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Dark D&D (but not with rules)

der_kluge

Adventurer
I'm looking for resources, ideas, inspiration around making D&D really dark.

And if you read that and immediately a half a dozen rules supplement came to mind, I'm gonna stop you right there. I don't want rules. A lot of these are half-assed attempts at really limiting magic, resources, items, etc., or introducing insanity rules, or making combat lean and mean, bla bla bla. I don't care. 5e is perfectly fine on its own, and my intention here isn't to shaft my players into some sort of ham-fisted ruleset that was written because a GM somewhere got all butthurt when the party wizard cast fly and fireball and destroyed his well-laid plans.

No, I'm looking for stories and concepts here. Like, when the goths sacked Rome, the conditions were so bad that people were willing to put their kids into slavery in exchange for dog meat. That's the kind of dark stuff I'm looking for. I doubt WoTC/TSR has ever published stuff this dark, but I'm looking for inspiration. My goal is to break my players. lol

Start with slavery, and then go worse - murderous tyrants, deplorable conditions, a village that has to sacrifice a newborn child to a hag once a year in order to guarantee the village's protection - that kind of stuff.
 

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You might see if you can find a cheap copy of the Book of Vile Darkness for D&D 3.5.

Ravenloft can be dark, especially if you hype the call of the Dark Powers, and avoid using the mechanics...

Another darkish setting is (as far as I can tell — the English translation in the dual language text sucks badly) the setting for the RPG Mechanical Dream. as with Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles, there's a magical presence that kills sentients who aren't magically protected; unlike FFCC, it's not quick, but slow and agonizing. The setting for FFCC itself is a potentially fun but dark one, especially if the Myrrh is not regenerating fast enough....

Albeit not one good for public use, a "Nazis won WW II. And WWIII. And the Space Race..." with PC's fighting the 3rd Reich in it's 3rd century is a dark but potentially fun, provided everyone's comfortable with the subject matter. Another close relative, borrowed from a CORPS supplement: evil nazi-esque elves have been hiding in a hollow-earth hidey hole... and decide to take over as WWIII begins.

Another dark, but very fun, setting is that of Ninja Burger: you're making fast food deliveries, but you're not supposed to be seen delivering, not even by the customer. If you are seen, your manager may require you to remove a digit or two... or even, seppuku!
 

Ath-kethin

Elder Thing
Our book Sea Devils of the Pale Hand has advice on developing dark and horrific storylines without additional rules (there are rules in the book, but they're for some new monsters, items, and things like that). Dunno if if that's you're looking for, but from the sounds of things it should be close.

Sea Devils of the Pale Hand at DMSGuild
 

darkbard

Adventurer
I'm going to suggest a different tack, since your preference seems to be for fictional rather than mechanical components. Read some Steven Erikson, his Malazan Book of the Fallen, particularly Memories of Ice. Some truly grim and gruesome depictions of the horrors of war, exploitation, and cruelty.

From the Malazan Wiki, here is a description of one beaten and desperate group:

"The Tenescowri were the peasant army of the Pannion Domin. Composed of the famished survivors of the Domin's war on its neighbours, the Pannion Seer purposely let them starve so that he could use them as an expendable infantry component in his army, both keeping his elite forces safe and striking terror into its enemies. The leader of the Tenescowri was Anaster.

They fought as a frenzied and indisciplined rabble armed with cleavers, knives, and hatchets. They relied on overwhelming numbers to bring down their foes, climbing atop one another in an effort to reach their opponents. Those who fell were dragged away to be devoured by their own companions.

They fed on the dead as their only source of food and mated with dying enemies to replenish their numbers. Those born this way were known as Children of the Dead Seed."

Erikson's vivid and detailed prose makes this ten times more terrifying than the above.
 

Aldarc

Legend
I'm looking for resources, ideas, inspiration around making D&D really dark.

And if you read that and immediately a half a dozen rules supplement came to mind, I'm gonna stop you right there. I don't want rules. A lot of these are half-assed attempts at really limiting magic, resources, items, etc., or introducing insanity rules, or making combat lean and mean, bla bla bla. I don't care. 5e is perfectly fine on its own, and my intention here isn't to shaft my players into some sort of ham-fisted ruleset that was written because a GM somewhere got all butthurt when the party wizard cast fly and fireball and destroyed his well-laid plans.

No, I'm looking for stories and concepts here. Like, when the goths sacked Rome, the conditions were so bad that people were willing to put their kids into slavery in exchange for dog meat. That's the kind of dark stuff I'm looking for. I doubt WoTC/TSR has ever published stuff this dark, but I'm looking for inspiration. My goal is to break my players. lol

Start with slavery, and then go worse - murderous tyrants, deplorable conditions, a village that has to sacrifice a newborn child to a hag once a year in order to guarantee the village's protection - that kind of stuff.
This is where I would recommend the Bible and the Tanakh. There's a lovely story, for example, of the two cannibal mothers in 2 Kings 6:26-30. Long story short: amidst a siege of Samaria that rendered the city to utter famine, two mothers agreed in a pact to eat their children. They ate one mother's kid, but then the other mother reneged on the deal and hid her child, and the mother whose child was eaten went forth before the king looking for justice.

Also, if you want dark, I'd recommend looking through the manga Berserk, which is a dark fantasy series.
 

Voadam

Legend
I like Cthulhu type stuff in my D&D. Cults of Freeport is a statless sourcebook for a D&D setting with just a lot of dark secret cults. Worth checking out. Easily adapted to other D&D settings, but setup with specifics for Freeport a commercial hub island city state with a history of having grown from origins as a pirate haven.
 

Marc_C

Solo Role Playing
The Lost Citadel setting for 5e:
 

Voadam

Legend
I also recommend checking out Midgard Campaign Setting. It has elements like a kingdom recently openly taken over by vampires and become an open horror show with blood taxes. There is also the story of a gnome prince having crossed Baba Yaga so she is successfully genociding the race and so in desperation a deal was made with devils for supernatural protection in return for regular sacrifices.
 


Just turn off the lights!

(Wocka wocka)

One thing I've found useful in my Strahd-adjacent game is to reinforce the dark overtones through Random Encounters and Random Weather.

I created a Random Weather table with the following descriptors:
  • Clouds (white, gray, or black / high, low, or oppressive)
  • Wind (still and unsettling, swirling fog, hard wind, etc)
  • Temperature (frigid and morose, wet and muggy, etc)

For my random encounters, I always try to have something there to remind the players of the darkness of the setting. So if I roll up a few zombies, I'll have another random table with things like:
  • freshly dug graves of young children
  • a house recently raided
  • a body hanging from a tree
  • a river bank clogged with the drowned corpses of cows
  • a broken-down cart peppered with arrows
  • a hand-painted sign posted to a tree, reading "All Is Lost"
And so on. I'll even roll those when there isn't an encounter.
 

A world cursed with a crippling omnipresent campaign-wide disease that kills indiscriminately, doesn't respond to conventional disease cure measures, turns disease fearers and disease doubters violently against each other, becomes more dangerous if you attempt to do anything more adventurous than sheltering in place, and has no end in sight?


...

Nah. That's too dark. No one would believe it.
 

Eltab

Lord of the Hidden Layer
Heroes of Horror, D&D 3.x and PF1 versions.
Both have more essays on creating atmosphere than new rules to introduce.
 

Bohandas

Adventurer
Religion/politics
I have to recommend the Marquis de Sade's (highly NSFW) magnum opus "120 Days of Sodom (the School of Libertinage)". It's the story of four wealthy serial killers who are looking for a crime that they haven't committed yet. You could easily borrow the extensive character bio from any of the four villain protagonists. Plus, by the end the story just degrades into a laundry list of bizarre and heinous crimes, including 150 unusual ways of murdering people

EDIT:
Other possible sources of inspiration are the full discographies of the bands GWAR, Insane Clown Posse, and Cannibal Corpse, as well as the song "Stay Wide Awake" by Eminem. The novel "Whargoul" by former GWAR frontman Dave Brockie is also a possible source of inspiration.

EDIT:
Also familiarize yourself with the biographies of Albert Fish, Jeffrey Dahmer, Walter Freeman, Josef Mengele, Shiro Ishii, Fred and Rose West, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, Dennis Rader, Herbert Mullin, Laurie Dann, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, and HH Holmes. As well as with the general policies of the tyrants Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Tiberius, Caligula, and Francois Duvalier (as well as the Axis powers and the communists (up to and including the modern ones) but that should go without saying)
 
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TwiceBorn2

Explorer
Religion/politics
EDIT:
Also familiarize yourself with the biographies of the Axis powers and the communists (up to and including the modern ones) but that should go without saying)
Western democratic powers also commit horrendous acts.

Why not add General Custer, or the US military at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and the bombing of Iraq on the pretext that they had weapons of mass destruction (which they didn't) to the inspirational reading list, while we're at it?
 


Bohandas

Adventurer
Ok, back to fantasy...

A certain region is trapped in a cycle of staged sham revolutions, similar to the Empire of Blood from Order of the Stick. Unlike Order of the Stick however, this isn;t merely for the enrichmemt of a mortal schemer, but rather a scheme by the baatezu to damn souls to hell. The cruelty of each regime inspires each generation to overthrow it and to be fanatically loyal to the cruelty of the next regime. And the constant warring ensures quick turnover and forces the beleaguered population into a state where they are often forced to compromise their morality to survive.

The clearest "hope" of ending this cycle is the 'Terminationary Front', a cult of demon-led fanatics who have vowed to end the cycle by destroying the nation outright

EDIT:
Also, each iteration of the nation's flag should be some variation of a circular arrow. That way it's almost right there in front of you. It's only a "revolution" in the sense that it takes you right back to exactly the place where you started.
 
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GMMichael

Guide of Modos
Nice save vs. forum flag, @DemoMonkey !

@der_kluge , you might try a gedanken experiment or two, instead of making everything DARK from the get-go. What chain of events would occur if the river ran dry? Would the lord roll in barrels of water? Would the crops die? Would the villagers move away, and who would accept them?

The follow-up questions get a bit darker: does the lord roll in clean water, or something toxic? Do the villagers have to eat their pets or beasts once the crops die? How are the refugees treated in other settlements - especially if they're not wanted?

Then go darker...
 

Bohandas

Adventurer
Nice save vs. forum flag, @DemoMonkey !

@der_kluge , you might try a gedanken experiment or two, instead of making everything DARK from the get-go. What chain of events would occur if the river ran dry? Would the lord roll in barrels of water? Would the crops die? Would the villagers move away, and who would accept them?

The follow-up questions get a bit darker: does the lord roll in clean water, or something toxic? Do the villagers have to eat their pets or beasts once the crops die? How are the refugees treated in other settlements - especially if they're not wanted?

Then go darker...

I think they would resort to cannibalism
 

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