Sunday, August 21, 2011

fear itself

Is anyone else bothered by "save or flee in terror" type effects?  We don't subject PCs to morale checks, so why is this sort of thing okay just because the effect originates from a spell or some sort of horrible, slobbering undead?  It undermines player agency, which is a cornerstone of traditional RPGs.

I think maybe all fear-or-flee attacks targeted at PCs should include a choice to made by the player.  "If you fail you must either flee immediately or roll 1d4.  The result on the d4 is your penalty to-hit and damage as well as your chance in 20 of spell fumble for the duration of the fear effect."  Something like that.

Being paralyzed with fear doesn't bug me as much.


  1. Good point, nice suggestion about the d4 roll penalty. I will hork that.

  2. I always had this notion of combining charm, fear, and cleric turning rules into sort of "spectrum of confidence". Then clerics could help party members by mitigating those effects with their turn ability.

    I could never decide how it should be implemented though.

  3. Nobody likes it in my GURPS games either. Fear attacks that pretty much mean "roll well and you are okay, fail and you run away" annoy my players in ways that paralyzation, petrification, and other roll-or-die effects do not. It's not just the system - nobody likes their brave guy to run away because a MU pointed a magic stick at him.

    So I like the idea of Fear as a die roll of penalties in D&D, too. For sufficiently low HD of targets, maybe it sends them packing, but for higher level ones (or just high relative levels, ala cleric's undead turning) maybe it inflicts a diminishing penalty.

    Just a thought.

  4. I don't know.

    As stated, it does sound a bit like Cthulhu-ish mechanics.

    You could just say that there's a period of time where you're triggered and the player's choices are limited to fight or flight.

    Fight would mean attacking with their best and most powerful attack repeatly (regardless of how useful it is against the opponent).

    Flight involves... running.

  5. I'll chime in on the other side of the fence. I'd (almost) rather have PCs make morale checks, but the mechanics would probably need to be more complex than I'd care for.

    Magic is magic Your PC's "sand" has got nothing to do with it. They run from a Fear spell if they fail a save. Period. Just like they are buddies with the guy in the funny robes who just cast Charm Person.

  6. I convert all those 'supernatural fear' effects into "unable to act" - mind-numbing fear that overloads the ability to think. Similar to paralysis. Maybe I'll give the choice between stand in place and quaver, or flee, so it's slightly different than straight paralysis. There was a kid's series I read with my son (Fablehaven) that had a lot of magical fear effects and used a 'frozen in place' approach that I liked more than fleeing in terror.

  7. As bighara says, magic is magic. PCs can be charmed, held, stunned, put to sleep, and so on, fear is no different.

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  9. I fall into the camp that Bighara put forth. I would prefer that there be some sort of morale check for players. I would also use that to prevent the roll playing that goes on (I meant roll). I have seen characters made to run because the player did not want to risk losing them.

    In the end though if it is a spell/magical effect I am not sure it takes anything away from the player. It is the character that is affected and they suffer similar effects such as charm without recourse.

  10. A "fear penalty" works fairly well, I think. It needs to be high enough that the players are afraid to stand and fight. -1 to hit is an annoyance, but -4 will send anyone running for the hills.

    Actually, though, I'm not sure that just penalising the player's attack rolls is the right way to go. Not being able to hit the monster effectively isn't scary, although it might be a reasonable consequence of fear. What's scary is the monster doing something to you. Like, say, double damage. Or it gets bonuses equal to your penalties. Or some nasty attack which it can only do against people who failed their save, although that one's a bit harder to get across to the players.

    I don't like the idea of making fear equivalent to paralysis, because one of the effects of fear is to get the party lost. The lich casts back its hood, the party flee in blind terror, and when they come to their senses they find themselves amidst miles of unfamiliar lightless passages with no idea of which way they came.

  11. reducing the effect into a ho-hum numerical equation doesn't do much for me either.

    I think I like the "frozen in place" or "run in blind terror" choice. It at least gives noble knights the choice to retain some dignity.

    I kinda like the idea that something can be so horrifying it reaches some deep, primeval instinct hidden with to just get the fark away as fast as you can.

  12. my 2 cp: I've had Turn Undead work such that the undead have a choice between taking a small amount of damage and fleeing, or taking a lot of damage but not having to flee.

    If you play with HP as stamina-luck-ablative awesomeness-whatever, maybe PCs could have the choice of heading for the hills, or taking damage?

  13. Yes, well, that's why you get a saving throw.

  14. I always used to let players choose their fear response.

    Blind fleeing
    Berserk attack
    Shooting wildly

    And then used the same choice for surprise. I treat fear spells as just surprise (lumping panic and what not into the same bucket).

  15. That's not half bad.

  16. Anonymous8:52 AM

    Thanks everybody. Both the post and comments have been extremely enlightening and clarifying on something i've delayed to commit fully for a few weeks now.

    Yep the idea of choosing whether to stand and suffer penalties or flee (or Zzarchov's suggested effects) is not only quite interesting, but also extremely empowering for the player. And empowering players is teh win :)

  17. Fail your save and you have a choice of fleeing or losing a level each round.... they'll flee, but it'll be their own decision. Or they won't flee and will have earned a reputation for foolhardy bravery.

  18. I dealt with the same issue a while back... here are the house rules I came up with. I've not used them yet, though, as this is intended for an "in-house home campaign" rather than the "store demo game" I've been running...

  19. I like it precisely because it upsets the player; not to be a jerk be because it elicits an emotional reaction.

  20. Game im working on has a few stages for fear etc, but the first failed save means the following:

    You suffer a penalty to any action that isn't fight (attack directly/physically) or flight (running, primarily, hiding once clear isnt penalised).

    You may also choose to be frozen with fear for half the duration.

    If at the end of the duration the cause is still present, you check again, Passing means recovery, failure means it gets worse (details irrelevant in this discussion).

    Oh and if you critically fail the first save, you skip a step and so you can end up suffering the more debililtating tier 2 stuff straight up. Kind of fun to see someone vomit and pass out immediately, for example.

    I think its kind of neat, but I am horribly biased.

  21. There are so few effects we can apply to pcs that are mechanically different that I'd hate to get rid of "you flee in terror" all together, especially since other effects are far worse for the characters: "you attack your friends, you are paralyzed while it eats your belly."

    That's what saves are for right? And maybe the charisma of the other party members or even as Quibish suggests the holiness of other party members can help. But some things are more terrible than our mortal courage, no?

  22. I like the "frozen with fear" or "run like hell" choice and I think it works perfectly for surprise as well. It all comes down to the style and tone of game you're running. Thundarr the Barbarian isn't going to be phased by running into some otherworldly horror, where Lovecraftian style investigators will.

  23. Anonymous11:48 AM

    The one true fear level drain.

  24. It doesn't negate player agency any more than say getting charmed, sleep spell, or any number of things. Even getting hit with a trap is no different. No player chooses to jump into a spiked pit.

  25. I think I prefer the possibility of blind, uncontrolled panic flight. I think that represents a shock that is so sudden and severe that it goes beyond a loss of morale. Seems like this is fairly well represented in genre literature.

    Plus, it has an advantage over freezing in place, in that it can add further complications for the players, if the panicked flight leads not back in the direction the characters have come, but in another direction, which may not have been explored yet. And the player who flees won't be mapping. And may not have light.

    So the player who flees is now possibly lost, possibly unable to see, isolated from his allies, in a situation where calling out to them could invite unfriendly attention.

  26. I use them quite often. I like the unpredictibility they add to the game. Not ever gamer will willing roleplay their characters as being terrified, but most seem to accept magical terror as a fair compromise.

    I much prefer the Valour test system in Pendragon though.

  27. It bears remembering that being forced to run away is mechanically similar to being moved away by other means; if the effect is needed it can be given different flavor.

    I think the idea of supernatural fear is worth playing with. One idea I'm toying with is that when hit by a fear effect you have to immediately choose between fight (berserk), flight (run away), or freeze (either a faint effect or a semi-freeze with the attack penalty you suggested).

  28. Anonymous2:51 PM

    I like flee effects. They aren't terribly common, compared to poison or paralysis, typically equivalent to disease in rarity.

    It's also one of the few times that player agency is squelched. Off the top of my head, I'm thinking paralysis, fear, geas, ego sword, and charm in order of increasing imposition to player agency.

    Paralysis says you're stuck, you get to do nothing.

    Fear says you have to flee, but you can flee wherever you want and can do things while you go as long as you aren't sticking around to fight.

    Geas means you Must Do The Thing but you can go about it any way you like.

    Ego Sword is a short-term domination that might not be totally terrible.

    Charm is basically screwing you harder than death. Monster charms you away from the group, you end up losing all your stuff and either die or return to attack the party.

    Players get Charm Person at 1st level, Charm Monster by 7th. They have Fear spells early on, but the most solid one comes in at 7th. If the PCs use these things on monsters all the time, why is it not ok for monsters to use them on the PCs? You get more XP for killing a 4th level M-U than a 4+1 HD Ogre because of the M-U's selection of terrifying magic.

    However I would be careful about monsters with special abilities. I had a pair of Illusionist PCs in a game once and one session they fought nothing but illusion-immune monsters. Last weekend the party fought four groups of monsters with Paralysis ability (and nearby they failed to find a Wand of Paralyzation!). That's just poor variety and people might begin to feel put-upon.

    Inclusion of Charms is great for making the Elves feel good about that resistance. Any mind-affecting magic makes high-Wisdom PCs pretty useful. Magic items that break or resist these abilities are worthwhile only if that kind of magic gets used by monsters.

    So I say let loose the dogs of Charm and Fear, but don't do it every fight or even every game session because that shit can get old.

    That said, I do like your optional penalty. I'd give -4 to rolls and AC as the alternative to fleeing, if the fear effect would make you flee. I'd probably have my character run anyway!

  29. Anonymous2:55 PM

    By the way, I have a Rally skill that people can take, which gives everyone in X' a save re-roll for any current Fear effects. It's a nice status-effect cancellation ability similar to Medicine being useful for curing poison and disease.

  30. Player agency is important, but it is it's importance that gives fear, confusion, charm, etc their places. Sometimes I might not like it as a player, but as long as it is not a DM's beat-em-up-stick, I actually appreciate it as a player. I think the modifications you give are good, though, as are several of the options presented in comments.

  31. I don't see it as any more of a denial of a player's choices than any other spell effect...but it is annoying as hell. Any effect that scatters everyone across the map (whether PCs or NPCs) is a pain to deal with.