Sunday, October 7, 2012

Fear Factor, revisited

As the DWAITAS rules now stand, potentially frightening aliens and creatures have a “passive”  Fear score equal to the sum of their Resolve and Presence, which is supposed to be rolled against the characters’ Ingenuity + Resolve according to the usual conflict rules – and beings with the Fear Factor trait add +2 per trait level to this basic Fear score, but only when (and I quote) “actively trying to strike fear into people’s hearts”. At first glance, this approach seems to be a smooth and elegant application of the usual DWAITAS mechanics; in actual play, however, I found it didn’t work that well, for a variety of reasons. The purpose of this article is to identify these problems and present a simple alternative.

The Scale of Fear

The first problem lies with the Fear Factor given to some creatures; in several cases, this really seems to be completely arbitrary and creates some annoying inconsistencies when you compare some creatures to others. Cybermen, for instance, have a massive Fear Factor bonus of +6, while neither the Saturnynians nor the Weeping Angels have even a single level in this trait. When adding these various creatures’ Presence and Resolve scores, we get the following ‘active’ Fear scores: 11 for Cybermen, 8 for Saturnynians and a measly 6 for Weeping Angels. Whatever your subjective interpretation of these creatures is, this really does not seem quite right.

Another example: the Gelth and their gas-animated zombies are given the same formidable Fear Factor of 4 – which puts these creatures in the same league as the Beast or the Jagrafess and also means that Gelth zombies are far, far more frightening than Jagrafess zombies or Nanogene zombies (with their very unsettling flesh-sculpted gas-masks), who have a Fear Factor of 1.

As shown by these examples, the Fear Factor of some creatures should simply be revised, taking into account their inherent scaring power, as well as what we might call their relative frightfulness (compared to other frightening creatures). The simplest manner to ensure that creatures are given the right Fear Factors is to rank their Fear Factor according to what we might call the Pyramid of Fear, starting with the most terrifying creatures, such as the Beast (Fear Factor 4, bonus +8) and climbing down through each lower level.

We should also examine the question of “Fear Factor 0”, i.e. creatures who were not given any Fear Factor in their game descriptions but whose Alien Appearance, regardless of should be enough to scare some humans – creatures like the Tritovores and the Ood.

But before we break down the system, let us take a closer look at how it distributes Fear Factors among the various creature types. As the rules now stand, the “Pyramid of Fear” is made of the following degrees:

Fear Factor 4 = The Beast, the Jagrafess and, yes, the Gelth and the Gelth Zombies. It should also be noted that, in the 11th Doctor rules, Daleks have been upgraded from a Fear Factor of 3 to this supreme Fear Factor of 4.

Fear Factor 3 = Cybermen (including Controllers, Leaders etc), Cybershades, Daleks (but see above) and big nasties such as the Tooth & Claw Werewolf, the Lazarus creature or the Macra.

Fear Factor 2 = Judoons, Krilitanes, Slitheen, Hoiks, Scarecrows, Vastha Nerada, Futurekind, Smilers and Spacesuit Zombies.

Fear Factor 1 = Carrionites, Sycorax, Nestene Consciousness and Autons, members of the Family of Blood, Jagrafess Zombies, Nanogene Zombies, Infected New Human Flesh, The Wire and Davros.

We should also add two other lists: “Fear Factor 0” (creatures which may not want to frighten you but who have a frightening appearance – fear of the unknown and all that) and “Fear Factor X” (creatures which SHOULD have been given a Fear Factor but were oddly forgotten by the rules).

Fear Factor 0 = Ood, Tritovores, Silurians.

Fear Factor X = Weeping Angels, Swarm, Saturnynians, Pyroviles, Vespiform, Racnoss.

The Presence Problem

Another problem with the Fear rules is their use of a creature’s Presence – and the rather ambiguous way it defines what this attribute actually represents in the case of creatures (especially monstrous or artificial ones).

Let us take the example of zombies and other unnaturally animated creatures. Most of them are given low or mediocre Presence to reflect their lack of personality, inability to express themselves, blank appearance etc. This is obviously why Autons and the Scarecrows of the Family of Blood have a Presence of 1 and Nanogene Zombies have a Presence of 2. Since the rules define Presence as charisma and force of personality, this does make sense – but as far as the Fear system is concerned, this approach also has the weird side effect of making such creatures less frightening, since the Fear effect is based on Presence.

And then we have the other extreme of the problem, reflected by the Gelth Zombies, with their insane Presence of 6 (!) – more than the Beast itself!  The only explanation here is that the Gelth Zombies’ Presence comes from their Gelth masters, as if the possessing entity’s disembodied Presence somehow transpired through the walking corpse it inhabits… but as far as the Fear effect is concerned, this seems quite odd - especially since Gelth zombies look and behave much like other zombies and do not become inherently more terrifying (at least not in such proportions) as soon as you realize they are actually possessed corpses.

This internal contradiction must be solved if we want the system to work in a reasonably logical manner; either we change the way Presence works for of zombies and zombie-like creatures or we simply disconnect the Fear effect from Presence and rule that zombies and zombie-like creatures have an effective Presence of 0, which would be perfectly logical if you define Presence as charisma, force of personality and command. This latter approach would also dispense us from bothering to define what the Presence score of a Dalek or Cyberman actually means or entails.

Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid… Or Not

My final issue with the Fear rules as they now stand is the difference they insist on making between ‘actively trying to strike fear’ and a supposedly more ‘passive’ attitude.

While it is true that some creatures become more frightening when they purposefully choose to intimidate their foes or victims, making this distinction such an essential aspect of the system (and the necessary condition for putting the Fear Factor bonus into play) doesn’t really work for me: it conjures up images of aliens and beasties going on “fright mode”, making menacing noises and gestures while the characters watch them do their Fear Factor routine. In a weird, not entirely rational way, this idea strikes me as the in-game equivalent of actors in bad rubber suits trying really, really hard to convince the audience that they are, indeed, very frightening monsters.

An Alternate Approach

In my games, I find it far simpler (and more dramatic) to treat Fear as a passive and inherent (i.e. always on) feature of creatures, with a Fear total used as a fixed target number for the characters’ Ingenuity + Resolve roll.

Creatures which can cause Fear are simply given a Fear total which has nothing to do with its Presence or Resolve but is rated on the same scale as difficulty levels: we start at 12 (Normal) and each level of Fear Factor increases this total by +3 (rather than +2), so that each increment matches the scale of fixed difficulty levels given in the game.

Thus, a creature with a Fear Factor of 2 would have a Fear total of 18 (Hard), while one with a Fear Factor of 4 would have a Fear total of 24 (Very Difficult).

Creatures which qualify for this Fear effect obviously include all those which were given a Fear Factor in the original rules, as well as all creatures with the Major version of the Alien Appearance trait: a creature like an Ood or a Tritovore, for instance, has no Fear Factor (i.e. no extra Fear bonus) but its Alien Appearance may well frighten some humans, giving them the basic Fear score of 12.

For characters, failing their roll against the creature’s Fear total will usually mean running away, panicking or (more probably) having to spend Story points to avoid such undesirable effects. A “Yes but…” result could mean that the character can attempt any action except attack the creature, while a “Yes and…” result could mean that the character will never have to make Fear checks again when encountering this specific type of creature.

Fear Factoring

Now that the nuts and bolts of the system have been established, it is time to rework the Fear Factors of various creatures, according to their relative frightfulness, starting at the top with Fear Factor 4 (the Beast and other eldritch entities), all the way down to Fear Factor 0 (Ood, Tritovores etc), according to our “pyramid of fear” principle. In order to make things easier to adjudicate, I have given each Fear Factor level a general descriptor.

Fear Factor 4: Infernal  (Fear total = 24)
This supreme level should be restricted to the most terrifying entities in the universe, such as the Beast or Abaddon – entities which radiate a preternatural aura of sheer, primal evil or terror.

Fear Factor 3: Nightmarish  (Fear total = 21)
Creatures with this Fear Factor include enormous monsters like the Macra or warped, unnatural aberrations like the Lazarus Creature and, of course, beings which qualify for both, such as the Jagrafess).

Fear Factor 2: Fearsome  (Fear total = 18)
Creatures with this Fear Factor include most “big & bad monsters”, such as the Werewolf from Tooth & Claw, Vespiforms, Saturnynians, Giant Pyroviles, Slitheen, Krilitanes, Hoix, Racnoss as well as beings who display a completely emotionless form of aggression, such as Cybermen and Daleks. This level should also include non-corporeal, ghost-like or shadow-like menaces such as the Gelth or the Vashta Nerada, as well as all Zombies and zombie-like beings such as Autons, Gelth Zombies, Scarecrows etc.

Fear Factor 1:  Menacing  (Fear total = 15)
Creatures with this Fear Factor include most highly-aggressive (or intimidating) humanoids such as Judoon, Sycorax, Carrionites, Futurekind or the Family of Blood,. This category also includes those beings which can only act through controlled creatures or some technological interface, such as the Wire or the Nestene Consciousness.

Fear Factor 0: Weird  (Fear total= 12)
Creatures with this Fear Factor simply have a frightening Alien Appearance (at least to human eyes). This includes Oods, Silurians, Tritovores and a few others.

Last Words

So, where do our dear Weeping Angels fit into all this?  In their case, I’d be tempted to give them a variable Fear Factor, starting at 0 (Weird) for characters who simply find these strange statues unsettling, increasing to 1 (Menacing) when you realize that, yes, they must have moved and then to 2 (Fearsome) once you realize that they are after you (or if you already know what you are facing – the “don’t blink” stuff and all that).

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