What scares your PCs? I mean, what truly scares the bejeezus out of them?
RPGs are filled with scary creatures. As a DM, you have an obscene amount of riches when it comes to adversaries that would send most humans in the real world running in the opposite direction, their pantaloons a little less dry. In the relative safety of the gaming table PCs see these types of baddies day in and day out. At some point, players become immune to the scariness that is a dark creeper or an Orcus underpriest.
Even death doesn’t hold much fear factor for PCs, most of the time. Sure, people can get really attached to their characters, but sometimes the excitement of building something new and shiny can prompt suicidal tendencies at worst, or reckless behaviour at best. This is a challenge to any DM who is building adventures three to four sessions (or more) ahead of time, based on the assumption that his current set of players will make it through in good enough shape to carry on.
In light of these challenges, it seems to me that this is where the great DM shines. When mechanics, tools and saturation leave your PCs feeling untouchable, context becomes king. Choosing the proper background music as your group investigates a haunted house, dimming the lights or going by candlelight as they delve into the catacombs of a long-deceased king, or simply using the proper words to describe a dark, foreboding forest can do a much better job of immersing your players into the environment.
Loss of control is another tool in your fear arsenal. As an example, the whirlpool trap in Keep on the Shadowfell was a terrifying experience for my PCs when two of them fell victim to it. For those who have never played KotS, a trap triggers a force wall and confines those stuck within to a 6×4 area as water rises to become a whirlpool. It thrashes the PCs against the walls, leaving them powerless to do much.
Luckily for my players, they figured out how to disable the whirlpool creating device. They looked relieved to have merely survived the encounter. It went beyond fear for their character’s lives – they were having a human reaction to the loss of control in a given situation, and they felt vulnerable and more importantly – fear had shaken their confidence.
Here’s one thing you need to be real careful about: integrating your players’ real life phobias. My fiancée, who is also a player at my table, has a real fear of spiders. Sure, I could build an encounter full of eight-legged foes and describe it to a “T”, hang Hallowe’en-style spiders over the table and make her truly uncomfortable. Is that the point, though? I’d argue that making her squeamish using something that really terrifies her would wreck the illusion, and probably make it a gaming session she’d rather forget. It’s a fine line, I know. My advice: find the things your players fear, rather than things that make them uncomfortable.
How much does fear factor into your DM style? What methods have you used to instill fear in your players? Alternatively, can you share the instance where as a player you felt the most fear?