My group is about to come across a haunted sunken keep with an adversarial Ghost mini-boss. Being mostly composed of Humans (because who doesn't want a free feat?), I expect them to be particularly vulnerable to Horrifying Visage's aging effect.

The problem is, based on this question and my own reading of the PHB, it would seem to be that age is simply fluff. You can roleplay being any age you want and not have consequences mechanically.

The tone of the campaign is serious and leans toward deadly (though no one has died. Yet), and considering that you can only be prematurely aged by a Ghost by failing a save by 5 or more (a total roll of 8) the effect of aging should be a nuisance, at least.

I understand that 5th edition has done away with giving bonuses and penalties for old age as previous editions used to, trusting the GM to keep the tone of the game intact. For example, it would be up to the GM whether he would allow a Venerable Fighter to still function 100% normally, if that's the kind of game you're playing.

However, it doesn't work for me. The venerable fighter has had years to perfect his swing in order to avoid that ache in his elbow, let alone avoid throwing his back. A magically aged character (or any aged character, if you're running a realist game) who has prematurely aged as a result of effects such as Horrifying Visage has not had the years he needs to get used to the effects of aging and neither has he grown wiser or more intelligent.

How can I translate premature aging into a mechanical effect?

I am open to house-rules, but please back it up with experience of use in-game. Wild speculation and spit-balling are not good answers.


6 Answers 6


Ah yes, the effects of age, I could tell you a lot about that. But I’ll try to keep focused on in-game effects.

“I’ll regret this later”

Penalties to abilities that simply make the character weaker (like those found in older versions) are frustrating for a player, and they are bland, and don't really evoke the feel of old age. These rules simply never provided any fun, or much depth. It’s no wonder they didn't come forward to 5e.

Effects that limit the endurance a character has, that come into effect after some initial exertion, evoke the effects of age more poignantly, while letting the character still “relive past glories” in brief but glorious combat.

So very tired

The rules for exhaustion in the DMG can be utilized to simulate the fatigue of advanced age, and they come pre-play-balanced for you. A venerable character (depending on age, at the discretion of the DM) may gain a level of exhaustion from a single combat, and require a short or long rest to recover from it.

I just can’t seem to rest like I used to

Speaking of rest, an older character needs more. Simplest thing would be to double the amount of time needed to attain the benefits of the rest, but it doesn't add much color to the game, if the players are simply obliged to say “OK, then we rest for 16 hours.”

I find it’s better to “nerf” the effects of the rest, granting back fewer hit dice, hit points - or even fewer spell slots, if mental ability has been affected. That allows the oldster(s) to “try to keep up” while providing a nagging reminder they are really too old for this sort of thing.

(If you ever played 4E, this was like a non-heroic NPC taking a rest. Unlike the PC’s, the NPC would not wake up in the morning fully healed of all wounds.)

Another nice surprise

I would also suggest that these or any effects of old age should come as a surprise (especially for the prematurely aged). They always do.

My (game) experience with old age effects

I’ve used these rules for adjunct NPCs - I haven’t prematurely aged a PC. The players thought they were fair and interesting rules. It accentuated the power of the (young) PC’s, without making the NPC useless. The oldster slept/rested while the characters did ancillary stuff. It might be different for a PC. I suspect a player won't be overjoyed with having to “take it easy” but it's similar to other “curses.”

Since initially answering this, I spoke with one of my players about the age rules we used. She commented the rules made her feel protective of the NPC.

  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ Nice answer, I haven't even thought about using Exhaustion! I'll have to playtest the exact mechanics like the exact number of hit dice regained after a long rest and whether levels of exhaustion should go away after a short or long rest. And, lastly, thinking about giving exhaustion when you roll initiative, it's messy otherwise. What have you tried? \$\endgroup\$
    – daze413
    Commented May 12, 2016 at 22:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ Truth be told I didn't put rules on when I granted exhaustion, just did it at my discretion when it seemed right. But I granted exhaustion after a combat, to simulate the feeling I have after a day of hiking with my kids. I didn't do this, but you could also grant it after a fumble (natural 1) for an attack roll or athletics/acrobats skill check, to represent that "Ooh, my back" moment. \$\endgroup\$
    – Tim Grant
    Commented May 13, 2016 at 0:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ "Penalties to abilities that simply make the character weaker (like those found in older versions) are frustrating for a player, and they are bland, and don't really evoke the feel of old age. " this is very opinionated and unsupported \$\endgroup\$
    – Simanos
    Commented Jun 24, 2016 at 22:56

Some previous versions of the game had rules for aging, so there is always the option of attempting to use those or convert them over.

I have use some aging rules in my own campaign and here is typically how I house rule them and it works fairly well (play-tested across 4 campaigns, roughly 10-15 4 hour sessions each).

Please note: All of my examples are assuming human race!

  • Do not give bonuses for age (simple rule is to assume it is already naturally part of your character. Age can only deteriorate your character.
  • Typically when a person has lived past 60% of their lifespan, for example human gives "Less than a century", I start considering negative effects.

Age. Humans reach adulthood in their late teens and live less than a century.

  • Typically, str, dex, wis & int are the first things to go. For every 10 years past 60% age reduce these stats by 2 (with longer living classes, scale accordingly).
  • Previous versions generally had a situation where Wizdom/Cha will go up with age, I don't personally follow this (since I found it can cause issues with characters built on this, especially power players).
  • Constitution I like to handle separately, which I found was more important to everyone. For every instance when I decreased one of the other stats, I would decrease Con by 1.
  • I have never had this actually happen, but typically if someone actually plays their character to the last years of life I would curve all of these faster in the last decade. (people usually stopped with that char after the first wave of negatives, or the campaign ended around the same time). For example, instead of -2 per 10 years, have it be -2 per 2 years. The last years of your life you generally become very frail very quickly.
  • Be sure to pay attention to carry capacity as the players lose strength.
  • An optional rule I sometimes add (not as tested) is to lower other traits by 1% per year over prime. For instance if your movement speed is 30, at age 60, in four years reduce it to 29 (e.g 0.01 * 30 * 4yrs = 1.2 (round down)). I also always reduce from the base as well just for simplicity.
  • Finally, roll for death. I generally say when you have lived over 90% of your expected life, you roll a D20 for every year. 1 means you die that year, the next year the range increases as such to 1-2, 1-4, 1-8, 1-12, 1-16, 1-19. 20's continue living (because I like giving players hope, haha).

Please note - for different races the age differences may change how you play. For example a Dwarf may have triple the life expectancy of a human - so I would start rolling their death year throws around 270, increment it by 0.75 (round down).

Example: Lets run this through with a quick example. Lets say you have a fighter with 15str, 16con, 14dex, 10wis, and 12int.

  • At age 70 his stats will be 13str, 15con, 12dex, 9wis, and 10int.
  • At age 80 his stats will be 11str, 14con, 10dex, 9wis, and 9int.
  • At age 90 his stats will be 9str, 13con, 9dex, 9wis, and 9int.
  • At age 92 his stats will be 9str, 12con, 9dex, 9wis, and 9int.
  • At age 94 his stats will be 9str, 11con, 9dex, 9wis, and 9int.


Before I get to an answer, some advice. You can achieve this effect narratively. When I had ghosts use their visage I simply made sure everyone reacted to the old man like he was an old man. He was seen as the weak link and attacked first or ignored by enemies. NPC's treated him as senile and would generally set him to the side. It is a very powerful RP effect as is and really doesn't need mechanics. However since that's what you're asking for, a warning. What you're asking for has been removed from this edition for a reason. Like timster said that type of penalty is generally found to be frustrating and fun killing. XP and level drain are gone and most if not all things that reduce abilities are mitigated to disappear after a period of time. The ghosts horrifying visage will remain forever if they don't get a greater restoration within a day. Considering this ghost is supposed to be a mini boss, I'm guessing your party is around lvl 3-5 and almost certainly not the 10 needed for that spell. What you're implementing is counter to the general thrust of the game design, so I urge you to have a scroll they can use, a quest to restore it from a fountain youth, or a house rule to reign in the effect.

From the GM's Guide

That said, the GM's guide has some optional rules that can easily be grafted on to this situation. The first I would look at is the lingering injury table on page 272. Replace lose eye with Glaucoma, use the same penalty. Lost limbs are replaced with chronic arthritis. Limp is kept or use gout. Internal injury is cirrhosis. Broken ribs is of the cancer. Horrible scar is aged(wrinkles, warts, spots). Festering wound is stage 4 liver failure. Minor scar is wrinkles. Some of these have recovery options that don't fit and for verisimilitude should be dumped. However as mentioned above I don't think long term penalties of this type are enjoyable for players. But I don't know your table conventions so this might exactly what they like.

Another option from the book is the horror option. The fear was so great they aged. It's possible it was so scary they went mad as well. You could use a second save or just give them a madness. Pages 266 and page 259.

Going away from D&D

One of my favorite games is the A Song of Ice and Fire RPG, from Green Ronin. In that system, The Chronicle system, they handle aging by increased skill points(which you obviously won't want to use) but decreased maximums, requiring negative traits, and a reduction of narrative power. I'm guessing you aren't using any sort of hero point system but if you are consider penalizing that. If not, remove inspiration as a starting point if they have it. Consider not letting them get inspiration until they pass a series of either Cha or Wis saves showing their character has come to terms with being aged.

Alternatively or in addition, cap their maximums. Instead of being able to raise an ability to 20 it's now one less for every decade they aged. I like this style of penalty as it doesn't reduce what the character is now, just changes what they can become and is how I have dealt with similar situations, in Song of Ice and Fire or Savage Worlds. The Savage Worlds way of handling age is that physical stats(not skills) cannot be raised at all, except through magical means.

General Thoughts on Aging

One of the problems with aging that doesn't get enough play is that the brain essentially becomes less flexible. Learning becomes harder. I've never had a chance to play with this idea, but I've always wanted to play a game where XP accumulation is reduced for older characters in exchange for more XP at the beginning. I've played a character with a similar hindrance in Eclipse Phase, where it was more a source of ennui that caused the reduction in XP rewards, but I had great fun with it. However I picked it and in a Dungeon crawl game that is a very harsh sentence. Thought it would be worth pointing out though.

Other issues with aging that I haven't tried include

  1. lack of memory: spell slots reduced
  2. Reactions a fraction slower: penalty to initiative
  3. Heal slower: fewer hit dice or penalty to healing
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ +1 Good stuff here, I especially like leveraging the diseases rules. I think you might get more votes if you formatted this to be more punchy. Your bolded headlines don't convey your ideas. Examples that would pop out as bullet points are "buried" in long paragraphs. I bet some folks thought "TLDR." \$\endgroup\$
    – Tim Grant
    Commented May 14, 2016 at 10:44

Being over 60 I'm going to put a few things here about age. Our western society has ageism, the belief old are less capable in general. The above person who mentioned the fighter who learned to compensate for arthritis etc, was closer to the truth. Once trained, a professor actually improves with age, their synaptic web holding so many connections that they are often consulted as sages. A wizard or other caster, bard, etc should improve. As if age were a higher level. The skills of experienced folk, rather than aged folk. 5e is right not to mess with ageism, players should be allowed to choose.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The question starts with the assumption that it's acceptable for naturally-aged characters to suffer no penalty, but then points out how hard it is to extend similar reasoning to premature aging. Restating the starting assumption doesn't help bridge the gap between these, or answer the question about handling a ghost's supernatural premature aging ability. \$\endgroup\$
    – user17995
    Commented Aug 25, 2018 at 3:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ What you're doing here is what we call challenging the frame on this stack. The question asks "how do I mechanize aging penalties", and you're basically saying "don't do that". You're attracting downvotes because frame challenges are risky, and you aren't acknowledging the difference between gaining more practical experience through natural aging and being magically put at a higher age. You could improve your answer by further explaining how magical aging and natural aging should be treated the same, and how that has worked in your own games. \$\endgroup\$
    – DuckTapeAl
    Commented Aug 25, 2018 at 6:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ I would suggest that premature aging is still aging. I learned more wisdom from premature aging in a few combat tours in my 20s than I have in the decades since. Just sayin', there seems to be a young whippersnapper bias going on in this thread. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 20, 2018 at 6:23

As a fan of 5e's simplicity, I would suggest going for a very simple solution that uses existing rules. For example, the advantage/disadvantage mechanic seems like it might be appropriate. It seems slightly harsh, especially to fighters and other strength-based classes, but one solution is to simply impose disadvantage on all Strength-related checks, and possibly Dexterity and/or Constitution as well, depending on how old they're meant to be. If they're likely to get hit with this thing more than once, save the Dex and Con effects for the second or third instance.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Have you play-tested your suggestion before or are you simply speculating? \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 4, 2016 at 18:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Premier Bromanov Speculation, but I'm pretty sure it wouldn't be too harsh. Disadvantage doesn't stack, so the characters aren't going to become completely useless, and they've still got a chance to get high rolls, unlike with a flat penalty. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 4, 2016 at 18:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ For homebrew suggestions, we want the answers to be good-subjective, which means in this context that they have been playtested and you have experience using it. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 4, 2016 at 19:03

It seems to me that you have a point in that more experienced characters will fare better than less experienced characters in old age. However, in my opinion this is very well reflected in the fact that you get new powers (or attributes or proficiency bonus) in each and every level. You don't get to be considered experient unless you have experience. Experience comes in the form of experience points, XP.

Hence there are different types of venerable fighters: there's one that travels all over to fight all kind of challenges and finally become, as you suggested, an experienced die-hard and capable of overcoming old age shortcomings, and there's the old fighter who only ever trained against the occasional wolf in the country side and never leveled up, getting old and frail quickly. And there's the third kind, as you said: the one that ages magically, prematurely. This kind works the same as the less experienced fighter that stayed home, because he effectively has less XP.

Believe me, getting old doesn't mean getting experienced in all cases. You have to perfect your body and soul with practice, otherwise it's wasted potential.

So in my opinion, after old age, all characters could suffer loss of attributes. More experienced characters will get along better because they leveled up, they retain proficiency bonuses, level powers, etc. The fact that someone got magically aged only means he will handle aging worse because he had less levels.

I'd handle loss of attributes as following:

  • Each race should have a determined age to start testing for loss of attributes. It depends on the universe. Let's say, every 4 years from 50 years old, every 40 years after 500 years old for elves.
  • Each time you hit that determined age, you test for loss of strength, dexterity and constitution or what have you. Perhaps a constitution test if you think more healthy characters should be better prepared for aging. I personally think this can lead to very extreme results and aging should be a bitch, so I'd come up with a test that works exactly the same for everyone, let's say, roll a d6, if you get a 1-2, you lose that amount in one physical attribute. Roll again for each.
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ Have you tested any of your suggestions? \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 4, 2016 at 17:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ @PremierBromanov No, sorry. Been playing this game for about half a year and the situation never happened in our games. I suppose the bulk of my answer is the point that I can't agree with the view from OP that a naturally aged fighter is better prepared because he learns to live with aging problems -- that is called experience, not age, and in D&D comes by getting XP and leveling up. \$\endgroup\$
    – RafaelLVX
    Commented May 4, 2016 at 18:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast True. I'll delete that part since it's irrelevant anyway. \$\endgroup\$
    – RafaelLVX
    Commented May 4, 2016 at 18:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ @RafaelLVX I would strongly suggest you read this article, which explains why we want homebrew suggestions to have been playtested. Wild speculation makes a bad answer. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 4, 2016 at 18:50

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