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.

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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?
 

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

Fast flying monsters can also be used to good effect as you can put more distance and potentially more cover between the monster and the party by virtue of more efficient terrain navigation.

They also introduce a cost benefit for the players where folks have to gamble on whether the captured party member can afford to fall (e.g. snatch the victim and then fly across the caldera of an active volcano, or something similarly hazardous/difficult to navigate)
 

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Stormonu

Legend
Three things I've found that have worked:

1 - Monsters with a swallow attack and ability to move without provoking opportunity attacks (helps if it can move as a bonus action or using legendary actions). Swallow works better than an ordinary grapple because the caught character has more restrictions and difficulty getting out of the embrace.

2- Catching a PC when they are out scouting alone or otherwise away from the rest of the party by more than the fastest base speed of any party member (or better yet, the fastest dash speed of any party member). "Don't split the party" is real.

3 - Dopplegangers/Shapeshifters. Though they work best when they catch a PC alone like #2, shadows, fog or some other obscurement allows them to sow chaos and either make off with a character or get a hit or two on confused party members. They can induce fright ("any one of us could be the enemy!") or the "didn't-see-that-coming" aspect can work.

As mentioned before, don't expect it to work though; if the players thwart the abduction, good on them. Don't try and punish them for thwarting your "story", there's plenty of other ways to move forward to scare, rile or otherwise entice PCs to action. Sometimes, the near abduction - and the realization of what might have happened, can have just as good an effect.
 

DND_Reborn

The High Aldwin
I only have monsters snatch PCs in order to throw them off of ledges to their dooms. Last night I had a Yeti do that to two PCs... both survived the fall (barely) and succeeded in their death saves, but it was still very scary to the players.
 

talien

Community Supporter
Three things I've found that have worked:

1 - Monsters with a swallow attack and ability to move without provoking opportunity attacks (helps if it can move as a bonus action or using legendary actions). Swallow works better than an ordinary grapple because the caught character has more restrictions and difficulty getting out of the embrace.

2- Catching a PC when they are out scouting alone or otherwise away from the rest of the party by more than the fastest base speed of any party member (or better yet, the fastest dash speed of any party member). "Don't split the party" is real.

3 - Dopplegangers/Shapeshifters. Though they work best when they catch a PC alone like #2, shadows, fog or some other obscurement allows them to sow chaos and either make off with a character or get a hit or two on confused party members. They can induce fright ("any one of us could be the enemy!") or the "didn't-see-that-coming" aspect can work.

As mentioned before, don't expect it to work though; if the players thwart the abduction, good on them. Don't try and punish them for thwarting your "story", there's plenty of other ways to move forward to scare, rile or otherwise entice PCs to action. Sometimes, the near abduction - and the realization of what might have happened, can have just as good an effect.
Love all these ideas.

1) Completely forgot swallow attacks but you're right, and we've now got a running joke that the assassin's best tactic is to be eaten by monsters and then "fight his way out from the inside" (cue endless series of "just let the monster eat you and we'll figure it out!" jokes from the hexblade).

2) Unless the monster normally has a high speed (60 or higher), it won't be dragging someone faster than its pursuers, since 5E grappling/dragging is half speed. It would need a special ability to pull that off that ignores some aspect of the dragging/grappling rules.

3) This is tough to pull off as it requires PCs to role-play ignorance, which they feel less inclined to do when their lives are threatened, especially in D&D. It's a horror mindset; in horror games, where players are less vested in survival and more in having a fun, scary time, this is easier. I have yet to easily pull off an "impersonation" tactic without taking away player agency (i.e., telling someone later they were the doppelganger without having them actually role-play being one beforehand).
 

J-H

Hero
I have two good ambushes I've done.
One was in Castle Dracula... A pitch-black room in which Light spells and torches do not function due to Magical Darkness. There were 8 Shadows in the room. The party moved very nervously along the wall for a couple of rounds before the Shadows attacked.
The party was also 8th level, so they smashed the Shadows quickly; also someone realized that Dispel would probably knock out Darkness, and it did.

The other was in a forthcoming module (currently playtesting PBP) for 14th level characters featuring high-level versions of ghouls and ghasts. The party was on the 2nd floor balconies of a large room that had been flooded - so the first floor was totally underwater, dark, and murky. They were standing around and talking after making some noise killing a small mob of regular ghouls, and BAM.... Lacedon versions of greater ghouls popping out of the water near them! The Greater Ghouls had something like +7 to Athletics checks, and each one did a Grapple / Grapple-or-claw / Bite routine on a different target.

Anyone grappled was dragged underwater, held by a ghoul with paralysis claws, with visibility limited to about 5'. 4 of the 5 PCs got grabbed in the first round, although very few were paralyzed. It was pretty hairy for them for a couple of rounds. The elven rogue killed his way out of the grapple with Steady Aim and Booming Blade, the Paladin jumped in the water, and the Warlock had Crown of Stars up to make sure everybody could find and help her.

This worked well due to a combination of terrain, and the players not grossly outnumbering the ambush predators.
 

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