The “Nightmare” Scenario

While working on this Friday’s upcoming campaign session, I had some communications back and forth with Brannon Hutchins about a campaign David Flor played in recently. By the way, follow the links above and check out both of their sites, which always have excellent content. And thanks to both of them for assisting with this post, which grew out of a discussion of David’s game.

David mentioned that he was running a PC in a new Level 1 campaign and got hit with 80 points of damage in surprise round by the DM. The amount of damage in one round at Level 1 struck me and others as quite severe and absurd. But in the discussion, Brannon and I touched on an idea that you could incorporate into any campaign you are running.

The Nightmare Scenario

This could be especially attractive if you are – like me – very hesitant to create situations where PC death is incredibly likely. In my mind, here is how The Nightmare Scenario could play out for the PCs.

Got halfway up the block, I calmed down and stopped screaming. Then thought, "Oh, I get it, I must be dreaming."

First, have the PCs interact with your world and gain a new mission or quest in the normal way. Perhaps the party is resting at an inn in town, and they are approached by a NPC with an offer of glory and riches. Perhaps the Queen of a kingdom requires a special task from the group. You can create any hook you like, but be sure to emphasis the rumored nastiness of the villain. Run this roleplaying encounter as you would any other hook in your campaign.

Allow the party to accept/decline the offer. And then make sure they sleep.

Now the fun begins. The party wakes up and goes about their business as usual. Perhaps drop very subtle hints here and there that something is amiss with reality. Have the party move along their business in the normal way whether they accept or decline the offer. If they accept, it makes it easier; guide them to reach the villain. If they decline the offer, then the villain finds them.

Then, beat the ever-living daylights out of them. Have them confront the Big Bad Boss but level him up to a ridiculous level. Have the boss flanked by other monsters that dish out a ton of damage. Create bizarre environmental effects that damage the party or make them less effective. Basically, set up an encounter that will result in the party dying. And if the party declined the mission, have the NPC that offered the quest also be killed.

Allow at least half of the party to fall in combat. You are the best judge of your group, so monitor when they should “wake up” from the nightmare and return to the point of the morning after they accepted/declined the mission.


  • You can put the fear of Pelor, Moradin and whatever other god they happen to worship into the PCs’ hearts!
  • Learn more about your players. Watch them as they come to terms with getting busted up by a completely unbalanced encounter. How do they respond? Who retreats? Who freaks out? Who continues the fight no matter the cost?
  • Take the reigns off your hesitation to kill the party. The PCs are never truly in danger, but they will feel that their characters are dying. For once, you don’t need to worry about the ramifications of a PC death.
  • Glorious foreshadowing for the eventual encounter with the Big Bad Boss. How will the party respond? Will they take the nightmare as a sign that they should decline the mission request? What would the consequences be of turning down the request? If they declined the original request, do they now want to take it to save the town/kingdom/etc? Many roleplaying angles to go from the point of them waking up!


  • You are lying to using quite a bit of deception with your players (Editor’s Note: it was pointed out to me by TheSheDM and others that lying was perhaps too strong of a word to use in this situation. The DM uses deception throughout the campaign). Ideally, The Nightmare Scenario would only last for one gaming session. Stringing the party along for multiple sessions through a “dream sequence” seems to set up poor dynamics. The party may never fully trust you again, and it could make some – if not all – of the players unhappy.
  • The party may decline the mission and go looking for another mission that leads them away from the Big Bad Boss. Prepare for this as a reasonable option, and have another path lined up as an option. But don’t make it that simple for the party. Ensure there are consequences for the party abandoning the mission. Perhaps they wish to seek out more help, such as a ritual that will make the enemy less powerful.
  • You are taking a risk. Again, you know your group the most out of anyone. Ask yourself if they will resent the situation and view it as just a way to get your giggles by killing them and toying with their emotions. If you think it will not go over well and cause long-term damage to your group, then stay away from the idea.

Final Thoughts

Think about preparing The Nightmare Scenario for your group, whether you are starting a new campaign or have your group already into the Paragon or Epic Tiers. If you prepare solid plot reasons for the scenario to unfold, and roleplay the ramifications of the party’s following actions, then it could be a great experience for you and the group.

Let me know your thoughts. And I apologize if I missed linking to another article out there that discusses this “nightmare” idea. I did not go searching for another post. If you know of an article that already exists, then please let me know. Thank you!

Author: The Id DM

The Id DM is a psychologist during the weekdays. He DMs for a group of fairly loyal and responsible PCs every other Friday night. In the approximate 330 hours between sessions, he is likely anxious about how to ensure the next game he runs doesn't suck.

8 thoughts on “The “Nightmare” Scenario”

  1. Honestly, this only works with inexperienced players. I have yet to ever be surprised by the “it’s a dream” nightmare scenario. I’ve had a campaign where you were dreaming, but it was still grounded, meaning there was no “nightmare” part to it.
    The only real problem with most of these types of scenarios is that the PC’s see this as a waste of time to RP through. Meaning, if you want them to dream, simply tell them the dream they have, and let them get back to the game. Trying to fool your PC’s takes alot of time and effort, with usually very minimal results.

    1. I suspect you’ve had some very bad, probably very hackneyed, attempts at Nightmare Scenarios. They can be successful and meaningful if they are executed well, I know from first-hand experience from both sides of the DM screen.
      Inexperience has only the “gotcha!” value of doing something they’ve never seen before. Even an experienced player can be surprised in a Nightmare Scenario if an innovative DM cares enough to make the effort. They can prepare for that player and surprise them in new ways.

      1. I respectfully disagree. As an experienced DM and player (over 30 years). The “Nightmare” part of the scenario is what gives it away. It’s pretty obvious to anyone who’s played for any amount of time that it’s a dream. D&D is about balance and challenge. “Nightmare Scenarios” are about no win situations. RP’ing through it is a mute point. We can certainly do that, but make no mistake, it’s not a surprise to an experienced player.

        If you are trying to just do some sleight of hand or misdirection, sure that can work. Because it’s balanced. That’s the difference.

  2. I think it would be important to make the sequence worthwhile. The party could still earn XP from the experience, and it could provide fun roleplaying options for the party. It should make sense for the story that is being told. However, if you are DMing for a group of players that don’t really care about roleplaying elements so much, then it’s likely not a good fit. Unless they are attached to their character and you want to remind them how fragile their PC *really* is. 😉

    1. The issue is what is worthwhile? Earning XP is good, but if I’m getting slaughtered in the process that’s no fun; especially in a “no win scenario”.

      The only time I ever, as a DM set this up where the PC’s loved it, was when they were semi informed of what was to come. One instance was that they had to battle a dream demon, so they had to do battle in their dreams. However this wasn’t a no win scenario; and item rewards were given by the Crown for accomplishing the task.

      The second instance was at the begining of an undead campaign, where they had to die as mortals in order to transition to undeath. How they died, played a hand in some benefits they would recieve. But as players, they knew they were going down… Big TIME!… Ergo the town got overrun against impossible odds and they all bit the dust, only to be raised as undead.

      I have never seen the “who shot JR” scenario work really well. I think it’s mostly because even if they get XP, they still feel a bit cheated that the wool was pulled over their eyes. It’s one thing play a fantasy game and pretend. It’s another to pretend within your pretending. Really, we are already one step into the dream, does it make sense to spank the PC’s to remind them (like they should need reminding) of their fragility?

    2. Roleplaying is always great, of course like you say some parties won’t get much out of that. There are other rewards besides XP, though, and the nightmare doesn’t have to be for nothing just because it wasn’t “real”.
      – PCs could learn a key bit of knowledge of something that will drastically help them in the future. This could be a weakness, the location of a macguffin, a secret entrance, or where the hostages are being kept for just a few examples.
      – Grant a boon for a certain outcome (running away, staying to fight, figuring out its a dream, etc)
      – Pull an item out of your dreams! Is it real, illusion, cursed, helpful?
      – Pull a PERSON out of the dream! What are the consequences!?

      1. In the situations you describe, there is no need to have a nightmare scenario. Really there is no need to even roll the dice. Strictly RP the dream scenario and let the player tell you their actions and you describe the results. This method goes faster, lets the player make RP choices, and allows thd DM to use fluff and and exercise control. Easy, breezy, beautiful.

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