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Fearful Musings

In honor of Halloween and the most fearful time of year, we have a few fear-themed thoughts for you!

The Myth of "Willpower"

Hang around enough D&D tables and you will inevitably hear rules or lore discussions (or maybe arguments?) arising from the discrepancies between the numerous versions of Dungeons & Dragons. But one topic that is not only constantly bungled but seems to draw no focus in discussions or discourse is the notion of "willpower".

We often see this term used to describe how characters fight off enchantments or mind affecting spells, features, etc. And in previous editions, that would be largely correct! (Although the way we got there was still flimsy, in our opinion.)

Part of the reason this "willpower" concept is in our gaming vernacular is because in the days of D&D 3.5 (and in Pathfinder 1 and 2), you had three types of saving throws: Fortitude; Reflex; and Will. The "Will Save" was the primary save against anything and everything mental, curse-y, illusory, enchanting, etc. It was a test of how well your willpower could resist an enemy's effect. 4e continued this in principle, although saving throws were altered so that you had defensive stats like Armor Class, but for those same three categories. And while 4e calculated your Will DC differently, 3.5 and Pathfinder tied the Will Save directly to your Wisdom Score.

The reason we emphasize that Wisdom Score bit is because now in 5e, a system that has a save for each of the six ability scores, when someone rolls a good Wisdom Saving Throw it is often narratively explained by saying they had good willpower. But not only do we think this was an erroneous simplification back in the 3.5 days, but it is dead wrong in 5e. Wisdom, as per the Player's Handbook (PHB), "reflects how attuned you are to the world around you and represents perceptiveness and intuition". There's nothing about willpower in there. Instead the narrative of a successful wisdom save should be that you were able to discern the difference between the false effect being presented to you versus what reality actually is. Hold person does not create a literal paralysis in your body, but rather enchants your mind to make you think you are paralyzed and act (or, in this case, not act) accordingly.

If you are desperate for some mechanical analogue of the concept of "willpower", you should instead look to the Charisma stat which the PHB uses to "measur[e] force of personality". Sure that force of personality is typically relevant when influencing others with words or gestures, but you'll also find that Charisma Saving Throws are the primary defense against curses and banishment. Just as it might represent your presence at a social gathering, Charisma is also quantifying your literal metaphysical presence in the planes of existence.

Different Types of Fear

Building off of this observation about Wisdom and Charisma, there is one condition that the two overlap with: fear. Or, more specifically in the D&D vernacular, the frightened condition.

Now the vast majority of fear effects force their targets to make a Wisdom saving throw, but there is at least one that doesn't. It is from the Kraken Priest monster in Volo's Guide to Monsters.

Text of the Voice of the Kraken ability from the Kraken Priest stat block. It requires a DC 14 Charisma saving throw to resist becoming frightened.

For full disclosure, the save was changed in Monsters of the Multiverse to be Wisdom. We personally think this is an incorrect decision and was done for consistency rather than narrative reasons, like many of the Monsters of the Multiverse changes.

Notice that the effect is caused by hearing the literal voice of a kraken. Magically projected it may be, the fear is coming from the knowledge that you are tangling with an envoy of one of the mightiest creatures in the D&D cosmos.

So we offer you the following guidance for how to narratively describe fear-based saving throws and the effects that prompt them in your game:

  • Wisdom allows you to recognize when magic or supernatural powers are trying to artificially trick your awareness into a state of fear.

  • Charisma represents your own personality fighting back against the primal fight-or-flight response in your body to resist becoming afraid of something genuinely terrifying.

By the way, we would highly encourage changing the Frightful Presence of dragons to use Charisma saves given these definitions of fear, unless you prefer the dragons to be using innate magic (similar to their breath weapons) to impose an illusion or enchantment type effect on those nearby.

Primal Fear Mechanic

Building off of this, we also want to share a mechanic that our lead writer Matt uses in their games to reflect that primal flight-or-fight sensation an adventurer might encounter when facing a creature out of their league.

Primal Fear. When a creature poses deadly threat to a party, have them roll Charisma Saving Throws with the DC equal to 12 + the difference in their level from the CR of the creature. For example, a party of level 3 adventurers facing a CR 7 monster would need to make DC 16 Charisma saves. On a failure, the PC is narratively frightened of the creature (not the frightened condition, although a Player can choose to take it if they wish). On success, they are aware of the threat but remain stoic in the face of fear.

The point of this mechanic, and why it doesn't enforce the frightened condition, is to help inform a party when they have wandered into an encounter that might be too much for them. It doesn't mean that fight is impossible, but it means they shouldn't be so cavalier rolling initiative. This is why the condition is not forced onto them. In the case that the party does choose to enter combat, having them start the fight with such a debilitating condition against an already superior foe could result in a death spiral and subsequent TPK. There's no need to make an already deadly encounter more difficult.


If you'd like to celebrate all things spooky with us for the rest of October, please head over to Twitter or BluSky to check out Matt's Morktober content. Each day they will post a new bit of CY_BORG content themed around the Halloween-y calendar below.

A MORKTOBER calendar of daily prompts used to create MORK BORG / X-BORG related content each day.

At the end of the month we'll be compiling all of the daily posts into a single CY_BORG zine, so check back soon!

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