Wednesday, 27 June 2012

BEARS (or how to make ordinary animals scarier than monsters)

Dominic Matte
I watched the new Pixar movie, Brave, and was struck by how impressively terrifying an ordinary bear could be. And, of course, since I'm a huge nerd, that got me thinking about D&D.

Great writing, particularly horror, is often done by taking the familiar and making it somehow unfamiliar. Not totally alien, but just enough to throw you off and make you uncomfortable or unable to predict what's coming. D&D has big scary monsters and liches and dragons which are frightening because they're so powerful, but it's easy to make them feel too "out there", or even too familiar if you're really into fantasy.

Instead, you might want to scale things back and have the big scary bad guy of your campaign be... a bear.

Picture this. Our heroes live in a world filled with small, relatively isolated kingdoms. Magic is not unheard of, but it's rare and fairly unspectacular, more along the lines of tricks than spells. The players are minor nobles in one of the region's more powerful fiefdoms. They've grown up with stories and legends of powerful magic, great heroes, and mythical beasts, but none of these have been seen in living memory. Their favourite story was that of Gnarl, a great bear that terrorized the country until he was defeated by a heroic hunter named Arcturus. To this day, whenever hunters bring down a bear, they describe its ferocity with comparisons to Gnarl.

For his sixteenth birthday, one of the characters (and his friends!) is sent on a traditional coming-of-age ritual to retrieve Arcturus' spear from the peak of the mountain. In anticipation of their inevitable victory, the character's father sets out with his finest hunters to retrieve a stag for the feast. The players hike their way up the mountain, and come face-to-face with a bear at the peak. It seems to have made its lair in the cave housing Arcturus' spear, since no one has been up to retrieve it for three years. The players have no choice but to fight the bear to claim the spear. It's a tough battle, but they pull through.

When they return, they find that the hunting party is late. Most dismiss it as bad luck, knowing the party won't return until they have the stag, but some are genuinely worried - such skilled hunters shouldn't be this late. So the players ride off to find the party and bring them home.

When they find the hunters, the scene is a bloodbath. The hunters have been torn apart. There are signs of a fierce battle - blood is everywhere, and arrows and broken spears litter the clearing. The character's father is the only one left alive, but he won't be for long - his intestines are hanging out a gaping wound in his side. With his last breath, all he can say is "the bear...", and as he passes away, the players can see fear in his eyes, though he has never shown it in his life.

Of course, they need to find the bear that did this, and kill it. So they follow the trail, which is a little easier than expected due to all the blood. When they find the bear, it is huge. It's at least twice the size of any bear they've ever seen. It's covered in scars, one eye is pale and blind, some of its teeth are broken, and the stumps of old arrows and spears protrude from its hide. It doesn't even give them a chance to react before it charges. If the players are mounted, it kills one of their horses in a single swipe.

This fight should go horribly from the very beginning. The bear deals massive damage and takes everything the players throw at it without even flinching. It should end with the players running away, possibly after a fatality or two, when they haven't managed to noticeably slow down the bear at all.

For the rest of the campaign, this bear should haunt the players. Every now and then, they hear peasants talking about horrific attacks on livestock, missing children, and caravans torn asunder. Anyone who sets out to kill the rogue bear fails to return. Even a fifty-man hunting party turned and ran in terror after the bear killed half their number in a matter of minutes.

The bear should remain mysterious throughout the game. Is it Gnarl? Is it a nature spirit taking revenge for some wrong? Or is it just a really nasty bear? You could even have your players slay terrible monsters - ogres, umber hulks, and other powerful beasts - but barely escape with their lives whenever they fight this bear.

To make the creature truly terrifying to the player characters, you should try to build it up so that it means something to the players. Perhaps the bear represents their failure, or the potential for uncontrolled rage in each of them. Don't make it direct or explicitly tell the players that this is what the bear represents - let them infer it through the bear's actions and the types of encounters.

Above all, to make the bear scarier than any monster, it needs to be just a bear in the players' eyes for as long as possible. Imagine how strange and unsettling it would seem for the characters to face down dragons and demons, but get utterly destroyed by a regular bear with no explicit ties to magic or myth. 

Of course, you could pull this off with many different kinds of animals. There are actual, real-life animals which have killed dozens or hundreds of people, which aren't magical or supernatural in any way at all - they're just really terrifying. Check out this Cracked article on animal serial killers, including an elephant that would literally hide in the shadows and tear people limb from limb, and a crocodile that dismembers people just to watch them die.

If you play it right, an ordinary animal can be the scariest monster of all.

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