Fear’s worst enemy is jadedness. Which sounds like an indictment of the player base, but in many cases it is more a matter of escalation in place of originality. Why should someone who has fought hundreds of death knights over the years fear a death knight with a few more abilities?
Method 1 – The gruesome
At Avendale’s October 2006 event, we took the cue from the ‘zombie’ craze and used fast flesh eating infectious zombies as the weekend antagonist.
The battle began with a terrified peasant running into town. Two zombies did a pre-arranged take down on him, snarling and spraying fake blood into the air, looking at the town covered in gore and running at them intent to feast…then the rest of the zombies came out of the woods. This is unsettling. Then we just let the zombies keep respawning, it truly was a horde. They did not have incredible stats, and their special ability (to infect someone with the zombie disease on a three count, so if they went down they would become a zombie after bleed out and try to eat people) was nothing to really cause people to hide in their cabins.
But it genuinely unsettled people to see npc’s covered in blood, all mindlessly throwing themselves into the blades just to snack on them. One person fell down and was left behind, I whispered into his ear “We are eating you alive, you may want to start screaming.” When they heard their fellow player howling his way into death…that shook them.
So in the above example we have an atmospheric setup, followed by proper use of makeup/prosthetic to sell the fear. These things are going to eat you alive. Giving players gentle reminders, like “this hurts” can be a great way to help sell the moment.
Method 2 – The Unknown
Another way to do manage fear is environmental. Its pitch black, you are in dense woods, the players have one candle with which to light their way beyond a haunted grove. As they enter it, in a white headband you blow it out.
Do nothing, just let the silence panic them, let people start talking about what to do. Then let out a long suffering moan.
Then have other NPC’s in the area begin clicking on their glowsticks underneath their ghostly shrouds (in this case gauzey material) as the battle begins.
Fear does not require much more than an ability to suspend peoples ability to process a situation: This could be due to chaos and confusion of a zombie battle, or pitch darkness in the woods where they are unable to use their primary senses to understand whats occuring, so when you feed them information their minds will often go into overdrive trying to process it.
Method 3 – The Inexplicable
Sometimes in monster camp we like to come up with crazy monsters. Not all of these are intended to be combat oriented. Sometimes one monster is specifically sent out to disturb the living buhjesus out of people.
In one case, we sent out a patchwork looking creature a-la “Frankenstein”, with an added twist: Each patch had a spirit still in place! Some awful awful nae’er do well Necromancer had sewn people together to create a living golem. The monster rampaged quite a bit, and was quite afraid of fire…until he ran into the only half orc in town and seemed quite calm.
Through roleplay people began the realize that a whole tribe of orcs had been slaughtered to sew it together. The only words it said, beyond pained moans and angry snarls was ‘help us’ to the half orc. This not only got fear, but sympathy and rage in the mix. Literature can be a great source material for the dialect of fear, in particular much of the 18th century literature, when people were turning away from mythos and clutching at science as having ‘all’ the answers. There were a lot of very right imaginations at work!
So we have the gruesome, for visceral fear, the unknown, to fire up the amygdalia into overdrive, and the abomination, who is so like us, but different so we must fear it lest it strike us down.