Fear and Loathing in Greyhawk

His hand jerked back in instinctive repulsion. Sword shaking in his grasp, horror and revulsion and fear almost choking him, he backed away and down the glass steps with painful care, glaring in awful fascination at the grisly thing that slumbered on the copper throne. It did not move.

—Robert E. Howard, “The Devil in Iron”

Over at The Delver’s Dungeon, there’s an interesting thread about whether you can have a frightening dungeon crawl.

I’m of the opinion that while it’s very difficult to scare players who don’t want to be scared, it’s very easy to scare players who do want to be scared, as they’ll do all the heavy lifting for you. It’s a matter of personal investment; the more immersed a player is in the game, the more likely it is that they’ll react emotionally to what’s going on—whether or not you intend for that to happen!

If your players are fully engaged and you’re aiming for a bit o’ fear, there are a couple of factors you’ll want to bring in:

1) Threat: If the players actually value their characters’ lives and put themselves in their characters’ shoes, then they’ll be at least a bit scared of anything that they recognize as a serious threat to the PCs. Note that this is a matter of perception rather than fact! In my game, the players often charge into fights with powerful opponents without too much worry, but they’re chary of ghouls because several encounters with ghouls have resulted in near-TPKs.

2) Mystery: Sometimes unknown danger is more threatening than the known, because it could be anything. For at least a dozen sessions, the thing in my dungeon that most unnerved my players wasn’t a monster, but a stairway. It was an enormous thing that wound deep into the earth, its lights growing dimmer as they went down until it disappeared into darkness. They didn’t know how far down it went or what lived at its base. This allowed them to invent their own fears.

As a player, what have you found scary in a D&D session? As a DM, what have you done to scare your players during play?

10 Responses to “Fear and Loathing in Greyhawk”

  1. 1 Charlatan
    August 25, 2010 at 9:11 pm

    The DM can provide some cues, but an entertaining atmosphere of fear can only exist with the participation of the players. Worse, it’s hard work! But it’s also very fun to play. It requires more work than a movie (because you have less sensory information, or there’s more mediation of your revulsion reflexes), or even a book (because the story is something you’re negotiating), but it certainly achievable if an entertaining level of fear is a shared goal of the players and referee.

    A certain creepiness should also be part of the genre, if we follow the post-apocalyptic D&D hypothesis.

    I entirely disagree with the notion that it’s opposed to dungeoneering (‘otherwise they’d never leave town’). The campaign world is full of the people who never left town because adventuring was scary or foolish. The characters are, ipso facto, the people who left town even though adventuring is scary or foolish. Whether that means your character is heroic, foolish, grimly determined or a desperate coward is up to the player. If anything, I find the characters in the campaign I play in overly-cautious… and they should be! Their comrades keep ending up dead!

  2. 2 Bargle
    August 25, 2010 at 9:20 pm

    Level draining undead&demons work wonders to put real fear into the hearts of the players, and by extention the characters will act accordingly.

  3. August 25, 2010 at 9:55 pm

    As a player, the unknown is a big source of fear. Probably the scariest adventure in which I’ve played was a sparsely inhabited cavern complex and our light source was eliminated (can’t remember how now.) Going around in the dark knowing that there are Things out there who can sense us but we cannot sense them was terrifying.

  4. August 25, 2010 at 10:29 pm

    That staircase scared me, and I only played the one session. It’s scary because it’s an unimpeded path downward, and everyone knows that the further down you go, the worse things you find. That plus the fact that every landing had seemingly an entire level, which meant that there were likely dozens and dozens of terrible things down there, just waiting to be disturbed and come eat us. It’s the combination of meta-gaming and immersion that made it work for me.

    I think what’s scary as a player is not knowing where the line that you shouldn’t cross is. Your meta-game knowledge tells you that the line is probably there somewhere (unless you are certain that you’re powerful enough to take on almost any challenge in the area). Your immersion makes it scary until you get your bearings.

    The scariest things in the various games I’ve played are always the areas that have no obvious danger, but are obviously more than just empty rooms. The statues all facing an unguarded gem on a dais. The empty thrones with buttons and levels in their arm-rests. A metal hand on a pedestal, obviously waiting for someone to grasp it. A circle inscribed on the ground, with the corpse of a dragon within it. A huge footprint in the mud. A bunch of statues contorted in pain.

    Detecting something without being able to fight it is scary, too. Once my party was lost in a maze and kept hearing hoofsteps that were obviously minotaurs. Not knowing where they were, or which turn they were likely to pop out of was anxiety-inducing.

    Evidence of someone doing something incomprehensible nearby is scary. In the same maze, we accidentally retraced our steps and found the bodies of the minotaurs we killed, all propped upright in alcoves. We were certain that the alcoves were going to bring them back to life, or something equally bad, and were wracking our brains trying to decide what do to, whether to risk passing them, etc. (It was a throw-away detail the DM improvised on the spot, to let us know that we hadn’t killed all the minotaurs, but he found it hilarious.)

    Ramble, ramble.

  5. August 25, 2010 at 10:50 pm

    @cr0m: The things you’re talking about are the “tricks” that Gygax always paired with “traps” when talking about dungeon design. They’re fascinating from a theory perspective because they gain much of their power from what they aren’t rather than from what they are. Players can’t deal with them effectively because they don’t understand them. Figuring them out is defeating them.

    The thing that makes tricks great is that they inspire surprising reactions from the players. Just as the dungeon is a mystery to the players, the players’ reactions are a mystery to the DM. And that’s great!

  6. 6 Greengoat
    August 25, 2010 at 11:01 pm

    I think the key to the whole suspense and fear in the game is having both a narrative and mate-game investment in the characters you play. You can go for creepy as a DM, but it doesn’t get really good til the possibility of real meta-game havoc can break out.

    I think in old D&D, the good fear level happens at 2nd and third level because the meta-game investment is starting to pay off and the players will really regret losing the character. Combine that with narrative fear and suspense and it’s pure fun. If I ever run 4E I will just plop some impossible encounters down to keep the fear level going in the players.

    Invincible Overlord ran some players through the old Runequest adventure, Apple Lane. IO has just the right type of brutal, rules-as-written Runequest DMing that we had all seen some PCs die a horrible combat death very quickly with the impale rules. Our party lurked far into the Rainbow Mound caverns and IO produced a full scale dungeon map to our miniatures that took up the entire 8’x4′ play table. The party was attacked by trollkin about five map feet into the caverns after many twisty turns in the flickering torch-light. One of the trolls cast a spell to extinguish all our light sources and once the darkness settled we knew we were screwed. The multiple trollkin proceeded to stab us in the gut in total darkness while we fumbled to relight the torches. It was nearly a TPK until someone got their light going. Great suspense.

  7. August 25, 2010 at 11:45 pm

    One of the things that I find very, very UN-scary is interacting with NPC’s. Especially the NPC’s which demand obedience: without various interpersonal clues, or actually being there, the attempted intimidation just comes across as bullying. And what kind of awesome adventuring bad-ass (or wannabe bad-ass) folds in front of a bully? This tends to escalate, and then my character has to be scraped off the walls–but even then, it doesn’t feel scary, just irritating.

    There must be techniques of some kind to make an NPC truly disturbing, eerie, and terrifying, but I suspect this comes down to “how the NPC thinks.” (Generally, horror movie monsters aren’t people: or, if they’re people, the horrifying element comes from their totally unhinged perspective.)

    I think another possibility here is to fuck with something the player really adores. Not destroy it, or cripple it – just psychologically damage it. One of the crushing blows in the career of Arnold Littleworth occurred when his beloved Frying Pan (1d6 damage) was punctured by the horn of a minotaur. Sure, it could be repaired – but it would never really be THE Frying Pan after that. I was more attached to that Frying Pan than I was to a lot of characters I’ve played. But I think this has to be done very rarely and with a lot of build-up, so that there’s dread. Over-use would just seem vindictive.

  8. 8 Jack Colby
    August 26, 2010 at 3:56 am

    I am not sure why you’d want to scare players or would worry about it, but in old D&D level draining monsters tend to scare people pretty well.

  9. August 26, 2010 at 11:38 pm

    Somebody in NY wrote a forum post (or blog post) somewhere about picaresque fantasy, and how picaros routinely react with nonchalance or insouciance when faced with horror and/or authority. Perhaps horror just isn’t part of the genre that Red Box is in?

    The other thing I was going to say earlier is how much more scared I get, as a player, when I’ve done the thing that makes the scary stuff happen. If I walk into a castle and ghosts start moaning, I’m like “ooooh scary”. But if I flip the lever that causes hideous laughter from the floor below… yikes.

  10. August 26, 2010 at 11:39 pm

    What do you guys think about mechanics for fear? CoC’s sanity rules often result in half the party gibbering while the tentacled horror approaches… which is scary, compared to the party grimly readying their weapons and preparing to do battle.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

August 2010

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