TTRPG Stock Sessions — Nightmare and Phobia
Salutations, nerds! At the time of writing this post I am getting ready to run a session going along with the subject matter. Hopefully by now the players involved have already done it and there won’t be any chance of spoilers. Today I’m focusing on character phobias in tabletop roleplaying games and the nightmare stock sessions where they’re brought manifest for the characters to deal with during the TTRPG experience.
Your TTRPG character has more to fear than fear itself
I cannot stress this enough — players tend to like TTRPG sessions where they can expound upon their characters. What someone is afraid of is a big part of this and often has to do with backstory. Even players who aren’t as into the roleplaying aspect tend to have an easier time coming up with something concrete like what their character is most afraid of and why.
Before getting into the decisions to make when running a nightmare stock session like this there I’ll offer a preparation note. This is a session for players to be prepared for as well. Some people aren’t good at coming up with this kind of content on the spot. Giving players some notice allows a Game Master to prepare how to manifest the characters’ fears and players to suss out what those are in advance. This helps makes the TTRPG experience run more smoothly.
With this out of the way let’s hit the list!
Causing fears to manifest
How can fears be stopped once made manifest? When characters’ nightmares start crawling out of the woodwork they are going to want to know how to put the kibosh on the situation. It’s okay if the path to resolution remains a bit of a mystery to the players at first but a GM ought to know the answer before kick off in order to give players direction.
If the situation incorporates these fears as physical manifestations does defeating them mean it’s over? Is there a music box somewhere spitting out horrible melodies, which must be closed to stem the flow of terrifying bad stuff? Is there a wizard standing around causing this nightmare? Is it a curse?
There are so many good answers to this and along with the question is whether or not to deal with any and all of these fears as combat encounters. If one character is most afraid of the dark it’s worth considering dropping this nightmare scenario on top of another character’s fears in the stock session and including a fight in magical darkness as an added complication for example.
First of all for many TTRPG players it’s considered poor taste to tell the characters they are afraid or how they feel. It’s generally incumbent on a Game Master to be evocative and create the emotion — to show it to the other players. How is this accomplished? Well, I’ve already established for this type of stock session the GM asks the players what their characters feel afraid of and why. Paying attention to these answers and leaning into them does the heavy lifting.
In the Scarlet Sisterhood campaign for fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons my halfling Kenna was very afraid of storms because she got caught in one as a child so the sound of thunder always made her jump. This extended to most sudden loud sounds and bled a little bit into standing water in a lot of situations. In these cases it’s the sudden flash — the overwhelming noise.
If a character doesn’t like deep water find out if it’s because they’re afraid of drowning or because something might be lurking beneath the surface out of sight. If a character doesn’t like enclosed spaces really hammer in on the restriction of movement and not having enough room to breathe.
Players like exploring nightmare and phobias
This stock session is quintessentially and irrevocably about the characters. They are staring down something deeply personal and it’s going to give the players a lot of roleplaying fuel moving forward as they talk out what they’re scared of with one another. Furthermore it gives the players a lot of agency to shape the story and this never a bad thing.
Have you ever had a GM throw your character’s darkest fears and phobias at them in a nightmare scenario? Have you run this sort of stock session? Feel free to comment below or tweet me @pyrosynthesis about it and as always, stay nerdy!
*Featured image — The Lord of Dead Dreams thrives on phobias and nightmares, reveling in ripping the dream essence from mortals. [Illustration by Ludovico Tellatin]