Hunters and The Hunted: The Mythopoetry of Bugbears

I'm A Banana

The silence in this forest has fallen like a heavy blanket, thick and suffocating. Even the wind seems unwilling to stir. The foliage doesn’t rustle. The birds don’t chirp. The breath of your companions is shallow, tense.

The evening sun makes the autumn foliage an incendiary red-orange, and lengthens their shadows, deepening the darkness, and making hiding that much easier. You strain your eyes into the dappled darkness just beyond the path, hoping to see what you know is out there. The thing has been following you since lunch. It is still out there.

You haven’t been able to get a good look at it. Only the occasional snapped twig and bent branch gave you a clue to its existence. Part of you couldn’t help but feel like the creature was doing this intentionally, toying with you, perfectly able to hide unseen but advertising its presence as if daring you to find it, utterly confident in its ability to remain hidden.

Your companion shifts her stance, and the gentle stretching of her leather armor is swallowed up. No sound is meant to escape here. You could scream at the top of your lungs, and nothing, for miles around, would hear you. The wood is deep, and few travel here anymore. There have been too many disappearances, too many deaths.

A club collides with the back of your skull. It almost feels soft. It shatters bone and rips muscle and hurls you, face-first, into the damp leaf litter. Stars dance before your eyes. As grey unconsciousness seizes you, you see two of your companions drop, too. The fourth member of your party, with a gasp of shock, looks into the dappled darkness. You feel warm blood dribbling down your neck and onto the ground below you. You will your body to move, but it will not. You stare as seconds pass, losing consciousness as the shadows seem to disentangle themselves, and your stalker becomes clear.

Those ears. That muzzle. Damn. The old hunter was right. The bugbears would be well fed tonight.


KM’s Bugbears
The central idea of the bugbear to me is one of the most primordial fears of any creature: the fear of being hunted. Bugbears are predators, and their prey is you, your family, your loved ones. What you call a village, they call a larder.

Of course, any active fantasy world is full of critters that’ll eat you, even hunt you. What twists the knife in the case of the bugbear is that they are close kindred to human society. They make weapons. They make lairs. They have culture, civilization, language. A dire wolf or a blood hawk is just a wild beast. A dragon is a colossal monster. But a bugbear? They’re a lot like us…and they also devour us. More than simply being hunters, bugbears tap into the ancient taboo of cannibalism. Bugbears are the people that eat people.

And not just because they have to, either. No, bugbears aren’t the kind to reluctantly eat people in an emergency – they seek out people like they are hunting a prize boar or a delicious deer. They are evil. Our heads are their trophies.

Bugbears inspire that kind of paralyzing fear of being the prey. The weakness, the terror, the knowledge that all struggle is futile. They have you. They see you. They want to kill you. Your fear isn’t just a survival instinct to these creatures; it is something they cultivate, something they inspire. They love to see you squirm. They think it makes your flesh taste sweeter.

This plays into their relationship with goblins, too. While goblins are the terror that lurks in the darkness, bugbears will hunt day or night, but they are equally unseen. The two are kindred: as goblins are the fear of what lurks in the darkness, bugbears are the fear of what lurks in the wilderness, of what lies in wait just beyond the walls of the town. Goblins are the darkness when you close your eyes, bugbears are the things in the shadows at the side of the road. They are the wild things, the things that will eat you if you stray from the protected path.

They hit on this point in the arc of an adventurer’s career, too. Bugbears are stronger than goblins and kobolds and hobgoblins and orcs, and they form the next logical step of an adventurer’s journey: after clearing out the vermin and the invaders, you venture out from your home into the wilds…and rapidly find that the creatures there will eat you.

Any encounter with bugbears should make the party feel hunted. In a wild area, far from any civilization, the party is stalked through the wilderness, for quite a time. The encounter may be built up to in advance, with footprints, blood smears, broken gear, and momentary glimpses out of the corner of one’s eye. The ambush comes first with ranged attacks – though not from great range. Bugbears are hunters, but they are brutal hunters who revel in watching their prey squirm, so the closer they can get the better. They then rush into a savage melee, focusing on murder, and on bringing back prey.

Like most hunters, they aren’t interested in taking healthy prey that puts up a fight. The weak, the vulnerable, the tender…the bugbears seek out these morsels in preference to others. Party defenders may have their hands full as the bugbears seek out the weaker party members, with lower HP and lighter armor, hoping to score an easy kill. They’re also happy with one kill – better to murder, grab the corpse, and run away than to take some sort of triumphant stand against the whole herd. A fight with bugbears is going to be nasty, brutish, and short: kill the squishiest character in a few rounds before they run away.

Building Up To It
While you could just have a bugbear ambush come out of frickin’ nowhere, and that will help drive home a sense of surprise and shock, bugbears work best when there is a bit of a slow burn before the ambush, a knowledge in the players that something is coming.

This can be hard to pull off in an RPG, where the pacing is not as strict or as elegant as in something more controlled, like a show or a book. But you can steal liberally from the rules of narrative structure to start to get at the idea.

Basically, the guideline is this: any time you have a bugbear encounter, advertise it in advance by at least three steps.

Step 1: Something Is Watching You
Make note of the most observant member of the party (even rolling secret skill checks or the like, if you prefer). During the next scene or game event, regardless of where it is or what it’s about, secretly inform that character that they feel like they are being watched, or that they see some sudden movement off on the fringes of their vision, or somesuch. If any characters investigate, allow them to perform some sort of check to proceed directly to #2.

For instance, the DM notes the party thief as the most observant. During the next encounter with goblins, the DM rolls 1d4 and waits until the rogue’s turn comes up this many times. On the last turn, the DM informs the rogue’s player: “As you dodge the goblin’s blows, you think you see something standing behind a nearby tree.” If the rogue investigates, the DM decides to allow a Wisdom check – if the rogue succeeds, he sees the signs indicated on Step 2 right away.

Step 2: Something Wants To Kill You
During the next scene or game event after the occurrence of Step 1, choose a character at random. That character discovers some evidence of violence: a shattered skull, a fresh humanoid corpse, a horribly bent shield, or somesuch. If the characters investigate it, allow them to perform some sort of check to proceed to Step 3 immediately.

For instance, the DM rolls randomly, and determines that the next character to find something is the party cleric. While stopping by the river, the cleric sees about half of a torso of an elf floating down the river. If the party investigates it, the DM decides to allow an Intelligence check – if the cleric succeeds, he sees the signs indicated on Step 3 right away

If this step occurred because of a successful check in step 1, it would not wait until the next scene or event, but rather happen right away: the rogue would have found those elf-remains behind that tree. Then, the party would go on to Step 3.

Step 3: Something Is Coming
During the next scene or game event after the occurrence of Step 2, choose another observant character (or the same one as in Step 1). That character has a direct and unmistakable sensory experience of the creature, but quickly loses it. If there is investigation, they may make a check to proceed to Step 4 immediately.

For instance, the DM liked scaring the rogue’s player, so he chooses her character again. While the party is setting up camp for the night, the rogue hears some whispered conversation in the bushes in some guttural tongue. The DM informs the rogue that this is no mistake: she clearly heard someone speaking, very close. If the party investigates, the DM decides to allow the party Fighter, who knows the goblin language, to move to step 4 immediately.

If this step occurred because of a successful check in Step 2, it would not wait until the next scene or event, but rather happen right away: the cleric, upon investigating the body, finds something that looks like words carved into the skin of the corpse. Then, the party would go onto Step 4.

Step 4: It’s Here
At this point, the actual attempt at ambushing comes, leading to the bugbear encounter.

If this check occurred because of a successful check in Step 3, the party becomes aware that it is bugbears that are hunting them. The ambush then occurs (or tries to occur) in the next scene or game event. This might lead to the party being better prepared for that ambush, and even avoiding it entirely. Without that, though, they won’t stand a chance, and will be caught by surprise.

Advice for Stepping Through
The steps work because they don’t reveal everything right away. The party has to do three rather un-related things before the bugbears make a true appearance, but their presence is felt from early on, and is always present.

This does mean that whenever you decide to have a bugbear encounter like this, you should have at least three other things for the PC’s to do that are not directly related to bugbears. Typically, this would be in the wilderness, so you can choose events or sites or features of wilderness travel as the day wears on to describe: a bridge over a river, a juncture in the forest path, an empty hut on the roadside, or other “empty” events can give room for the bugbear’s tension to build. It could also exist in other relevant encounters (such as the goblin fight in step 1). Without that time spent laying the groundwork, however, you risk telescoping the slow build into a sudden reveal: “Something is watching you, and it is bugbears, and here they are!” That isn’t quite as effective a tension-building plan.

It’s also key to not reveal the nature of the enemy too soon. By having the party jump through at least three hoops as actual in-game events before they get to the big reveal of “bugbears” (maybe), it helps cement the idea that these creatures are stealthy, sneaky, and mysterious in a way that simply making Stealth vs. Perception checks can’t quite match. It doesn’t matter how high of a check that rogue gets in the first step, she can never find out that bugbears are following the party, not until they’re (almost) right on top of them.

So this kind of set-up likely is too much work for a quick random bugbear ambush, but for those who want to bring out the true potential of these creatures, as great adversaries and not just another group of monsters, might benefit from this set-up.

What Do You Think?
Onto the most interesting part of any article: tell me what you think! Do you like the idea of bugbears as masters of the tense ambush, hunters who tap our fear of cannibalism and the wild to make for an interesting encounter? How do you use the creatures? Would you want to use them like this ever?

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Staff member
It's not how I use bugbears, but I almost always include something in my FRPG campaigns in the "implacable primal hunter" role. I even started off one campaign with the PCs being taken hostage, stripped naked, and used as part of a hunt for some anthro Tigers...


First Post
Great stuff!

I use bugbears as the beings that parents scare their children with. They're the Boogeyman, the Thing Under The Bed, the scary Eyes In The Dark. Because they're relatively low-level, they're rather common in the outskirts of civilization, and one of the most common humanoids that prey upon villagers, so it makes sense for them to loom rather large in the imaginations of villagers.

I'll leave you with a halfling nursery rhyme (best sung with "creepy kid voice in horror movie"):

Bugbears come
Bugbears go
Steal you children
And eat them whole

Radiating Gnome

Awesome writeup. Makes me think I should scrap my plans for Sunday's game and run with this instead......

It's key -- and I think you do this really well (and I need to be reminded more often) -- that an encounter should be more than just what happens on a battle map -- line up in your start zone and begin the tactical dance. There's atmosphere, and texture, and a whole variety of possible story to be developed.




A suffusion of yellow
I liked the article and especially the advice you give on building up the fear through stages, nice.

My only reluctance is how would you differentiate the Bugbear from any other stealthy killer? The same advice could be applied to Gnolls, Lizardman or Serial Killers. What gives bugbears the twist that makes them different?

I'm A Banana

Tonguez said:
My only reluctance is how would you differentiate the Bugbear from any other stealthy killer? The same advice could be applied to Gnolls, Lizardman or Serial Killers. What gives bugbears the twist that makes them different?

Functionally, nothing. Part of the goal in presenting these articles is to give people stuff they can steal for monsters that hit similar notes in their own games, so if you've got a stealthy serial killer, go a head and build up!

Story-wise, I think gnolls and lizardmen fall into some different camps as far as what their "interesting bits" are during an encounter. Future mythopoetry articles might go into that, but the short version is: gnolls are crazy bloodthirsty, and lizardfolk are strong, in water, and not necessarily adversarial.


Staff member
IOW, its kind of like a key to unlock the awesome of foes that may have gotten a little...samey-lamey...over the decades of D&D's existence.

Taking the same apporach with Lizardmen- and making them a bit more gator-like- would make for a fearsome foe in bayou setting. They're not just scaled dudes who live in the swamp, they're actively stalking your children, nearly motionless in the black water just feet from the shore where your kids are netting polliwogs...

... lizardfolk are ... not necessarily adversarial.

That's the key to how I deal with them. A neutral, alien race that doesn't hate "Humanity and Friends" but mostly wants to be left alone to do its own thing. And sometimes is dangerous, sometimes helpful.

The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh/Danger at Dunwater/Final Enemy series (U1/2/3) series was pretty awesome for that, as least as I vaguely remember it.

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