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Roleplaying Fear Traps in Battle

In most RPGs, battles start by rolling initiative. In the real world, battles start with fear. The attacker feels the adrenaline and sweat and the inner voice listing everything that could go wrong. For the defender, the attack kicks the heartbeat into overdrive and panic tries to lodge deep. How do you roleplay the effects of this fear for extra verisimilitude in your RPG of choice?



Combat does strange things to the mind, as your psyche also wages war in trying to protect you mentally from the stark terror surrounding you. Sometimes, plunging into conflict calms the mind and a warrior sees time seem to slow down as they fall back on training and experience to fight to win.

Other times, there are four dangerous places the thoughts of a warrior might wander to called fear traps. Keeping these mental journeys in mind can flavor combat and enrich your understanding of your character. Roleplaying how your character shakes off these dangerous mind tangents and gets back to attack and defense will also enhance your roleplaying enjoyment.
  • Broken record: You think that your plan is a good one. You focus exclusively on one thing, even if it isn’t a good idea. Your character may experience this if hit by an opportunity attack you should have seen coming or stumbles into a trap he should have expected. Maybe you try to reload a ranged weapon even if an enemy is in close and you take a hit. You may simply say, “Maybe that wasn’t such a good idea after all better try something else” and switch tactics.
  • Dreamer: You feel an almost out of body experience and detached from what is going on around you. You believe that somehow everything will just work out. Time seems to slow down and you feel like you stand apart almost like one already dead. You might demonstrate this state after a hard hit from an enemy gets through your character’s defenses. You might say that as the attack comes toward you, your character admires the flash of light off the incoming blade or appreciates a gleam of dust motes in sunlight as a bullet strikes home.
  • Panic: combat starts and you can’t think clearly, you can’t process your thoughts, you make terrible decisions, and everything is mixed up and backwards. With panic, you find it easy to die and you have become a liability. This trap is easiest to roleplay when your PC has succumbed to a fear effect. That loss of control and not getting to pick actions for your character covers the panic trap completely. You can describe your character’s confusion, his head whipping back and forth without focus, seemingly unable to raise his weapon to defend or attack, and finally turning and running the wrong way.
  • Retirement: When you should be planning your next move instead your mind wanders to the future. Eager to leave the real danger you are in, your thoughts go somewhere else entirely putting you in even greater danger due to distraction. You may imagine yourself as a tavern owner, warm and well fed, or living quietly in a cottage somewhere with your feet up. Maybe you remember your favorite food and beer from back home. Roleplaying distracting thoughts is easy if you roll really poorly to attack. You may simply state that you miss and say your character looks unfocused, as if her thoughts are on places or times far away. She shakes her head to clear her mind.
These responses to fear can be used to add roleplaying to a negative event that affects your character. Instead of simply taking a bad hit or failing a save you can quickly roleplay your character’s reaction to this set back. You can even go back over, in character, what happened in the fight later when the party sits around a campfire or in a tavern, assuming your character survives.

The inspiration for this article came from the Warrior Poet Society on YouTube.
 
Charles Dunwoody

Comments


SavageCole

Punk Rock Warlord
Interesting share. Thanks! In a game where violence was rare and more realistic , rather than stylized and glorified the way it is in D&D 5e, I would love to explore this. You read reports of the large number of trained soldiers who can’t overcome their aversion to killing despite life-threatening danger, so your post resonated with me. Life is cheap in D&D and violence routine, so implementing this would be a major shift in a game. Player expectations and encounter designs and the whole approach to what D&D is would be pretty different than the default. I’d love to play with these rules though.
 

JustinCase

the magical equivalent to the number zero
I really enjoyed this post and it made me think, which is a good thing. I like your examples as to how to implement it into games, too.
 


Interesting share. Thanks! In a game where violence was rare and more realistic , rather than stylized and glorified the way it is in D&D 5e, I would love to explore this. You read reports of the large number of trained soldiers who can’t overcome their aversion to killing despite life-threatening danger, so your post resonated with me. Life is cheap in D&D and violence routine, so implementing this would be a major shift in a game. Player expectations and encounter designs and the whole approach to what D&D is would be pretty different than the default. I’d love to play with these rules though.
You're welcome. You make good points which I also have considered (I linked to an article covering rules like that and the impact they may have on D&D campaigns in the post above). You might want to check out some Year Zero games like Alien or Forbidden Lands. In those RPGs you have to fail an Empathy check to kill in cold blood and in Alien it also gives you a stress die. You can take a talent to become a cold blooded killer. I wrote more about fictional violence on Geek Native: Using fictional violence to enhance your roleplaying. The link above is for rules and the link here is about roleplaying and really sets up the rules article. Hope that helps.
 
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I really enjoyed this post and it made me think, which is a good thing. I like your examples as to how to implement it into games, too.
Thank you! I would love to hear your thoughts.

If you want to read more I posted links to two articles about violence in RPGs I wrote at Geek Native in my posts above.
 
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The Warrior Poet (linked in my article) also talks about that switch you need to be able to turn on and off if you want to be able to do great violence in defense of those you love and/or those you are defending and still be able to turn it back off and go be with your family when you are done. I might tackle this subject in a future article. I know in D&D a lot of PCs don't have families and maybe don't care. But this skill of carefully mastering violence and using it judiciously is fascinating, can be taught and learned, and can actually be implemented in real life. Maybe for GMs who want PCs to have connections an article like that would be helpful?
 

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
Question for other GMs, in response to a character failing their save on, say, a fearsome presence ability of some monsters, would you describe the nature of the fear for the players to react to, or is it the player's prerogative to determine how they role-play their character's fear?

Generally, I would say the later. I think it is bad form for a GM to tell players how to play their characters or, in effect, playing their characters for them by describing what they feel. But with failed saves against fear effects, might it be forgivable for the GM to describe the feeling? After all, fear is often losing control. What better way of simulating that loss of control than by GM describing the effect on the character?

Also, in my experience, most players don't roleplay it without some prompting, which turns many supposedly fearsome encounters into lackluster resolution of mechanics. "You character is afraid, you must take your full movement away from the dragon until you make your save." Contradicting the exhortations most frequently given to DMs in discussions on ENWorld to not tell players how their characters feel, I find when I describe the sense of dread and panic the character fears, players seem to enjoy the encounter better, have something to improvise off of, making them more likely to role-play the fear. I've never had anyone complain.

What are your thoughts about "fear" effects being an exception to the rule that DMs shouldn't tell players what their characters feel or do?

And, if it is an exception, what do you think about rolling a 4-sided dice when players fail a wisdom save on a fear effect, where:

1. Panic - must use full movement to run away from the source of the fear each turn

2. Retirement - creature is incapacitated until the start of its next turn

3. Dreamer - same as frightened condition

4. Broken Record - This one is more difficult. I was thinking that the character can only take the same action it took the prior turn until it makes its save. But for many battles that really won't be much different than what characters would do anyway. Though I could see it really screwing characters in some situations, especially casters. It would be fun to see how this plays out in actuality.
 

Question for other GMs, in response to a character failing their save on, say, a fearsome presence ability of some monsters, would you describe the nature of the fear for the players to react to, or is it the player's prerogative to determine how they role-play their character's fear?

lots more good stuff....
Great questions and thoughts.

I have actually just asked a player if they want to describe the situation. Some do and one laughed and said no and I described it. Didn't put anyone on the spot that way but opened doors for players who wanted more expression.
 

R_Chance

Adventurer
Just having your NPCs undergo this type of thing can make the PCs think. An NPC quit adventuring after a near TPK (ghouls, only one PC hadn't been paralyzed). Nightmares about going back to the World Under. She said her goodbyes and went back home and built a steading with what she had saved. The PCs were surprised at first... and then decided it made sense. The world became just a bit more real to them as a result.
 

What are your thoughts about "fear" effects being an exception to the rule that DMs shouldn't tell players what their characters feel or do?

And, if it is an exception, what do you think about rolling a 4-sided dice when players fail a wisdom save on a fear effect, where:

1. Panic - must use full movement to run away from the source of the fear each turn

2. Retirement - creature is incapacitated until the start of its next turn

3. Dreamer - same as frightened condition

4. Broken Record - This one is more difficult. I was thinking that the character can only take the same action it took the prior turn until it makes its save. But for many battles that really won't be much different than what characters would do anyway. Though I could see it really screwing characters in some situations, especially casters. It would be fun to see how this plays out in actuality.
I think a GM should be able to tell a player the emotions a character feels in some cases. Humans don't actually control emotions (we can't turn them on and off) we only react to them, which is what the article is about in regards to fear.

In practice, I think RPGs have long allowed the player to decide the emotions of their PC which is much less realistic. As GM I think a talk up front about whether the GM will describe not so much emotions but the body's physical response--the dump of adrenaline, sweating, time seems to slow down etc. is appropriate. Probably will work better in an RPG like Alien than D&D.

As to your second idea I really like it. I'd say run it by your players and try it out. I like it when GMs are constantly fine tuning their own setting and game to tailor it to their players and their characters. If you do try it out, I'd love to hear how it goes, especially 4.
 


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