Horror is hard to do in a tabletop game. Everyone has to be fully invested in it, and sometimes, your players have to want to be scared. Certain RPGs, like Dread, have perfected the art of horror gameplay, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do it in D&D too! If you want to give your players a scare, you’ll need more than just spooky, scary skeletons. You’ll need the horrors found below!
Oh hey Cthulhu, I didn’t see you there. Mind flayers, also known as illithids, are the classic D&D horror monster. The concept of a monster who just wants to eat your brain might feel a little bit silly, a little bit “B-Movie,” but that just makes them more flexible. In a game of suspense and horror in the Underdark, there’s no better monster than a mind flayer to keep your players on the edge of their seats. Or, if you don’t want to get quite so serious, mind flayers are still basically just wizards with octopus heads.
In “official” D&D lore, mind flayers are time-traveling slave lords. In the far-distant future, they are the rulers of a vast galactic empire, but a massive slave rebellion forced the illithids to travel backward in time to escape destruction. Now they exist in the fantasy setting of Dungeons & Dragons and must figure out how to rebuild their lost empire.
For more on mind flayers, check out some older D&D books like the Planescape Campaign Setting (1994), The Illithiad (1998), and Lords of Madness (2005).
And don’t forget about the voice Matt Mercer used for the mind flayer Clarota. Shudder.
Few beholders are as terrifying as K’Varn, the villain of Critical Role’s harrowing first chapter, but all are horrifying abominations of eyes and teeth. Their single large, central eye emits a cone of magic-nullifying energy and each of its smaller eyes can shoot terrible magical rays. These rays are as diverse as they are deadly, with such powers as petrification, disintegration, paralysis, supernatural fear, telekinesis, and instant death. Just like mind flayers and D&D’s most iconic monsters, beholders began their existence as a silly fantasy monster. At its simplest, a beholder is a goofy eyeball monster with a pun name (“beauty is in the eye of…”).
But beholders are no laughing matter. Imagine the terror that grips your character’s chest as the gaze of the powers of the beholder’s central eye strips away their defensive spells and their skin hardening and slowly turning to stone as one eyestalk after another meets their gaze. Another eye focuses on them, and their stone fingertips begin to disintegrate into dust. After that, there’s no coming back. It’s the end of the line.
You can learn more about beholders in Lords of Madness (2005), in the 5th edition Monster Manual (2014), and about a particularly horrifying beholder named Xazax in Out of the Abyss (2015).
The multitudinous aboleth saw the beginning of time itself, before the gods, before this world, and before all the worlds that came before it. They do not die, they simply reincarnate elsewhere. They never forget a grudge, as their memories are passed down through a vast network of racial memories. Now, aboleth lurk in the deepest lakes and ocean trenches, the barnacle-encrusted pillars of their ancient civilizations covered in spiraling runes that drive all who look upon them mad. Aboleth, more than any other creature on this list (even mind flayers!) feel like they were pulled out of an H.P. Lovecraft novel.
Stories tell of a seaside village that was visited by a creature the villagers called the “God in the Waves.” One by one, the people of the town walked into the waves and disappeared, called to the sea by a voice they could not disobey. Soon the village was empty. Traders stopped coming. Adventuring heroes were called to investigate, but they found no one. But the morning after the adventurers had come, everyone returned to the village as if nothing had happened. It was then that the adventurers heard a voice calling them to the lake…
For more abolethy goodness, check out Lords of Madness (2005), the 5th edition Monster Manual (2014), and the Savage Tide adventure path (2006).
Gibbering mouthers aren’t an “iconic” D&D horror, maybe for good reason—they aren’t particularly suspenseful monsters in the same way that the first three were. But they are shocking, like a jump-scare creature from Amnesia: The Dark Descent. The best way to make a monster like this scary is to heighten the atmosphere of fear around it. Use darkness and sensory details to build tension so thick that your players would jump at anything! In a situation like this, a body-horror monstrosity like the gibbering mouther is infinitely more effective than mind flayers or aboleth. Why? Because those monsters are cerebral terrors. You have to think about why they’re scary. Why is the mouther scary? It’s a mound of flesh covered in teeth and eyes. AAAAGGHH!!!
The gibbering mouther is a cheap scare, but a rewarding one when played well.
Want more gibbering? Check out the 5th edition Monster Manual (2014). Want more horror, period? Check out Heroes of Horror (2005).
The Worm that Walks
It’s past midnight. You’re walking through the streets of the Free City of Greyhawk, trying to remember which inn your party booked for the night. That’s when you see him lurking in the blackness. The silhouette of a cloaked man, his cowl pulled deep over his face. You know instinctively to run, but it’s too late. He’s already upon you. You feel his hand clamp around your forearm, but there’s something wrong. His fingers are… writhing. You look beneath his hood to see the face of your attacker, but there is no face. Only worms.
The Worm that Walks is an epic-level horror and an avatar of the undead god Kyuss, whose worms devour the living and the dead. No mortal can face the Worm and live. In game terms, the Worm that Walks is a CR 26 monster—more than a match for any heroes that haven’t yet reached epic levels. The Worm is the herald of the prophesied Age of Worms, an apocalypse where Kyuss’s servants will devour the world. Age of Worms is an adventure path for D&D 3.5e in which the player characters must prevent the return of Kyuss, but what about a campaign set after the apocalypse? How will low-level characters survive in a world ravaged by Kyuss’s worms?
To learn more about the Worm that Walks and Kyuss, check out the 3rd edition Epic Level Handbook (2001) and the Age of Worms adventure path (2005).
What monsters are sure to send you or your players running for the hills? Let us know in the comments!
Image Credit: Wizards of the Coast
Featured Image Credit: Wizards of the Coast