“Lenny Bruce is not afraid…”

by mshrm

The upcoming campaign is really going to work the Fright Check table.

My hope is that we’re going to get more “grim-n-gritty survival horror” than “goofy hi-jinks in the ruins”. I’m taking my inspiration from The Road and Lucifer’s Hammer and, yes, yes, that one show, not the Fallout games or Zombieland or what-have-you. In this genre, fear is a constant companion, even when the situation’s mostly played for comedy. What simulates the effects of fear on a character, in GURPS? Fright Checks.

Y’reckon the zombie apocalypse would have an impact on one’s mental health?

One of my players and I are both fans of that one show, and we’ve had lots of discussion about the mental states of the characters. Like most fans, I suppose. We’ve come to the considered opinion that living in constant fear of being eaten by zombies is really not good for a person’s sanity. (Shocking, I know. Astonishing insights like that don’t come along every day, folks.) No matter how tidy it might be, TEOTWAWKI is a world-class trauma to endure. Those who live through it are going to suffer from it. How to simulate the effects of massive PTSD in GURPS? Fright Checks.

One of my goals for this campaign is to explore the shallow end of the pool, so to speak, as far as the combat rules. In the past, we’ve played a high-point Supers game, where there were some extraordinarily high combat skills, and I felt that we ran into issues with figuring out what to do with those high scores. (I mean, nobody should ever just roll to hit against an effective skill of 27, right? At least throw some Deceptive Attack on there, or something….) I feel that the DF game, with its emphasis on the technical aspects of combat, helped make us more comfortable with highly-competent characters. Now, I’m curious how things play out with characters who aren’t as comfortable in a life-and-death fight. (If nothing else, maybe someone will target some hit location besides the torso or the eye.) I’m looking to highlight the difference between those who are trained for and accustomed to violence, and those who aren’t. One way to enforce this difference is by keeping a close eye on the character sheets: Combat Reflexes requires a background including actual live-fire combat; most characters have Sport or Art version of combat skills; anybody with DX 14+ needs to tell a charming and fascinating tale of being bit by a radioactive agile thing. But, in play, what’s the thing that keeps Velma and Shaggy from coming out like Black Widow and Hawkeye? Fright Checks.

So, I’ve been reading up. It’s been a long time since we’ve had much use for regular Fright Checks. They’ve only come up in DF on the rare occasion of some monster actually having the Terror advantage. Even then, it’s mostly been a question of everybody rolling dice at once, then announcing success. I think one time Needles briefly hesitated, thanks to supernatural fear, before re-joining the slaughter. Not a big game-changer. There were quite a few in the Old West game, thanks to Lovecraftian horrors, but that’s been a long time, and several campaigns ago.

I had made a mistake in my understanding of the Fright Check Table on page 360 of GURPS Basic Set: Campaigns. I saw a list of steadily-increasing consequences, from “lose a second” to “lose your mind”. Without thinking it through, I had just assumed a linear distribution: my expectation was that the least-painful result would appear most often, then the next-to-least-painful, and so on, until the worst, and rarest, result.

Not so! The roll is 3d6 plus the margin of failure, so the odds of any given result are going to fall on a bell curve. The center of the curve will vary, depending on the character’s modified Will and how badly the dice behave on the Will roll. At a minimum, the roll on the table will be 3d6+1, for a Will roll that just barely failed.

This makes it relatively difficult to land on the lower results of the table. For example, the only way to end up with the first entry in the Fright Check Table is to fail the Will roll by 1, then roll either 3 or 4 on the second roll. It might be easy to fail the first roll by 1, but the chance of rolling 3 or 4 on 3d6 alone is 1 in 54. Even a Fright Check that’s only mildly failed is still likely going to cost that character several seconds.

Ah, I can hear the players’ howls already:  “Seconds? I can’t afford to lose whole seconds in a gunfight!” Absolutely correct. There are mitigating factors, but when you get down to it, they’re right. Like the Space Cowboys game, I’m seeing this one as a campaign where, the first time somebody pulls out a knife (much less a gun), every character around them gasps, the soundtrack does something dramatic, and we cut to the metaphorical commercial. I’m going to have to agree with Little Bill: “A man who will keep his head and not get rattled under fire, like as not, he’ll kill ya.” I just reckon on enforcing the flip side of that: the man who ends up dead is the one who loses his head, and gets rattled.

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Special note to the players who feel like their character needs nerves of steel and ice in their veins:  The Perk you’re looking for is called “Rule of 15”, or possibly, “Brave”. It pairs well with Fearlessness.