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How to Evoke Fear in a TTRPG Character

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Salutations, nerds! Today I’m writing about striking fear in the hearts of tabletop roleplaying game players. And no I don’t mean just in the sense of a player making an obscenely high attack roll and telling them they miss. I mean truly unsettling the players. This may just be a me thing but nothing turns me off of an adventure faster than someone telling me my character feels terrified. This is acutely true in a situation where my character wouldn’t even be unsettled. Some TTRPG characters may be really freaked out walking into a room strewn with viscera for example but a character with a history of murdering people and using their internal organs as a sacrifice to a dark deity probably isn’t going to be too bothered by these circumstances. And honestly forcing a character into having a fear response to a scenario that wouldn’t scare them is cheating.

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Conditions for fear in a TTRPG

As a TTRPG Game Master how do you instill fear in characters? First of all accept you aren’t going to get everyone and this is okay. No matter how well crafted a description there are always going to be a couple of characters who aren’t bothered by the things being described.

Second of all — and I cannot believe I have to say this — it is not okay to take the list of triggers players give during session zero and use those against their characters. This isn’t cool behavior. Don’t do it. People want to be scared in a way they consented to if the game includes those elements.

To properly tailor a TTRPG experience send a questionnaire in advance of the campaign start to ask what things creep the players out that they’re okay with encountering in an adventure. With those things established let’s dive in.

Less is more

A description of some unknown thing writhing under the deep water freaks players out more than a detailed description of a massive tentacle. This is because the human brain is one of the most powerful computing devices around. The second a GM starts giving hints the players are going to fill in the blanks with the most horrifying details they imagine. Use this. Make descriptions purposefully vague. Lean on a couple of specific details to create an air of unease then let the players freak themselves out. For an excellent example of this done right allow me to suggest the first episode of The Magnus Archives titled The Anglerfish. It’s fairly short and I slept with the light on for two nights after listening to this horror fiction podcast.

Consider in advance

I’m not suggesting to write out an entire descriptive passage to read though you certainly can. But writing down concepts to convey is worthwhile. It’s perfectly reasonable to want the tundra setting for a game to feel cold and desolate but cold and desolate are a little bit on the nose for evocative description. Make a list of things giving cold and desolate vibes.

  • The numbness in your toes.
  • The shivering you just can’t quite keep out of your body without magic.
  • The dull ache in your bones.
  • The sense of vertigo from staring out over the flat expanse of the oppressively white tundra.
  • The way the shifting glaciers sound like distant screaming.

Focus on the feelings trying to be invoked and describe around them rather than informing the players this is how it feels to their characters. This is essentially how show don’t tell is supposed to work but when it comes to fear this is particularly important. It isn’t hard to make a party want to feel warm and invited in the common room of a tavern but no one wants to feel afraid. This is rarely a part of someone’s power fantasy. Doing the work is required.

Play to a sense of unease

Keep in mind the goal is invoking fear in the characters — not the individual players. Don’t pull out a player’s worst fears to use against them!

I mean the nebulous idea of players for context. The only way out of the room is a cramped tunnel where characters must crawl on their hands and knees through with no visible end in sight? Shudder. Oppressively dark spaces with who knows what within? A suspicious cache of potions of healing right before a big door affixed with a skull? Players will metagame to some degree whether a group likes this phenomenon or not and a GM can make this work for themselves by thinking about what makes TTRPG characters feel vulnerable and reaching for those.

What was the last TTRPG adventure to really and truly creep you out as a player? Ever tried your hand at horror and fear as a GM? Please let me know in the comments below or let me know on Twitter @Pyrosynthesis. And of course, stay nerdy!

*Featured image — Even the most hardened adventurer finds cause to feel the fear when confronted by the Winter Lord’s Throne. [Illustration by Askhan Ghanbari]

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Robin Miller

Speculative fiction writer and part-time Dungeon Master Robin Miller lives in southern Ohio where they keep mostly nocturnal hours and enjoys life’s quiet moments. They have a deep love for occult things, antiques, herbalism, big floppy hats and the wonders of the small world (such as insects and arachnids), and they are happy to be owned by the beloved ghost of a black cat. Their fiction, such as The Chronicles of Drasule and the Nimbus Mysteries, can be found on Amazon.

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