Updated: Oct 19, 2022
The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.
- H.P. Lovecraft
The current edition of Dungeons & Dragons is designed to make the players feel like superheroes. Their hit points (HP) are very high, their attributes are almost supernatural and their innate abilities make them very difficult to kill. Furthermore, in the rare case that a player actually dies, there are plenty of spells that can bring them back to life in the blink of an eye.
All these design decisions have one unintended consequence. They make the players believe their characters are invincible.
Fear comes from the feeling that dying is a possibility. Fear stems from the capacity of the environment to permanently affect a character. When these attributes are removed from the game, the capacity to feel fear is as well.
With minimal tweaking, any Dungeon Master is capable of re-introducing the attributes that a game needs in order to be “scary” for the players.
There are seven elements -already present in the game- that when modified, will cause a tremendous change in the way the players perceive the world. You are free to incorporate as many as you wish, and I encourage you to experiment with one or two at a time to get a feel of how much of a change you want in your game.
The Seven Steps:
1. Make Darkness Threatening
Few things are more unnerving than seeing something hiding in the shadows, but being unable to pinpoint its true shape. Make the darkness behave like a living, intelligent being. It should conceal the creatures that antagonize the party, it should play tricks on their minds. Shadows are an excellent way to mess with distance and perspective, use them to disorient the characters, let them waste spells and attacks on things that are not even there. And when things are there, use it still. When in combat, target the light sources of the players, use winds to extinguish mundane flames, use distant lair actions (or traps) to randomly cause blindness to some -but not all- characters. Use dispel magic, or a similar spell to permanently extinguish their magical lights. Make these occurrences more frequent the more they advance, so they always have the option of retreating.
2. Split the Party
Being close to help will significantly reduce the anxiety any situation may entail. Thus, isolating certain members of the party, making the healer suddenly unavailable at a fight, or using traps to split the party will unequivocally increase the sense of fear in the players. Are they in a narrow corridor? Drop a heavy portcullis between them, then have a trapdoor activate and send those at the back to another part of the dungeon. Are they on a descending ramp? Have half of it covered in oil so some of the players just slide all the way down, where something is waiting for them. Have a large room, make them stand on different places using lures, then kidnap someone, turn a wall, deploy a small trap, etc. Make them feel like they are alone, all the time, even when they are in the same room.
3. Use Sleep Deprivation as a Weapon
Taking a long rest effectively restores 100% of the assets of the party. This is such a powerful mechanic that players will try to deploy it at every opportunity they get. But their antagonists know this, or at least they know that letting their enemies sleep peacefully within their domain puts them at a disadvantage. Thus, monsters and villains will get out of their way to prevent the characters from taking a complete rest. As they sleep, use the Dream spell on some of the characters, this will prevent them from gaining the benefits of a long rest. Furthermore, you can interrupt them using minions, traps and all you can think of -even noise-. Do not let them sleep! Some indirect actions to prevent them from sleeping are to flood their defensive position when getting inside proves too difficult. Fill the place with oil and start burning it so they will pass out due to oxygen deprivation.
4. Truly Terrifying Monsters
You can’t kill what you can see. One of the most terrifying monsters in the Monster Manual is the Doppelganger. When properly used, it will make the party paranoid because they don’t know who has this monster impersonated. And since they can’t see it, they can’t kill him. First you need to telegraph to the players that this monster is present around. Have the players encounter a corpse or direct evidence of a Doppelganger at the beginning of the dungeon (or session). Then begin introducing NPCs to them. Some might be prisoners, some are insane, some are actual innocent people, but who are the Doppelgangers? They don't know. Keep it that way. Make them think about it all the time. Maybe there are no Doppelgangers here, it's up to you. Either way, they will keep an eye out for as long as they are suspicious of it having infiltrated their ranks. For an extra twist you can give out little folded papers to all your players when they finish a long rest, all of them say "You are NOT the Doppelganger". Or maybe one is actually a Doppelganger, or the dream spell convinced him that he is when in fact he's not.
5. Pitch Them Against Each Other
Be careful when using this piece of advice. Make sure that all players are comfortable with a little tension between them. One of the most effective techniques used to instill suspicion between the party’s members is to favor one of them over the rest. This can be done not by you -the DM- but by the NPC antagonists. If they have sufficient information about the party, they might try to break them up by seeding mistrust between the members of the party. Select one character, have the villains prohibit their minions from attacking him/her at all. This character also never seems to spring traps, almost as if they were attuned to the character. Make some of the magic items or rewards in the dungeon especially for said character. For extra spice, make all rewards have a small note attached to them, congratulating the character, or thanking him for the “services” he has provided the antagonists. Have the villains reveal information about the party only they themselves would know. These secrets should be about every member except the one you have previously selected. Make the party suspect someone has been sharing some sensitive information about them. Is someone a traitor?
6. Illusion spells
Again, you cannot fight what you can’t see. This time we manipulate the terrain so that nothing is as it seems. Illusions are a great way to hide traps. False walls and floors can lead to deadly pit traps. False walls may provide the enemy an excellent sniping position, making it look like arrows are being shot through the wall. False infrastructure can be used very effectively too. If there is a chasm the players need to traverse, have the actual bridge hidden by a powerful invisibility spell; at the same time, the illusion of a bridge may be presented so players will fall down to their doom.
Illusions can also work in reverse. Instead of hiding something, they may present players with a threat that does not exist. Illusions of open pits can be used to funnel the players a certain way in a room. False obstacles may impede the progress of the players as they go around them, but may be used by the denizens of the dungeon to literally cut some corners. They can make rooms seem smaller or bigger than they are, they can present players with fake cover, so that when they duck behind it, instead of being protected, they become even more vulnerable.
Scatter silent images all over the place, make them waste ammo and spells on things that do not exist. Make "false" encounters, that is, an encounter with beasts or aberrations that are only illusions, so that players will waste resources on them. Use major images to impress the party into believing the weak cultist can summon a powerful demon. Make illusory traps like a big boulder that pursues them down a small corridor to force them into running through a corridor filled with traps.
Here, imagination is literally the limit, go crazy on the illusions and see what happens.
7. Target their attributes, not their HP
Instead of a poison gas damaging their hitpoints, it does constitution damage. Make them gain exhaustion, perhaps with a type of poison, this will force them to rest, then apply step No.3 on them. Tell them that the damage is permanent until they get far away from the source. Use monsters that destroy their weapons and drain their resources. Rust Monsters are a great example, oozes too, an encounter with too many Shadows can accomplish this too.
All in all, you now have a complete list of things you can change to turn up the “fear” dial in your campaign. Be mindful of how you use them. Remember to telegraph some of the signals first. Players may encounter a malfunctioning illusion at the beginning of the dungeon, or be presented with the diary of a dead adventurer that warns them about the “living darkness”.
I hope this list has been helpful to you. Have fun!