Friday 8 May 2015

Fear, Perception and Tactics

I'm a fan of 'perceptual play', particularly in combat: rather than describing the tactical situation from a bird's eye view (e.g. showing it using miniatures), the GM describes exclusively through the PC's senses.

Playing this way opens up some fun ways to use fear.

In short, fear is a physiological process, just like exhaustion or injury. Understanding what it does gives you tools for making terrifying situations feel more visceral and more tactically challenging.

Don't Tell Me What I Feel

It's usually not a good idea to describe PCs' emotions. It's alienating - maybe the player's not feeling it, or perhaps they're feeling something else entirely.  Even so, there's a fruitful grey area where it pays to push that line a little.

This is because emotions are physiological processes, for the most part, and as such they come with bodily sensations, and those are totally the GM's province.

Next time you feel angry (for example), ask yourself how you know you're angry. If you focus your attention, you'll notice something in your body.

Many people pay so little attention to this it's practically a lost art, but the sensation is there. (Sir Ken Robinson put it well, saying that some of his colleagues were so disembodied that they think the purpose of their bodies was to take their head to meetings.)

You may not control the PC's feelings (and you certainly can't control the player's), but you're in control of their perceptions, and you can ramp up the symptoms of emotion to the point that they become tangible threats to deal with.

Fear and Perception

When you're afraid, your perception moves involuntarily to the periphery.

Where, before, you could concentrate on a complex task (e.g. someone speaking about philosophy), when fear strikes, all that goes. You start to notice motion in your peripheral vision, and sounds behind you.

This is why nervous people are jumpy, their bodies are anticipating predator attack ('jumping' is a reflexive counter that can surprise the attacker, buying a second or two of time).

With acute fear, you can (amazingly) lose the to ability to absorb complex or non-threatening stimulus: spoken instructions (even simple ones) might just go over your head entirely.

This is why anxiety makes it pretty hard for you to to get your thesis written.

Not only that, but lose our advanced and resource-intensive faculty for empathy, to understand the motives of people near us, even if we know them well.

This is a major obstacle in trauma therapy, actually - if a client starts remembering a trauma, they can no longer figure out the therapist's motives, because that part of the brain is literally not getting enough blood to do that job. The therapist's motives become indecipherable, and therefore threatening.


When you're in full-on terror, your body goes into dedicated threat-detection and -avoidance mode.

Your eyes go wide and unfocused, your breathing gets shallow (or stops entirely for long periods, you freeze to make yourself harder to spot).

Panicked people often stop breathing out (amazingly) - this may be related to making themselves look bigger, as cats do with puffed-up fur - but in any case it leaves the sufferer feeling unable to get enough air, desperately trying to breathe in but finding there's no more capacity.

Just Gimme the Symptoms

Anyways, enough rambling about that. Some specific things that could happen for them to react to, or which could happen if they fail to push themselves (e.g. by defying the danger of the animal terror gripping them):

  • they can't speak
  • they can't understand speech
  • they can't do anything requiring focus (e.g. casting spells, forming an escape plan)
  • their hands stop working and they drop what they're holding
  • they can't move
  • they can't let go of something (a railing, someone's hand)
  • they can't look, or they can't look away
  • they shut down completely and their perception is flooded by something trivial (e.g. the smell of their jacket)
  • they stop breathing out

Imagine trying to flee a zombie and you can't look away! You'd have to move backwards!

As a consequence of all this, fear denies them access to the tactical big picture, which costs them the initiative.

They turn to help Joe, but Joe's not there - Joe moved to fend off a zombie, and they didn't notice. Things just start happening that they have to react to, all around them.

Joe: I attack the zombie!
Peter: I help, moving on his flank.
GM: Oh, are you trying to watch Peter? While surrounded by zombies? That's Defy Danger, man!

Composure is a Resource

This style of play constrains player choices, which needs to be done carefully. It's probably wise to set this up ahead of time through foreshadowing. ("Most who faced the Balrog were struck dumb, and were slain where they stood.")

Over time, the effects of terror are like failed saving throws, taking damage, and the darkness of caves - they suck, plain and simple, but it comes with the territory. Smart players will be looking for ways to account for it.

bet you didn't notice my three friends behind you

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