dnd 5e hard mode increased stakes

Playing D&D 5e on Hard Mode: High-Stakes Gameplay

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I often hear from several of my friends that they’d like to try homebrew or optional rules to make the game more difficult. These friends enjoy gritty realism in D&D, or at least a challenge worthy of their time. I’m writing this article for anyone who shares my friends’ desires for their characters to constantly be in peril in order to gain greater satisfaction from in-game accomplishments. There are several ideas in D&D 5e books to help steer in this gritty direction; I’ll summarize the ones that I know of (hopefully not forgetting anything). I’ll also provide homebrew ideas for how to play D&D 5e on epic/hell difficulty.

Keep in mind that my suggestions are meant to offer difficulty-enhancing mechanics to a game, but they are not meant to make it impossible. An impossible game is probably not a fun one. I also don’t recommend using all of the concepts I suggest at once; doing so might create an impossible scenario. I’ve heard reviews of the Tomb of Horrors, a challenging dungeon module, that suggest it’s not fun for a player to feel like success is mostly random.

Players’ desires to survive are outweighed by their desire to thrive and overcome. As you read ideas that follow for expert mode D&D, incorporate the mechanics that sound fun to you. I’d love to hear what people choose to include and how players deal with it. Cast Message to Flutes at the end of the article to let me know! Even expert mode should be fun for like-minded players who want to get pounded to a pulp by a difficult campaign!

Maxed Monster Dice

When reviewing the stats for a monster in the Monster Manual or Volo’s Guide to Monsters, you’ll notice that the hitpoints provided are based on an average roll of a monster’s Hit Dice with Constitution boosts. You could alternatively endow monsters with the maximum amount of hitpoints based on their Hit Dice. This is their final form!

To save yourself time, you might as well maximize the monsters’ damage rolls. Use the average damage if that’s too much for you, but maximum damage rolls will make your players die super quickly. As a player, I’d be super paranoid about engaging in difficult encounters if I played in a campaign that used maximum monster damage. Maximizing monster damage is probably worse than automatic critical hits unless a monster has additional damage when landing critical hits.

Legendary Actions

Scale up your Challenge Rating by giving every monster boss a good range of legendary actions. Even better, put them in a lair with lair effects and legendary actions. Magical creatures being fought on their own turf should have a tactical advantage in the form of lair effects and actions.

Opal wrote an extensive guide to preparing lairs and legendary actions along with tables of ideas for these things. Not only do legendary actions subvert player expectations of monsters, but they also give your players another threat to focus on that may require a clever strategy to overcome. This will definitely put your campaign in “expert mode” and require superlative striving from your masochistic players.

Lingering Injuries

I recently wrote an article about this concept that is worth checking out. Injuries aren’t developed in D&D 5e rules, but there are soft needs for them. Resurrection spells partially scale based on how much a body needs to be intact to resurrect the person, so I recommend reading my article on bodily consequences for PCs aside from death itself. The threat of grievous physical harm will add tension to your game if you’re finding that higher leveled PCs aren’t worried about damage and death so much anymore. Put the fear of God (DM) back in their hearts!

Rest Duration Requirements

The DMG has a Gritty Realism segment in chapter nine that suggests short and long rests can have their durations extended. Long rests become seven days long, and short rests become eight hours long. The intent here is to make resting a bigger deal, making resource conservation a point of anxiety for player characters. Every spell slot and hitpoint matters when long rests require so much downtime.

Rest variants are especially useful for DMs who plan very few combat encounters. Instead of allowing player characters to go all out in each fight because of your setting’s realism, fights are spread out with many days between them, taking away that ‘nova’ option by simply adjusting the resting rules of your game. Doing this will allow you to remain satisfied with your narrative while still creating resource scarcity for player characters. Short-rest abilities and classes like the Warlock can really shine.

I’ve experienced Warlocks in my games who have not often utilized their ability to regain their spells with short rests rather than long rests because the long rests are too frequent. Warlocks will truly shine if they can recuperate their spells rapidly where others lack that ability.

Slow Natural Healing

This suggestion comes from the DMG. Instead of regaining all hitpoints at the end of a long rest, characters will be required to roll Hit Dice to regain health during any rest. Brutal injuries will require most or all of a character’s Hit Dice to heal, and it takes most long rests to restore those Hit Dice. This alternate rule elevates reliable healing spells and abilities since they allow you to save Hit Dice for dire times.

Madness and Sanity

These rules go hand in hand with Fear and Horror rules in the DMG chapter nine. Sanity is a stat for your character to navigate a campaign of horrors. Horror and dread will require characters to guard their mental health as much as their physical wellbeing. It’s up to you to determine what scenarios would warrant Sanity Saving Throws, but there are plentiful reasons in the DMG’s suggestions to prompt them.

Visiting alien environments, encountering a bizarre otherworldly creature, or speaking telepathically with an aberration could prompt a sanity check as a mortal, humanoid character struggles to make sense of the unknown and unknowable. Sanity checks can also be used (different from saving throws) for attempts to predict, understand, or otherwise interact with a creature that is alien in every way to the player character’s reality.

Page 258 is the beginning of the madness suggestions in the ‘Running the Game’ section of the DMG chapter eight. There are several tables you can roll on to determine the effects of short-term, long-term, and indefinite madness. There are spells like Greater Restoration that may or may not have a place in the average D&D campaign to be useful, but the expert mode D&D 5e would definitely make use of these mental-health-type spells.

Unexpected Conditions

Dial up your use of abilities that cause Conditions in your players unexpectedly and increase the duration of the condition (perhaps to permanency). Rather than outright killing characters, it is quite effective to simply incapacitate or handicap them. These conditions may include Blinded, Deafened, Frightened, Paralyzed, Petrified, Poisoned, Restrained, Stunned, or Exhausted.

One method of doing this is by using innate monster abilities (or giving your monsters legendary actions) that cause these conditions. Apply liberally, especially when utilized in a setting where players are genuinely afraid of death, major injury, and so forth. This will also make Protection spells more effective, as players can overcome their Conditions magically and temporarily.

Frightened would be the easiest to use in a hard-mode campaign where lingering injuries are a real threat. Players who are Frightened might feel more inclined to turn and run from threats rather than risk getting mortally wounded or facing their fear. If a player is permanently Frightened of one particular monster or creature type, they could roll a saving throw to overcome their fright for a duration.

For other ideas of how to incorporate the Frightened condition into your campaign, see my article How to Use the Frightened Condition Strategically.


My characters have contracted diseases before, but only in published adventure modules. The average DM doesn’t seem to care about planning for diseases in their games. Maybe this is because of the characters who are immune or have spells to cure diseases. It may also be true that diseases don’t matter enough if they are cleared with long rests. The DMG p.256 describes ideas for diseases that you can base your own homebrew diseases on. I recommend requiring remedies that are specific to the diseases.

A similar custom requirement can apply to curses as well. Casting Remove Curse on a cursed character will require unique components based on the curse’s nature and origin. This is a great way to give narrative clout to diseases and curses. Don’t let spellcasting be a quick fix for everything! Create opportunities for players to either seek out remedies or live with their problems for a while.

Slow Level Progression

Players love to level up their characters. Sometimes it’s necessary to level up in order to meet greater challenges head-on. A DM can slow down level progression by using milestone or narrative leveling as described on p. 261 of the DMG. The DMG’s p. 131 mentions leveling up as a downtime activity that requires extensive practice and expense during downtime. This type of prolonged leveling up is not cheap, and it quickly progresses to require weeks of time as characters reach higher levels. Your players will never complain again about having too much wealth because they’ll always be broke just to maintain their level progressions.

Additionally, character death should have ramifications beyond the inconvenience of creating a new character. You could require new characters to start at level one, but that could teeter on the edge of making the game impossible for that fledgling adventurer. I alternatively recommend allowing the new character to be one level lower than its predecessor. In other words, a dead player character of tenth level will be replaced by a new player character of ninth level. This works especially well in a campaign where the players are working towards a goal of defeating a powerful enemy and they know they’ll need to obtain high levels to claim victory. Every level counts!

Gigantic Creatures, Gigantic Problems

Massive creatures like Krakens and Rocs deserve more durability against attacks from puny humanoids. Damage thresholds give big, sturdy creatures an additional survivability mechanic. If a single instance of damage doesn’t deal twenty damage, the attack does nothing. This prevents lame scenarios where a mob of two hundred peasants can destroy legendary creatures by all throwing javelins in unison. Those peasants won’t stand a chance if their javelins each lack the power to even pierce a legendary monster’s thick hide. You can also think of this as a failed attempt to damage a massive creature on the grounds that you’re basically giving them a splinter if all you have is a common javelin.

Massive monsters may also deal incredible damage to humanoids. An easy way to handle this would be to allow automatic critical hits when massive monsters land hits with their attacks against much smaller creatures. If you’re also using the maximum damage option that I mentioned earlier, your players will pray and quake in the presence of enormous creatures.

When gargantuan creatures are felled, describe how their massive bodies cause enormous problems. Characters should be struggling to avoid getting crushed as gigantic bodies collapse, and the environment will dramatically change. Tremors will be felt many miles away, so the immediate area should definitely get roughed up. Rock slides, avalanches, and collapsing terrains should be common when gigantic creatures are toppled.

Mundane Inventory

D&D players expect to find magic items to enhance the abilities of their characters and gain new powers. What if that doesn’t happen? Spells like Magic Weapon become premium choices when the party struggles to acquire even the cheapest of silvered weapons. Monsters with resistances to mundane weapons suddenly seem incredibly durable against the player characters’ attacks.

I’ve enjoyed several campaigns where players were clearly nervous about taking on monsters they anticipated fighting. Players knew or suspected monsters would resist their attacks. Regeneration, coupled with resistances, would make the players extra nervous. I recommend making characters work to gain arsenals fit for terrifyingly durable monsters due to my experience here.


In a weightless world, players could make off with all the loot they desire. If players wish to play more realistically, how much can they really carry? How much space do they have in their inventory, and can they really travel the world with everything they have?

The variant rules of Encumbrance detail how hindered a player is by the weight of their equipment. If carrying over five times a player’s Strength score, their speed drops. Carrying in excess of ten times their Strength score will render disadvantage on most rolls that use Strength, Dexterity, or Constitution.

You can go even further by requiring players to explain in what manner they carry what they own and how their inventory is affected by the weather. Equipment will suffer wear and tear, and face destruction during the burden of battle. Getting stabbed might ruin their gear. Powerful elemental spells might ruin their equipment as it snaps in the cold or roasts in the heat.

Difficult Monster Encounters

This may seem obvious, but you can plan encounters to have inflated challenge ratings. Instead of using ten zombies, use ten wights (for example). This is merely a preparation suggestion for hell mode, but it still requires knowledge of challenge ratings in order to not plan all encounters to be impossible scenarios. As I mentioned earlier, impossible scenarios are not fun for players, and the meta effect will be that they avoid all encounters that you painstakingly planned. Then nobody has fun.

You can use the CR system as it’s described, but I’ll summarize how I use it. The CR system says CR per monster is based on a four-character party of player characters. Most groups I play with have more than four players, often five or six. I look at a creature’s CR and actually assume it’s 75% lower unless it has a group of allies to work with. This has steered me true time and time again.

You may wonder if I go easy on characters for this method, but I do not! For expert mode and a party of four characters, treat monster CR as if it’s 70% of what the DMG suggests. If the party has more characters, reduce monster CR by 50%.

Aside from fights, you can plan high-stakes social and exploration encounters. I’m talking about the kind of encounters that can result in life or death if the player characters act or roll poorly. By the way, there are many possibilities on the spectrum of consequences before you get to death. Use the lingering injury options I mentioned earlier.

Delayed Combat Information

I have found it to be commonplace that information is shared quickly in combat. The information I’m talking about is whether a monster is resisting a damage type. The DM will describe how a damage source isn’t as potent against a monster, signaling to the players that their characters perceive the monster’s resistances.

This information does not need to be immediate, especially since one round of combat is a six-second time frame that is happening simultaneously (even though we take turns). DMs can wait until the end of a round to describe a monster’s resistances. This means the party could deal far less damage than they thought. Resistances will be a bigger deal. Delayed resistance reveals will incentivize the players to seek knowledge about their foes before they meet them. They can’t afford to have an entire round of combat nearly negated.

Spell Failure and Opportunity Attacks

When spellcasters are beset by foes at melee range, there is a chance of spellcasting failure for any spell that requires somatic components. When foes are near while a character tries to cast a somatic spell, foes within five feet of the caster can make an opportunity attack. Any foes that successfully hit the spellcaster with this special opportunity attack will force the spellcaster to make a concentration saving throw as if they concentrating on a spell.

The spellcaster who passes these saving throws, failing none, will successfully cast the attempted somatic spell. Failure to cast the spell will not waste a spell slot, but it will waste the caster’s action for that turn (or bonus action or reaction depending on the casting time of the spell). Spells that require more than one round to cast will repeat this process of opportunity attacks each round while the spell is being cast.

Level Draining and Similar Horrors

Past editions of D&D used severe conditions and penalties. Level draining was one example that terrified me. I wrote an entire article on this subject so you can pick from a buffet of options to enhance your monsters!

Lack of Components and Spell Focuses

Component pouches, arcane focuses, holy symbols, etc., are typical crutches of 5e spellcasters. Take away these crutches and force spellcasters to gather spell components from their spells’ descriptions. I guarantee they will be careful to conserve their components. They’d also be incentivized to use spells that aren’t mechanically the best because components may be scarce for preferred magic.

Instead of automatically gaining Fireball at level five, a Wizard may choose to continue relying on Shatter because there isn’t access yet to bat guano and sulfur necessary for casting Fireball. This creates more work for the DM to create opportunities to gain spell materials, but it could be a fun change to the game of resources.


Increase your campaign difficulty without ruining the game’s fun. Carefully select variant rules that suit your group. The DM can obviously make the game impossible to play, but we don’t do that because it’s not enjoyable. Write down ideas that sound fun to you to discuss with your friends.

What ideas do you have for the possible-but-hellish campaign? I genuinely want to hear more ideas so I can share them with friends who enjoy that playstyle. Cast Message in the comments section to get a discussion going.

And don’t run off too quickly! We have plenty of content on Flutes Loot for adventurers like you. Please read onward or bookmark your next read:

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