Or, How can I implement behavior-centric status effects without giving the players a sense of having lost their autonomy?

It's something I have found to be a personal agitant as a roleplayer, and also one which frequently leads to arguments in the lieu of "My character wouldn't react that way!" in adventures I have participated in or lead myself.

A character who has survived the Eldritch beyond and come out barely holding on to their sense of self and autonomy in a cold, careless world revealed to them in apotheosis encounters an insignificant horror. Roll on the insanity table.

To be clear, this is not so much about characters who should reasonably be able to resist such mental effects, but rather about those players who feel that involuntary mental effects take away from their sense of liberty the same way that a railroading campaign might.

If you have encountered this issue overtly, how did your peers describe it? How did they propose to resolve it?

If it is something you've only grappled with hypothetically or in solitude, what solutions have worked for your parties? What problems have you yet failed to solve?

  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ Suggestion: take the solutions you have tried, and post them as your own answer. It will help clean up the question (as it stands, it's somewhat imposing how long it is), and provide more answers. This is definitely allowed (and even encouraged) here on S.E. \$\endgroup\$
    – Shem
    Commented Dec 6, 2017 at 16:29
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ I rolled back that last edit. It's nice to know that the answers have been helpful and that you have a plan of action, but it's not really a part of a question so it doesn't belong inside a Question Post. At best it's distracting to the reader or makes the timeline of the question and its answers confusing; at worst it dissuades new (possibly better) answers from being submitted for you and future readers' benefit. So as a rule, such non-question addenda are best left as comments, if they're left. :) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 7, 2017 at 0:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for the clarification. I was just digging for a direct messaging mechanism to ask about that. Still learning the ropes at SE. \$\endgroup\$
    – Sammy
    Commented Dec 7, 2017 at 0:02

5 Answers 5


Yes, I have encountered this as both a player and GM.

All of your solutions CAN work, but are dependant on the group's reactions and way of doing things. Some groups are technical and a bit meta-gamish--which while I don't personally love meta-gaming, sometimes it's fun for people, and they like the mechanic aspect--as long as everyone KNOWS what you mean when you say Fear Aura DC 15.

That being said, I like to do a combo platter of your solutions. I describe the feeling, THEN have them roll--even if they do meet the DC when I have them roll, I give them a taste of it, and then use the outcome of the roll to PRESCRIBE what they must do. If they complain, I then explain the mechanic.

Here's what it looks like:

GM: "Your heart pounds, mouth going dry, with a feeling of terrible dread. Every nightmare you have ever had seems to have a source, and it's standing there. Roll for fear effect."

::PLAYER: They Roll, even if it's near to hopeless::

GM:"There's no hope, no saving anyone, no way to fight the horror before you, and you find yourself running with all your speed down the passageway!"

Player: "But my guy is a fearless adventurer who would NEVER flee!"

GM: "You did have the chance to roll for it and failed the roll--it's a supernatural fear effect. You run in a very manly fashion though. The effect lasts for 6 rounds. Here's a six sided die, you can use it to keep track of how long you flee.

Other ways I have dealt with this for added flavor is this:

GM: "You have a choice as to how to react to the fear--flee, befriend, or freeze/hide. Befriend means that you throw your weapon away as far as you can and beg for your life, flee means you keep your weapon and run away, and hide/freeze means that you find a place to hide (your pants will need laundering later)."

And, if they miss the roll by 1 or 2, I do give them SOMETHING--

GM: You start to swallow your fear, push it down deep, but just as you try to, the fear seeps in like floodwater under a door, and suddenly, like a flood, it sweeps you away, and you find yourself running down the corridor, away, away from the horrible tide of it."

If I know something about things the character has been uncomfortable with, or afraid of, I throw that in.

With a group committed to roleplay, the flavor is going to be different than with a more hacky-slash group.

Other things that have helped have been pre-game meetings. If there are certain effects that you know could be at issue, you can also talk to the players about fear reactions their characters might have. I will tell them parameters of certain mechanical effects (like they are not allowed to fight effectively or hold a weapon, as part of the effect) and perhaps ask how they would react within the parameters, then use that to inform their reaction--or at the very least set up an expectation, so that within the game, you get seamless roleplay. You can do that really, with all major effects

Sometimes I have even done, of all things, a questionnaire, asking them what kind of person their character responds to most positively for things like charm effects, what they fear for fear effects. With those in hand, before we even start gameplay, I can personalize the effects in my description, so it's tailormade for them.

I do the questionare outside of play. Not within, because that interrupts the flow of things. So with fear, I ask about the person's greatest fears, animals they fear, things that make them uncomfortable...so the flood imagery, I used that for a character whose backstory involved their village being drowned.

With charm, I 've asked, "What makes a person trustworthy in your eyes? Describe people you grew up with and loved--as friends, brothers, sisters, caretakers, lovers..." So if they grew up in a rural area and that's their backstory, I say something along the lines of "Though he's dressed as a merchant, he's got the manner of a country farmer, salt of the earth, like the people back home. There's not many that are honest in these parts, but you know that's he's one who is."

Rage is harder, but I start with "Describe a time when you felt helpless." This one can help with rage or fear. "What makes you angry?" Is more direct. If they answer that their character is a peaceful and has never felt really angry...well--that's an opportunity, actually "You've never felt this way before, red washes over your vision and a clarity of feeling remains, to rend and destroy. It overwhelms you..." In fact, for a mild mannered fellow effects can be even worse BECAUSE they have no experience of rage. The after effects roleplayed well can also be interesting.

And I make it written beforehand. It's only afterwards that I inform them that it will used for effects, and if they say they would not react that way, while the game is going on, I say "everyone has fears/people they instantly trust/a capacity for rage, especially when magic/Eldritch horrors/pheromones are involved. I've personalized it using your backstory and answers. Even a hard bitten loner has buttons." And in game I also let them know about the status effect, so they can roll with it, with the added flavor.

Besides the questionnaire and/or talking to the players directly out of game I also pay attention to the ways in which characters react to things and take notes. So even if they don't write it down, if the character is a lothario and responds well to pretty women in game, I use that for charm. If they are uptight and upright, I use that as well, describing people in a way that is a mirror to their own behavior. If they freak out over something in game, that goes into the fear bank. If they get angry, same deal. I note their reactions and use that as basis. All three of these ways are a way to use player input to inform the mechanics of an effect, which help them to feel like they are part of shaping the story. I will be stealing DrBob's post-it notes of ultimate truth though!! Great answer there!

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is a really good answer. A game I play has the guideline "ask questions, use the answers" which is really what this questionnaire suggestion comes down to, and I think you can use that in the moment too- "How can the other party members tell that your character is truly afraid?" "What is it about this person that makes you feel that you can trust them?" You give the information about how the character feels, but you let the player tell you how they respond to it beyond any immediate mechanic. \$\endgroup\$
    – glenatron
    Commented Dec 6, 2017 at 12:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ This answer directly addresses my concerns of player agency in a preventative manner, which is particularly relevant to the situation inspiring this question (preparing myself for a storytelling role in a group of character-oriented players). \$\endgroup\$
    – Sammy
    Commented Dec 6, 2017 at 23:43

As a player, my main objection to the involuntary mental effects was that they were often some trait or behaviour that I was completely uninterested in roleplaying, not just for that specific character, but in general. For instance, I might be okay if my failed fear check made me afraid of the dark (fun to play), but irate if it made me paranoid that the rest of the party was out to get me (I loathe PvP).

Therefore, when I've run games with such stuff in it, I flag it up front and state I'll be using The Post-It Notes of Ultimate Truth (or Index Cards of Ultimate Truth, or Scrappy Bits of Paper of Ultimate Truth, or whatever you can prepare in advance).

I tell the players that at times I will be giving them a note with a statement written on it, and that their characters will believe that statement to be true until I say otherwise. However, how they react in response to that statement is entirely up to them.

I usually give the example of: Your wife is having an affair with the milkman. The PC will believe this, even if they are not married, and have no idea what a milkman is. But the player decides whether they have a quiet cry, or rush off looking to beat up the milkman, or phone their lawyer to initiate divorce proceedings, or anything else they can think of. Their character, their decision.

The real notes are, of course, much less silly than the wife/milkman example. For instance, generic ones like:

  • It's dark and scary out there.
  • There are hidden microphones everywhere.
  • There's a predatory animal following you.
  • You are running low on food/water/ammunition/light sources.
  • It'll be dark soon, and they mostly come at night. Mostly.
  • It's behind you.
  • It's inside you.
  • It's inside Jim.

If the characters have specific fears and phobias, you can prepare a few tailored to them. For instance:

  • That cave looks exactly the sort of place spiders would lurk
  • You'll die here just like your brother did.
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ This closely aligns with and, in my opinion, solves the flaw associated with Description vs. Prescription. It invokes flavor text (in this case, an uncontested truth) with the same force of game an attack bears. I appreciate that it provides a strong sense for context before mechanics, and that appeals to me as a storyteller and a roleplayer. \$\endgroup\$
    – Sammy
    Commented Dec 6, 2017 at 23:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ I like this--post it notes of ultimate truth seem like a fun way to go! \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 7, 2017 at 14:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ I also like doing this for Intelligence (Arcana, Nature, etc...) checks. If they botch an Arcana roll to identify a wand of wonder: "You know for certain this is a wand of magic missiles." Hilarity ensues. \$\endgroup\$
    – W. Gering
    Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 21:41

There's two approaches that have work really well, in my experience:

  1. Let players choose how their characters react within a constrained set of options.

    For example, in Burning Wheel, a character affected by fear or shock results in their player getting the following choice:

    • run screaming
    • pass out
    • cower
    • "stand and drool" (i.e. stay stunned in place)

    Because the choices are heavily restricted, the effect isn't any less impactful, but the player's sense of character and tactical judgement still drives the PC's reactions.

    This is a mechanical approach but, to be honest, I think most games with "save vs. fear" type mechanics handle them poorly, so a little homebrew overhaul may actually improve them greatly — and you're not really changing numbers or substantially "powering down" the effects.


  1. Tell players what the mechanics expect of them, then pull fictional details from the players themselves (called "the Mountain Witch trick," after a game that used similar techniques prominently).

    For example, you look at a cursed painting and I narrate that you're paralyzed with dread. Then I ask you what you saw in the painting that actually made you feel that way. The mechanics may dictate the overall effect but players are providing the details that explain what guides their characters' reactions.

    (Note a little trick there, also: "dread" is a slightly more open-ended description than "fear," so you've got room to describe your reaction as anything from pure terror to entranced foreboding. You could say "I am overwhelmed by the image of a face transformed into 10,000 writhing non-euclidean snakes" or you could say "I see a prophecy of my own death and I can't look away.")

    This is a particularly useful approach for supernatural and illusory elements, stuff that by its nature hooks into the protagonists' own minds and feelings, with players who are down for a bit of introspection and don't mind being put on the spot for narration.

  • \$\begingroup\$ This answer reverses the suggested ideas of pre-emptively engaging players to enable agency in an interesting way: Instead of handing players the flavor text that convinces them to accept mechanical consequences, start with the consequences, and give them the freedom to flavor them. \$\endgroup\$
    – Sammy
    Commented Dec 8, 2017 at 3:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ Could you please elaborate on the specific meaning and source of the Mountain Witch Trick? \$\endgroup\$
    – Sammy
    Commented Dec 8, 2017 at 3:37

Some solutions I have considered:

  • Description vs. Prescription

    Instead of "taking away the character sheet" and implementing behaviors prescribed by rules or common sense (this character has Fear, therefore they should flee for 1d6 rounds), working to give the player control over the reaction, giving only the emotional narrative necessary to inspire the player to act appropriately.

  • "Roll For It"

    Often roleplayers will rely on dice to make decisions for them when they have doubt about their character's choices, and will voluntarily roll. Taking advantage of this behavior, letting the players roll defensively even when effects would otherwise be certain may allow players to feel that they are in control of their character's reactions to involuntary mental effects.

  • Collaborate Mechanically

    Announcing an ultimatum for discussion may give the players the opportunity to argue for resistances and effects on their characters.

    This dragon is emanating a supernatural Fear aura of DC 15.

    This takes the attention away from the emotional roleplaying aspect of the effects and describes them like an attack. Players tend not to complain when their master martial artist misses a dodge roll.

Problems with the above solutions in a vacuum:

  • No Sell

    Without being clear as to the mechanical effects a character ought to be experiencing, players may not feel the reality of an effect and shrug it off.

    Your head aches with the pressure of your heart's drumming, thudding. You see only red, your mind filled with rage.

    A roleplayer may or may not act accordingly. The idea of anger is subjective, and so they may have a different idea about how to act out the role of an enraged character appropriately. They might just outright ignore the flavor text and proceed given that there were no demands made by the storyteller.

  • Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

    The behavior this solution exploits is often used because it allows a player to experience the disappointment of making the wrong decision without being forced to commit to it. Often they roll the dice and realize upon seeing the wrong number what their real desire is. They might expect their character to resist an effect, and proudly roll the dice with their +5 modifier, only to be frustrated when their 8+5 can't match the DC 15 Fear effect.

  • Stalemate

    Not all arguments end in a timely manner with all parties having satisfactorily earned their keep. Deliberately engaging in a discussion like this distracts from the roleplay, breaks the immersion, and ultimately has no guarantee of successfully making the situation a cooperative effort in which the roleplayers work with the storyteller to consider a foe's abilities as much as they would their characters'.


Apocalypse World has an approach that I have appreciated. It leaves the choice to the player, but attaches mechanical consequences (carrot and/or stick) to that choice.

Seduce or manipulate someone

When you try to seduce, manipulate, bluff, fast-talk, or lie to someone, tell them what you want them to do, give them a reason, and roll+hot. For NPCs: on a 10+, they’ll go along with you, unless or until some fact or action betrays the reason you gave them. On a 7–9, they’ll go along with you, but they need some concrete assurance, corroboration, or evidence first.

For PCs: on a 10+, both. On a 7–9, choose 1:

  • If they go along with you, they mark experience.
  • If they refuse, erase one of their stat highlights for the remainder of the session. What they do then is up to them.

On a miss, for either NPCs or PCs, be prepared for the worst.

(emphasis mine)

  • \$\begingroup\$ This is a good response and I appreciate the reference to a tried and true RAW solution from a particular rules system that can help in a broader sense. However, I would prefer a solution which does enforce the consequences of failing to resist a mind-altering effect. Giving the players a mechanical (dis)advantage as punishment for (not) shrugging off these effects, I suspect, would lead to a lot of PCs disregarding things they ought not be disregarding. \$\endgroup\$
    – Sammy
    Commented Dec 8, 2017 at 3:49

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