One of the greatest things you can do in a game is spread fear.
I know, I know, I sound like the Scarecrow, but I’m serious! This is especially true at LARPs, but it’s often worthwhile at tabletop games too. Quite simply, it’s very easy for players to put on the mask of the superhero, fearing nothing, sneering at every villain, never even the slightest bit daunted at anything the world throws at them. I’m not saying players can’t be heroes – it wouldn’t be any fun if they ran away at the slightest threat – but being utterly fearless all the time is actually a lot more boring than players realize. Why?
Quite simply, fear is fun.
I mean, think about it – one of the hoariest old cliches you hear about war is that bravery isn’t the absence of fear, it’s being afraid but taking action anyway. (Pain is similar in many respects, as players who routinely ignore wounds and really role-playing their injuries totally miss out on.) In their desire to be completely immune to any sort of negative condition and/or never show any kind of fear or weakness, all too many players inadvertently cut themselves off from the basic element that makes adventure so much fun in the first place. Without fear there is no danger, after all, and without danger you tend to have lukewarm adventures at best. Feeling that moment of fear and struggling to keep it in check makes the ensuing moment of heroism that much more fun, much more dramatic – instead of just taking on the external challenge, you’ve also overcome a little more of an internal challenge as well, something that makes your subsequent actions that much more meaningful.
I mean, playing a horror game and refusing to be scared is like watching a horror movie with the lights on and Benny Hill music playing – if it doesn’t scare you, whose fault is that really? You never gave it a chance. So instead if you want the full effect you do it right – lights out, huddled together with friends or sweethearts who aren’t afraid to let out a yelp or jump in fright if the story scares them. Gaming is similar, just on a different scale. Yes, the writers and the staff still need to conjure up some suitably terrifying scenarios, but if you’re not open to letting them frighten you in the first place nothing they do will ever work. And then you’re robbing yourself of a lot of your own fun. You wouldn’t pay money to see a horror movie and then put in earbuds and do nothing but play Angry Birds on your phone the whole time, so why would you pay to play a horror game if you’re going to block out all the best parts of the horror?
Think of this way: When you’re not afraid of anything, nothing is scary; when nothing is scary, enemies are just obstacles, not threats; when enemies are just obstacles, the game becomes more like manual labor than high adventure as you trudge from one task to another until you “fix” your setting every session. Plus apathy is all too contagious as well – I’ve heard veteran players complain about how nobody acts afraid of monsters and dangers at a game, only to watch them display absolutely no fear of anything in their own encounters. Where do you think new players learn it from?
So how does one go about calling up this sensation? For me, the easiest way is to forget the numbers and the game mechanics for a time and just let a little fear in, the kind your rational mind normally shuts out. At weekend boffer larps the simplest solution is to just stand in the dark for a moment, at the edge of the wilderness if you can swing it, and just let that primal fear of the dark start to creep in around the edges. Most of the time adults have learned to throttle it back, and with good reason, but you’d be surprised – or perhaps not – at just how close to the surface it still is if you actively go looking for it. Take a moment and push away the knowledge that you’re at a campground with a bunch of other people in funny costumes, and imagine just how dark and terrible the nights are in the world where your character lives. Even if it mostly recedes after, you’ve let in that little bit of fear, and it makes a huge difference.
Don’t be shy about creating and exploiting these elements in your backstory either. Even if it’s only a narrow range of fears, adding those little crisis points and mental stumbling blocks gives you something to add some interesting depth and spice up what might otherwise seem to be ordinary encounters. (Hey, even Indiana Jones was afraid of snakes!) Plus, when you express fear, even just a little bit, you add tension for the other players in the scene as well – if no one’s even a little afraid to charge that zombie horde or mercenary hideout, well, then it’s really not that scary, is it? But fear’s contagious, and when you help spread it, that extra tension adds a thrill that just isn’t there if you calmly walk over and beat up your enemies. So share it, revel in it, run with it. Panic if you think you should, freak out a bit, remind everyone that things do go bump in the night in this world – and maybe they should be running too.
In the end, fear is another tool to use to help make your game world feel more real and in turn heighten your game experience. So don’t forget to let the cracks show in your character’s facade now and then. Everybody is afraid of something, no matter how deeply it’s buried, and perfect characters who never break down or never get even so much as a cold sweat are just that much less relatable. Especially with nonhuman characters, fear is one of the universal feelings that can bridge the gap and make them something the audience can relate to in a big way.
So don’t back away from it – embrace it. Don’t be shy about showing your fear, spreading it to others, and see where it takes you, your characters, your games.
Be a fear agent.