Please don’t read this if you don’t deal well with fears especially spiders and descriptions of reaching into a box containing a mystery.
What do you fear? Some of us (me) are afraid of things like heights or spiders. They can be phobias with varying degrees of severity with an uncontrollable urge to panic when encountering these things. There are all kinds of other fears too, like death and the unknown. This month the Blog Carnival of the RPG Blog Alliance is looking at the topic of what scares you (hosted by Reckoning of the Dead) and it really got me thinking. And that’s good since it has been a while since I managed to get one of these entries in! What really hit me was how I am fascinated more than fearful of the unknown. What scares me are the things I know. So, I am going to take a look at the importance of knowledge and awareness in regard to fear. Keep in mind this is all experience or opinion I am trying to logic out, none of this is going to be backed by any psychology, at least that I know of.
Let’s start here as the juxtaposition for what I want to focus on. The unknown is a big fear factor for most people and playing up on the unknown is what really gets people in the show of that name. The dark is one epitome of the unknown because we rely so heavily on sight. Fear of the dark, or what might be lurking there is common. Not only that but we fear things we don’t know about or understand fully. Those unknowns scare us because it could be, well, anything. This extends to another extreme when it comes to cosmic horror. It isn’t the tentacle monsters or insane cults that brings the fear of those stories. It is the fact that they and their sources are things that we cannot comprehend. In being so, utterly alien these things are unknowns that we can see, and thus, are manifestations of that greatest fear. They represent a concept, that what we know and what we are is so small compared to everything else that we couldn’t possibly know anything that really matters. More unknown to drown us in dread. But is it the unknown that really brings about fear?
Exploration & Science
If there is anything about humans that you might gather from history it is that we are not afraid of the unknown. We live, breathe, and exist for it. Exploration is in our genes. Figuring out how the world, the universe, works is something we never stop doing. In fact, that curiosity is what gets us into so much trouble. This is especially true in science fiction. I mean, what better way to cause worry and fear than sending us straight into the unknown of potential futures? We want to go to more places. We want to see new things. We want new experiences. These are exhilarating and if any of you are horror fans you know, as much as I do, that a big part of it all is the exhilaration of the unknown. Where’s the killer? What’s going to happen next? What was that sound? To me though, I don’t think it is the unknown itself that makes us afraid, otherwise why would so many of us humans strive for it so often that it is a flagship trait for the species in things like Star Trek?
I think true fear comes from the things we know. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean we know what that sound was or what that thing is or anything like that. What I mean is that the more we know about something or the more we know about a thing’s possibilities, the more afraid of that unknown we are. It isn’t the dark that we are afraid of but what can happen there because we can’t see. We are afraid of the animals that come out at night and the sounds we can’t see the source of. Even a phobia can be linked to something like this. We know what can happen as the result of a spider bite or a fall from a high space, and it isn’t good. I think the existential dread the likes of Lovecraft’s tales are just extensions of that as well. It isn’t that we are afraid because Cthulhu is unfathomable. It is that we know that a mouse looks on something like us with the utter terror of incomprehension and we understand why, because we understand what we could do to the mouse and we understand how the world works more than it does. The same would be true for the Crawling Chaos and we know we would be the mouse in that scenario.
Bringing It Back To The Table
So, this is a topic for RPG blogs and, as such, I need to bring it back around to games like D&D. To evoke fear in your players you have to know what scares them. Sure this might be a PC or NPC they like dying, but there is a lot more you can do. Horror game GMs know this well. But you can’t just throw a monster that they don’t know in there and have them be afraid, not really. It is hard to make the proxy for a character experience fear just because you said the character doesn’t know what it is. Hells, the player might know what it is and that might cause them to be unafraid. A pack of wolves would evoke fear in level 1 PCs but not their players. In all likelihood presenting a scenario where they might die is more apt to make them angry for coming so close so early more than scared. This is where what I have been talking about comes in.
If you follow my logic we can turn almost anything into something that strikes fear into your players. So let’s set the basic premise based on the first three sections of this post. Fear is something derived from knowledge when presented with an unknowable factor. In other words, it is not what the players do not know that scares them but all the possibilities they know exist that their mind creates. In order to play your players into a state of fear you can follow a few basic steps:
- understand what they know as players (and of course as PCs)
- give them just enough information for them to feel immersed and curious
- keep the thing that is scaring them a mystery
- give them clues without telling them what the thing really is
There are probably more concise or properly laid out steps, but I hope you get the idea. The goal is to set the mood and leave a disconnect between what the players know and what they think they know. The unknown is the gap between the two, filled with lines from either what you tell the players or what their own knowledge and anxiety creates. For me it is a matter of making that gap deep rather than wide. The deeper it is, the more wild the thoughts of what might be in there will become, the more you can fit in it. The narrower it is the closer the danger they are trying to understand or confront is.
Another way to look at it is, as an example, the blind-fold box. Take the situation of a blind-folded individual reaching into a box. Anything could be in there and they know a few things. It won’t kill them, it’s mostly harmless, and it is probably something people wouldn’t normally touch or even want to touch. Inside is a tarantula. These beautiful (if horrific) creatures are kinda furry in their own way and many tend not to do anything unless really hassled. Even then they are probably going to shuff off hairs first. There is an initial fear because the box’s contents are unknown, but you know just the kind of things that could be there. You don’t think about the fact that you will be fine. No matter how hard you try that won’t block out: snake, spider, slug, eyeballs, fish, and on and on. Those thoughts, the known, swirl and feed each other, boosting your care and awareness. Until you touch it and it is suddenly soft. You have learned something and your first thought might be relief because of what else you know: sometimes there are nice things like teddy bears in the boxes. So your mind eases and you reach further with renewed curiosity, your mind beginning to play over the possibilities that has this new information and combining it with old information as you seek out more. Then you hit the legs and everything comes crashing down as the connection is made. It is a spider not a stuffed toy.
This is a very narrow and fairly deep gap. There could be one of thousands of objects in that box, but you know it is an object and you know its most likely something awful. It takes only a few pertinent pieces of info to cross that gap and realize what it is. But the height of fear is the intense build up to that other side. Bits of information raising the fear with some mitigating it and new ones bringing it back stronger. The dread sits and anxiety builds to a peak of fear at the moment of finally knowing what it is (unless of course it is something unreasonable for fear like a teddy bear). By understanding the different aspects of scenarios like these you can help control fear at the table. Grant bits of information and let players discover some themselves. Don’t discourage false ideas. You may even want to play up such possibilities. The more the better, because remember, it isn’t the unknown but the known that builds fear. The more possibilities they think it might be the more fear can build, the more paranoia can muddle things.
I leave you with one more example of how increased knowledge creates increased fear. Known monsters invoke terror in players: beholders, gelatinous cubes, and illithids. At the table, the dark is unlikely to do much to cause some issues unless you layer in lots of description and thread those possibilities. Someone calling for help is the type of thing that even galvanizes a party despite being scared. They will run towards danger to be the heroes. Until they meet a leucrotta anyways. These beasties lure in prey by imitating sounds of things like children. After a tough and unexpected encounter with leucrotta some adventurers would be hard pressed to not be presented with enough fear of voices calling for help in the dark as to not be cautious at least. Knowing it might not be an actual person has added just a tiny layer of fear sitting and waiting in their mind.
TL;DR is that the unknown is simply a vessel for which fear is made. Fear, dread, and anxiety all build from the known. What we know right now and what we know to be a possibility. Only confirmation will cut away at it so that steps may be taken. Even if those steps are quickly in the opposite direction. Manipulating this web is the GM’s surest way to maximize fear at the table, rather than simply creating unknowns.