There's lots of great advice on this subreddit about freaking players out (constant perception checks, spotting something out of the corner of your eye, etc) when they are actively heading into danger, but I found less information about how to run a session where the adventurers are being actively hunted. I'm not talking about having to rescue an NPC from an assassin or whatever, or even an Invisible Stalker encounter (although plenty of this advice will also work there), I mean "your party is being hunted by a malevolent force, and it wants you to know it."
To do this, you can use one spell / ability that enables you to play with your PCs: shapechange.
Set the Scene.
Your setting is important! Your adversary has picked a situation where the PCs can't readily escape. This creates a claustrophobic atmosphere, and ramps up the tension: there's no chance of the PCs escaping whatever is after them. At the same time, the environment should have lots of fodder: NPCs that the monster can use to toy with your PCs. And the environment should have lots of compartments, twists, and turns for PCs to be isolated in. These settings mean that the monster will have several passes at the party, each of which will ramp-up the panic.
A ship in the middle of the ocean, or a skyship high in the air.
The monster has orchestrated a cave-in, isolating a mining party and the PCs from the outside world.
A mountain village during a blizzard (bonus points for reduced perception while outdoors / moving from building to building).
Choose a Monster
There are a ton of spooky monsters out there, but here are three that have the Shapechange ability that I'm looking for (note: there are definitely more monsters that can fit this bill, including anything that has gotten its intelligent hands on a Wand of Polymorph).
Doppelgangers lack the malevolence that I'm going for, but its lack of additional abilities makes it ideal if you're running this encounter for a lower-level party.
Succubus / Incubus have the shapechange ability, and the background to toy with their prey. I like this if you have a particularly horny character because of the Draining Kiss ability.
Oni are my personal favourite for this sort of encounter, as their entire kit is made to be creepy with flight, sleep, invisibility, and darkness as innate spells it knows.
Split the Party
One reason why a ship works really well here is that you can easily give the PCs different jobs as an excuse to have them split up and move around. You can even have that orchestrated by the monster: maybe the reason there's space on the boat at all is because some of the crew has suddenly and mysteriously disappeared. Regardless, splitting the party gives your monster a lot of one-on-one time with individual PCs. This ramps up the fear, as they suddenly realize that they are alone with a powerful creature that wants to kill them.
Refusing to split the party can have different consequences as well. Refusing to send one person up to the crow's nest can lead to a combat encounter after a band of pirates sneaks up on the boat, or refusing to be alone in the kitchen can result in a penalized long rest (because of lack of food).
Toying with your PCs
The idea is to create an atmosphere of fear (an "atmosfear") before giving the party a chance to fight the monster. From there, you can run separate encounters meant solely to freak out the party:
The Maes Hughes Moment: where the monster mimics an NPC the party knows but deliberately gets an aspect of their appearance wrong… only to correct its "mistake" right in front of the PC.
Someone shouts "man overboard!" but upon investigation, there is nobody missing. (You can run this two ways: either the monster kills an NPC and takes its place, or the monster simply mimics the NPC and then takes some other form, just to mess with people. The second one makes sure that a high Insight check won't spoil the surprise.)
There's nothing that says that the monster can't shapechange into a mauled-up, half-eaten corpse… that suddenly starts speaking to whoever finds it. When the party returns to investigate, they won't find a thing (because it will have shapechanged into something else).
If you're playing with experienced players, you can have the monster take the form of one of the PCs. Surreptitiously give the player a little information (what to say, a brief idea of its powers) and watch everyone else freak out when Gil-Galad the Elf Paladin takes a swipe at the party cleric. Bonus points if the real character then appears a couple of rounds later to join the fray.
The PCs see one NPC brutally murder another… and then vanish. When the "murderer" is questioned, they have no knowledge of committing the crime… because they didn't do it.
The result is a freaked-out and paranoid party, where the party has no idea who is real, and who is trying to kill them. This is when your monster can strike! In fact, any of the encounters above can lead directly into a combat encounter that can end either the session (or, better yet, lead to the escape of the scary foe so they can come back later down the road.
The most important thing to remember is that the monster knows what it is doing and that fear is the main goal, not necessarily death. I'm not saying you should set up a 1v1 between your wizard and an Oni, and having the monster scare you and then run away is in many ways more scary than just straight-up attacking the PC.
- Tips to gain control over metagaming at your table
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More about Dungeons & Dragons OnlinePost: "How to scare the bejeezus out of the party with Polymorph / Shapechange" specifically for the game Dungeons & Dragons Online. Other useful information about this game:
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