Sunday, May 11, 2014

Loot & Experience, part IV: Designing scary, creepy monsters

The monster round was perhaps my favorite in this year's RPG Superstar, and I think it went rather well for me. The immured, an undead creature who died of slow suffocation, was generally liked for being "flavorful", "creepy", "scary", "evocative", "original" and "dark". There were some mechanical concerns, and there was no strong tie-in to Golarion, but its origin story, flavor and perhaps most notably the monster's usefulness in encounters was praised by the judges and voters alike.

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.

  • In 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.
  • An 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 plot hooks:
    • 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..."
As always, these are just my very subjective observations. Feel free to comment whether you agree or disagree! :-)


  1. This seems like good, smart advice, Mikko. The immured definitely was fun with its ability to attack in different ways (I was one of the competitors who used it, thinking it would be neat to have it simply open up a hole beneath its prey).

    I think you're very much right about paralysis and sleep. Making it so players can't actually play tends to lose their interest quickly.


  2. Everything here is solid, nice work Mikko!

    The only thing I would add is the significance of atmosphere to selling a scary monster. A monster alone is insufficient to evoke dread in most players: they know their characters' strengths, they know the game is mechanically skewed in their favor, and many are so caught up in how awesome their characters are that they have difficultly looking past that to recognize how scary an enemy is. As I think about it, almost every undead monster has the potential to be scary, as do most aberrations, but rarely do these monsters get press time as such. Players don't often see a mummy as a desiccated, disemboweled corpse of a once-human shambling toward you to inflict you with an unholy cursed disease that ravages you from the inside; they see an enemy with relatively familiar stats that needs to be stomped in order to advance the story.

    That is why I would argue that, when it comes to making a scary monster, the monster itself is subsidiary to the story that gives it life. This is the gift of (to name some sources I am familiar with) Stephen King, H.P. Lovecraft, and the designers of the game "Amnesia: The Dark Descent," as opposed to games like "Doom" or "Dead Space." While the latter two just throw gross things at the player from out of the shadows, relying on surprise and shock value (which is moot in turn-based systems like Pathfinder), the former three know how to create an atmosphere that makes their monsters that much more potent. They know that nothing they say is going to be scarier than what their audience comes up with in their own imaginations, so they set the stage for the audience to invent and realize their own worst-case scenarios. The less the audience sees of the monster, the scarier it. The more they see of a monster's effect on other creatures, the scarier it is. The more tense and dramatic the pacing leading up to the actual confrontation with the monster, the scarier it is. Don't try to scare the players; set the stage for the players to scare themselves.

    For this reason, I would argue that the scariest monsters are the ones that come with built-in horror stories, and abilities that facilitate the creation of spooky atmosphere. Your immured is a great example: an average, everyday person who tragically succumbed to death by slow, inescapable suffocation, now driven to inflict the same torturous fate on other healthy victims from the shadows, where they may not even know what is happening. The story is already there, the GM just has to sell it.

    If you haven't already read it, I would highly recommend the 3.5 sourcebook "Heroes of Horror." It is arguably the best purchase I have ever made as a designer and a GM, since it offers a comprehensive crash-course in weaving the scare factor into your storytelling and your game mechanics. I still refer back to it to this day.

    Hope this is helpful! Nice work, Mikko, keep the posts coming!


    1. Chris, thanks for the comment! I very much agree with you on this. Atmosphere and story are very important, as is setting the stage for the players to scare themselves. Making the monster a story in itself is indeed a great way to up the scare factor. Very good points! :-)


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