What makes a monster terrifying?

lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
So a recent thread had a discussion about monstrous disappointments-

Which ended up in a conversation about monsters that are terrifying, and, for that matter, whether or not monsters in 5e are (or can be) terrifying. I've been a little preoccupied with things recently, but I wanted to return to the topic, because I think that there are some interesting issues that can be teased out of the conversation, provided that we first identify what it means for a monster qua monster to be terrifying.

So I would start by making this assertion: 5e monsters are not, as a rule, terrifying. Scary. They are not, in and of themselves, objects to be feared. But in order to understand why I think that, a few things need to be understood first.

1. Tucker's Kobolds.

So, from way back in Dragon 127 (and the concept long predates this, but it's a useful term for purposes of discussion), we have the idea of Tucker's Kobolds. If you've never heard the term before, allow me to quote a certain scene from Game of Thrones and say, SHAME SHAME SHAME! Look it up. But the basic concept is that any monster (in this case, kobolds) if played intelligently, strategically, and maximizing terrain and so on (aka, TACTICS FTW!) can be, for lack of a better word, terrifying. And, for the most part, I think that you can still design an encounter and use monsters intelligently and use tactics to truly strain the players. You can still have "Tucker's Kobolds."

2. Be unfair.

So players will do things like, say, focus fire and if a particular target will get up again if not dealt with, will make sure it stays down. ....Monsters can do that too. Heck, wouldn't a zombie just start feasting on a fallen foe (aka auto-crit) once it has fallen? And yet, many DMs rarely do this, using the typical D&D "inverse ninja" strategy when it comes to fighting. "First, attack the meatshields, and when the meatshield goes down, move on to the next moving target while the meatshield gets healed ...." The whole "whack-a-mole" problem arises because monsters allow it to. Again, monsters are more scary when they are more likely to truly kill you, or to target the weak PCs first when possible. Combine this with (1), and combats become much, much more difficult and, perhaps, scary.

3. Narration.

Monsters, and their abilities, can be terrifying if narrated correctly. I have used the telepathic powers of the nothic, for example, in LMOP to create a sense of terror and dread in players; this, too, can be scary.

4. Newness.

So a common example used to say 5e monsters are scary is that monsters can scare new players, and everyone else is jaded. There is some support for this! From Dragon Magazine #10 (October, 1978):

One of the problems with D&D is that the players always know too much. This is news? “You obtain surprise over three Clickclicks.”
“Clickclicks? Oh, yeah, they’re in Supplement Three. Hand it to me. And where’s Greyhawk? It had a note about them.”
A pause. “We shout out ‘November’.”
“That’s right, the Clickclicks fall over dead.”

In other words, whether it's yet another troll metagame discussion, or just a newbie encountering zombie for the first time in any edition, there is never a time like your first when it comes to D&D.


So, all those four factors aside, why do I think that monsters in 5e aren't scary?


The issue with 5e's monsters are inherent to 5e's style.

So I've now DM'd a lot of people that have started out as complete newbies to D&D and have progressed to veterans. And the one thing I have consistently noticed is that, relatively quickly, they have grokked the salient driving force in 5e. Whatever small bells and whistles a monster might have, it is, in the end, a bag of hit points. Whatever resistances it might have, whatever abilities it might possess, in the end all you need to do is just cause more damage. Every monster is a nail, and DPR is the hammer. Once that salient point sinks in, the monster qua monster is no longer scary, or even that interesting. The tactics or combat might be, but never the monster itself. Perhaps there might be a save or suck here, or a nifty effect there, but it's all going to be somewhat familiar.

Now, contrast that with older editions (here, OD&D, B/X, and 1e) where monster abilities were much more a la carte. You would have abilities as disparate as:
Save or die.
Level loss.
Permanent loss of hp.
Permanent loss of ability score.
Percentile magic resistance.
Strong effects outside of save-or-die (like petrification that really mattered). And system shock,.
Permanent aging.

...and then you'd have all the weird little effects that are too numerous to mention ...


Now, there are many valid reasons for getting rid of most of these; in fact, I would say that the transformation of the game to one where there is significant effort inherent in the character creation process and it's more "heroic fantasy" pretty much demands removing or altering some of these effects (for example, save or die to save or suck).

However, these same changes are what removes the terror from the monsters themselves. Undead are a useful example of that; a wight or wraith was terrifying in old editions, just because of what they were.


I would end by saying I don't necessarily think that there is a better or worse approach to it, but the approach is different and removes much of the inherent fear of particular monsters.

Anyway, those are my thoughts- throwing it out there for other comments.
 

Draegn

Explorer
With regards to number two, I would not say unfair, but rather a more natural response. If your party is attacked by a monster and one of the party falls, why would the monster stay around to continue fighting instead of dragging the fallen off to a secluded place to eat in peace?

Also using critical hit charts, if a character can get a decapitation result, so too can a monster.
 

Doc_Klueless

Doors and Corners
For me? When I'm playing, it usually revolves around Non-HP consequences:

1) Petrification, Poisoning, Paralyzation, etc.
2) Exhaustion
3) Loss of equipment (Disenchanter, Rust Monster, etc.)

That sort of thing.
 

Aebir-Toril

std::cout << "Hi" << '\n';
In an effort to make monsters more terrifying in my games, I do the following:

  • Homebrew new monsters with abilities unseen in standard monsters.
  • Make monsters more intelligent in terms of strategy (a la Tucker's Kobolds).
  • Try to make monsters behave realistically. So, for example, and enemy might take down the healer first, and then finish off the meat shields.
  • I don't avoid 'unfair' tactics, such as monsters flanking players, making them fall prone, killing the Cleric or healer before other PCs, targeting a single PC with massive damage, fleeing sporadically to take rests before attacking the PCs, utilizing the environment, and attacking PCs once they're down to 0 hit points.
  • I play monsters as living (or un-living) beings whose sole purpose is not to be 'mobs' to kill. Deranged cultists are sometimes the exception, as they may be suicidal.
 

MonkeezOnFire

Adventurer
What makes a monster terrifying is the possibility that it can alter your character permanently for the worst in some way. In most cases that is PC death. The reason that most 5e monsters are not terrifying is because the default assumption of 5e is that the PCs win. Looking at the encounter guidelines a deadly encounter is defined as there is a chance a character could die. Everything below that is supposed to have negligible risk of PC death.

I don't have lot of experience with the earlier editions but is my understanding that they essentially held the opposite opinion, where you were more likely to die adventuring than succeed. I've heard stories where groups didn't even name their characters until they reached a certain level for fear of getting too attached. I don't think either play style is objectively superior to the other, they're just different with everyone having different opinions.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
I'm not sure you can make all monsters inherently scary, nor should that necessarily be a goal. I'm playing D&D, not Cthullu. In addition, one person's terrifying is another person's annoying. Level drain? Annoying. Aging? If I'm not playing a human ho-hum. Petrified? Yipee I get to go do something else or I'll just start writing up a new PC.

So what does terrify players?
  • Monsters that drag PCs off into the darkness.
  • Seemingly insurmountable odds.
  • Wizard of Oz monsters that control minions from behind the curtain. Especially if there's no end to the minions.
  • Not knowing who you can trust.
  • Creatures that use hit an run tactics.
  • Enemy spell casters that aren't stupid.
  • Throw in monsters or environments that synergize. Have low level mooks running around helping the big bad for example.
  • Beholders. Taking away magic can be terrifying for a higher level group.
  • Change the goals from just "kill it" to "protect the McGuffin" or similar.

I also modify or create custom monsters on a fairly regular basis. Whether that's just adding class levels to existing monsters or building a monster with a grab bag of abilities from other monsters.

But ultimately? I think D&D has always been about hitting things with something pointy/blunt/magical until it dies.
 

CleverNickName

Limit Break Dancing
In the right hands, I think #1 and #2 on your list can make any monster terrifying. ANY monster.

I also like to use a heavy amount of narration to foreshadow the incoming monster and build suspense...you know, get everyone's imaginations going. Stuff like strange sounds in the distance getting closer, recently-slain bodies with mysterious wounds, enormous or weird-looking tracks...
 

MarkB

Hero
For me? When I'm playing, it usually revolves around Non-HP consequences:

1) Petrification, Poisoning, Paralyzation, etc.
2) Exhaustion
3) Loss of equipment (Disenchanter, Rust Monster, etc.)

That sort of thing.
Yeah, anything which bypasses the 'meat' of hit points and starts debilitating characters directly can be pretty scary. However, things which actually take a character out of play completely can have the reverse effect - nobody looks back fondly upon the awesome fight they watched happening between the other players and the DM while their character spent the whole battle paralysed.
 
I come from a balanced position on the extreme.

1) I do think 5e's monster have a "handicap" in being terrifying because of the loss of those crippling abilities.
2) Good DM play can overcome those handicaps and still create memorable and fun fights.

A few suggestions on how to do it:

1) Surprise is huge. Surprise is a huge swing factor in a fight. I have said many times I will take a fight with surprise than adding 4 CR to my fight, its that strong. When my party gets hit with surprise, I always see them sliding to the edge of their seats.

2) Catch the party out of the norm: If you have monsters running at the party with the meatshields in front, everyone rested and refreshed....than yeah they are going to get pulped in short order. However, attack them in the tavern when they are in the bath, have someone sneak up on the spellcasters while the fight is ongoing...and the fear factor rises quickly.

3) Make a single party member the target, no matter what. Have a hoard of monsters go right for party member X....taking AOOs and whatever else is needed. This is both scary as that player knows flat out that they will attack him until he is paste, no mercy. But on the flip side it can be a rewarding challenge if the party members find a way to protect that person, or buff him up so that attacks against him are weaker than if they had gone after someone else.

4) Terrain is the key. Terrain is as much a monster as anything else in the fight, maybe more so. An ooze is just a blob of hitpoints. An ooze that attacks the party when they are squeezing through a tight cavernous passage becomes a terrifying threat.

5) Alternate Loss Conditions: Death is not the only consequence. Use timed encounters, the party only has 3 rounds to get to the artifact before the ritual goes off. The party is protecting a 1st level character, so while they can take the pain, their ward cannot, etc.

6) Use an overwhelming threat...in the background. Have a purple worm erupt 200 feet from the party, but not engage them. Have a Nightwalker be seen on the horizon on a dark foggy night. For some people, just the image of what's out there can be scary.

7) Reflavor abilities. If players are used to certain monsters, change up their abilities to make them strange and creepy. My best example. I took hobgoblin stats and gave it Magic Missile at will (just the 1st level ability, nothing too extreme).

I reflavored it to this horrific black monster with a huge mouth and teeth, that was dead silent. All it would do was point its "claws" at the party and swipe....and then immediately the party would take damage (aka magic missile). They freaked out! "What do you mean there was no roll....it just hit me? No save no nothing!!!" And then....I gave them 6 of them to contend with. One use of magic missile isn't so bad, 6 copies of it flying at once is devastating. The party ran scared, and came up with all sorts of ambush tactics to take them out. All from a creature with low hitpoints and the use of a 1st level spell.
 

jgsugden

Adventurer
Good roleplaying and great storytelling. Terrifying is the axt of causing extreme fear. Fear is an emotional response.

The art of storytelling is the art of creating emotional responses with your words.

If terror is the goal, then look at the storytelling techniques of your favorite scary stories. Think about the movies and books that most terrified you and figure out what made them terrifying. Then use those same techniques to communicate a scene to your players.

The dramatic pause... the unexplained sound effect... asking for a roll and not explaining why you're asking for it... drawn out descriptions that add layers of frightening onto a description that starts out 'normal'... twisting everyday things into nightmares (like Steven King does with clowns, etc...) All great tools to think about using and practice implementing.
 
What makes a monster terrifying?
What's "terrifying" in the context of a TTRPG, where you're all sitting safely around a table?

I suspect there's more than one sense.

There's the sense that you'd get from well-done horror story, more thrill than actual terror, that'd rest mostly on the strength of the DM's narration and the players' imaginations, since we get very little in the way of gruesome F/X in D&D.

There's the sense of getting the players to make decisions for the characters as if the characters were terrified - that can be done by taking away control of the characters, wholly, or partially with conditions like Frightened.

Then, and I think this is the sense generally being used, there's the players being worried for their characters' continued playability. Death, depending on level and other factors, may or may not be much of an impediment to continuing to play the character you wanted, as you wish to play it, just a delay until he's resurrected - heck, a 'dramatically appropriate' death may even be the desirable climax to a character's story arc. Similarly being dropped is just losing turns until you're back up.
OTOH, loss of an irreplaceable item, loss of key/defining abilities, forced behavior inappropriate to the character concept, or permanent changes to the character may be more much more concerning.
 
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5ekyu

Adventurer
In my experience, what terrifies players is... loss of control.

An umberhulk or creature with that kind of ability to disrupt pretty randomly who can act and what they do will drive PCs or players nuts but not in a long term debilitating way- just a moment by momdnt uncertainty.
 
So I've now DM'd a lot of people that have started out as complete newbies to D&D and have progressed to veterans. And the one thing I have consistently noticed is that, relatively quickly, they have grokked the salient driving force in 5e. Whatever small bells and whistles a monster might have, it is, in the end, a bag of hit points. Whatever resistances it might have, whatever abilities it might possess, in the end all you need to do is just cause more damage. Every monster is a nail, and DPR is the hammer. Once that salient point sinks in, the monster qua monster is no longer scary, or even that interesting. The tactics or combat might be, but never the monster itself. Perhaps there might be a save or suck here, or a nifty effect there, but it's all going to be somewhat familiar.
Flip the script. Replace "monster" with "player character", and see how it reads...

Whatever small bells and whistles a "player character" might have, it is, in the end, a bag of hit points.
Whatever resistances it might have, whatever abilities it might possess, in the end all you need to do is just cause more damage.
Ever "player character" is a nail, and DPR is the hammer.

...While it is technically true, it's not the entire truth. Playing that "bag of hit points" is still a fun, thought-provoking, emotionally engaging, and inherently interesting experience.

What's the difference?

Thrilling "dread" or "fear" – in the context of roleplaying games – has to do with perception of danger/threat. And the perception of danger/threat is always contextual, isn't it? Another way of saying that: To meaningfully discuss perceived danger/threat, you need to discuss context, right?

Take the ogre – the epitome of a "big sack of hit points." A lone 1st-level PC will rightfully be very cautious of the deadly ogre which can kill them in a single hit, while a lone 5th-level PC may see an ogre as a reasonable challenge but nothing too dangerous, and a party of 10th-level PCs defending a beloved village from ogres might view them as a significant threat...to the villagers. In each of those scenarios, facing the ogre(s) can still be fun, thought-provoking, emotionally engaging, and inherently interesting.
 

Salthorae

Imperial Mountain Dew Taster
2. Be unfair.
I think this plays into #1 a little bit, but I do this and have killed more than 1 PC by following what I think is a "natural" course of action for monsters in combat. Not all of them will continue after a downed PC, but there are quite a few of them.

My players are usually wary of it being a chance in any given encounter though, so it helps flavor up some of the more "bestial" options.

Focus fire is definitely a thing for Intelligent monsters for me though. If it's good enough for the PC's, it's good enough for the monsters.

The wilderness needs to be scary still.

3. Narration.
I agree narration has a huge part to play in amping up dread. I just played over the weekend, and this was done very well by the DM.

Round hole in a dark/unlit dungeon except for our torches (no one had darkvision!), We could just make out a round shape that water was cascading down on top of in the hole when the DM described as shadowy tentacle shape that suddenly whipped around to face our torch we had held over the hole. Then the shape started rising out of the hole... beholder!

I don't do the narration justice here, but yeah. While we weren't low level or inexperienced, we were all terrified and ran like little inexperienced 1st level PC's!
 

Undrave

Adventurer
I should have added Dominating/controlling a PC can be pretty terrifying. For some reason the party's barbarian attacking the rest of the group is much scarier than just some run of the mill monster.
Happened last night in my game! Friggin' Aboleth. And we had a NPC Formorian Warlock with us to boot! Luckily, the latter spent most of the fight in Difficult Terrain inside the area of effect of Silence. That was a good move.
 

Saelorn

Adventurer
The most terrifying thing about any monster is uncertainty. Monsters represent an uncertain possibility for the future, where things are not going as well for you as you might hope.

The two major factors are: 1) how bad things could go; and 2) how likely they are to go that badly.

Monsters in 5E can theoretically kill you and everyone you care about, but the chance of that actually happening is remote. Anything else that they might do to you can be overcome within three days (game time). And even if it is a TPK, you (the player) don't get to spend much time dwelling on it, because you're all going to make new characters for the next session. As far as potential bad things go, it's really not that bad.

Contrast with previous editions, where the worst thing that could happen is that you're set back multiple years of play experience, and continuing to play the game means that the next few years (real time) are reserved for getting back up to normal. Likewise, if it's possible to lose a limb, then that's something which will actually affect your quality of life for as long as you keep playing the character, until you might eventually hope to find someone capable of fixing it in the distant future. Those are pretty dramatic stakes to put on the line, regardless of how unlikely they are to happen.

There's also the meta-uncertainty factor, of unknown unknowns. If a monster shows up and you've never seen it before, then you don't know what kind of possibilities it might represent. That's a whole other level of terrifying.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:

“The monster attacks... Ragnar, because he did the most damage to it last round.”

It’s a very, very common “tactic” used by DMs, usually to avoid seeming like they’re unfairly targeting anyone. And it never fails to kill the tension in an encounter. It becomes immediately clear that the monsters are going to behave in what ever way will seem the most fair to the players, instead of making tactically prudent decisions. Simply playing the monsters like they want to win goes a long way to making them scary.
 

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