log in or register to remove this ad

 

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

Democratus

Adventurer
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.

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?

In "old school" games, you don't ever lose your ability to participate. One character dies and another steps up. In the middle of a dungeon, this is best done by having a retainer/hireling switch to being a PC. Otherwise, it takes about 5 minutes to make a character in B/X and get rolling again.

The primary motivation for 'old school' characters is loot. They are out there to get rich, make a name for themselves, and create a stronghold. The way they do it is by delving into the terrifying wilderness and underworld. The wild places actively hate and oppose the intruders from the civilized world. It is a place of darkness, fear, and death.

Risks are great - only a lucky few successfully reach the end of this ambition. But those few become legend.

In newer-style games, there is often a focus on narrative where each player has a single "hero" that is intended to be part of the story from start to finish. This calls for an entirely different kind of play, where death is much less common and the goal is not to get rich but to conclude the story that is being told.

The key is to go with whatever matches the kind of game your table has decided to play.
 

log in or register to remove this ad

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
So what replaces PC death as a hard-loss condition in your games?
There seems to be a gap between people who think a permanent loss/defeat is possible if the characters are still alive, and those who don't. For those who do, any sort of irreversible loss or defeat or failure can be a hard-loss condition. Heck, it doesn't have to be the end of the campaign: You failed to save your world, and now it's permanently gone; now what do you do?

Those who don't think permanent loss/failure/defeat is possible if the characters survive (it seems to me) either don't buy into the permanence, or they end the campaign at that point--which isn't radically different from a TPK.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
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.

Yeah. Consider - if the point is some kid of verisimilitude, a player's fear the they'll lose their PC isn't a whole lot like a person's fear that they might die, so the resulting behaviors you see as a result are probaby not terribly similar either. Unless, of course, the players recognizes this fact, and takes an effort to role-pay the character's fear separate from their own. However, if they can do that, they can do that without the stimulus that they'll lose their character.

The more common claim seems to be that you want the player to fear character loss, so they "play smart". Real people when fearful don't often become smarter, or more effectively analytical. In a real-world fear response, most people's ability to apply logical reasoning to the situation drops precipitously. "Fear is the mind-killer," to quote Frank Herbert.

The OP in general makes a point that is very consistent with how mammals are best trained. Negative stimuli tend to yield unpredictable responses - smacking a puppy with a rolled-up newspaper is not a good way to housebreak your dog, for example.

Positive stimuli generally work better - the mammal (and this includes humans) far more quickly and reliably recognizes the desired behavior when they are rewarded than when punished. So, rather than punish a player (by killing characters) for poor play, it is likely better to reward players for whatever good play looks like at your table. If you want to promote a kind of play at your table, clickers and treats beat rolled-up newspapers.
 

Mort

Legend
Supporter
Yeah. Consider - if the point is some kid of verisimilitude, a player's fear the they'll lose their PC isn't a whole lot like a person's fear that they might die, so the resulting behaviors you see as a result are probaby not terribly similar either. Unless, of course, the players recognizes this fact, and takes an effort to role-pay the character's fear separate from their own. However, if they can do that, they can do that without the stimulus that they'll lose their character.

The more common claim seems to be that you want the player to fear character loss, so they "play smart". Real people when fearful don't often become smarter, or more effectively analytical. In a real-world fear response, most people's ability to apply logical reasoning to the situation drops precipitously. "Fear is the mind-killer," to quote Frank Herbert.

The OP in general makes a point that is very consistent with how mammals are best trained. Negative stimuli tend to yield unpredictable responses - smacking a puppy with a rolled-up newspaper is not a good way to housebreak your dog, for example.

Positive stimuli generally work better - the mammal (and this includes humans) far more quickly and reliably recognizes the desired behavior when they are rewarded than when punished. So, rather than punish a player (by killing characters) for poor play, it is likely better to reward players for whatever good play looks like at your table. If you want to promote a kind of play at your table, clickers and treats beat rolled-up newspapers.
I've found edible enemies instead of miniatures (mini snickers, jellie bellies, used a giant hershey's kiss for a fire giant) do wonders both for whimsie and motivating the players.
 

loverdrive

Makin' cool stuff
Publisher
I've found edible enemies instead of miniatures (mini snickers, jellie bellies, used a giant hershey's kiss for a fire giant) do wonders both for whimsie and motivating the players.
I've once played in a one shot where every enemy was a shot. Skeletons were vodka+sprite, zombies were vodka+tarkhun (a local sweet drink, VERY green) and the big bad was an undead hydra. Each head is a shot of absinthe.

It was the best and the worst idea ever.
 


payn

Hero
All this stuff is pretty easy to clear up during session zero and choice of gaming system. There is no right or wrong way to do it, but the assumptions should be table wide.
 

Democratus

Adventurer
Positive stimuli generally work better - the mammal (and this includes humans) far more quickly and reliably recognizes the desired behavior when they are rewarded than when punished. So, rather than punish a player (by killing characters) for poor play, it is likely better to reward players for whatever good play looks like at your table. If you want to promote a kind of play at your table, clickers and treats beat rolled-up newspapers.
There's a misconception here that killing a character is somehow "punishing" players. And you posit that death is a result of "poor play".

This simply isn't true for all tables. In old-school games, death can come at any time. It's not poor play - it is the nature of the wilderness. Surviving adventure is as much luck as skill.

Character death - common character death - is an essential part of what makes the world feel dangerous. And this danger is an essential part of what makes surviving high-level characters so legendary.

Having a character live to reach name level was a great feat. It was something that only a small fraction of characters achieved. And it was something you would talk about with fellow players for years to come.

This style of play isn't dependent on a specific edition, either. We played a 2-year campaign of Out of the Abyss (5e). There were 6 players at the table and there were 15 character deaths. Only one PC made it all the way from start to finish. And we had a blast the entire time. Whenever a character was turned to stone by a beholder, eaten by a gelatenous cube, crushed by a gnoll club, etc. we all cheered and patted the player on the back as they put together their next character.

There are other schools of thought on how a game should play out, and how much death there should be in a game. Those are fun games, too! But I take umbrage at the assumption that PC death - for which there are entire rules in the PHB - is somehow a "punishment" for a player.
 

Life is full of uncertainty; every game I've played is filled will uncertainty; A Fantasy world is not a Fantasy world unless it too has uncertainty. How does the DM achieve that in players who are in certain game modes? It varies. Remove the tools or need for producing uncertainty in RPGs and I'm not sure what they'd be; but it's certainly nothing I'd play.
 

I can enjoy it now and then as a throwback to the old days, but session after session? That just gets old. Sometimes, as a DM, you're thankful for that one PC that says, to quote Pillsbury in Romero's Land of the Dead, " I came here to do something. So, we are gonna stand around, or we are gonna do something?" and then just does something.

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.

I think fear as a prime motivator isn't optimal, but it can be a great spice now and then.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
Yeah. Consider - if the point is some kid of verisimilitude, a player's fear the they'll lose their PC isn't a whole lot like a person's fear that they might die, so the resulting behaviors you see as a result are probaby not terribly similar either. Unless, of course, the players recognizes this fact, and takes an effort to role-pay the character's fear separate from their own. However, if they can do that, they can do that without the stimulus that they'll lose their character.

The more common claim seems to be that you want the player to fear character loss, so they "play smart". Real people when fearful don't often become smarter, or more effectively analytical. In a real-world fear response, most people's ability to apply logical reasoning to the situation drops precipitously. "Fear is the mind-killer," to quote Frank Herbert.

The OP in general makes a point that is very consistent with how mammals are best trained. Negative stimuli tend to yield unpredictable responses - smacking a puppy with a rolled-up newspaper is not a good way to housebreak your dog, for example.

Positive stimuli generally work better - the mammal (and this includes humans) far more quickly and reliably recognizes the desired behavior when they are rewarded than when punished. So, rather than punish a player (by killing characters) for poor play, it is likely better to reward players for whatever good play looks like at your table. If you want to promote a kind of play at your table, clickers and treats beat rolled-up newspapers.
For my players, it's about there being a risk of losing the character. They invest in their characters and want to feel like they can lose it all if they screw up or things go very badly for them. Without that risk, they feel like the game is too easy and that reduces their enjoyment.

Death is rare in my games, but it does happen. Probably 0-2 times a campaign and my campaigns typically last about a year.
 

In "old school" games, you don't ever lose your ability to participate. One character dies and another steps up. In the middle of a dungeon, this is best done by having a retainer/hireling switch to being a PC. Otherwise, it takes about 5 minutes to make a character in B/X and get rolling again.

The primary motivation for 'old school' characters is loot. They are out there to get rich, make a name for themselves, and create a stronghold. The way they do it is by delving into the terrifying wilderness and underworld. The wild places actively hate and oppose the intruders from the civilized world. It is a place of darkness, fear, and death.

Risks are great - only a lucky few successfully reach the end of this ambition. But those few become legend.

In newer-style games, there is often a focus on narrative where each player has a single "hero" that is intended to be part of the story from start to finish. This calls for an entirely different kind of play, where death is much less common and the goal is not to get rich but to conclude the story that is being told.

The key is to go with whatever matches the kind of game your table has decided to play.
I think what @EzekielRaiden is arguing against is: don't apply OSR attitude to character death to non-OSR games.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
There's a misconception here that killing a character is somehow "punishing" players. And you posit that death is a result of "poor play".

This simply isn't true for all tables. In old-school games, death can come at any time. It's not poor play - it is the nature of the wilderness. Surviving adventure is as much luck as skill.

This thread is about fear as a motivator. What does fear of random, unavoidable character death motivate a player to do? I mean, by definition, nothing they do avoids the death! So they aren't motivated to do anything in particular, and this is not relevant to this discussion.

Fear for other purposes would be a different discussion.

Character death - common character death - is an essential part of what makes the world feel dangerous. And this danger is an essential part of what makes surviving high-level characters so legendary.

If that death is actually random and unavoidable, this is kind of bogus. It is like saying Conan is super awesome... because one time he flipped a coin 100 times, and it came up heads each time. This says nothing about Conan as a character, or anything about the player's skill. Survival as a statistical anomaly is not interesting.

If death is random but avoidable, that's different, but my previous points then apply.

Having a character live to reach name level was a great feat.

Do be careful, you are hardly the only person here to have played "old school" when it was new.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
For my players, it's about there being a risk of losing the character. They invest in their characters and want to feel like they can lose it all if they screw up or things go very badly for them. Without that risk, they feel like the game is too easy and that reduces their enjoyment.

I find, again, I reach back to the OP - this thread is about fear as a motivator. You seem to be talking about it as an atmospheric element, which is a different conversation.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
I think what @EzekielRaiden is arguing against is: don't apply OSR attitude to character death to non-OSR games.
I think you can though if it plays into the theme and the group prepares for it. If I'm running a pulp action hero Eberron game, I'm taking death off the table as a possible consequence because that plays into the theme. But if I'm running a classic dungeon delving game, then yeah, you might be ground into a pink slurry by a complex trap; however, knowing this, you've already created a backup character that we can tap in so that you're not just sitting there for the rest of the session. You're also likely making characters good at delving dungeons to acquire XP and gold and making decisions accordingly. There's also likely bragging rights for who has the most gruesome death. (Maybe that's just my weird players though.)

With regard to the OP, the goals of play (for D&D 5e anyway) are that everyone have a good time and creates an exciting, memorable story by playing. This can be achieved with characters never dying or characters dying like flies. I'm not really sure fear applies here at all. Sure, there can be tension when trying to resolve a challenge between you and your goals. I would stop short of calling it fear or thinking it's a motivator. Failure is just another turn in the emerging story.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
I find, again, I reach back to the OP - this thread is about fear as a motivator. You seem to be talking about it as an atmospheric element, which is a different conversation.
It functions as both. I guarantee you that the risk of death that they enjoy also motivates them to do their best to avoid it.
 

I recently had a discussion with a friend about horror movies that seems to fit here.

Basically, I understand modern horror movies and why they tend to depend on jump scares and gore, but I don't like them. And the reason is that for a lot of people, the tension of expecting a jump scare, and the release of the shock of one happening is gratifying. Being scared in a safe environment is fun for them.

For me and a lot of others, it's just... stressful. I don't enjoy it. It leaves me feeling bad and burnt out.

And that's what the 'anyone can die, it's a roll of the dice' mentality is like. For some people, it enhances the game because tension makes them feel good. For others, it's just a ton of stress and worry over a character we worked hard on and got attached to just going poof for no satisfying reason.

So it's not a question of the players having the wrong mindset or the DM having badwrongfun; it's about making sure that you're in or running a game that isn't just generating frustration and stress for the players who don't get gratification from tension.
 

Remathilis

Legend
This smacks as a "badwrongfun" type thread.
I think it's a good reaction to the belief that Old School play is an inherently better play style and that new school is coddling and therefore lesser.

A few years ago there was a Mario Bros game with a feature called Super Guide, which basically offers to play the level for you if die too many times. It allows the player to skip parts or whole levels that they cannot beat. Compare that to Super Mario Bros 2 (Lost Levels) which is considered the hardest Mario game and beating it is still considered a feat. No hand holding, no saves, no continues. Git gud.

I've played both. I find Lost Levels an exercise in frustration. Never did beat it. However, I did beat New SMB Wii, even if I rarely used the Super Guide, it was nice to see all the levels, experience the game and get what little story a Mario game has. Is it as impressive a victory as beating Lost Levels? Nope. But I had a lot more fun playing it. And that is what matters.
 

Mort

Legend
Supporter
I recently had a discussion with a friend about horror movies that seems to fit here.

Basically, I understand modern horror movies and why they tend to depend on jump scares and gore, but I don't like them. And the reason is that for a lot of people, the tension of expecting a jump scare, and the release of the shock of one happening is gratifying. Being scared in a safe environment is fun for them.

For me and a lot of others, it's just... stressful. I don't enjoy it. It leaves me feeling bad and burnt out.

And that's what the 'anyone can die, it's a roll of the dice' mentality is like. For some people, it enhances the game because tension makes them feel good. For others, it's just a ton of stress and worry over a character we worked hard on and got attached to just going poof for no satisfying reason.

So it's not a question of the players having the wrong mindset or the DM having badwrongfun; it's about making sure that you're in or running a game that isn't just generating frustration and stress for the players who don't get gratification from tension.
Yeah, some of the old school modules had very arbitrary deaths.

To the point where the only way I'd enjoy playing them is if the DM allowed the Robilar method (as in a heard of stampeding sheep to clear the traps; @Rob Kuntz was that actually done, or is that apocryphal?)
 

Mistwell

Crusty Old Meatwad (he/him)
Threadcrapping
I think it's a good reaction to the belief that Old School play is an inherently better play style and that new school is coddling and therefore lesser.

A few years ago there was a Mario Bros game with a feature called Super Guide, which basically offers to play the level for you if die too many times. It allows the player to skip parts or whole levels that they cannot beat. Compare that to Super Mario Bros 2 (Lost Levels) which is considered the hardest Mario game and beating it is still considered a feat. No hand holding, no saves, no continues. Git gud.

I've played both. I find Lost Levels an exercise in frustration. Never did beat it. However, I did beat New SMB Wii, even if I rarely used the Super Guide, it was nice to see all the levels, experience the game and get what little story a Mario game has. Is it as impressive a victory as beating Lost Levels? Nope. But I had a lot more fun playing it. And that is what matters.
Then it's a badwrongfun reaction to a different thread which is also a badwrongfun reaction? We on the two wrongs make a right road now?
 

An Advertisement

Advertisement4

Top