by Tobie Abad
Originally published October 27, 2009
fear n. 1.anxious anticipation of danger, pain, etc. 2. awe - v.1. be afraid (of) 2. be in awe (of)loath'ing n. intense dislike
Why is the difference between the two necessary?
Because many storytellers confuse which of the two are used in a game at times. Having your players attacked by something which you recall grossed them out so much in last Sunday's movie is loathing. Not fear. Having the players hear in a "cutscene" that the enemy is watching them right now and is aiming for a shot would bring out fear. But not in character fear.
So how does a storyteller invoke fear for a player that matches the character's feelings?
We have all known moments where the character and the player's ideas do not mesh. We've had players tell the storyteller, "I'll check if he still has a pulse," forgetting that such knowledge should fall under basic first aid or medicine. Finding the pulse is not so common a knowldege.
So how does a Storyteller make the player and character feelings mesh? Especially when the storyteller's descriptions or events seem to target the character indirectly? Telling the player that the character is hanging on for his own life does not make the player feel afraid. But the character would probably be sweating his body weight in 60 seconds. Telling the player that the enemy has rigged a bomb in the car as a cutscene would probably make the player scream in fear as his character steps into the vehicle. But the character has no knowledge of this fear.
How does a storyteller make the player and character's feeling mesh?
By making the game cinematic and parallel to the player's experiences.
Consider this scenario:
You narrate to your player a few months of downtime, having him spend happy moments with his family. Sharing little sweet nothings. Perhaps even breaking the player's expectations by having a little "threat" crop up only to be dispelled ever so easily. Have the player feel the character's fulfillment for living this life.
Then drop a little hint. A newspaper headline about a serial killer. Mention it in passing.
More downtime. Perhaps a movie? Skating in the arena? Video games and paintball guns? Then the hook; wife has to go to work. or to her sister's. anything to make her seperate from the character.
Then the cutscene: have someone vaguely described to be watching her across the street, just outside the house.
Back to real time: character goes on with life as usual, perhaps get the player to begin worrying.
Then cut back and forth between real time and the cut scene. Have actions parallel to each other. Perhaps as the serial killer begins to stalk the wife, the character finds a cockroach and slowly stalks it. As the killer chases the wife into the subway, the character chases the roach to the living room and the roach hides beneath the television set. Perhaps the wife calls home hoping to get help. But the character is staring at the screen in worry, seeing news about the killer. The wife is trapped. The character picks up the phone too late. The killer closes in. The character rushes out of the house to find her purse on the floor. The knife gleams.
And the player and character had met halfway.
It was once said that the unknown can be the source of greatest fear. Strangely, in role-playing games, this is rarely true. The unknown brings confusion, while what is known by the player brings the fear. The character is worried that his reflection is missing, but the player is cussing and cursing in fear of what will happen now that his character is a Lasombra. Learning to use this "difference" in knowledge is a key to better inducing fear and loathing in your players.
But it doesn't mean using the unknown will not be possible to strike fear into the players.
Having a Non Playing Character merely smile when the player does something he or she thinks is wrong can invoke fear already. Or perhaps having described a Non Playing Character as vicious, impatient and destructive before having the players meet him as a casual and consoling ear. Such moments can have the players feeling their character's emotions screaming for an answer.
Music can be the most helpful tool in bringing about emotional distress. Music can be used in various ways, provided the storyteller takes time to prepare.
Using music as ambient in a scene helps establish a feeling. Imagine you're favorite jazz album playing each time you enter a club. Now, imagine entering that club, but hearing instead a children's nursery rhyme. Fear is envoked and touches on both player and character at the same time.
Try playing a piece totally unrelated or contrary to the existing mood and watch the players squirm. Once, in a game, i played a beautiful loving happy piece (for example L.O.V.E. by Natalie Cole) during a scene that was eschalating to a fight. The players were shaking their heads unconsciously, nervously anticipating danger and yet wondering why they were feeling uneasy. Psychological warfare can be tricky to use though. Some players find it too annoying to be helpful.
Last of all, fear is best brought about if the mood is well established. Requiring all players to follow basic guidelines can be very beneficial to the inclusion of fear into campaigns.
Sample rules in my games:
No side commentary
Noise is to be kept to a minimum whenever possible
Cellphones and pagers must be in silent mode or off.
Fear is a beautiful thing to add to the game. To get a player to actually feel fear would be to have a player talking about the game for the rest of the year as one game which made him feel fulfilled.