How to Use the Frightened Condition in Dungeons & Dragons 5e

When adventuring, your party will likely come across a variety of creepy and terrifying monsters. Certain monsters could even leave them running in fear, unable to cope with what they are seeing. This condition is called “frightened” and it can add an incredible level of role-playing to your campaign!

What is the “fear” or “frightened” condition in Dungeons & Dragons 5e?

“Frightened” is a condition caused by either a creature’s ability or a spell. The target of the ability or spell must make a wisdom saving throw (the DC depends on the creature using the ability or casting the spell). On a failed save, the target suffers the following disadvantages:

  • Disadvantage on ability checks and saving rolls while in line of sight of the creature it is afraid of
  • Cannot willing move closer to its source of fear

While, most often, monsters will be the source of fear, the “frightened” condition can be used by DMs or make the game more realistic and interesting. By using fear in more creative ways, player characters become more rounded and opportunities for role-playing are greatly increased.

How to Use Fear in Combat

If you are using a creature which has an ability, such as the Mummy and Mummy Lord’s “Dreadful Gaze” (page 228 of the Monster Manuel), then you have the option to frighten your players.

The ability works like this:

Dreadful Glare. The mummy targets one creature it can see within 60 ft. of it. If the target can see the mummy, it must succeed on a DC 11 Wisdom saving throw against this magic or become frightened until the end of the mummy’s next turn. If the target fails the saving throw by 5 or more, it is also paralyzed for the same duration. A target that succeeds on the saving throw is immune to the Dreadful Glare of all mummies (but not mummy lords) for the next 24 hours.

Roll20 Compendium

This is typical of nearly all monsters with the option to “frighten.” Notice the DC for this monster is relatively low, while a Mummy Lord’s DC is much higher (DC 16).

DCs will vary depending on how powerful and, therefore, threatening the monster is. Below are DCs for all the monsters in the Monster Manuel that contain a “Frighten” ability. You can use this chart to help you calculate fear DCs for your own homebrewed monsters.

Monsters that Use Fear

Monster Challenge RatingDC
Scarecrow (p. 268 Monster Manuel)1 (200 XP)11
Sea Hag (p. 179 Monster Manuel)2 (450 XP)11
Spectator (p. 30 Monster Manuel)3 (700 XP)13
Banshee (p. 23 Monster Manuel)4 (1,100 XP)13
Beholder (p. 28 Monster Manuel)13 (10,000 XP)16
Nalfeshnee (p. 62 Monster Manuel)13 (10,000 XP)15
Lich (p. 202 Monster Manuel)21 (33,000 XP)18
Pit Fiend (p. 77 Monster Manuel)20 (25,000 XP)21
Ancient Dragons
Black (p. 87 Monster Manuel)21 (33,000 XP)19
Blue (p. 90 Monster Manuel)23 (50,000 XP)20
Green (p. 93 Monster Manuel)22 (41,000 XP)19
Red (p. 97 Monster Manuel)24 (62,000 XP)21
White (p. 100 Monster Manuel)20 (25,000 XP)16
Brass (p. 104 Monster Manuel)20 (25,000 XP)18
Bronze (p. 107 Monster Manuel)22 (41,000 XP)20
Copper (p. 110 Monster Manuel)21 (33,000 XP)21
Gold (p. 113 Monster Manuel)24 (62,000 XP)24

For all the monsters I have used and researched, the DC is always against the player’s Wisdom modifier. (If you find a time when this isn’t true, be sure to let me know! Cast Sending to shoot me a message!)

This makes monsters with fear abilities especially effective against parties with low Wisdom stats. Beefy players who rely on their ridiculously over-powered melee attacks won’t be able to get near a monster with fear. This makes fear-based monsters a great option for balancing encounters with such groups.

What do Your Players Fear?

Encounters and monsters don’t have to be the only times your players are frightened.

To make characters more realistic and fun to role-play, I like to have my players come up with a short “fears” list. This doesn’t have too extensive, but too often flaws and fears are left out of character building. If you know me, you know I am all about making whole characters.

As your players are making their characters, ask them to include 3-5 things of which their character is afraid and are linked to the character’s backstory. Below are some options if they can’t think of any:

  • I almost drowned as a child and am now deathly afraid of rivers, lakes, and oceans.
  • I have had nightmares ever since I was a child about an old woman with long fingers reaching out to grab me. Because of this, I am afraid to sleep alone, just in case it isn’t a dream…
  • Spiders. I just HATE spiders.
  • My brother dared me to go into an abandoned mine shaft once. When I went in, he locked the door and left me there all night. I can’t stand the feeling of being “locked-in” or being underground.
  • I went for a walk at night once and ended going by a cemetery. Everyone says I am crazy, but I know what I saw that night and I will never go near one again.
  • My mother used to tell me stories about the monsters that would eat people who wandered into the woods at night. I know they are just stories…Really! I do! …

Once you know what each of your players fears, you can use that fear to develop their character even outside of combat!

How to Use Fear Outside of Combat

Fear can be a great way to motivate or grow your players. Once you know what your players fear, you can use it (sparingly!) to create epic moments of tension or humor!

When heroes are forced to face their fears, it is always impactful. Whether it is the intrepid explorer Indiana Jones (Snakes! Why does it always have to be snakes?!) or the adorably cautious Ron Weasely (Why does it have to be “follow the spiders“? Why couldn’t it be “follow the butterflies”?!) fear is impactful.

While your adventurers are out saving the world, they should be growing as individuals. Part of this includes facing their fears. Your main storyline should include opportunities for each of your players to face their fears for the greater good. This is the stuff character development is made of!

For example, if a player is afraid of going underground, have an important clue located in an abandoned mine and hint that only that player can uncover it.

You will also want to include several smaller quests that lead up to a big leap in character development so that the moment feels like it has been earned and not just dumped on the player.

In these situations, you can have the player roll a Wisdom check to determine if their character would go or not (if they can’t make up their minds) OR you can let the rest of the party convince them.

Using Fear for Role-Playing

While using fear to make combat more interesting is good, using it to encourage role-play, character development AND bonding between party members is a far superior method.

When a player encounters something they are afraid of, you better believe the rest of the party is going to notice and ask why. This leads to characters sharing their backstories and bonding. Something every DM desperately wants.

Once the player shares why they are afraid, the party will likely try to find a way to help them overcome their fear. This will generate great moments, most of which will be hilarious!

Try It Out!

Yes, fear is a condition that can affect combat, but it is so much more than that. In the hands of a great DM, fear becomes a tool for character development, role-play, tension, humor, and plot.

Try using a healthy dose of fear in your next game and see the difference it can make!

Until next time,

May your game have advantage, my friends!

-Halfling Hannah

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