“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear”
Fear and anxiety are two of the oldest, most instinctual emotions we possess. Survival depends on both. It overrides both reason and logic, which make it a powerful thing, especially in the experience of role playing. It manifests in several different ways; sometimes as an almost tangible force, such as athe aura that emanates from an elder wyrm. In D&D, there are saving throws to counteract fear effects. There are bards to sing songs of encouragement, and paladins to radiate courage. There are spells to help dull the effects of fear. Other role playing games (with which I’m a bit less familiar) have similar options.
It’s much different in “real life,” of course. Obviously, we don’t often find ourselves encountering fire-breathing dragons, but we do find ourselves encountering things that make us afraid. There are plenty of things that scare me. I’ve never particularly been fond of mirrors. Spiders and ticks give me the heebie-jeebies. I grew up feearing vampires in the night (and really, who’s to say they’re not out there, waiting for us to blunder down a deserted alley all alone? Not I!).
So with that all being said, what are the best methods of introducing fear into combat and other situations of role playing games? Combat tends to be the hardest part of most RPGs to keep scary – once players start dealing damage to the lich, it usually becomes more of a stat block than a fearsome enemy. Preserving a sense of fear through every encounter isn’t necessarily right for all campaigns, but most games benefit from the occasional infusion of horror and dread.
Introducing a touch of terror into combat can be tricky. There’s a lot of building up of suspense to be done, but after the initiative is rolled, what do we do? My favorite trick is to isolate the characters from each other, giving them that nice ol’fashioned feeling of being alone. The players usually have a strategy of sending in the heavy hitter first, with the healer directly behind him. That way, the hitter can take abuse while dealing out damage, at the same time being constantly healed. They used the same technique one time against a vampire wizard I had introduced them to. I decided to spice things up a bit…
The party encountered the vampire while investigating the sewers system below a major city. Knowing they were in for a fight, the dwarven tank rushed forward to start the battle, with the cleric prepping spells. Vampire won the initiative competition and the first thing he did was plop a wall of stone between the dwarf and the rest of the group. Whoops! Suddenly, instead of a heavy hitter being healed by cleric, there was a very strong meat bag standing alone with a very pissed off vampire. Needless to say, Mr. Heavy Hitter had a rough evening. What was worse, Heavy Hitter could hear his comrades frantically trying to get rid of the wall while he was taking all kinds of punishment. Plus, the other party members could see nothing, and could do little as they listened to their teammate fight desperately on the other side. Fun, huh?
Isolating a character, heightening his sense of vulnerability, can be a great way to guarantee a little fear into the combat, but be careful of using tricks like this too often, les they become gimmicky. Using the trick sparingly preserves its impact, too – the first time a character has to face the vampire alone, it’s frightening. The second time, it starts to become routine. Also worth mentioning, an isolated player with a series of bad rolls suddenly becomes a dead isolated player, and sometimes players can take harshly to this kind of thing, believing they’ve been wronged or “cheated.”
How do you do it? How do you make the characters (and players) fear the enemies? What are your tips and tricks?