Is there a specific game element — a rule, mechanic, monster, ability or something similar — that always puts your players on edge?
Just to establish a baseline, examples might include level drain (D&D), aggravated damage (White Wolf), foes with grey or white dice (Burning Wheel), critical hits (WFRP) or the tarrasque (D&D again) — all of which present “special threats” to the PCs.
The common comment from my players when going into a combat is “Geek the Mage!”, but that is mostly because of how I combine or make magic work. I don’t think there is anything within a game system that they truly fear. There are things that they definitively avoid, or have no desire to take on (such as the tarrasque), unless the game is a high level monster hunt.
My best fear moment is when the group was being overly cautious, and was checking each statue in a room, there were so many and they were not going to let a single one going. Finally it came down to the process of me just saying “statue, statue, statue, statue, statue, statue” as they checked each one. It kept on like this for a while “Statue, Statue, Statue, Statue, Statues, Statue . . DEATH!”
They were getting really into the process, watching to see if I was betraying any information with my facial features, and I caused them to jump 3 feet out of their chairs when I yelled death. I don’t think it would have worked if I hadn’t had them so on edge in getting to the statue room. Of course it wasn’t really in game death, and they continued checking every statue anyways. . .
level drain, absolutely.
We’re also in the level drain camp. Over the course of a Mage campaign, I’d have sworn that they were afraid of their own shadows. (Of course, who knows what shadow Doppler readers have been rolled out by the Technocracy…)
No really… Mules.
I ran a game not too long ago where the big bad dudes were a bunch of intelligent mules. They weirded the PCs our so badly they’re jumpy now whenever mules come into play as flavor text. After all…. one could be out for revenge….
I think some of this stuff is mechanics based like level drain or big bad monsters, but anything can turn into a fearsome foe if you DM it right.
Constitution damage or drain is up there with level drain.
Around 5-6th level (D&D 3.5), I spread rumors of a Very Young Black Dragon (CR4). Despite repeatedly saying that it was “about the size of a large dog”, they got all antsy in the swamp.
They finally encountered it, and gladly paid a somewhat hefty toll to avoid said dragon.
OK, the CR8 Grey Render that had adopted the dragon could have been a bit intimidating, but the party was primarily sketched over the dragon. The CR4, big as a Labrador Retriever, fifty-pound, dragon.
D&D’s level drain: most fear-inducing mechanic ever?
I can see why that might be the case, as it wipes out a lot of a player’s investment, and kicks them in the teeth by making them earn that level again — while their friends progress unharmed.
Regarding level drain, I can’t say that I’ve seen it feared so much as loathed. Unless you’re blessed to be in a group where every player keeps meticulous records, rolling back level advancements to PC stats is a huge pain in the rear. 😛
More to the point though, I agree with sentiment here that across-the-board penalties — whatever your game system calls it — is something to be feared. Almost worse than death; you’re now a weakling! At the mercy of the boogies! A shell of your former self!
instead of trying to roll back levels (which is a pain even if you have good records), we simply assign a permanent negative level. all the effects of a negative level, can only be removed the next time you’d gain a level, in lieu of the new level. (e.g. fighter 4/-1 to fighter 4, instead of fighter 5/-1)
Back in the day, I used to play RuneQuest (pre Avalon Hill), and in that world, there is a species of duck that is the ultimate agent of chaos. I am just sick enough to occasionally use the concept in other games.
Our biggest fear was someone saying, “I wish…”
Our GM (many, many years of playing before he met us) had gotten tired of his players whining about stuff (“I wish I had that cool sword we found back in the swamp.”), so he came up with a wish table. Any time anyone said “I wish…”, he allowed a chance for it to happen. Then, bad stuff could happen, anything from level drain, to ability loss, to ability handicap (try casting spells when your daily allotment is cut in half!).
He always gave players one warning before he did this, and we all lived in mortal fear of uttering those two words, because he told us some of the things that could happen if we did. Then again, this is also the guy who told us, “I’ll try my best to kill you, but I’ll also try my best to keep you alive.”
I think that final comment is awesome. That GM reminds me of myself with that final quote. In one campaign I ran I repeatly told the players I was absolutely trying to kill them. We were playing D&D so death was not the end for a character of course. It created such a feel of mortality, because their players were always threatened, just like anyone who decides to swing a sword around for a living.
Oh yeah and also, my players began to fear these spider creatures from one of the monster manuals I believe they were called “spellweavers”. They were lvl 15 and most of their magic items were sapped by these creatures. 🙂
Players in my low-level games often refuse to purchase horses because they know how fond I am of griffons. I’m also notorious for using rust monsters to sinister effect.
(longcoat000) …â€œIâ€™ll try my best to kill you, but Iâ€™ll also try my best to keep you alive.â€
Man, but that one opens up a whole different can of worms — great quote!
On the one hand, the notion of trying to kill the PCs is (and I’m generalizing here) pretty antithetical in modern gaming (generalizing again). It smacks of an old-school, “as GM my word is law” kind of style that I don’t think is in the majority anymore.
On the other hand, if you’ve set up a fair encounter, and the players know that character death is a possibility, then there’s value to trying to kill their PCs — using only the tools you have, and not bending things in your favor. That’s got a very gamist feel to it.