or a real gun, for that matter), and doesn't have the sort of personality type that'll punch first and ask questions later.

But, on the other hand, it's kinda amazing (in an almost sad sort of way) to see how most of the victims simply "shut down" at the climax of the prank. Almost all of them are in a state of near-blind panic, almost none of them are actively looking for something to arm themselves with (of course, I'm sure the set designers are careful to not leave a lot of makeshift weapons lying around, but still...), and many of them don't even try to make a break for an exit, or even appear to be working themselves up for a fight. One of the victims I saw the other day was in such a state of mindless terror that it took a good 30 seconds or so for the stunt men to convince her that she was, in fact, in no danger, that it was just a prank, and that she was on a television show - her brain was literally not processing what they were saying to her.

Now, while watching the scenarios, I was also noting a few things about how the victims are "handled" in these situations. The "bad guys" always stay out of arm's reach, and in fact it seems like they never get within a certain distance that might trigger a panicked assault from the victim. They typically try to keep some object, either a desk, or a sofa, or the barrier of a locked car door, between them and the victim so that there is a psychological "line in the sand" that they are never crossing. Like I said, I'm sure the victims are vetted somehow to make sure they aren't going to flip out and suddenly start launching flying kung fu kicks at the actors, but I think the people creating the scenarios, and especially the actors portraying the antagonists, are really careful to never put the victim in such a situation where they think they must lash out physically to defend themselves.

To roll this around to gaming...

We gamers like to think of ourselves as a very jaded lot. We all joke about how we'd handle the Zombie Apocalypse, and when we watch horror movies we all like to make fun of the people who panic and can't defend themselves properly. But to be honest, most of us are really probably not prepared to act rationally and appropriately to a truly terrifying situation. I'm not talking about a street corner mugging or being accosted by a drunk - I'm talking about real stone-cold something right out of a horror movie is about to happen to you in the next ten seconds kind of situation.

I have seen a lot of debate back and forth about various mechanics for representing fear/panic in RPGs. From CoC's Sanity checks and SAN loss, to GURPS' fright checks, to various D&D-esque saves against fear-causing events (which are almost universally magically-induced, or part of a creature's magical attack forms). While I can understand that it depends on the nature and tone of the campaign and the sorts of characters involved, it always strikes me that when people pooh-pooh these sorts of rules with "my character would never panic like that", and, as with most use in D&D, these checks are relegated to magical effects so the player can't claim such, I think we're often losing sight of the fact that a lot of the things PCs in many campaigns are routinely faced with are really, truly, horrifying situations.

Of course, you might counter, my PC lives in a fantasy world where undead and magic and monsters really exist, so he's totally cool-headed when the ghoul mob shows up and isn't going to freak out. But if, like most D&D-type campaigns, your characters are starting off relatively inexperienced, even if such things exist in your world, that doesn't necessarily mean you're prepared to deal with them. After all, we all know people get murdered in real life, but that doesn't prevent some people from panicking and curling up into a fetal ball when faced with the threat of imminent death.

So my topic for discussion today is, how do you handle fear - real fear - in your games, and how do you think it should be handled in most gaming situations? Do you think PC reaction is the sole purview of the player (barring magical influence), or do you think it is perfectly appropriate to force a mechanical check of some sort when a PC is put in a fearful situation, even if the player says "my PC wouldn't act like that"?


Dan Eldredge said...

I think it's perfectly reasonable to force a check, especially in a situation that would be "alien" to the character in question. I mean, if you have a grizzled fighter PC, and huge, powerful NPC fighter breaks into the room, surprising the PC, he'll probably react accordingly with his experience. But if the PC is confronted with a shambling horde of zombies, when said PC has never experienced undead before, he'd probably freak.

Anonymous said...

Here's why I've given up on running outright horror games...

As I see it, a large part of the point of playing a horror game (or reading a horror book, or watching a horror film) is to be scared/disturbed, to be experience fear - you can always walk out of the cinema and shake it off, but you're there to feel it...

Game mechanics don't measure up, so you use GM Mind Tricks to get to the players; even something as cliche as dimminmg the lights...

But, as much as you might want to run a Blair Witch Project style Call of Cthulhu scenario, the players have come prepared for GhostBusters - and they object to anything that gets under their skin, or takes them out of 'hunt blobby monsters with funny names' mode, and refuse to play along. Or treat it all as a joke. And so, no payoff.

In a fantasy campaign, horror can be slipped in here and there, in subtle hints and other GM Mind Tricks, and you can sometimes get a reaction out of the players...

But I don't think gamers are there to play out being scared. Which is a pity, as you can't do the Face And Overcome Fears thing if you don't go there.

On the other hand, if you do get them on the run and show no mercy, it'll be a memorable game to say the least.

Barad the Gnome said...

I do not favor a non-magical mechanic for 'enforcing' fear reactions on the characters. If I want to enforce a reaction, I will build it into the encounter as magical, or super-natural in non-magical settings. Then the players roll their save against whatever side effect might be in force (run away in fear, stand paralized in fright, wet yourself, etc).

A more challenging, and more satisfying result is to provide a fearful experience to the player so that the PLAYER provides the characters fearful reaction. Of course this requires the player to care whether their character is anihilated in a most horrible manner or not, and requires the object of the fear to not be metagamingly easy to identify. ("Oh look," says the player, "its a ghoul, just do not let it touch you and you will be fine") Mix it up, mess with their realities and make it difficult to know what the outcome of the encounter will be. After all, isn't the horrible uncertaintly the cause of the real fear?


Dan Eldredge said...

I agree that ideally you would want to instill real fear in the Player--that of course is the ultimate goal of any "horror" game.

But how do you do it? In most games there's an unspoken social contract that the GM won't arbitrarily 'off' a PC you're emotionally invested in if you play along and go on his adventures, so you lose the visceral 'fear' aspect of the game.

If a GM tries to instill fear by killing off a PC or two in a horrific manner very early on, in order to show the players that this is what the game is going to be like, most players will say "ok, I'm game," and then proceed to not get emotionally invested in their PC, since there is a good chance of losing it--again, the visceral fear is lost.

The problem is that in order to experience real fear, you have to have something to lose. Most players insulate themselves from that at the outset.

Unknown said...

The best fear, in my opinion, is real fear. Or, as real as fear can be in a game.

That is: make the player is afraid that they're character--who they like playing and who has accumulated levels and items and stuff--will be dead.

They will behave accordingly.

Jack Badelaire said...

Over at Dungeon's, there's an article about just this topic. I recommend everyone who's interested to take a wander over there and read the article.

Anonymous said...

I let them roleplay how they want to. If they decide that they're backing away carefully but quickly, that's fine with me. If they're turning tail and running, that's cool too. If they decide to run up and smack the thing, ok.

The players are pretty knowledgeable and tend to flee when they think things really outmatch them. But if something is weak yet horrifying they tend to respond with disgust more than horror: using up a Fireball to take out the zombies for example even though they know they don't need to.

I think the DM should offer bonuses to fleeing if the player describes his character as being afraid. Or a bonus to perception if the player describes the character as "frozen in fear" with the understanding that all it means is he can't move this round.

Of course because the DM is offering this bonus when he sees the player roleplaying, he can cut it off if a player invokes character fear just because he wants to run faster or listen better. You shouldn't get a speed bonus in a normal footrace, even if the loser of the race will be executed. But running from the executioner should count if that's the method by which the executioner decides who lost the race.