Scary Scary Monsters

  • So I’m busily populating my Points of Light hex map with encounters and threats, and I’m having a really hard time with monsters. Gryphons and harpies and werebears…they’re all so quintessentially fantasy, but they don’t scare me — and I worry they’ll have a similar effect on my players.

Here was my comment:

My gut feeling is that if your players aren’t scared (or at least scared for their characters) by the monsters, they don’t have enough “skin in the game.”

Step 1: Have permanent effects. If whatever the monsters do (perhaps even including killing the characters) can be reversed, it’s just not as scary. The easier it is to fix, the less scary, but as long as there’s a known fix, getting effected goes from horror to nuisance. The monsters are just bags of hit-points when the PCs are just bags of hit-points that can be restored with a couple spells or some rest. Monsters that you want to be scary should have some good chance of permanently changing the characters for the worse. Death counts if there’s no resurrection, but too much and the players will just avoid identifying with the characters if they still agree to play at all. Level Drain, destroying stats (e.g. the slashing, filthy claws of a Harpy disfigure the victim and remove 1 point of CHA on a critical hit), inflicting curses, chronic disease, phobias, destruction of precious possessions (yay, rust monsters!) are all ways to make the players fear the outcome of the battle even if “victorious.”

Step 2: Be Unfair. Fairness isn’t scary. It may or may not be exciting, but if you think you’re evenly matched, you may feel bad about losing, but you won’t dread even getting in the fight. You gave it the old college try. Monsters are scary when you’re their prey, not their equal. If your harpies are too tough for anyone under 20th level to take on (perhaps they really are death spirits embodied, as in Greek mythology, and immune to missile fire and spells), or just too numerous when they do show up, then you can get your players to cower under the trees whenever a flight of them wheels through the sky.

Step 3: Use sparingly. Unless you’re running Call of Cthulhu you probably want your players to play brave adventurers. It’s easy to accidentally overdo it and cause them to “turtle” because the outside world is just too scary.

I’ve been thinking about fear in RPGS a bit recently, but I’ll save that for another post.

4 thoughts on “Scary Scary Monsters

  1. Thanks for your thoughts, both here and on my blog. I agree with all three of your points (er, steps). Losing 8 hit points and losing an eye have dramatically different impacts on the player. I think the key for me is “use sparingly.” When I drop a dire troll into the narrow mountain pass, I want the players to really think long and hard about how badly they want to get over that mountain.

  2. Oops. I forgot an important point/step: Anticipation.

    Fear is anticipation. If the players don’t know what could happen, they can’t fear it, just be surprised by it. And players are often very unhappy to be surprised with something bad happening that they didn’t have any way to see coming. They have a right to be peeved if they lose an eye when they thought all they were risking was hit points.

    It can be tempting to be all hard-core, and teach them in the School of Brutally Hard Knocks, particularly if that’s how you learned in your first campaigns. But even if you don’t piss off your players that way, they’ll only know enough to fear the second time around…and that’s a waste of perfectly good opportunities for fear.

  3. Here are a few more ideas:

    To be really scary, be sick. A monster that plucks out your eyes and eats them is scary; a monster that makes you pluck out your own eyes and eat them is sick. I agree with Josh: use sparingly. Once is a memorable experience. Every game and your players start looking into nice asylums for you…

    Another technique (less visceral, more challenge in Josh’s nice terminology) is to establish their place far up in the hierarchy. If NPC’s that are at least as powerful as the PC’s are scared, then the PC’s should be scared. Or if there is a boss monster that the PC’s have been up against frequently and that just defeated them,
    have a voice call out: “You fool! Do not slay them… my plans for them are not complete” and have the boss monster slink away to his master, cowering.

  4. I haven’t ever found gross-out to work in RPGs. Maybe it’s my GM style, but while I can get people to go “ewwww!” I can’t seem to get that to translate into fear.

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