Under the Hood – Fear the Mechanics


Fear the Mechanics
By The Warden

FEARWe are a fearful people. We are afraid of what waits outside our door, be it real or imagined. Some of us are afraid of the people walking past our house, other are afraid of Santa’s skin changing colour. Our fear defines our bravery for we choose what we confront and what we surrender to. Like it or lump it, there’s no escaping it.

I know it’s been a couple of weeks, but the last time we were here, the topic was morality from a game mechanics POV. This week’s edition was always considered the second half of a two-parter, but writing about the role of fear and bravery in RPGs during Christmas week isn’t cool, dude. Then next week was New Year’s… man, that was crazy. So here we are.

When we were dealing with morality mechanics, my opinion was that it was a misnomer. A roleplaying guide, sure, but using them mechanically was difficult, if not next to impossible. That is if you consider morality in the traditional good vs evil spectrum, but the thing about morality is that it’s fundamentals are embedded within our psyche and culture in ways we might not typically imagine.

Morality guides us and shapes how we grow from children into adults. It’s a lot simpler as kids, almost basic. My nephew knows exactly what’s good and what’s evil and while he may not be able to describe or explain it, he knows that being bad is wrong. Good guys shoot bad guys in his games and any dinosaurs he kills can only be “bad dinosaurs.” Hey, we’ve all been there and it’s one of the things we miss about our childhood, before we found out investment bankers were the good kind of criminal and dope smokers were sentenced to life in prison. If only morality stayed that simple.

Instead, our sense of right and wrong adapts into something a little more concrete for a complicated world. Yep, fear and it’s younger brother, bravery. To get a better understanding of the connection, consider this for a moment. Can you explain good without describing the opposite of evil? What about fear? Can you understand what it means to be brave as more than the opposite of fear? The answer is there and has been ripe for scholars and geeks to discuss for centuries, if not longer, but as far as self-awareness of their meaning, there are no easy answers. Luckily, fear and bravery are something we can provide as a mechanical tool in our games.


Without question, the role of fear as a game mechanic smacked us across the face with the Call of Cthulhu RPG and Sanity. To describe its creation, have a read of this passage from the original edition’s designer, Sandy Petersen, as written on RPG.net.

The central driving mechanic of Call of Cthulhu is Sanity. This stat starts pretty high, then deteriorates over time. Though there are methods of raising it, usually you can tell how long you’ve been playing a particular investigator by how low it’s dropped. Lots of folks have told me how ingenious and revolutionary this concept was, and I’ve seen it adapted to many other games under many different names.

As such I’d like to take full credit for inventing it. But I can’t, alas. The original concept was published in an article for the Sorcerer’s Apprentice magazine, where the authors (whose names are published in other interviews of mine) suggested that the player be given a Willpower stat or some such thing, and if he saw something too scary, he could take a Willpower check, and a bad enough failure could reduce it permanently. Reduce it permanently?! This was what I hung my hat on. I took the fundamental idea, called it Sanity, made it the focus of the game, and instead of, on rare occasions, lowering this stat, I had almost every encounter and event reduce one’s Sanity, till player-characters could become gibbering wrecks, or even turn into GM-controlled monsters.

It worked like a charm. In the very first game I ever ran of Call of Cthulhu (long before the rules were finished), my players found a book which enabled them to summon up a Foul Thing From Otherwhere (a dimensional shambler) and decided to do so. At the moment they completed the spell, the players suddenly chimed in with comments like “I’m covering my eyes.” “Turning my back.” “Shielding my view so I don’t see the monster.” I had never seen this kind of activity in an RPG before – trying NOT to see the monster? What a concept. You may not credit it, but I had actually not realized that the Sanity stat, as I had written it, would lead to such behaviour. To me it was serendipitous; emergent play. But I loved it. The players were actually acting like Lovecraft heroes instead of the mighty-thewed barbarian lunks of D&D.

– Sandy Petersen, RPG.net

What’s absolutely fascinating about Sanity was its effect on roleplaying while acting solely as an abstract statistic along the same lines as Strength or hit points. It revealed an immediate and serious consequence to charging head first against forces of inconceivable wickedness in the same way we learned about good and evil. When you’re evil and do bad things to other people, you are locked up in prison and removed from the luxuries and benefits we take for granted in common society. In CoC, allowing your Sanity to drop dangerously low resulted in less and less ability to control your own character, a facet we take for granted as roleplayers.

Working Sanity (AKA fear) as a point system kept things simple for players and forced/encouraged them – depending on your point of view – to act within the confines of the game by punishing them through their Sanity points. It works exactly like hit points; if you don’t fight back or defend yourself, the GM will take away your hit points. If you get to zero, you can’t play any more. Just as combat games use hit points to motivate players to hit harder or dodge faster, Sanity taught them to play smarter, not harder. This mechanic was the first major use of character motivation as a measurable tool providing significant roleplaying impact. Unlike concepts such as alignment, Sanity rewarded and scolded players for proper roleplaying while offering something equally beneficial to their characters in the face of overwhelming difficulty.

My own experiences with fear mechanics goes back to the original Ravenloft setting, one of the very first complete campaigns I’ve ever played. In the Domains of Dread, there are three types of checks required at various points in time: fear, madness, and horror. Its effectiveness was mirrored only by its simplicity; you simply made a saving throw, an existing mechanic in the game normally reserved for dodging dragon’s breath and resisting the suckiness of being turned to stone. Failure resulted in a forced action or behaviour based on a random fear check result and therefore acted exactly the same as if you were affected by a spell. Unlike standard saving throws, which were a response to direct action in the game, these checks resulted from mood, pacing, and overall storytelling skills. Sure, they may have been triggered by a specific action, such as watching a wolfwere tear the villager’s head clean off, but this mechanic both inspired and reacted to the need to instill horror and fear into the game. If your players were too busy goofing around and uninterested in the story, fear checks were just an annoying sidebar.


Roleplaying games – and storytelling in general – use both evil and fear as antagonists, for without them there is no role for the protagonist. Who are you going to confront without either one? Succumbing to either evil or fear results in your character failing their purpose in the game and therefore they must use good morals and bravery to face their demons – both literal and metaphorical – to not only defeat their enemies, but to achieve something more than the conclusion of the game. More importantly, the very structure of RPGs allows players to determine their own way of challenging the antagonist, which is pre-structured to both perform certain actions (the adventure) and outcome (losing to the heroes). By offering something to fear, these games have allowed players to explore their own sense of bravery and mental fortitude against forces that would otherwise crush their psyche and send them to a padded cell with deep yellow stains in their pants.

When I first started to ask myself the questions “What is good?” and “What is bravery?” it seemed difficult and borderline impossible without referring to their polar opposites. Now I believe there is a way – by examples. It’s how legends are told. You want to know about bravery? You tell the story of Beowulf, Nancy from A Nightmare On Elm Street, or Frodo from Lord of the Rings. Because no one tells legends about the villagers who abandoned their homes when the dragon attacked; they talk about the brave heroes who slew it and rode off into history.

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