The monster is a cornerstone of most roleplaying games, a creature that exists to provide deadly opposition to the PCs. Poignant moments of intercharacter drama are great, but sometimes it all comes down to how cool the monsters are. We’re all familiar with infamous classics like the Mindflayer and Rust Monster, but what if we dig a little deeper? What shambling horrors await us in the deep dark depths of roleplaying games?
1. Penanggalan, Legend of the Five Rings
Not to be confused with the adorable and highly endangered pangolin, the penanggalan is a monster inspired by southeast Asian folklore. It lives on human blood and takes the form of a severed head flying around with a bunch of entrails hanging down below it. Yuck. If that wasn’t enough to win it the grossest in breed award, it’s primary attack is to strangle you with it’s aforementioned entrails while it sucks out all your blood. Double yuck.
But so what, there are lots of gross monsters out there; what makes this one exceptional? In Legend of the Five Rings, the penanggalan can inhabit the body of a deceased victim, often gaining the host’s skills and abilities. This makes finding the creature much more difficult because it could be just about anyone.
From the GM’s perspective, the penanggalan is an extremely flexible monster. It can provide political opposition by taking over the body of a politician, or raise armies by consuming a warlord. You could even have a nationwide hunt after a trail of headless corpses as the penanggalan takes on different bodies suited to its needs.
Finally, it’s just great fun to have a hotshot samurai PC defeat their opponent in an honorable contest of swordsmanship, only to have the opponent’s head pop off and strangle the PC with a length of intestine.
2. The Druid, 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons
Wait a second, isn’t the druid a character class? What’s going on here? Have patience, dear reader, all will be explained. While the druid is an option PCs can take, this is only on a technicality. The druid’s abilities make it far more suited to be the final villain of a campaign. For one thing, it’s insanely powerful. For another, its powers are very in keeping with the end boss of a large dungeon.
With its spells, a druid can summon swarms of oversized animals. Every boss needs their minions, after all. Then, the druid can shapeshift into a variety of extremely powerful creatures, from brown bears through great apes all the way to full on dragons. Not only are these forms incredibly powerful, they’re fully self contained. When a druid shapeshifts, it takes on all the stats of whatever it’s turned into, including hitpoints. When those hitpoints run out, the druid returns to their normal form at full health and can then turn into something else.
That’s right, druids come pre-equipped with multiple stages. This is something you really want in roleplaying game fights because each stage requires different tactics and keeps the fight from getting boring. First, the druid becomes a giant eagle, picking up PCs and dropping them from a great height. Then it becomes a gorilla, using the tried and true technique of squeezing the PCs until they don’t move no more. When the gorilla falls, the druid summons a full parliament of owls, attacking the party from every side.
The druid provides everything you need for an epic final boss fight, all in one convenient package. If you want to get really crazy, you could always have… two druids.
3. Marauders, Mage: The Ascension
Sometimes a long running campaign can get a little stale despite the GM’s best efforts. You can only run through a setting so long before you start to feel like you’ve seen it all. Enter the Marauder, a monster that will literally change everything about your game.
Mage: The Ascension, is a game about reality by consensus. Things work the way they do because that’s how people think they work. You think two objects always fell at the same rate? Pfft, you probably also believe that the speed of light has always been a universal constant. Some people, the titular mages, have enough control over reality that they can bend it to do extraordinary things. Hence magic. This is a difficult and taxing process, so a mage that goes around creating fire dragons will immediately feel the hurt as everyone else’s idea of reality backlashes on her.
That is, unless she’s a marauder. Marauders are mages who believe so hard in their own version of reality that they create it wherever they go. They’re completely insane, but what’s a little madness in the name of your art? Some marauders cling to the ancient past, creating bubbles of reality where it’s still the Dark Ages. Others think it’s the far future, so your PCs had better put on a space suit. Of course, they can get far weirder than that. There could be a marauder who thinks their entire life is a first person shooter, covering the city with chest high walls and packs of ammo, or one who firmly believes they are living a Lovecraftian horror story.
When a marauder comes to town, it’s bad news. Their idea of reality is never a fun and happy one. It’s always full of death and destruction. The only way to fight a marauder is to engage them on their own terms, inside their bubble of twisted reality. For one session, your PCs will have to put down their enchanted assault rifles and pick up English longbows or whatever tool is appropriate in the marauder’s twisted view.
The marauder is essentially a pass to do whatever the GM wants for one session. If they’ve got a far future tale or a historical drama up their sleeves that doesn’t fit in the normal Mage setting, here’s the opportunity to use it.
4. Your Fetch, Changeling: The Lost
The doppelganger is a well known monster that copies a character’s appearance and ability. This always results in a challenging fight and can be downright uncanny for new players. But what if it went further? What if the doppelganger actually thought it was you? Enter the fetch.
Changeling: The Lost is a game about humans who are kidnapped by the fey, only to emerge years later to find themselves completely changed. Because the fey are devious bastards, they leave a little something in the changeling’s place, a construct of glamor called a fetch. The fetch lives its new life thinking it was born there. It has all the changeling’s memories from before they were taken, and gains the changeling’s skills through a kind of psychic link.
When the changeling finally escapes from the fey, the fetch is there to keep them from taking up their old lives. The fetch has their credit cards, their social security number, their friends and family.
A changeling’s connection with their old life is a huge part of the game, and that’s where the fetch comes in. The changeling must make a choice: give up their old life or destroy the fetch. If they chose the former, it severs an important part of their humanity, pushing them a little further to complete bedlam. If they choose the latter, they must kill a being who is absolutely convinced it is them.
The fetch is physically challenging, equipped with a number of formidable supernatural powers, but it’s the emotional struggle that’s really important.
5. Color Out of Space, Call of Cthulhu
One issue with the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game is how easy it is to murder Lovecraftian monsters with bullets. Even the dreaded shoggoth can be taken down with some concentrated flamethrower action. It takes something away from the horror when the solution is heavy ordinance.
Enter the Color Out of Space, a creature that doesn’t care how much weaponry your party is toting. The Color is a living radiation field. It has no body to attack through conventional means, so your PCs can go ahead and check their arsenal at the door.
Traditionally, the Color spreads itself out over an area, slowly poisoning the land and literally leaching out all natural color as it feeds. Plants wither on the vine, humans fall ill, and animals mutate. This is a great scenario, but you can easily expand it. Because the Color is made of radiation, the possibilities for storytelling in a modern context are endless. Nuclear power stations, satellites, and cell phones all emit different kinds of radiation and are prime targets for infestation.
Dealing with a Color requires the PCs to think in new and creative ways. It must be fought the same way one might fight a radiation spill. The PCs will need something to absorb the Color’s lethal rays and some way to contain it. They might have to construct electromagnetic field generators or jam all wireless communications to keep it from escaping.
Or they might not be able to to do any of those things if you’re running a hardcore Lovecraftian story. Because the Color lacks a physical body, it’s a great candidate for a session in which the PCs are faced with the absolute futility of their actions – if your group’s into that kind of thing.
6. Genius Slasher: Hunter: the Vigil
Sometimes humans are the real monsters. In the World of Darkness, this is literally true in the form of Slashers. These are people, often former hunters, who have become so obsessed with murder that they gain supernatural abilities for it. Jason Voorhees’ ability to shrug off all damage or Hannibal Lector’s unbelievable charm, for example.
While these Slashers can technically be played as PCs, that kind of game would go downhill fast. They make much better antagonists, and the most fun is the Genius archetype. Geniuses are not any more physically imposing than a regular human. Instead, their power comes in the form of constructing elaborate death traps.
If you’ve ever felt that your Hunter campaign needed a good old fashioned dungeon crawl, the Genius is your friend. The scenario is simple. The Slasher has captured a number of civilians and will kill them by a given deadline. The only way for the PCs to rescue them is to navigate a warehouse full of the most deadly traps your twisted mind can come up with.
There are always classics like the spiked pit and swinging blade traps, but with modern technology we can get so much more creative. How about a trap that slowly pulls back the protective shielding on a bit of highly radioactive plutonium? What about bear traps enhanced by high pressure pneumatics, so powerful they can take a hunter’s leg off? There are countless possibilities.
The Genius’ special kind of madness also gives a built in reason for there to be ways out of each trap. Instead of drenching the party with a bath of lethal acid, the trap could have a platform slowly sinking into the deadly green goo unless its load is lightened by one. If you feel like your hunters are getting a bit too comfortable with their wooden stakes and silver bullets, this is the monster for you.
7. The Lying Darkness, Legend of the Five Rings
In Legend of the Five Rings, name and history is everything. A samurai* is defined by their family and clan. Their deeds only matter in the context of how they effect those ideals. The Lying Darkness strips all that away, leaving the samurai with nothing.
It’s exact origins are complicated, but suffice to say the Lying Darkness is a leftover bit of the primordial void that existed before the world was made. It has no name; it is not defined by anything. It doesn’t want to cause pain and suffering or rule Rokugan like so many other antagonists. It wants to unmake everything, to return things to how they were before.
Unlike the Shadowlands, which can be fought with jade and steel, the Lying Darkness preys only on a person’s inner self. It worms its way into the minds of those samurai who are full of doubt and shame. It offers to make that all go away, and the cost isn’t known until it’s too late.
The number of people in Rokugan who know anything about the Lying Darkness can be counted on one hand, so PCs will almost always be going against it unprepared. Not only does it strip away a person’s identify, it removes them from the minds of others as well. A victim of the Darkness is slowly forgotten by their friends and loved ones as if they never existed.
This kind of existential threat is great for getting into the core identity of who a character is. If your players aren’t satisfied with swinging swords and writing poetry, consider putting a little of the Nothing into your game.
Like the Nothing, every monster on this list will change the equation for your players. They provide unusual challenges most campaigns couldn’t otherwise accomplish. That means an unforgettable experience for everyone at the table.