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Wights Are Already Scary

Arnaud writes:

When I was a kid and playing BECMI, wights used to be scary. In 5e, the worst they can do is make healing less effective for a day. What about replacing life drain with exhaustion?

Love new house rule ideas, keep ‘em coming! ♥
I’ve seen “life drain should be exhaustion” proposed before so you’re on to something, and you have the best execution of that I’ve ever seen and I’m considering it.

I haven’t recoursed to that yet though, because…

New players don’t know that the HP max can get restored on long rest, which makes wights super scary to them. That can also be an easy avenue for house ruling, changing the condition for restoring the lost HP max. Not that a day with less effective healing is nothing, that’s already plenty scary in the right circumstances.

There are also four other reasons wights are scary in my game.

Diegetically they are undead (in older Swedish lore “vandöd” which means more maldead, misdead, wrongdead). That’s messed up right there. There are so many ways to make undead (or any monster) scary. They can be someone the player characters know about and thought was dead, or the environment or circumstances or description can make them scary. They’re at the intersection of body horror and the fear of the gateway between life and death.

Second, wights can insta-kill since they have an attack that bypasses death saves. That’s also pretty scary!

Third, and I’ll understand if you don’t think this one don’t count, since it’s the consequence of a house rule: Oh, Injury!, but, where all monsters wear down your hope and stamina with fatigue, wight’s life drain is a “messy” attack that inflicts actual wounds. If the character can’t get the wound healed within a few days, they’re in trouble. Sure, it’s dumb of me to say “I don’t need to house-rule wights because I’ve already house-ruled the general damage system” but it is what it is.

The fourth reason does apply to non–house-ruled games and I saved it for last because it’s the best. They can turn you into a zombie. Sprinkle some wights in with your zombies and you have the contagious walking dead army of your dreams.♥

Of course, all four of these are plenty compatible with your exhaustion suggestion. Fun fun fun.♥

PS:
I’m not as into your other house rule suggestion:

Oh, another thing: incorporeal undead can move through things as they wish, none of this “take damage if they end their turn inside an object” bullshit.

I think that’d be bad, for four reasons:

It’s a great limit if your player characters find a way to become incorporeal, it’s a fun limit to make running them as DM more challenging and engaging, it better matches how I thought they worked as a kid, and it’d make them impossible to hit otherwise. They could just phase through every sword swing coming their way.