Telling Stories: Be afraid after all

Yes, I know, it's a horrible logo. I'm not always good at those.Fear is one of the most primal motivators of human beings.  It’s so important to roleplaying that I’ve talked about it before.

Of course, that article was all about the experience of fear, and there’s more to fear than that.  Fear is a complex beast, multifaceted, snarling, and dangerous.  To really understand fear, you have to understand not just what it does to your character, but all of the advantages it brings along with it.  You need to understand how your character can use fear.  You need to really understand the power of fear.

Because fear is a potent thing, a driving force, something that keeps us running and moving even when all reason dictates we should give up.  Fear cripples us and at the same time enhances us, lifts us up and knocks us down.  Fear is powerful.  Let’s talk about making use of fear, investigating its power, and understanding how the greatest thing that you can do is start really playing into the idea of fear.

Yes, I like the look of Engineers.  Maybe more than I like the actual class, I'm not sure.

Sometimes they’ll attack you with hordes of robots, but that really depends on the game.

The distance between you and your characters

Why are you afraid if someone points a gun at you?  Because they can kill you.  Because they can pull the trigger and you will be dead.  That is scary.

It’s a fear that only exists artificially in roleplaying, though.  Even in the worst-case scenario, someone with a gun in your face in an open PvP environment will cost you some time and some gear, but not really your life forever.  You’ll have to respawn.  The only exception is in games like Salem, and you’ve got nobody to blame but yourself if you’re afraid of permadeath but still wind up playing Salem.

This isn’t just an MMO thing, though.  Back when Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was a thing, there was a consistent effort to address the simple problem that a lot of supposedly threatening situations stopped becoming threatening pretty early on.  A thug pointing a crossbow at the back of your neck just isn’t scary at level 10; odds are you can survive several crossbow bolts even without your equipment, so it becomes more of an irritation than anything.  It’s harder to maintain that level of fear when you know that it can’t really hurt you.

But that’s part of maintaining fear – it’s understanding that just because you know something is harmless doesn’t mean that it’s actually harmless.  If someone has a gun in your face, your character isn’t doing math about how much damage one bullet will do, she’s facing the very real possibility that the trigger will be pulled and she will die.  Someone is trying to scare you, and they’re trying to do so by holding power over you.

That’s part of where the power of fear comes in.  Understanding how powerful that primal response really is, and tailoring your character’s response accordingly, leaves you with a character who winds up feeling far more well-rounded.  You’re playing someone with a reasonable self-preservation instinct.

Threats are an attempt to tap into that fear, and sometimes they don’t work simply because you know the person holding the gun isn’t going to pull the trigger no matter what.  But all too often, players sort of wash past threats with the knowledge that you can’t do anything to another character without that player’s consent.  Threats should be taken seriously, or at least not discarded out of hand unless the character making the threats is somehow not threatening.  There’s a need to respect that power, and a need for everyone to harness it.

Also she later turned into Batman, but that's not really germane to the current discussion.

“Why would you play a Sith lawyer?” they asked. Why would you play anything else?

Mundane fears in non-mundane times

Fear works in both directions.  Yes, your character should be afraid of things that aren’t necessarily posing a “real” danger to them; they won’t know what you know.  But fear of consequences is a huge motivator in our day-to-day life, and when you’re roleplaying it’s important to hit more notes than just “be scared of me killing you.”

When I was playing Star Wars: The Old Republic, my Sith Lord wouldn’t threaten to kill anyone if she could avoid it.  Why would she?  She was a legal administrator with close ties to the archaeological branch of the military.  She didn’t have to threaten death.  A few holocalls from her could get almost anyone fire, stripped of possessions, and left in the street to rot.  And that kind of fear was something more valuable to leverage.  Sure, a bounty hunter might not be all that scared of a Sith Lord, since a one-on-one confrontation might be survivable… but becoming persona non grata throughout the Empire and having his landing permissions revoked?  That introduces a whole new sort of fear.  Something that can’t be undone with a blaster.

The trick to using fear is that it comes down to basically being a warning.  You fear losing your job because you know that would impact your ability to keep paying your bills, eating, having a house, and so forth.  It’s your brain doing the hard work of figuring out the consequences for you.  And it’s a solid motivator all the time; I’ve played several characters who did things that were morally questionable to their beliefs, but it was how they’d get paid, and that meant it had to be all right for now.  Or characters afraid of being seen as weak, or afraid of failure, or whatever.

Whether we like to or not, we live large portions of our life in fear.  We fear rejections, we fear poverty, we fear failure, we fear pain, we fear death.  Yes, when I talked about fear way back when, I was talking about things you’re scared of, but fear itself is a whole other animal.  It’s a long list of dependent elements that can drive us forward and hold us back at the same time.  That’s the power of fear – it motivates even as it paralyzes.

Let your characters be scared.  Let them be fearful.  Let them do things they don’t want to do in service to a paycheck (sure, you might know they don’t need it, but they don’t).  And when you have them overcome those fears at long last, it’ll be all the more significant.

Feedback can be left down below or mailed along, as with every week.  Next week, I’d like to talk about recasting character abilities in a different light.  The week after that, how about I yammer on regarding roleplaying friendships?

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About expostninja

I've been playing video games and MMOs for years, I read a great deal of design articles, and I work for a news site. This, of course, means that I want to spend more time talking about them. I am not a ninja.

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