Making a monster Fu%&ing SCARY #DnD

The dark passage unfolds before you, the mold slicked stones seeming to drink in your torchlight.  The decrepit stonework of this tunnel has given way behind you, partially blocking the doorway, making the corridor ahead your only choice of passage.  From somewhere deep in this mildewed catacomb an unearthly gurgling echoes up towards you, and a rush of fetid air makes your torch gutter, the flames dancing madly and casting fearsome shadows across the walls.  You try to swallow past the lump in your throat but find your mouth as dry as sand.  As you draw your blade with a trembling hand, you know that whatever is down this passage knows that you are here, and it is waiting.

Truly fearsome monsters are really very rare in most tabletop games.  A lot of the fear tied to these creatures has been tweaked and tested and eked out for (yes, I’m going to say it) the greener, more inexperienced players.  Now before someone jumps my shit about this, I’ll go ahead and assure you that I don’t think that this is a bad thing.  New gamers means more games and more games means better gaming material and errata to use.  That suits me just fine.  It also ensures that this game progresses along to a new generation of players.  However there are just some times when you want some good old fashioned “Save-vs-Death” rolls on the table.  Something to REALLY get the sweat going….depending on the personal hygiene of those present of course.

Now there’s still plenty to do to make that beastie head and shoulders above the usual rabble of gnolls, goblins and bugbears you throw at your party.  We all have those dream monsters that we want to throw at our party, something huge and hulking that can tear them limb from limb, but just decimating your party is only fun to some of us, and even then it gets pretty boring when your players get fed up with it and you wind up sitting alone rolling dice.  So, how do you put the fear of that slavering G’volknien that you spent hours building into your party?  Let’s take a look:

1. Pull from what you know: Not just about the game or the setting, but from your players and your experiences. Play on peoples fears and their desires. Touch on phobias and on innate human tendencies.  Most people are going to cringe when you vividly describe how the hulking Slavarii picks up the disembodied torso of a townsperson and takes a big, crunching bite, or when it gives a shake and dislodges hundreds of tiny spiders from its’ fur to rain down on the party.

2. Take a lesson from Hollywood: The bad guys never die till the very end and even then, they come back.  The villain hardly ever runs but can always catch up to the protagonist. Extraordinary situations are required for the villain to be killed.  If you aren’t already taking lessons from movie magic, start.

3. Video games have it right: When something is a big, nasty monster, it usually doesn’t just roll over and die in the first fight.  Hell no. It comes back again for round two, then it chases your ass and busts down a wall to get to you. Then you ‘kill’ it again.  And then it comes back one more time as you’re trying to get the hell out. THEN maybe it’s dead for good. This works exceptionally well in Paragon and Epic tier adventures, where the party is expecting a hell of a fight.  Don’t use this too much though as it really bogs down the pace when you have four encounters with the same monster, and also make sure to mix it up a bit each time the beastie comes back.  Change its’ tactics, its’ attacks, hell, even change its’ shape.  Killing the antagonist only to have them morph into a new creature is a classic move.

4. Make things innately wrong: The monster you make doesn’t even have to be super strong to be terrifying, it can just toy with the players minds and make them cringe at the very thought of what they are facing.  The townsfolk have been taken over by an evil force that mutilates their bodies and bends them to its’ will, turning them against you.  As you raise your shield to defend yourself, a sickly cold wave rushes over you as you stare into eyeless faces, mouths that stretch too wide, fingertips ending in lamprey-like maws, chest cavities split open, drooling blood and ichor as their rib-cage teeth gnash and gurgle... If you need a bit of inspiration for these kinds of creatures, watch The Thing, The Peacock King, and play games like Parasite Eve, or even just look up some half-assed Zalgo images. It doesn’t even have to be that specific, the shift could be subtle changes, like things moving much slower or faster than normal, or perhaps a change in perspective just to put the players in a situation that unnerves them.

5. Be very descriptive: It’s no good telling your party about the horrors of the corpse-swamp, make them live it.  Explain how as the smoke-like gas burps up from the virulent sludge, the faces of those slain silently scream out from the wisps, and how that the slime seems to pull at their boots as they trudge through. Suddenly that slight sucking turns to a tug. Then a pull. Before you can react the cleric is pulled under with the sound of a pudding dropped on the floor, the slime settling with barely a ripple. Bones start to bob up to the surface of the scum as the thick water swells and rises into a grey-green wave reaching over the parties heads.  There isn’t a monster in the swamp, the monster is the swamp. See? Much better, and now there’s a serious fight ahead.

No matter how you make your players sweat, remember that even if your monsters aren’t scary, you can be.  Bring back the classic saves, vs Death, vs Petrification, vs Polymorph. Make these new players really understand what it means to be a hero and to survive against the worst odds.

Don’t worry about arrow flight sheets though, we can leave those in the past. ~shudder~

~ by darkpatu on August 31, 2011.

2 Responses to “Making a monster Fu%&ing SCARY #DnD”

  1. Good tips, all. I particularly like item five. A lot of newbie GMs fail to recognize the value of expertly crafted description of seemingly innocuous things. Not to mention the importance of controlling your pacing and tone during these descriptions.

    I tend to disagree on item two, though. While I won’t say it’s never good to have a villain return from the grave, if it’s done too often, or done without good reason, it can make players feel like they’re just actors reading from a script. If the villain turns and begins to stride away to let his minions “handle” the heroes and the ranger fires of an arrow to crit him, he or she should feel like they’ve altered the course of the game.

    Speaking of bringing people back, though, have you ever considered bringing dead PCs back as vengeful undead foes for the party?

  2. #2 is more a way to make the villain feel more invulnerable till the endgame comes about. Now if that player did take bead on the nemesis and made an awesome shot, I’d let it ride, and hell, if they take them out then and there then they’re just that bad ass.

    Usually however when I make a super-villain a single hit won’t be enough to take them down, though I’d gladly bring it back up and say that because of what they did it’s easier to take them out in the end.

    To clarify, the way I’d use rule 2 is more like they get shot full of arrows and calmly break them off at the shaft and continue on, or they fall down a chasm only to be spotted climbing back up. Good example, think Tai-Lung from Kung-Fu panda. Nigh untouchable, escaping against unbeatable odds, turning deadly situations to his advantage, and until the key element is met, unbeatable.

    And using dead players as villains? Fantastic idea. Especially if you’re fighting against a necromancer or demon of some kind, to turn a former comrade against the party is deliciously devious. I’ll have to use that some time.

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