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D&D 5E For Players: What makes an encounter "scary"?

Stalker0

Legend
So having talked a lot recently about the "difficulty" of encounters, you could argue the "feel" of those encounters is actually more important to the game experience. I've also found DMs underestimate the impact of encounter threat on their players because they are dealing with more perfect information. A DM might go "man this encounter is boring no one is being threatened" while the players think "holy crap I might die!".

So for players, generally what about a 5e encounter makes it scary to you....even if once all said and done the party handles it "easily".
 

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Lyxen

Great Old One
Scale or number of opponents, bad positioning and seperating the party.

For us, it's mostly about realising that our assumptions for the fight were completely wrong, like finding that the Prince of Hell has returned unexpectedly to his command tent whereas the PCs thought that they only had to deal with a few guards...

This is where confusion happens, the plan goes out of the window very fast and people do really uncoordinated things, between those wanting to fight and others to escape... :D

Though I might add I don't care for being 'scared' in my entertainment.

This is a good point, the player should not be scared, it's not the point of the game, it's just supposed to be fun. Now, having the characters panic and flee is great as well, but it should be the characters being scared, not the player.
 

payn

Hero
Mechanically, its those fights that catch you off guard. Either the characters missed the signposting about a challenging encounter, or they completely misread the challenge before them. Unexpected abilities, resistances, etc.. also play a part. I enjoy it in 5E because often you can regroup and rise to the challenge which isn't something many games do well. One criticism of 5E is that its too easy to overcome even challenging encounters, so its likely a taste thing.

Additionally is the stakes of failure/retreat in the narrative. If you get run out of a monster dungeon its usually no big deal. If you fail to fend off an army that threatens the local village, it's much more pressing.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
The possibility of losing something they care about, whether that be PCs, NPCs, stuff or place/s.

AND/OR

Dealing with something that they can't predict, whether it's just that they don't know it or that it's not playing by the same rules the PCs are

AND/OR

Something that actually jangles the players' nerves.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
Mechanically, its those fights that catch you off guard. Either the characters missed the signposting about a challenging encounter, or they completely misread the challenge before them. Unexpected abilities, resistances, etc.. also play a part. I enjoy it in 5E because often you can regroup and rise to the challenge which isn't something many games do well. One criticism of 5E is that its too easy to overcome even challenging encounters, so its likely a taste thing.

This is a good point, possibility of regrouping/fleeing is something good with the system, because once more it's absolutely part of the genre and it makes for great scenes both in movies/books/shows and in a D&D game.

Additionally is the stakes of failure/retreat in the narrative. If you get run out of a monster dungeon its usually no big deal. If you fail to fend off an army that threatens the local village, it's much more pressing.

Yes, the pressure to succeed is a good thing as well.
 

Dave Goff

Explorer
Tension and build up. The story can drive the fear (the fun kind) better than the mechanics and combat in my experience.

Also, use the environment- chasms, blocked exits, rope bridges, echos... all sorts of fun options that have nothing to do with monster stats.
 

For me, it's the menace of the unknown. A monster that I've no knowledge of (even trying not to metagame, there's still that rolodex of monsters that exists in the back of my head), especially paired with plenty of build-up, a good description, and powerful abilities.

One of the scariest monsters I faced, we spent the whole session running away from it. The DM did that good of a job instilling fear by reputation and description that we never even encountered it, and to this day I'm not even sure it really existed.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
For me, it's the menace of the unknown. A monster that I've no knowledge of (even trying not to metagame, there's still that rolodex of monsters that exists in the back of my head), especially paired with plenty of build-up, a good description, and powerful abilities.

One of the scariest monsters I faced, we spent the whole session running away from it. The DM did that good of a job instilling fear by reputation and description that we never even encountered it, and to this day I'm not even sure it really existed.
There are some terrors that should never be seen because if you are close enough to see it, it's too late.

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Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
I agree that oftentimes the player's imaginations can be more terrifying than anything I could ever come up with. Sometimes the best monster is one they don't clearly see or truly understand. Add in some flourish and descriptive narration.

I also think that for many people having their PC die isn't particularly scary. It may be disappointing to have a story end, but there are always more PCs. Coming close to dying can often be worse than death itself. Being debilitated or controlled, having some dark secret or lingering threat. Knowing that you have a curse or infection that can't be easily fixed and wondering what the outcome is going to be. Those can be more frightening than death.

Of course there's also players that no matter what happen are just never going to be scared. It's just a game and it can only have so much impact.
 

J-H

Adventurer
The two I've seen be the most scary based on player reactions were:
1) The Avatar of Death in Castle Dracula. "How many HP do you have?" "Ok, you're dead." Power Word Kill gets people's attention, especially when it's the main tank/damage-dealer going down on like round 1 of combat, especially since they had two fights before this and no chance to rest because a horde of skeletons was chasing them. Many memes appeared in Discord that evening.

2) Running the Tomb of the Serpent Kings for a 2nd level party... it's an adapted OSR module, so it doesn't follow all 5e rules. There's an enemy that does nearly no damage and is slow, but is immune to hit point damage. I heard someone's voice break and the sound of worry with "We can't damage it, I don't know what to do about it!"
I don't think it even did more than 4 points of damage the whole encounter, but because it required a different solution type, the party fighter was a bit panicked.
(they pushed it into a pit trap and left it there)
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
So having talked a lot recently about the "difficulty" of encounters, you could argue the "feel" of those encounters is actually more important to the game experience. I've also found DMs underestimate the impact of encounter threat on their players because they are dealing with more perfect information. A DM might go "man this encounter is boring no one is being threatened" while the players think "holy crap I might die!".

So for players, generally what about a 5e encounter makes it scary to you....even if once all said and done the party handles it "easily".
If you mean scary as in worried...as a player, I'm literally never worried about an encounter. It's a game. Worst case scenario I can make a new character. Shrug. I tend to have at least a six pack of finished, level-appropriate characters waiting and ready to go. It'll take the DM longer to work my new character into the story than it will for me to pull up my next character.

If you mean scary as in horror, I'd point to the advice in Van Richten's for that. Some of it is good. But I'd also point to the latest edition of Call of Cthulhu for better advice on running scary encounters.
 

As a player nothing! Sorry, I have faith in balanced encounters, or otherwise in the great wheel of new character creation.
But I play lately characters with phobia or superstition. That was great.
 

Scary is very relative. Death is scary at lower levels, while only annoying at higher level. In our last session, my character was killed by my nemesis, who took the actions to attack me while dying in order to kill me. It was annoying because I was out of the combat. Afterwards I was brought back to life, so I wasn't "scared." I was more concerned by the fact that my head was cut off, leaving a nasty scar, and that my left eye is gone. These types of consequences are scary, including mission failure (hostage killed, ritual completed, etc).

Generally combat is scarier when something is unexpected, or when facing the complete known/unknown. Going into a fight assuming 2-3 opponents, only to have reinforcements arrive, makes me consider that we've gotten in over our head, and should regroup. Fighting a creature we know nothing about (because it's new or a reskin of a different monster) is scary, because we don't know what we're dealing with. Sometimes knowing what we're dealing with is even scarier though!
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
I think for me it's probably when the encounter escalates when we're already not doing so great like when another wave of enemies turns up or the villain hits some kind of milestone and becomes stronger or the environment suddenly turns hazardous like a collapsing ceiling.
 

jayoungr

Legend
Over the weekend, I ran an encounter with a tentacle-y sea creature for a level 6 party. This creature has multiple attacks and has the option of either dealing damage or grappling/swallowing a target. The players were seriously freaked out when it climbed over the edge of their ship, grabbed the halfling rogue, and immediately swallowed her in the same round--even though the rogue took no damage in the process.

Had I chosen to make those attacks deal damage, the rogue would probably have lost about a third of her hitpoints, but I don't think it would have had such an effect on the players.
 


overgeeked

B/X Known World
Here's an example.

Four person 1st-level party. As the DM, I put them up against a CR2 creature. I doubled its hit points and its attacks. The party killed it after three and a half rounds. One character dropped twice and got to two failed death saves both times. That was basically it. The group won, spent their daily resources, and were purely gung-ho and charge the entire time. Not a glimmer of fear or even hesitation. To get to the point where players are "afraid" you have to start dropping characters. Like dead. Otherwise they superhero regenerate after an 8 hour rest. It's hard to make someone afraid of anything if they can basically survive everything.
 

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