Blog-or-Treat: Simplified Fright Checks

Image from the Fright Check Table in GURPS Basic Set

Halloween is coming soon, and GURPS can help you add a little horror to your roleplaying campaign! Almost any game can add elements of horror in order to deepen the experience. We’re used to seeing stories add humor to lighten things up with comic relief; the same principle can work in the other direction. GURPS provides a specific mechanic to help establish that a situation is dangerous: fright checks.

Horror stories often feature vulnerability or helplessness on the part of the protagonists, fear, and uncertainty. In the full-blown horror genre, these elements can dominate the story. But, when added in small doses, they provide contrast to show just how heroic the characters are. After all, heroes are more impressive when they rise above terrifying circumstances and succeed despite great personal risk.

Using Fright Checks

Image from the Fright Check Table in GURPS Basic Set
Image from the Fright Check Table in GURPS Basic Set

One of the easiest ways to add a horror element to your games is to include fright checks. When faced with scary, risky, or just plain dangerous situations, ask the players to make a fright check in order to proceed—or suffer the consequences from putting their necks on the line!

Fright checks are described in the Basic Set, pp. B360–B361. The core concept is simple: when characters face a fear-inducing situation, they must make a Will-based success roll. If the player succeeds at the roll, the character can act normally. However, a failed fright check indicates that the character was overwhelmed by fear, and as a result suffers a setback ranging from being stunned to suffering traumatic mental injury.

What should trigger a fright check? It depends on your campaign premise and the characters, but the general idea is things that are unusually scary—not just ordinary adventuring experiences. In a warfare campaign going over the top of a trench into enemy machine guns qualifies. In a fantasy campaign, the GM could call for a fright check when encountering a primordial evil beast. For an action and adventure campaign, the moment in which the protagonists realize how outnumbered they are could justify a fright check.

Because fright checks are success rolls, the GM can streamline fright checks by assigning a generic task difficulty modifier instead of looking up and synthesizing a list of individual modifiers. That’s it! Just choose a modifier that represents how fear-inducing the situation is, make a Will-based roll, and narrate the result like any other success roll.

Rule of 14

One of the ways that fright checks can differ from generic success rolls in the Rule of 14. The GM can choose to invoke the Fright Check Rule of 14 to cap effective skill at 14. No matter how strong a character’s will is, there’s always a small chance of failing a fright check.

The Fright Check Rule of 14 is, like all of GURPS, an optional rule. The rule exists primarily for storytelling reasons rather than as a mechanical requirement. In short, one of the tropes of horror is that any character can be overcome with terror in a stressful circumstance. While most RPG genres emphasize the competence of the PCs, horror needs to balance PC agency with vulnerability. If a character is entirely immune to terror, it takes away a lot of the suspense. So, the Rule of 14 ensures that there is always a roughly 1-in-10 chance of failure.

In non-horror genres, the Fright Check Rule of 14 may be inappropriate. For instance, a four-color hero might have an exceptional will and narratively wouldn’t be overcome with fear. Likewise, a supernatural monster hunter campaign might feature a protagonist that stands out because of his or her preternatural calm in the face of the macabre. And, the GM can make the Rule of 14 irrelevant by using larger task difficulty modifiers when necessary. As a result, the Fright Check Rule of 14 is not necessary when requiring fright checks.

Failing Fright Checks

The most unique (and therefore most confusing) part of fright checks is the mechanic for resolving failed fright checks. The good news is that, again, it’s an optional mechanic. Just like a GM can ignore the critical miss table and narrate their own result for a critical miss on an attack roll, the GM can narrate their own consequence for a failed fright check roll.

The official mechanic for failed fright checks uses two rolls. The first is the original success roll. The player takes their margin of failure from this roll. The second element is an extra 3d6 roll. The player adds these two numbers—the margin of failure and the separate 3d6 roll—and looks up the sum on the Fright Check table.

Higher totals lead to worse consequences for the failed fright check. So, the margin of failure matters. However, the separate roll adds a substantial random element. As a result, it’s possible for a narrow failure to result in moderately severe consequences. Conversely, it may be possible for a player to escape from even a horribly failed roll with nothing more than a minor setback.

The choice to use two rolls seems driven by genre conventions rather than mechanical requirements. Unpredictability is a trademark of the horror genre, so the outside possibility of a serious disaster even for relatively narrow failures adds to the suspense. But, because there’s not a mechanical need to have a second roll, there’s no inherent problem with the GM ignoring the Fright Check table and instead determining their own result.

3 thoughts on “Blog-or-Treat: Simplified Fright Checks”

  1. Nice to see others share my reservations about Fright Checks (and had the same impulse for a Halloween post). I love how you rationalize the rule of 14 as optional (as it certainly should be) and give back control to the GM – it is, indeed, mostly how I’ve been running fear all along, and I find myself wondering why I even made a table.

    Maybe we should just use a second roll for huge (or critical) failures, and stick with freeze-or-flight otherwise. Obviously, this would require removing more benign results from the table, but it would speed up play.

    You should win a prize for the best caption on a fair-use copyrighted image.

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