My very first character, a dwarven fighter, killed his very first monsters in my very first game of Dungeons & Dragons. This was years ago and I remember everything about that encounter.
My dwarf encamping under a tree amid some grasslands. Going to sleep near his small campfire. Waking up with the feeling of being watched. Reaching for the battle axe. Opening one eye and seeing two small figures on a nearby grassy rise in the moonlight.
Yet to this I’m not certain if they were goblins or kobolds. My brother, who was the Dungeon Master, described them as scaly, so in retrospect I think they were kobolds. They also died fast, indicating a “low level” monster with few hit points.
But my brother never said the words “kobold” or “goblin.”
Later in the adventure, he also never said the words “orc” or “ogre.”
I’m fairly certain that the humanoids my dwarven fighter ambushed in the forest were orcs–but they could have hobgoblins. Who knows? And was that giant creature their boss? Or did something else lead them from deeper in the forest? I have no idea.
I’m glad my brother didn’t tell anything besides what my character sensed around him. It made my very first RPG experiences more enthralling. Even horrifying–this is a world where if you light campfires at night monster might attack you.
Horrifying monsters have been in RPGs since the beginning, and RPGs gave players the opportunities to fight such monsters only encountered in books and cinema–zombies, ghouls, vampires, demons, and so on.
Unfortunately, horror is often the first to go in RPG. So is fear. Familiarity breeds contempt. The monsters become a mere collection of stats–especially to veteran players (and oh how I hate it when a jaded gamer ruins a game for a newbie player “oh, don’t worry, its just a zombie.”)
Fortunately, there are ways to bring the Fear of the Unknown back to the game.
First, keep the monsters in the dark, outside the firelight, in the fog, rattling chains in the basement, breathing under the bed.
If your players insist on looking, keep the monster in the shadows, a pair of eyes in the night, a shape in the fog, chains but no creature, a hand reaching from under the bad.
And your player view the monster in full light, describe only what they see and never in game terms.
The creature emerging from the shadows resembles a Rorschach test.
The pair of yellow eyes are set into a gargoyle-like figure with two pairs of arms and wings.
The shape in the fog coalesces into a humanoid dressed in black leathers with a pigface–or is it a mask?
The chains on the floor lead across the room to an open coffin where a smiling boy and gray feline sit.
The rotting hand grabs your friend and pulls him under the bed. You hear screaming and sucking sounds.
Next–Horror in RPGs: Horror, Fear, and the Mind’s Eye.