Boo! Pity the Ambush Monster

I love the idea of monsters who snatch unwary PCs and drag them back to their lair, but in practice that's tough to pull off.

fear-1987173_960_720.jpg

Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Did You Just Punch Out Cthulhu?​

The surrounding mushroom forest had a strange hush to it. Giant mushrooms towered over their smaller brethren in a dizzying variety of shapes and shades. Where before the mushrooms were a riotous explosion of colors, in the dark some glowed in green and blue hues. Sparkling spores lit the air, and some kind of strange insect buzzed erratically. It was almost soothing if not for the obvious signs of a disturbance at their camp. The campfire was out. Several mushrooms had been crushed or pushed aside. Of Ra-Aten, there was no sign. Melarae kneeled to inspect the ground. She exchanged a worried look with Lilliyana.
“What?” asked Allumer, looking back and forth between them.
“This looks like bear tracks—” began Melarae.
“That’s one big bear,” said Sorrow with a smirk. “Would have to be, so Ra-Aten can carve his way out of it after it eats him.”
“That’s just it.” Lilliyana bent down to take a closer look at the tracks. “It’s a very large bear. And not a normal bear. At least not the kind native to the Gleanniguie forest.”
Inspired by the "screambear" from Annihilation, I wanted to have a fungus-controlled bear-like monster who uses the voices of its victims to lure characters to their doom. And then when that doesn't work it just leaps out from the darkness, grabs a victim, and drags them back to its lair.

When players can't play, we come up with an excuse to have their characters out of commission. In this case, our human rogue wasn't able to play, so that meant the sporebear had "already gotten him" and was mimicking his voice. Of course, the players knew he wasn't playing, so they knew it wasn't him.

That left basic ambush tactics. The bear's screaming causes fear and panic, so it waited to see who failed and ran for their lives, and hunted them down. That was the plan, but that's not how it played out.

The current party is all eighth level: tiefling sorcerer, tiefling warlock, gnome artificer, elf druid, and elf ranger. Once the sporebear screamed, the druid and artificer panicked and ran. And then it was instantly incinerated by the sorceress.

Just like that, my ambush monster was defeated in under three rounds. So I added another one.

Ambush!​

Hackney pulled a grenade from his pouch and set a timer, shoving it in the skull-like mouth. It beeped three times before going off. KA-BOOM! The explosion shattered the skull of the sporebear, launching Hackney backwards. “That’s my opening: Malprg comselh!” KA-FWOOSH! Allumer sent another ball of flame into the bear, scorching the surrounding mushrooms. The sporebear was on fire, relentlessly charging toward Hackney. Sorrow landed in front of it. “That’s as far as you go!” The bear-thing took a swipe at him and Sorrow blocked it with his blade. It reared up for another blow when it grunted and fell over, an arrow sticking out of the back of its skull.
The gnome looked like a bite-sized snack, so the second sporebear chose him. The sporebear's bite initiated a grapple and it began dragging the gnome back to its lair to eat him. The gnome screamed bloody murder and the other heroes ran to the rescue. The hexblade cast fly on himself and on the ranger, who began tracking where the sporebear was from above. They couldn't see it from the mushroom forest canopy, but they could certainly hear the gnome's screams. The ranger pointed out that being grappled by the bear wasn't such a bad thing, as it might reveal the creatures' lair (and the fate of their missing companion). But nobody was interested in being mauled, so the party just threw everything they had at it.

It turns out you can do quite a bit while grappled in Fifth Edition. The gnome cast thunderwave, which blew the sporebear back ten feet and stopped the grapple. That explosion gave the flying scouts a target as the thunderwave knocked over mushrooms as well as the sporebear. They directed the sorceress, who blasted the sporebear (along with much of the mushroom forest) into next week with an upcast fireball.

The Art of the Ambush​

It's a common horror trope, but it's worth distinguishing what makes an ambush monster so scary. The fear of an ambush monster is a delicate balancing act between ensuring a character is dragged against their will and promising a much worse fate when it drags the character to its lair.

In theory, monsters can grapple characters and drag them away. In practice, grappling isn't enough to stop a character from fiercely resisting. That means grappling is probably not enough for an ambush monster to ambush anyone at higher levels. Instead, they'll need to inflict other conditions: incapacitated, paralyzed, petrified, stunned, or unconscious. Some of these are achieved by brute force attacks by reducing a PC's hit points to zero, which unfortunately takes away player agency.

Ambush monsters are most effective when characters lose their cool. Fear effects work well, and to that end the fear effect of the sporebear's scream tactically achieved what I was hoping for. But it required more than one monster to help separate the characters from each other, with one scaring a runner right into the waiting arms of the other one. If I had to do it all over again, I would emphasize effects that reduce movement or temporarily paralyze the character rather than just inflicting damage. And it's worth giving the monster some resistances or more hit points so it can withstand attacks as it drags victims back, or other means of transporting without leaving it open to attacks (burrowing, teleporting, etc.).

For those of you who celebrate, Happy Halloween!

Your Turn: How do you handle ambush monsters in your game without just insta-killing PCs?
 

log in or register to remove this ad

Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca


It's a common horror trope, but it's worth distinguishing what makes an ambush monster so scary. The fear of an ambush monster is a delicate balancing act between ensuring a character is dragged against their will and promising a much worse fate when it drags the character to its lair.

The problem here is in the first few words: it's a horror trope. DnD pc's, by and large, aren't really horror protagonists, they're action heroes. A scary monster needs to be scary not to a person, but to someone who's very, very good at using violence to make problems go away.

When I've seen horror + action movie done well, it's because the plot has made fighting the mmonster a non-starter. Sometimes, it's for one (or both) of two reasons: the monster is too strong to kill (though it can be driven off) and retreat is not an option - ie Aliens. The real threat wasn't the xenomorph in front of them, it was the horde that's coming after and the fact that they only had so many bullets. Which means the real threat was isolation. You could probably do something similar with a creature that can only be killed in a really specific way like a rakshasa, but then you have to find a way that's difficult but not impossible to pull off, all while making the monster strong enough to worry pc's without having insta-kill attacks.

The other example that comes to mind is the latest Doctor Strange movie.
The threat there wasn't so much Wanda as the cost of fighting her - using dark powers is the real horrifying element. Which only works for certain kinds of characters - if the pc would simply never do that, especially if they already have a lot of holy power, the question isn't really dramatic.

In other words - don't try to run horror tropes strait in DnD. DnD characters (at least since 3e, and as I recall AD&D) are action heroes - putting them in another genre requires genre blending.
 

Celebrim

Legend
One of the GMing lessons that I learned over the years is to never fantasize about scaring, wowing, or intimidating the players with your monsters. You should never really be mentally rooting for your monsters.

One trope I hate is that all monsters attack by ambush and fight to the death.

It's a trope that comes about because of GM investment in the monster and a desire to have tough combats. And I think it's a trope that comes about by the fact that PC's are typically well equipped with missile weapons and monsters just aren't. The result is that PC's can generally decimate any monster that spends more than a round outside of melee range. I think as a response to this DMs write encounters such that PC's are inevitably "surprised" (effectively if not mechanically) at close range by the sudden appearance of the monster which never tries to flee because flight is useless against PC's with effective missile weapons.

But the result is encounters that feel to me inorganic and after a while redundant.

I've written at length about 1e AD&D monster design and what was wrong with it, namely that monsters gravitated to being glass cannons. But I think this design continues to trouble later editions of D&D. 4e and 5e sort of solved the problem in some cases, but mostly through hit point inflation which just turns all encounters into damage races. But, if I was going to focus on ambush monsters I'd want to focus more on their ability to resist damage than their ability to inflict it. Resisting damage includes forcing players to skip actions or at least making actions much less likely to succeed as well as mitigating damage.

But in a larger sense, monsters regularly need to be able to play in the PC's world and counter ranged attacks in some fashion regardless of their mode of combat.
 

Dioltach

Legend
The ambush monster isn't the ambush: it's the bait.

More seriously, if you're going to drag of party members one by one, you have to make sure that the others can't intervene. So isolate them, or incapacitate them, or mislead them. (Or else be so big and intimidating that no-one wants to interfere, and the monster can just devour the PC on the spot.)
 

payn

Legend
In modern D&D/PF I dont try to snatch PCs with ambush monsters, its just not that type of genre. Though, it might work in OSR stuff like DCC or perhaps Forbidden Lands.
 


grimslade

Krampus ate my d20s
The point of having an ambush monster is to provide the PCs with a different type of encounter. The loss of player agency in a kidnapping is the crux of the problem. Typically, you wind up having a solo encounter until the rest of the party can get to the ambushed PC or you have a running battle with a grappled PC, the rest of the party, and a monster with limited options.
To counter you can:
Make the monster super overpowered for the party
Have the monster ambush an NPC
Have multiple monsters to delay the party while one takes off with the lunch PC
Create environmental factors that limit PC options as much as a grappling monster ie. small tunnels, difficult terrain, displacement, misty step
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
In D&D 5e, burrowing monsters are the way to go with this in my view since they can attack and retreat quickly with total cover (the ground) between them and the remaining PCs. Imagine a dungeon atop a cave lair for some of these monsters. When a wandering monster is indicated by the dice, one bursts up through the ground to attack, paralyzing a PC with poison, then burrowing with the PC to the cave lair to be stuck on a wall with some kind of disgusting secretion or the like. In less than the hour it takes for the paralysis to wear off, they're implanted with eggs or something, so the timer is now set for the remaining PCs to rescue them before that happens. (Of course, we're now left with the problem of the player sitting around while the others try to find them, so it's best to have a plan to give the player something to do.)

I highly recommend adhering closely to the rules regarding Activities While Traveling and Surprise when running the game, especially in these sorts of situations. The players will have to choose between keeping watch for danger to potentially avoid surprise or engaging in other useful tasks. (Make them particularly beneficial in context.) Want to find secret doors while traveling about? Forage for valuable reagents? Draw a map of the dungeon complex to sell back in town? Great - the trade-off is you're automatically surprised if one of these monsters is indicated. Let's see if the risk pays off!
 

talien

Community Supporter
“I love the idea of monsters who snatch unwary PCs and drag them back to their lair, but in practice that's tough to pull off.”

View attachment 265245
Meenlocks a great template for an ambush monster (and I should have mentioned I had them in mind as the "perfect" ambush monster). Take a look at their abilities 5E:
  • Stealth +6
  • Fear Aura (10 feet)
  • Shadow Teleport (30 feet) as a bonus action
  • Paralyzing claws for 1 minute, but save each round to end the effect (meenlocks will have to move FAST to grab someone)
 

talien

Community Supporter
In D&D 5e, burrowing monsters are the way to go with this in my view since they can attack and retreat quickly with total cover (the ground) between them and the remaining PCs. Imagine a dungeon atop a cave lair for some of these monsters. When a wandering monster is indicated by the dice, one bursts up through the ground to attack, paralyzing a PC with poison, then burrowing with the PC to the cave lair to be stuck on a wall with some kind of disgusting secretion or the like. In less than the hour it takes for the paralysis to wear off, they're implanted with eggs or something, so the timer is now set for the remaining PCs to rescue them before that happens. (Of course, we're now left with the problem of the player sitting around while the others try to find them, so it's best to have a plan to give the player something to do.)

I highly recommend adhering closely to the rules regarding Activities While Traveling and Surprise when running the game, especially in these sorts of situations. The players will have to choose between keeping watch for danger to potentially avoid surprise or engaging in other useful tasks. (Make them particularly beneficial in context.) Want to find secret doors while traveling about? Forage for valuable reagents? Draw a map of the dungeon complex to sell back in town? Great - the trade-off is you're automatically surprised if one of these monsters is indicated. Let's see if the risk pays off!
So the umber hulk, basically (replace paralyzing with confusion but similar idea).
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
So the umber hulk, basically (replace paralyzing with confusion but similar idea).
Or kruthik or bulette or ankheg. There's a lot of monsters with burrowing speeds. If they have the Tunneler trait, the DM will have to decide if that's going to be a good fit for what they're going for. Depending on the scenario, I might keep it, but have any delve into the monster's tunnels connect to a network of other tunnels and present an exploration challenge to navigate and track through it.
 

Dausuul

Legend
The point of having an ambush monster is to provide the PCs with a different type of encounter. The loss of player agency in a kidnapping is the crux of the problem. Typically, you wind up having a solo encounter until the rest of the party can get to the ambushed PC or you have a running battle with a grappled PC, the rest of the party, and a monster with limited options.
To counter you can:
Make the monster super overpowered for the party
Have the monster ambush an NPC
Have multiple monsters to delay the party while one takes off with the lunch PC
Create environmental factors that limit PC options as much as a grappling monster ie. small tunnels, difficult terrain, displacement, misty step
These are some good ideas.

Next time I DM, I may try setting up an encounter where a monster grabs one PC and drags them into its lair, which is defended by delaying obstacles. The captured PC must then survive until the rest of the party can break through the obstacles and join the fight (at which point the ambush monster will go down very quickly).

To make this work, the ambush monster should be tough but not hit super hard--the captured PC should not be able to kill it on their own, but does need to be able to live for several rounds in solo combat. Meanwhile, the obstacles should be individually not super hard to overcome, but have enough of them to force multiple rounds of work to get through. I'm also thinking some minor monsters to attack the other PCs (so that whoever doesn't have relevant skills/spells to a given obstacle has something to do).
 

talien

Community Supporter
These are some good ideas.

Next time I DM, I may try setting up an encounter where a monster grabs one PC and drags them into its lair, which is defended by delaying obstacles. The captured PC must then survive until the rest of the party can break through the obstacles and join the fight (at which point the ambush monster will go down very quickly).

To make this work, the ambush monster should be tough but not hit super hard--the captured PC should not be able to kill it on their own, but does need to be able to live for several rounds in solo combat. Meanwhile, the obstacles should be individually not super hard to overcome, but have enough of them to force multiple rounds of work to get through. I'm also thinking some minor monsters to attack the other PCs (so that whoever doesn't have relevant skills/spells to a given obstacle has something to do).
And thus the pity for the ambush monster. You outlined just how many challenges to get it right, and some of them are tied to the mix/strength of the party:
  • Hit hard but not so hard that you kill the PC.
  • Have enough HP so the PC can't kill it right away but still be killable eventually
  • Obstacles as the monster drags the PC away to keep the rest of the party interested

D&D doesn't do this well so it really takes some planning on how to execute this, and some of it is determined by the party's actions.
 

Dausuul

Legend
One of the GMing lessons that I learned over the years is to never fantasize about scaring, wowing, or intimidating the players with your monsters. You should never really be mentally rooting for your monsters.
I do think that there is value in planning encounters to shock and scare initially... but only to heighten the sense of triumph when the PCs win. The goal is for the players to feel a sense of accomplishment, which means they must a) succeed and b) not succeed too easily. Striking that balance is one of the great challenges of DMing.
 

Dausuul

Legend
And thus the pity for the ambush monster. You outlined just how many challenges to get it right, and some of them are tied to the mix/strength of the party:
  • Hit hard but not so hard that you kill the PC.
  • Have enough HP so the PC can't kill it right away but still be killable eventually
  • Obstacles as the monster drags the PC away to keep the rest of the party interested
D&D doesn't do this well so it really takes some planning on how to execute this, and some of it is determined by the party's actions.
Agreed, this is definitely taking D&D beyond its "off the shelf" functionality. D&D enables this kind of encounter--the required pieces are all there to be assembled--but does not support it.

I quite enjoy crafting scenarios like this, but for DMs who do not, there aren't a lot of good options.
 

darjr

I crit!
I do agree with what someone said above that usually you as dm are really on the players side.

But consider something that stuns or sleeps and is faster than the PCs or can go where they cannot.
 


Celebrim

Legend
I do think that there is value in planning encounters to shock and scare initially... but only to heighten the sense of triumph when the PCs win. The goal is for the players to feel a sense of accomplishment, which means they must a) succeed and b) not succeed too easily. Striking that balance is one of the great challenges of DMing.

I think the thing I'm warning against is overplanning how an encounter is going to go. Monsters shouldn't get automatic surprise or automatically win initiative or automatically hit. All of those things can go wrong when planning out your awesome ambush encounter, and if that happens you should be perfectly OK with that.

I read something like, "Just like that, my ambush monster was defeated in under three rounds. So I added another one." (emphasis added)

And I just cringe. The fact that monster was created on the fly meant that the party had zero chance to detect or interact with it in the prior three rounds. It was punishing the party for being too successful. Both of those things are potentially really problematic and using illusionism like that is a weak crutch.

Moreover, the motivation seems to be disappointment that the monster didn't do better.
 


Related Articles

Visit Our Sponsor

An Advertisement

Advertisement4

Top