D&D 5e: Fear and Horror Checks

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Clearly what the world needs is another fear/horror system for D&D. This one popped into my head thinking about Ravenloft.

In general, my current thinking on fear systems in games is that being afraid should be a penalty to action as an incentive to flee, but should not take away control of the PC and force particular actions. The Frightened condition in 5e, while a useful shorthand that I’ve used for this system, may be a little too far on the forcing action side since it prevents approaching the source of fear, but I think it’s workable with the attached horror subsystem.


Certain terrifying creatures (and some scary/horrifying situations) inspire Fear by being encountered. Upon seeing (or otherwise becoming aware of) the creature/source, all encountering characters must make a Fear save. The DC is equal to 10 + the creature’s CR (for games where fear is a very real difficulty) or half that total (for games where fear is more of an occasional issue). Non-creature situations should have an equivalent scale.

A Fear save is made as the player’s choice of an Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma saving throw based on chosen tactic:

  • Denial (Intelligence): You rationalize or compartmentalize the worst aspects of the creature, using sheer brainpower to imagine the threat as something less terrifying. This tactic is the best choice (of several bad choices) for truly unnatural creatures (like aberrations) and horrors from beyond, and grants advantage in those situations.
  • Perspective (Wisdom): You think of how big the world is and how, in the grand scheme of things, the creature is just another thing to encounter, no different than any other threat. This tactic is the best choice for supernatural (but not unnatural) creatures (like fiends, fey, and undead) and divine situations, and grants advantage in those situations. (If your world’s cosmology suggests that undead aren’t created by the divine for some reason, they may fall better under Denial).
  • Courage (Charisma): You just decide that fear is not an option, and muscle through based on sheer force of will. This tactic is the best choice for natural creatures (like monstrosities and dragons) that are just scary due to their ability to inflict serious pain, as well as more natural sources of horror (such as grisly murders), and grants advantage in those situations.

If the Fear save is failed, the character suffers the Frightened condition toward the trigger until the creature is killed, a point of Horror is accepted (see below), or the situation is escaped and everyone has a chance to cool off (which may require a short rest, at the GM’s option).

Characters may take a point of Horror as a free action to override the Frightened condition (taking long term mental trauma to overcome short term inability to act). By taking a point of Horror, the character is not subject to making additional Fear saves against the trigger or the same type of creature until the next sunset.

Characters can choose any tactic for the situation (but may not truly know whether it’s natural, supernatural, or unnatural before rolling), but likely use their highest save as their preferred tactic.


Characters gain Horror by overcoming Frightened (as described above) and by suffering a Horror trigger.

Common Horror triggers are:

  • Domination (Intelligence, Wisdom): For the strongest minds, losing control of one’s own mental processes is the most horrifying situation. Whenever you suffer the Charmed condition or are otherwise unable to act on your own volition due to mental compulsions, take a point of Horror.
  • Mutation (Charisma, Constitution): For those possessed of great beauty and health, horrors of the body can strike deepest. Whenever you suffer the Poisoned condition for a minute or longer, a disease for a week or longer, or are subjected to unwelcome polymorph or other shapeshifting effects, take a point of Horror. (Only one point of Horror for one poison or disease, even if it is ongoing for quite some time.)
  • Restraint (Dexterity, Strength): For those used to relying on their strength and mobility, being trapped is a profound phobia. Whenever you suffer the Paralyzed, Petrified, or Restrained condition (with nothing you can do through your own physical means to try to free yourself), take a point of Horror.

GMs may choose to define other phobias as additional Horror triggers. At the GM’s option, players may choose to remove a point of Horror by taking a new permanent Horror trigger. It is up to the GM whether all PCs start with one Horror trigger, or only gain them in play (which will usually require failing enough Fear saves to start needing to remove Horror points). It’s also up to the GM whether mental therapy in downtime can remove triggers.

For the most basic way to implement this system, Horror points are equivalent to levels of Exhaustion (and stack with them). At the GM’s option, a separate Horror track that works similar to Exhaustion may be created.

Disaster as Random Chargen Filter


One of the problems with holding onto a love of random character generation is that it originally went hand in hand with another major facet of D&D: if you rolled poorly on your character, that character would probably die quickly and you’d get to try again. Conversely, it’s probably likely that players that rolled really exceptional characters had a decent chance of getting overconfident and losing them. Ultimately, that meant that the dungeon was serving as a filter: weak characters tended to die (or be lucky enough to be very interesting to roleplay), and, in the long term, it was hard to get stuck with a character meaningfully weaker than other PCs for the campaign.

Meanwhile, in modern games, most tables that I’m aware of don’t really have a high PC body count. If you use random chargen and roll poorly, you could be stuck as the effective sidekick to the more powerful characters in the party for the whole campaign.

I had an idea while attending the Horror in Gaming panel at Dragon*Con this year that would allow you to reintroduce the filter in a specific circumstance. My original idea was for something I’ve seen in modern action horror movies like Freddy vs. Jason and House of the Dead: dozens of teens at a rave in a dangerous location, suddenly fleeing when monsters attack. It also works for disaster-movie scenarios. But the idea possibly best in that old D&D trope: survivors of the big bad wiping out a village.

I may expand this idea to a loose module in the future, but the basic idea is:

  • The GM (with the help of the players, if they’re interested) generates a bunch of extremely rough character descriptions and puts them on notecards. This would be the kind of details you’d notice in a crowd scene of a disaster or horror movie: race, sex, hair color, age, and a significant item of clothing (possibly just using something like the Pathfinder Face Cards instead). It’s enough to give the players some idea of whether they’d like to play the character long term.
  • The players take turns claiming cards (or get them randomly) until they have an equal number of characters.
  • The GM sets the stage for what’s going on. Players used to games where they improvisationally portray characters with no stats might pick a character or two to do a bit of ad libbling.
  • Something awful starts killing everyone, and the crowd scatters to escape. The PC cards might represent the whole crowd, or be surrounded by NPCs also getting slaughtered.
  • The GM puts obstacles in the way of escaping: dodging monsters and explosions, having to scale walls and fences, stumbling lost in the dark, remembering how to bypass something, soldiering on through choking smoke or light injuries, and begging others for help.
  • Each of these obstacles is an attribute challenge (e.g., in D&D 5e, an ability check for skill or save). When characters get to it, roll up their applicable stat and make the test. Characters that make it through might, if the context makes sense, help those that failed (but not all of them). The goal is to have pretty heavy carnage of characters that fail challenges.
  • After every such obstacle, give the survivors a new character trait (possibly also randomly chosen) like name and other personality highlights (e.g., again for 5e, background, then personality, ideal, flaw, and bond). Allow a little time for roleplaying if the players want to: they should be figuring out which characters they might want to play.
  • Also after every obstacle (or round of obstacles, if the characters split up into different mobs), have the players hang on to one or two characters they like the most right now, put the rest back in the middle, and then redraw until everyone has an even number. This is just in case players have a different rate of attrition.
  • You might also give the players a small set of rerolls to use across all their characters, to get characters they’re growing attached to through a poor roll or two.
  • Repeat obstacles until the character pool has been whittled down to one PC per player (possibly with a few left over to be backup characters/friendly NPCs). If attrition was high enough that not all the necessary attributes and personality traits are chosen, roll those now.
  • Narrate the last of the PCs escaping to a moment of safety long enough to catch their breaths… and worry what they’re going to do about the thing that just wiped out everyone around them. Finish generating the characters (such as picking a class and everything that goes with it).

Ultimately, this method should wind up with PCs that are above average and more-or-less on par with one another, but that still feel random. And you’ve also got a nice baked-in traumatic experience and plot hook to motivate roleplay from there on out.

D20 Modern, Epic 1st, and Action Horror


Ash vs. Evil Dead was a fun little romp of a first season, and got me thinking about different ways to model what it (and a lot of other action horror shows/films) demonstrate: the supernatural threat can mow through cops and soldiers like grass, but comes up short dealing with initially lucky but now badass everymen. One possibility uses the ideas of Epic 6th (E6) to go even further into the realm of grittiness.

First off, make some classes that make sense for your timeframe. If you’re doing a fantasy horror game, the standard D&D/Pathfinder classes are probably fine. If you’re doing something more modern, you might need to work to update D20 Modern’s classes (or just make your own as modern interpretations of existing classes). The important guidelines are:

  • Each class you include should have interesting tradeoffs at 1st level compared to the others (e.g., more class skills vs. more HP vs. +1 BaB).
  • They should probably get some interesting unique ability at first level.
  • It wouldn’t hurt to retain the NPC Class/PC Class split, if you want to model highly-trained characters that flat out have an advantage even at 1st level.

Most people in the world reach 1st level at adulthood, and improve further by gaining more feats. Depending on how egalitarian you feel about human competence, some people may just be born with better ability scores, or ability scores may be something you can improve over time as another way to advance. But almost no one will ever reach 2nd level.

This creates a pretty interestingly constrained system space that models reality (or at least movie reality) much better than standard D20:

  • It’s virtually impossible to get an ability score over 20.
  • The grandmaster in the world of a skill has a +12 bonus before circumstance modifiers (+4 ranks, +3 skill focus, +5 ability score).
  • The toughest character in the world has 20 HP (D12 HD, +5 from Con, +3 from Toughness), so will die to a few hits from a d8 or greater weapon. Most characters have 6-10 HP (d6 or d8 HD and some Con bonus), so will usually get dropped by one, maybe two hits from a deadly weapon.
  • The biggest badass in the world with a weapon can maybe eke out +10 attack bonus in ideal circumstances (+1 BaB, +5 ability score, +1 weapon focus, +1 masterwork weapon, and a couple points of situational feat bonuses like point blank shot).

On its own, this might be a passable way to run an extremely low-powered/realistic/gritty game. If you don’t allow a feat that gives extra skill ranks, you’d probably want to allow respeccing class-granted ranks in some way. You’d probably also want some way to gradually respec ability scores and class. But, particularly if you gave out bonus feats on a regular enough schedule, and the rest of the world was clearly on the same power level, it might hold your players’ interest for a decently long time.

But it’s also a good way to run an action horror game.

Here, the premise is simple: supernatural monsters are the only source of XP that can improve your character level.

Whatever the in-narrative source of these monsters, they’re basically an out-of-context problem for the existing paradigm. They’re going to have supernatural abilities. They’re going to have multiple hit dice. They’re going to have high AC, attack, and damage relative to what’s possible for even the best of the best that are stuck at 1st level.

So surviving an encounter with one is going to be more likely if you’re a cop or a soldier, with good combat stats and feats, but it’s far from guaranteed. Against even a CR3 creature, particularly one that uses surprise attacks so soldiers can’t get organized, it’s going to be almost pure luck who survives out of a random sample of people. When the monsters hit the cross section of humanity in a department store or a diner, the survivors may just be a bunch of everymen that happened to get some lucky hits in and somehow not die.

And then they start to level up.

You’re now telling the story of a bunch of ordinary people that have become extraordinary purely by virtue of the standard D&D advancement mechanic. Who has a greater chance of taking out a nest of monsters: a team of the very best 1st level Fighters in the world, or a lucky bunch of 6th level Commoners? You don’t go to Ash Williams to solve your Deadite problem because he’s easy to work with, forward-thinking, or able to respond to tactical suggestions. You go to him because he’s the highest level character in the world, and monsters that can threaten a whole Seal Team aren’t really that much of a bother to him.

Hail to the king, baby.

Horror: Painful Success

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A lot of recent games have introduced the concept of paying to turn a failure or minimal success into a full success. If you roll well, you succeed fully, but if you have a near miss you can turn it into a success with consequences.

I was reading an old Delta Green scenario and noticed a frequent use of success at a perception roll resulting in additional information… and Sanity loss. This is almost the opposite of paying a cost to turn failure into success: success always costs, while failure leaves you blissfully ignorant.

I figured that might have room to expand to a more general mechanic for use with horror games (I’ll explain the thinking at the end). The mechanics for this are left purposefully nonspecific to retrofit onto your system of choice.


Every character has one or more fairly granular traits that indicate progress toward a severe consequence, and may cause problems even before reaching the ultimate end. The prototype for this is a sanity meter, but other traits could be added for fatigue, pain, stress, or even just grime (the authorities are much harder to convince when you’re unkept, sweaty, and covered in gore, after all). You can even use hit points, if they’re granular enough in your system. Some of these may be easier to repair than others, but most should be pretty had to repair during a scenario: the point is that they get used up as the characters are ground down.

And how do they get ground down? Any challenge may have a cost to one of the progress traits. You saw the monster you’re facing, but went a little mad from it. You barricaded the door, but wore yourself out doing it. You got away, but you’re all sweaty and winded. Not every test should have a cost, but the players don’t necessarily know how expensive it will be until they roll. Thus, when they roll, there are four possible results:

  • Major Failure/Fumble: You don’t get the benefits of success, but you pay the cost anyway. You saw enough of the monster to bend your brain but not enough to learn anything useful. You put a lot of exertion into a hopeless task.
  • Regular Failure: You don’t get the benefits of success, or pay the cost. You missed the monsters entirely, or your brain filtered out everything about it to save your mind. You realized you weren’t up to the challenge before you wore yourself out trying.
  • Regular Success: You get the benefits of success, and pay the cost. You saw the monster for good and ill. You wore yourself out but accomplished something.
  • Major Success/Crit: You learn the cost and then can decide to take a failure instead if you don’t want to pay it. You still pay the cost if you take the success.

Use your system’s normal rules for retries after failure, possibly stepping up the eventual cost of success or major failure if the player keeps rolling. As an optional rule, you can let a player turn a failure into a success by paying double the cost.

In general, less than half of tasks should have a cost (but the players won’t necessarily be able to predict which ones); really just the ones that seem like even success would be dangerous or tiring. The costs should be low, particularly early on and for traits that are hard to repair. Big costs should have big payoffs in information or improving chances of success. The goal is to have a reasonably successful scenario leave the characters only largely expended: they shouldn’t go mad or pass out without making a bunch of unnecessary or ill-advised rolls.


Players sometimes have a hard time with genre emulation in horror: PCs wind up being extremely proactive in a way that’s not necessarily appropriate to the fiction. The fiction is usually about everymen out of their depth that hole up, try the dead radio, and argue with one another, only striking out to save themselves when pushed by circumstance, not well-coordinated heroes that immediately start a grid search and materiel collection.

What these rules should do is make players more cautious about just trying a bunch of actions to see what works. Highly ambitious characters get worn out, leaving the more passive ones to shine at the climax. It may even result in a level of desirable passive aggression and drama, where the PCs try to goad one another into taking risks while keeping themselves fresh.

Ultimately, expending resources early should mean acquiring information and advantages that make it much easier to succeed at the end, so the game will hopefully become a careful dance of only attempting things that are necessary or dealing with problems as they’re required.

D20: Ablative Morale


This is largely meant for a low-level, gritty D20 game (like that mentioned in last week’s zombie post), but could be useful in any game that needs a morale system.

Each party (or group of enemies) has a Morale rating.

The party’s Morale cannot exceed the party leader’s Leadership bonus (i.e., level + Cha bonus; if the leader has the Leadership feat, add the same additional bonuses for retainers). If the party leader is incapacitated or another leader must otherwise be chosen, immediately lose all Morale in excess of the new Leadership bonus. For new parties and enemy encounters, start Morale at half the Leadership rating.

When Morale reaches 0, each member of the party gains the Shaken effect (which stacks with other sources of Shaken to build to Frightened or Panicked). If Morale is 5 (and for every additional 5 points of Morale), all members of the party gain a +1 Morale bonus to attack rolls, saving throws, skill checks, and ability checks (i.e., reverse Shaken). Morale has a minimum of 0. For higher-level games, the GM might want to raise this bonus threshold so the maximum is effectively +2.

During play, a party can gain and lose Morale.

The party gains a point of Morale when:

  • Any member defeats an enemy or challenge with a CR equal to or greater than the current Morale
  • All surviving party members are healed to full HP the first time after a fight that resulted in at least one lost Morale (i.e., you can only get this bonus to repair lost Morale, not raise it)
  • An incapacitated/dead party member is returned to positive HP
  • The party accomplishes something the GM deems particularly heartening (but which doesn’t have a CR); note that for a lot of games this will be a primary source of positive Morale, and the GM should award points with a frequency governed by how dark the game is meant to be

The party loses a point of Morale when:

  • Any member takes damage from a single source/attack equal or greater than the current Morale (cumulative if multiple members take damage from the same attack)
  • Any party member is incapacitated (cumulative with taking damage greater than current Morale)
  • Any party member is killed (cumulative with being incapacitated)
  • An enemy uses a full round action and successfully makes a successful Bluff or Intimidate check at a DC equal to 10 + current Morale

If the party is part of a larger force, Morale might also be tracked separately for the army and the individual squad. In this case, squads should be treated more or less as PCs for the purposes of the larger Morale (i.e., Morale is not adjusted for every single individual character). The army’s Morale stacks with an individual squad’s Morale (i.e., a positive bonus from one might counteract Shaken from the other, and if both army and squad are at 0 Morale, all members of the squad are Frightened).

Mindless creatures (like zombies) and zealots don’t worry about Morale (but also don’t get the bonus for high Morale).

Large enemy groups might be broken into multiple internal groups for purposes of Morale. This is especially useful for monsters that have minions and don’t much care if they die: the minions might well be Shaken while the main threats are not. In this case, the same creature’s Leadership might serve to set the Morale limit for both groups.

For the PC party, Morale is persistent through sessions, potentially leading to long stretches of positive or negative outlook.

Dungeon Inertia (D&D/Pathfinder)

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Shieldhaven posted a system for improving the odds of fleeing characters to actually escape. I suggested that it needed a morale system to go with it, but noted that it might not be enough: in new school linked dungeons, players are never going to want to let monsters flee and potentially come back later to either add to another fight or to drag in more enemies. Below is what we came up with to try to solve these problems.

Dungeon Inertia is usable in any situation where there are a number of allied enemies broken into smaller encounters. Primarily useful in any dungeon where the enemies are allied such that rooms might reinforce other rooms, it could also be used in external encounter areas such as bandit camps or cities. Essentially, it’s for situations where a much larger enemy force is broken up into encounters where the PCs can take them on piecemeal, but where it would make sense for enemies to flee and get help once the encounter goes south for them.

The problem this concept is meant to solve is the need to utterly destroy all threats for fear they’ll remain a danger if unslain while, indeed, allowing enemies to run for aid when it makes sense. As runners tend to make it easier to take apart the morale of a dungeon, hopefully this system makes it less of a huge worry for players to experience encounters that pile on top of one another (i.e., “adds” in MMO parlance). A side effect of this system is to create a practical reason to avoid the “Five Minute Adventuring Day” even when there’s no exterior time pressure: enemies  recover Inertia if left to recuperate.


When creating a linked series of encounters as a GM, total the number of enemies in the area subject to morale (i.e., don’t count undead, constructs, etc. in most cases). This is the Inertia total for the area. Effectively, each enemy in the area starts with one Inertia Token when the PCs enter the area, and these will be depleted as enemies die or otherwise have their morale break.

Since every enemy starts with a token, you can actually track this in the negative: only mark the enemies that are still alive but do not have a token. The total Inertia of the dungeon vs. remaining combat-ready enemies becomes important if the PCs take a break.


Whenever an enemy is defeated (slain or dropped negative and not immediately picked back up), remove its Inertia Token. If it did not have an Inertia Token, remove one from another enemy in the same encounter.

If the enemy died in one hit and/or was the leader of the group, remove a token from one of the still-fighting enemies in the encounter. Any time something else that might appear on an old-school morale chart happens (e.g., monster is bloodied, magic is used in front of superstitious enemies, PC performs a particularly brutal attack, etc.),  you may roll or just your judgment as a GM to remove an additional token.

Any still-fighting enemy without an Inertia Token is considered Shaken (getting a -2 to most rolls). These enemies will also tend to try to stay out of harm’s way, making attacks from range or using Aid Another for their allies.

Any enemy missing a token that would gain Shaken from another source (such as Intimidate) instead gains Frightened and flees. If all remaining enemies are missing their token, all enemies gain Frightened and flee. The Frightened condition persists until the enemies either reach allies or some other area that they think is safe, at which they return to simply being Shaken.

If an enemy without an Inertia Token is encountered again, its “one-shot” threshold is set to its current HP, even if it’s already wounded (e.g., if a wounded creature without a token returns with friends, if it is slain in one hit, one of the friends will lose an extra token beyond the one lost for the death of an already token-free enemy).

If a PC is dropped unconscious, restore a token to a single enemy in the encounter that is missing one.

If the PCs take a long rest, restore all Inertia Tokens to the enemy. This will likely result in extra tokens (from the enemies that were slain). Apply these extra tokens to other enemies in the area (to a maximum of one extra token). Any enemy with two tokens essentially has the opposite of Shaken, gaining a +2 Morale bonus to all d20 rolls. This bonus represents having time to plan for the next PC assault and to become enraged at the invaders.

Intended Results

This system should have the following benefits:

  • Enemies will flee organically when a battle turns against them, especially when PCs use Intimidate as a tactic.
  • PCs will be more likely to let fleeing enemies flee: if they are stopped and slain out of view of their friends, their death will not remove an extra token.
  • Fights where multiple encounters worth of foes bear down on the PCs should be more manageable: more and more of the foes should be Shaken as the fight goes on, effectively reducing the encounter level of the fight.
  • PCs should be less willing to expend most of their resources up front and then try to take an extended rest, as doing so will make the remaining enemies more dangerous.

Elements of Terror

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I found some research notes from when I was concepting out a horror video game a few years ago. With a little bit of work, they are probably helpful to tabletop or LARP games as well.

To maintain a consistent terminology, the four levels of scare mentioned are:

  • Shock: A sudden or violent disturbance of the mind, emotions, or sensibilities
  • Fear: A distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, pain, etc., whether the threat is real or imagined
  • Terror: Intense, sharp, overmastering fear
  • Horror: An overwhelming and painful feeling caused by something frightfully shocking, terrifying, or revolting; a shuddering fear

In general, each of those scares is successively more appreciated and memorable.

Shock, or “Boo,” scares tend to release the current tension level, and may be considered cheap if they are not well executed. They are best used after ramping up the tension level, either to pay off the horror in the current situation, or to defuse it in order to bring in a new scare that the subject isn’t prepared for. For example, in the first use, a subject wandering through a room full of cadavers may suddenly have a zombie fall from the ceiling right in front of him, and give chase. In the second use, a subject wandering through the same room may see the body fall suddenly, but it’s just a corpse; however, while the subject was looking at the corpse, several of the cadavers sat up behind him and starting approaching.

Fear is that state that should be the base level of existence in the horror scenario. It is a proscriptive emotion; as long as the user can avoid the source of the fear, it is not especially intense. Fear is present when the subject is walking carefully, examining shadows, and opening doors slowly, prepared to run, but it is passive in these cases, simply building tension to be released later. Fear becomes a more active emotion when the subject is forced to choose between two unwelcome situations (e.g., venture into the dark room or stay in the hall waiting to find out what the increasingly loud growling sound is). Almost all situations in the scenario should be intending to at least minimally add to fear, preparing it to be unleashed into one of the other emotions.

Terror is mostly a completely active version of fear. The source of fear that has scared the subject is so great, that caution is abandoned in order to simply get away from the source of fear. Genuine terror is difficult to manufacture reliably, and will vary greatly from subject to subject. Individual phobias are probably the best triggers, and those are hard to use on an unknown subject (though it may be possible to create systems to figure out the user’s phobias in advance in order to trigger them later). The closest approximation to terror that may be reliably activated is certain death. A crushing ceiling, horde of zombies, or wave of vermin is likely to cause anyone to run, and it may invoke terror if enough fear has been built in advance.

Horror is supported by fear, but is largely different. Subjects can be horrified by something that they do not fear, and afraid of something that is not horrifying. Horror is best caused by situations completely out of the subject’s experience in a negative way; decomposing corpses, erratically moving zombies, and alien-looking creatures are all tried and true sources of horror. The best horror comes with the subject is allowed to use imagination rather than being shown; an opportunity to see something brings it further within the subject’s experience, and less horrible. The anticipation of something alien is often more horrifying than the horror itself. The elements of the scenario that are truly meant to cause horror should be given out in flashes and glimpses after being built up by text props, atmosphere, and noises. Only in extreme situations should they be seen long enough to quantify.

In general, within a horror scenario, the best scares will be accomplished by setting the user’s imagination against itself. The scares that the users will take away will be ones that wake them up in the middle of the night, or make them afraid to undertake previously unexceptional activities without leaving all the lights on. Years after Psycho, many people are still wary of letting their guards down completely in the shower. If one can accomplish a similar feat of making the ordinary seem dangerous, the scenario will be remembered and successful.


The following are based on common scares and phobias:

  • Acrophobia: A convincingly rendered virtual height can be almost as vertigo-inducing as in the real world. Traveling along a cliff or the edge of a tall building would inspire the fear of heights. Seemingly bottomless pits might be more or less effective.
  • Claustrophobia: Being in a tight place works very well in real haunted houses, and could work in a virtual one as well. Care would have to be taken to make the camera work correctly in third-person view.
  • Vermin-related Phobias: Insects, snakes, mice, and especially spiders can all be placed in the game as isolated objects or moving carpets of vermin. The X-Files trick of animating a roach crawling across the screen during these sequences is purely optional.
  • Autophobia and Nyctohylophobia: Being alone in the forest at night is a big fear for a surprising number of people. Again, this is something that is hard to replicate in a physical haunted attraction but no problem in a virtual world.
  • Brontophobia: This fear does not involve dinosaurs, it’s about thunder. A persistent external storm sound look with loud thunder crashes at significant moments could worry a large portion of the audience.
  • Trypanophobia: The fear of injections can be compounded with other piercing, painful items such as fishhooks and barbed wire. I’ve found my most successful scares in running RPGs involves a nightmare creature made of barbed wire and hooks with syringes for fangs.
  • Shock scares: Typically referred to as “boo” scares, all mediums make use of situations where the audience is suddenly accosted with loud noises and/or rapidly approaching threats. Care must be taken with these scares: if they are used with no build-up, they simply startle and seem cheap, while if they are used after build-up, they can deflate carefully built tension if done improperly.
  • Apparitions: In haunted houses, “haunted” would seem to be the operative word. Apparitions that move at the corners of vision or appear suddenly around corners then disappear can be very effective tensionbuilders or shock scares.
  • Frying Pan and Fire: A particularly fearsome scare pops up on one side, causing the user to run into an apparent escape route. Unfortunately, the escape route ends on an even scarier scene.
  • Static: A TV switches on to static, no matter how many times the user turns it off. Ultimately, this is a distraction from the real scare that is appearing behind the avatar.
  • Creepy Kids: Kids that don’t act like kids are scary. Spectral kids are even scarier.
  • The Uncanny Valley: Some of the most horrifying creatures are those that look and move almost, but not quite, like humans. Zombies, stutter-stepping ghosts, and twitching crazy people can all fall into this valley.
  • Creepy Dolls: An easy way to trigger the uncanny valley is with inhuman looking toys, particularly in partial lighting.
  • Torture Horrors: Many types of torture and murder involve mutilation. A quick road to horror is to show human bodies being mutilated in horrible and painful manners. Partial lighting with disgusting sound effects can make these tortures severely horrifying without involving full out disgusting images; the subject’s imagination can easily conceive of the pain of lacerations, bites, or contusions.

Random Morale Table

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Based on this post, here’s a short set of random morale rules. It’s intended to be used for unintelligent/animal monsters or for mook-type monsters (i.e., humanoids that are not fanatically devoted to killing the PCs over saving their lives), particularly when just attacking the nearest PC over and over is getting stale.

Roll 1d8 at the start of the NPC’s turn and add the following modifiers:

Enemies Outnumber PCs +2
NPC Unwounded +2
Leader Still Fighting +2
Enemies Outnumbered -2
NPCs has Less than Half HP -2
All NPC’s Allies Defeated -2

Then compare the modified result to the appropriate table:

Animal Intelligent
10+ Hiss/Roar/Intimidate Gloat/Intimidate/Show Off
9 Posture/Stalk targets/No action Try fancy maneuver on nearest PC
8 Attack weakest/smallest PC Attack strongest looking PC
7 Attack tastiest looking PC Attack nearest caster PC
6 Charge random PC Attack nearest PC
5 Attack most wounded PC Attempt to buff or heal self
4 Attack last attacking PC Attack last attacking PC
3 Attack nearest PC (even if defeated) Attack nearest PC with desperate blow
2 Hiss/Roar/Intimidate/Confused Attack most wounded PC if possible
1 Charge most wounded PC Try to move to cover
0 to -4 Mindless Flight Fighting Retreat/Negotiation
-5 Play Dead/Bare Throat Mindless Flight/Surrender


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Staring into the Darkness

Hell is underground. In the depths of the mines, in the heart of caves, in the far reaches of ancient cities, it waits. It claws into the darkness of the underworld, flowing through it like sludge through the seas, looking for a way out to the sky. Things move in the hell-tainted darkness, formed from nightmare and black light. They dig towards the surface, lay traps, and always seek to claw their way into our world. Sometimes, they find it, breaking open a dungeon maw, their corruption spreading across the night to terrorize nearby innocents until driven back inside by the dawn.

These assaults inevitably inspire heroes to rise up, put down the incursion, and seek to seal the newly opened dungeon. Sometimes, it is enough to collapse the entrance and hope it will be years, again, before something else digs free. Others establish a vigil of light at its gate, burning great fires so the blacklight cannot slip free and form horrors anywhere in the night, and fighting back the creatures that brave the light. But some, the truly brave or the truly mad, descend into the dungeons, carrying what light they can and seeking to destroy the heart of the incursion, making the warrens safe for an age. These adventurers find more than just danger, however.

Every dungeon has a story, some event that allowed evil to crawl free. Some were the lairs of criminals. Others were dead-ends where innocents fled and died. Many were once great cities, before the last great civilization was struck down by its own greed. A few have gathered new stories of the adventurers that died within. In almost all cases, the artifacts of the dungeon’s story remain, foul creatures forming around them like cysts, living out shadow versions of the tale. If the guardians can be dispatched or bypassed, the artifacts make great prizes, wealth beyond the rewards of honest labor, treasures rarely seen in the modern age. Many that delve into the darkness on a simple mission of hope soon develop another agenda for braving the shadows.

These adventurers find not just gold and magic, but knowledge. Something about fighting these creatures teaches skills long lost to the world. The few great sages claim that the last era of heroes led directly to the fall of civilization and the rise of the blacklight, and the darkness remembers its forebears. Whatever the reason, those that delve into dungeons emerge with prowess and potency far beyond the common warriors and adepts who make up the armies of men. They are paladins and rangers, sorcerers and bards, and many other titles known only in songs. Quickly, their horror-won proficiency makes them without peer amongst normal men. They are sought not just to protect against new dungeon breakthroughs, but to bend the course of wars.

Skilled in might and magic, rich from ancient treasures, and possessed of skills unknown to this age of the world, adventuring seems a noble and worthwhile effort. But there is a secret known only to the few that have delved into dungeons and traded the stories of their journeys. The blacklight creatures are formless nightmares as they lurk unmolested in their tombs. It is perception that catalyzes them into being, and they take their forms and powers from the darkest reaches of the minds that perceive them. Great men have so much more to dread, and adventurers quickly progress from simple things like goblins to much greater horrors than the common mind can conceive. At every turn, these heroes marvel that most of what they face seems just within the limits of their skills, not realizing that what they face lies just within the limits of their imaginations. The blacklight grows stronger with strong minds to pattern it. Breakthroughs near a town with experienced adventurers can be truly terrible to the population, and true horrors lurk in tombs that great heroes failed to destroy. In time, many adventurers come to wonder whether they are truly helping the world, or merely feeding some dark, hellish agenda that seeks to remake the powers of the last age… and once again pull civilization to the brink.

Fear Tests

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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?