Level Up (A5E) Making Monsters Matter - Everyday Evils

Xethreau

Josh Gentry - Author, Minister in Training
So I've been having a lot of thoughts about monsters recently. The Monstrous Menagerie does a lot to help make monsters matter on a storytelling level. That said I still sometimes feel like I drop monsters into a scenario and they don't quite pop as they do in, say, my favorite scary stories, movies, and podcasts. Some of this has to do with my limitations as a storyteller, but in other ways it has to do with our fundamental assumptions about monsters in our TTRPGs. Over the next few threads, I want to share with y'all some of the ideas I've been working with and get your feedback.

In this thread, I wanted to present some monsters that I think could be made much better just by granting them a little bit more attention, namely monsters I categorize as everyday evils: ghosts, shadows, cultists, and other liminal entities.

Liminal Entities
You're driving down a dirt road in the middle of the night. Silent moonlit evergreens pass you by miles at a time. No cars this late, not in this part of the country. It's a little surprising you haven't passed any deer or raccoons tonight. As you turn the bend, you see something up ahead on the side of the road.

For a moment it is unclear what it is. Is it a signpost, an animal, a person---or some sort of nightmare creature?

You roll Perception. Nat 20.

The signage for the national park comes into clear view before you.

And as it does, the stark-white creature in front of the sign stands on spindly legs to an inhuman height. As it strides back into the woods, you can make out the spaces between its long spidery fingers. It looks over its shoulder back at you---briefly making eye contact with its featureless face---before disappearing through the darkling treeline.



These types of encounters are some of my favorites in ghost stories. Your chance to glance at a liminal entity last only a moment, and you only have a fraction of a second to assess your danger level. Even if the creature is real, its nature remains unknown. Is it a ghost, a doppelganger, a troll--or something else altogether? I desire to bring these encounters to the table, but there are a few assumptions that get in the way.

One of the assumptions we make as players is that "it's either a fight or a fake-out" when it comes to scary monsters. Another is an encyclopedic all-or-nothing approach to monster knowledge. Encounters with liminal entities should challenge both these assumptions and bridge the space between. The sighting of a liminal entity must be all-too-real, and a character should find their ability to simply walk away to be entirely dreadful. (Not rolling initiative should increase tension!) Questions like "What was that?" "Where did it go?" and "What does it want?" should not be answered easily. A successful knowledge roll can provide hints and conjecture and agency---but never security. That is, immediately rolling Arcana or Nature against that thing in the woods might give me 3 good guesses as to what it might be (as well as possible countermeasures)---but determining the entity's identity requires an active investigation.

Besides the above guidelines, encounters with established monsters can be made to feel more liminal by minimally adjusting or expanding lore.

Ghosts & Shadows
You walk into a room. You see a ghost standing there. Roll initiative against the ghost.


Boring. No amount of possession mechanics, fear effects, or damage resistance can make this encounter scary. The CR 4 ghost killed you? That's wild. :rolleyes:

I only say this because I've run such an encounter several times. I even had the misfortune of doing it on an actual play podcast. What I wish is that instead of saying "hey here's a monster, fight it," I had instead used some of the principles behind liminal entity encounters to fill the ghost encounter with more mystery and dread.

The A5e ghost sets us off in the right direction with its Unfinished Business table/mechanic. It's honestly a great way of resolving a haunting without resorting to combat. But I don't love the combat tactics/stats. The ghost's combat tactics might work well for a thoroughly distressed ghost, but they do not resonate with the ghost stories or IRL spooky experiences I know. If I were to make some adjustments to the ghost, they would look something like this:
  1. They can look like a real, physical person at first.
  2. Particularly ancient or evil ghosts can also look entirely inhuman.
  3. The ghost's ability to communicate is limited. It can appear "corporeally" for a few seconds at a time.
  4. When spotted, instead of rolling initiative the ghost can alternatively retreat and hide in the Etherial Plane.
Additionally, a ghost can also be defined by its disposition and/or the object or person its attached to. According to folklore, some ghosts are kindly or protective spirits that help to protect a location or person (especially descendants). Also according to folklore, ghosts can also be attached to a person or object; for the ghost's Unquiet Spirit feature, a ghost without earthly remains could instead substitute a person or object to which it is attached. (This makes a great storyline of remove curse being cast on a person to cleanse them of a haunting.)

1d6 Ghostly Disposition
1 Kindly
2 Guarding
3 Following
4 Lost
5 Angry
6 Sadistic

1d6 Ghostly Attachment
1 Household item of fine craftsmanship
2 Jewelry or other personal item
3 Masterwork tool
4 Descendant
5 Someone who offended the spirit
6 Someone who spoke the spirit's name on the anniversary of their demise

Overall, shadows benefit from a similar treatment as ghosts---besides being a similar species of undead in-game, the principles of liminal entities demonstrate to us that it's actually a good thing if we can't tell a shadow and a ghost apart immediately. Shadows especially benefit from a folkloric treatment because of named shadows like the Babadook, Slender Man, Hat Man, and the like. Furthermore, shadows are great for staring menacingly at characters on watch during a long rest because you know--night terrors!

The seasoned salt for shadows is giving them the tiniest bit of personality. We see that in the named shadows: one characteristic like an extra long body or a horrible smile goes a long way! And as the A5e shadow entry suggests, what horrible personality emerges from someone who dies alone in the dark? What's more, if we connect shadows to Jungian psychology we get another insight: the manifestation of the shadow side of our personality is an expression of something we know deeply to be true but we wish with all our heart not to be. To expose just the tip of this iceberg, here are a few "activities" which are innocent enough and horrible when done by a shadow.

1d6 Shadow Activity
1 Standing in the corner
2 It makes eye contact and tilts its head
3 Retreats out nearest exit (unless brightly lit)
4 It is crouched over a person or object, fixated
5 Facing away, it looks over its shoulder and slowly turns toward you
6 It repeatedly scratches a surface (window, door, wall, book, etc.)

Cultists
It's a quiet night in the sleepy hamlet of Natulog. Comfortably at the inn, you set yourself down at the window-side table with an ale, candle, and the book you've been meaning to read for ages. The novel whisks you away from your worries as an adventurer--including your noisy companions now fast asleep. Hours pass with careless ease.

Just after midnight, you see movement on the street. It looks like a candle-lit procession. From most every front door in the village--even that of this very inn--step forth figures in long red robes. Their faces are obscured by their hoods, but thanks to the candlelight your elf eyes can see their faces. That is, you can see the blank, expressionless, wooden masks hiding each of their faces.

In silence, they join in a single file. It's obvious where they're going---the stone ruins at the top of a nearby hill. But the barkeep told you that place was forbidden.



Cultists are CR 1/8 monsters and unto themselves, they aren't that threatening in combat.

What makes a cultist scary are their membership roster, beliefs, rituals, supernatural benefactors, anonymity, and public influence. Even small cults (both in-game and IRL) can take a community through spiritual terrorism. Details too close to RL comfort will not make it to many groups' tables for obvious reasons.

That said, you can allude to all these factors quite easily by generating the cult's uniform and public rites. Players paying close attention to the cultists' uniforms will be able to infer (or catastrophize) many details about the cult. Indeed, the ability for characters to do that in-universe is a design feature of their uniform. Their public rites serve both to cow and to entice. They mark their territory with their special sign, proving their presence and influence even without a public appearance.

1d6 Costume
1 Black robe
2 White robe
3 Red robe
4 Rugged clothes / leather armor
5 Fine clothes / formal attire
6 Nude

1d8 Mask
1 Animal skull (with horns / antlers)
2 Humanoid skull
3 Wooden or ceramic face (emotive or expressionless)
4 Monstrous (troll, goblin, draconic, demonic, etc.)
5 Face paint (pigment or blood)
6 Plain ceramic or cloth, depicting cult symbol
7 None (hood up)
8 Capirote

1d6 Public Rite
1 Appeasement or blessing sacrifice
2 Vigil or procession
3 Vigilante execution
4 Induction or funeral ceremony
5 Theatrical dance or play
6 Seasonal or holy day observance

1d6 Cult Symbol
1 Ankh
2 Circled dot
3 Heptogram
4 Ouroboros
5 Unicursal Hexagram
6 Brimstone cross
7 Geometric shape (triangle, square)
8 Divine or occult sigil

So yes, these are some of my thoughts on how to bring a bit of spice to these otherwise forgettable, low-stakes monsters. Hopefully using these principles / expanded flavor options, these encounters will not only be much more exciting, but they will also contribute to a wider, scarier world!

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lichmaster

Adventurer
You gave really great perspective and advice here!
My take, in general, is that random encounters and monsters per se have little chance of being meaningful if not woven into the rest of the plot and environment. I generally avoid them, or I carefully prepare them in advance and drop them in when it makes sense.
A5e does wonders with its tables for behaviours, looks etc, but they are most useful as inspiration sources.
Also, one important thing with monsters is that they may (should) have really different interests and reactions: a monstrous beast that needs to feed will probably hunt and stalk like a predator (ensuing a chase or a fight), but a creature that can easily switch between the prime material and the ethereal plane should be mostly unconcerned about things that PCs do, unless they actively interfere with something that interests/binds them to that place.
Those kinds of monsters IMO should be run more as a mystery than a fighting encounter: understanding what binds them to this place (a person, an object, a past deed?) should be the main source of interaction with such creatures. Once the PCs can understand/find that, they have greater chances of having the creature manifest (for good or bad), maybe preventing it from escaping to the ethereal plane and confront it directly.

The "root" of the problem, maybe, is that monsters are presented as a fighting challenge instead of adventure/plot elements first. Except for predator monstrous beasts or mindless undead, most creature types IMO should not be treated as a direct challenge.
 

Steampunkette

Rules Tinkerer and Freelance Writer
Supporter
So... first things first? I love liminal entities, largely being one myself.

Existing between states, or in the cracks in the world, or simply paused in the doorway between one self and another, is amazing and terrifying and strange. In monstrous allegory it is often the Aberration or the Half-Orc. The A5e Goblin trapped between the ragged edge of civilization and the the clawing fringe of the wild.

So, 100%, I love what you've done with the most basic ghost story concept and agree. Also: NOT ROLLING INITIATIVE IS SCARY. Initiative gives you a framework, an order, and a sense of control. An approach to the encounter that puts it in a neat little box and tells you "This thing has hit points and AC and I am to interact with it on the basis of antagonism" and when that's not the case... things get uncertain.

Ghosts. I generally try to have ghosts appear as symbols of danger and in need of "Fixing". Players often roll initiative and approach them exclusively on that basis. sigh

CULTS. I use cults in different ways and do so with interchangeable terminology. There are evil cults like what you're talking about, here. But there's also good ol' religious cults. Fractured and occasionally heretical infighting church beliefs built up around specific takes on a given religion and how to approach problems by it. It makes things so -delightfully- messy. I want my players to have to briefly stop, -identify- the cultists by their symbology, and then make the decision to fight, flee, or filch, whatever they need.

Or even engage in a request for help!

I love your approaches, here.
 


Steampunkette

Rules Tinkerer and Freelance Writer
Supporter
Reminds me of this

Hehehehehe!

In concept, yes. In narrative... no.

Right now, for example, there are two Cults of Nefia, the Flower, in Sins of the Scorpion Age.

Nefia Among the People is a community organizing cult who focuses on the sacrifice that Nefia made in order to save the world from Ancais and their terrible gods. They're largely nonviolent and essentially act as helpers for the poor and downtrodden. They remain in poverty in order to give all that they have to others and help the community.

The Blood of Nefia instead focuses on the death of Nefia as an external act of violence against her. They still do community organizing, and help people, but they gather whatever wealth they can from tithings and work they do in order to work to change the systems of government that create the harm of the poor in the first place. They're also not above getting violent about it.

So you've got two groups worshipping the same god in different ways who see the other as ineffectual. To the NAP, the BoN are merely exacerbating the corruption endemic to society and further empowering the wealthy to do harm to the poor. The BoN see the NAP as instead wasting their efforts trying to soothe a wound rather than see it healed. And both have their extremists.

And violence comes largely from the BoN, but the NAP aren't entirely without blame. It makes it a complex and interesting issue because you've got people trying to help the poor in two drastically different ways who disdain the other. Who do you support? If there's a holy war, who will win? Who -should- win?

I dunno, i like it.
 


Steampunkette

Rules Tinkerer and Freelance Writer
Supporter
@Steampunkette what would your costume, mask, symbol, and public rites tables look like for good-ish cults?
62727_0.jpg


Sort of the same as the evil ones, but more subtle. More understated. Kinder.
 

Xethreau

Josh Gentry - Author, Minister in Training
My take, in general, is that random encounters and monsters per se have little chance of being meaningful if not woven into the rest of the plot and environment.
I'm so glad you say that! This is going to be the my next topic in Making Monsters Matter. Are there any examples of media that demonstrate this integration for you? For me it's films like Cloverfield, Blair Witch Project, and Annihilation. I'm really trying to do my homework here.

Also, one important thing with monsters is that they may (should) have really different interests and reactions: a monstrous beast that needs to feed will probably hunt and stalk like a predator (ensuing a chase or a fight), but a creature that can easily switch between the prime material and the ethereal plane should be mostly unconcerned about things that PCs do, unless they actively interfere with something that interests/binds them to that place.
I completely agree! If Hansel and Gretel sneak into a witch hut to find The Rare McGuffin, they only have one chance to get in and out before they are noticed and the stealth mission becomes a chase.

The "root" of the problem, maybe, is that monsters are presented as a fighting challenge instead of adventure/plot elements first. Except for predator monstrous beasts or mindless undead, most creature types IMO should not be treated as a direct challenge.

đź’Ż! Yet at the same time, it's a fine line between using a monster as a glorified NPC and using a super strong monster as something "you're not supposed to fight" and interacting with it is a "cut scene."

But the problem with not using strong monsters at all levels of okay is creating the perception of a "leveled world" where anything you encounter you are expected to fight and kill.

If you have monsters that are too powerful, but they are encountered anyway, it seems to me the players have to make good choices on how to survive. For them, rolling initiative would be a death sentence.
 

Xethreau

Josh Gentry - Author, Minister in Training
So... first things first? I love liminal entities, largely being one myself.

Existing between states, or in the cracks in the world, or simply paused in the doorway between one self and another, is amazing and terrifying and strange. In monstrous allegory it is often the Aberration or the Half-Orc. The A5e Goblin trapped between the ragged edge of civilization and the the clawing fringe of the wild.
What are some things that can be done to especially highlight the liminality if half-orcs, abberations, and goblins?
 

Steampunkette

Rules Tinkerer and Freelance Writer
Supporter
Two out of the three exist on the thresh hold of society.

The Half-Orc lives within the culture of whatever city or town or village or whatever that they're raised in, right? But there's always an aspect of self that winds up unfulfilled. Often outright -rejected-. Whether that's the sensitivities of humanity in an orcish raiding camp (Erik the Viking much?) or the rising anger of the orc in a human society. We're never really shown a "Half Orc" society, and instead given this choice between two ill-fitting options.

Goblins have a similar state. They tend to be presented as violent or cruel, but also borderline civilized. They have governance and society and internal rules, but are shown to be too childish in an aggressive or bad light for it to ever really take off. Even in Eberron, which had a "Great Goblin Empire" kept the goblins subservient and feral beneath their Hobgoblin and Bugbear masters who were the "Civilized" ones. They wind up occupying the literary position of humans: Caught between the falling angel and the rising ape. Just a bit lower on the totem pole than the rest of us. Add in A5e's "Childlike Play when they can get it" and it becomes even more tragic and loveable, to me!

And then Aberrations are presented as liminal entities between reality and unreality. Or different realities. The faint and wavy border between sanity and jumbled madness that Lovecraft feared so dearly...

Love it all, y'know?
 
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