Out of the many streamlined processes that emerged out of the 5th Edition ruleset, Fear had understandably been reduced to the Frightened condition on the Player’s Handbook (PHB). From a design standpoint, I can appreciate the simplification of representing fear in the game. But I do miss the idea of scaring someone to death, the idea that something so frightening could cause a creature to flee to death. In the spirit of Halloween and all respective holidays that celebrate the dead, I decided to return back to the realm of fear and embrace all the dark musings that have laid dormant within my mind. I mean if the are levels of exhaustion, why not fear?

Get ready, you’re in for a scare.

A master of fear, Image by Injustice 2.

What is Fear in Game Mechanics?

The Frightened condition in 5e (PHB pg. 290):

A frightened creature has disadvantage on ability checks and attack rolls while the source of its fear is within line of sight.

The creature can’t willingly move closer ot the source of the fear.

The Frightened condition is a debuff, a useful tool of powerful and terrifying creatures to employ to make it difficult for creatures to retaliate or charge them. Mighty dragons, for example, can usually channel their Frightful Presence while they attack with tooth and claws, presenting their dominating demeanor across the battlefield. Creatures that succeed their saving throws against this effect are immune to the fear for 24 hours. Granting disadvantage is a powerful bane against creatures and players, one that shouldn’t be taken lightly which makes sense to include a clause for immunity to the source. It signifies and quantifies that the creature is no longer afraid of the source and can return to fighting at their best again.

Looking back to move forward with a dash of psychology

The idea of fear is one of my favorite aspects, especially gothic horror themes. Curse of Strahd is a wonderful setting to utilize fear often, causing many players to make hasty decisions. Fear in combat is mostly where we are learning on, which we shall return to an older edition to draw inspiration along with literature on the subject matter of fear.

In D&D 3.5 Edition, there were four stages of fear in degrees of escalation, exposure, and potency. Ironically, or incidentally, in Jeff Wise’s Extreme Fear, there are four methods of fear response which are broken from the traditional concept of “flight or fight” to “fight, freeze, fright, and flight.”

If we were to compare them to the four stages of fear from 3.5, we find astounding similarities.

Shaken – Fight. In the original context, a shaken creature would be imposed a penalty but could still fight against the object of their fear and not be restricted on movement.

Frightened – Fright. This version of frightened resembles the intent of 5e’s interpretation of fear. Creatures in 3.5e were imposed a similar penalty and could not advance towards the source of their fear. In older editions, the idea of stacking fear effects led to an escalation of fear, so if a creature who failed their saves against being shaken were inflicted a similar effect again, they would become frightened instead.

Panicked – Flight. In this response, the creature actively drops their items and runs for their lives. In essence, the creature is completely demoralized. Mechanically, the creature spends their turns moving as far away as possible from the source.

Cowering – Freeze. Creatures at this point succumb to grief and the grim reality. Affected creatures have a speed of 0 and take a cumulative penalty on attacks, ability checks, and saving throws. Mechanically expressing the “weight” of the dread that befell the victims as hope fades.

The New Face of Fear

Incorporating what we know about fear and fear responses, is there a way to bring the full range of fear back to 5th Edition?

Since the Frightened condition in 5e fits well as an analog for the original condition from 3.5e, I don’t see a need to adjust it. But if anything, we should treat Fear like we treat Exhaustion, with increasing levels and escalating effects. There would be to be some adjustments on how to handle stacking layers of fear, while exhaustion incrementally intensifies until death.

Level Fear
1 Shaken. A shaken creature has disadvantage on attack and ability checks while the source of its fear is within line of sight.
2 Frightened. A frightened creature has the same penalties as shaken. Additionally, the creature cannot move willingly towards the source of its fear.
3 Panicked. A panicked creature has the same penalties as shaken. Additionally, the creature must spend their actions and movement moving away from the source of its fear. The panicked creature cannot use the Attack action, and if they can cast spells or possess features, they can only use them to help the creature flee. The creature also drops anything it holds.
4 Cowering. A cowering creature’s speed becomes 0, and can’t benefit from the bonus for extra speed. The creature cannot take any actions. Additionally, the creature fails all Strength and Dexterity saving throws. Additionally, attacks made against the cowering creature have advantage and drops anything it holds.

Fear can be delivered through many ways: auras, spells, and special abilities.

  • Multiple applications of fear effects, assuming the target fails their saving throws, should raise the overall level of fear. For example, if a target creature is already under the Shaken condition and fails the saving throw for an effect that would cause it be Shaken, it gains the Frightened condition instead.
  • If an effect would cause the fear effect to be at a new stage, then the condition shifts to that new stage instead. For example, if a target creature already has the Shaken condition and fails the saving throw for an effect that causes it to become Panicked. The creature becomes Panicked as per the new effect. The same would apply if the effect stated the target becomes Frightened or Cowering.

New Warlock Patron: the Dread

“My master has given me wondrous insight into the mortal mind. Its fragility, its weakness, and its susceptibility to fear. How marvelous fear can be, and how to master it.” – Axio, Dread-Pact Warlock

A patron of Dread, Image by Guild Wars 2.

The Dread is a nightmarish entity, sometimes a powerful demon or aberration, sometimes a fiendish entity from the Nine Hells or the dull world of Hades. The Dread commands their warlocks to spread fear and remind even the most powerful entities of their fragility through fear.

Expanded Spell List

The Dread lets the warlock choose from an expanded list of spells whenever you learn a new warlock spell. The following spells are added to the warlock spell list for you.

Spell Level Spells
1st  bane, dissonant whispers
2nd  blindness/deafness, phantasmal force
3rd  bestow curse, slow
4th  confusion, phantasmal killer
5th  insect plague, modify memory

Dreadful Facade. Starting at 1st level, you add double your proficiency bonus to your Charisma checks to frighten, coerce, demoralize, or intimidate a creature.

Face of Fear. Starting at 1st level, you channel the visage of your patron and become an image of fear. As an action, creatures you choose within a 30-foot radius from you must make a Wisdom saving throw to your spell save DC. On a failure, the creature is shaken for 1 minute. The creature makes a new saving throw at the end of its turn, a successful save ends this effect.

Shadow of Fear. Starting at 6th level, your ability to weave shadows and illusions make you dangerous. Whenever you cast a spell a spell that has a visual manifestation, you can empower it with your fear. Creatures within the area of effect of the spell must make an additional Wisdom saving throw. On a failure against this feature, the creature is frightened for a number of rounds equal to your Charisma modifier. Once you use this feature, you cannot reuse it until you finish a short or long rest.

Master of Terror. Starting at 10th level, your mastery of fear and terror proves harder to resist and even affects creatures normally immune to it. You have immunity to fear conditions. Whenever you cast a spell or use your Shadow of Fear feature, the targeted creatures have disadvantage on their saving throws. Additionally, creatures that have immunity to fear conditions or advantage against fear effects are treated as if they do not possess the feature.

Embodiment of Dread. Starting at 14th level, you extrude fear wherever you tread and summon a terrifying image of fear that may even slay a creature. As an action, you can designate a creature within 60 feet from you to make a Wisdom saving throw against your spell save DC. On a failure, the creature is instantly slain. On a successful save, the target is cowering and dealt 15d8 psychic damage as tries to deal with the traumatizing images. You must finish a short or long rest before you can use this feature again.

Additionally, you have an aura that extends a 10-foot radius from you, creatures that enter or start their turns in this aura must make a Wisdom saving throw (using your spell save DC). On a failure, they are frightened so long as they remain in this aura. A creature that successfully saves against this effect is immune to the aura for 24 hours.

New Invocations! 

Frightful Blast
eldritch blast cantrip

When you hit a creature with eldritch blast, the creature must make a Wisdom saving throw against your spell save DC or be shaken for 1 round.

Wall of Frightful Flames 
Prerequisite: 9th level

You can cast wall of fire using a warlock spell slot. You can’t do it again until you finish a long rest.

Realm of Nightmares 
Prerequisite: hallucinatory terrain spell

Creatures that are within your hallucinatory terrain begin to notice the nightmarish visages mixed into the terrain. The nightmare visages are not enough to cause a creature to notice the illusion but any creatures that start their turns in this terrain, take psychic damage equal to your Charisma modifier.

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