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

jayoungr

Legend
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.
And that's great, for your group. A problem arises when people try to make this a universal rule that "should" be applied to all tables. I can't tell you how many "advice to the DM" videos and columns I've seen that say, as an absolute principle, that the DM should always make sure players fear for their characters' lives, because it will make the game better. That's simply not true for every group, mine being exhibit A to the contrary.
 

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Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
And that's great, for your group. A problem arises when people try to make this a universal rule that "should" be applied to all tables.
The only universal rule that should be applied to all tables is "Everyone should be having fun." Everything else can be changed to meet that one rule.
I can't tell you how many "advice to the DM" videos and columns I've seen that say, as an absolute principle, that the DM should always make sure players fear for their characters' lives, because it will make the game better. That's simply not true for every group, mine being exhibit A to the contrary.
Yeah. Lots of DMs think their way is the best/only way, because that's what they and their group like.
 

Wow: I dunno. Sunshine and rainbows are great but if I am playing D&D much of the thrill is the fear of and avoidance of some sort of loss.

If you know you can win every fight without a consequence does the fight matter?

the gaining of levels and treasure can be fun especially if they are not guaranteed. The possibility of rewards and the fear of loss go hand in hand. One without the other is not so cool for me.

I like 5e a lot but only if there is fear of losing at some points or even dying. I don’t like the narrative approach much and prefer some level of emergent play.

the oh s**t moments are memorable. In the days level drains were watched things but we also usually had a chance to adventure and find a cleric to help which of itself was fun derived from loss.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
Wow: I dunno. Sunshine and rainbows are great but if I am playing D&D much of the thrill is the fear of and avoidance of some sort of loss.

If you know you can win every fight without a consequence does the fight matter?
That's how my group and I view it. However, not everyone has the same goal out of D&D. Some people want to explore character. Others something different. Depending on what you want out of the game, death and fear of loss might be irrelevant. Some people enjoy railroads, because they don't have to think so much and it makes for a more relaxing game. Others want a Sandbox where the world is their oyster. Yet others want something in-between.
 

payn

Hero
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.
I love enthusiasm, however its something I feel game and adventure design has been very hit and miss on. I love the various character options out there such as; traits, backgrounds, archetypes, prestige classes, etc. Often, these options are not well balanced amongst themselves, which makes some options much more stronger than others. It also leads to homogeneity in the gaming community as folks come to consensus on the best options to take. The Paizo adventure paths do a good job on both the character options and adventure campaigns. Its great to not only see options tailored to the campaign, but also included in the modules to assist the GM. I say a good job, but not a great one. I think this is a space that is ripe for the next gaming design breakout. Or, maybe that's just where my hopes lay.

At the table, the GM often has a lot of responsibility to make sure the enthusiasm comes alive. It's great if a player hits the table with a cool background, and gaming options to fit. However, if the character never encounters the chance to explore these endeavors, it kills enthusiasm dead. For decades that large burden rested on the GMs shoulders, but I hope adventure design can help bring up the average GM in this area.

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!
Affection is reactive for sure. It can be a very difficult element to cultivate at the table for both GM and players. I've seen GMs put a lot of love into a cute cuddly NPC only to have the players take a giant dook on it. A GM has to understand that the players wont bite on every hook, and sometimes you have to follow their lead. This can take you to really fun places and its memorable for sure, but it can also kill a GMs enthusiasm dead if the players hate their ideas.

I think the enthusiasm is a lot stronger of a motivating element than affection. Affection is just so difficult to think about in a tangible way like enthusiasm or even fear. Fear has long held its position as a motivator because its so tangible. It's baked right into the rules and its conditions are clearly spelled out. Every adventure module hits the fear factors, not so much the enthusiasm or affection points. Though, as adventure design grows and changes, maybe these intangible items can become a stronger motivation factor as folks learn to utilize them better at their tables?
 


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?)
Heh. Not into thread-stealing so the short answer is no. Robilar used 5 orcs to clear the ToH playtest. I was suspicious of the entrance and ordered an orc forward to check it out, t refused so I killed it on the spot, then ordered the others -- now all very cooperative! -- to do the same, one at a time. They triggered all of the entry corridor's pit traps and died. Funny how "fish stories" grow.
 

No character death =/= no consequences.

Also, this is straying from the topic of motivators again.
?

I think I mentioned treasure and level gain tempered by fear of loss as a motivator.

also retaining what you have gained is not just a punishment. The satisfaction of getting out of the dungeon is a reward and motivator.

however if it’s a given, it’s Not for me.
 

Wow: I dunno. Sunshine and rainbows are great but if I am playing D&D much of the thrill is the fear of and avoidance of some sort of loss.

If you know you can win every fight without a consequence does the fight matter?

the gaining of levels and treasure can be fun especially if they are not guaranteed. The possibility of rewards and the fear of loss go hand in hand. One without the other is not so cool for me.

I like 5e a lot but only if there is fear of losing at some points or even dying. I don’t like the narrative approach much and prefer some level of emergent play.

the oh s**t moments are memorable. In the days level drains were watched things but we also usually had a chance to adventure and find a cleric to help which of itself was fun derived from loss.
Well reasoned points and I concur. Emergent play defines stories as building whereas narrative is concluding that "this will happen". Appears related to another topic afoot on these boards today.

Level drain, as an aside, was Gary's big move to play balance. the latter which he was overly, IMO, obsessed with. I tried to avoid it whenever possible in my games and was more into the incremental whittling effects rather than outright death or instant loss which is chaotically haphazard (IMO as a designer/DM). I believe many DMs (especially 1E DMs) get nervous about advancement of characters even under the fairest of circumstances, but I was never like that. I see the act of handling advancement as a positive one.
 

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.

... Would it "not be D&D" if fear weren't the fundamental motivator of your games?

I've seen flimsier strawmen in my day, but not many.

  • What you describe as "outright encouraging paranoia" is not D&D. It's, well, Paranoia.
  • Describing character death as "losing their ability to participate" is a false equivalency of epic proportions. Does your DM kick you out of the group if your PC dies? I doubt it.
  • I simply do not believe that you have been told, recently, on this very forum, that either of the above are true.
  • Is "Hot Take" new internet speak for "I'm trolling, but want to be taken seriously anyway". Because can't think of any other way to describe the question "Would it "not be D&D" if fear weren't the fundamental motivator of your games?" Dress it up with as many disclaimers as you like.

There's lots of interesting and intelligent discussion to be had about fear vs. reward based behavior at the game design level, DM level, and adventure level. But I can't imagine any of that discussion happening in a thread that starts like this.
 

Democratus

Adventurer
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.
No. It's more like my uncle who went out on 27 bomber missions in WW II being a badass. He could have died in any of those missions despite any skill he possessed. But being one of the few who made it in and out again through all that - he is super awesome.


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

Death is avoidable if you choose not to do the dangerous thing; not to go into the dungeon, for example. But stepping into the meat grinder is the buy-in if your character wants that "instant social mobility" that comes with the potental rewards.

Do be careful, you are hardly the only person here to have played "old school" when it was new.
Don't see where I mad such a claim. The last two "old school" games I played were last year (Out of the Abyss) and last week (custom West Marches). Nothing at all to do with the 70s.
 


I've seen flimsier strawmen in my day, but not many.

  • What you describe as "outright encouraging paranoia" is not D&D. It's, well, Paranoia.
  • Describing character death as "losing their ability to participate" is a false equivalency of epic proportions. Does your DM kick you out of the group if your PC dies? I doubt it.
  • I simply do not believe that you have been told, recently, on this very forum, that either of the above are true.
  • Is "Hot Take" new internet speak for "I'm trolling, but want to be taken seriously anyway". Because can't think of any other way to describe the question "Would it "not be D&D" if fear weren't the fundamental motivator of your games?" Dress it up with as many disclaimers as you like.

There's lots of interesting and intelligent discussion to be had about fear vs. reward based behavior at the game design level, DM level, and adventure level. But I can't imagine any of that discussion happening in a thread that starts like this
You mean we've been arguing a negative? For shame for us... ;)
 

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:


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.
I don't thing you can cleave off fear of resource attrition from fear of death or even fear of random death just so can call badwrongfun on @Lanefan for defending the existence dcc funnel style funnel type games. 5e did exactly that and we et damage beyond zero goes away no foul into the maxhp sized absorb shield , healing word & similar abilities to make yoyo healing backed up by tiny hut guaranteed successful rests asthe most optimum style of play while the pieces needed to support other styles are lacking & not at all trivial to simply retroactively attach to a system that fights it on so many differing levels of edge cases & one off abilities.

Your looking at the paintball with dr Manhattan analogy vaporizing the incoming paintballs for his team healing word style the wrong way by focusing on just the chance of injury during a normal game and ignoring how removing the chance of loss changes the game. Simply saying that the gm should find some other set of stakes to compensate for the severe design problem as has been suggested in this thread is an flatly admitting how difficult it is for the gm to do so fight after fight after fight by lacking specificity.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
Describing character death as "losing their ability to participate" is a false equivalency of epic proportions. Does your DM kick you out of the group if your PC dies? I doubt it.
I doubt he was talking about permanent non-participation. On the short term, though, it almost always means non-participation. Unless your next PC is already in the group standing around, you going to be out of the game for a while. Whether that means for the rest of the encounter or the rest of the night depends on the circumstances, but I can say from experience that I've encountered both. Sometimes the DM will offer to allow you to play the monsters. That's participation of a sorts I suppose, but I tend to turn that down, because I don't want to be responsible if another PC dies.
 

I doubt he was talking about permanent non-participation. On the short term, though, it almost always means non-participation. Unless your next PC is already in the group standing around, you going to be out of the game for a while. Whether that means for the rest of the encounter or the rest of the night depends on the circumstances, but I can say from experience that I've encountered both. Sometimes the DM will offer to allow you to play the monsters. That's participation of a sorts I suppose, but I tend to turn that down, because I don't want to be responsible if another PC dies.

"What does a player do during the rest of the session when their character dies?" is another completely legitimate and valuable discussion that is highly unlikely to happen with the introduction OP provided.
 

In Diplomacy if you're knocked out of the game as any country (which is the purpose), you are out. Same in Monopoly, the Game of Life, etc. If people want a narrative fiction-building approach without challenges and uncertainty or, gosh, even death for daring to be an "Adventurer" (Poor Magellan, he should have been a surveyor of estates rather than of the Earth) even when the current rules are favorable to their constant gain and guardianship, then what's the worth or reason in even referring to it as a "game"? Why go through theatrics of the mind when all the results are the same positive outcomes? Who's fooling who in this scenario? I find this whole topic, forgive me, rather bizarre from not only a designer's view but from a reality based reasoning. Is an RPG a game or not? If so there are winners and losers, monsters die by the thousands under your immersed PC's spells and melee. But it's still a game and thus you are still a target for those who you haven't killed, and the DM is the fair arbiter in this bi-lateral exchange of who, what, where, when, why and how. "Yo Goliath! Meet David's Stone!"
 


Lanefan

Victoria Rules
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.
So, by reading this perhaps a bit differently than you wrote it, you've more or less replaced death with loss of possessions as your hard-loss.

Which, if your players/PCs are the greedy types, can be quite effective. If they're not, it isn't.

Without any sort of hard-loss potential we're drifting into participation-medal territory - no winners, no losers, everyone gets a medal just for entering the race - which makes the race itself completely meaningless.
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.
If the party's still going, there's still something to explore and develop: the story of the party.
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.
I'll grant that sometimes bringing in a new PC can be an exercise in reality-bending.

But "where were you while we were saving the world" has a trivially easy answer: "I was out on other adventures with other adventurers, saving it from other threats than what you're dealing with". This does fall apart if you-as-DM assume or even outright state that the currently-active PCs are the only adventurers in the setting, so I heartily recommend against this.
 

This isn't what we're talking about. And it's super-frustrating when people assume that it is.
It impacts it all the same, one cannot suggest changes to the game without studying the impact on the entire system. The parts in this instance effect the whole. Others have made this point as well.
 

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