House Rule: Alternate Fear Mechanics

It’s time to fulfill a promise I made more than a year ago:

Concept: Alternate fear mechanics
Tested in: The Worldwound campaign

What it is: Fear is, appropriately, the scariest affliction in 3E and Pathfinder. Being shaken isn’t so bad, just a -2 penalty on d20 rolls (and weapon damage rolls, which is a weird addition), but being frightened or panicked is devastating. A frightened or panicked character must flee from the source of his fear if fleeing is at all possible. While it’s not as obvious as being paralyzed or petrified or knocked unconscious, this takes the character’s action away from the player just as these rarer ailments do. In fact, it takes away even more actions; a character who is paralyzed for three rounds gets to act on turn four (if he survives), but a frightened character flees for three rounds and has to spend rounds four through six just returning to the fight (again, if he survives—there’s nothing stopping enemies from taking potshots at a running character who can’t retaliate). At higher levels, a character can expend consumable effects, like item powers or spells, to flee, and they remain expended when the fear ends. A moderate-level fear effect that lasts a single round can irreversibly take a teleporting character out of a fight. But unlike paralysis or petrification, moderate-level fear effects are available to PCs and monsters as early as L1. That’s too early to put save-or-dies in everybody’s hands.

We do like the narrative effects of fear, so we haven’t tossed them out entirely. Instead, with our house rules a frightened character can take either the normal effects of the status ailment or a -4 penalty to d20 rolls (and weapon damage rolls). A panicked character can optionally take a -6 penalty to the same rolls. A character must make this choice when they first suffer the effect; they cannot flee for two rounds then convert the effects to a d20 penalty or vice versa. This means a player remains in full control of a frightened or panicked character, but the fear still imposes a significant consequence.

What we wanted: Fear effects aren’t necessarily save-or-dies any more. A heroic character can fight through their terror, albeit at massive penalties. They can also participate in combat in ways that don’t put them in direct contact with the source of their fear, like healing. Or, if a player feels it better fits the story, he or she can drop everything and run screaming into the night.

How it went: This house rule comes up rarely, but every time it does we’re glad we have it. Our current Pathfinder campaign has battles that swing wildly based on whether or not everybody is participating, and losing a single character can be catastrophic. A -4 or -6 penalty on attack rolls hurts, but not as much preventing attack rolls at all. We also have an excessive amount of teleporting, and it’s a huge relief not wondering whether our healers will abandon us every time they fail a Will save. And because we haven’t thrown out the “panic and flee” rules entirely, we can still intimidate enemy minions into surrender—not all the time, but when it makes narrative sense.

What we learned: Any chance at success is better than no chance at success. Players will accept significant penalties to maintain control over their characters, but they also acknowledge the value of status effects that aren’t simply numerical. Also, the rest of my gaming group dislikes fear effects as much as I do.

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