I'm reading the Night Fears adventure, in which a group of teenagers dare each other to spend a night in a haunted house. The ghosts in the house attack the teens' mental stress tracks, and the result of being taken out is that the youth is so scared he flees the house.

This is a cool demonstration of the power and versatility of the "taken out" mechanic, as discussed in this blog post by the author. But I'm not sure it's taking the mental stress track seriously enough. I know Mr. Neal is trying to expand the potential of the system and shuck entrenched notions about defeat, but...

In some cases, however, people do inflict that kind of deep-seated harm to one another, crossing the line from mere social consequence into deep and abiding psychological trauma. When this kind of damage is accessible in a conflict, it marks a transition from social into mental territory and puts perhaps the direst stakes of all on the line—the individual’s mind, soul, or sense of self. These are mental conflicts, probably the rarest (or at least most potentially profound) examples of conflict you’ll see in your game. (YS217)

Mechanically the reason the ghosts can do this is their use of the Incite Emotions (Fear, Lasting Emotion) [-2] power:

[...] you gain the ability to do Emotion-Touch as a mental attack instead of a mere maneuver or block. (YS173)

Which makes it very clear that this should be a mental attack --and that this is special because it's a [-2] power-- but it feels to me that "making him so afraid he runs away" probably doesn't meet the "most potentially profound" nature of mental attacks; being able to even make this kind of attack is "no small feat" (YS217). Scaring someone away seems more like the result of a social conflict:

Social conflicts occur when the opposing agendas of two or more characters are resolved without physical violence, calling upon a different set of skills and trappings to resolve them. The damage done by these conflicts can be highly variable, ranging from simply instilling a false sense of security in the loser to ruining his public reputation and hurting his relationships. (YS215)

Emphasis mine; social conflicts clearly can influence a person's attitude and not just change their social position with others --otherwise why would Intimidation be a default social attack?

The ghosts spent [-2] Refresh to use Intimidation as a mental attack, and they're applying it in a way that seems to be a default social application of the skill.

I get the feeling that maybe my understanding of the nature of mental conflicts is confused or incomplete, and Night Fears is simply expanding on something I don't understand.

  • Is social conflict at least as appropriate, if not more so, for this situation? (Is mental conflict more appropriate because the attacks are the result of ghostly presences imposing fear directly, rather than using words to instill fear?)
  • If appropriate based on the above, what actions might I take to make the ghosts' attacks credibly social rather than mental?

5 Answers 5


There is overlap between social and mental stress but the books also make a distinction (Your Story page 216).

Being able to attack the mental stress track is no small feat. The kind of abuse necessary to inflict this kind of damage on another person usually takes a great deal of time and energy, the result of established relationships going horribly awry. Shortcuts exist—certain triggers in the character’s history might allow access to deeper recesses of the mind.

Under normal circumstances, this means that only magic, monsters and significant scenes of trauma (acting as characters in the FATE Fractal) should be making attacks that deal mental stress.

People trying to talk each other into losing a conflict using mundane skills will deal social stress to each other.

In this specific example - the ghosts do mental stress because they have supernatural abilities that let them easily reach through the layers of protection around a mind. The kids telling ghost stories to scare each other out of the house and into losing the dare will do social damage to each other.

When it comes to the ghosts choosing what happens as a result of the Take Out of one of the kids, we need to look at YS 206.

Here are some guidelines for determining what constitutes a “clear and decisive disadvantage.” These may also be used to represent defeat conditions if the character is taken out:

  • The character has at least one moderate or worse consequence as a result of the conflict.
  • The outcome creates significant difficulty for the character in the future. The character might offer a concession to avoid getting maimed, but maybe that means an artifact he was protecting gets stolen, or something along those lines.
  • The outcome creates a situation that restricts the character’s behavior in some significant way, like owing a large debt to someone. This may require adding an additional, long-term, temporary aspect to the character, separate from his consequence track, so that the defeat can be enforced via compels.

In the context of this Case File's default assumptions, getting scared out of the house takes them out of the game and they aren't coming back. That's a very clear disadvantage but the lasting implications aren't exactly dwelled upon.

The lasting implications should, however, be nasty. Clearing a consequence like "Can You Hear That? They're In The Walls." is likely to require time forcibly restrained and medicated in a psychiatric ward to heal.

Other options for that moment they leave the fight and run out the door include gibbering in tongues, screaming for one or other parent, losing bladder or bowel control, chasing a phantom/other screaming teen out the door with a carving knife and so on. Anything that fits a teen horror movie really.

  • \$\begingroup\$ FWIW, I think it works differently in FATE core, where by default there is no social stress track. For instance, the Intimidation skill explicitly states that it is used to make mental attacks. (I know the OP was asking about DF, but a lot of the advice in the question seems generic, so it seemed ok to bring it up.) \$\endgroup\$
    – starwed
    Mar 1, 2013 at 21:45

Repurposed from my comment here:

I think the phrase "taken out" is the culprit in this. Although the phrase sounds like that, it does not mean that the target is knocked out cold or disabled in any other way. It just means that you get to tell the story about the target if you take it out.

I think there would be a lot less confusion about this matter if Fred had chosen the phrase "taken over" instead of "taken out". Being taken out is just the temporary loss of narrative jurisdiction over your character, which momentarily passes to your opponent.

When your opponent gets that power, he can narrate your character's story within the plausible bounds of the circumstances that took him out. It does not have to be lasting effects, although it can be.

So in other words, if some spooky thing sacres the hell out of your character, having him run away is a perfectly plausible narrative. Inflicting him with recurring nightmares is just another plausible narrative and the rules don't limit which one your opponent should choose as the victor. If you concede, you retain your narrative power. If you get taken out, too late, your opponent tells the story.

The social stress track on the other hand is less about how your character feels but more about how others feel about your character. Humiliating someone in front of others would be a social attack. Scaring someone away is still a mental attack.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ +1! Excellent explanation of the benefits of Conceding. I sort of groped at the concept in my answer, you nailed it here. \$\endgroup\$
    – gomad
    Mar 1, 2013 at 15:39

I possess but have not read the scenario in question. However, I've run a good bit of DFRPG, so I think I'm in a position to answer.

You won't have

the lasting trauma that mental conflicts are supposed to depict

unless the character took Consequences in the conflict. If they just succumb to the Mental Stress and run away from fear, especially if that was the way they chose to Concede, then that's exactly how it's supposed to work:

  • A PC has a full Mental stress track
  • That PC is the target of a Mental attack
  • That PC suffers Mental stress

The player can decide if an attack takes out his character or not - if he decides to take Consequences, you've got something lasting - something that can't be shaken off with relative ease.

If the player decides to keep fighting by absorbing stress into Consequences, then that produces lasting problems, from Minor (Jumpy) to Extreme (Catatonic).

This works exactly the same way as Physical stress - if you are Taken Out by Physical stress but have no Consequences, you are out of play until you can reasonably return, but you won't have the negative Aspects that Consequences saddle you with.

This is the difference between taking a punch and deciding that it takes you out, and staying in the fight despite your brand new Black Eye.

  • \$\begingroup\$ That last paragraph doesn't read right. It implies that you can concede between getting hit and taking stress/consequences - which isn't possible in DF. \$\endgroup\$
    – Simon Gill
    Mar 1, 2013 at 17:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ I didn't have my book with me at the time, but my memory says that you can decide to take stress that falls off the end of the stress track without taking consequences. That's not conceding, it's deciding to be taken out. I will check the book later. \$\endgroup\$
    – gomad
    Mar 1, 2013 at 20:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ Your memory is right but the text isn't quite clear. "This is the difference between letting your opponent take you out, and choosing to fight on with a new Black Eye" is a little better. \$\endgroup\$
    – Simon Gill
    Mar 1, 2013 at 20:47

"making him so afraid he runs away" probably doesn't fall under the lasting trauma that mental conflicts are supposed to depict.

Actually, yes, it does.

Mental conflicts represent attacks against your mental health, sanity, whatever. Driving someone crazy, making him act irrationnally, or against his will, are possible results of a full Mental Stress track.

Social conflicts, however, represent attacks against your status and social standing. It is more difficult to put into play, but it could for example be framing someone for a murder. You can get a lot more very useful advice on that question.

Therefore, making someone so afraid they run away is totally mental stress.


It's Mental stress if the kid is afraid of some ghost sucking out his soul.

It's Social stress if the kid is afraid of being pantsed in front of the whole school at an assembly.

So sure, if you want more lasting consequences, he flees the house and then suffers from spastic colon the rest of his life, but that's a bit out of scope of a one-shot adventure. But every Physical take-out doesn't necessarily leave life long scars either.


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