Using Fear: Scare the Player, Not the Character

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on October 26, 2009

How do you scare a PC? It’s not as simple as you think. With any role-playing situation, the emotions of the PC need to be separated from the emotions of the player running the PC. So just because something scares Delian the Paladin doesn’t mean it’s going to scare me the player. It’s up to me to role-play my PC’s actions and emotions accordingly. The more I’m willing to get into character the more effective this kind of situation will be.

As players, we are familiar with the mechanics of how the game works. So when the DM says that a dozen corpses rise from the ground and surround the PCs, the player in me knows that the party should be able to defeat this encounter just as we would any other combat situation. But undead are scary. They’re supposed to strike sheer terror into the hearts of the living. If I saw even one corpse rise from the ground I’d probably need serious therapy for years to come. That’s assuming that I didn’t die of fright right there as it happened. The most effective way to ensure that the PC is scared is to scare the player and this is a very difficult thing to do.

As the DM you can’t force players to role-play their PCs the way you think they should behave. So no matter how scary a situation may seem to a “normal” person, if the player doesn’t want to role-play his PC as scared then that’s it, end of discussion.

There are ways the DM can bridge this gap between what the PC would reasonably do and what the player feels is the appropriate response. The devil is in the details.

Description 1

“Twelve zombies rise from the ground and surround the party.”

This is how most DMs would describe the encounter. There’s nothing wrong with this description. It’s accurate, but it’s boring. Most PCs wouldn’t consider this any different than any other combat encounter. You describe the scene, they roll initiative and then the fighting begins. But what if you described it more from the PC’s point-of-view and less from the player’s point-of-view?

Description 2

“The wind howls and a sudden chill fills the air. From the corner of your eye you see movement. As you look around you realize that large forms are clawing their way to the surface from beneath the earth. The stench of rot assaults your senses. Dirty bodies in various stages of decomposition emerge from all around you. They begin moaning in unison. The creatures are everywhere.”

This description does a much better job of setting the scene. The PCs have but a few seconds to assess the situation and determine the best course of action. If they want to count exactly how many monsters there are they need to spend an action to do so. If they want to try and identify what these creatures are they need to spend an action to do so. All they know is that something’s coming to get them.

It’s this kind of attention to detail that helps reluctant players role-play their PC in a more realistic manner. Because the player doesn’t have knowledge that the PC wouldn’t have, the player makes his decisions in much the same way his PC would.

The little details are what really sell this scene. Things that won’t have any effect on the mechanics of combat, like the sounds and smells, are the key. When describing encounters most DMs rely solely on visual details and even then it’s described as if everyone can see everything. This makes things easier and faster, but it hinders good role-playing. By adding these other little details PCs will approach this encounter differently then they normally would.

Ultimately the way a PC reacts in any given situation is up to the player. Separating player knowledge from PC knowledge has always been a difficult task. Separating player emotions from PC emotions is even more difficult. By putting the player into the PC’s shoes and describing the scene from the PC’s point-of-view the likelihood of eliciting the emotional response you’re expecting, like fear, is much more likely to happen.

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1 Joshua October 26, 2009 at 10:33 am

Warning: some players hate experiencing fear very, very much. You should be very cautious going in unless you know your players will enjoy it. Your Description 2 is safely on the tame side of things…but that means that it’s not very likely to scare any of the players. It’s more of a reminder that these things are supposed to be scary. Actually setting out to scare the players is more extreme; it can totally be worth it if the players are willing, but it can also trigger some of the most deliberate mood and scenario wrecking behavior I’ve ever seen if there’s even one player who resists.
.-= Joshua´s last blog ..Kapow! Introductions =-.

2 pingwin October 26, 2009 at 10:42 am

I like to get on their nerves once in a while and find more unconventional stuff works better. When the players go into the basement of the necromancers keep they expect zombies and the like and no description is going to get them off balance.

But an 8 year old girl in a red dress carrying something covered in a piece of cloth amidst a bunch of (well described) zombies will. What if she talks like a normal girl, refuses to show what is in the cloth and has never even noticed the zombies? What if she seems evil to a detect spell but shows no sign of malice? Is she cursed, is she dangerous, is she a victim?

Suddenly there is a huge dilemma and related risks… What did we get involved in?

3 Badelaire October 26, 2009 at 1:38 pm

Interestingly enough, I wrote an article about this on Friday (guess it must be the season).

I think the biggest hurdle in doing anything “scary” in RPGs is player buy-in. Some players simply aren’t going to buy in to anything “scary”. Any attempt by the GM to set the mood or emphasize the horrific aspects of the situation will just be met by laughter and scorn, and any attempt to enforce horror through mechanics just gets attacked by players who refuse to let the rules affect their PC’s reactions.

You also run into a problem with lethality. I’ve often seen people say the best way to enforce fear in the part of the player is to instill fear for the safety of the character. The problem with that I see is the more you threaten the character and the greater the likelihood of PC death, the more players are going to detach themselves from their PCs. Just like watching a slasher-type horror movie, if you know 90% of the cast is going to be dead by the end credits, you don’t invest yourself emotionally with any of them, and in fact spend most of the movie making fun of them for doing stupid stuff that gets them killed.

So that’s the big problem as I see it. The more you try to instill fear through atmospheric / role-play means, the more some players are going to rebel because they think it’s “silly” or “corny”, and the more you reinforce it through mechanical means, the more players are going to treat their PCs as playing pieces or slasher film characters, just waiting to see how they meet a gruesome end and laughing about it afterward.

I think it’s possible to “gross out” your players, and I think it’s possible to “weird them out” as well. And maybe now and then if you hit it just right you might make one of them a little nervous or give someone a good startle. Beyond this, I just don’t think Horror Gaming, in terms of “scaring the players/PCs” on a long term basis, is feasible with your average gamer.

If you can land an entire crop of players who will enthusiastically allow themselves to buy in to the horror experience, I think you’ve landed a once-in-a-blue-moon situation.
.-= Badelaire´s last blog ..Are You Scared? Maybe You Should Be… =-.

4 Rook October 26, 2009 at 8:30 pm

Well, regardless of which side of the “to scare or not to scare” debate you fall on, Ameron does make at least one very good point. Its all in the details. As a DM, I think its very important to describe any scene to your players with far more than just general visual components. Describing sounds and smells, among other stimuli, can really bring a situation to life in the eyes of your players. Another good point is to describe things from the PCs point of view. Ameron sums this concept up nicely in the last paragraph. Well done.
(Now, if I could just remember to put this into practice.) 🙂
.-= Rook´s last blog ..Of Wishes and Wizards =-.

5 Jamie October 26, 2009 at 9:17 pm

Scaring the player in games where fear is part of the object has always been something I have tried for, though I tend to like going for slightly creepy effects that build up over time than single events. That’s just me, though. One of my favorite resources for this is an thread, Contribute Your Eerie Event (
.-= Jamie´s last blog ..Sightseeing =-.

6 Jafo October 26, 2009 at 10:56 pm

I think to scare players and keep them caring about their characters is to give them time in a campaign to settle in, invest in the world and the story. Once they have some “real” relationships and a very established sense of what is normal, then you can start to wreak havoc on that expectation.

Until you know what is very normal and comfortable in the game world, it’s hard to startle players with the weird or scary.

7 Ameron October 27, 2009 at 10:45 am

Attempting to instill genuine fear in the players is not something I’d recommend in all circumstances. Gauge your players. If you know them and think this will work, go ahead. If this is a game in a public setting (like a convention for example) then tread lightly. The goal is to make the game more fun, not give someone a traumatic incident.

What a fantastic example. I’m going to use this in an upcoming game. It will absolutely freak out my players.

I guess with Halloween around the corner everyone’s writing about fear, undead and the macabre. You’re absolutely right about player buy-in. If the group is reluctant, these tips won’t work no matter how scary your description. Your point about lethality is a good one, but I agree that in D&D it probably won’t work. If even 1 PC dies there’s bound to be grumbling. If 4 out of 5 are dead by the end of the adventure the DM will likely be shot. I think the “weird them out” approach is probably the most realistic approach when playing with experienced gamers. If it’s new or different you’ll get their attention. If it’s just more zombies they’ll be bored rather than scared.

Thanks, Rook. I find my creative writing background really helps when I’m trying to describe more than the typical details. Nothing puts players in character like describing bizarre sounds or strange smells.

Thanks for the link. Now I have another great place to draw inspiration from.

Good point. I suppose what’s scary is all relevant. A normal person in a D&D setting will accept a lot of things as normal that would scare the hell out of me in real life. Until you establish the baseline you won’t know how far you need to push something to make it scary.

8 Peter June 11, 2010 at 9:13 am

I noticed one important thing that makes games feel scary and that is at least THINKING that the encounter could result in your player’s death. This is VERY important. One of my first DM sessions i scared the $&%! out of my players because i dropped the lights, turned on silent hill music, and described the situation in a vague enough sense with plenty of terrifying visuals and in game consequences that made our players sit on the edge of their seat.

One example is that i made the party’s torch dim from the terrible cold of being in this necromancy-ridden. Instead of 20 feet of bright and 20 feet of further low light it only gave 10 feet of bright and 10 of low. As they delved deeper i dropped it to only 10 feet of low light and fortitude saves from the penetrating cold, stagnant air.

The party decided to rest in the dungeon near the darkest parts and i made it so the party had terrifying dreams of being ripped apart by the cavern walls..that were now made of flesh. Will saves or temporary will reduction for being mentally wracked from the surreal experience.

Then i threw a large skeletal owlbear at them and gave him constantly rising (but pathetic) minions.

This was at level one. My party’s first session made them begging for more.

9 Matthew May 16, 2012 at 6:19 pm

nice. Thanks for the ideas, I’ll be glad to run a zombie apocalypse in the future.

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