The Gassy Gnoll: Fear is *not* the mind-killer, the little death…

Fear. Whether experienced in real life or in a RPG, it’s a powerful motivator. Characters in a game are just as susceptible to the fight or flight response as we are. Sure, they’re heroes. Sure they’re used to the danger, the adrenaline, the blood lust… But are they truly afraid? (The Gassy Gnoll is afraid of nothing but his own scent and will repeat that ad nauseam until he believes it!)

This week in the 4e campaign I’m playing in, a shade erupted – blinding two nearby PCs who were then totally ineffectual in combat. Their opponents weren’t… (at least they weren’t supposed to be.) And if those enemies had been more strategic or skilled they might have done some serious damage to the PCs, taking advantage of their weakened condition. Though the players were fairly level headed about the whole situation, you could tell it was bothering them. The plight of their characters translated to (a little) fear in the real world.

Far too often we as players can see what’s coming. Whether the maps are drawn by hand or published or marked by cardboard walls, we can see what our characters will face, which gives us a bit of an advantage. We can figure out potential moves, communicate strategies, coordinate attacks… and feel powerful. But when a PC is immobilized, blinded, dazed, slowed, stunned, or unconscious – there’s often an emotional component that binds us to those characters and we feel helpless. Sometimes that leads to simply lashing out in an attempt to hit something – anything – to resume normal actions again. But at other times that palpable sense of dread can make our blood pressure rise and make us anxious almost as though it was us in our character’s position.

This emotional connection can be totally obvious and impromptu during games, or it can be bolted onto a game by a talented (or twisted) GM. In the former, I think most of us GMing tend to not to take advantage of the connection and let the story build players up and tear them down as their characters live (or die) through it. In the latter, I have to really wonder at the reasons a GM or game designer would want to explicitly play upon the players’ fears for their characters’ safety. That kind of control can have lasting effects far outside the game and should be avoided if possible in my opinion.

But the connection a player gets with a particular character can become a very personal journey for a lot of players, myself included. And as we play characters longer, that connection can become stronger. I know that this has happened multiple times in my gaming career… I tend to explore some aspects of my own personality via my characters – the lack of control of Didius Cato, the childlike wonderment of a Malkavian, the irreverence of a mage willing to spit epithets at the gods… And I hope that continues many years into the future. Gaming offers a safe environment to explore our own psyches a bit or try on different personas to see how they fit.

It is my feeling that without the fear for what happens to our characters, we’re not roleplaying. Without those bonds, we might as well be playing chess or checkers and moving pieces on a board. The fear is what makes us jump into battle to save a friend and vanquish an enemy. The fear is what makes us attack, defend, and sacrifice our characters’ lives for the greater good. The fear is what makes us want to step into these roles and see what happens next, both dreading and anticipating the potential end that lies around every corner.

And on the other side of the fear is the joy when we save the day. We rescued two separate groups of kids from mean-spirited, evil beings who were turning kids like them into zombies and who knows what else. We were excited to win the battle and dread what certain clues might mean for our characters… So far we have prevailed as a group, but there are loose ends to tie up and Yuan-ti left out there stealing other children for nefarious purposes even if we’ve stopped a group from exporting children in one town…

Am I afraid for my character? Yes and no. I’m still discovering my own path into Grash the half-orc rogue. He’s a bit of an enigma as yet, since I don’t have a clear idea of his background beyond a single event where he was jailed by a dwarven bodyguard following an unsuccessful theft. He’s starting to come into focus a bit. However, should my PC die, I’m ok with that. It is a part of the gaming journey. But I look forward to discovering my emotional connection to this character.

I was however excited to see a group of roleplayers actually getting into their characters… That’s the kind of thing I thrive on. And I will not let a fear of what may happen to my character dissuade me from his tasks… But I hope to get more of an appreciation for the other PCs in the group so I can be afraid for them and figure out what kind of a man this half-orc may be…

Fear isn’t to be feared… it’s to be cultivated and paid attention to so we can roleplay better.

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