Thursday, July 24, 2014

Thoughts on Fear and Courage for GMs

Over on The Gamesmaster Academy (on Roll20 Forum) a new GM posted his Campaign concept (you do need to join the GMA to read the post, sorry) which I thought was a great and ambitious idea. After describing his concept he asked "How do I make the helpless powerful again? What is perfect? What is beyond magic? how do I instill fear and courage at the same time?"

This is what I wrote...

I see what you're looking for and this is a very ambitious project for a new GM! I like it. But it is very tricky to do what you're looking for, and I would not expect to be able to achieve it in one shot. You might think of it in terms of changing moods and feelings over the course of the campaign. At first you want them to feel powerful. Then you want to show that no matter how powerful you may think you are, in the end there is always something beyond you who can easily defeat you. Then you want them to start from the beginning and build their characters knowing both that they can become powerful, but never the most powerful thing there is. This will, if all goes well, teach them to play their Characters with some perspective and humility, whether they are powerful or not. I like the concept. Again though, this is a real challenge to pull off well. The challenges you will face have to do with 1) players rarely do what you expect them to, or feel the way you think they should 2) in a game of probabilities and dice things can always go in unexpected directions. For example, you give them level 20 characters and they go out and fight something that they should be able to defeat - but woopsie bad luck - they die there and never even meet the Assassin. Stuff like that happens all the time. Another problem you face with this idea is that it is, by your design, a railroad adventure, at least in the beginning. That's a set piece scene where the characters actually have very little freedom, and the GM is "railroading" them down the track of his or her intended story line. All to good purpose and for the story, of course. But seldom do players like being railroaded, and will most often try to jump off of the train - hence, problem #1. So yes, very ambitious. I like the concept. It will be challenging. Best wishes! Keep us posted as to how it goes, and feel free to ask specific questions.

As for instilling fear and courage at the same time... remember, courage is the overcoming of fear in order to do the hero's work. They both come in the same package. For most ordinary people they are consumed by fear, and can not rise to the level of courage, but for every courageous act, fear was what they overcame to accomplish it. So your real question is "How do I instill a sense of fear, without making it so overwhelming that they players give up?" And again, this too is tricky. Courage is a very personal act. It can't be faked. The thing you are afraid of must be something that is worthy of being feared. Courage comes when you determine to overcome that fear and find some way to defeat the opponent, even when it appears the opponent is overwhelming. It is an act of will. Ultimately courage must be born of the will within the individual. The GM can not, and probably should not, instill courage into their players. They can simply present challenges that they know could be over overcome IF the players rise to the challenge and determine to make their characters overcome their fear. Again, tricky to pull off, but definitely possible.

So the first part of that equation is "How do I make my players feel fear?" And that is something that can be done with a couple of techniques. One, make the opponent a real challenge. The monster must be tougher than the Characters. Two, introduce the monster in a way that inspires dread. Think of horror movies and how the Director builds up the story so that at the point you encounter the monster you're on the edge of your seat. Follow that kind of pattern and be careful to build your scenes with plenty of Descriptive Narrative setting the mood by describing the scene verbally with plenty of detail. Tell the players what they see, what they hear, what they smell, and set the mood by describing the lighting, the weather, and anything that adds to the narrative the elements you want to instill in their minds. In this part of GMing you are setting the stage, like a Director. Show them, for example, the scene of the last horrible crime the monster committed and describe the dreadful details in a way that lets them know that "Whatever did this was - Powerful and Horrible". Set the scenes and build up towards the encounter with the monster. Through this process you can instill fear... and from that provide the players with the opportunity (but not guarantee) to achieve courage.

Very interesting project. I look forward to hearing how it goes. :)


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