I got a trifecta from the judges and 3rd place (out of 32) in exit votes, though of course the exit votes were just a small sample. Perhaps most interestingly, no other monster from round 2 was used in as many round 3 encounters as the immured. As many as three out of my 15 fellow contestants chose to use it, so I think it was seen as an interesting monster to build an encounter around.
In this installment of Loot & Experience, I'll revisit the monster and try to analyze what kind of things are useful for creating creepy, flavorful monsters.
my opinion, the most important rule about scary flavor is this:
Uncertainty is usually scarier than knowing exactly what is going to
happen, no matter how horrible that something may be. Thus, a scary,
creepy monster entry should imply in subtle but noticeable ways that
there is something terribly wrong or dangerous about the monster, and that the only way to know for sure is to find out the hard way.
- A creepy name that suggests unpleasant things is probably the best choice. If the name is too explicit, it may reveal too much and ruin the surprise. However, it's good to remember that the players don't always have a chance to learn a monster's name, at least not until it's already dead, so a creepy name alone doesn't go a long way. I readily admit I'm bad with names, so I won't be giving an example of a good creepy name.
- Generally, the recommended length is two sentences, but even just one can be enough if used well. Sometimes less is more, and if you don't give too many details, it's more likely that that the players actually remember something meaningful about the description. As an example, the description for the immured was the following: "Through cracked, sickly blue lips, this pallid humanoid figure emits deep gasps as if struggling to breathe." It's just 17 words and three details about the monster: pale humanoid, blue lips, painful gasping. If a monster needs three or more sentences to be scary, you're probably overestimating the importance of some of those details.
- More importantly, giving a small number of strong, clear mental images leaves more room for the player's imagination to fill in the missing details. Few things are scarier than detailing seemingly innocuous facts about a creature and letting the player to connect the dots and realize why those details are important.
- As I mentioned before, don't make it too obvious what the creature can do or that it's really frigging scary. The description should never say anything like "an almost palpable aura of malice" (unless it's a supernatural fear effect; more about that "trap" below) or "the barbs on its skin suggest hellish torment". No, none of that! It's a cop-out. Just give the players some details about its appearance (and/or sounds, smells, etc.), and let them decide what the description suggests.
- Both human-like and obviously inhuman creatures can be scary. But if you're designing a mostly human-like monster, familiarize yourself with the concept of the uncanny valley. In short, having a lot of inhuman characteristics makes a monster less unpleasant rather than more unpleasant. A creature that is almost human but not quite can cause a much stronger feeling of revulsion than an obviously inhuman creature.
- Sounds and smells can be scarier than sights because people rely on their eyesight much more than other senses, so receiving disturbing sensory input through the less reliable senses can create a stronger reaction. I made the immured a creature - as one of the voters commented - "best described by the sound it makes from the darkness". It cannot be quiet even if it wants to. If the GM plays it right, it makes the players think "Why is it making that sound? Why is it giving away its location?"
Backstory, ecology, habitat, etc.
- Explaining a monster's disgusting habits in a matter-of-fact way can be particularly unsettling for the reader. Explaining inhuman actions through human-like emotions can be equally creepy. For example, a monster that finds a sliver of solace in watching other people die the way it did is a disturbing thought.
unpleasant, sick or painful origin story or ecology/habitat description
can also make a monster scary, but as with names, it's good to remember
that the usefulness of this part depends largely on the GM's and the
players' ability to expose the information in a dramatic, atmospheric
way. To help them, try to make the information useful for story
purposes. For example, read what I wrote about the immured, and consider
the following examples of how some of the details there can be used as
- The PCs investigate a case of missing persons and find bodies in places that no human being should be able to reach or access.
- The PCs might hear a rumor about "whispering pillars". The words themselves are really innocuous, but there's something unpleasant at the same time. They find out the hard way why they are called that.
- I think one of the best ways to scare players is to push them out of their comfort zone. Use abilities that make them re-think their tactics. Note, however, that there's a difference between completely shutting down a character and just forcing them to make interesting choices. The latter is strongly recommended. The immured, for example, has the snuff aura, which forces the players to think how long they want to stay in melee or if it's a good idea to cast a spell with verbal components.
- In a similar vein, it's good to sometimes mess with the players' expectations about what a monster can or wants to do in combat. The immured, for example, can drag a PC through a wall. No monster should be able to do that, and being separated from the other PCs is a uniquely frightening situation. My R4 monster concept, the centianima, on the other hand, wants to maneuver itself into a position where it's being flanked... because it has a second head which it can only use when flanked. Just when the PCs think they've gained the upper hand, they've actually enabled the monster to hurt them more badly.
- Forcing fear effects on PCs does not make a monster scary. Fear effects have their uses, but more often than not, a PC fleeing in panic because of a failed Will save will only make the player annoyed and frustrated. In fact, a PC running away usually has less to fear than the companions he left behind.
- A monster's description (and to a lesser extent), its name and story elements set the mood for an encounter. Its abilities should be consistent with the flavor, so that the PCs have a chance to find out (hopefully the hard way!) what the earlier hints meant. With the immured, for example, a reaction might be "So that's why it makes that sound..."
- Hurt them in ways they're not used to. Hit point damage is the run-of-the-mill type of punishment, so it's not scary unless it's dished out in spades. Players are used to calculating how many hits they can take, and as I mentioned before, uncertainty is scarier than knowing exactly how badly a monster can hurt you. The immured actually use three types of unusual attacks to achieve this effect: moving them (forces the PCs to adjust to a new situation where other PCs cannot necessarily give support), nonlethal damage ("Why would an undead creature want to take me alive?") and the aura (which puts the PCs in a situation reminiscent of underwater encounters).
- The illusion of life-threatening situations is more important than actually trying to kill the PCs. The immured's aura, for example, probably reminds the players about dangerous underwater encounters. But usually fights are over in a few rounds, so it's unlikely that a PC will suffocate before the immured is destroyed. And it's likely the nonlethal damage the monster deals would drop the PC before he would start suffocating.
- Paralysis and sleep (and some other save-or-dies or save-or-sucks) are scary because they're powerful effects. This is one of the reasons why ghouls are scary: they have three attacks that can cause paralysis. Luckily the attack bonus is not great and the save DC is only 13. However, it's good to bear in mind that being paralyzed or asleep is not fun, it sucks big time, so use these effects wisely. It's the fear of being subjected to an effect like this that makes the players go "oh crap, oh crap, oh crap..."