7 Habits of Highly Effective Players, Part 5

7 Habits of Highly Effective Players, Part 5

Habit #6: Fear is Not Inaction (Move forward)

There are rumours of a tribe of Wendigos that are troubling the town.

Wendigos? We can’t fight those. Forget about it.  Have you seen the stats on those things?  Thanks man, but no thanks.

So…we’re done? You haven’t gotten any other information.

We can’t beat those things!

–a failed Shadowrun game that I tried to run many years ago on an IRC channel

Out of all the ways of disengaging from a game, I think player fear translating to character fear is my least favorite. You’re afraid of losing your character, usually because of some meta-knowledge that you have or believe you have, and then you check out of the scenario/adventure to save your character’s skin.

I’ll be honest, I’ve never seen this as a GM or player in a time where it wasn’t far too hasty and misplaced.

Two things are at play when fear is at the forefront. The first is the fear of losing.  Whether it’s losing a favored character or the distaste of losing in any fashion, the need to not lose can warp a game.  When you are playing not to lose, you are often (not always) steering away from the interesting parts of the game. You can be completely safe in an RPG pretty easily; just don’t do anything.  Stay where you are, don’t take any chances.

The second factor that comes into play is distrust.  It can be distrust of the system (in games with high-lethality combat you are encouraged to avoid physical conflicts at all costs. Beyond the system there is the “tell me where the bad GM touched you” syndrome. This you need to deal with promptly.  Often it is gamer baggage incurred for playing with gotcha GMing styles but it’s worth taking a step back to see if there is anything that you are doing to discourage players from playing.

And that’s really my thing.  When I GM I want players to play. That means taking chances, putting your character in a place where she can make her move but the world can also take a swing back.  I might try to scare you as a player, but if you use that fear to leave the game or not play, then the fun stops.  Fear is never an excuse for inaction. Your character might get hurt. Your character might die.  Your character might get humiliated when she fails a skill check. If it’s unrelenting good times all the time, why are we playing the game?

Fear makes the game fun sometimes.  That dread as you make that long-shot roll and make it or fail spectacularly…when you stick to the walls and play the numbers, you can miss this. If everyone acts out of fear, the game slows down.

How has fear of consequences affected your game?  How have you dealt with it?  Talk to me.

Also, in the aforementioned Shadowrun game,  the wendigos were actually an aging tribe rendered infertile by chemicals in their water. A corporate executive exaggerated the threat of the tribe to get them wiped out by runners, wiping out all records of their malfeasance and claiming the land for themselves without the PR hit.


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12 Responses

  1. I am reminded of a time I was DMing in an online IRC environment. I was running a prepublished module — the Dragonlance campaign, DL4 Dragons of Desolation, and the PCs had gotten to a big fight with a dragon.

    Several of the players are battling it, struggling. This is only the second time any of the characters have ever fought a dragon, I must note. There’s a good-size party, and while tactics aren’t this group’s strong point, they’re trying.

    Except the wizard. She throws up her hands. “I’ve read [the dragon’s] stats. There’s no way we can kill him. I don’t even know why we’re playing.” She didn’t log out, she just didn’t bother to reply. When it was her turn, she didn’t bother to respond, or responded with “I’m not doing anything.”

    It was the beginning of the end of that campaign, right there in that session.

  2. I know that as a GM I have struggled in the past with the idea of letting the players do what they’re going to do and let the chips fall where they may. It’s weird, because I typically don’t have that same fear when I’m a player.

  3. It’s funny that we both have stories of retreat in an IRC game! Also, it’s…funny? that in both cases someone “did the math” and gave up on the game because of it. But dragons are supposed to be tough. Th thrill of fighting a dragon is it is highly likely you’ll die. The worst part is that when folks duck out they usually create what they feared. If you were going to have a tough time with five people, four is almost certainly doomed. What were your lessons learned? What did you do after to try and prevent that from happening again?

  4. That’s interesting Jeremy, but also totally understandable. GMs are responsible for keeping the game going, so there prime fear can be that the game is going to stop. Really where I’m going with this is the game actually stops when we stop taking actions to advance the story. The moves we take to protect what we are worried about often oppose advancing the story. So when we coddle too much as GMs (and you know I am by no means a “killer” GM) we accidentally stifle our game by cushioning the fall too much.

    Like everything it’s a balancing act, but I think the bests thing for a GM to get over that fear is to think of what to do next when everything goes wrong. If the characters get taken out by the BBEG, maybe they are captured and have a chance to escape. Maybe the BBEG’s plans then succeed, and the next characters made are then living in this world where evil has (for the moment) triumphed.

    I always like to optimize my games for interest. Not story, not challenge, not even fun! An interesting game is one that’s memorable and leaves an imprint on players, where they can make decisions that matter and count and get the proper feedback in fiction for it. I find if I optimize for interesting games, everything else sorts itself out.

    Wow, that was basically a second blogpost 🙂

  5. I think Jeremy has the right of it — if the players trust the GM, and the GM trusts the players, then I think it should work out okay.

    In general, I learned that talking to your players, especially OOG, is a good thing. Some of us didn’t much interact except during the IRC sessions, and I suspect that had something to do with it.

    …and I would very much read a post about optimizing the game for interest.

  6. agreed. It’s my belief that a lot of problmesd that happen at the table represent a breakdown of trust, or the lack of it in the first place.

    cPip, you will probably get your wish!

  7. This is actually something that’s killing my current Ars Magica game.

    My players, having survived a 3 year campaign with me, have brought that knowledge into this new game: “The world is a scary place that will cost you time recovering from your wounds.”

    Which means less lab time. Which means that the magi hole up in their labs and treat their grogs like the curiosity rover.

    I have absolutely no idea how to “fix” this.

  8. What Jeremy said, plus:

    It looks like you and your players might be playing two different games. Talking about what the game is really helps to get everyone on the same page. Chris Chinn’s same page tool is great for this, but it can be a simpler conversation if you’ve played before. Another technique I’ve been using lately to boost investment and minimize wasted prep is to let players put forth the scenes they want (there is a blog already written and forthcoming on this tomorrow). You the GM get to mess with the scene, but you start somewhere a PC is comfortable. If someone wants to a research scene/montage as they develop a spell, you can bring dangers to their door.

    Because no one said that the lab/castle/coventry had to be safe…