Designing Creepy Monsters for Tabletop Games and Fiction

You step into the dark and gloomy cave. The light of your torch bouncing off of the slimy stone walls of the cave. Suddenly you come across a horrible purple skinned monster, a massive eye sitting above a maw lined with rows and rows of razor sharp teeth. Its body floats above the ground, no legs supporting it while ten stalks jut from its head with an eye at the end of each one. It looks at you as you feel- “Oh its a beholder!” yells, Bobby, “Don’t stand in the gaze of its big eye because its an antimagic cone.”

“God Dammit Bobby,” the DM replies, “Your character doesn’t know that, and you ruined the moment.”

As DM’s run games, you start to run into an interesting issue where your players know the monsters they are about to fight. Giving a description of a monster is often ruined when the players shout out what it is and the mysticism and tension are removed from the situation because all they have to do is use learned techniques to fight them. This isn’t always a bad thing, but if you are like me and love to put a sense of dread into the player’s mind (because I am clearly sadistic) then this type of response is what you try to avoid. I have made a reputation among my players for throwing the weirdest and most unexpected creatures at them to the point that they walk away almost traumatized from (not really, just in awe of my insanity). I want to be able to teach you how to do the same.

What is a Monster?

It might be common for us to think of monsters and creepy creatures that are out for our flesh. After all, we see them all over horror movies and classics like Dracula. However, this isn’t what makes a monster. If you’ve ever heard the phrase, “Knowledge is knowing that Frankenstein is not the monster. Wisdom is knowing that Frankenstein is the monster,” then you might have an inkling of what I mean. Monsters are, by one dictionary definition: “any animal or human grotesquely deviating from the normal shape, behavior, or character”. I want to note that behavior or character is included in that definition. I’m sure we have all heard someone say “that person is a monster!” for having done some terrible deed or said something horrible.

These definitions, however, only really muddy the water when trying to determine what a monster is. If you are reading this thinking, “Come on Jake, I just want to make something that is going to spook my players!” then you are missing my point. The reason monsters like Frankenstein, Dracula, werewolves, and zombies have such a cultural impact is because of what they represent. Frankenstein is a cautionary tale of science going to far, Dracula is meant to reflect or own greed and lust, werewolves reflect our rage and bestial nature, and zombies…well it depends on the version, but they are pretty good at just reflecting our societal fears. Early zombies were the “voodoo” variety that played on people’s fears of African cultures, there was a demon craze of zombies (bet you can guess why that was popular), then we have the plague zombies to play with our fear of diseases. Honestly, I could keep going. The point of all this is to say that the best monsters reflect our deepest fears. It’s one thing to play off of visceral fear, that of bodily harm and one’s self-preservation, but that can only take you so far.

When designing a monster, I choose a core idea that would terrify me or someone I know (I love asking my friends what their worst fears are for this reason). One such creature I designed was the Marionette Spider. I took a fear of being lost in the woods and played with that idea. What I started with was the feeling of being alone, so this creature would be an ambush predator. Looking at real world biology, one such groups of creatures are spiders (another icon of fear for many people, so this could have been a good start too). I will get into more decision making about this creature later on.

Expectations vs Reality

A good trick is to set up something that looks completely normal, (our expectations) and to reveal very suddenly that it is not what we want (the reality). If you have watched any horror movie you know this trick, sometimes it's predictable and other times the viewer/player falls right into your trap. This works for jump scares, but it can also be a great way to make your reader/players feel a sense of tension release before they realize just how terrible of situation they have gotten themselves into. You are making them feel comfortable so you can scare them in their comfort zone. If you can pull this off you will naturally increase the tension of the entire body of medium without having to push it. Making the consumer feel unsafe in their safe place puts them on edge and begins to make them question everything around them. This is good because people are best at scaring themselves and building their own tension. You just need to provide the release.

I think this is best shown in the movie A Quiet Place (by far one of my absolute favorite monster horror movies of all time). In A Quiet Place the world has been invaded by monsters that have exceptional hearing and are nearly indestructible. They set this up in the opening scenes of the movie by showing that making even the slightest noise can instantly cause trouble for the protagonists and that guns aren’t going to do a damned thing. Starting out, the movie takes away the comforts of sound and the security of guns. I have never heard a movie theater so quiet in my life. As a viewer, even coughing made me jump as noise in the film was used sparingly. This is a perfect example of making something safe, noise and security, and suddenly making it no longer safe. There is a reason so many of your favorite horror movies, especially slasher films like Friday the 13th, have making a sound such a terrifying prospect, .

In text, however, you have to find other ways to represent this. Let’s go back to the Marionette Spider. So we have an ambush predator that lives in the woods. Already we are hard pressed to find something considered a “safe space” in this already tense situation. As the name may suggest, this spider has the ability to be a puppet master. What this creature does is it imitates the motions of a body (we will say a person in this example) to lure its future victims in. We created a safe space (being found when lost in the woods) and made it an unsafe one (being eaten by a spider).

The Uncanny Valley

There exists a land nestled between the cartoonish peaks of stylized and the majestic slopes of the realistic. It is known as the Uncanny Valley, where horrors and monster lurk. If you ever played The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion then you have first hand experience with the Uncanny Valley. In modern media, we are getting it less and less than the late 90’s and early 2000’s. Graphical fidelity was not quite to realistic qualities even if they were trying to be. The Uncanny Valley is often attributed to human qualities, where the object or character in question displays human like qualities but just not quite well enough. This can extend beyond human characteristics however, and we can find the uncanny valley in other living creatures that we have an established expectation of.

 
 

The Uncanny Valley is a fantastic tool for monster creators and writers. While you are not delivering the information in a visual format, you can still weave your words to disturb your players. Writing and prose has this awesome ability to make the consumer form images in their own minds. An example I made for my fantasy world is the Owl of Grim. In short, this is a massive owl which is not terrifying in itself, unless you know more about owls, with the exception that where you normally see an owl face, you see a human one. Mix in some invasion horror by letting it communicate with creatures telepathically, some paralysis ability, and you have a recipe for some player terror. I actually deployed this monster in game with some great responses.

 
Twinkle by  @CommonersKing

Twinkle by @CommonersKing

 

Utilizing the Uncanny Valley, you can work the opposite way that computer generated images have to (working from stylized to realistic) by taking something we recognize and tweak smaller pieces of the creature (like the image of the horse above). Some examples are a deer but instead of its front hooves it has hands, or a human being but their face is upside down.

What Drives the Monster?

A monster isn’t terrifying if all its doing is going after your players/characters. Like every living being, there is some force that drives what the creature is doing. For many it's a primal hunger, the need to feed, that can drive monsters to eat hapless adventurers. Perhaps your monster is a demon that has made a deal with a mortal to carry out a specific task (like killing some adventurers). Whatever the case may be, figure out what it is that motivates them and bake that into the monster. Another monster I made is called the Hebephage (roughly translated as “Youth Eater”). It's a monster that feeds on the lifespan of creatures; its favorite being children. The need to feed off of life (not by actually eating the person, but by a magical absorption) drives the creature to hunt down youthful targets. It has a motivation, so when reports of children going missing arise, and the clues lead to wherever the Hebephage has been hiding the reader can connect the dots.

However, you can’t just set up one drive. Like in our lives, there are many things that drive us to do the things we do. Our biology sets us up to eat, drink, and have sex. Two of those are to maintain homeostasis, or to keep the body alive, and the other is to propagate our genetics to keep our species going. How does your creature reproduce? Is it like Ridley Scott’s Alien where a face hugger implants itself in you to grow or do they reproduce in the traditional bumping uglies? Messing with reproduction can get you some pretty messed up results and give some real terror if the players/readers find themselves in the way of the reproduction cycle, or are a part of it.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Once you have the drives of the creature you need to figure out what its capabilities are that aid it in fulfilling those drives. Going to the Hebephage, the ability to drain life is clearly a must, but that really wouldn’t be what I consider a strength; more like the bare minimum. The strength of the Hebephage lies in its ability to shapeshift into any creature it has previously eaten. This allows it to be able to blend in or even replace its target. This allows it to fulfill its ability to eat other creatures and makes it hard to detect. In my opinion it is an awesome strength.

It is important to give your creatures weaknesses as well as usually evolution does not create “perfect” beings. Even creatures claimed to be perfect, like the Ridley Scott Aliens, are scared of fire like many primal beings. That may not sound like a weakness, but it is something that can be triggered by another creature or person to manipulate it or defeat it. Going back to the Hebephage, it is vulnerable to the sun while not in its shapeshifted form as it comes from the Plane of Shadows and is not adapted to the sun.

My favorite abilities are those that are strengths that can be turned into weaknesses and vice versa. They create more dynamic interactions which smart characters can use and exploit if they can pull off whatever it is. As an example, in my world shapeshifters can be revealed with the use of silver. Touching a shapeshifter with silver will not reveal their true form, but it will cause their current form to “shudder” and, to the trained eye, reveals them to be a shapeshifter. It is a combination of a strength and a weakness. A more common example is the ability to only breathe water. This creates a conditional strength/weakness because up here where we primarily breathe combinations of gases it is considered a weakness. However “Unda’ da Sea” as a Jamaican crab puts it, the ability to breath water is a necessity. It is considered a strength only in the fact that we are not able to breathe while swimming underwater. It is necessary for it to survive, but when it’s fighting us all it needs to do is hold us under the water until we drown.

Location, Location, Location

Now you have designed your monster, time to unleash it on your characters/players! Well not quite. The location in which you release a monster is just as important, if not moreso. I can drop a Xenomorph in an open field, but it won’t have the same impact as dropping it in a cramped ship that has no weapons. This is where having a wide array of creatures is super useful. You have numerous creatures at your disposal to choose from (and less designing to do on the fly). Consider the strengths and weaknesses of the creature. That will inform you where it will prefer to live and hunt. That preference is where you will want to put it in most cases. Sometimes, sticking a creature in a place it doesn’t normally go but can still survive can be scary in itself for the shock factor of not expecting it.

Monster Inspiration

Finding inspiration for a new monster can seem like a daunting task, especially when attempting to create something original. It is said that there is no such thing as an original idea, just a unique interpretation of that idea. That in mind, I often turn to other sources of media when trying to come up with a new monster. Browsing images in google can spark a unique take on a creepy image. Take this image of shadow people that inspired me to create a new type of shadow monster for my world.

 
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I love watching nature documentaries. Some of the best inspiration I have ever received is after watching nature documentaries that cover strange creatures that live in our world. Taking parts of real world creatures and mashing them together or combining them with another piece of inspiration is a concoction for something weird and sometimes awesome.

I also tend to watch a lot of anime. Some of my iconic creatures come from some cool power I saw in a show or some plant/animal that the protagonists encountered. One example is these large island flowers in the show One Piece. These are like strange venus fly trap like islands that fattens everything up inside before closing up and swallowing them whole. I made a variation of this plant in my world as an Oasis that resided in the desert to swallow up travelers looking for water. Once you start to look at the media you consume as pieces to a massive puzzle you start getting inspiration from everything you watch.

Flower Islands from One Piece

Flower Islands from One Piece

Conclusion

Hopefully you have learned more about the creation process that I go about making monsters. If you want further reading on the subject, I suggest you pick up a copy of Writing Monsters by Philip Athans for more. It was a highly informative read. It covers much of what I do though some are things that I picked up along the way. If you have a terrifying monster you have created feel free to drop a link or a description in the comments to let us know what you created (put any content warnings on them if they go into dangerous territory)! Now go forth and craft some terrifying monsters!

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