What makes a monster terrifying?

Seramus

Adventurer
They need to bring back Monster Tactics.

A good DM can make an almost any monster scary, so we need to give mediocre DMs ideas to bridge that gap. Putting tactics in the monster section is the best way to do that, whether that's the tactics of a brilliant wizard or just a pack of slavering ghouls.
 

jayoungr

Adventurer
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.
This.

Simply playing the monsters like they want to win goes a long way to making them scary.
I'll put in another plug for this excellent blog (there's a book too!):
www.themonstersknow.com
 

Celebrim

Legend
In my experience, the thing that most makes a monster scary is that the party doesn't know what they are dealing with or what it can do. It's easy to terrify inexperienced players. Once they have the monster manual memorized and can recognize monsters from clues in their behavior, the saving throws they are provoking, etc. monsters tend to just be different tactical problems. You can enhance this by homebrewing monsters, modifying existing monsters, or reskinning monsters so that it isn't obvious what the players are facing.

Monsters that present truly tense tactical problems tend to also be the ones that put you into situations that 'suck'. The PC's are always trying to produce a situation where winning is a matter of mathematical inevitability, and that bad results are improbable to the point of being impossible. If monsters don't have advantages to leverage, the PC's will almost always succeed in that because they are flexible and tend to have multiple advantages they can lever in either range, mobility, defenses, or the action economy. Particularly at higher levels with good spellcaster support, PC's can tend to find answers. So you have to have monsters that can find answers as well and force reactions from the players.

In short, any monster that can force the players out of their comfort zone tactically, and make them really dig for answers is "terrifying". If the combat plays out differently than normal, then the combat will be tense and the monster will earn respect. But if the combat just is a matter of making the normal choices and/or hard slapping down the monster with a spell that exaggerates their weakness, then the combat will not be 'terrifying'.

Achieving that is part of what makes for good encounter design.

There is a tension here. Part of what makes a swarm terrifying is that they are immune to weapon damage. But immune to weapon damage risks being not fun, because for a lot of characters there isn't a lot they can meaningfully do. So really the only question you might be asking here is, "Do you have arcane casters?", which isn't that fun of a question and isn't really that interesting of a combat. Hence, scenario design with swarms is particularly tricky, in that you need to telegraph them a bit and put them in a terrain where there is something meaningful to do if you aren't dropping fireballs.

Likewise, monsters that can do long term damage to a character or their equipment that isn't easy to recover from are terrifying, but heavy reliance on that can leave players feeling more depressed and annoyed than they are immersed in the game. So again, telegraph and give options to avoid the nasty situation commiserate with the skill level and experience of your players.
 

Sadras

Adventurer
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.
True. I was mouthing off before checking the spell list. :rolleyes: My point was using monsters to break important equipment - like destroy spellfoci of various casters thereby limiting their spellcasting potential, crushing the shields of sword and board warriors, smashing the bows of archers...etc
 

Undrave

Adventurer
True. I was mouthing off before checking the spell list. :rolleyes: My point was using monsters to break important equipment - like destroy spellfoci of various casters thereby limiting their spellcasting potential, crushing the shields of sword and board warriors, smashing the bows of archers...etc
laughs in Monk
 

Wiseblood

Adventurer
I can’t say, but I’ll know it when I see it.

FWIW: I’m pretty sure it isn’t the monster regaining 1/5 of the damage it took in the first round of combat.
 

BookBarbarian

Expert Long Rester
Using your only brain-case as a melee weapon seems... like a lifestyle choice you are apt to regret.
I will not stand by and have a pillar of Dwarven culture insulted like this. If our forefather Dwarvey McHeadbutt hadn't headbutted the trolls out of the first cave we would all have fallen into the sky.

Next you'll say that drinking ale and spirits excessively also hurts the precious 'brain" thing whatever it is.
 

Aebir-Toril

std::cout << "Hi" << '\n';
I will not stand by and have a pillar of Dwarven culture insulted like this. If our forefather Dwarvey McHeadbutt hadn't headbutted the trolls out of the first cave we would all have fallen into the sky.

Next you'll say that drinking ale and spirits excessively also hurts the precious 'brain" thing whatever it is.
Never let Elf talk get to yer head, boy!

Keep yer beard braided, and march on, head down and ready to butt.
 

Coroc

Adventurer
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.
When you want to DM a true Ravenloft campaign better get involved with the topic of this thread.
Read 1st or 2nd ed Ravenloft campaign setting handbooks if you can get access to that, it also will make your vanilla campaigns better.

So here are some of the tricks i use to make mobs which are bag of hitpoints or minor nuisances in other campaigns or standard MM a real threat:

  • Do not identify the monster to fast, does the player know it is just an orc?
  • 5e zombies are truly terrifying if the PC do not have access to radiant damage e.g. so
  • re introduce weapon invulnerabilities: At least the killing blow for the werewolf has to be done with some blessed silverweapon or he
  • returns. Maybe mobs got access to resurrection also?
  • Use hit and run techniques.
  • Use mobs which are real heavy hitters with multiple attacks, but immune to several magics. e.g. a wolfwere i set loose on my ravenloft party had bad AC but it had three attacks a shitload of HP and i think 3d8+9 or so each hit and +7 to hit. Those are great opponents even for single mob vs. party, they can easily down one PC in one or two rounds. Barlgura demon like in RAW PHB for a level 4-5 party is another good example, take it as is or reskin or
  • use numbers for a change, endless streams of low level critters can bring the party to the edge also.
  • Every mob becomes very dangerous if one or more of the party is suffering from exhaustion levels, or if it is clear that no soon rest is in sight, so every resource spent is expensive, so timing which is the next trick:
  • Put in a schedule, e.g the werewolf hits at uncommon opportunities, when the party expects it the least, and it always succeeds in e.g. tearing the commodities for the party down, first the shopowner then the innkeeper then the local priest etc. , so do not hesitate to
  • kill of NPCs like flies in most gruesome ways to communicate the danger.

So that's enough for now, hope that helps.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
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.
The only TPK I've ever DMed in my life came from just this: the party's heavy fighter was the first in the room and was immediately dominated. He then methodically chopped down the rest of the party as they arrived, and once they were all dead the fighter became a mindless slave until himself dying a while later.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
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.
Depends on the monster.

A dumb brute (e.g. a typical ogre, or most wild animals) will in fact most likely attack either whoever hurts it first or whoever hurts it the most, because that's who it's mad at.

Completely mindless foes e.g. zombies also don't attack intelligently; here it's completely random who they go after if faced with multiple targets at once.

This is what makes intelligent foes more of a threat; in that they can and do (usually) realize their best course of action in a given situation and act on it.
 

ad_hoc

Adventurer
Movement can be scary.

A group of orcs are scary because they can Dash as a bonus action.

The Fighter runs up to the orcs but they don't care. They all run past him (suffering a single attack in response) and attack the poor wizard 5 times.
 

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