It’s the Halloween season, so we return to that old chestnut: fear. I’ve talked a little about scaring players before, or more accurately, getting players to be willing to let themselves be scared, but let’s talk about fear itself. Rumor has it there is nothing else to fear.
There’s pretty much two breeds of fear: fear of the known, and fear of the unknown.
Fear 101 is that fear of the unknown is always the winner, because your imagination is your worst enemy.
Say there’s a bear coming at you. Rarr. Are you afraid? Yeah, probably. You’re afraid of a known threat (the bear), and you’re envisioning a fairly obvious outcome (the bear gets a snack). Now let’s try a different scenario. You’re sitting there, reading this post, and whoosh, the lights go out — your computer too. It’s pitch black (if it’s daytime, play along and pretend it’s night). Lightning flashes outside! In the flare you see a face reflected in your monitor… but it’s not your own! Boo!
Scary, right? But why? There’s no clear threat at all. You’re afraid of the big unknown, of all the possible things that might come get you, and your imagination is doing all the work. Fear of the known just can’t compete. Sorry Mr. Bear.
So it stands to reason that if you want to elicit fear in a game, you’ll get more bang for your buck if you stay in the unknown fear end of the spectrum rather the known fear. With the known, you have to do all the work. With the unknown, everyone else does the work for you.
For example, take this thread: “How can I make a Mi-Go city seem dangerous?” The upshot (if you haven’t already clicked the link) is that the PCs are sneaking into what should be the alien domain of an otherworldly Cthuloid race, but it’s falling flat. There’s no fear.
The discussion mostly revolves around ways to make sneaking more challenging, to ratchet up the tension and make the players afraid they’re going to get caught. Which would make sense, in most scenarios. But these aren’t kobolds or Imperial stormtroopers. These are inhuman fungi from the voids of space, otherworldly terrors who defy rational thought. Unspeakable horror is the objective.
In other words, we want to instill fear of the unknown, not a mundane known fear like getting caught and subjected to claw/claw/bite, because at that point getting eaten by a Mi-Go isn’t any scarier than being eaten by a bear.
So let’s take the sneak-into-the-city challenge and turn it on it’s head:
First let the PCs sneak and sneak and sneak. They may see strange figures moving in the distance, but they avoid detection. Hey, they’ll think, this is working! We can totally get away with this!
After much meandering (it’s a big city), the investigators enter a large hall covered in strange carvings. One wall has a freshly-chiseled mural — in fact the tools are still sitting there and chips of stone litter the floor, as though the work was abandoned a moment ago. But the thing that catches their attention is that the mural shows them, the PCs, sneaking into this very city. Their faces and clothes are unmistakable: they’re dressed just as they were an hour (or so) ago when they first entered the city. Even the buildings are recognizable, but in the mural the sky above the city seethes with watchful eyes…*
As the investigators hug the shadows in yet another canyon-like avenue, something catches their eye. Far above them, alien figures line the edges of the balconies and parapets. Hundreds of them. Staring down at our heroes. Chittering among themselves quietly, but doing nothing. They’ve been watching you all along…
* For bonus points, the characters’ carvings are perfectly realistic facsimiles, out of place among the otherwise alien etchings… except for one of the investigators. That person’s face is strangely distorted, Picasso-like: the features twisted and out of place, seeming to slip to the side of the head rather than the front. One eye is larger than the other, a scribbled oval looking off into madness…
That’s called pulling the rug out from under them. All this time, the players thought they were engaged in a particular challenge (avoiding detection), and hey, they thought they were winning! but lo and behold, that’s not what was going on at all.
They always knew you were there. They were always watching. They’re watching right now. Why aren’t they attacking? What are they waiting for? What’s the real threat? You have no idea, so you have no idea how to save yourself. Insert fear here.
Freaking out waiting for the other shoe to drop is suspense. When the shoe drops… well the fun is over. Things shift from suspense to action, from unknown fear to known fear. You may jump when the chainsaw maniac jumps out, but after that it’s just running and running and blah blah blah. The tension has left the building.
That’s the trick really: continually giving the impression that the hammer is about to drop — that there even is a hammer, though you can’t see it — but then never actually doing it.
The pitfall is the looming threat that overstays it’s welcome long enough that everyone stops being worried about it. “We’ve been wandering in this alien city for hours, but they’re not doing anything! I’m going to walk up and poke one.”
If you try to bring tension back in by dropping the hammer… well no one’s afraid of that particular hammer anymore, so that’s not going to work. You’ll get a little action, but no buy-in. If you’ve waited too long, your best option is to twist again: just as in the alien city, the players find out that they’re worried about the wrong thing, you can reveal that the danger the players are worried about isn’t the problem at all. It’s not the Mi-Go: the very stones you’re walking on are watching you! They’re slaves to their alien city! But if you already elicited fun fear once, don’t draw out this new threat. That’s probably asking too much. Push for a climax in the action, relieve the renewed tension with action, and be done. Until next time…