Fear Check!

Sometimes, while playing, you have absolutely no idea of how your character will react. I remember playing one of my favorite characters, a French noble/swashbuckler who had only had dealings with human enemies. The guy was 11th level and had never so much as seen even a 1st level goblin. Nor did he have a concept of magic of any kind, priest or wizard spells. Thus, when an odd gateway appeared, his interests were peaked, and he decided to explore it. It was a gate into a different realm which was full of magic and monsters fit for an 11th level adventure!

It was a gaggle of troll bandits blocking the road, that served as his first magical/monster encounter, and I must say that it absolutely destroyed him. I got to thinking about how he would react, and decided that he would no doubt use the tactics that he would normally use, sending fully armed cavalrymen to run them down with a pike-hedge to soften them up, and join in the fray to take them out. Well, it didn’t work, his horsemen never made it through and were slaughtered during the first attack. At this point, I had a decision to make: to attack, retreat, or surrender. The problem was, I had absolutely no idea what he would chose to do, and how he would process the information that has just been shown to him. I decided, on my own, that a fear check was definitely called for.


Fear checks can be a huge pain in the rear, they take away “free-will” from a character. If they fail a fear check, then the character will act in some way that hurts the character’s chances of success in overcoming a goal, and can harm the character for the rest of his/her career unless he focuses energy to correct it on a personal level.

Nobody wants to do a fear check, I know that I didn’t when I made one in the example above, and it cost me dearly. I failed the saving throw and went mad. I didn’t retreat, I didn’t just stand there to terrified to move. Something in my head snapped and I went crazy! Marching into battle as if my troops had succeeded, refusing to admit that I had been defeated so easily.

A player may not want to do a fear check, but they do know when to do one. It is up to a Dungeon Master to determine if a fear check is necessary and when it isn’t. For a player, when he has no idea of what to do next, or is in a situation that changes everything about how a character views the world around him, it is time to roll a check.

If you have ever played a game in the Ravenloft setting, then you know how a fear check can abuse a player. That is just to much, but one has to understand that a player can avoid them completely if they ROLE-PLAY. How is a character going to act if he/she sees something that he has never seen before?

A good example is a beholder. Now, we all know these things, and we know how hard they are to beat, but our characters may not. Beholders are 100% nasty! Everything about them is repulsive. Even if we have encountered one before, it still will make us question if we can take it or not. If the player gets scared, then he will roleplay the game, however if he is just as dispassionate about attacking this monster as he would be about purchasing a tent, then a DM should make him make a fear check.

The lesson of a fear check should be that YOU DON’T WANT TO MAKE ONE! Instead, if you believe that a character is afraid, he may still attack, we are playing heroes, however it will be different. A character won’t attack something that he doesn’t understand as quickly or effectively as something that he knows that he can defeat.


Probably the best book for an advanced method of making fear checks is Ravenloft: Domains of Dread by Willam W. Conners and Steve Miller, which TSR put out in 1997. This method is complicated, but very thorough.

An easier method is making a Saving Throw vs. Paralyzation, Poison, or Death Magic. This one is probably the easiest and fairest method, it also doesn’t require any new tables, which cuts down on crap that a DM needs to have at the table. Simple is always better!

Bonuses or penalties from high/low Wisdom can also influence a fear check, as can a new idea influenced by Domains of Dread, which suggests that a warrior can inspire those around him. If a warrior makes his fear check, then he has a bonus point for each level, which he can give to any player or NPC to help them make their fear or Moral checks as well. The logic behind this is that those around him are inspired by his bravery and will be less likely to crumble under pressure.

Not as simple, but it is an interesting theory that wouldn’t be to hard to put into practice.


A failed fear check means that a characters actions are beyond his control. We can either do this as described by the spell Cause Fear, or we can figure out a more abstract method of determining the results of the failure.

Basically, what will happen is that a character will lose their cool. He will either fight or flight. A failed fear check will also haunt the character later on if these same conditions are met.

Fear is different from campaign to campaign, a DM can create a table to reflect this. Here is a sample Table:

1. Character runs away, dropping all items carried so that he can run faster.
2-6. Character will run away, removing himself from the perceived danger, or until he is exhausted.
7-8. Character will fight blindly, as if under the influence of a Berserker Rage spell.
9-10. Character will be unable to move or act for 1 turn, or until he is attacked, at which time he will make a new fear check to regain senses.
11. Character will develop a phobia, he will suffer negative penalties to all rolls while in the creatures presents and will not be able to shake what he has seen and will be obsessed by it. Each time he runs into this monster, or believes that he has found evidence that one is around, he must make a fear check with the negative penalty to the roll.
12. Player must check System Shock, failure results in instant death, success indicates that a character is driven insane, or further into insanity as defined by the Dungeon Master.


That opened a new can of worms, but lets face it! The mind can only handle so much. This can be used as a tool to get roleplayer to have more fun. One has to really look at the character and know it, to determine a proper madness. This should be inconvenient, and should be appropriate to the setting that you are playing.

Madness can either be a good thing, or a bad thing. One can easily say that Batman is a good example of a hero gone mad. He still has control of his actions, however he is just as crazy as the criminals that he hunts. Van Helsing is another example of madness. He became so consumed that he became a professional hunter, and an expert on all things inexplicable. Thus, a mad character’s adventuring career isn’t over, however it can be shifted. If one isn’t careful it can distract away from a given story and change all of the goals which a player has chosen for his character.

Madness can be subtle or all consuming, depending on the character. A player who fails a fear check against a water monster can have an overwhelming phobia of water itself. He would refuse to feel safe in its presence, and be totally irrational about it.

Further fear checks in regards to existing phobias can be avoided by ROLE-PLAYING the phobia. If the player remembers that he’s got it, and acts accordingly, then you don’t need to further harass him with fear checks.

Besides aversions, madness can effect how a character sees the world around him. He can see things that aren’t there, believe things that aren’t true, etc. To simulate this, just pass a note to the player during play to let him know if he sees something differently, or notices something that the rest of the party isn’t looking for. Sometimes this evidence is true, and sometimes it isn’t! The player will never know.

Another form of madness is the split personality, perhaps he will turn into somebody that he isn’t. Developing a different character with a different outlook on life and different skills? Madness is unique to everybody, and is a defense for the mind. Keep this in mind.


A fear check is an easy thing to fix with magic, as long as it doesn’t lead to insanity. If a character is just afraid, a Remove Fear spell is all that is needed, however, depending on the game and how a DM handles magic, this could be a touch spell, at which time an initiative between the caster and the target must be determined. An afraid target will also be uncooperative with the caster, thus an attack must be made, and a saving throw vs. spell must be failed else the spell will be lost.

Madness, on the other hand, cannot be solved so easily. Phobia’s and other effects of horror that last long after the save was failed can only be corrected by a forget spell, if caught in time, or by committing ones self to the care of a mental health professional, which may or may not work depending on your desires as a Dungeon Master. The madness shouldn’t be something that is overly debilitative, or that dooms the character, unless, for whatever reason, the DM wants it to. It should redefine a character and alter, or give purpose to the person playing them.


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