Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Help me make monsters scary again

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.

Oh sure, they're threatening and all. They can maim and kill characters, and in a pinch the PCs can rally together and bring 'em down in a hail of arrows, lightning bolts and fancy swordplay. But they're not scary, not in the sense that they inspire the PCs to do much more than simply slay them. And it ain't like I can't pull off a terrifying scene setup -- I can don't worry 'bout that. But I see more storytelling potential in "monsters" that stand on two legs: corrupt nobles, death cults, warmongering orc raiders, nefarious highwaymen, etc.

I think it's because monsters aren't smart. With a few notable exceptions, they don't plot or scheme or try to worm their way into positions of power. They react to stuff and defend themselves if attacked. That's about it. I've read James Maliszewski's treatise on Gygaxian Naturalism, and it's a very cool way to think about monsters -- but that still doesn't solve their innate lack of smarts.

Anyone have any suggestions about how to plop a few full-on monsters in my map -- without having them simply become speed bumps with hit points? Or, a better question might be: what are some monsters that are genuinely intelligent and could offer a real, perennial threat to the campaign?


The Fierce said...

Question: How much do they need to "look like" monsters? Perhaps such things as kelpies; looking like normal horses until the seaweed-like tentacles come plunging out of their skin. Pod people are good - sure, they look like normal traders, until one of them bleeds green. Or triffids. I'm still terrified of my vegetables. [snort]

(Obvious answer to *your* question: Earthdawnian Horrors.)

Joshua Macy said...

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.

Stuart said...

Monsters don't have to be sapient to be scary. Look at animals. Many of them are very smart about what it is that they do.

On the other hand, it seems like what you are looking for are villains - and, particularly, long-term villains.

Seriously, though, I don't think it is difficult to have monster villains of this sort. Come up with an idea for a human villain - just a basic motive and objective is enough. Now turn it into a monster and make the necessary adjustments to its motives and modus operandi.

freyja3120 said...

I don't know what creatures are available in your setting, but I've found that rakshasas are startlingly intelligent, and as such can plan their attacks.

Another idea that might scare players as well as characters (which is important in making things truly scary in gaming) are things that are out of the ordinary. You could take a formidable but formerly unintelligent creature and give it intelligence in some subplot way (in fantasy, you have a lot of options). Also, you could have a single above average creature coordinating the others. A creature that is alarming as a pure slugfest is even more alarming when they strategize (think the raptors in Jurassic Park).

Unknown said...

I think it's all int he presentation, both at the point of attack and beforehand.

Point of attack: Don't ever say a monster's name, instead describe it in lovingly horrific detail. This goes for its attacks, too. I once scared the crap out of a player by describing how a simple undead was eating into her flesh, and how it seemed to become even more frenzied after it opened a hole in her torso and could smell her insides.

Prior to Encounter: Build up a local legend about the monster and its effects on the surroundings. Just one such legend, planted a session or two before they meet, will give the players some context in which to fear the monster, especially if the legends make the monster seem long-lived and powerful, horrific, or both.

Robert Conley said...

Right now I am finishing up a map project for the next issue of Fight On!. Because Fight On! is focused toward OD&D(1974) my palette of monster is very traditional.

What helps me for that and the regular points of light are the nature shows that my two young boys watch all the time.

Sprinkled among these show are things like "When Animals attack" and other like it.

It use the various scenarios shown as inspiration for my own.

For example in Southland along Wicking Lake there is an "lair" site where a giant crocdile waits for anybody walking by. I include ad-hoc grappling rule where the hapless target gets pulled under the water.

In the upcoming points of the lights where I do a similar thing for Orcas. I saw this amazing video of a Orca lunging out of the sea to nail some seals.

When my editor saw this he called a reality check and still had a hard time believing it when I showed him the youtube video.

An encounter I just made has a entire merchant caravan dead from an attack of giant wasps. Which are still buzzing around it.

I also sprinkle unusual locations for lair like one lair has a bunch of bears living in a abandon underground cistern.

Jonathan Jacobs said...

Patrick : you may be interested in my extension of James Maliszewski's post about Gygaxian Naturalism - I've basically decided to extend my Monsters & Terrain core lists to solve the above problem you are alluding to: how can you reasonably populate a map with an 'ecology of monsters' that makes sense. Here's the link - Extending Gygaxian Naturalism I. Hope it helps! or at least... helps catalyze some new ideas! =D

Patrick W. Rollens said...

Thanks for the link, Jonathan!