Basic Information

A phobia is an anxiety type mental disorder manifesting as an intense, irrational aversion to a specific stimulus - normally an activity, location or creature. This is usually characterized as a fear based response (from A.Gk Phobos - a fear or dread), with the usual range of responses that entails.

Note that to be a true phobia, the aversion must be disproportionate to the degree of hazard posed by the stimulus - fear of something that is actually dangerous is not pathological, although an excessive, panicked response to them may well be. By way of an example let us consider arachnophobia - the pathological fear of spiders. There are a great many species of venomous spiders, a good number of which are dangerous to humans - it is perfectly normal and adaptive to be cautious, even fearful towards an unknown spider and indeed it appears that humans have a built-in revulsion response to spiders and spider-like creatures1. However, a phobic individual is unable to suppress this response in the case of a spider known to be harmless and is likely to have an exaggerated avoidance pattern, going a long way out of their way to avoid the sight of, let alone contact with, a spider and becoming panicked by physical contact. Thus, whilst both a degree of fear and revulsion are adaptive, they become pathological when taken to excess.

Phobias are usually treated by controlled exposure - theoretical at first in severe cases, followed by visual acclimatization and eventually physical contact, sometimes using sedative drugs to attenuate the physiological effects of the dear response.

The term "phobia" is also misused in a non-clinical context to memetically pathologize any kind of rejection or aversion that the user wishes to object to, regardless of its actual motivation or proportionality. This falls into the category that is (politely) referred to as "weasel words" and is best avoided around adults, especially those who have actual mental health problems to deal with, whether as patient, loved ones or professional.

The term "phobia" is also used sometimes to refer to the physical properties of things in a scientific sense, which complicates this further. A good example would be Hydrophobia. That word can mean an intense fear of water (often called Aquaphobia for clarity), or it can function as a somewhat archaic synonym for rabies (a virus which can sometimes cause the infected individual to fear water, or render them incapable of drinking), or the same word can refer to a chemical that doesn't mix with water, or a material or surface that sheds water rather than soaking it up.

See also:


2. List of Phobias on Wikipedia, with short descriptions.

Game and Story Use

  • Phobias are a frequent occurrence in horror games, and they generally appear after contact with Things Man Was Not Meant To Know. This can affect both player characters and nonplayer characters.
    • A phobia can function as a pretty great short-hand / tool for characterization of an NPC. What you fear says a lot about you, and conveys that information quickly. It's also potentially plot-convenient, as the phobia may cause the NPC to behave in a way that advances the plot or inconveniences the PCs. It may justify illogical behavior that would otherwise be a plot-hole or idiot plot, and create a situation where the PCs truly are the only one on the scene who can rise to the challenge and save the day.
    • The phobia a traumatized character gains might only somewhat correspond to the triggering circumstance. For example, you might develop arachnophobia after encountering actual spiders, or giant spiders, or a horde of creepy-crawlies that aren't technically spiders, or just more generally some sort of multi-limbed or even just long-legged creature. We're not talking about merely the literal fear of the horrible monster itself when said monster is present, as that's likely a perfectly sensible reaction to being attacked by monster. It truly becomes phobic when it starts triggering even in low-risk situations, such as things that are only vaguely reminiscent of the inciting trauma, or when the fear is so intense it prevents you from taking rational action. Such as if a previous encounter with a shark or pirate causes someone to refuse to go near a swimming pool or small freshwater lake that's highly unlikely to have either.
    • Creative assignment of phobias is also fun - where, for example, a character is traumatised by the sight of a homeless person being dragged into the sewers by an eldritch abomination the easy way is to assign a fear of squid/tentacles/clowns (whatever the abomination looks like), but the phobia could also be of sewers, or the underground generally, or the sort of dark alley where it happened, or of dirt or trash or poverty or some other characteristic that the PC's lizard brain considers might identify someone as homeless and therefore prey. If the victim was a prostitute instead the phobia might extend to coitophobia or something similar.
  • Phobias are also fairly common in point-buy system where players can take disadvantages for their player characters to get a few extra bonus points which they can spend elsewhere.
    • Note that if you specifically choose a phobia that seems very unlikely to ever come up in a game, some GMs will go out of their way to prove you wrong / make you regret it.
    • Traditionally these systems price phobias by likelihood of occurrence, but a PC can still be (un)lucky when adventure turns out to include a lot more of something than norma;.
  • If you are just using a fear for colorful characterization, you don't necessarily have to dial it up into full phobia territory. If the plotline is about giant spider monsters, having a character with a minor but not paralyzing fear of spiders is probably enough to motivate them to take the problem seriously, or have a fun scene or two reacting to the situation.
    • This is especially true of player characters and hero-types. The fear of snakes that Indiana Jones exhibits in narratively interesting, but does not deprive him of his heroic status. An NPC with ophidophobia probably wouldn't go down into that hole-in-the-ground in the first place.
    • PCs will also tend to have a chance to make self control checks to overcome their phobias that the default NPC wouldn't attempt - and may be able to burn other plot resources to bull through even if they fail, or accept some form of handicap whilst exposed as a trade for not simply running away screaming. Likewise, whilst an NPC might flee from combat with a feared creature, a player might parley their fear into a (penalised) wild phobic assault on their opponent.
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