LARP Design: Fear Mechanics


Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

 –“The Waste Land,” T.S. Eliot

Now that another DtD event has been put to bed, I can get back to writing here – and today I want to talk about one of the most divisive mechanics in LARP design, at least where I’m from. As always when I’m talking about something contentious, I hope to lay out all of the major perspectives in a empathetic way and analyze them fairly. In some cases I’m going to draw conclusions about why people feel the way they do about things – let’s hope that people can be okay with me being wrong some of the time, and understand that even when I disagree, I would never maliciously misrepresent someone’s views.
On one hand, you have the arguments of those who dislike Fear effects for what they physically require the player to do. This comes from a long background of Fear effects causing players to flee long distances (“keep running for 15 minutes”) or just stay out of the battle (“break line of sight for 15 minutes”). It’s generally balanced as “crowd control” rather than “kill spell,” too, and being CC’ed without much hope of escape for 15 minutes isn’t great. There certainly are fights that last for more than 15 minutes – a field battle of less than an hour feels rushed, once the PCs have developed a certain level of resilience, and God only knows how long the battle at Raven’s Sleep went on, but I would be shocked if it weren’t closer to four hours than three.
The point here is that this specific implementation of Fear is the problem for some portion of the larger set of people who say they don’t like Fear effects. I can honestly say that I have never heard anyone defend that implementation, but “100% of the people I’ve talked to about this” is still a trivial portion of the overall population of American LARPers, much less LARPers worldwide. The received wisdom for awhile there – I first heard this idea in 2001 – was that Fear effects should act as a Repel/Shun. That is to say, while under this effect, the target is compelled by fear to stay at least 10 feet away from the caster and not attacking the caster. The good side of this is that you stay in the action – you don’t get to fight that one guy, but there are other people to fight. (If there aren’t other people to fight, the battle will probably be over very soon and you won’t have to worry about it.)
The other common implementation-side fix has been to use Decree: Flee as a stand-in for Fear. Decree: Flee forces the target to flee for ten seconds. It’s a way to crowd-control a target for twenty seconds, and as far as that goes it has a lot in common with a warlock’s fear effects in World of Warcraft. (There’s nothing wrong with that.) More recently, we’ve seen some use of Voice Effect – Decree: Flee, again standing in for fear, while also accomplishing the goal of breaking up a dogpile on a field battle boss and getting the boss some breathing room again (often so that the boss’s minions can interpose themselves again). We’ve also seen Knockdown and Knockback used in about the same manner, without any implication of fear-effect in the theme. This is very useful mechanistic stuff, if used with care and forethought.

Digression: Just tossing out a ton of Voice Effects is annoying, and it’s generally fair to say that PC-available abilities weren’t designed to cope with that. Most games hang monster abilities on what players can do, rather than focusing on the reverse with quite the same precision, and Voice Effects are a big enough deal that they are not typically part of the players’ toolkit. Defining “a ton” is one of those finesse things that I can’t answer objectively.

So if your problem with Fear effects is mechanical, LARP design has had some new ideas in the past decade or two. I went along for a long time thinking that this was a full and sufficient solution to arguments against Fear effects. When it came time to design the most basic rules of Dust to Dust, I was surprised (ah, five years ago… how naive I was!) to discover that there were a wide range of positions here, many of them opposed to Fear effects on completely different grounds.
One of those has been verbalized as, “If I’ve set out to play a hero, shouldn’t there be a way to overcome fear?” This is an argument to the underlying fiction of the scene in which the Fear effect gets used. We’re talking generally about heroic adventure LARPing here, not Call of Cthulhu where overwhelming terror is the order of the day. I mean, there are references to heroes overcoming even dragonfear, in settings where that’s a thing. In a LARP, though, it’s tough to write good mechanics for “partial effect” (other than the Strong Will advantage halving duration) that represent the hero showing real grit and determination. In a tabletop game, you might represent this with a new saving throw every round (because getting crowd-controlled for even sixty seconds in a tabletop game is longer than the duration of most fights); in a LARP there’s no rapid-use randomizer.
But I’m getting back into mechanical issues. There’s also the part where people don’t want to look or feel ridiculous by having to flee, and they don’t want to have to justify or talk about it later in-character. In defense of this position, everyone who played a warlock in WoW knows that fear is meant to be humiliating. Standing fast is a position of pride and strength. This is obvious stuff, but I think it plays a bone-deep role in people’s feelings on Fear effects.
This also factors into the other main structure of argument: “Don’t use a fear effect. Make me feel afraid.” I wish it were that easy! Back in 1999, Kenneth Hite wrote Nightmares of Mine, which is without exaggeration one of the best system-agnostic resources on how to run horror that anyone has ever created. Hot tip: this is not easy, which is why Hite needs 176 pages to explain it. I don’t know if it’s easier to make people feel fear in a LARP than in tabletop, or harder; let’s assume for the moment that it’s a wash. In both games people have to suspend a lot of disbelief in order to allow themselves to feel fear, and that’s the problem with the argument that began this paragraph: it only works insofar as players do allow themselves to feel fear.
There are two further problems. First: declining to feel fear contributes to success. Letting yourself be afraid contributes to failure. Failure is good for driving narrative, but if that failure has to come from emergent forces, there’s every reason for players to resist failure, especially when failure is going to carry costs.
Second: look, by its nature Plot is always pulling punches. Plot can always scale up the numbers and force a victory. The social contract of roleplaying games is that Plot will make it possible to triumph (even if it’s hard, costly, or pushes the players to their limits) in the long term. The problem with this is that it often gets interpreted (by both players and Plot) as applying in the short term. All encounters will be balanced so that the players can win. They never need to worry about running; the encounter was fair, which is to say that they had much better than a 50/50 chance of winning.

Digression: One of the things that sets boffer LARPing apart from other gaming media is that this isn’t actually true. A pack of ten ghuls or whatever comes out of Monstertown – and if you’re alone or in a small group, you might need to beat feet if you want don’t want to be ghul chow. There aren’t any promises that wandering monsters won’t fuck you up. Only in modules and field battles – the slightly-more-staged encounters – does the social contract of potential victory apply.

I read once, in a piece of text about encounter design, that you need to figure out what it is about the fight that deliberately makes it unfair, so that the encounter forces the PCs to display greater ingenuity, depth of resources, or flat out luck in order to win. If handled carefully, this is brilliant advice, because it means that players must engage more deeply in order to come out on top. Anyway, the point here is both players and Plot/GMs need to remember that the social contract of gaming takes the long view, and doesn’t apply on a more granular level. Plot won’t wipe everyone out in a way that you never could have avoided, but you might need to assess the situation and keep running or surrender in mind as an option, even if it isn’t what feels heroic. Heroes fail – if a fictional hero you’re emulating doesn’t fail at any point in the story, either you need to be reading better books, or the story ends in tragedy to show that success brought about the hero’s doom.
This brings me, tangentially, a point that I’ve discussed a number of times with one of my friends, who I’ll call Touchstone for convenience. “We should run now” or “we should stay and heroically fight it out” are actually genre concerns. Each is appropriate to a particular genre of gaming: maybe the reason players don’t ever run from a high-risk fight is that they believe they’re playing in heroic fantasy, while the Plot committee thinks it’s dark fantasy, or horror with fantasy elements, so they’re expecting the player to realize just how awful things really are and head for cover. Ideally, there have been enough signals along the way to tip the players off, but it’s complicated somewhat by the fact that genre and mood can shift from one event to the next, or even one adventure to the next within the same event. This concern doesn’t have an answer, exactly; let’s say rather that it’s important for Plot committees to understand why players make the decisions that they do, just as it’s incumbent upon players to understand why Plot committees make the decisions that they do (often that understanding must be limited to “because there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in my philosophy”).
I’ve gotten a bit off-topic here; the point is that fear is hard in games because it’s like going to a bloody horror show where flinching or looking away is a sign of weakness rather than a sign that you’re enjoying being afraid. We’ve been trying some new things in this vein in DtD – as the campaign’s second season comes to a close and we approach the third, the Terror Track advances and we reveal more of the horror elements in the setting. While I don’t want to pull back the curtain to any particular degree, the “make me feel afraid” elements of this post are something that I’ve been working on a lot lately.
So circling back around to Fear effects: the countervailing opinion to those opposed to Fear effects can be summed up as, “A lot of things that you don’t like and wouldn’t volunteer for are going to happen to your character. Deal with it, that’s the game.” I suspect that the two camps are talking past each other here, because the objection to Fear effects is about a game effect causing a minor humiliation (note: this is why we got rid of the “clever” Decree and Suggestion effects that players were using to both defeat and ridicule their opponents) and imposing a sudden shift in the character’s mental state to something they find difficult to justify. Alternately, perhaps they have no trouble accepting the emotional state, but believe that running is not how their characters would react to such fear? Anyway, for someone focused on the game’s mechanical needs (such as clearing some space around a boss to prolong a fight and make it enjoyable), this argument is empty, and for someone focused on character and narrative, the gamist argument at the very least ignores other ways to achieve the same thing.
I’m not going to be the guy to settle the issue once and for all, but I tend to be okay with reasoning that the magic triggers something in my character’s hindbrain that has nothing to do with rational thought, determination, or the like. I think there’s space for aesthetic disagreement; there are other games, where players can have an experience that doesn’t include Fear effects. At the same time, DtD doesn’t make such heavy use of Fear effects (I hope) that it ruins things for even those who object strongly.
Since the fundamental disagreement is binary, no solution on Fear effects pleases everyone. I wonder, though… a long time ago another friend proposed – perhaps facetiously, I’m not really sure – that people who objected so flatly to Fear effects could take some sort of alternate effect, at least as debilitating as Fear. Maybe there’s some sort of magical or technological marvel (or bizarre result of extensive training) that arrests the manipulation of a character’s lizard brain, causing the character to… I dunno, suffer serious damage, freeze in place, or something along those lines, instead of fleeing the source of the Fear. It would have to be legitimately costly, but it might satisfy some larger percentage of the gaming audience.

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