I've read some other posts on here about how to telegraph danger to my PCs and how to make them flee. The problem is, I believe I am actively using all the strategies in both of the posts and my PCs are never afraid of anything. It takes away the suspension of disbelief for me as a DM.

My goal is to make my PCs truly afraid of whatever is coming for them. It's just unrealistic when they are having trouble killing something they see everyday and then a giant CR 11 Retriever steps out of the woods after killing 3-4 treants and starts shooting lasers out of its eyes. It turns one of their NPC escorts into stone and continues to start taking down players. I had PLANNED for them to start running when they saw this. Any sane person would have if they saw that. But my players do not roleplay fear. I absolutely hate this. It's just not what would happen.

Now I'm not saying my party isn't challenged. To be fair, they won that encounter by protecting their escort (a child which they turned invisible) and only lost 1 PC, who got reincarnated by their druid. In other words, they used up ALL of their resources and it ended up being a pretty fun battle. However, they didn't flee.

I also don't mean to say high CR equals more fear. I put a pit in a lower level dungeon with a bunch of sleeping zombies, so when I player fell in I would say, "You feel a hand grasp your ankle and begin to pull you under the sea of dead bodies." That's the kind of thing I'm talking about. But in that situation (which never happened), I'd just expect my player to pull out his sword and begin hacking and slashing. I would much rather for them to have screamed and panicked. Like when a bee flies around your head and you spasm to get it away. If a bee flew around my players' heads - guess what? CR0 bee, smash.

Some further background information: My PCs have already went through a full party wipe and they all know that if they go into certain areas, I'm not lowering the CR for them. PC death is common. They are fine with this and seem to like it because it's more real. Also, my games go well for the most part. We all have fun, I'm just looking for that extra dimension of fear. The only problem is they all seem to have backup characters ready because of this. Maybe that's a bad thing?

So what is an effective way to present my encounters so that my players will respond with a little less "I'm an unstoppable hero", and more "Holy crap! A dragon ahhhh run!!"?

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    \$\begingroup\$ "I tried it and it didn't work" isn't justification for a new question, that would be a dupe. In that case a questioner should go comment/bounty the existing question. However the distinction between "players feeling fear" and "roleplaying afraid characters" is sufficient. For further question validity discussion please open a meta question. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk - SE stop being evil Feb 15 '13 at 2:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ We had a house rule that if PC died in combat the group only got half xp for the night. \$\endgroup\$ – user2015 Feb 15 '13 at 17:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ Personally, over their careers, my characters run in fear about as often as Achilles did. That is, zero times. Fear is for NPCs. EDIT: Which means I lose a lot of characters but have a lot of fun playing, whereas if my characters were forced to run from danger, I'd lose fewer but stop playing. I have better things to do with Monday night than sit around bored. \$\endgroup\$ – medivh May 26 '14 at 13:13

12 Answers 12


The Players May Not Want To

Part of fantasy role playing for a lot of people is being able to be larger than life for a bit. They may not want their characters to feel fear at all.

Now, in a novel this may be a bad thing, since a character that isn't believable can disrupt the suspension of disbelief. But in an RPG its not necessarily a bad thing to let the players through their characters simply feel fearless and powerful, even in the face of overwhelming odds (which in your example weren't horribly overwhelming since they won.).

Their reactions might not be quite that unbelievable after all

People can keep their fear under control. When I was in the Army, I was in an Airborne unit and we did jump training frequently. I was scared every time. I still jumped out of the plane, every time. I was lucky enough that I never got in a close quarters fire fight, but plenty of people in my unit did. Not a single one ran in the time I was with that unit. Many of them did readily admit they were scared. They didn't run and the few times I heard about screaming involved people with serious injuries.

Remember, we aren't talking about some comfortable bookkeep that has never even been in a fist fight. Even a first level adventurer has mentally prepared for battle, equiped themselves for battle, and trained for battle. By the time they have added a few levels they have seen the horrors of battle and possibly the terrors of war. They know how to stand their ground.

Sure, a good role-player, when their character faces a new, powerful threat, might add details like, "My eyes widen in terror, and I feel my heart pounding in my chest." But, especially if they have a good reason to stand their ground (like a young child they must protect...), its not actually that unrealistic for them to follow with, "But I swallow my fear, and yank my sword out of its scabard!"

Remember that 300 was dramatized and fictionalized, but it was based on a real event. 300 Spartans (backed up by 700 Thespians and 400 Thebans in real history, so about 1400) stood their ground against genuinely overwhelming odds. The Persian Army was somehwere in the neighborhood of 300,000. With odds of nearly 300 to one, the Spartans knew that they were waiting for death (indeed very nearly all of them were killed). I suspect close to all of them were terrified, most of them were young men with little experience. They stood their ground.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Thank you for providing your insight on fear. My assumptions about fear seem to be way off the mark, never having been in any sort of battle myself. This will help me understand the mindsets of my players and player characters, explaining the reason I'm not getting expected results. \$\endgroup\$ – Sheph Feb 14 '13 at 21:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ To me this answer is the most enlightening. In terms of the XY problem mentioned by SevenSidedDie, it both reveals the possibility of a different Y to my X, and enlightens me to the possibility that my problem might not be so much of a problem. Though, SevenSidedDie's answer goes into the first part with more detail (greatly appreciated), I feel this one covers all the things that need to be covered for a fear-naive DM trying to instill fear in his PCs, revealing the problem could just as well be with the DM's assumptions as it can be with the players' assumptions. \$\endgroup\$ – Sheph Feb 14 '13 at 21:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ This isn't worth a full answer, but I can't believe no one has pointed out that 'when a bee flies around your head and you spasm to get it away' doesn't apply to everybody. Some of us sit there calmly and watch it 'til it flies away. Still, this answer makes the point about not showing fear not being totally unreasonable. \$\endgroup\$ – DCShannon May 21 '14 at 20:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ Perfect answer. I play in an L5R LARP and I've spent 6 months getting my character in a position where it's finally fun to play. I genuinely do not want my character to die but when one of the STs said "the ground rumbles and the sea begins to withdraw" I still tried to stand on the docks and deflect the incoming tsunami to protect the city. Why? Because that's what heroes (aka PCs) do. Of course it was a long shot and my character only survived due to the grace of a Mantis craft "surfing" the wave but I still would have seen it as worth it if I'd succeeded and died. \$\endgroup\$ – Wesley Obenshain Jul 8 '14 at 22:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ I Should add that the system itself has a part to play here. D&D is mostly Heroism & Adventures, as much as to need supplements to make that horror vibe even feasible. I would also like to add that showing something or someone way more powerful than the PCs being DESTROYED by an enemy is sure to rustle their jimmies, worked for my group. \$\endgroup\$ – Punkgeon Jul 18 '16 at 7:39

The Ugly Truth

It's entirely possible that your players simply want to charge heroically into danger and death. Since they have seen their characters die and they know you won't "pull your punches" and they're still charging to their doom, it's likely that the story of the hero who laughs into the face of danger – and sometimes dies for it – is simply the sort of story they like. There are lots of stories – pulp fantasy in particular – where life is cheap and heroes are heroes because they are fearless anyway. If that's what they enjoy, there's nothing you can do to change this campaign into one where the players want to roleplay fear. That's just not what it's about for them.


  1. If you want to play a gritty-fantasy game where realistic, unheroic reactions are common, you will need to start a side campaign with that style of play as the goal, clearly stated up-front, and with the enthusiastic agreement of your players. You might not be able to get enthusiastic agreement – if not, then trying to run a "gritty" game like that will simply fail, and may threaten the stability of your gaming group.

  2. In the case where your group is simply not interested in grittier roleplaying, ask yourself: can you still have fun with this group? Can you learn to accept a heroic, devil-may-care kind of roleplaying from your players? If so, great. Continue running this campaign, and enjoy it for what it is.

  3. If you really, really want that grittier roleplay and can't get it with this group (regardless of whether or not you can enjoy the current style for what it is), then it's entirely OK to seek out another group with which you can play in that style. Having another group that scratches that gritty-fantasy itch may actually help you appreciate and enjoy the heroic-fantasy group's style better – there's nothing like getting a playstyle desire satisfied elsewhere on occasion to make a perceived lack in your regular group feel less bothersome.

As a diagnostic tool, you might find the Same Page Tool useful. It lays out some things that are common unspoken assumptions about the point of playing RPGs that people often differ significantly on, that are not obvious or downright alien to individual gamers. It can bring this stuff into the light and give you a means to settle on a shared style that works for everyone.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Agreed. The issue here is that the DM wants a gritty storyline while the players are looking for something more along the lines of Beowulf. Neither playstyle is wrong, per se, but they are rather mutually exclusive. \$\endgroup\$ – Melon Feb 14 '13 at 20:34

If I understand the problem correctly, it boils down to you presenting overwhelming, life-threatening encounters to them, and them refusing to show fear?

I say the reason for them not being afraid of death and dismemberment may be as simple as the one that death is not scary in D&D 3.5. You're dealing with mid-level PCs that can resurrect one another if things go wrong, making death not a tragedy but an inconvenience. And being inconvenienced isn't scary in the least.

Now, it's probably rather late to start introducing houserules regarding death and dying in your current campaign. In your next campaign, you could consider making death and injury less forgiving via houserules, or you could use a game system that penalizes death and dying more.

In this campaign, you could try scaring the players by threatening the things that aren't easy for their characters to fix. Like their magic items and social status.

That being said, your players may simply be of the sort that don't like their characters showing fear, no matter what. See @SevenSidedDie's answer for that scenario.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1: D&D may be the wrong game for "fear". Dread or Don't Rest Your Head might be a better pick, but they are certainly more "horror" than "fantasy" themed, so might not be what your players are looking for. Then again, maybe your players don't want to RP fear. \$\endgroup\$ – aslum Feb 15 '13 at 15:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1, this is largely the problem. Whats to be afraid of? Unless the entire party dies, the survivors just bring back the others. In my games I make raising a very difficult proposition, available only to most powerful & connected. If someone gets raised, its done only after a big favor is performed for the church in return. Another thing to do is add a all-or-nothing DC 20 spellcraft check. They get one shot at raisng the character, if it fails, thats it. Older versions of D&D actually had a survival roll that was anything but a guarantee of success. \$\endgroup\$ – GrandmasterB Feb 15 '13 at 17:11

I've been running for 3 Decades and sometimes have been told I know what I'm doing. Also, I'm the DM for Deltree and he posted a tidbit I've been using for years: 80% of party fund go per encounter session.

My games are so long per day it is most of the time 4 Encounter sessions. We run 12 hour game days and some RP on forums in between.

Now for your answer. You can't get a group to fear things until they see a risk of loss. I most of the time talk for a bit with each player but not openly and find out what they personally fear. Remember if you just ask none will admit it you have to pick up on it.

Take a group I had just a few weeks ago. Started to run them where they had to enter into an asylum that was magically sealed and no wardens. I did research on most peoples fears and made them come to life. Small crawling creatures, contorted baby slashers, disembowelment, and even better I told them if you died in here there was no coming back and I may be able to use your character in its newly messed up form against the group....

Ends up one very level headed player after only really playing a couple of hours told me "I'm so honored you were able to think this game up and let us play but I don't want to do it this it is freaking me out".

Play fears also. The way you act towards the situation tells a lot. Don't just say "You see a __" Play it up. "The __comes out of the forest and jeez the damn thing still had guts and intestines hanging from its maw....my God this is disgusting good thing you guys don't see what I see in my mind" This forces them to imagine worse then you could ever possibly describe. This also allows you to focus more on numbers than description to scare them.

Lastly make the creature immune to a text book. Be creative since most of the longer term players memorize the Monster Manual. This puts them off balance and makes them feel ....threatened of the unknown.


I don't know what your players are like, but it sounds to me like even if they were interested in role playing things like fear, the setting makes that difficult. Are you as a GM really prepared for characters with less heroic, more "realistic" motivations?

If so, you may have a character panic after falling into a pit of sleeping zombies, but how are you going to explain why he risks having it happen again? In D&D 3.5 the game mechanics pretty much require you to go through a lot of nasty, unpleasant, and dangerous situations to advance your character to high level. It's a pretty tough gig to role play a character that goes through all of that voluntarily, but still gets frightened or panicked when it gets to be too much, then continues going through it voluntarily some more. But it seems like that is what you are asking for.

I personally find it difficult to role play a normal, non-heroic character in a D&D campaign because it rarely makes sense for such a person to be on the adventure in the first place.

You could try to work around this by creating adventures a more normal person might go on, but the game mechanics will fight you here, because advancement really normally happens through facing danger, not via training or some other means.

Another tactic is to have the characters participate for less voluntary reasons (directly forced, threats to things they care about). This helps explain why people with a more normal attitude towards danger might be doing what they are doing, but tends to railroad the players and add a pretty negative tone.

The truth is, the system was meant for the player characters to be heroic, and the mechanics reflect that. Your players are really just playing the genre the game (and, mostly, your campaign) is designed for.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I've seen lots of situations where the heroes must face hideous threats to bring back peace to their countries. It's their work to kill orcs and goblins but suddenly they find demonic pictures on the walls, twisty and nightmarish passageways and a greater evil behind their usual routine. I think it's good to be afraid of those things and gradually, as you must face them, learn to accept them until you gain enough levels and fear them no more. Not running the first time you see something scary is... really D&Dish, true, but being scared once in a while is not this "unheroic" to me. \$\endgroup\$ – Zachiel Feb 15 '13 at 0:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Zachiel - I'm not saying if your D&D characters run they are unmanly. I'm saying that playing them realistically usually would means that they stop adventuring and get a life. And the mechanics, and usual genre, are such that this ends the character. So you don't play them realistically. At which point wanted them to act scared once in a while is more of a quibble than any big thing, because if they really played scared you would have to quit anyway. \$\endgroup\$ – psr Feb 15 '13 at 0:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ And I'm just telling you that playing realistically and having them committed to adventure nonetheless are compatible, but you and your group must be aware of what needs to be going on in-fiction. \$\endgroup\$ – Zachiel Feb 15 '13 at 12:23

It's hard to answer this question without knowing your players and the level of their PC's. If they are good role players, their PC's should get scared when the situations dictate it. Have them encounter a group of sprites. Of course, the sprites are "attacking" the PC's in the name of fun, but the PC's don't know it.

Have them use their spell-like abilities (e.g., entangle, dancing light, permanent image) to confuse and scare the PC's for invading their woods. Also, having a few of their special arrows can really cause the players to be scared (e.g., sleep arrows & Memory Loss).

Another way is to separate the PC's. Have something like the following happen during the night in the woods. As the PC's set up camp in the woods, a gentle mist begins to form. As the night progresses, the fog gets denser. Suddenly, a sound awakens you, but you cannot make out anything. If the PC's sleep in the open, they only can hear what's around them. Nothing like having the PC's fight each other due to the confusion. Also, you could have them being attacked by creature (that made the fog, or exploit it).

  • \$\begingroup\$ In fact, for our new year's eve game I did exactly this. The whole plot was to figure our what happened the previous night because of memory loss arrows. Sort of like Hangover. I don't think this sort of play would scare them either unfortunately. We'd probably just laugh at each other if the party starting whacking each other unknowingly. I appreciate your ideas, but I am looking for general strategy for developing/presenting encounters rather than specific encounters. (So that I don't have to keep coming back for ideas). Thank you for your input nonetheless! \$\endgroup\$ – Sheph Feb 14 '13 at 20:36

Introduce new NPC Party

This will require some time & work. Introduce another party of NPCs (could be just two or three). Make it 100% obvious that they are quite a bit stronger than the PC party. Then, when they go to fight some "boss," have them witness their complete decimation by this horrible boss without any obvious exertion on his part. That should send a clear message.

Offer Carrot

Other than that, since your party has already shown they don't have an aversion to death/TPK, they may be trying to play a different kind of game than you are. (Hack & Slash) thinking that running head-on into battle is the only answer.

You can help this a little by rewarding "proper" play such as retreats/parlays etc.

Address game style

Or you may have to adjust your game to match their preferred style. That's a GM/player conversation that needs to happen.


they won that encounter...only lost 1 PC, who got reincarnated...used up ALL of their resources

That sounds like a standard battle with my game group. My DM has pointed out that in every fight you should use 80% of a party's resources according to one of the books out there (maybe 2e stuff). If you want PC's to fear something, it has to actually be able to kill them. A group of this level wouldn't be afraid of a bunch of zombies, as they'd be prepared enough to deal with them.

Now I'm not talking CR either. For example, these epic characters would still die if left in the middle of a dead-magic zone in the middle of the ocean. Maybe it's time to think simpler?

I should also note that there's a lot to be said for build-up. A crazy monster charging through the brush is one thing, but it's different if there's build up. We have had weeks and months in game where we didn't have a single encounter but just the remnants and messages left behind for us. Creepy things aren't necessarily big baddies. Sometimes it's as simple as a maniacle laugh, or a bit of organ music. Sometimes it's just a message that the BBEG intended for the party to find.

I like the spell "Nightmare" for this very purpose. Of course, when I run games, my players hate it.


Have you considered/implemented a rule that you lose a level if raised/reincarnated (and restoration spells do nothing), and if you start a new NPC he/she still begins a level lower than the player's last character and can't "inherit" the last character's magic items? In my experience there is nothing players fear more than the loss of XP or a full level. You can adjust it to be a percentage of current XP lost to make it more or less harsh as needed. For groups with good teamwork, maybe use an alternate rule that no levels are lost per se but each team member must sacrifice a certain amount of XP (their "life force") to bring back a teammate. Then peer pressure discourages the most reckless.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I'd lay good odds on the players fearing a non-answer from the DM even more. "Wouldn't we have detected any living thing in the hallway with that spell?" "Yes....you would have detecting anything living in the hallway" \$\endgroup\$ – Marshall Tigerus Dec 21 '16 at 21:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'd take that bet any day. Some DMs are vague on accident, and many are extremely technical and pedantic. Nothing scary about that, or unliving threats. There are undead that a first level rogue could stomp, and traps that a first level wizard would just shrug off the hit from. Even your best Vincent Price laugh isn't going to make vague-but-technically-correct answers scary to anyone who's played DnD for more than an hour. \$\endgroup\$ – user3573647 Dec 21 '16 at 22:48

I've got a group of fairly new players who started the game under the assumption I would only ever send them against things they would be able to defeat. I quickly reminded them that this is not the case in a few near-death encounters that they barely escaped from. That has made them a little more cautious, and they've finally come around to the way of thinking that not everything should be fought, but it is a difficult thing to ingrain in players.

The way I would approach your situation is to make death more expensive. How you go about this is up to you, but the basic way is to make spells that return you to life start to require specialized reagents that are hard to come by (require a quest) or they fizzle, being unable to restore the dead. Have an NPC willing to cast the ressurection in exchange for the party getting more of them (if the players double cross the NPC, then they will find fewer and fewer people willing to help them when they die). This is more so that the player doesn't sit out while his character is dead (alternately, have them go on the quest with the player portraying an NPC or something). You can even give this a place in lore, or an overarching quest by saying something like the gods are fighting and calling all souls to the celestial battlefields, or the gap between the planes is thickening (making plane shift and similar spells harder perhaps).

If death is more than a slight inconvenience, then players will start to worry about it more, and question the harder encounters. You can even introduce this as a "weird" plot point by your recently dead player (tell them while they were dead they saw some hints of whatever the real problem is, but don't tell them why or what is really going on. Also mention they felt their soul pulled, like through a strainer, as they returned, and fear they may not have returned whole).

Another fun one is to have those returned from the dead "tainted" in some way. The more often they are brought back the more the taint grows, maybe manifesting itself as madness, or seeing visions. Few things are more fun than telling one player they see something after a spot check, and it being a figment of that character's imagination, while everyone else fails to see it.


Supplemental answer: In Ravenloft, one suggested method for instilling fear was for the DM to be the only one who knew exact damage dealt by an attack, and thus exactly how hurt pcs were. Instead they only get a description of their wounds and how they feel. If players don't know exactly how far from death they are, or how many points of damage that monster is dealing, they become much more worried and cautious.


Late to the party I know, but still gonna give my 2 cents. I've not been a DM for particularly long and I enjoy keeping a healthy amount of homebrew in my campaigns to keep more experienced players on their toes. Something I've found with a lot of players if they can't initially see their foe they're gonna panic a bit. In the current session I'm running the party is a ragtag group of crooks and undesirables left to die in a massive tower of necromancy and other dark arts, that makes Icecrown Citadel look like a baby's first step. One chamber in particular that was really difficult for them was a chamber of deep blackness which absorbed all light outside of a 10 foot diameter. This was prime for traps as it would usually hit multiple people and make the be wary of pushing forward, but they did anyway because it was either that or die a slower and more rotting death. To boot, if the lights went out the players would be assaulted by strange intangible creatures in the darkness that mauled them until the lights came back on (anyone who could see in the darkness via a spell would see these strange figures clinging to the edged of their vision. This freaked them out.

Then at the end of the chamber was a small areal illuminated by blue torches (a running theme of this place) showing the exit. They were then attacks by one greater and three regular shadows, and a banshee on her way. One player lost his marbles IC and walked off to his death at the hands of the wailing lady, while the rest of the party dealt with the shadows as swiftly as they could as the strength drain nearly killed two players.

I like to keep ones like this spaced out but having players react to situations like those above is super satisfying.


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