It is fair to say that Darkest Dungeon has captured my attention and imagination in recent weeks. The game’s aesthetic vividly portrays how exploring dungeons and fighting foul monsters is a dangerous business. Heroes suffer physical wounds, yes, but it is the mental strain and suffering that often causes more complications and difficulty. It seems to be a wonderful concept to merge with an adventure in Dungeons & Dragons, and the good news is the foundation for building a Darkest Dungeons & Dragons adventure is already there in the latest Dungeon Master’s Guide.
How can the Dungeon Master add a new mechanic that forces additional strain on the players while still increasing the enjoyment factor for everyone at the table?
That question is tackled in this article!
Failure Is An Option
Before launching into the mechanics of building a Darkest Dungeons & Dragons, a topic that should be addressed is failure. Colleagues have written about failure in roleplaying games for years. Scott Rehm (The Angry GM) defined failure as “the loss of a goal or opportunity” and discussed common (“stupid”) myths about failure in RPGs. Mike Shea (Sly Flourish) educated DMs on how to move away from mechanics and rules that result in only “either success or failure.” I previously wrote articles on how to roleplay failure for monsters in an encounter to make those setbacks for the DM more enjoyable and engaging to the players. The collective wisdom on this topic indicates that players of an RPG should be ready, willing, and able to continue with the story of the game regardless of success or failure.
That means DMs should avoid creating scenarios that can only be accomplished in a single, specific manner while players should be encouraged to continue playing their characters if they win, lose, or go sideways. This means that failure should remain an option for everyone at the table. As a DM, help the players be ready for contingencies. During game preparation, DMs often consider how to react if the players decide on taking one action or another. As a player, I was more of a straight-line thinker and struggled when the “next move” in an adventure was not clearly defined. The DM can assist players by feeding them possible options if they are greeted with failure – often through a timely NPC – and reward players for responding to setbacks with creative solutions. This atmosphere will eventually redefine success from “we killed the monsters, saved the day, and collected a ton of loot” to “we all got together and told one heck of story.”
The idea of “making failure fun” is at the root of what makes Darkest Dungeon enjoyable. The game features a unique art style, a wonderful actor providing narration during the action, and colorful quirks that develop during dungeon delves that affect how heroes can interact with services back in town. There is every reason to believe that similar techniques will be successful in a Dungeons & Dragons or other RPG campaign, and the creators of the 5th Edition provided a framework for DMs to accomplish this with rules to govern Madness.
The Dungeon Master’s Guide, which Iddy the Lich proudly adorns, features a section on Madness (pg. 258-260) that DMs can use “as a way to reinforce…the extraordinary horrific nature of the threats the adventures face.” Defined in the DMG, Madness can be short-term (1d10 minutes), long-term (1d10 x 10 hours), or indefinite (lasts until cured), and each time period offers a d100 table of possible Madness effects. The available options inside the tables vary in terms of how problematic they are to a character in the game. For example, short-term Madness options include things like a character “becomes frightened and must use his or her action and movement each round to flee from the source of fear.” That is much more dangerous to the adventuring party than a character that “experiences an overpowering urge to eat something strange such as dirt, slime, or offal.” It seems not all forms of Madness are created equally!
The Madness rules in the DMG offer a template for how to bring more sorrow and suffering to the characters’ (and players’) experience. The experience playing Darkest Dungeon has provided further education on how the modify the Madness rules to create a more immersive experience; in that game, a hero gains an Affliction if his or her stress level reaches 100. The possible Afflictions are:
- Abusive – hero starts to make hostile comments to other party members, which increase THEIR stress
- Fearful – hero may pass turns during combat, move back in the order of the party members, or make abusive comments
- Hopeless – hero becomes pessimistic about success, which increases the party members’ stress level, and may also reject healing or attack him or herself
- Irrational – hero starts to speak nonsense, which increases the stress level of party members
- Masochistic – hero enjoys pain and suffering, and may move to the front of the party order, reject healing, attack him or herself, which increases the stress level of other party members
- Paranoid – hero becomes anxious and suspicious, which may lead to passing turns in combat and rejecting healing or camping abilities
- Selfish – hero becomes greedy, and may reject healing while taking their own actions in combat. The hero may also steal treasure when it is found in the dungeon. (When a hero steals treasure, it is gone from the game; it does not appear in any inventory and it cannot be recovered)
In addition, adventuring in Darkest Dungeon can produce positive or negative Quirks that give the hero a slight boost or penalty. The Quirks vary in terms of how helpful or harmful they are to a hero. There are over 70 negative Quirks in the game – far too many to list but they are readily available for review – and they provide an excellent source of material for adding options to the Madness rules in D&D. Blending the concepts of Stress, Afflictions, and Quirks from Darkest Dungeon with the Madness structure in D&D could provide DMs with a new set of tools to challenge his or her players as they traverse through the perilous encounters.
My attempt to create new rules for Madness/Stress in D&D are pictured below, or you can view the new rules on Natural Crit, which provides a slick interface to create custom rulebook pages and tables. These could be used for a specific dungeon that is incredibly nasty, or throughout an entire adventure or full campaign. It also provides a foundation for other DMs to work from to tweak the rules to fit his or her game.
Still We Keep on Playin’ Head Games
Consider the proposed rules above as a starting point to introduce the concept of Stress into the next gaming adventure. At the very least, the Stress rules could be used for a single lair of wretched abomination to drill home how nasty and vile the environment is for the players. Like other aspect of roleplaying games, take an idea, make it your own, and run with it.
Please let me know your thoughts on the Darkest Dungeons & Dragons rules, and how you might use them or change them for your game.