Build a Darkest Dungeons & Dragons

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.

Darkest Dungeon Madness
The mind cannot withstand such an assault.

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 campaigns, 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.
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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.




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.

15 thoughts on “Build a Darkest Dungeons & Dragons”

  1. I love this idea! I have also been playing Darkest Dungeon, and recently discussed introducing various elements of the game with my D&D group, including stress.

    The rules you have here seem perfectly fine to me. Expanding on what you have here, I would give special stress-inducing abilities to certain monsters, and modify certain class abilities to reduce stress.

    For monsters, creatures that inflict psychic damage, such as mind flayers, would perhaps inflict some amount of stress damage when using mind blast.

    For a class example, the bard in D&D is similar to the jester in Darkest Dungeon—perhaps Bardic Inspiration could reduce stress by the same die size, and the Song of Rest could reduce stress by the same die size as well.

    1. Yes, I think it would be easy to add some Stress damage to existing monster attacks; mind flyers are a perfect example! I also like the idea of having hero powers and skills interact with the Stress level. Good ideas, and thanks for reading.

  2. I do like the idea of introducing this kind of mechanic into D&D. I’ve noticed however that you only seem to include the negative afflictions as the possible end results for reaching 100 stress.

    Let’s not forget that when reaching 100 stress in Darkest Dungeon, you may get a chance of receiving a positive virtue, such as:

    Powerful – become absolutely convinced of their own innate strength.
    Courageous – stand tall, driving their team on with verbal encouragement.
    Stalwart – become utterly immovable in the face of terror, meeting every fresh struggle in the dark with little more than a raised eyebrow.
    Vigorous – feel a burst of energy to complete the dungeon, and is convinced of his ability to dispatch of the enemy.
    Focused – become Focused towards the task and nothing will deter them from gaining a victory.

    Is there any possible way you could add the virtues into this ruleset? Maybe by rolling a d20 before finding out the quirk and if they succeed a DC17/18, they get a virtue instead of an affliction?

    1. Thank you for reading and making the suggestion. Adding the option for gaining a Virtue is an excellent idea. You could set the DC based on any number of things. Perhaps set the number at 18 – Constitution modifier, which makes some logical sense. What do you suggest for specific mechanics in D&D for the various Virtues? Bonus to rolls? Advantage? Take care!

      1. Thanks for reading the suggestion, glad you like it. This whole topic has

        Personally, since Stress and the various afflictions are more of a mental aspect, I’d say it would be more requiring the Wisdom modifier rather than constitution, seeing as most mental attacks in D&D require Wisdom saving throws, but that’s my personal opinion.

        Regarding mechanics for Virtues, how do these sound for potential ideas to start off with? These also grant immunity from afflictions.

        Powerful – Advantage on melee attacks and an extra d6 worth of damage on a successful hit
        Courageous – As a bonus action you can drive your team on with encouragement, reducing their stress level by 1d10 and granting them advantage on skill checks and/or saving throws.
        Stalwart – Reduce Stress by 50 and grant resistance against certain attacks (thinking mainly physical but if you think they should grant resistance against other attack types…)
        Vigourous – Recover 1d10 hit points at the beginning of your turn each round. If you are already at full health, you gain 1d10 temporary hit points.
        Focused – Add +5 to your attack roll. If you roll 1 lower than what you need to naturally crit, you still crit (i.e. 19 or 20 will crit for most classes, if a fighter with improved crits, you also can crit on an 18)

        These are just ideas that I came up with at the top of my head, what do you think of them?

      2. I think WIS or CON could work; perhaps WIS makes more sense. I think most players keep their CON healthy while some leave WIS as a dump stat; it would make those folks very prone to Stress. Maybe that’s the point!? Those effects seems quite powerful; would those last for the encounter or day — or beyond? Great ideas!

  3. This is a good idea but should be tailored to the expectations for the group dovetailing with the atmosphere, “fluff” and scheme of the campaign. D&D does have lots of history of Madness as a theme & mechanic; 1st Ed Deities & Demigods had the Cthulhu Mythos as a pantheon and don’t forget Ravenloft has Madness/Evil as function of the whole setting.

  4. I know it’s stupid, but It bugs the shit out of me when someone confuses players for characters when describing effects, et all.

    “Stress allows all players to track how much mental anguish his or her **CHARACTER** is suffering. The **CHARACTER’S** Stress level will rise and fall throughout the course of an encounter, delve, adventure, and campaign.”

    1. This is a really interesting article and concept, which I will definitely be keeping for potential use, but there is a significant amount of proofreading that needs to be done.

      Thank you for sharing!

    2. Thank you for reading and providing feedback. I see now that the text in the rule pages does confound players and player characters. I will do a better job going forward to proofread for such errors! Take care.

  5. Awesome I’m working on a full blown Darkest D&d campaign and definitely gonna use a version of this! The stress I dropped to about 20 points instead of 100… included three phases: 1st check at 10 (w/add) check at 20(straight) and 25(dis-advantage)

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