Fear and Loathing in the Forgotten Realms

Real-life Skill Penalties
According to the CDC, about 15.7% of the population has been diagnosed with depression, and 11.3% of people with anxiety. Unfortunately for me, I am part of both groups. My issues are not so severe that I can’t function. I have a family, a job, friends, and lots of responsibilities to deal with every day – and I manage. Sometimes, barely. Fortunately, I have a good wife and good friends to support me, and some pharmaceutical bonuses to my will save as well. It definitely helps, because it’s a struggle some days.

I recently finished reading The Lord of the Rings to my 2 year old (note to new parents: Tolkien == sleep spell), and I was struck by how Sauron’s primary weapon was not military might. It was fear. Specifically, supernatural fear. You first see it when the Black Riders are hunting Frodo and Sam early in their journey. The hobbits can feel the presence of their pursuer before he even draws near – terror and despair clouding their minds, confusing them, tempting them to do something rash and reveal their position or taking the will from them completely. Throughout the books, many examples are given of the Nazgûls’ terrible power taking the very heart and fighting spirit of all but the stoutest warriors, changing a battle into a terrible slaughter. It’s easy to kill your opponent when he is fleeing in terror, or if he is so frozen with fear that he can’t fight back. Sauron even manages to unload the finest mass fear spell ever cast on the good guys in the form of a spreading darkness over all of Middle Earth, dampening spirits and hopes, sapping his enemies’ will to fight days before his forces even arrive, and confusing the hell out of any meteorologists in Middle Earth at the time.

This got me to thinking — I can’t remember one game of D&D in which a fear spell of any kind was used to good effect upon a PC. The groups I’ve been in typically use fear-based spells for tactical advantage, sort of the wizard’s all-purpose version of a cleric turning undead. On the few occasions I’ve seen a DM use a fear spell on a PC, usually one of two things happens. Sometimes, the player just hands the DM their character sheet and lets them roll to decide what direction the character runs screaming in for the current round. Equally likely is that some rules-lawyering is about to begin – and it’s that ugly kind that isn’t really backed by, well, rules. Anybody else here ever been in a situation involving magical fear (or morale checks, for that matter), and heard “It doesn’t affect me. My character isn’t afraid of anything.”? I have. Several times. Once or twice coming from my own mouth. A player trying to argue their way out of in-game effects using “roleplaying” rarely ends well, in my experience. Frequently, real-life subdual damage occurs.

The Nature of Fear
At this point, you may be wondering at this point what, if anything, my anxiety issues and the magical fear in The Lord of The Rings have to do with each other. Well, I found myself thinking back to my own experiences with depression and anxiety – and identifying with the victims of Sauron’s dark powers. Obviously, not to the full extent seen in the books. (I sure hope it never gets that bad!) I will say, however, that as a person who suffers from anxiety, me and nameless dread are well-acquainted with each other. We shared an apartment in college. He sleeps in our guest room now, and we share an office at work. A lot of people don’t understand what fear can do to you. It can be a lot more insidious than just quaking in fear or running away. Sometimes, it can affect my self-confidence. It can make it hard to write a blog post, to get stuff done at work, and it can do a number on a marriage too if you’re not careful. It can distort the way you see the world, make your friends look like they all think you’re an idiot are all laughing at you, or make your wife seem like a horrible person who doesn’t even like you when she just asked you to do the laundry. I’m a programmer by trade, and I generally get by on wit and reason to solve the problems around me. This utterly fails most of the time when my anxiety is kicking my ass. This kind of fear doesn’t make sense. Reading some of the things I write about things that are bothering me when I am experiencing a lot of anxiety frequently doesn’t make much sense when I’m not. As described in the Lord of the Rings, fear can (and frequently does) strip you of your defenses and take the very heart from you at times – and, like the vast majority of you, I live a peaceful life where I typically do not need to fight for survival (unless it’s crunch time at work). I cannot imagine what would happen if this were not the case. Who knows? Perhaps well-founded paranoia would be easier. At least then I would know what was out to get me.

Roleplaying Fear
With all this in mind, one way to roleplay fear effects in D&D becomes clear. I got this way over time, through social interaction gone awry or chemical imbalance (I really have no idea). Fear effects can turn this on, amplified greatly, in the blink of an eye. The nature of the fear and its effect on the PC, obviously, are up to the player and the DM. However, we now have a lot more tools at our disposal to decide how it manifests itself. It may just be a shock to the system, freezing the character in their tracks, or making them whimper for their mother in the fetal position. It may cause them to flee. It might cause the PC to get intimidated and lose confidence in their ability to defeat their enemy (or even to defend themselves). Fear could make a PC act rashly, affecting their ability to perceive things (and the level of actual danger), and greatly increasing their desire to run into and/or away from something (if the fear is potent enough, perhaps both). Sure, none of this is new to anyone – but now I have somewhere to start as to why this is happening to them (that is, what’s going on in their heads), which is a pretty good place to get a foothold from a roleplaying standpoint.

With a particularly nasty villain, and a long time to weave his nefarious plans, a truly evil DM could even work in more insidious fear effects. Through private communication, he could cause long-standing dread to distort the player’s opinion of other PC’s. This would probably have to be done through Perception checks and careful private messages to individual players to make them think their compatriots were up to something, maybe even working secretly against them. Admittedly, this would require either a group of very honest and skilled roleplayers, or at least one player at the table who everybody else doesn’t fully trust not to try to sell the entire party into kobold slavery at the first opportunity.

The Frightening Conclusion
I hope it’s obvious to everyone that in no way am I trying to trivialize anxiety, depression, or any other mental illness with this post, nor am I a professional who has any idea what he is talking about on any subject. Ever. Rather, I would just rather my issues did something useful for a change. I hope, at the very least, they’ve given some of you a few things to gnaw on the next time your DM decides it’s National Lich Awareness Week and the fear hits the fan.

Photo courtesy: http://www.flickr.com/photos/rsvstks/19428230/


  1. I like where you’re going with this! Makes me want to pull out a DSM IV and start looking for the symptoms of stress disorders, anxiety attacks, and other disorders, and see how many powers I can make for some nightmarish critter

    But I do agree, we shouldn’t trivialize mental illness, but there’s definitely something to be said for your line of thinking, Vanir.

  2. Thank you. This is perfect. My group is heading into a “fear zone” in the next session, and now I have a better way of making that happen.


  3. Noumenon says:

    I just sent an e-mail to my DM telling him I’m going to make Wisdom my dump stat so he can target me with all kinds of fun fear and confusion effects.

  4. You know, I do like this. It’s an aspect what we don’t think about…and it makes me wonder exactly what else there is in gaming that we overlook.

  5. Shilling says:

    Good post Vanir. I also fall into both those groups, although I’m glad to say that I no longer need pharmaceutical aid. But I know how these ailments can completely warp reality for a person. The Nazgul’s aura of terror is also one of my favourite things about Lord of the Rings, and something that couldn’t quite be captured on film.

    One of my favourite little touches in WOrld of Warcraft was the effect of alchahol. if you were intoxicated, monsters would appear to be a few levels lower than they actually were – an excellent simulation of Dutch courage.

    Fear should have similar effects, making everything seem much more dangerous than it actually is. Someone attacking a monster that they fear should be told how their blow appears to do no harm at all (when actually it took a hefty chunk of XP). Fear should also cause psychic damage – it absolutely drains your will to fight and since HP is will-to-fight, fear should sap away even more than physical harm.

    Skill checks – if something is feared, tell the player that they need to roll a very hard DC and the consequences of failure are dire. If they decide to actually take the roll, then the DC and fallout is more reasonable.

    Phobias and fears make excellent story hooks too. How can you escort the famous mage to the college of magic if he refuses to leave his house?

    Emotions are at the heart of all human storytelling. Some people think it is plot, but if plot fails to cause emotional change then it is just a bunch of stuff that happens.

  6. “[W]e shouldn’t trivialize mental illness”

    I agree, but then to the degree that combat, wounds, death etc. are entertaining components a D&D game, we shouldn’t allow well intended sensitivity to prevent us from using in-game psychological effects as ways to make for an entertaining and exciting experience. WFRP (at least the first edition) has characters build up insanity points as they battle ancient horrors and the like, and after a threshold is reached the characters must use a die roll to check whether they have developed some kind of psychological disorder. I currently spend a lot of my professional life among psychiatrists, and I’m not sure what they’d make of the table the characters roll on, but it does make for interesting role-play opportunities. Of course, the idea of a WFRP character who isn’t afraid of anything to start with falls outside my experience, but in D&D it can be a problem.

    “Fear should also cause psychic damage – it absolutely drains your will to fight and since HP is will-to-fight, fear should sap away even more than physical harm.”

    I really do like this idea – it is something I’m going to have to incorporate into my approach to HP and damage – http://drbargle.blogspot.com/2010/06/characters-saint-sebastian.html.

  7. amnuxoll says:

    I’ve never been a fan of having PCs being forced to run away from fear effects. An approach I’d like to try sometime that seems inline with your essay is to take away their temporary bonuses. If you’re afraid, then:

    4e: Your powers can no longer grant a bonus to attack rolls. You also can’t use your action point.

    3e: Spells that grant a temporary bonus, including spells like Bull’s Strength, don’t work for you.


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