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In my campaign, I'm planning on having my "big bad" mess with the head of one of my PCs a bit while they sleep. The "big bad" is a very powerful witch-king type person. He is going to be trying to discourage the player character in their quest.

Specifics of the dream

The player character will start in a very gross dungeon, and then start seeing some of her friends get killed. Then, the PC will see a lot of villages and towns on fire. Then the PC will see an entire field of their friends and allies all dead, along with all the dragon Gods that the player character believes in.

They're going to see several scary things that would discourage the character. The player won't know it's a dream at the very beginning. I want this to have a negative effect on the character (like a disadvantage or something when they wake up, saying they just saw a lot of shocking things), but I don't really know what to do for the negative effect.

I was thinking the player character would have disadvantage on all Intelligence and Wisdom throws after every time the character has the dream... But then I realized that I want it to happen every night - and that's a lot of disadvantages added up. So I'm kinda stuck.

I want my player to notice the effect the dream is having on their character without making the character totally defenseless.

Is there something that can help with this?

I'm not sure whether I want the PC to wake up until they see everything that I have planned in the dream - and then I would just keep showing the same dream every night. However, I want the player to be able to sort of choose what they want to do, with some sort of disadvantage or roll they have to make (saying that it's a dream that someone else is kinda controlling).

What I was originally thinking was to have the player roll for Constitution every time they make an action beyond where I want the player to go in the dream; if the character fails, then they get a disadvantage when they wake up. However, I realize I'm running into the same problem: the amount of disadvantages she might be getting. However, I still want them to notice the effect as something real and not something to brush off. Maybe I could tone down the disadvantages; however, with even just one disadvantage every time the player has the dream, it would still add up.

How do I make this work?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Your question is quite long and chock full of details that, while colorful, risk distracting from the heart of your question. Would it be fair to distill this question down to "How do I simulate the effect of intense and ongoing nightmares on a character without over penalizing the player?" \$\endgroup\$ – Rykara Apr 29 at 21:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Rykara I think the source and nature of the nightmares are helpful context, in which case the question becomes "this is the narrative I want to make - are there rules/mechanics which support it?" \$\endgroup\$ – Carcer Apr 29 at 21:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ (1) Have you ever DM'd before? (2) I have edited your question since the prose is awkward and hard to follow. Please review the edit to make sure I have correctly perceived your intended meaning. Did this player do something that has evoked a desire in you to punish them? After reading your idea of "fun" I am lost as to your purpose. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Apr 29 at 22:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ Is it safe to assume every instance of "player" in the question should read "player character" (or just "character")? Mainly I want to confirm that these negative effects are meant to impact the character, not discourage/punish the player. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Apr 30 at 3:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ If the player is at all experienced, they will recognize that this is a dream shortly. Unless you're a very good gm, the player may not like it. This sort of thing works very well in a book or movie, but this is none of those. It is a game. \$\endgroup\$ – NomadMaker May 1 at 0:23
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Consider using the Dream spell

Rather than coming up with a bunch of new mechanics, you could consider using the Dream spell as a basis for what happens to the character.

If used to cause nightmares to the target, it has the effect that:

You can make the messenger appear monstrous and terrifying to the target. If you do, the messenger can deliver a message of no more than ten words and then the target must make a Wisdom saving throw. On a failed save, echoes of the phantasmal monstrosity spawn a nightmare that lasts the duration of the target's sleep and prevents the target from gaining any benefit from that rest. In addition, when the target wakes up, it takes 3d6 psychic damage.

Narratively, this sounds quite a lot like what you're describing, and it's still a quite debilitating effect if the character fails her Wisdom save against the effect, since she'll take some psychic damage and won't get any benefit from her rest, which means she doesn't recover hit points, refresh spell slots or other abilities, and so on. If you like, you could still describe her as having the nightmares even if she succeeds the Wisdom save, they're just less vivid and don't affect her enough to cause her the mechanical penalties. To get more in depth, you could also give a bonus or penalty to the Wisdom save depending on what the character does in the dream; maybe successfully acting against the nightmare could grant advantage on the save, but trying and failing to take control grants disadvantage.

The spell is available to Bards, Warlocks, and Wizards, so if your big bad guy is (or is based on) one of those classes and can cast 5th level spells or has a minion who can do it for them, it's already available to them without requiring any special explanation.

As a side note, if you take this approach, I would advise caution about applying levels of exhaustion based on the character "gaining no benefit" from their rest. The core rules don't actually specify that going without a long rest causes exhaustion, only that successful long rests can reduce exhaustion levels; but Xanathar's Guide to Everything has an optional rule in the Dungeon Master's Tools chapter for going without sleep which suggests that a character who goes a day without a long rest should make Constitution saves or gain exhaustion. In this case, the character is resting, albeit poorly, and it's already harsh enough not to gain the normal rest's benefits - applying exhaustion too would be excessive, and you only have to accrue a few levels before it just kills you outright!

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast May 1 at 4:48
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Use the effect of the Bane spell

The Bane spell causes the victim to roll a d4 whenever they make an attack roll or saving throw and subtract the result of the d4 from the attack roll/saving throw. If you impose this on each day after a night in which they failed the saving throw, I think it would be a nice representation of the character being exhausted and upset after a rough night of sleep, without making the game unfun for the player.

This is far less harsh than disadvantage or the effect of Dream, so it is up to you how severely you want to punish the PC. Of course, to reach a middle ground, you could also choose a larger die to roll than d4. You also still have the option of denying or diminishing the benefits of the rest on top of that.

PS: I agree with Carcer's answer that adding exhaustion every night that happens would most likely be a bit too much and could completely cripple the character.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to our stack! Please take the tour to learn more about how we operate and you can also visit the help center for more information. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Apr 30 at 14:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ Have you tried (or have you seen) using this particular effect outside of the spell? if so, how did you adjudicate it? What was the time period it was active? How could it end? Unfortunately, this really seems more like an idea suggestion, and we really look for answers here to be supported by the rules or by gameplay experience seen or performed. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Apr 30 at 14:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thank you! this has really help! \$\endgroup\$ – Taylor Spaulding Apr 30 at 17:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ Note that disadvantage is generally considered to be roughly equivalent statistically to a -4 on a d20 roll. The average roll of 1d6 is 3.5, and the average of 1d8 is 4.5, so a -1d6 modifier is slightly less severe than disadvantage, and -1d8 is slightly worse than disadvantage, on average. \$\endgroup\$ – Dave Sherohman May 1 at 11:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Dave: Thank you for that info! To be honest, I didn't know how disadvantage translates to the average result. Good to know that a d6 would already be almost as strong as disadvantage, would not have thought that. \$\endgroup\$ – Shield_Anvil May 2 at 8:25

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