As I see it, there are three kinds of fear in RPGs. I’ll call them Visceral Fear, Challenge Fear, and Character Fear. Visceral Fear is fear that the players actually feel; Challenge Fear is fear that players experience for the character’s safety and well-being; and Character Fear is fear that the characters experience but the players do not. The names are a little clunkier than I’d like, but I’m trying to get at something I think is an important distinction between fear felt by the player as a human being, and fear felt by the player as a player of a game, both of which could reasonably be labeled “player fear.”
Visceral Fear is fear that the players sitting around the table actually experience in their own body; it’s not actual fear for their own safety (or it had better not be) but it’s the kind of fear that you might experience while watching a horror movie or reading a book. It’s fear that’s caused by empathy with the character, but the physical reactions–goosebumps, chills, startlement, disgust–are your own. Visceral Fear is regarded by some gamers as the ne plus ultra of fear reactions possible in RPGs, even the whole point of running a horror scenario. But visceral fear is very hard to achieve in a table-top role-playing game, which is much less immersive than a movie or a first-person computer game, and is something that a lot of people really object to experiencing even in horror scenarios. By definition, it’s not a pleasant experience as it’s happening, though in retrospect you might be quite pleased that it occurred.
Generally, the way to achieve Visceral Fear is to up the level of immersion in the game. Some GMs will resort to music, dimming the lights or replacing them with candles, sound-effects recordings, props and the like; sometimes this works, but sometimes it just comes across as cheesy. A lot can be done by increasing the amount and vividness of the descriptions you give. Many GMs neglect senses other than sight and sound in their descriptions, so making sure to include smells, heat and cold, touch and so forth will make everything easier to imagine. Another piece of advice is that imagination is much stronger than description, so less is more. No detailed description you’re likely to come up with of a tentacled horror is going to be half as scary as as what the players picture if you describe their fingers groping in the dark brushing against cold rubbery flesh that pulses and slithers away. You want small concrete details, not paragraphs of purple prose that make them giggle or gives them time to let their minds wander. Also, describe things, don’t label them. “You see three Zombies” isn’t viscerally frightening.
Another piece of advice is try to pay careful attention to the level of tension. You want to ratchet it up higher and higher as the scenario progresses, but people generally can’t take a lot of unremitting tension. They need breaks from the tension, and if you don’t provide them, they’ll provide their own by breaking character and cracking jokes. You are aiming for an ebb and flow of tension, with each successive crest higher and scarier than the last, until you reach the climax which is hopefully the scariest part of the scenario. The climax of an adventure game will often be a big, bloody battle, which tends to ruin the mood as far as Visceral Fear goes; that’s ok…it’s time for Fight instead of Flight, and this is the players’ pay-off for letting you scare them all this time. It’s pretty much impossible for them to stay creeped out when the dice are flying. The ending may turn out to be entirely down-beat, with all the PCs mad or dead and gibbering horror unloosed upon the world, but in the moments leading up to that where the players are making the decisions that will or won’t lead to that outcome they are not going to be feeling the horror–the mental modes required are incompatible.
Challenge Fear is the fear that players have for the well-being of their characters, or their ability to achieve the victory conditions (which may be quite nebulous or personal when it comes to RPGs). It’s fear in the same sense that a chess player might fear losing his Queen. It may be completely cold-blooded and rational, based on their objective assessment of the characters’ chances of emerging unscathed; it may be as silly as feeling that the dice have been against them all night, so they had better avoid combat. But it’s completely separate from any Visceral Fear the player might have because of the imagery or the horror aspects of the scenario. The person who is playing might experience a lot of Visceral Fear even when as a player he experiences none at all for his character’s ultimate success, such as in a story-oriented game with complete script immunity for his character. (In fact, that may be the raison d’être of horror scenarios in story-oriented games.) Or a player might experience a high degree of Challenge Fear in a completely prosaic dungeon crawl where no attempt whatever is made to convey any atmosphere and the character is not directly threatened with any physical harm, such as a Fighter with a cool magic sword and armor confronted with a lowly Rust Monster.
Challenge Fear is probably the most common and useful kind of fear in an RPG. Visceral Fear is something that a lot of people just don’t want to experience in their games. Challenge Fear is something that the majority of RPG players want, or at least claim to want, at least to some degree. Even the worst munchkins would hesitate to admit that they want the rules to be reduced to “whatever you attempt, you succeed” and the GMs job to just describing stuff for them to succeed at.
So why do I even call it Fear, and not merely Challenge? It has to do with what I mentioned in my previous post on Scary Scary Monsters, with what I called “having skin in the game.” Something can be very challenging, in the sense of being unlikely to occur or hard to pull off, but still have trivial consequences if you fail; if they’re trivial enough, then success can be robbed of any interest or triumph. If you get a basket from more than half the court away when you were just standing there hucking balls at the backboard all afternoon, you might be amused, but hardly jubilant. If you sink one from the free-throw line with $500,000 on the line, you’d be inhuman if all you had to say was, “well, isn’t that nice.” And even if you have an 80+% free throw rate, if you had $500,000 at stake you might very well choke just because of that. Having something at stake changes the game, and makes you fearful of losing.
Now, I’d say being fearful of losing is a good thing. Too much fear can rob you of the fun, so even if you succeed you feel nothing more than relief and anticipatory dread of having to do something similar again later. Nobody is going to want to play an RPG like that. But too little fear can make playing tedious, and I think that’s a lot more common. I think a lot of players are used to games where the stakes are too low; when the loss is purely imaginary, it seems to me that you ought to be willing to risk a lot more to make it more interesting. “Ho hum, another gibbering tentacled horror from beyond the stars” is not something you want the players to be thinking, even in a game of Grand Adventure with steely-eyed, square-jawed heroes who never flinch in the face of danger. The character might think that, but you never want the player to be ho-hum about anything. Even in games where you have script immunity from death (and I admit that a lot of the games I GM are like that in practice, even if in theory the system allows for you to die), you can increase the tension and make the players more invested in the outcome by putting things that are important to the players about the characters and the setting at risk. Note that it’s not enough, IMO, to have the risk be something that is theoretically important to the character; for a lot of players, losing that is just gaining a story opportunity and spotlight time. There’s nothing wrong with players getting story opportunities and spotlight time, but if that’s the biggest downside, it’ll make them more indifferent to the outcome. Ideally you want them to care, a tad short of desperately, how the events in the game unfold. You want them to fear the bad and rejoice in the good. You want the challenges that they face to have distinct permanent (or nearly so) outcomes, good or bad, so that they remember damn well forever after whether they met that challenge or not. If an encounter with a wandering monster isn’t going to give them more than a few wounds they can magic away or a few xp and a sword to sell at the next town, then you’re wasting everybody’s time and an opportunity to have something memorable happen (unless you’re running a sandbox game and you and they regard this kind of thing as time well-spent in establishing the texture of the world–and even then you might ask yourself whether it’s actually worth playing out rather than jumping to the inevitable end of the encounter).
Finally, there is character fear: the fear that the character experiences that isn’t shared by the player personally or the player qua player. This might be caused by failing a Guts check when confronted with some rotting horror, by the Fear spell of an enemy Necromancer, by a character phobia, or even perhaps by the player deciding that in the given situation it would be in-character for the character to be frightened.
I don’t have a lot to say about Character Fear. Some systems use it more than others, some genres call for it more than others. Many players regard it as a complete nuisance, and act as much as possible to minimize its scope and effect. Even if completely player instigated, it will usually greatly reduce the player’s scope of action; when system instigated depending on how it’s handled it can remove a player from play just as completely as if the character were knocked unconscious.
I guess I would generally prefer that Character Fear be more or less congruent with player fear, so that if the character acts afraid it’s because the player is experiencing a moment of Visceral Fear or has correctly assessed that given the stakes and the likely outcomes there’s good reason to be afraid of something genuinely regrettable happening, but I wouldn’t want to make any rule about that–even a rule of thumb–because I recognize that there’s a lot of chewy roleplaying goodness to be had when the characters are afraid.
Also, there’s a fairly strong tendency in RPGs for characters to be irrationally, even suicidally brave. PCs will often fight to the death, not only disregarding the likely outcomes in the setting and system, but the likely motivations of the characters and even the biology of human beings. Sometimes that’s why people play these games. That’s fine, but occasionally things that will at least remind them of what sane creatures would likely be feeling at that point can be valuable for the verisimilitude of the setting and genre and the survival of the characters.