Ostensibly, the goal of Dungeons & Dragons is for everyone involved to have fun, players and Dungeon Masters alike. Occasionally, though, a D&D group is ready for a steeper challenge, or the DM is out to crank up the difficulty in their next campaign. There are a few optional rules DMs can include when they want to be especially sadistic to their players or when the group wants a grittier feel for their tabletop RPG sessions.
Some Dungeon Masters and players may find these rules have value for their games. They may want to experience a style of campaign that evokes the works of George R.R. Martin or H.P. Lovecraft instead of J.R.R. Tolkien or R.A. Salvatore. They may fondly recall older editions of D&D and want to recapture some of their intricacies, or they might feel victories are more satisfying when harsher rules are in place.
With the use of enough of these rules, a Dungeon Master can bring as much cruelty to D&D as the moniker implies. DMs would be wise to weigh the decision carefully and to discuss things with their players, however, before bringing out any of these implements of torture.
Sadistic D&D Rules – Sanity Score
Some of the more severe rules available for the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons can be found in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, where Chapter 9 provides several optional rules suggestions. The first especially cruel rule is the Sanity Score, which adds a seventh ability score to the core six. Though the rule suggests adding 3 points to the Point Buy total or an extra 11 to the Standard Array, the Sanity Score hurts players more than it helps; many character classes are already starved for attribute points, such as Paladins, who need to balance Strength for melee attacks, Charisma for spellcasting and class abilities, and Constitution to survive on the front lines.
Sanity adds another statistic to juggle, and it can be hard to gauge whether it is a crucial one or a “dump stat” without peeking at the Dungeon Master’s notes. Arguably, any of the suggested Sanity Saving Throws, such as “Seeing a creature from the Far Realm or other alien realms for the first time” or dealing with psychic damage, impossible geometries, or mental contact with Aberrations, could be handled with Wisdom, Charisma, or Intelligence saves. Adding Sanity to the mix can make a D&D game feel more like Call of Cthulhu, which could be a perk for some groups, but it decidedly leans towards sadistic.
Sadistic D&D Rules – Massive Damage
Another especially vindictive rule in the Dungeon Master’s Guide is the optional Massive Damage rule, specifically when the DM applies it to Player Characters in addition to monsters. This rule causes any single strike equal to half or more of a creature’s maximum Hit Points to trigger a DC 15 Constitution Saving Throw. Failure results in a roll on a System Shock table, which could cause as little as an inability to use Reactions for a turn. But in the worst case, it could instantly drop the character’s HP to zero without stabilization.
If a Dungeon Master applies the Massive Damage rule to Player Characters as well as enemies, they are either ruthless or unaware of how it affects gameplay. High-Challenge Rating enemies are designed to battle an entire party of adventurers and tend to have inflated Hit Points. It is very unlikely that a PC attack will take down half the HP of such a target in a single blow, and weaker targets potentially going down faster is of limited value. At level one, a PC can start with as few as 5 HP, based on default character creation rules, or as much as 17. A single hit of 5 to 9 damage could have devastating effects in battle with System Shock added, and low-level characters are fragile enough as it is. Even at higher levels, with monster damage largely based on dice that multiply on a Critical Hit as opposed to static numbers that do not, a monster is more likely to land a lucky shot that triggers the Massive Damage rule than a PC is. This rule decidedly favors the monsters over the heroes.
Sadistic D&D Rules – Lingering Wounds
Similar to Massive Damage, the Lingering Wounds rules are much more harmful to Player Characters than to monsters. This rule suggests the Dungeon Master roll for a wound “when a character suffers a critical hit, when it drops to zero HP but isn’t killed outright,” or “when it fails a death saving throw by 5 or more.” The resulting wound could be a minor cosmetic scar, a limp, or the loss of an eye, among others, most of which have mechanical effects.
In a typical Dungeons & Dragons campaign, it is rare for the party to fight the same foe repeatedly. An Orc captain returning like a Nemesis in Shadow of Mordor could make for an interesting addition to a D&D game, but as a practical matter, the Lingering Wounds rules are much more relevant for the heroes than their enemies. Player Characters can accumulate wounds over time that limit mobility, impose Disadvantage to all Perception checks and ranged attacks, or sustain festering wounds that can ultimately kill them, with these rules in place. This could certainly lend to a grittier game, but unless Restoration spells become readily available, they are likely not sustainable over an entire campaign.
Sadistic D&D Rules – Critical Fumbles
Another optional rule that some Dungeon Masters might fail to recognize as vicious is the use of Critical Miss or Critical Fumble tables. As with other rules noted above, DMs may think that, by applying Fumbles when enemies and players alike roll a natural one, the rule has parity. In practice, this is not the case, as player characters will make many more attack rolls over the course of a campaign than their foes will – and certainly far more skill and ability checks. Many Critical Miss tables involve the loss of a weapon, and with many monsters relying on natural weapons, this will have more impact on players. Likewise, tables that involve a Fumble causing a blow to strike an ally are more devastating to a Player Character party than to a group of enemies. Normally, a Fighter’s Extra Attack feature letting them attack up to four times in one action is something to be excited about, but with Critical Fumbles in play, it becomes four opportunities for catastrophic failure.
The other problematic element Critical Fumbles add to the game is the sheer chaos they bring to combat. D&D combat can be complex enough for new players, and at high levels, even seasoned players may find combat slows down due to the number of abilities and out-of-turn reactions that can come into play. It is possible for a string of unlucky enemy dice rolls to cause rivals to essentially destroy themselves with a series of Fumbles, but such a victory turns combat into a farce and steals much of the joy of success from players. They no longer walk away satisfied that they won due to their efforts in building a strong character, using effective tactics, and engaging in teamwork, instead knowing chance dice rolls reduced their enemies to comical buffoons on the battlefield.
Sadistic D&D Rules – Randomly Generated Stats
Several rules presented as options in the Player’s Handbook can be quite sadistic if ran as written. Many of these are adopted by Dungeon Masters seeking an “old school” RPG feel for their games. In practice, there is a fine line between honoring the legacy of prior editions of D&D and outright cruel DM-ing. The game has evolved for a reason; rolling for Hit Points instead of using the fixed values is one prime example. A Barbarian or Fighter intended to serve the role of the group’s defender might roll ones or twos for a few levels’ worth of Hit Points and find they are lagging behind the group’s Clerics and Rogues. An already high-risk class, like a Wizard or Sorcerer, could remain vulnerable to dying from a single hit, even beyond the levels where they should be able to soak up at least one or two blows from minion-type foes.
Randomness in D&D stat generation can also border on sadism, particularly with pitiless house rules like “roll 3d6, in order.” Theoretically, this gives every player an equal chance of generating an adequate character, but, realistically, it is the same abysmal chance. It strips players of agency in deciding their characters’ strengths and weaknesses, forcing them to play a character that may struggle to contribute over the course of a long campaign. The majority of groups will prefer to select from a stat array, use the point buy system, and/or use the fixed values for HP gains – all rules used in the official Wizards of the Coast Organized Play program for D&D – saving the dice rolling for the encounters.
Sadistic D&D Rules – Encumbrance
Use of another optional, old-school rule found in the Player’s Handbook, Encumbrance, is another way some DMs exercise cruelty. The default rules for lifting and carrying are “intentionally simple” in fifth edition D&D: A character can carry up to 15 times their strength score in pounds, which “is high enough that most characters don’t need to worry about it,” per the Player’s Handbook. These assumed rules provide simple guidelines for armor, with no Strength requirement for Light or Medium Armor, and Heavy Armor imposing a penalty of 10 feet to movement speed unless the wearer meets a Strength threshold of 13 or 15, depending on the armor.
The variant encumbrance rules for D&D are merciless, reducing a character’s speed by 10 feet if their total carried weight exceeds 5 times their Strength score and causing Disadvantage on physical ability checks if they carry weight exceeding 10 times their Strength Score. A Fighter with 15 Strength, who could freely wear 65-pound Plate Armor and still carry an additional 160 pounds of gear without penalty under the normal rules, can only carry an additional 10 pounds without suffering reduced speed under the variant Encumbrance rules. Such a character using a 10-pound maul (a common, high-damage bludgeoning weapon choice) cannot carry potions, a backup ranged weapon, or any loot without incurring a slower movement speed. They can only carry 85 pounds of items in addition to their armor without suffering the devastating effects of Disadvantage – close to half of the 160 pounds of remaining carrying capacity they would have under the default rules.
Even spellcasters can suffer greatly from these rules, as the vital Concentration checks they require to maintain many spells are based on Constitution, a physical ability score that can be impacted by heavy Encumbrance. This rule also changes loot-finding from being a joy to a logistical nightmare, as the party needs to crunch the numbers to see if they can bear the added weight or if they need to clear the dungeon and return with a contracted team of laborers. This shifts Dungeons & Dragons from a heroic fantasy adventure game into a complex labor management simulator. By the time the party has finished using a portion of their plunder to pay for the hirelings to remove it, they might just consider renovating the dungeon, while they’re at it, and retiring from adventuring there.
It is possible that the dangers of sepsis and mental breakdowns or the complexities of weight management minutiae add value for some players, or that the randomness of dice-generated Hit Points and statistic arrays are more satisfying than the choice involved with a pre-generated array. But for most players, if a DM states their campaign will use any of these hardcore rules to make D&D more difficult, they should likely look elsewhere to find a Dungeon Master less inclined towards running a Dungeons & Dragons game that is torturous to play.