Scary, kids!

GURPS Horror, one of the early GURPS sourcebooks, has a mechanic called the “Fright check” that GMs can use to sort of enforce fear on characters. The way it works, as far as I can remember, is you see/hear/feel something scary and roll against Intelligence (plus/minus modifiers if you have advantages/disadvantages that are relevant, such as a phobia). If you fail the roll, the amount you miss by causes some involuntary reaction, ranging from screaming to fainting to puking. At the time I first saw this I thought it was pretty clever but after while it dawned on me, probably while discussing it with my brother, who has DMed D&D and GURPS and everything in between, that this is kind of a crappy idea.

It’s all right for simulating fear in the character, but does it really do anything to create fear or horror in the game, particularly for the player? Maybe a little. I guess knowing your PC might faint when the werewolf shows up creates some tension, although munchkiny selection of ads/disads might reduce or even prevent failed Fright Checks. This is probably symptomatic of something in game design which I’d need to think about more, but my sense is that there has been a long tradition of inserting rules to create effects that a good GM (and players) can probably create with story telling and immersion in the game. The most obvious contrast for me is what makes the undead scary in D&D. (Note: I’ve only played in about one session of a Ravenloft game, back in the 2e days, so I don’t know if there was a similar mechanic to a “Fright check” there but I’d be surprised if there wasn’t!)

Anyway, what makes the undead scary in D&D? Why do players actually get a little scared when a mummy or wight pops out of a coffin, or a band of ghouls drop down from the ceiling? I think the obvious answer is the fact that from the earliest incarnations, D&D provided undead monsters with some seriously character-wrecking powers. Paralysis (ghouls, thouls, & ghasts), retching (ghasts), aging (ghosts), save-or-die (banshees), tomb rot (mummies), and the ever popular energy drain (wights, wraiths, specters, and vampires). Most of these have permanent consequences, or are life threatening, and your precious PC may even rise as an undead monster afterward. The horror!

I wish I’d played more Call of Cthulhu so I could comment on how fear is generated in that game, but I think, at least in the first edition which I played a little, the main mechanism was loss of Sanity points, which to my mind is more like the D&D way than the GURPS way — a potentially permanent, character-wrecking mechanic that players should fear. So I guess the basic difference is you can simulate fear in characters, or actually instill some fear in the players. I’m not saying it’s got to be one or the other, but I am seriously impressed with how the D&D mechanics managed to have the consequence (intentional or not) of making the undead truly scary.

In all fairness to GURPS, the Horror book also gives a lot of good advice on creating atmosphere and scaring the players too, and I should say that after D&D, GURPS is by far my favorite RPG.  GURPS gets a lot of things right.

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Published in: on November 17, 2010 at 6:00 am  Comments (4)  
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  1. In the Cthulhu Sanity rules, there are temporary effects and permanent psychoses, the former about equal to GURPS-style Fright checks in effect, the latter having a more satisfying character-wrecking punch.

    The beauty of CoC is that losing Sanity is both a blessing and a curse. Lose too much and your character will first be out of action, then later removed entirely. As we all know, inaction is frightening for any player. However, to gain more knowledge of the Mythos you NEED to lose SAN (since SAN and Mythos Knowledge added up cannot exceed 100, if I recall correctly. So, your motivation was always walking a tightrope between ‘One look at Cthulhu will wreck my noggin so I better run for it!’ and ‘I need to learn a spell to open the gate so I had better crack that musty old tome and scratch off some SAN.’

    Simple mechanic that had an elegant seesaw effect in play.

    • I forgot all about the seesaw! I agree, that was a really good mechanic, especially for Lovecraftian gaming.

  2. There were 4 seperate sets of checks in 2e Ravenloft: Fear, Horror, Madness, and Powers. I have to agree that overall the Fear and Horror checks were a crappy idea. In my group, it made people hesitant to try anything really heroic because they were afraid they’d fail a check and end up getting clobbered. We eventually dropped them. The Madness checks were OK because they were pretty rare and added a “Lovecraft” element to the game. The Powers checks were the best. People playing good characters stopped committing acts that could be considered evil because they were really afraid they’d draw the attention of dark powers.

    • Thanks for the info!


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