Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Fear and Insanely Brave PC's

Last time, I talked briefly about fear and horror in RPG's (D&D specifically) since it was so close to Halloween. Since I rarely am not thinking about horror stories (both movies and books really), and since I watched the excelent Dracula and His Brides the other night, I've further refined my thinking on this in terms of RPG's.

One of the most difficult realities to face when trying to run a horror campaign, or a campaign with horrifying elements in it, is that players tend to treat their characters as if they were absurdly brave. Of course, compared to the average inhabitant of any world, PC's truly are brave. It takes real courage to face down the average monstrous threats from bugbears to orcs, from kobolds to great wyrms, and most of the inhabitants of the Monster Manual: the average peasant runs in terror while the PC's stand their ground. Which is entirely appropriate in most instances. After all, most of us really do have the itch to play a heroic character seeking glory and riches (or maybe just riches).

But there are times when such courage becomes a little ridiculous. Whether you're actively trying to frighten the players/characters or they simply should be frightened, most likely the players simply are not. It's frustrating even if you manage to build up an unsettling atmosphere that it becomes just like any other action centric session once the veils are torn away and the center of the mystery is unveiled.

The comment (singular) from the last post recommended treating it like a horror movie, at least in part: turn the players into a passive audience for short times. This I cannot agree with. Simply put, this is a role playing game, not a horror flick. Part of, perhaps the main part of, the fear rests in the choices the players make, or are forced to make. It's about looking at your list of choices and knowing that there isn't a "good" choice and a "bad" choice, merely choices and few, if any of them, wholly worthy of the risk or likely to repair the problem(s) at hand. You've killed a vampire and taken his powerful magic item from him, but the local powers that be (a pack of wolfwere bards who run the nearby city and university) are in front of you and want that item. You don't know what they'll do with that magic item, but you can only assume that it will be nothing good, but keeping it from them means a fight and there's nothing at all you can do to stand up to them, at least for the moment. What, precisely, do you do here?

Is that horror? Or is that not? I'm not entirely sure, honestly, but it's something that certainly horrifies me, the thought of trying to do something good (yes, for the most part I, as a player, tend to create and run characters motivated a little less by the money and more by the thought of improving the world in some small way) and instead having merely transitioned the danger/evil from one place to another, or even worse, increased the danger inadvertaintly. Of course, the danger here is in pushing it too far and refusing the players any level of success instead of simply moderating or corrupted success. After a certain point, it feels pointless and the fun gets drained out of it all.

This is also, incidentally, where I believe the concept of fear and horror checks rests. These little "tools" for the DM out of Ravenloft the setting are there to tell the players how their characters feel. While certainly useful at times, it tends to be something with all the subltety of a hammer. They can be useful to be sure and can, in some cases, give cues to players who like to get into the swing of things to have a lot of fun, but most often they feel contrived and more like something that overrides player choice in favor of a "desired result." Something that results from too much faith and emphasis on plat rather than story as well.

One of the best methods for putting a little fear into players that I've found is in the monsters. No, not in finding stronger and more terrifying monsters, but in using them properly. Nothing puts a crimp in players' styles quicker, at times, than a monster that refuses to "play fair" by simply standing there and dying politely. More than likely, the monsters have plans and goals and are going to act to further them even when, or especially when the players aren't ready for them. Moreover, monsters don't play fair and limit themselves to attacking "military targets. Wanna upset a player? Take an NPC that they've become attached to, who has sheltered them or provided aid in some way, and have a frustrated opponent who can't strike directly at the players kill them or turn them instead.

Another great tool is monsters that "violate" the PC's, or do something just "wrong" enough the get past the character/player filter. I love Goblyns (spelled with a "y") for this. Nothing says scary like a moderately tough humanoid that will eat your face off the first chance it gets (literally). And for added fun, see what you get when you add just a little bit of low level telepathy or instant communication as they did in Castles Forlorn.

There have to be better ways of communicating genuine horror if not actual fear than turning the players into an audience and perfuse purple prose.