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D&D General "Hot Take": Fear is a bad motivator

With that provocative title to grab your attention, let me explain what I mean. Please, as with all things of this type, keep in mind a giant neon sign that says, "OBVIOUSLY NOT APPLICABLE TO 100% OF PEOPLE."

In D&D of even a somewhat "old school" bent, it has always seemed to me that the game outright encourages inducing paranoia in your players. Making them distrust every offer of allegiance, every kind gesture, every calm scene, every peaceful town. Making them rightfully believe that they're in constant danger of losing their ability to participate in play, aka, in constant danger of character permadeath, for light and transient causes. I've even been told, just recently and on this very forum, that such paranoia absolutely is how play should work.

To that, I say bollocks.

Yes, fear is an "effective" motivator, in the narrow sense that it usually succeeds at producing some kind of response. But being effective at producing some kind of response at all is not the same as being effective at producing an enjoyable experience.

Fear alone is, in all honesty, kind of boring. I mean, it's "exciting" in a certain sense, but at least for me, only because I want it to go away. It is "exciting" in the way that a nasty, dramatic, but temporary illness is "exciting": it disrupts, confuses, and invites rash action. And the consequences of death for the player experience are...not getting to play anymore. Instead of creating new stakes, new costs, new challenges, character death just...ends everything. That can of course mean loss for the other players, but for the individual directly affected, it just means "you LOSE. Good DAY, sir!"

Again, I do not mean to rail against the use of fear as ONE tool in the toolbox. But for me it is best used sparingly, a pungent spice to be added as needed, not a core ingredient. Instead, for my part, the main motivators should be enthusiasm and affection.

Enthusiasm typically manifests as the player bringing something to the table. A personal story idea they like. A race they want to play. An open-ended mysterious backstory, or maybe a unique trait or quirk that sets something in motion. Feeding and supporting genuine player enthusiasm--that is, rooted in simple joy about something, and not a desire to exploit or coerce--is much more effective as a base motivator in my experience. It gives the player a feeling of belonging, even ownership; the game is, in at least some small part, "theirs," and that motivates them to see it flourish and change. As long as the player understands that supporting their enthusiasm does not mean guaranteeing success (failure is a vital part of most stories worth telling!), I see few ways that genuine enthusiasm produces perverse incentives.

Affection, meanwhile, tends to be more reactive. It's the player's response to things, characters, and events as they unfold. That silly NPC the DM threw in as a joke, who became a beloved friend and whose noble sacrifice to save the party was both tragic and triumphant in turns. The way an offhand remark about family grows into a whole adventure to save them. These bits of affection, when nurtured, become key parts of the game the players will remember fondly, long after play ends. And they motivate players, not out of fear of losing these things like some miser hoarding his coin, but out of the desire to help and support them, to see them grow and improve rather than decline or lose. Unless it's directed toward those enemies you just love to hate! But I'd lump that in with affection too, even if it's an affection for rubbing the smug snake's face in the dirt. Righteous indignation!

Again: fear shouldn't be removed. It is too fundamental, too core to human experience. But its unquestioned central position, its absolute dominance of the player motivation field, is a disservice to the game. Embracing and encouraging these more positive, intrinsic motives rather than the imposed, extrinsic motive of fear...just produces better games, IMO, whether you prefer Zero to Hero or High Adventure type journeys.

If you do everything you can to have genuinely enthusiastic players who find and express affection for the game they play, fear need be only a sometimes food. Instead of paranoia and anxiety, they'll be full of passion, curiosity, indignation, maybe even pride and hope! Failure, not a dreaded menace, but an accepted difficulty on the journey.

So. How about it? Does "don't fear the reaper roller" sound like blasphemy or beatitude? Would it "not be D&D" if fear weren't the fundamental motivator of your games?
 

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prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
I don't know that I'd say fear is the primary motivator in my campaigns--certainly less fear of PC permadeath than fear of PC failure. Failure to save a person, or a town, or a world; fear of those failures definitely plays a role. So does anger. So does altruism. So does grief. So does hope. Affection and enthusiasm (as you define/describe them) as well.
 

Slow_Travel

Explorer
In a game almost entirely about combat, I would argue that fear is more important than 'good vibes'. If players want 'affection' as a prime motivator, they usually find themselves moving towards story games or newer style TTRPGs where combat isn't baked into the experience. There are even games where you don't fight at all.

So I would disagree. While the world of RPGs has exploded into a varied rainbow of experiences, DnD is still a game of play violence and looting (and sometimes talking too).

Out of the game/gameworld, I will agree that the camaraderie around the table (oh man do I miss actual in-person gaming) is what brings me back (even with clunky systems or weird campaigns).
 
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prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
In a game almost entirely about combat, I would argue that fear is more important than 'good vibes'. If players want 'affection' as a prime motivator, they usually find themselves moving towards story games or newer style TTRPGs where combat isn't baked into the experience. There are even games where you don't fight at all.

So I would disagree. While the world of RPGs has exploded into a varied rainbow of experiences, DnD is still a game of play violence and looting (and sometimes talking too).
I have done entire sessions--sometimes multiple sessions in a row--entirely without combat. Your D&D games might well be lots of fights with occasional instances of talking to set up other fights and maybe some other skill checks to throw the fights into relief; that's not everyone's D&D games.
 

Slow_Travel

Explorer
I have done entire sessions--sometimes multiple sessions in a row--entirely without combat. Your D&D games might well be lots of fights with occasional instances of talking to set up other fights and maybe some other skill checks to throw the fights into relief; that's not everyone's D&D games.
No, you're absolutely right. What I was trying to get at was that there are games now that cater to that specific playstyle and DnD (which I rarely play now because of those new systems) is built around 3 pillars, one of which is combat.

DnD can be used for many types of games, but there are systems dedicated to a non-combative experience.
 

Mort

Legend
In a game almost entirely about combat, I would argue that fear is more important than 'good vibes'. If players want 'affection' as a prime motivator, they usually find themselves moving towards story games or newer style TTRPGs where combat isn't baked into the experience. There are even games where you don't fight at all.

So I would disagree. While the world of RPGs has exploded into a varied rainbow of experiences, DnD is still a game of play violence and looting (and sometimes talking too).
Even in a game with lots of fights, it doesn't have to be about paranoia and fear.

Greed is a very common D&D motivator.

Ambition is also a huge one.

More in line with the OP - Compassion and protection is also huge. I ran a long campaign where the PCs were part of the Church of the Silver Flame - bringing protection and compassion to the downtrodden and afraid - it was a blast.

I think the OPs point is don't have only one arrow in your quiver (as motivation) it gets old and people get bored.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
No, you're absolutely right. What I was trying to get at was that there are games now that cater to that specific playstyle and DnD (which I rarely play now because of those new systems) is built around 3 pillars, one of which is combat.

DnD can be used for many types of games, but there are systems dedicated to a non-combative experience.
Fair enough. And for the record, I don't disagree with you (and even 5E has so many class features that are combat-focused that I make a point of making sure people get opportunities to try new things while they're new (before giving them an opportunity to level further).
 

Stormonu

Legend
Back at Coastcon a few years ago - at least during the 3E era, I got into a game with others playing an OD&D game. Most of the other players at the table were fairly newcomers to D&D, and in at least one case, had never played D&D before. The two exceptions were me and another lady who was perhaps ten years my senior.

The DM certainly knew his stuff and was a great guy, who encouraged most of the player's bungling efforts to do thing. Which pissed the lady off. She kept complaining that if we "didn't straighten up", we'd all get ourselves killed. After fifteen minutes of our initial exploration to find an entrance to the dungeon (I suspect it was the Caverns of Thracia, but I'm not familiar enough to be sure), I got really, really tired of it. So we purposely started ignoring her cries and in the end we had a fabulous, heroic time and not once was the ten-foot pole pulled out and neither did we hemmed and hawwed at each doorway.

At the end of the game, she haughtly invited us to play at her table, and she would show us "how the (2E) game was supposed to be done." Me nor any of the other players took her up on the offer, and later I would see her sitting at a lone table, her wall of a DM screen erected with a sign "looking for players" and a capricious smile on her face - you could just tell she was waiting to torture whatever poor players sat at her table and give them a quick death. I think the module she even had behind her screen was the Tomb of Horrors.

Anyways, the fun in the game is from discovery, storymaking and a bit of tension. To have fun you don't have to have the characters looking over their shoulder for the spectre of death at every corner, with NPCs ready to betray their patrons at the drop of a hat, prodding ahead at a 5 foot pace on their hands and knees so some hidden blade doesn't decapitate half the party and drop the other half in a pit.

Relax. Have some fun. Maybe let the PCs stomp a few heads and run across the occassional enemy that can match them, or maybe once in a while make them decide to turn tail. But don't challenge them maliciously. Don't turn them into cowards in some game of Cube. Have fun with them and revel in their triumphs as well as cosole them in their failures. You and your game will be better for it.
 
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a player should not feel fear during DnD, more than during thrilling movie.
There is absolutely no risk of injuries, losing money, loosing reputation during a DnD game.
At worst you will be bored during some time, waiting for healing or a new character.

on the other hand it is very cool to play silly fearless or paranoid coward characters.

but paranoid players stuck in front of an unusual door is a lame.
 


I think the OPs point is don't have only one arrow in your quiver (as motivation) it gets old and people get bored.
Yes, definitely. Well, that and "positive motivations can be really compelling, if handled with care," especially since many players will have anxiety, depression, or just life difficulties that can make "darker" motivations wearying or even unpleasant. Having two players with anxiety, I try to avoid making them fear without clear reason--and usually try to, as stated, direct that fear to the safety of others or of places or things they value.
 

tetrasodium

Legend
Supporter
With that provocative title to grab your attention, let me explain what I mean. Please, as with all things of this type, keep in mind a giant neon sign that says, "OBVIOUSLY NOT APPLICABLE TO 100% OF PEOPLE."

In D&D of even a somewhat "old school" bent, it has always seemed to me that the game outright encourages inducing paranoia in your players. Making them distrust every offer of allegiance, every kind gesture, every calm scene, every peaceful town. Making them rightfully believe that they're in constant danger of losing their ability to participate in play, aka, in constant danger of character permadeath, for light and transient causes. I've even been told, just recently and on this very forum, that such paranoia absolutely is how play should work.

To that, I say bollocks.

Yes, fear is an "effective" motivator, in the narrow sense that it usually succeeds at producing some kind of response. But being effective at producing some kind of response at all is not the same as being effective at producing an enjoyable experience.

Fear alone is, in all honesty, kind of boring. I mean, it's "exciting" in a certain sense, but at least for me, only because I want it to go away. It is "exciting" in the way that a nasty, dramatic, but temporary illness is "exciting": it disrupts, confuses, and invites rash action. And the consequences of death for the player experience are...not getting to play anymore. Instead of creating new stakes, new costs, new challenges, character death just...ends everything. That can of course mean loss for the other players, but for the individual directly affected, it just means "you LOSE. Good DAY, sir!"

Again, I do not mean to rail against the use of fear as ONE tool in the toolbox. But for me it is best used sparingly, a pungent spice to be added as needed, not a core ingredient. Instead, for my part, the main motivators should be enthusiasm and affection.

Enthusiasm typically manifests as the player bringing something to the table. A personal story idea they like. A race they want to play. An open-ended mysterious backstory, or maybe a unique trait or quirk that sets something in motion. Feeding and supporting genuine player enthusiasm--that is, rooted in simple joy about something, and not a desire to exploit or coerce--is much more effective as a base motivator in my experience. It gives the player a feeling of belonging, even ownership; the game is, in at least some small part, "theirs," and that motivates them to see it flourish and change. As long as the player understands that supporting their enthusiasm does not mean guaranteeing success (failure is a vital part of most stories worth telling!), I see few ways that genuine enthusiasm produces perverse incentives.

Affection, meanwhile, tends to be more reactive. It's the player's response to things, characters, and events as they unfold. That silly NPC the DM threw in as a joke, who became a beloved friend and whose noble sacrifice to save the party was both tragic and triumphant in turns. The way an offhand remark about family grows into a whole adventure to save them. These bits of affection, when nurtured, become key parts of the game the players will remember fondly, long after play ends. And they motivate players, not out of fear of losing these things like some miser hoarding his coin, but out of the desire to help and support them, to see them grow and improve rather than decline or lose. Unless it's directed toward those enemies you just love to hate! But I'd lump that in with affection too, even if it's an affection for rubbing the smug snake's face in the dirt. Righteous indignation!

Again: fear shouldn't be removed. It is too fundamental, too core to human experience. But its unquestioned central position, its absolute dominance of the player motivation field, is a disservice to the game. Embracing and encouraging these more positive, intrinsic motives rather than the imposed, extrinsic motive of fear...just produces better games, IMO, whether you prefer Zero to Hero or High Adventure type journeys.

If you do everything you can to have genuinely enthusiastic players who find and express affection for the game they play, fear need be only a sometimes food. Instead of paranoia and anxiety, they'll be full of passion, curiosity, indignation, maybe even pride and hope! Failure, not a dreaded menace, but an accepted difficulty on the journey.

So. How about it? Does "don't fear the reaper roller" sound like blasphemy or beatitude? Would it "not be D&D" if fear weren't the fundamental motivator of your games?
Healthy concern over resource attrition is not the same as "fear", you seem to be putting forward the idea that the two are the same. Someone can spend 20$ for an afternoon at a paintball field in proper safety gear where the worst outcome is maybe a welt, but there's still some level of desire for your team to win & aversion or fear of losing. If dr manhattan was on your team disintegrating every paintball headed towards your team the afternoon would be quite hollow despite the "victory" That hollowness would stem from the fact that the only chance of some other outcome was if dr manhattan got bored & started playing with his phone too much.


You don't need to just use paintball as an example f why your premise is just wrong though. If my googlefu is not failing me, A basketball hoop is 10 feet high & 18 inches around. People feel awesome when they score & even moreso if they score a 3 pointer. If that hoop were changed to 4 feet high and 23 feet around nobody would really care or feel that impressed when they "score"


Leaping to character death as the result of fear as a motivator is a leap that almost ignores the fact that it has been fairly trivial to bring bob back from the dead for quite a few editions now. Even with that triviality a player has many options at their disposal such as being more cautious, engaging in combat as war, pulling back to rest rather than recklessly continuing to charge forward like monty python's black knight powered by spells like healing word in addition to many other things. Concern over resource attrition (ie hp) given d&d's ease of returning from the dead is much like that day at the paintball field where getting shot means that you need yo rejoin your team for the next match in a few minutes or go through a respawn process to rejoin this match depending on the rules in place for that match. If it didn't matter how many times you were shot in paintball & there was no risk of welt it would cease to be an enjoyable sport.
 

Healthy concern over resource attrition is not the same as "fear",
That's correct. If I were in fact conflating the two, I would struggle to respond to you. But I am not speaking of that. I hadn't meant to call out Lanefan, who was the one that prompted some of this thinking, but it seems a quotation is now in order. From another thread:

The characters should be somewhat paranoid, thus giving the players a taste of that only makes sense.

Further: if everything really is against you then victories, when they come, are that much more special.
Lanefan pretty clearly says here that players should be at least a little paranoid, and at least implies that victories are less special if everything isn't inherently opposed to you.

And the thing is, I've seen this attitude a lot. The idea that you need to "scare your players straight," that players SHOULD genuinely feel afraid for their ability to keep playing, not just concerned or mindful or alert. As I said, it's an old school notion, though it can appear nearly anywhere. You see it in a lot of early video game design, especially in fantasy RPGs (including many early MMOs), where the player is taught to be paranoid of traps or goofing up the approach for a fight, for instance. And I don't use "paranoid" lightly here, it really can be "one or two errors and you're just dead, and all your gear drops where you died, so you have to trek back naked to recover it...and hope no one steals it first." (Oh, EverQuest. You were so user-unfriendly.)

It really, truly does seem like the prevailing attitude from a significant portion of DMs is like that one player (and convention DM) that @Stormonu described. The attitude that if you DIDN'T "earn" your way to level 12 on a pile of dead characters, if you DIDN'T have to lose three characters to accidentally forgetting to move only 5' at a time and poking forward with a pole, if you WEREN'T the victim of ear worms or cloakers or rust monsters or awful cursed items at least once apiece, then your victories never really mattered, weren't authentic or genuine. You had to go through that winnowing, that harrowing, because apparently the only alternative to that is that you just got everything handed to you on a mithril platter.

I also take a little bit of issue with your comparison to paintball, if only because by that logic, any sport where you aren't ever supposed to suffer injury would inherently become uninteresting, and...that would exclude a lot of very interesting sports. Like tennis, golf, swimming, most Olympic competitions...and if you admit there are sports that can remain interesting without the high probability of injury, then it seems to make your argument by analogy pretty weak. I did repeatedly said that fear should remain A motivator, just not THE motivator.

@Lanefan : Just want to reiterate that I don't want this to feel like calling you out. My thoughts went far afield of what you said. But these words did spark the thought, even if the blaze went on, and thus they provide context. If I have misrepresented your position in any way, I welcome correction.
 


Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Lanefan pretty clearly says here that players should be at least a little paranoid, and at least implies that victories are less special if everything isn't inherently opposed to you.
The PCs should certainly be a little paranoid, whether or not it spreads to the players. :)
And the thing is, I've seen this attitude a lot. The idea that you need to "scare your players straight," that players SHOULD genuinely feel afraid for their ability to keep playing, not just concerned or mindful or alert. As I said, it's an old school notion, though it can appear nearly anywhere. You see it in a lot of early video game design, especially in fantasy RPGs (including many early MMOs), where the player is taught to be paranoid of traps or goofing up the approach for a fight, for instance. And I don't use "paranoid" lightly here, it really can be "one or two errors and you're just dead, and all your gear drops where you died, so you have to trek back naked to recover it...and hope no one steals it first." (Oh, EverQuest. You were so user-unfriendly.)
Yep. It probably would be helpful were I to mention here that my computer gaming consists almost entirely of Rogue-likes, which don't usually have 'save' features. You go as far as you can until you die (unless by some miracle you win), and then you start over.

To some extent I kinda view D&D the same way both as player and DM, only in D&D there's the possiblity of revival from death and while characters die fairly often, whole parties almost never do*; meaning the game continues.

* - though I've come close numerous times, I've DMed but one TPK in over 35 years at it.
It really, truly does seem like the prevailing attitude from a significant portion of DMs is like that one player (and convention DM) that @Stormonu described. The attitude that if you DIDN'T "earn" your way to level 12 on a pile of dead characters, if you DIDN'T have to lose three characters to accidentally forgetting to move only 5' at a time and poking forward with a pole, if you WEREN'T the victim of ear worms or cloakers or rust monsters or awful cursed items at least once apiece, then your victories never really mattered, weren't authentic or genuine.
The victories may well have been authentic, they may well have been genuine, but without having to overcome all that much to achieve them they're also a lot cheaper IMO.
You had to go through that winnowing, that harrowing, because apparently the only alternative to that is that you just got everything handed to you on a mithril platter.

I also take a little bit of issue with your comparison to paintball, if only because by that logic, any sport where you aren't ever supposed to suffer injury would inherently become uninteresting, and...that would exclude a lot of very interesting sports. Like tennis, golf, swimming, most Olympic competitions...and if you admit there are sports that can remain interesting without the high probability of injury, then it seems to make your argument by analogy pretty weak. I did repeatedly said that fear should remain A motivator, just not THE motivator.
And I should point out that I also don't see fear as the only motivator. As a player I'm also motivated by in-character curiosity** and-or greed (depending on the PC I'm playing); and at-the-table as player or DM by the potential for amusement and entertainment both given and received, along with following the continuing stories to see where they go next.

** - which, much to the detriment and-or demise of many of my PCs, often overcomes the fear factor at just the wrong moment...
@Lanefan : Just want to reiterate that I don't want this to feel like calling you out. My thoughts went far afield of what you said. But these words did spark the thought, even if the blaze went on, and thus they provide context. If I have misrepresented your position in any way, I welcome correction.
No worries. :)
 



Lord Shark

Explorer
The older I get, the less interest I have in the super-timid, poke-everything-with-a-10'-pole style of play -- on both sides of the DM screen.

It especially annoys me when this attitude creeps from dungeon crawling into other genres. I've had players in superhero games worry endlessly about the safest way of entering the villains' lair, instead of just crashing through the wall and making a wisecrack, or swinging down through a skylight and landing in the three-point stance.
 

loverdrive

Makin' cool stuff
Publisher
So what replaces PC death as a hard-loss condition in your games?
There's no hard loss condition. The whole point is to get rid of hard-loss condition to encourage players thinking what's cool instead of what'll keep their character alive. I'm fine with breaking PC's bones, shattering their heirloom swords and stealing their spellbooks, though -- and I do it where they would normally die.

On the whole, I find random deaths to be boring, as it's a final answer to all dramatic questions -- there's no character anymore, there's nothing left to explore and develop. Also, it's a damn big pain the ass -- now the replacement PC needs to be introduced to the party, and in high level play the question "where the hell were you before while we were struggling with saving the world" needs to be addressed somehow.
 

jayoungr

Legend
In a game almost entirely about combat, I would argue that fear is more important than 'good vibes'.
D&D is only "a game almost entirely about combat" if you choose to make it so.

If players want 'affection' as a prime motivator, they usually find themselves moving towards story games or newer style TTRPGs where combat isn't baked into the experience.
"Almost entirely about combat" and "combat isn't baked into the experience" are not the only options here.

I've got rid of death (your PC dies when you decide that it's time for them to die) and it's a thing that instantly makes a game much better.
I've gotten rid of PC permadeath. I tell my players that their characters might die (or "die"), but if they're not ready to retire the character, then we'll work together to find some way to keep them in the game. Amusingly enough, some of them still go through the regimen of 25 safety checks before touching anything in a dungeon.

So what replaces PC death as a hard-loss condition in your games?
Having to sit out for a while is enough of a consequence to motivate my players, apparently. As I mentioned above, they are still incredibly cautious and risk-averse: never actually entering a room if they can help it, never engaging with any dungeon feature unless it seems absolutely necessary, only touching objects with mage hand or having them fetched by a summoned elemental, etc. I shudder to think what they'd be like if they were also worried about character permadeath.
 

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