How to make D&D really scary

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With normal D&D rules he'll be fine.
With normal D&D rules he’ll be fine.

DM: “The frost giant’s ice club smashes down, crushing the very life out of you for (rolls) 40 points!Bored Player: “Eh I still have 29 left, so after the Cleric does his healing I’ll be good as new.” DM: (sighs)

One of D&D weaknesses is how damage- whether from combat, traps, or miscellaneous things like lava- is essentially meaningless until your HP reaches 0. That is, unless you get dropped into negatives or otherwise knocked unconscious, the entire exercise becomes a lesson in basic math. After all, it only takes some spells, wands, and potions used later on to make everyone fine. Down you go, then up you go. Well what’s a DM to do to make his players scared (or at the very least nervous!) of taking damage?

As it turns out, D&D already a solution for this problem with points: Massive Damage. Now way back in a column from 2013 we’ve previously explained how this official variant works, but here is the short summary in 5 points:

  1. Massive Damage is the idea that significant trauma is dangerous
  2. Characters & creatures have a # or Threshold of HP; 50 is standard
  3. If that # is ever reached in a single hit, a Fortitude Save is required
  4. The effects of Massive Damage happen if the Save is failed
  5. The Threshold, the Save DC, & the effects can all be scaled up/down

Ok, so hopefully point #1 is realistic enough that we can agree on it for the sake of this article & carry on.  Now admittedly I like my D&D on the gritty side with an extra helping of danger but even if you prefer High Fantasy, a little edge keeps your game sharp.  With that in mind, since the purpose of this Halloween tie-in is putting some scariness back into D&D, I’m jumping around the remaining points.

Scale the Fortitude Save  In the standard variant, it is only a DC 15 to ignore Massive Damage. If this DC stays static, then at higher Levels the test is too easily passed making this whole thing moot.  Luckily it’s quite easy to scale: “For every 10 points of damage dealt by an attack in excess of a character’s massive damage threshold, increase the save DC by 2.” Definitely do this bump & consider scaling when it comes to other Saves as well.

Have Effective Effects In the vanilla variant, a failed Save vs Massive Damage flat out translates into “he’s dead Jim.” But rather than outright death, one official alternative is to make the results variable with a d10 roll to determine how far into the negatives the character/creature is.  1 means -1, 5 means -5, and 10 means -10 or death.  Keep the roll secret & it will not only keep the players guessing, it will make the PCs panic.  It also provides a few rounds to save the downed character, albeit while still maintaining the possibility (10%) of instantly dying.  If you feel this is still too harsh, consider the result of a failed Save to ‘only’ be a confirmed Critical Hit in the appropriate area.

Change the Threshold, change the game Now normally, the Threshold for Massive Damage is 50 which is a problem for making this seriously scary. Statisically anything taking that much damage will either A) be strong enough to survive the loss + then make the subsequent Save or B) just get killed outright. Meaning a Threshold of 50 is too high for use in the majority of gameplay. There are several factors that can tweak the Threshold, such as adjusting it for size or basing the initial # off of Constitution or off of HD.  But for truly evocative fear when it comes to deadliness, we have to make a drastic change & combine them, with the following results:

  • Threshold = current Consitution score + 2 per HD
  • + or – 10 points for each category larger or smaller than Medium

This formula will bring about a Threshold much lower than 50 & therefore more usable because of its frequency. For instance, say the PC in our opening was an 8th Level Rogue with a CON of 14.  His Massive Damage Threshold with this is only 30. I.e. 14 (CON) + 2×8 (8th Level) = 30, so based on the frost giant’s attack of 40 points in the Introduction, the Fortitude DC goes from 15 to 17, since the Massive Damage is 10 points higher than the apathetic Rogue’s current Threshold. Between his bonus from CON (+2) & being 8th Level (+2), he has a base +4 to his roll, meaning he has to roll at least a 13 to safely avoid.  Think that player is still bored?  Now if this Rogue had been a Permanently Reduced Person Halfling, (30 – 20 for being 2 size categories smaller than Medium) he’d be scared & rightly so: that Fort Save is a 21.

Without including a form of Massive Damage that has both a lower Threshold  and variable effects after a scaled DC, Hit Point loss in D&D is not only boring, it can be pointless. But switch to some system that does & your will go from apathetic to afraid.  Heck, they may try talking.

1 thought on “How to make D&D really scary”

  1. Back in my 1e/2e days, an encounter with a large number of relatively low-threat creatures was something to definitely be worried about.

    I remember our DM asking the somewhat rhetorical question one time “Isn’t it reassuring to know that they can only hit with a natural 20?”

    It wasn’t reassuring at all. I remember saying “Oh no” to myself before the first dice were even rolled. In fact, it was quite the opposite and played out that way. By the end of the encounter, against 30 kobolds, the party had been ravaged by several natural 20 rolls. One character was dead. Another was horribly disabled and/or disfigured. The rest of the party was more than thankful for surviving, but was in complete shock at what had just happened. All of the damage took place in the opening round… the party losing initiative set the table for what happened. If initiative had went the other way, the 30 kobolds would have been greatly thinned out and not posed near the threat that it did.

    Little things can scare the hell out of you… especially when there are many of them. Do not underestimate them. In fact, a good DM should be well aware of how a somewhat powerful party can be quickly knocked down a few rungs on the ladder because of them. I’d even fudge the initiative roll if I thought it absolutely had to be done. haha

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