On Fear

Let’s see if there’s an interesting way to overhaul fear effects! Here are some existing effects. Almost all such effects use a Charisma-based Will DC, and a successful save confers 24-hour immunity (exceptions noted, spells work as usual).

Existing Effects

There are many ways to scare things in D&D.  Several monsters are inherently scary (especially dragons, undead, and outsiders), there are a few spells that can scare their victims, and there are some learned abilities (Intimidate skill and Turn Undead) that cause limited fear effects.  Let’s start with a summary of the various instances from the RSRD.

Frightful Presence

Activate as a free action (usually part of an attack/charge), onlookers within 30ft shaken for some time. Each target must have fewer HD than the user.

Dragons: radius of 30ft per age category. Creatures of 4 HD or less are panicked for 4d6 rounds, others are shaken.
Tarrasque: victims shaken for as long as they remain within 60ft of it (no initial radius given).

In Pathfinder: Frightful creatures cause shakenness for 5d6 rounds, or panic if 4 HD or less. Tarrasques have radius 300ft, Dragons 30ft/age category.

Lich’s Fear Aura

As the fear spell, any onlookers within 60ft, 4 HD or less.

To be honest, I often forget about this. How often are 4 HD creatures even in the same room as a lich? Apart from his own skeleton minions, of course.

Nightwalker’s Evil Gaze

Gaze attack, causes paralysis for 1d8 rounds. It’s a fear effect though! 24-hour immunity applies even on a failed save.

Mummy’s Despair

Onlookers paralysed with fear for 1d4 rounds. 24-hour immunity applies even on a failed save.

Shadow Mastiff/Yeth Hound’s Bay

300ft spread, panic for 2d4 rounds (evil outsiders are unaffected). 24-hour immunity applies even on a failed save.

Androsphinx’s Roar

All creatures within 500 feet affected as if by a fear spell (2d6 rounds duration). No 24-hour immunity, but they can only do it three times per day in the first place.

Vargouille’s Shriek

60ft, non-vargouille onlookers who hear it are paralysed for 2d4 rounds. Ends early if the vargouille attacks them, or goes out of range or sight. Constitution-based DC, +1 racial bonus.

Krenshar’s Scare (with screech)

As the scare spell (CL 3). Krenshars are unaffected.

Sea Hag’s Evil Eye

(3/day). Single target, 30ft. Daze for 3 days (Will negates). Die of fright (Fortitude negates). It’s a fear effect though! Immunity to fear confers immunity to the whole effect.

Ghaele’s Gaze

60ft, evil creatures of 5 HD or less slain. Will save reduces to the effect of a fear spell for 2d10 rounds. Other creatures suffer the fear effect unless they save.

Ghost’s Frightful Moan

30ft spread, living creatures panicked for 2d4 rounds.

Devils’ Fear Auras

Many devils can radiate a fear aura as a free action. Non-devils in the area affected as if by fear spell. 24-hour immunity applies even on a failed save.

  • Pit fiend: 20ft radius, CL 18.
  • Ice devil: 10ft radius, CL 13.
  • Horned devil: 5ft radius, CL 15.
  • Bone devil: 5ft radius, CL 7.

Avoral’s Fear Aura

Similar to the above, usable once per day. 20ft radius, CL 8.

Barbed Devil’s Fear Strike

Creatures hit affected as if by fear spell (CL 9). 24-hour immunity applies even on a failed save.

Cloaker’s Moan (fear version)

Extraordinary ability. 30ft spread, panic for 2 rounds.

Spell: fear (L4, L3 for bards)

30ft cone. Living creatures panicked for 1 round/level; on a successful save they are shaken for 1 round.

Spell: cause fear (L1)

(Heaven forbid they should call one of these “terror” or something to save confusion.)

Target one living creature, close range, 5 HD or less. Frightened for 1d4 rounds, or shaken for 1 round on a successful save.

Spell: scare (L2)

As cause fear, but one creature/3 levels, medium range.

Spell: symbol of fear (L8)

The trigger conditions for a symbol spell are sufficiently complicated that I won’t go into them here.

60ft burst, creatures totalling at most 150 hit points are panicked for 1 round/level.

Spell: phantasmal killer (L4)

One living creature, medium range. A Will save allows disbelief in the phantasm, if that fails then a Fortitude save is necessary to avoid dying of fright (3d6 damage on save).

Spell: remove fear (L1)

Close range, one creature +1/4 levels. +4 bonus on saves versus fear for 10 minutes, plus existing effects suppressed.

Cleric’s Turn Undead

This isn’t officially classed as a fear effect, but… look at the effect of turning. Now look at the effects of being frightened. Now look back at the effect of turning. Now look at me. I’m on a pegasus! It seems to me that the only reason they don’t come out and call it a fear effect is because they already established undead as immune to fear.

The mechanics of turning undead are famously weird. Range 60ft, highest HD affectable depends on a Charisma check (ranges from your HD-4 to your HD+4). Total HD affected equals (2d6+cleric level+mCha).

If your cleric level is at least twice a victim’s HD, it is destroyed outright.

Skill: Intimidate

Shaken for 1 round. Your Intimidate check is opposed by a special level check (1d20 + HD + mWis + any modifiers on saves against fear).


Phew! Okay, so let’s review. Quite a number of effects are limited by HD (let’s include symbol of fear in that for the sake of argument, since HP is pretty closely dependent on HD). The ones that don’t explicitly depend on HD are listed below. Generally there is a “magic” threshold of 4 or 5 HD. Why this number? Nobody knows.

  • Nightwalker
  • Mummy
  • Shadow Mastiff / Yeth Hound
  • Vargouille
  • Sea Hag
  • Ghost
  • Cloaker
  • fear
  • phantasmal killer

As regards the actual effect, there are three main kinds:

  • Rout: inflicts the panicked, frightened, turned, or shaken statuses.
  • Paralysis: inflicts the paralysed status
  • Death: The sea hag’s evil eye, the ghaele’s gaze, turn undead, and phantasmal killer can all cause someone to die of fright.

Idea time!

Okay, so a whole lot of stuff there. I wonder if we can pull all this together. Why are monsters frightening? Either they’re powerful (i.e. high-level), or they look/feel/sound scary in some way. What if we redefined the rules such that Intimidate becomes a more fundamental mechanic? For example, could we say that a lich’s fear aura simply gives him a free Intimidate check against onlookers within 60ft? A dragon’s frightful presence lets him Intimidate as part of an attack/charge? Turn undead is an attempt by the cleric to Intimidate with a display of divine power?

It would be nice if we could get a Will save instead of that wacky level check as well. While we’re at it, why not dispense with the HD limits? They seem fairly arbitrary. The save-or-die/save-or-be-paralysed effects would probably be Charisma damage in Echelon at any rate, so we don’t need to worry about slaying powerful creatures too fast.

Fearsome creatures such as dragons and undead should arguably have a racial bonus to Intimidate. Also worth considering: does being intimidating yourself confer resistance to intimidation by others? Let us suppose that your save versus intimidation has a bonus depending on your Intimidate bonus.

Now we can do something about turning. Let’s make undead as vulnerable to fear as the next monster, but with sufficient bonuses and training in Intimidate that they generally don’t feel it unless confronted by something more powerful than them, such as an ancient dragon, or a powerful cleric. (Side bonus: the kludgy “turn resistance” mechanic simply becomes a bonus to Intimidate; and creatures with turn resistance are generally scary themselves already!) Turning now actually scares undead rather than being “exactly like fear except completely different”!

Paralysing with fear, and killing with it? We can say those are high-tier abilities based on Intimidate as well.

Talent: Intimidate

(NB: numbers are illustrative)

Intimidation: You roll an Intimidate check (1d20 + level-bonus + mCha + training-bonus) to set the DC. Those you are trying to intimidate make a Will save at this DC to see if they overcome or not; they get to add their Intimidation training bonus, as below. A ”remove fear” effect provides a further bonus.

You can make a victim shaken if they fail their Will save. If they fail by 5 or more (for the sake of argument) you can make them frightened. Failure by 10 or more causes panic.

A creature Charisma-drained to threshold -1 is paralysed with fear. A creature drained to threshold -2 may die of fright (damage begins coming off hit points).

Tier Benefit
Basic: +4 to Intimidate checks, and +4 on Will saves to resist intimidation. You can intimidate in combat as a standard action.
Expert: You can spend Charisma pool to intimidate as part of an attack or charge.
Heroic: You can spend Charisma pool to drain 1 Charisma from a person you intimidate.
Master: As above, but you drain 1d3 Charisma from one person, or 1 each from all victims.
Champion: As above, but 1d6 Charisma from one person, or 1d3 each from all victims.
Legendary: As above, but 1d8 Charisma from one person, or 1d6 each from all victims.

For the specific application to turning undead: perhaps that talent provides a further Intimidate bonus for that application, and possibly extra Charisma drain on them as well. Since the drain is cumulative, you can dust undead by repeated turning attempts even if a single attempt wouldn’t do the job.

Sidenote: Static saves

General note about attacks/defences here: could it be possible to change all defences to static numbers? Attacks against AC and CMD already work this way, but saves are the other way around. What if save DCs were set by a roll and the save itself was just a number? Statistically it would be much the same; the main thing to consider would be effects (like some enchantments) that allow you to make extra saves across the effect’s duration to try and throw it off. Perhaps the DC is re-rolled as the effect wavers?


Okay, so we don’t exactly replicate the 3.5e effects, but I think this is much tidier! Now we can give monsters the ability to Intimidate (at various tiers of ability) via their auras/evil eyes/roars. Fear-causing spells give a free Intimidate attempt with an appropriately-sized bonus. Best of all, we get a simple way to handle Turn Undead; this ability simply gives Clerics a bonus on Intimidation attempts versus undead creatures, by presenting their holy symbol.

Okay, I’m done, sorry that got a bit long-winded!

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3 Comments to "On Fear"

  1. September 2, 2011 - 11:04 am | Permalink

    I’ve been tinkering with some very similar changes to fear effects. I want to thank you for summarizing the existing effects so very well. I like your idea of high Intimidate values granting a bonus to the Will save vs. fear.

  2. tussock's Gravatar tussock
    November 15, 2012 - 6:18 am | Permalink

    Minor point, but most of the stuff that’s limited by HD like that is an artifact of Chainmail, where Heroes (4 HD) can defeat supernatural stuff, and Superheroes (8 HD) even more. Something like ye olde Sleep spell is hitting one Hero or lots of foot troops, mirroring the sort of thing Chainmail spells do. Dragons scatter foot and Heroes but Superheroes can face them, and so on.

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