How To Scare Monsters
December 21, 2011
Usually when I re-read something that I wrote several months in the past, I think to myself: “Wow, you suck.”
As mentioned previously, I submitted three things to issue #13 of Fight On! 1) A Retro Stupid article about scaring monsters away. 2) A d100 table intended as a companion to the article. 3) A compilation of Ken St. Andre quotes from his 4th Edition Tunnels & Trolls rulebook (issue #13 is dedicated to him).
A couple of the quotes were used on the dedication page and the “Advice for Dungeon Masters” poem is found on the TOC page. I love those quotes! The d100 table made it into the issue, but it feels naked without the companion article, so I’m posting the article below.
Whereas most D&D Reaction charts have the possibility of monsters automatically kissing up to the PCs, the Reaction chart in Tunnels & Trolls allows for the possibility of monsters freaking out and running away upon meeting the PCs. I like that. So I thought to myself “Hmm…how to scare monsters?”
I haven’t re-read it yet…
HOW TO SCARE MONSTERS
Have your PCs ever tried to scare away monsters instead of fighting them? It can have both good and bad consequences. Good: Not having to defeat monsters in combat can save time and resources. Anyways, killing monsters isn’t worth much XP in some games. Bad: If the GM is smart or evil, those scared monsters might later ambush the PCs, perhaps with friends. Even with the potential bad consequences, scaring away monsters is a useful option for PCs to have at their disposal and could sometimes be the best or only viable tactic for a particular encounter.
Monster Reaction tables can be useful tools for when a GM is unsure of how a monster responds to PCs. Not all monsters will dive into combat at first opportunity and negotiating with monsters is an important part of fantasy roleplaying games. It’s no surprise then that Tunnels & Trolls (4th and 5th Edition) has a Monster Reaction table similar to those found in D&D and retro-clones: Roll 2d6 to generate one of five reaction categories. But there is a small and significant difference: Where D&D reaction tables typically have a 1-in-36 chance of the monster being enthusiastically helpful or friendly, the T&T reaction table instead has a 1-in-36 chance of the monster being panic-stricken and fleeing immediately, without the PCs necessarily doing anything to cause the fright .
T&T also has a relatively powerful 1st level spell called Oh Go Away that can easily scare away lesser enemies. (Again, 4th and 5th Edition T&T. The spell is nerfed in 7th Edition.) The combination of this spell and the Monster Reaction table explicitly makes scaring monsters away a reliable tactic in T&T. Compare to D&D, where the default Monster Reaction table does not include monster scaring and the spell Cause Fear has a range of touch. Good luck with that. Some versions of D&D have Morale rules, which are a special reaction roll to determine if monsters flee after combat has begun and blood has been spilled. Oh, D&D has the Wand of Fear also, so maybe you can ask Harry to pick one up for you at Ollivanders. Of course, players can try anything they want and DMs can adjudicate scare attempts according to the situation, but the D&D rules do not explicitly encourage scaring away monsters before combat as a reliable or common tactic.
What are some ways to encourage players to use scare tactics? Start by designing encounters where scaring away the monsters is the most efficient or only option. If the PCs come up with a good plan to scare the monsters, give a bonus to the resolution roll or judge for yourself if it is successful.. Another idea is for the GM to award XP for scaring away monsters, especially if the scare tactic was roleplayed in fine fashion. The GM can rule that some scared monsters drop treasure or become paralyzed with fright and easy to capture. A monster gagged and bound is worth two in the tomb.
It doesn’t matter if GMs use only their judgment to resolve scare attempts or if they employ rules mechanics to aid in resolution…it’s a good idea to have a plan when trying to scare monsters, either to sway the GM’s judgement or to receive bonuses on the resolution roll (monster reaction table, attribute check, saving roll, pre-combat morale check, etc.). Just saying “I try to scare away the monsters” won’t cut it. Do something scary.
Surprise is helpful for scaring monsters. Most important is what the PCs do with their surprise advantage. The GM should allow some encounters to begin where the surprised side remains completely unaware of the other side. This gives the PCs the opportunity for creative planning of ambushes or scare attempts. It gives the GM the chance to use powerful monsters that might otherwise overpower PCs in a straight up fight.
Scary objects are a tried and true tactic. Scalps hanging from a PC’s belt are sure to get a monsters attention, though it may also enrage them to attack. Blood and skulls can work, but some monsters may laugh at the sight. Perhaps the most consistently effective objects for scaring monsters are religious symbols or idols. Some monsters may fear innocuous items such as doilies and stuffed toys.
Scary sounds are effective in some situations, especially when the monsters cannot see the PCs. Pretending to be The Yeti has a good chance of scaring away a pack of mountain goblins. Or imitate the sounds of a whip-wielding taskmaster to send kobolds scurrying away. Make up a strange alien language on the spot. Let out a slobbery feral roar…nobody wants to mess with a berserker.
Acting becomes an option when the monsters can see the PCs. Pretend to be someone you are not. Better yet, the party can engage in a mock battle amongst themselves, exaggerating their weapon proficiency with Hollywood choreography. Pretend to fight off invisible demons. Feign a gruesome death. Squirt some ketchup all over the floor and walls.
Scary faces are a fun option, especially when the players are kids. What kid doesn’t like to make scary faces?
Threats are implied in nearly any scare tactic. Why not just make them explicit and the centerpiece of a scare attempt? “I’m gonna tear your head off, you chaotic evil so-and-so!”
Some monsters just don’t like bright light. Maybe that’s why they are in the dungeons. Shine your target lantern in a monster’s eyes to see how it reacts. Magically created lights, especially those equivalent to sunlight, may cause some monsters to bug out. On the other hand, some bugs are attracted to bright light.
Reciting a list of deeds is effective when the PC’s reputation does not proceed them. Let monsters know what they are up against by listing some of the monsters you’ve dispatched and how. Go ahead and be casual about it: “Some call me The Collector, for on my shelf at home are the heads of Grzlgrk the Troll King, Votoly the Blue, and Witheho Muppersmith. What do you think about that?”
Magic, of course, provides effects that cause automatic fear. More interesting is to use spells that can supplement other kinds of scare tactics, such as Dancing Lights, Audible Glamer, or any kind of illusion. A magician could also use simple spells to impress monsters, suggesting the possibility of deadlier magics at the spellcaster’s disposal. Non-wizards can use magic items to fool some monsters into thinking they are up against a high sorcerer.
Some monsters may be scared of a specific random thing. A GM can roll on the WHAT IS THIS MONSTER SCARED OF? table for inspiration.
So the next time your PCs are in a tight spot or are just not in the mood for chopping heads, try scaring away the monsters instead. But keep your swords drawn and spells ready, in case the monsters just laugh and charge into battle. After all, they are trying to scare you too. Because that’s what monsters do.