Fear and Pain

Over at theRPGSite Dan Davenport (who I assume is “the” Dan Davenport whose reviews are partly responsible for my AFMBE habit) asked

What game systems do you think do the best job of simulating pain, as well as the fear of pain?


p>There were a few replies around systems that deal with pain as a consequence and penalty to action, but there’s not much that deals with fear (and specifically fear of pain) as a factor that would stop you to act.

There are good reasons for this. For one, RPGs are a fantasy; unless you want a game where the horror is presented to PCs as their inability to act in the face of injustice (an example was being too afraid to interrupt a mugging) it’s best to leave those choices to the player in charge–they should be able to imagine their PC’s fear and they will certainly know the consequences of failure if their unarmed hero takes on someone with a knife and it goes south.

There are disadvantages you can take (in GURPS) that deal with an inability to act in stress situations, but these are not imposed system-wide.

So I was thinking about how to simulate this and keep the system workable and fun. The best way I can think of is to make it fear of escalation: that is, your PC is fine with getting into a brawl where the worst anyone will suffer is bruises, but outside her comfort zone once a lethal weapon is drawn.

Another example which is slightly backwards is a society of effete nobles who are fine stabbing each other to death with rapiers, but actual brawling and getting a bloody nose puts them outside their comfort zones.

It would be possible to design a game with “partitioned combat” that requires effort to transition between types of combat. That effort would be more or less depending on where you were from, whether you’d killed before and your general attitude to life, fear of punishment for crime, etc.

I know Dogs in the Vineyard escalates conflict in this way, and when I’ve had the system described by someone who doesn’t grok it, their response is “but why don’t I just leap all the way to guns drawn and kill them?” I don’t think the DitV approach fits most systems, because it doesn’t really answer this question. But I think it’s a good start.


  1. This “partitioning” is probably useful for NPCs to determine how far they would go in a given situation to challenge the PCs. For PCs, it’s probably best to leave to player choice. This is a roleplaying game, after all.
  2. Players will respond to consequences rather than threat when deciding whether to engage. If you want them to really think about whether they want to escalate the fight from fists to knives, make the consequences really bad.
  3. The example of interrupting a mugging–assume the NPC has already escalated by threatening a PC or dependent. That would and should override fear of engagement (unless the PC had a stated disadvantage).