“What’s My Motivation?” – Fears & Phobias

Table of Contents

“What’s My Motivation?” is a regular column that uses a variety of methods found in the disciplines of acting, writing, and improvisation to help Dungeon Masters create compelling NPC’s and further flesh out their campaigns.

Last time we looked at how a variety of beliefs or convictions can be used to quickly give a character a moral framework or worldview to simplify NPC interactions.

This week’s installment we examine how fears and phobias can be used to inject added challenges and depth into roleplaying.

Fears and phobias are similar but not the same thing. A fear can be considered a healthy respect, where a phobia evokes an illogical and sometimes even a primal response like paralysis or savagery. Typically these stem from particularly harrowing or terrifying experiences in a character’s past.  Remember when I offered some questions regarding a character’s neutrality? When is a character not Neutral? Perhaps it is due to fear… or worse. A knight may be noble enough, until he is sealed up in a tight dark space underground. Faced with a claustrophobic’s nightmare his bladder may loosen or he could become willing to kill his own companions to escape. We can use these issues to help establish back-story, such as our knight having been locked in a closet asa child.

For NPC’s (or even PC’s) a few standard fears or phobias can be pre-established.  Use the table below for some suggestions or just pick something that makes sense. This gives the DM a chance to work with the environment and combat as needed. For example, an NPC with arsonphobia will become extremely uncomfortable should a character use burning hands or a fireball in her presence.

Here are some possible fears:

1. Monster types (in many games all those “imaginary” things that go bump in the night are actually alive – or undead – and well)

2. dark/light

3. fire

4. drowning

5. heights

6. being alone

7. small spaces

8. failure

9. wide open spaces

10. class types (classic barbarian fear of magic-users, or any such combination)

11. raised or resurrected characters

12. cities/wilderness

13. magic

14. costumes

15. blood

16. judgment

17. shame

18. loss of control

19. no-magic

20. alchemy

There are some different ways to use fears or phobias in a game. The first that comes to mind is from a strictly roleplaying standpoint. Let character’s jibe each other around the campfire over fears and potential terrors. Let players explore their character’s fears by throwing in a few encounters where they can face those fears. Or perhaps the characters find an NPC’s phobia and use it against him. This might greatly influence intimidation checks or allow for more effective illusions.

Another way to incorporate fears is via game mechanics. Many game systems allow for a character to be given a flaw like a phobia and in return they receive a bonus like a feat or special ability to balance them out. If they try to choose a flaw that they think will not negatively effect them that much (like choosing a fear of water for a desert campaign) make sure that you incorporate the fear somehow. The sand dunes and heat create a potent mirage that sends the agoraphobic into a blubbering mess.

Or add a Will save when there is typically not a Will save. A fireball requires a Reflex save. But for an arsonphobic character, make a Will save first. If the character is paralyzed with fear, no Reflex required. If instead they run in terror, have them run the wrong way on the battlefield. Whatever the case, some added saves at least make the players cringe one more time.

It’s worthy to note that these fears and phobias can evolve throughout the campaign. Start a character out with a few fears and perhaps they can become phobias. Or great successes over a phobia lead one to cease being afraid. Use great successes and failures to help you decide which in-game experiences become such. A giant spider makes a critical attack against a character and perhaps he becomes arachnophobic.  Or perhaps a character rolling a natural 20 on a swim check allows her to get over her fear of drowning.  Whatever the case letting the characters’ fears and phobias evolve should be part of the game.

Here are some examples of fear responses. Many of them already have in-game mechanics already describing their penalties but a more colorful description can’t hurt.

1. paralysis (poor man’s hold person: terror)

2.  babbling/stammering (hard to cast spells, give commands, etc.)

3. confusion (per the spell)

4. fight (berserker rage, even attacking closest allies)

5. flight (run away!)

6. fainting (works for bears but not dire bears)

7. laughing (not in the courageous way but hysteria like in that hideous spell)

8. shaking (rattling and rolling optional)

9. physical weakness

10. nausea (sickened)

11. tunnel vision / blindness (temporary)

12. vertigo (balance checks every action or fall prone)

13. catatonia (will not move under own volition and this unable to defend themselves)

14. incontinence (need new codpiece)

15. nightmares (PTSD perhaps?)

16. headaches (penalty on concentration checks)

17. loss of appetite/thirst (leads to fatigue)

18. screaming (big negative on stealth checks)

19. double vision (treat as mirror image or blur)

20. roll twice

Any fears or phobias you wish to add to the list? Perhaps some additional fear responses are in order. Whatever the case, as we’re all motivated by a better game, please add to our discussion in the comments below.

6 thoughts on ““What’s My Motivation?” – Fears & Phobias”

  1. or you could even do lightning natural or otherwise that way the fear can be taken advantage of at unwanted times by magic classes or just by large storms

  2. Interesting concept that can be expressed in a variety of ways:

    Afraid of making the gods upset (a’la the Romans and their need to keep the Pax Deorum or “peace of the gods”).

    Afraid of the wrath of the gods, the power of the gods, the knowledge of the gods,etc. All of these can be cool ways to play a character.

Leave a Comment