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March 7, 2012, 10:26 pm

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Generating Fear: Disappearing Pursuit


Bob and Alice are being chased by something/someone dangerous. They move into a new area, and the pursuit suddenly is nowhere to be found. What does the pursuer know that our heroes don't?

Category: Fear of the Unknown

Disappearing Pursuit is a technique for generating fear and anxiety where the players are brought to the realization, "Why are we no longer being followed?" It has two parts: The Setup, and the Followup.

The Setup is where you create a situation where the players are being pursued by something they know is dangerous. This can be anything from a pack of wolves to a security guard; the point is that it's something the players know and don't want to be caught by. Disappearing Pursuit is even more effective if the pursuer is known by the players to not generally be afraid of things.

Also, while it can be overdone, the longer the pursuit continues before breaking off, the greater the eventual fear from the players. However, the tradeoff here is in realization-time: the more being chased becomes status quo, the quicker the players will catch on to a sudden shift.

When the pursuit suddenly stops following the players, the Setup has ended and the Followup has begun. The Followup is where the subtle fear generated by the lack of pursuit is built upon. This can start before the players realize what has happened (leading them towards the conclusion that they're no longer being pursued), but tends to be more effective after they've already had that particular revelation. There are two paths that the Followup can take:

  • General Area: This is where the players have entered a decently broad area, such as a warehouse or a new level in the military complex. This area doesn't guarantee a meeting with whatever danger caused pursuit to disappear, but the longer the players spend there, the greater the likelihood of it happening.
  • Specific Area: This is where the players have entered a much smaller area, such as a room or a tiger pit. It's much smaller than a general area, and has a much higher 'danger per square meter' ratio. As a direct result, the players are almost guaranteed to encounter whatever danger inhabits this location, and sooner rather than later.

When using a general area, you should slowly ramp up the sense of danger the players feel. At first, nothing out of the ordinary, leaving them to wonder what happened to the pursuit. Then they slowly start to notice little things that are different:

  • "Why aren't there any rats down here?"
  • "What's that smell?"
  • "Is that a blood stain?"

Once they've realized that something is amiss (or if they need some nudging to push them in that direction), start ramping it up with more obvious danger:

  • "Why are there scorch marks on the wall?"
  • "Is that a snake skin? I didn't know they got to be THAT big!"
  • "...Did you guys hear that? I would swear I just heard something moving behind us."
  • "*soul-wrenching shriek* *short silence* *faint wet crunching sounds*"

By the end of the process, the players should be well aware that the pursuit quit following them because they didn't want to encounter whatever can be found here, and should be much more worried about getting caught by this new danger. When and if the players leave the area, they'll be quite relieved and never want to come back. Then when they're forced to come back later, they'll have a baseline of terror sitting in the back of their minds that you can continue to build on. When you finally reveal the danger, properly-prepared players should bolt like a bullet from a gun.

With a specific area, the danger is much more pronounced, and it should be immediately obvious that something truly bad resides here. For maximum effect, give them two or three really obvious pieces of danger, back to back, and then immediately reveal the danger. Unlike a general area, time will only serve to dampen the feeling of danger in a specific area. You want to hammer them under with a rapidly-increasing sense of imminent danger, then top it off with the big reveal.

These two methods can be combined to maximum effect by having a general area lead into a specific area. Or a general area can be used by itself, without ever having a reveal. Remember, the more you leave to their imagination, the more afraid they'll be. Players are capable of scaring themselves silly with just the slightest of hints from you.

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Comments ( 6 )
Commenters gain extra XP from Author votes.

Voted MysticMoon
March 8, 2012, 12:27

This looks to be a good tool in the evil GM's kit. I'll have to try it out sometime.

I must ask: How can you use the names "Alice" and "Bob" without a single reference to passing secret messages? (

March 8, 2012, 18:49
Because it's long moved past it's origins in Cryptography. (
Voted axlerowes
March 12, 2012, 14:54

"It is quiet....too quiet"

Voted montreve
March 14, 2012, 16:17

I like the idea of a game that actually causes fear in the players I think this is a good tool for something like that, thanks for the sub.

Voted Mourngrymn
January 8, 2015, 22:30
I had no idea what I was getting into when I read the title. After reading this, more than once, I find this a grand scheme and idea to throw at my players. They are ripe for this very thing to happen and knowing how cautious and questioning they are I know this will worry and drive them mad. Kudos CM!
Voted valadaar
February 3, 2017, 11:32
This is really good. As MM said, a nice tool for the toolbox.

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