[RPG] How to narrate Charm/Fear/Rage/etc effects in a liberating manner


Or, How can I implement behavior-centric status effects without giving the players a sense of having lost their autonomy?

It's something I have found to be a personal agitant as a roleplayer, and also one which frequently leads to arguments in the lieu of "My character wouldn't react that way!" in adventures I have participated in or lead myself.

A character who has survived the Eldritch beyond and come out barely holding on to their sense of self and autonomy in a cold, careless world revealed to them in apotheosis encounters an insignificant horror. Roll on the insanity table.

To be clear, this is not so much about characters who should reasonably be able to resist such mental effects, but rather about those players who feel that involuntary mental effects take away from their sense of liberty the same way that a railroading campaign might.

If you have encountered this issue overtly, how did your peers describe it? How did they propose to resolve it?

If it is something you've only grappled with hypothetically or in solitude, what solutions have worked for your parties? What problems have you yet failed to solve?

Best Answer

Yes, I have encountered this as both a player and GM.

All of your solutions CAN work, but are dependant on the group's reactions and way of doing things. Some groups are technical and a bit meta-gamish--which while I don't personally love meta-gaming, sometimes it's fun for people, and they like the mechanic aspect--as long as everyone KNOWS what you mean when you say Fear Aura DC 15.

That being said, I like to do a combo platter of your solutions. I describe the feeling, THEN have them roll--even if they do meet the DC when I have them roll, I give them a taste of it, and then use the outcome of the roll to PRESCRIBE what they must do. If they complain, I then explain the mechanic.

Here's what it looks like:

GM: "Your heart pounds, mouth going dry, with a feeling of terrible dread. Every nightmare you have ever had seems to have a source, and it's standing there. Roll for fear effect."

::PLAYER: They Roll, even if it's near to hopeless::

GM:"There's no hope, no saving anyone, no way to fight the horror before you, and you find yourself running with all your speed down the passageway!"

Player: "But my guy is a fearless adventurer who would NEVER flee!"

GM: "You did have the chance to roll for it and failed the roll--it's a supernatural fear effect. You run in a very manly fashion though. The effect lasts for 6 rounds. Here's a six sided die, you can use it to keep track of how long you flee.

Other ways I have dealt with this for added flavor is this:

GM: "You have a choice as to how to react to the fear--flee, befriend, or freeze/hide. Befriend means that you throw your weapon away as far as you can and beg for your life, flee means you keep your weapon and run away, and hide/freeze means that you find a place to hide (your pants will need laundering later)."

And, if they miss the roll by 1 or 2, I do give them SOMETHING--

GM: You start to swallow your fear, push it down deep, but just as you try to, the fear seeps in like floodwater under a door, and suddenly, like a flood, it sweeps you away, and you find yourself running down the corridor, away, away from the horrible tide of it."

If I know something about things the character has been uncomfortable with, or afraid of, I throw that in.

With a group committed to roleplay, the flavor is going to be different than with a more hacky-slash group.

Other things that have helped have been pre-game meetings. If there are certain effects that you know could be at issue, you can also talk to the players about fear reactions their characters might have. I will tell them parameters of certain mechanical effects (like they are not allowed to fight effectively or hold a weapon, as part of the effect) and perhaps ask how they would react within the parameters, then use that to inform their reaction--or at the very least set up an expectation, so that within the game, you get seamless roleplay. You can do that really, with all major effects

Sometimes I have even done, of all things, a questionnaire, asking them what kind of person their character responds to most positively for things like charm effects, what they fear for fear effects. With those in hand, before we even start gameplay, I can personalize the effects in my description, so it's tailormade for them.

I do the questionare outside of play. Not within, because that interrupts the flow of things. So with fear, I ask about the person's greatest fears, animals they fear, things that make them uncomfortable...so the flood imagery, I used that for a character whose backstory involved their village being drowned.

With charm, I 've asked, "What makes a person trustworthy in your eyes? Describe people you grew up with and loved--as friends, brothers, sisters, caretakers, lovers..." So if they grew up in a rural area and that's their backstory, I say something along the lines of "Though he's dressed as a merchant, he's got the manner of a country farmer, salt of the earth, like the people back home. There's not many that are honest in these parts, but you know that's he's one who is."

Rage is harder, but I start with "Describe a time when you felt helpless." This one can help with rage or fear. "What makes you angry?" Is more direct. If they answer that their character is a peaceful and has never felt really angry...well--that's an opportunity, actually "You've never felt this way before, red washes over your vision and a clarity of feeling remains, to rend and destroy. It overwhelms you..." In fact, for a mild mannered fellow effects can be even worse BECAUSE they have no experience of rage. The after effects roleplayed well can also be interesting.

And I make it written beforehand. It's only afterwards that I inform them that it will used for effects, and if they say they would not react that way, while the game is going on, I say "everyone has fears/people they instantly trust/a capacity for rage, especially when magic/Eldritch horrors/pheromones are involved. I've personalized it using your backstory and answers. Even a hard bitten loner has buttons." And in game I also let them know about the status effect, so they can roll with it, with the added flavor.

Besides the questionnaire and/or talking to the players directly out of game I also pay attention to the ways in which characters react to things and take notes. So even if they don't write it down, if the character is a lothario and responds well to pretty women in game, I use that for charm. If they are uptight and upright, I use that as well, describing people in a way that is a mirror to their own behavior. If they freak out over something in game, that goes into the fear bank. If they get angry, same deal. I note their reactions and use that as basis. All three of these ways are a way to use player input to inform the mechanics of an effect, which help them to feel like they are part of shaping the story. I will be stealing DrBob's post-it notes of ultimate truth though!! Great answer there!