See also: Horror, Madness, and Saving Throws

What is Fear?

Fear is the least of the mental conditions discussed in this game. A character can become frightened when he sees a truly powerful monster, learns of a terrible evil, or finds himself alone in a dangerous place. Fear comes to everyone, adventurer or commoner, at one time or another. If the heroes encounter something that is dangerous but has no great supernatural overtones to it, the Dungeon Master should assume that it merely inspires fear.

As even a casual examination of the mechanics presented here will reveal, the effects of even a failed fear check can be truly terrible. Some might even say that they seem more severe than the circumstances justify. This is intentional. Fear and horror checks are designed to promote role-playing by forcing players to have their characters act frightened in frightening situations. Players who know that a failed check can have long lasting effects on their characters will begin to role-play encounters that would normally call for fear or horror checks in order to avoid having to make those checks.

Fear Checks

Fear is a natural aspect of the human (or humanoid) psyche. This valuable safety mechanism often overrides all other factors, leading a character to flee or hide from something that might prove injurious, fatal, or even damning. Like a doctor’s prescription, fear can be a life-saving draught when taken in moderation. Sometimes, however, truly terrible events can push a person beyond the bounds of normal fear and into a state of panicked terror. Such an excessive volume of fear, like an overdose of otherwise beneficial medicine, can lead only to ruin and disaster. Fear checks are a game mechanic designed to simulate the often catastrophic effects of fright on adventurers.

When to Make a Fear Check

A number of conditions, called triggers, can force a hero to make a fear check. Some of these are strictly aspects of game mechanics, while others depend upon the setting and atmosphere of the adventure.

Game Events
As a rule, a fear check is required when a hero finds himself confronted with an overwhelming threat. In some cases, the hero may overestimate the danger, but if he believes the menace he faces is far more powerful than he can handle, he may still be forced to make a fear check. Conversely, if a hero does not believe the threat before him to be deadly, no fear check is usually required. Below is a list of some of the most common fear check triggers. These assume that the party faces some manner of monster or other attacker.

Common Fear Check Triggers

  • The Hit Dice of the monster total more than twice those of the entire party confronting it.
  • The monster can inflict enough damage in a single round to kill the character with the most hit points.
  • The monster is immune to all of the party’s weapons and spells.
  • The monster is at least two size categories greater than the largest member of the party.

Role-Playing Triggers
Of course, all the aforementioned triggers are based on game mechanics. Players will almost always be ignorant of things like the Hit Dice rating of the monster before them. However, fear checks can be triggered by events in the game as well. Often, the Dungeon Master should base the need for a fear check on the reactions of the players or the environment in which the characters find themselves.

  • Confident Players: If a player appears confident of victory, no fear check need be made for his character. Of course, such a player may well be making a big mistake. After all, Strahd von Zarovich looks more or less like a normal man. A warrior might well be convinced that he could easily defeat him. The warrior would not need to make a fear check at the start of such a fight, although he might well make one when the magnitude of his folly is made clear. If he survives, he will probably be more cautious in the future.
  • Hesitant Players: Should a player seem hesitant and uncertain about battling the creature which confronts his character, the Dungeon Master should have him make a Intuition check. A successful check indicates that the character will act in the manner most dictated by the list of triggers above. Thus, if any of the listed conditions apply, a fear check will be required. If none of those conditions apply, no check is needed. A failed Intuition check indicates that the hero has misjudged the menace before him. Thus, he must make a fear check where one would ordinarily not be required and vice versa. This can, of course, be disastrous.
  • Frightened Players: If a player clearly appears convinced that the creature before him presents a great threat to his character, the Dungeon Master is well within his rights to mandate a fear check. This is true even in the case of creatures that are all but harmless. For example, a player whose character is exploring the dungeons beneath Castle Ravenloft might well be convinced that the giant centipedes he encounters are far more dangerous than they truly are. (Perhaps they possess deadly venom, some magical attack, or worse….) In such cases, a fear check is probably in order.

The Environment
Fear checks are most frequently made during combat, when the level of physical danger is almost certainly at its highest. Additionally, a number of conditions can occur outside of combat that might, at the Dungeon Master’s discretion, require fear checks. It is important to keep in mind the fact that these checks need be made in only the most extreme cases. Consider the first example given below: an unexpectedly triggered trap. If, while walking through the woods, a party of adventurers sees their scout suddenly yanked into the air by a well-hidden snare, they are more likely to burst out laughing than run in fear. The same party, exploring the dank labyrinth around a vampire’s crypt, would react differently if the same scout were suddenly bisected by a great blade springing from the wall.

  • Unexpected Traps: Whenever a character triggers an unexpected trap, it has a chance of breaking the party’s nerve. The key word here is “unexpected”. If the heroes are watching a thief search for traps, they are not usually too surprised if he sets one off. As a rule, the chance that any given trap will cause those who witness its effects to make a fear check is based upon the damage it inflicts. For every point of damage suffered by the target, each character who witnesses his predicament has a 2% chance of needing a fear check. Particularly gruesome or savage traps double this chance, while those that are especially subtle in their operation halve it.
  • Sudden Isolation: When a group of adventurers is suddenly split up or an entire party finds itself cut off from its expected escape route, the nerve of even the bravest adventurer is tested. Consider the case of a party moving along a narrow tunnel in search of some terrible monster. One by one, the characters move through the darkness keeping a careful watch ahead and behind, when suddenly, the first (or last) person in line falls through a trap door and slides down a long chute. As the victim reaches the pitch black area at its end, a fear check might well be in order. After all, while the character has no reason to believe that he is in any immediate danger, his imagination will almost certainly whip up a few terrible fates that might be looming around him. Of course, if the character who vanished down the chute was the most powerful member of the party, those left behind might be the ones who feel isolated. In that case, they might well feel overcome with panic while the fallen character is standing up and dusting himself off calmly.
  • Witnessing Something Sinister: The Realms are a haven for macabre and sinister things. When a hero happens upon something dark and terrible, it may be more than his nerve can bear. In such cases, a fear check is mandated. If while exploring the jungle island that looks to be their new home, the survivors of a shipwreck come upon the remains of a cannibal’s feast, they are likely to become frightened. This is especially true if the evidence indicates that the cannibals greatly outnumber the adventurers.
  • Dark Secrets: Just as the Realms has its share of monsters and beasts, so too is it rich with mysteries and puzzles. From time to time, discovering these secrets can fill any adventurer with fear. A group of heroes caught in a terrible storm might count themselves lucky to find refuge in a monastery. When they stumble across a tome that records the demise of a similar group and reveals that their hosts are vampires, however, it may be time for the Dungeon Master to mandate a few fear checks.

How to Make a Fear Check

Fear checks function much like saving throws. Each character has a fear check number, determined by his class and level. When a player is instructed to make a fear check, he rolls 1d20 and compares it to his character’s fear check number. The following table lists adjustments applied to the die roll.

Modifier Condition
+/-X Magic Defence Adjustment (based on Willpower Score)
+4 Character or party possesses a spell, magical item, weapon, or bit of knowledge which has already proven effective against this particular threat.
+2 Character or party possesses a spell, magical item, weapon, or bit of knowledge which is believed to be effective against this threat.
+4 A relative or fellow player character is endangered.
+2 A friend or ally is clearly endangered.
+1 An innocent is endangered.
+2 Character has faced and defeated a similar threat within the last twenty-four hours.
+1 Character has faced and defeated a similar threat in the past (but not within the last twenty-four hours).
-2 Character has faced and been defeated by a similar foe within the last twenty-four hours.
-1 Character has faced and been defeated by a similar threat in the past (but not within the last twenty-four hours).

If the adjusted die roll is equal to or greater than the fear check number, the character resists the terror that momentarily threatened to overcome him. If this happens, play resumes normally. If the die roll is less than the character’s fear check number, however, the character fails. When this happens, he is overcome by terror and, at least for a few seconds, allows his emotions to dictate his actions. For these checks, a roll of 20 always succeeds, and a roll of 1 always fails.

Effects of Failure

When overcome with fear, heroes respond in many ways. Depending upon the exact situation, the Dungeon Master may wish to dictate the actions of the characters. If not, the player can be asked to roll 1d6. The Dungeon Master can then consult the following chart for the results (described on the next page). Modifiers can be added to the die roll as indicated below the chart.

1d6 (modified) Fear Check Result
1 Fumble
2 Gape
3 Scream
4 Stagger
5 Hide
6 Flee
7 Faint
8 Horror
9 Madness
10 System Shock
Modifier Condition
+1 Character is alone (or can’t be quickly reached by allies).
+1 Character is a spellcaster with fewer than half of his spells remaining.
+1 Character has lost more than half of his maximum hit points.
+1 Character has failed a fear, horror, or madness check within the last twenty-four hours.


The results from the d6 roll are fully described below. In some cases, these effects are minor and can be overcome quickly. Sometimes, however, a failed fear check can be catastrophic.

  • Fumble: A character who suffers this effect is so startled that he jumps back in fear and drops anything he was holding, including weapons. An item saving throw vs. fall must be attempted for each dropped item (unless the items are obviously not breakable).
  • Gape: In the face of great fear, indecision overwhelms the gaping character. He stands paralyzed with fear for the entire round, moving only if one of his companions physically forces him to. A gaping character takes no action to defend himself, thus losing any advantage to his Armor Class that might have been gained by a shield or high Dexterity score. In addition, any strike directed at the character gains a +2 attack bonus.
  • Scream: The character screams at the top of his lungs and jumps back in fear. This causes him to forfeit any action he might make this turn (although he can still defend himself from attack). In addition to this loss, the Dungeon Master must determine the exact effect of the character’s screams. At the very least, the fearful hero will draw unwanted attention to himself and spoil any chance of surprising his foes.
  • Stagger: The character staggers back, trips, and falls. He must make a successful Aim check for each item in his hands or drop it. Any dropped item must make a successful saving throw (as above) to avoid damage. Until the character spends an action regaining his feet, he is considered prone and, thus, more vulnerable to attack.
  • Hide: In order to save himself from what he believes to be certain doom, the hero cowers in the corner, dives under a table, or otherwise seeks shelter. If the character can find no place to hide, he must make a saving throw vs. paralyzation. A failed saving throw indicates that the character faints (as described below). A successful saving throw indicates that the character turns and flees in terror (as detailed below). If the hero is a rogue or other character with the ability to hide in shadows, he may make use of this special skill. The panic that grips him, however, is so great that his skill is cut in half during this hasty retreat. Also, he may not use his ability if the conditions of the encounter would normally prohibit him from doing so.
  • Flee: The character, putting all considerations but self-preservation aside, turns and runs. In most cases, he retraces the route that brought him to the location of the encounter. If that is not possible, he flees in a random direction (determined by the Dungeon Master) which will move him away from the object of his fear. A fleeing character moves at his maximum movement rate for the duration of the flight. If the terrain over which he runs is rough or treacherous, the Dungeon Master may require saving throws or ability checks to avoid falling. No fleeing character can attempt to move silently, search for traps, or otherwise act in a logical, calculating manner.
  • Faint: This character simply cannot deal with the threat before him. His eyes roll back in his head, his knees buckle, and he collapses to the ground. While the character is not injured by this fall, he drops any item that he was carrying; the item must make a successful saving throw vs. fall to avoid damage.
  • Horror: A horrified character has seen more than his mind can accept. The character should roll against the results of a failed Horror check (all normal modifiers apply).
  • Madness: Just as it is possible for the effects of a failed fear check to bloom into horror, so too can they grow unchecked into madness. Of course, only a character who has already suffered a great deal of abuse need worry about this possibility. The character should roll against the results of a failed Horror check (all normal modifiers apply).
  • System Shock: Any character who reaches this level of fear will simply clutch at his chest, gasp for breath, and collapse. Friends might assume he has fainted, but the truth is far worse. In actuality, the character teeters on the verge of death. Of course, he drops anything he is carrying and all such objects must make successful saving throws vs. fall or be damaged. An immediate system shock roll must be made for the character. Failure indicates that the character has, literally, been scared to death. While magic might be used to revive him, he is beyond the help of the healer’s herbs and powders. If the system shock roll succeeds, the character has a chance to survive. His Constitution score is reduced by one point, and he is instantly reduced to 0 hit points.

Recovering From Fear

Throwing off the effects of a fear check ranges in difficulty from fairly easy (as in the case of someone who has fainted) to very difficult (as for those who have been shunted to the failed horror or madness checks) to virtually impossible (for those who have simply dropped dead). While certain actions by the allies of the character or magical spells might aid in the mastery of fear, the following descriptions are the accepted standard. Unusual cases must, as always, be dealt with by the Dungeon Master.

Minor Effects
A character who has received a fumble, gape, stagger, or scream result will return to normal on the next round. His is a passing fear, quickly accepted and mastered.

Moderate Effects
A hero who hid, fled, or fainted is somewhat worse off. In each case, it will be a full turn (ten minutes) before the character returns to normal. Others may try to snap the panicked hero out of his trauma during that time. Someone who has fainted can be awakened with smelling salts or cold water, a cowering individual might be soothed or reassured by a charismatic (and trusted) companion, and so forth. The Dungeon Master must resolve such attempts based on their merit and practicality.

Major Effects
Characters who have been horrified, driven mad, or undergone a severe system shock are in far worse shape. In all cases, it may be a long time before they return to normal. Of course, magic can greatly reduce this time, but such wondrous aid is not always available. Rules for recovery from Horror and Madness are provided elsewhere. Characters who have suffered system shock are either dead (in which case, only magic can help them) or badly injured. Both magic and normal healing can restore a surviving character to health.

Role-Playing the Fear Check

This is a game of nightmares, heroism, and the imagination. Players who recognize this fact and run their characters in accordance with the environment must be rewarded for their efforts. To that end, any player whose hero acts in a frightened manner when the situation dictates that he should do so becomes immune to fear checks. This game mechanic is intended to promote role-playing by simulating the sorts of reactions that should occur in a frightening situation.


Ruins of Adventure Brand_Darklight Brand_Darklight