10 ways to scare the living SHIT out of your players

~Sorry it’s been a bit since I’ve posted, been a bit busy.

One of the great challenges for a DM is to consistently and fluidly create challenge after challenge for your players.  I personally think it is an even greater accomplishment to scare the ever-loving crap out of them.  When a group of adventurers find their way through the dungeon, have defeated the minions, looted the corpses and faced the perils, there shouldn’t be a light at the end of the tunnel…unless that light is the oncoming flame of a terrible dragon that is.

But, as players develop their characters and gain levels, it’s harder and harder to throw something against them that literally starts them shaking.  Usually by paragon level a well groomed group can mow down those monsters you painstakingly developed in a scant few rounds of combat.  Now none of us like excessively long combats, but it’s good to have your precious beast last at least a few rounds longer than those goblins you faced three rooms back.  I’ve done some thinking and I figured out a few really nice ways to get your players sweating when it comes to solo challenges or even entire adventure arcs.  The common idea is ‘drop hitpoints/raise damage’.  This works wonders for combat length, and is a great way to make a good fight feel epic.  I’ve compiled a few other examples below.

Heroic Tier:

Ah, heroic tier.  Where your players stop just being adventurers and become the heroes they were fated to be.  This tier is just about everyone’s favorite.  Hell, it’s easy to get a level 2 fighter pissing himself when he comes up against a horde of slavering ghouls, but it also takes tact.  Yes, we want a challenge, yes we want a tooth and nail fight, but we don’t want to scare the players off just yet, they’ve got a long way to go.

  1. Outside circumstances: When your players come up against your delicately built solo, you want them to fear it, but while it plays the lead, others can make a close supporting role.  A nice way to make that solo a real winner is to have outside influence on it.  Perhaps it shares a symbiotic or parasitic link with its minion creatures, transferring damage to them or letting them take the fall for it.  Or a blessing from a nearby statue provides it with higher armor class and hit bonuses.  This mechanic works well for all tiers but it can make a huge impact on heroic tier players, especially new players, since it forces them to think about their surroundings when in a fight.  This of course has to be an obvious effect, and described as such.  When your blade hits the solo, you suddenly see one of its minions take a wound just as you would have struck it, or the solo is wreathed in the same color aura as the statue.  Something blatant to draw the eye and charge the mind.
  2. Elaborate traps: There’s usually a rouge in the party, so traps can work wonders as a skill-focused challenge for heroic tier players.  But this shouldn’t be your usual ‘throw a switch’ trap, but something that takes a full skill-challenge and some mental crunching to figure out.  This is also great if you know one or all of your players are a puzzle buff.  Activating one trap deactivates another, disarming one triggers two more, a trap must shed blood before it can be deactivated, anything to make the trap unique and more complex can prove to be a serious sweat situation for your party and also makes your rouge feel essential to the game.
  3. Shock factor: Again, this works great with all tiers, your players enter the final room, bones littered across the empty room, and see the gemstone they were commissioned to retrieve sitting on a pedestal.  As they near the gem, a thunderous cracking sound echoes through the chamber and suddenly a portion of the wall is gone, and in its place a golem made from the very brick of the wall starts to stagger towards you. Shock value is great for dramatic events.  Take a lesson from horror movies with the jump scare.  Sure, your players were expecting something, probably for those bones to animate into skeletons for them to face, but a golem suddenly rushing them?  At level 5, a party will be quaking at the thought of 100 tons of rock attacking them.  Bigger isn’t always better though.  That cracking wall could have just as easily been made by a mage casting a spell, or a fighter wielding a huge hammer.  The sudden change throws them off their game and forces players to fight harder, inevitably resulting in better role playing and probably a gaming story to boot.
  4. Limited Resources: The limiting of a player can provide LOTS of tension.  This is almost a global rule for scaring your players.  Take something away from them, be it their magic, a power, healing abilities, or even bonuses and you make that character find other ways of doing what they want to do.  A lot of players dread having their healing surges stolen by enemies, but if during a specific scenario they can’t use them at all?  Your players will be agonizing over every last hitpoint they have left and fighting with everything to try to keep from dying.

Paragon Tier: Now that your players have made a name for themselves, they’re starting to feel the first taste of true power.  It’s a bit harder to scare that same fighter when he’s 12th level.  Still, you can do it with a bit of creativity.

  1. Weaknesses and resistances: Adding resistances to a monster automatically makes it a bastard to kill.  But circumstantial resistances make for a well developed, many layered challenge.  Again, it makes the players think, “what can I do to hurt this thing?”.  A heavily armored villain has a weak spot in its armor, noticeable after the second round by a passive perception check.  Those rubbery monsters they’re fighting?  Hurt them with cold and suddenly their elastic skin becomes brittle and easy to penetrate. Adding weaknesses to a monster makes the combat faster, BUT it also makes the players feel great for finding out what makes it tick and die.
  2. Environmental effects:  It’s hard to focus on killing the young black dragon that’s been terrorizing the local townlett when your feet keep getting stuck in the bog and the fouled waters chew at your flesh like acid.  Adding in environmental effects can change the tide of a battle and draw your players deeper into the world.
  3. Spawn points: Yes, this makes combat very difficult and last a hell of a lot longer, but when your players are neck-deep in minions, it’s hard not to think “Oh shit…we’re going to die.” Dimensional rifts, spawning pools, summoning circles, these all work well to ‘zerg-swarm’ your players. You can even treat the swarm as a single creature to speed along combat, adding a few more hitpoints and another point of damage per creature introduced.

Epic Tier: The best of the best, your heroes are the stuff of legends and fables. Ultimate weapons, earth-shattering spells, and a personal divine channel to their gods, the epic tier is a fantastic place.  But this makes it doubly hard on the DM to make sure that they’re facing enough challenge to make the game worthwhile.

  1. Massive Damage:  Okay, we all know if you drop a creature’s hitpoints and increase its damage it makes the fight a bit more dramatic and combat goes a bit faster, but what if you allow the creature to make one HUGE attack and then resort to your usual tactics?  Depending on the circumstances, it can be an immediate attack, a charging attack, or a bloodied reaction, but if your beastie lays down a level 26 fighter from full hitpoints down to 1/4th with a single blow, your players will think twice about rushing in and locking swords with it.  What if it can do it again?  What if it happens next turn? Your leaders will be tasked to the limit to keep up with their pleas for healing and controllers and strikers alike will be keeping their distance.
  2. Limited Resources:  Again, limiting your players resources, especially at such a high level makes for some seriously stressful gameplay.  Removing or making their hard-earned magical weapons and items useless for a brief period will make them sweat and hope to their personal gods that that next hit goes through, or they can withstand that next blow.
  3. Dramatic Creatures and Enemies:  When dealing with Epic Tier, bigger is almost always better.  They’ve bled and scraped and crawled to get to this level so they can face down huge beasts and terrible denizens.  Well damn it, give it to them.  Huge earth elementals as big as a country side, vicious tentacle beasties from the blackest pits of the oceans,  and prime evils seeking the destruction of their plane should be their breakfast, lunch and dinner, maybe with a demented overlord, drunk on stolen power for afters.  When the ground beneath them rises up and lets out a terrible roar as it attempts to heave them off, I doubt there will be a closed mouth around your table.

Now keep in mind that these are only examples, and if you know of a fiercer way to scare the bejeesus out of your players, do it!  If someone at the table has a phobia, use it (gently, don’t scare your players away), if your players character is afraid of something, make it hunt them down.  But most of all, remember that you can’t CONSTANTLY scare your players.  Every now and again is great, and leads to great stories to tell around the tavern, but if every session lets up with your players sweating and clutching their chests you might want to ease up a bit.

Remember true believers, keep it fun and let the die fall where it may!

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~ by darkpatu on May 2, 2011.

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