Originally posted January 2008

I saw a post about fear tests and, still thinking about the Buffy RPG, that got me considering fear mechanics. I’m a big advocate of always retaining control of one’s PC, so I tend to dislike mind control mechanics. The standard fear test in games is, “succeed at this random roll or you lose control of your character’s decision.” I prefer systems that make certain actions advantageous or more difficult, but leave the ultimate decision up to the player. Harbinger helped me put together the following basic system idea.

  1. The fear-related stats normal to the system stay the same. If you would normally roll Wits + Willpower to resist fear, your fear resistance remains Wits + Willpower (we might call that the Courage rating or something).
  2. The fear difficulties are scaled to match the Courage ratings. If a PC with Wits + Willpower 10 could never fail an average fear test (except maybe on a botch), the average fear test difficulty should be 10 or less. Other difficulties are scaled to match.
  3. When there is a scary situation, the PC’s Courage rating plus applicable modifiers is compared to the fear difficulty.
  4. If the Courage rating equals or exceeds the fear difficulty, the PC is brave enough to choke back any horror and deal with the situation normally. If the Courage rating is much higher, there might be some kind of bonus awarded for the situation.
  5. If the Courage rating is less than the fear difficulty, the PC is shaken by the experience and finds it hard to focus and act past the fear. If he or she does not decide to flee, for the remainder of the situation (as long as the fearful source’s influence is felt), he or she is at a hit point penalty. This is phantom damage, but cannot be restored until after the situation (unless it’s appropriate for cures to remove fear). The damage is equal to the difference between the difficulty and the Courage rating (possibly multiplied by another number in the case of high hit point games; in Buffy, for example, I’d probably multiply the result by 5).If the damage is enough to drop the character to unconsciousness or death, the GM may rule that the PC is slain or paralyzed by fear (though this probably isn’t very fun) or may apply all applicable penalties but allow the PC to stay active until actually struck for damage.
  6. The lost hit points return after the fear source is removed, but in grittier games a character that dies partially due to phantom wounds is still dead. It will vary from game to game whether it is appropriate for characters in scary circumstances to wake up from unconsciousness after being dropped by horrors.
  7. In situations where the characters are only inclined to stay behind because the players don’t think they actually stand any chance if they run, the player can declare a fair escape at the cost of the phantom damage becoming permanent. This can be explained as the character taking risks and hurting him or herself, but somehow escaping. Whether the character escapes to a completely safe area or just a temporary respite is up to the genre of the game.

This system probably works best for survival horror or other genres where the choice is between fight or flight. It may not work well in systems where fear checks often occur in investigation or other non-combat situations, unless the system also includes a wound penalty mechanic that would affect applicable rolls.

What am I missing? Would this be a more fun system than stand or flee fear rolls?