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Seeing the Elephant: Rules for being terrified without going insane?


Smoking Frog

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For a while now, I've been musing about whether it might be useful in some genres or settings to have a rule for the effect of something terrifying that does not involve a loss of sanity. This would be the difference, for example, between seeing a charging Deep One and seeing a charging war elephant. In both cases, I might drop everything and run like a jack rabbit, but my terror in each case would involve fundamentally different psychological states.

I read a lot of Lovecraft when I was young and my first BRP game was Call of Cthulhu 1st edition, so I'm pretty comfortable with the notion of people going insane from learning how horrible the universe really is, casting a blasphemous spell, etc. And the optional SAN system in BRP is expressly intended to be useful in non-horror settings; the rule mentions possible SAN loss from seeing, for example, the giant shark from "Jaws" or a spider the size of a car. Being severely tortured can potentially cause significant SAN loss.

The rule is also clear, however, that SAN loss for seeing a monster is not appropriate for fantasy worlds where everyone knows monsters exist. That, of course, makes sense because seeing a dragon does not force a change in your understanding of the universe; although it might force a change in your understanding of your chances to get out of this alive. But if you've read "The Hobbit," you probably remember the point of great drama when Bilbo screws up the courage to sneak into Smaug's lair to reconnoiter. Obviously Bilbo believes in dragons, that is the problem, in fact; it's just there's a big difference between knowing a dragon exists and sneaking into one's lair.

Another example of this problem is in Hemingway's "The Short Happy Life of Francis McComber": While on safari, Mr. McComber turns coward, drops his rifle, and flees like a little girl, when a wounded lion charges. (While his wife is watching, of course.) Obviously he knew lions existed; he had just shot this one. Fortunately for McComber, the experienced guide who was with him calmly blasts the lion with his .505 Gibbs, so nobody gets mauled.

In combat situations, there is clearly a difference between a highly trained veteran who can calmly remain effective during really terrifying situations (like the guide in "The Short Happy Life"), and the green recruit who may bolt when he "sees the elephant" for the first time.

I'm curious if anyone has played with a system something like this or has some ideas how it might add or detract from a game. And obviously what sort of game you're running will be a big factor in whether this would help or hurt. I've thought that maybe the simplest way to model this would be just to use something like the rules for temporary SAN loss, where the consequence of blowing the roll are going to be mostly just running away or freezing, but without keeping track of permanent SAN loss and not worrying about permanent insanity.

On the other hand, there is the issue of the permanent harm to your psyche when you calm down and reflect on your having run away like a coward in front of everyone, especially your shrew wife who is already sleeping with the guide. This may be something like the SAN loss from being severely tortured: you don't have to reexamine what the universe is like, but you do have to question your carefully constructed notions of "who am I," to use the question Machiavelli asked after he had been severely tortured.

This has been a long and rambling post, which probably reflects my muddled thoughts on the issue, so even responses like "that's a load of bollocks, just forget about it," would be welcome. :)

My avatar is the personal glyph of Siyaj K'ak' a.k.a. "Smoking Frog."

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I have used the rules for Stunning (BGB page 232) instead of the Sanity rules for

such situations. The description as a "disorienting experience" and the state of a

person which "cannot attack while stunned, and can only attempt to dodge or

parry ... if he or she makes a successful Idea roll for each attempt" plus "can at-

tempt to flee, but to do so requires a successful Idea roll to discern an escape

path" (I do not use the Agility roll) fits my idea of a psychological shock better

than the Sanity rules do. If the shocked person's brain does not come up with a

reasonable response to the situation, which usually is either to defend or to run

as fast and as far as possible, the person just stands there and stares at what-

ever caused the shock, unable to react.

"Mind like parachute, function only when open."

(Charlie Chan)

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SAN is for modelling very specific things - I wouldn't use it to cope with general "fright" etc.

Ben Monroe and I came up with a variant mechanic for "mental stress" which I published in Uncounted Worlds which was aimed at a more survival horror like feel than SAN (constant exposure will erode a character's mental stability but the can recuperate a LOT with significant periods of rehab, unlike SAN's "inevitable" downward spiral.

If you have access to the BASIC Creatures Monograph there is the Shade (Darkness Elemental) with it's "fearshock" attack as well.

Cheers,

Nick

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Roll POW x 5 - x3 and apply the fear spell results?

Thats that i ad-hoc.

For animals, they just run away.

Cavalry/War horses require ride rolls to stay in combat

"It seems I'm destined not to move ahead in time faster than my usual rate of one second per second"

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Thanks for the thoughts! These are all excellent ideas. Stunning, "mental stress," and adopting the fear spell (or fearshock) all seem like very good ways of doing this. (I do not have BASIC Creatures, but I'll have to add it to my ever lengthening list of books to get.)

I also want to work up some variation based on the character's background/experience, so a dragon may be terribly frightening to a hobbit who has never been out of the Shire, but a dragon may be no big deal to a crusty old Fighter who likes to tell "the one about the time I faced a dragon with just my +1 toothpick." This is part of what it means to be Heroic.

The mundane version of this that I keep thinking about is that the Roman soldiers at Heraclea in 280 BC had never seen a war elephant and were routed by them, but at Zama in 202 BC they were old hands at elephant fighting and just deployed their collection of anti-elephant tactics to neutralize them.

And I had not thought about the issue of animals. Even if a character has the guts to stand his ground against some nasty demon, his faithful dog and horse might be seen heading for the hills.

My avatar is the personal glyph of Siyaj K'ak' a.k.a. "Smoking Frog."

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There was some discussion of this sort of thing on the RQIII mailing list not too long ago. The topic in question was how to tweek the RAW for charging horses, since the OP thought the RAW were too light. I had suggested something like a modified Fear spell effect. But, another poster sagely pointed out that in situations like that (a foot solider facing tons of charging horseflesh), the "fear" shouldn't have to be engineered by rules, but should be generated by the players being aware of how much trouble they're in.

In other words, the other poster was of a mind that fear rules were unnecessary. He had a good point. SAN works because you sort of need a mechanism to simulate the unreal horror of the Cthulhu mythos, but for more mundane terror, perhaps a rules mechanism is unneeded. The GM just needs to make clear through description how much hurt they're in for. Of course, in a game like BRP, players also need to be aware of the rules and how deadly combat can be.

In "The Short Happy Life...", I'd say Macomber revealed himself to be a BRP PC while Robert Wilson was a D20 or even a Savage Worlds PC. ;)

Edited by Kairos
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Hmmm, Shaggy and Scooby Doo scream like little girls and run like the wind at the slightest hint of the unusual. But pull out a fresh pizza and they're all good. Either they don't actually suffer SAN loss, or they recover SAN "hit points" with sufficient nourishment, or they're just plain crazy anyway, so it doesn't matter.

:?

Now, a HERO System PC would have stood his ground and one-punched the charging lion. ;t)

Edited by seneschal
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Having been rather disturbingly close to wild elephants, one of whom was very angry, I'd say a SAN check may be in order! Now, a SAN check for ancient folk who'd not seen such a beast before... SAN check. But once they understand that it's just a really big bull with a grabby nose and throw enough pila and down he goes...

I dunno. I mean how would that really be different with Deep Ones? Modern people, sure, but the less modern? Who might believe in goblins anyway or that a crazed polar bear with an infected head-wound is a Troll?

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Hmmm, Shaggy and Scooby Doo scream like little girls and run like the wind at the slightest hint of the unusual. But pull out a fresh pizza and they're all good. Either they don't actually suffer SAN loss, or they recover SAN "hit points" with sufficient nourishment, or they're just plain crazy anyway, so it doesn't matter.

:?

Shag and Scoob are easy to explain: The meddling kids drive around the country in a van with no visible means of support. Hmmm. I wonder how they finance their travel? Perhaps they sell something along the way. What sort of product could they sell that they would not advertise but would bring in big revenue?

Then these two numbskulls sample so much of the merchandise that they get so paranoid and jumpy that they bolt from anything remotely harmful looking -- and probably run from the invisible spiders crawling on them too. And they suffer from such massive cases of the "munchies" that they will consume an entire refrigerator in under 15 seconds. It all sounds really fishy, and I'd say there's more than reasonable suspicion for Officer Jones to pull them over and have his trusty dog take a sniff or two. I bet Velma is the kingpin of the operation. Those nerd glasses don't fool me.

My avatar is the personal glyph of Siyaj K'ak' a.k.a. "Smoking Frog."

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There was some discussion of this sort of thing on the RQIII mailing list not too long ago. The topic in question was how to tweek the RAW for charging horses, since the OP thought the RAW were too light. I had suggested something like a modified Fear spell effect. But, another poster sagely pointed out that in situations like that (a foot solider facing tons of charging horseflesh), the "fear" shouldn't have to be engineered by rules, but should be generated by the players being aware of how much trouble they're in.

In other words, the other poster was of a mind that fear rules were unnecessary. He had a good point. SAN works because you sort of need a mechanism to simulate the unreal horror of the Cthulhu mythos, but for more mundane terror, perhaps a rules mechanism is unneeded. The GM just needs to make clear through description how much hurt they're in for. Of course, in a game like BRP, players also need to be aware of the rules and how deadly combat can be.

In "The Short Happy Life...", I'd say Macomber revealed himself to be a BRP PC while Robert Wilson was a D20 or even a Savage Worlds PC. ;)

This is a good point, and I've been mulling this idea for a while because on the one hand I don't like the idea of telling a player what his character decides to do, especially if it's stand frozen like an idiot going "um um um um um" while quaking. On the other hand, I was looking for a way to model terror that was anything but rational. When you see the charging lion, the rational decision is: I can't out run this thing. However small a chance it may be, the best chance I have is to just shoot him now. Turning tail and running is irrational.

In your example of the footmen deciding to run or stand against the charging horse, I think it is similarly too late to decide to run. If you try to escape, you'll be just mowed down, the usual fate of routing troops who are not faster than their buddies. I would think the time to rationally decide this is a bad idea is when the commander tells you to form up opposite the horse.On the other hand, depending on the era, footmen may be well able to stand up to cavalry charges. Certainly modern infantry (with all sorts of very nasty anti-tank weapons) have no reason to run in terror from tanks the way their WWI predecessors might.

I also think an irrational response might be more likely in response to a supernatural being appearing than a natural one. Depending on the setting, you might want mortals to pale in comparison to the simple awesomeness of supernatural beings on the order of demons and the like.

It may also be that you want to use one system for NPCs like flunkies and hired help and another system for PCs.

But I agree that your basic objection is a strong one.

My avatar is the personal glyph of Siyaj K'ak' a.k.a. "Smoking Frog."

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But, another poster sagely pointed out that in situations like that (a foot solider facing tons of charging horseflesh), the "fear" shouldn't have to be engineered by rules, but should be generated by the players being aware of how much trouble they're in.

The problem I see with this approach is that the players actually are in no trouble

at all, they can just shrug and pretend that their characters are never afraid or

shocked, no matter what they have to face. Think of Beowulf. When he and his

chosen warriors faced the dragon, all but Wiglaf ran and left their king to his fa-

te. If these chosen warriors had been player characters in a system without any

fear mechanism, this part of the story would have to be rewritten, our fearless

heroes would have fought bravely for their king.

"Mind like parachute, function only when open."

(Charlie Chan)

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The problem I see with this approach is that the players actually are in no trouble

at all, they can just shrug and pretend that their characters are never afraid or

shocked, no matter what they have to face. Think of Beowulf.

Beowulf is a good example of the difference I was thinking of between "normal" and "supernatural" opponents. All the fighters are obviously heroic material and would not likely be shrinking from any human enemy, but everyone except Beowulf is afraid of Grendel and, as you point out, against the dragon the chosen warriors perform about as well as the French Army in 1940. The problem of not caring what happens to a character would be even more dramatic, I think, if instead of his own character, the player could send forward a hireling or follower.

Player: "My character, Weasel-wulf, says to his loyal retainer: 'Aedmund, go poke that monster a few times and see what happens. We'll be right here watching.' Aedmund walks up the monster and starts poking.'"

GM: "It eats him in one gulp."

It might have been that Beowulf and Wiglaf were the two PCs and the rest of the chosen warriors were the NPCs needed to fill out the war band.

Having a fright/morale system could also put a premium on charisma and leadership: Part of the job of the leader of the war band would be to make sure the band is fired up and ready to kick some butt, not run like little girls.

My avatar is the personal glyph of Siyaj K'ak' a.k.a. "Smoking Frog."

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I think SAN really only holds up for CoC. Even then, it stems more from Lovecraft`s mental disorders than how people would react to seeing things. Either than, or everyone who works in an ER is completely insane (partially, yes, but not completely).

Chaos stalks my world, but she's a big girl and can take of herself.

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I liked the system of opposed traits from Pendragon for situations like this. Bravery becomes an attribute and you have to test. You succeed you get chances to increase your chance of success and with directed traits you gain a bonus towards certain social situations (like Fear: Elephants or +5 to Courage vs Elephants due to anti-elephant training).

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I liked the system of opposed traits from Pendragon for situations like this.

Yes, a very nice system, I borrowed it for various settings, including science fic-

tion. I would still like to use it, but the players insist that they can roleplay their

characters with fewer bookkeeping (e.g. only a note "cowardly, fears elephants"

on the character sheet), and I have to admit that these players really can do it.

"Mind like parachute, function only when open."

(Charlie Chan)

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I vote for POW x5 . It's fast and does not introduce a new rule. It also would make PC use that Attribute more often. Maybe Power versus Appearance on the Resistance Table is a valid way as well - or the better solution. It will show the inner conflict of the character to overcome his fears.

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I vote for POW x5 . It's fast and does not introduce a new rule. It also would make PC use that Attribute more often. Maybe Power versus Appearance on the Resistance Table is a valid way as well - or the better solution. It will show the inner conflict of the character to overcome his fears.

POW vs SIZ would be better, if the resistance table didnt suck :)

"It seems I'm destined not to move ahead in time faster than my usual rate of one second per second"

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For our fantasy games I've wanted to retain a fairy-tale feeling... keep the creatures that are unique and strange... elves, goblins, undead, etc... scary. So I kept the Sanity rules in place... you shouldn't ever get used to them, they distort reality just by being in the room (like various Mythos beasties).

But lions and tigers and bears do seem like they need some other way of being scary... on first meeting you might run from them, but you oughtta be able to get used to them after a while... like the big game hunter.

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So, give each type of creature a Fear Characteristic and give your PCs a Brave Characteristic. That way, you can roll the Fear vs Brave on the Resistance Table when they first encounter it. Further encounters would reduce the Fear as PCs become more familiar with the creature.

The same thing could work with scary places, scary enemies and the like. Trying to enter a Deep Dark Cave? Roll its fear 15 vs your Brave. See that maddened Dragon - roll a Fear 20 (+10 because it looks mad) vs Brave.

Simon Phipp - Caldmore Chameleon - Wallowing in my elitism since 1982. Many Systems, One Family. Just a fanboy. 

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So, give each type of creature a Fear Characteristic and give your PCs a Brave Characteristic. That way, you can roll the Fear vs Brave on the Resistance Table when they first encounter it. Further encounters would reduce the Fear as PCs become more familiar with the creature.

The same thing could work with scary places, scary enemies and the like. Trying to enter a Deep Dark Cave? Roll its fear 15 vs your Brave. See that maddened Dragon - roll a Fear 20 (+10 because it looks mad) vs Brave.

I give it 5 more posts till we end up playing HQ :D :D :D

"It seems I'm destined not to move ahead in time faster than my usual rate of one second per second"

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