What makes a monster terrifying?

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:
“The monster attacks... Ragnar, because he did the most damage to it last round.”
Sure, or "...because he looks the toughest." It's sorta the old-school gentleman's aggro/mark, yeah.

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.
Well, it'll make those monsters more challenging.
And it'll make the PCs nominally there to 'protect' their allies look pretty bad.
I love gibbering mouthers, and I always like to have them gibber weird things. One wandered around saying "what, what, what is it?" over and over and over and over and over... well, you get it.


Goblin Queen
Sure, or "...because he looks the toughest." It's sorta the old-school gentleman's aggro/mark, yeah.

Well, it'll make those monsters more challenging.
And it'll make the PCs nominally there to 'protect' their allies look pretty bad.
Yeah, 5e desperately needs more “aggro” mechanics to make tanking a viable tactic. Marking was one of those great ideas from 4e that got tossed out.


I crit!
Strong grappling gargoyles on a cliff face terrified my players when they were clinging to a cliff 1000 feet up and no one had feather fall.

but to be fair none of them new it was there until the sea of crawling undead gave them no choice but to crawl down, while it was raining undead. I guess that was already pretty scary.


Expert Long Rester
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.
I think you hit the nail on the head here.

And I think players decide "how bad things could go" based on what they fear the most. And I think what they often fear the most is losing something they've gained or losing control of what they can do in that moment.

The former we see all the time have a PC's boots stolen, much less when they lose a powerful magic item or macguffin.

The latter is what I think fuels the players dread that first time they see a troll regenerate, or a werewolf shake of that attack. The realization that what they tried is useless and they don't have control over the situation like they thought the did.

Overall, I think we fear feeling helpless.


IME the two primary ways to terrify the Players is the known and the unknown.

Many players know the various types of monsters or abilities that are REALLY bad. Dragons, Giants, Fiends, are all generally avoided at lower levels, because the players know that they are far too weak to face such a powerful foe. Pack Tactics is an ability that also terrifies my players, since they know that getting surrounded is almost certain death just from the sheer number of attacks with advantage. Some negative effects have been neutered in 5E, so I've houseruled them back to being more evil (for example, Life Drain lasts until the Rest/Recuperate downtime activity is taken, not just a long rest). The players are aware of this, making monsters more fearsome once again.

The unknown is always something a player should fear (except newbs and the foolish, who quickly learn better). Something I've done for personal preference has become a major issue for my players: I use the OD&D, BECMI, and AD&D descriptions of monsters, not the more recent ones. Because of this, players don't always know what they're facing, and this has lead to some dramatic deaths (such as a level 1 PC surrounded by kobolds). Even a troll may not be obvious, and because of this, they may not know to use fire against it. In addition, monsters react to things, even if they don't have a vulnerability to it (anything with sunlight sensitivity shies away from radiant damage, for example), giving some false impressions. By limiting the players knowledge, I've inadvertently made several monsters more terrifying.


A zombie that had just the friendliest dice ever, would not go down and stay down no matter how many blows it took (a crit finally put it down permanently), got in enough accumulated small hits along the way to convince us to head for shelter and a Short Rest. Good thing for us it did not have Loathsome Limbs too!


I can add a custom title.
A monster I had that was creepy were swarms of creeping claws. They weren't powerful but the skittering in the dark before seeing a swarm of undead hands coming towards you was quite creepy.


Besides narration, being unfair and the like, take a stab first at the rules by going outside the immediate stat block. Below are some examples of what I mean:

When the PCs first experience telepathic contact with mind flayers have the PCs make insanity saving throws (DMG 265-266), with failures resulting in a short-term, permanent or indefinite madness (DMG 258-260). The sanity section even gives this idea to you - making direct contact with the mind of an alien creature;

Have the Orog attempt to trip (Shove Action) the PC in order to gain advantage on his follow-up attack (PHB 195). Intelligent monsters;

Let the Nalfeshnee attempt to break the holy symbol of the cleric (DMG 246-247). No more healing, threat of item destruction;

Use the mob rules for a bundle of blight twigs (DMG 250) and have some off them attempt to climb onto the PC (DMG 271). Let the PC feel overwhelmed; and

Introduce environmental hazards through dynamic combat.

(a) Allow the dragon to grapple a PC (PHB 195) and then fly upwards with the unwilling PC risking a fall; or allow the dragon to grapple and then submerge itself into a body of water (PHB 183 suffocation, DMG 116-117 visibility, PHB 203 spellcasting verbal).

(b) Movement and Miss attacks, in particular large+, monsters change the terrain around them. A fire elemental slithers across the ground creating a growing wall of fire as combustible materials ignite into flame; A PC sidesteps a giant's blow which then blow knocks a pillar causing structural damage and the PCs are forced to make dexterity saving throws (despite the miss attack) to avoid being crushed by the falling debris; A remorhaz bursts through the frozen ground forcing everyone to make acrobatic checks or fall prone (and this is before it has even attacked);
Last edited:
I would not dismiss save-or-suck as non-scaring abilities. You made it to game night and designed your PC carefully, and now you're faced with the risk of being taken out of one of the most fun and important parts of the game... you should be scared!

Then there is the possibility of losing equipment, not as scary as losing levels or ability scores, but it's a sort of permanent damage also.

Generally speaking however, I think the problem is in the players. There are lots of players who are never scared, only annoyed when things don't go as smoothly as they expect.


In general I agree with your 4 points and the premise of the issue with 5e monsters. However, these same general issues are true for PF2e monsters yet they, according to the PF2e forums at least, can be scary. The primary reason I have heard that they are scare is because once you get a monster that is +3-5 your group's level it is harder to hurt and it hurts you really bad.

So, though I agree that special attacks / damages can make a monster scary, it is also scary if it simply does more damage. This is true for 5e as well. 1st level is scary because your HP is low compared to a monsters damage. Any combat could be lethal.


Let the Nalfeshnee attempt to break the holy symbol of the cleric (DMG 246-247). No more healing, threat of item destruction;
Neither Healing Word, Cure Light Wounds, Healing Spirit, Mass Healing Word or Heal have a material component, so the lack of a holy symbol does nothing to hinder a Cleric's ability to heal.

You want to prevent healing you look at Chill Touch or Silence.