[RPG] Tried all the existing advice, but players still never roleplay fear


I've read some other posts on here about how to telegraph danger to my PCs and how to make them flee. The problem is, I believe I am actively using all the strategies in both of the posts and my PCs are never afraid of anything. It takes away the suspension of disbelief for me as a DM.

My goal is to make my PCs truly afraid of whatever is coming for them. It's just unrealistic when they are having trouble killing something they see everyday and then a giant CR 11 Retriever steps out of the woods after killing 3-4 treants and starts shooting lasers out of its eyes. It turns one of their NPC escorts into stone and continues to start taking down players. I had PLANNED for them to start running when they saw this. Any sane person would have if they saw that. But my players do not roleplay fear. I absolutely hate this. It's just not what would happen.

Now I'm not saying my party isn't challenged. To be fair, they won that encounter by protecting their escort (a child which they turned invisible) and only lost 1 PC, who got reincarnated by their druid. In other words, they used up ALL of their resources and it ended up being a pretty fun battle. However, they didn't flee.

I also don't mean to say high CR equals more fear. I put a pit in a lower level dungeon with a bunch of sleeping zombies, so when I player fell in I would say, "You feel a hand grasp your ankle and begin to pull you under the sea of dead bodies." That's the kind of thing I'm talking about. But in that situation (which never happened), I'd just expect my player to pull out his sword and begin hacking and slashing. I would much rather for them to have screamed and panicked. Like when a bee flies around your head and you spasm to get it away. If a bee flew around my players' heads – guess what? CR0 bee, smash.

Some further background information: My PCs have already went through a full party wipe and they all know that if they go into certain areas, I'm not lowering the CR for them. PC death is common. They are fine with this and seem to like it because it's more real. Also, my games go well for the most part. We all have fun, I'm just looking for that extra dimension of fear. The only problem is they all seem to have backup characters ready because of this. Maybe that's a bad thing?

So what is an effective way to present my encounters so that my players will respond with a little less "I'm an unstoppable hero", and more "Holy crap! A dragon ahhhh run!!"?

Best Answer

The Players May Not Want To

Part of fantasy role playing for a lot of people is being able to be larger than life for a bit. They may not want their characters to feel fear at all.

Now, in a novel this may be a bad thing, since a character that isn't believable can disrupt the suspension of disbelief. But in an RPG its not necessarily a bad thing to let the players through their characters simply feel fearless and powerful, even in the face of overwhelming odds (which in your example weren't horribly overwhelming since they won.).

Their reactions might not be quite that unbelievable after all

People can keep their fear under control. When I was in the Army, I was in an Airborne unit and we did jump training frequently. I was scared every time. I still jumped out of the plane, every time. I was lucky enough that I never got in a close quarters fire fight, but plenty of people in my unit did. Not a single one ran in the time I was with that unit. Many of them did readily admit they were scared. They didn't run and the few times I heard about screaming involved people with serious injuries.

Remember, we aren't talking about some comfortable bookkeep that has never even been in a fist fight. Even a first level adventurer has mentally prepared for battle, equiped themselves for battle, and trained for battle. By the time they have added a few levels they have seen the horrors of battle and possibly the terrors of war. They know how to stand their ground.

Sure, a good role-player, when their character faces a new, powerful threat, might add details like, "My eyes widen in terror, and I feel my heart pounding in my chest." But, especially if they have a good reason to stand their ground (like a young child they must protect...), its not actually that unrealistic for them to follow with, "But I swallow my fear, and yank my sword out of its scabard!"

Remember that 300 was dramatized and fictionalized, but it was based on a real event. 300 Spartans (backed up by 700 Thespians and 400 Thebans in real history, so about 1400) stood their ground against genuinely overwhelming odds. The Persian Army was somehwere in the neighborhood of 300,000. With odds of nearly 300 to one, the Spartans knew that they were waiting for death (indeed very nearly all of them were killed). I suspect close to all of them were terrified, most of them were young men with little experience. They stood their ground.