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.
“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?
“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.