The Inquisition: Fear

Fear! (from the National Media Museum)

Here at the Inquisition, we tend to tackle the broader questions that face us gamers, and since we’re featuring horror stories in the month of October, we’ll ask ourselves one of the most basic, salient questions: what, exactly, is the nature of fear, and how do we incorporate it into our games?

Fear presents in many different forms: horror, creepiness, terror, revulsion, dread, foreboding, fright, and so on. Don’t go mistaking me for an expert in psychology or medicine, but my lay understanding of the essential quality of fear is that it is a visceral emotion that ultimately serves to protect us. We are afraid of those things that we subconsciously (or consciously) believe will bring us harm. Some of the most common fears are related to (what I assume were) common dangers to our ancestors: being gobbled up by monsters, things that we can’t see or don’t understand (the dark), falling from great heights, and so on.

The problem is that while these fears may have protected us once, as we have become more sophisticated culturally and technologically, many have become less relevant. There is less that we don’t understand, but darkness no longer holds untold dangers (and we can produce artificial light to aid our sight), and so on. Maybe this is an extremely simplistic artificial dichotomy, but I think you could probably group all kinds of fears into two categories: fear of the unknown, and fear of the known.

Fear of the Known

It’s easy to dismiss, but the fear of the known is very powerful. We know all about our reactions to certain stimuli: some of us are intolerant of pain, others intolerant of small spaces, others of things more innocuous. We know all about how these things go, and thus, we’re fearful. I don’t like small spaces; there’s something about it being hot and stale that just gets to me very quickly and I become sweaty and motion-sick. Thus, I have a tendency to fear or at least be anxious about approaching situations where that is a distinct possibility.

This falls into the realm of “rational fear”, which, admittedly, is a nebulous and not really definable concept. However, I’m comfortable calling it that because I fear situations that I know will cause me discomfort. Now, my tolerance for those situations is obviously not what you would call desirable, but the anxiety is very real.

Departing from these minor worries I think we come to the true horror of the known, and that’s when we know how bad something can possibly get. This is your Heart of Darkness, your All Quiet on the Western Front. We are terrified because we know how horrible man can be, we know what evil and depravity lies in the deepest recesses of some people. Sometimes the known can be more horrifying than the unknown.

Fear of the Unknown

Horror masters like Lovecraft and Poe worked closely with the fear of the unknown, boiling down one of humanity’s great, existential fears. We are naturally a race of scientists and information gatherers, we seek out data to confirm our beliefs and suspicions. Nothing seems more frightening to us than phenomena that we cannot explain, articulate, or manipulate. I can’t get into why we fear the unknown with any authority – but I can say that we like to be in control of our own environment, and many of our more personal fears stem from having a lack of control or a lack of knowledge about our own situations.

We, as people, as gamers, have wonderful imaginations and those who are the most imaginative might be the most susceptible to the horrors lurking in the dark depths of the unknown. These creatures take the shape of that which subconsciously makes us the most uncomfortable or will cause us the most pain, things that no one could ever know, things that we might not even know ourselves. The unknown is an amorphous mass of evil that is everything we revile at once.

Bringing it to the table

And that’s all well and good, but how do we incorporate the fear of the unknown and the known into our roleplaying games? I think it’s tougher than you might believe.

One of the necessities of good storytelling is to ground or frame our stories in believable realities – that means that to aid our suspension of disbelief, we need to be set against a backdrop of believable worlds.  But we also must frame our stories against understood worlds, which is something that we sometimes lose when playing in homebrew worlds.

I have generally been on the GM side of the screen, and after returning to the role of player recently, it underscored how important having a known and an unknown is when it comes to worldbuilding. When you play a game like Call of Cthulhu or World of Darkness, a lot of your work is done for you, as those are set against the backdrop of a pre-existing world: our own. Yes, each is a perverted version, but ultimately those games are so effective because the perversion of that world is the point. There shouldn’t be vampires or werewolves or shoggoths or magic or any of the fantastically horrible things that exist in those worlds, because this is reality, and those things don’t exist.

But you don’t have that same luxury when it comes to fantasy worlds. Your players are going to be plenty willing to accept the existence of shoggoths because they live in a world where dragons and dryads and driders and demons and devils and dire alligators are all common. That one important part that is so easy to leave out when describing the world is just what is normal.

I’ve created two homebrew fantasy worlds now: I played in the first one for five years, and I just started a new campaign in the second one. In the first one, I made it very clear to everyone that there was a lot unknown about the world, but the one fact of which everyone and their mother was certain was that there were no undead. When something died, it was dead forever. You see, a century in the past, after the tribal squabbles had subsided and the known world was peacefully divided, the great powers resolved to eliminate the undead threat from the world. The greatest warriors, scholars, and theologians from around the known world banded together and swept across the four nations crushing any undead creature that could be found. So complete was their genocide (ungenocide?) was that the creators of undead were also proscribed, and all knowledge of how to do so was confiscated and (presumably) destroyed.

So, you see where this is going. When you are grounded in a world where something definitively does not exist, and then it shows up, that could be horrifying (or it could be wondrous, or something else entirely). I’m far from the first person to come up with this concept: Lovecraft, George R.R. Martin, and many others have wielded this tool far more deftly. But you should also realize that by defining your world explicitly, you can also foster fears of the known – this is the common conception we have of the savage orcs (mostly descended from Tolkein) as warmongering, brutal peoples. We fear them because we know how bad they can be.

As the blog carnival continues, we’ll tackle more fear- and horror-related topics as we approach Halloween, such as how to actually, you know, scare your players, if you’re into that kind of thing.

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The Inquisition: Vacation!

I visited somewhere like this.

The Inquisitor has been on vacation for the last few weeks, and instead of leaving your hearts and minds barren, I thought I’d pop in and toss some food for thought your way. How do you deal with your players and GMs when they go on vacation?

It’s a fact of life. People go away or need a hiatus every once and a while, and we’re faced with that difficult question: do we press on without them? And if we do, what does that mean for your story?

As far as I have gathered in my years of gaming, there are a couple of ways to approach this problem, depending on what you care about most:

We Care About the Story

If you care about the verisimilitude of the story, you have a tough road ahead of you. The simplest solution is probably to not play at all, but what should we do if we do decide to press onward? Characters that are absent are almost always going to have to be NPC’d or played by another character, which isn’t necessarily a nightmare scenario, but you do lose the actual behavior and mannerisms of a the original player’s intent. I’ve seen this scenario go bad numerous times, where the vacationing player returns and surveys the scene, only to remark, “Hey! That’s not what Sir Boddrick would have done!”

Of course it isn’t. We play complex characters with complex motivations, sometimes secret to each other, sometimes simply not yet revealed. It’s just a tall order to ask a fellow player or the GM to play your dude or dudette while you’re gone.

So we often end up resorting to the other option: the plot device.

You’re familiar with this. Zebulon the Haberdasher is kidnapped (for two sessions) by the evil Count Dragomir and the team has to save him, or somesuch. We invent a potentially random and often side-focused plot to account for the character’s absence. Sometimes we can be particularly deft, and we can work it into the overall plot if the story is designed as such, but I think most of us probably design stories with the hope that all characters involved will be present for most of the sessions. This choice is tricky, but probably the neatest if you want to maintain the narrative flow of your game.

We Don’t Care About the Story so Much

In one of my games back in the day, we had a character who ran a frozen yogurt stand as his non-adventuring profession. Whenever he missed a session, or whenever another character from the party was missing, we always said they were “minding the frozen yogurt stand”. Over the years that has morphed into the shorthand “Out for Fro-Yo” or “Fro-Yo-ing”. It’s universally understood in my playgroup that the character is still “there” but also “not there.”

For all purposes during the session, the character is not present, but for all historical purposes, they are treated as though they were present. They can’t actually say anything to the Duke (because the player is absent) but they return with full knowledge of the meeting and the Duke remembers that character being present.

Is it a fudge? Ab-so-lutely. But it’s neat, and it’s a hand-wave that we use to make a rather frequent occurrence (we are all adults with relationships, jobs, and families, after all) less of a headache.


This isn’t, and wasn’t meant to be groundbreaking stuff. How do you handle players missing a session or two? How do you recap your players when they inevitably get back? Or do you end up just skipping the session and rescheduling when everyone’s in town or more available?

Photo Credit: Flickr user Kenzoka. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Disbelief 2: The Disbeliefening

The Suspension Bridge of Disbelief
Thanks to flickr user DaveOnFlickr! CC BY-SA 2.0

A few weeks ago, a commenter lamented that I didn’t give specific examples when it comes to the suspension of disbelief, breaking it, and potentially getting it back. I aim to misbehave please, and thus I’ll try to expand upon that idea a bit more. Here are some sure-fire ways to break the suspension of disbelief and rip your players out of the story:


Clunky Mechanics

Ultimately, they are called role-playing games, and there have to be some rules otherwise it’s just shared storytelling (nothing wrong with that, either). When there are rules, especially rules which take a lot of time to play out, that are difficult to understand, don’t really mesh with game very well, or are more tedious than actually fun, you run the risk of pulling back the curtain on the fantasy world you’ve delicately set up. There are many examples of crappy rules, but one that immediately springs to mind is the grappling system from D&D 3.5.

Now, grappling is a big part of 3.5 D&D. Many monsters do it, and they do it very well. It’s difficult for a seasoned player to create a character that doesn’t have some way of escaping from a grapple. However, the rules are quite horrible:

1. Initiate the grapple by moving into your opponent’s square.

2. They make an attack of opportunity. If they hit and deal damage, you fail to grapple.

3. Make a touch attack to see if you can “grab” them.

4. Make opposed grapple checks to see if you can actually “grapple” them.

You could argue that the whole system of attacks of opportunity is clunky and breaks the SoD, and I wouldn’t fight you too much. I think they make sense (let your guard down, get attacked) but sometimes it seems like it would have just been better to give you an AC debuff instead. Whatever. The problem with grapple, for me, always came around step 3 and 4. You have to make two checks, one to see if you can even be in a position to grab your opponent, and then another to see, ostensibly, if you can hold on.

I don’t know why this couldn’t be handled with one check. The reason for the above rules makes sense (grab, then grapple), but ultimately it pulled my players out of the game because everyone always seemed to forget there was a touch attack involved, then a grapple check, and then you didn’t really even do anything that round, instead you had to wait until next round when you had to make another grapple check to maybe do something to your opponent (like stab him with a dagger or bite his face off). Suffice to say, grappling was extremely clunky, and what exactly you could do while you were in a grapple (cast spell? use a weapon? move the grapplers?) was constantly a question.

A good rule of thumb here is that if you have to constantly reference the rule from the rulebook, you’re breaking the suspension of disbelief; if you have to step out of character to look through the rulebook for what you’re able to do, that sucks and it has brought you out of the game. You stop visualizing what your character is doing to that orc and go elsewhere.

Pathfinder made it a bit better (took away the opposed rolls), but not much.

Continue reading “Disbelief 2: The Disbeliefening”

The Suspension of Disbelief

Thanks to flickr user the justified sinner! CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The idea of the “suspension of disbelief”, of which you’ve surely heard, is quite simple: in order for any form of art to be effective, it’s viewer (or listener, or whatever) needs to, in some way, suspend his disbelief.

The idea was first articulated by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in his Biographia Literaria, which can be found here:

it was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic; yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.

While Coleridge was writing particularly about the inclusion of elements macabre and supernatural in his writing, the idea holds firm today: for example, when you watch a movie, you willingly suspend your disbelief (in fact, you are simply watching rapidly-changing images projected on a large screen) and buy into the idea that Neo and Agent Smith really are fighting.

Coleridge’s idea of poetic faith is important. I think he means that there’s an implicit bargain between the poet and the reader; the poet is going to be limited by his medium or his topic, yet the reader is going to give him the benefit of the doubt anyway.

This neatly parallels the relationship between the game-master and the player. The GM sets up the world (his poetry, let’s say) and the player experiences it. Obviously, you are (most likely) not a barbarian, so there is some willing suspension of disbelief there when the game calls for you to play one. You’re not in a fantasy tavern, you’re not slamming back ale, and you’re not actually seducing wenches. (And if your gaming experience does involve all these things, do you have an extra seat at the table?)

Of course, the player needs to be suspending way more disbelief, as most of the games we play are fantastical in some way or another, whether they involve swords and sorcery, eldritch horrors, or simple standoffs and desperation. However, this comes easier than it sounds. Most of us who play role-playing games naturally want to suspend our disbelief. We take the word of the game-master or the sourcebook as the gospel. We want our games to be fun, so we’re willing to accept whatever ridiculous, convoluted worlds in which we end up playing.

After the jump I’ll discuss a couple of ways that the Suspension of Disbelief might affect your games, whether you know it or not.

Continue reading “The Suspension of Disbelief”

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