Grimdark. Grit. Glory. Welcome back, Outlander. Now that I’ve finished my series on the Occult, I want to share with you some thoughts I’ve stewed on for awhile on how Dungeon Masters can use aesthetics, settings, and themes for grittier gaming in D&D 5e, as well as mechanics and monsters that further this. Grittier worldbuilding and roleplaying. For this piece, I’ve focused on a dozen elements. Aesthetics: Garbage, Grime, Germs, and Gore. Settings: Goth, Ghosts, Gristle, and Grease. Themes: Grief, Gloom, Guts, and Glory. Many of these relate to one another, and the divisions may sometimes seem arbitrary, but stick with me here, you’ll find a lot to work with!
I’d like to briefly mention a big inspiration for this piece: Giffyglyph’s free Darker Dungeons homebrew ruleset, which I highly recommend, and reference in several places. You might also want to check out TV Tropes’ Sliding Scale of Shiny Versus Gritty
So you want to play a gritty game for your D&D campaign. Maybe your players’ characters live in a Crapsack World, where everything went from bad to worse, and stayed that way. Maybe they live in the filthy feudalism of the Dung Ages. Or a Polluted Wasteland, or a Soiled City on a Hill. Maybe they live in the Wretched Hive of City Noir. Or, perhaps, they live in a Gothic Age, where monsters roam and phantoms haunt. Where the forests want to eat you, and the dungeons may take more than just your corpse.
Grit. Maybe your players find their characters born into a world like Fallout, or BioShock, or Mad Max, with no guarantee of survival. Worlds without mercy. Warhammer. Dark Sun. Dark Souls. Game of Thrones. Darkest Dungeon. Worlds that keep you on your toes, keep you up at night, and offer the slimmest of hope.
But characters persevere nonetheless. They scrape by. They survive, they fight, they find purpose. Gothic and Grimdark tales usually stay a cut below the utter helplessness and hopelessness of Lovecraft’s Cosmic Horror. Life proves messy, but not meaningless.
As a note on that, I highly suggest Terrible Writing Advice’s tips on Grimdark, a comical explanation on some of the common narrative pitfalls of gritty worlds. In particular, he reminds us to avoid the edgelord excesses, where the setting never rises above brooding and bleakness, where everyone exists solely with vices and flaws. Where a Straw Dystopia goes out of its way to stomp on puppies for no reason, and runs on pure coercion and repression, with no plausible stability or logistics for its unending war. Where the Perfectly Innocent Victim exists simply for the Perfectly Evil Villain to destroy, and that villain only exists for the hero to kill, a hero who has no redeeming qualities either! No, that sounds worthless.
Instead, Terrible Writing Advice reminds us to shoot for moral ambiguity, not moral handwaving. Yes, for the most part, we want more Michael Moorcock or Joss Wheden or George R.R. Martin, not more Marquis de Sade. Our gritty gaming should not succumb to misanthropic shock value with no hope and no contrast, no struggle and no tension. No, we can do better than that. So strap in, and let’s do it right!
Tip: monsters from the 5e Monster Manual bear no superscript, while those from Volo’s Guide to Monsters bear a “2”, and those from Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes bear a “3”.
PART I: AESTHETICS
Yes, garbage aesthetics. Maybe the PCs live in the Dung Ages, where people subsist on gruel and dump the bedpans out the window til the filth fills the street. More muck piles than magpies, more refuse heaps than robins. You can no longer bathe in the old rivers; waste and sewer infrastructure haven’t yet taken hold, or broke down. The trash carts are big business ’round these parts and the rich don’t even pay; scavengers compete over this lottery of discards.
But skip ahead. Let’s say a little industry does get going. Output intensifies. Disposability increases. Landfills amass. Now an underclass live amongst refuse and rubble, trash people discarded by society, they who sift and sort and save up meager bits from which to fashion survival. Yes, the smog chokes the city and Polluted Wastelands dot the countryside. Palace gates and glistening robes stand stark against makeshift hovels and grungy clothes. Fountain water in the courtyards, and fetid waters in the commons.
Or, maybe hubris and corruption have already provoked a reckoning, maybe this realm has sunk to ruin. A realm of rubble, a Soiled City on a Hill. Every clean cloth holds value. People hold out for a miracle deep within the muck.
D&D 5e Monster Ideas: Black Pudding, Blight, Chuul, Gelatinous Cube, Retreiver3, Nupperibo3, Xorn.
Grime refers mostly to solids, like dirt and soot. You can grime up your campaign by tweaking Terrain, Traps, and Treasure. Terrain and surfaces should emphasize dirt and dust, garbage and gravel, stains and soot. Traps can include realistic details like broken floorboards and falling beams, or haphazardly stored blades, carcasses, or chemicals. Also, vermin. Treasure can be stored alongside bones, dirt, powder, sand, or straw. And it can have many complications. Dust and droppings. Excrement. Maggots and moths, mold and mildew, mud. Rust and refuse. Slime and spores and stains. Viruses, viscera, and vomit. As a DM, make the players work for unblemished treasure.
On that note, you can even prompt an Intelligence Check for cleaning treasure to improve its condition and usability. Keep in mind though that not everything should get grody and grimy: an occasional gloss or glitter, a glint or glow, give valuable contrast.
D&D 5e Monster Ideas: Cranium Rats, Mimic, Rust Monster, Vegepygmies2.
A world of wounds and warts, and that’s just the lucky. Squalor brings sickness. Germs and gangrene bring worse. Coughs and chills. Pestilence. Plague. You as a DM can roll percentile dice when the party encounters corpses, poisoned wells, or vermin swarms, using standard Fifth Edition diseases, or Dndspeak’s 100 Diseases for 5e, or the Darker Dungeons “Deadly Diseases” section.
Bring on the aesthetics of suiting up for a siege, of detoxing after a dungeon. Bring on downtime for the sickbed and hospital fetch quests and their motifs. Bring on the outbreaks and quarantines. Not only that, but you can kick it up a notch with PCs at risk of becoming disease vectors themselves!
Extent of Infection, 1d6:
1 – Minor Local
2 – Major Local
3 – Minor Regional
4 – Major Regional
5 – Minor Continental
6 – Major Continental
Creature Source of Infestation, 1d100:
PCs As Disease Vectors, 1d8:
1 – All PCs susceptible. None can infect others.
2 – All PCs susceptible. Some can infect others.
3 – All PCs susceptible. All can infect others.
4 – Only 1 PC susceptible. Cannot infect others.
5 – Only 1 PC susceptible. Can become infect others.
6 – All PCs immune. None can infect others.
7 – All PCs immune. Some can infect others.
8 – All PCs immune. All can infect others.
Now, as a DM, you can tell the players the results. But if you’re dastardly devil like me, don’t tell them! You can make them work for it, give them a nice mystery with some actual stakes. Yeah, a puzzle they won’t ignore. And some solid Plot Incitement too: outbreaks make a great explanation for why people go on adventures, whether to avoid danger zones or quarantines, to avoid suspicion and scapegoating, or to gather medical resources.
Also worth noting, germ aesthetics imply not just death and dying, but also medical intervention. Recall the unforgettable motifs of the Sawbones, or the Plague Doctor. Magical healing imagery and medicinal herbs items help too. You have a lot to draw upon.
D&D 5e Monster Ideas: Corpse Flower, Gray Render3, Sibriex3, Slaad, Wastrilith3.
Scars. Blood and bone. Viscera and corpses. Wounds to eyes and stomach. Gruesome scenes of gore and guts. Yes, definitely consider incorporating some of these aesthetics, but don’t get too excessive with it either. Ask your players for their preferences to know the line. Why? Well, most players do not want to game in an edgy pukefest of constant brain-matter, mutilation, and baby-eating. Let’s take a closer look on this.
Story time. Years ago, as a DM, I had a monster in a town going insane that skinned townsfolk and stitched their hides to his body like a flying squirrel from Hell. Good old Skinwings, as I called him. Now, looking back, I did that purely for shock value. Yeah, it served basically no plot purpose, and now it just makes me facepalm. I comically overdid it. Instead, I suggest using gore more sparingly and strategically. Perhaps use more subtle routes like PCs risking lingering wounds and scars when they drop to 0 HP. If you do go the Skinwings route, at least have it fit some lore.
In like fashion, you can just stop magic-ing away the corpses when creatures and characters die in game. Bloody battlefield consequences make sense. That adds gritty realism the right way. Now, for the few special players who do want to game in a continuous Scorn-style landscape straight from the hellish brains of H.R. Giger or Zdzislaw Beksinski, still make sure to provide some contrast. Imagine, after all that gore: a confident but clean villain. An immaculate heirloom. Heck, even a bath. These details still matter. In fact, now they matter even more.
D&D 5e Monster Ideas: Cadaver Collector3, Carrion Crawler, Gnoll, Maw Demon2.
PART II: SETTINGS
Behold the Gothic, which emphasizes macabre and morbid scenes of death and decay. If you think about it, a proper Gothic setting has both wilderness and city aspects too. The dark and brooding forests where bramble, briar, bush, and brush will twist, trip, and trap adventurers. Go all Grimm’s Fairy Tales with it: maybe have the players use the Adventures in Middle-Earth Travel Rules even, or The Angry GM’s Exploration Module. The Gothic city has cobblestones and cobwebs, gargoyles and graveyards. It evokes imposing architecture: ribbed vaults and risen buttresses, spires and statues and stained glass. It conjures the night, and uncertain terror.
More than that, a Gothic setting may also involve Occult Science. The video game Amnesia: the Dark Descent offers tons of instructive value in this regard. Consider necronomy: the study and articulation of the threshold between life and death. The blasphemy of studying corpses for medical knowledge. And recall Frankenstein’s Monster: all spells have their cost in this setting.
D&D 5e Monster Ideas: Death Knight, Doppelganger, Ettercap, Flesh Golem, Gargoyle, Helmed Horror, Nightmare, Shambling Mound, Vampire, Werewolf.
The ghastly. Who doesn’t love a good ghost story? A haunted house or an eerie thicket. Poltergeists disturbing the home. The unfinished business of lost loved ones and ancestors become apparitions. An Ancestral Curse. A Burden of the Past. A phantasmal pursuit. You can do so much with these, constructing settings around Grief, as I’ll show soon enough. Ghosts even give an exciting aesthetic ingredient: ectoplasm!
D&D 5e Monster Ideas: Ghost, Specter, Wraith.
Gristle. The bindings of tendons and ligaments. Undead skeletons and zombies rising from bonepiles and bloodpools and burialgrounds. You can have a full-on Zombie Apocalypse, or you can use just a few special ones from Adam’s 100 Horrific Variations for the undead. An undead-heavy setting typically emphasizes survival and the contrast of life and death, which can also add grit.
D&D 5e Monster Ideas: Ghoul, Skeleton, Spawn of Kyuss2, Wight, Zombie.
Grease here refers to liquids like globs of motor grease, sludge and slime, even fatty oils. Not only does this suggest an aesthetic, but it also implies some specific settings. For example, the Dieselpunk genre of speculative fiction, which depicts retro-futurist diesel engine aesthetics, first comes to mind. Gritty settings like those of Fallout, BioShock, and Mad Max exemplify this. Likewise, the industrial aspects of Warhammer 40,000, the tabletop wargaming franchise that literally defined the Grimdark fiction genre with its tagline, “In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.” Warhammer 40,000’s frenzy of amoral ultraviolence evokes warmachines lubricated as much with blood as with oil. Gritty to the max.
D&D 5e Monster Ideas: Boggle, Giff3, Grimlock, Hellfire Engine3, Orc, Tlincalli2.
PART III: THEMES
Grief. Player and Non-Player Characters will sometimes end up distressed, disfigured, deranged, or dying. Where you find suffering, you find grief. Logically, in order to drive home a harrowing loss, you as a DM have to have built up an emotional connection beforehand. A gradual tension toward death with a partially-bonded character? That can work. A sudden death with a well-bonded character? That can work too. But you can’t do a sudden death for a partially-bonded character. Players just won’t care. Gritty doesn’t mean constant deaths the audience view as pointless, no, it means tragedy.
But how do you do it? To work tragedy properly into a gritty setting, you need some ingredients. First you need the intimate setup: bonding and camaraderie in tender moments and places. Have players detail backstory connections to NPCs, have their Downtime activities mention specific named individuals and the antics that arise from them. Then you need the deathly delivery: some passion, some intensity, that fatal flaw or reversal of fortune ending in loss. Ideally, this arises naturally from player choices and agency, so it feels meaningful. And if the players didn’t see the death directly, make extra space for players to speculate and to react. Maybe even let them track down the body for a proper burial. Gritty realism indeed.
Finally, you need to drive home the grief with mourning, which gives catharsis. In D&D 5e, the DM can use Short Rests and Long Rests to prompt players’ campfire stories of memories of the wounded or deceased. You can have Downtime with funerals, memorials, even the erecting of a statue. Give the players some framing then let them describe their involvement. And other NPCs should mourn too, let the players sympathize with them. As a matter of fact, keepsake items extend this over time.
Looking back to our settings, gothic stories and ghost stories show a natural fit for grappling with grief, as do tales of the undead, as they all directly relate to death. Dieselpunk has a harder time: Fallout and BioShock often give somewhat heavyhanded exposition, whereas Mad Max does it well by using Max’s visions to accentuate grief. And that works for Grimdark too. As a DM, don’t fear giving a player a vision or a dream to explore grief, it can really deepen things.
D&D 5e Monster Ideas: Banshee, Intellect Devourer, Revenant, Sorrowsworn3.
Gritty games can get downright grim. They do not shy away from doom and gloom. Scarcity. Precarity. Vulnerability. All of these can build gloom. But you shouldn’t always go beyond the Despair Event Horizon into pure hopelessness the way Cosmic Horror does either. You have to find a balance. Villains track down heroes and harm innocents. Monsters can eat characters. Brutal. But the players’ defeat should never come guaranteed; without struggle, the game becomes pointless. Both nonsensical death and destruction for their own sake, and overabundant resurrection magic, can trivialize the drama a gritty game requires. Your campaign will feel more gritty with a Dark Souls style risky resurrection than with “Rocks fall, everybody dies”, or comic book Lazarus Pits. For this reason, I recommend using Matt Mercer’s Special Resurrection Rule.
Ready to level up your roleplaying? One of the best ways to promote roleplaying with gloom involves trauma, coping mechanisms, and vices. You can use the Afflictions module in the Darker Dungeons guide, but I would also suggest promoting freeform roleplaying around PCs dealing with addiction, escapism, irritability, obsession, pessimism, the kind of things that can build Character Arcs. And remember, gloom means little without a glimmer of hope.
D&D 5e Monster Ideas: Aboleth, Gibbering Mouther, Intellect Devourer, Mind Flayer, Morkoth2, Neogi2, Oblex3, Star Spawn3.
Guts. No, not those guts. Courage! Nerve! A must-have for gritty gaming. You can give out Inspiration to players when their characters struggle with or overcome trauma, when they push headlong into danger, when they rally after a near-defeat. You can give temporary virtue boons by drawing upon the mechanics of spells and abilities like Virtue, Protection From Evil and Good, Bardic Inspiration, Guidance, or Expeditious Retreat. Not only that, but you can use Warhammer’s Fate Points: you can give points to players when they defeat formidable foes and bosses, which they can exchange to survive a final, killing blow from an enemy. Sweet!
D&D 5e Monster Ideas: Balhannoth3, Beholder, Bodak2, Boneclaw3, Lich, Nagpa3, Skull Lord3.
With guts, comes glory. Epic moments, hard-earned victories, and praise. As a DM, you can boost this with descriptions of fanfare and flourishes in dramatic moments of battle, like when players attack with Advantage. And if you want to invite more player participation, you can use the Optional Rule: Players Describe Killing Blows, a favorite at many tables. Not only that, but you can also use the Optional Rule: Critical Hits Use One Maxed and One Rolled Die to prevent those critical whiffs that sometimes happen. Everyone hates those. Also, you can consider adding something like having killing blows from players demoralize enemies through triggering things like Concentration checks to nearby opponents. Finally, you can have NPCs give heroic titles to players after they complete particularly glorious deeds. Just make sure to choose ones appropriate to the setting, not random ones like Cheesebanisher. Besides, I already took that one. Ok, but here’s a generator for some inspiration on titles.
D&D 5e Monster Ideas: Ancient Dragons, Archdevils3, Demon Princes3, Leviathan, Illithilich2, Nightwalker3, Tarrasque.
I hope you enjoyed this piece on gritty gaming for D&D 5e. Make sure to share it if you liked it, and let me know in the comments what you thought. I publish new posts each Tuesday, and in the meantime, I post original D&D memes and writing updates daily over on my site’s Facebook Page. Also, if you want to keep up-to-date on all my posts, check the bottom sign-up widget to receive email notifications when I release new posts. A big thanks as always to my Patron on Patreon, helping keep this project going: Rudy. Thanks for your support, Rudy!