|[This post will contain spoilers for Stranger Things up through season 4]|
The best monsters are not merely a big sack of hit points you hack-n-slash your way through because of a random encounter table. No, they're something more. They have qualities possible only through the conceits of fantasy. They challenge your brain just as much as your stats and dice. They stick in the mind. They're not just a one-and-done encounter. They're grounded in the world and its rules, and can't be understood merely with numbers. And maybe most of all, they're robust enough that reckoning with them is the whole adventure, or at least could be the whole adventure.
A very popular piece of advice in the OSR is "Just Use Bears." The basic argument is that, "monsters which don't have elaborate special abilities could probably be represented sufficiently with the stat block of a bear, since the minutiae of individual stats rarely has a significant enough impact on a fight to be worth the trouble of always having a custom stat block prepared."
As practical advice, this is good. But in spirit, I feel like it's a concession. A failure. If you're using a monster that could be substituted with a bear, then maybe you shouldn't even have that monster at all. Monsters should be special. You could be running a better game where you never use that advice. Not because it's bad, but because you've made monsters good enough that the advice isn't applicable.
To illustrate what I'm calling "puzzle monsters," we're going to go through the monsters used in the Netflix show Stranger Things as well as some examples I've created for my own adventure scenarios. After that, I'll walk you through the steps I take to create a puzzle monster, and other considerations that help a lot in the creative process.
Season 1 centers around a pretty basic monster, which is dubbed the "demogorgon" by the kids because that's the one monster from D&D they had just recently fought. If we were to imagine the show as a game, the most notable traits of the demogorgon is that it's simple and (relatively) weak, making it a good "starter monster" for their campaign. For fictional purposes, it's convenient as an "introduction to the fantastic" in their setting, since this isn't a high fantasy world. It's the normal, mundane, "real" world with a bunch of 1st level (or maybe 0th level) PCs.
However, the demogorgon isn't just a "bear" monster. There's a reason they're able to get an entire season's worth of mileage out of it.
- Goal: kill and eat stuff. Remember, this is always a fine motivation for a villain. If one of your PCs' top fears is "getting eaten," you're doing alright.
- Weak to fire. It has a kryptonite. It's not invincible otherwise, but it's impractical to fight this monster and expect to win if you don't have access to its weakness. Of course, it's a pretty simple, classic weakness to have, and is fairly easy to secure. But it is an extra step in the process of learning about and confronting the monster. It probably won't be discovered except through trial-and-error, meaning that you'll get multiple encounters with the monster rather than just one. It also means going out of your way to obtain the kryptonite, which is a good adventure driver. Even better, it means that the PCs have to avoid the monster until they're ready, and can be caught off guard just by not having the kryptonite.
- Drawn to blood. Like a shark, it can smell even small amounts of blood at great distances. Thus, we have both a "tell" for who or where it'll attack, as well as a means of luring it out if we want to.
- Dimension shifting. It's native to another dimension (the "Upside Down"), where it retreats to for rest, eating, and healing. It can create holes connecting our plane with its home plane at will, which will then seal up pretty quickly afterwards. However, it can still smell blood through the dimensional barrier. The Upside Down gives the monster its true layer of invulnerability. No amount of looking around the woods will find it, because it's probably in another plane of existence at the moment. It has to come to you. And when you do fight it, you better be ready to finish the job quickly or dive into the Upside Down after it once it flees.
- Hunts at night. This establishes a pattern to its behavior which the PCs can use to inform their plans. It's also a particular good pattern for a monster to have because it's at odds with our pattern of behavior. Humans are tired at night, society is shut down, it's hard for us to see, etc. We're at a huge disadvantage dealing with it on its terms, but it probably has many of the same disadvantages if we were to confront it during the daytime.
In addition, I think a key part of elevating a puzzle monster into something that can take up an entire adventure scenario is context. The monster is just one piece of a greater situation which must be reckoned with. The situation still contains puzzle elements, a fantasy nature, and connections to the monster that intrinsically tie them together. But the point is that there's more to consider than just the physical creature itself. So for the demogorgon, we also have:
- The Gate. There's one main portal connecting the Upside Down with our world, which was created by accident and is contained within Hawkins Lab (a deep state government facility where they experiment with sci-fi stuff). It's how the demogorgon got here to begin with, and the demogorgon still hangs out within a mile or so of it. Lastly, the Gate has a lot of electromagnetic energy, disrupting magnets and compasses and stuff within a mile or so.
The demogorgon is a bit derivative. That's okay. It's mostly inspired by the xenomorph from the Alien franchise, and the demodogs in season 2 are reminiscent of the velociraptors in Jurassic Park. But the dimension hopping is pretty original and is probably the most important trait here. It literally comes with its own plane of existence as part of the monster.
So we have a monster that has a number of traits that make it particularly tough to kill or find, but also a number of traits that give the PCs a fighting chance. It'll hide in another dimension, but you can follow your disrupted compass or draw blood to lure it in. It'll be invulnerable to attack, unless you bring fire. It'll kill most of its prey, but someone might survive an encounter with it if they carry its larva instead.
The boring part is that the demogorgon is, ultimately, only killed because there's a special PC with unique powers who can just vaporize it. There goes the thinking-man's solution, right?
Seasons 2 and 3 use the same monster, but in different forms. For now, we're just talking about season 2, so-called because the kids noticed that one of its powers is distinctly similar to the mind flayer from D&D. This one is much more powerful than the demogorgon from last season. It honestly seems like a "god" of the Upside Down. They never even directly attack its physical form because it doesn't really have one. It's a dark intelligence that operates in strange-yet-sinister ways which the PCs have to deduce.
- Goal: take over our world. Considerably more ambitious, right? It's trying to break into our dimension through the Gate and corrupt our world, spreading outward from that entry point.
- Shadow monster. It's incorporeal, so direct applications of violence won't have any effect on it. That automatically rules out any semblance of a bear's stat block.
- Hivemind. Every piece of the Mind Flayer and its influence all share one mind. This includes the monsters it uses as agents, such as the aforementioned demodogs/demogorgon. It can perceive through all of them simultaneously, even through dimensional barriers, which leads to...
- Possession. It wants to "grow" its presence in our world by finding victims to inhabit. Rather than merely killing everyone and everything, it needs humans it can "flay" to incorporate into the hivemind. It can speak through them and give them supernatural strength and resilience, but it also has disadvantages. The Flayed person also carries the Mind Flayer's weaknesses, and as part of the hivemind, can act as a "spy" by perceiving every other part of the Mind Flayer's reach. This manifests through Will in season 2 with irregular "True Sight" visions into the Upside Down because of his previous role as an incubator for a demogorgon larva (AKA a part of the Mind Flayer), up until the point where he becomes fully Flayed and then perceives everything all at once.
- Weak to heat. This is really just an expansion/clarification of the "weak to fire" trait of the demogorgon, but it's much more interesting. It means that even a hot bath is anathema to the monster. Thus, all it takes to exorcise someone Flayed is to, say, trap them in a sauna. That makes it sound easy, though.
- Tendril tunnels. Growing directly outward from the Gate are vine-like tendrils which bore through the earth, forming an underground tunnel network beneath Hawkins. In fact, it's killing a lot of the rooting plant life on the surface world, leaving behind a clue. Within these tunnels, the tendrils form some hazardous terrain by grabbing ahold of people and, at certain "flowering" points, spraying some nasty spores into your face to knock you out. But remember: it's all the Mind Flayer. Vines are still weak to fire, their pain is felt by the Mind Flayer, and the Mind Flayer can see anything and everything within its tunnels.
In addition, there's a bunch of adolescent demogorgons infesting the town by this point as well, giving the Mind Flayer a small army of monsters to attack stuff with.
By the time the PCs get involved, the tunnel system has already spread across most of Hawkins. The Mind Flayer's growth is inevitable unless the Gate is closed somehow, and most of the rest of this stuff is just a bunch of defense mechanisms to keep people from doing that. The tendrils protect the tunnel spread, demodogs attack stuff for it, and the Flayed host can be used to scout ahead and do other human stuff. There's one clever moment where it uses the host to lie to everyone else and cause a diversion, since the PCs can't tell when they're talking to their friend vs. the Mind Flayer inside their friend. But of course, the PCs flip this around and knock out the host, cutting of the Mind Flayer's spying.
The boring part is that the Gate is, ultimately, only closed because there's a special PC with unique powers who can just get rid of it. There goes the thinking-man's solution, right?
Like I said, this is really just "Mind Flayer, part 2," but it uses some different strategies this time and is, therefore, given a different name by the fans. In the time between seasons 2 and 3, the Mind Flayer was dormant. The little bit of it that was exorcised from a PC couldn't return to the Upside Down because the Gate had been closed. The events of season 3 are triggered when some Soviets open up a brand new Gate beneath Hawkins, allowing the Mind Flayer to do exactly what it did before. Except it has some different ideas.
- Goal: revenge. I mean, presumably it also wants to grow and consume and take over our world and all that. But it specifically identifies the PCs as its primary targets and threatens them personally, saying it's gunna get them, their friends, and their little dog, too. Because its previous plan didn't work, it has decided that it needs a physical form in our world that can serve as a more direct simulation of its true "shadow" form.
- Still a hivemind.
- Still weak to heat.
- Still possesses. In this case, the intent of its possession is to collect bodies for their biomass. It started with rats, which it Flayed, brought to a secret lair, and then broke down into pure fleshy goo. Constructing for itself a flesh homunculus body, it moved onto human beings. Something never quite explained, but a key element in the PCs unraveling the mystery (not to mention fucking disturbing), is that the Flayed victims were all compelled to eat fertilizer, cleaning products, and other toxic chemicals before they ruptured into goo and joined the Body. The PCs have some theories about it, but the main purpose it ends up serving is to indicate that there's something wrong with the possessed victims, drawing in the PCs to investigate closer.
- Master host. There's one human that it flays which it chooses not to incorporate into the Body. Apparently, keeping a spy among the humans proved useful enough in season 2 that it was worth repeating this time. He can act normal most of the time and blend in, but then kidnaps people and brings them to the secret lair to be flayed themselves. Initially, a bunch of flayed folks were kept as humans and used the same way. Most of them joined the Body only later. This Master Host also serves as a vessel through which the Mind Flayer speaks, communicating its intent directly to the PCs.
And of course, the context:
- Soviet base. There's a fucking Russian laboratory directly beneath the town's shopping mall that's full of scientists and soldiers. They opened the new Gate and are guarding it, and can't be communicated with by anyone except the single allied NPC contact who speaks Russian.
- Russian Terminator. They also have a big Arnold-looking dude who acts as their agent interfacing with the town mayor, and who they send to hunt people down who are snooping on them.
Last time, the main Flayed character was a PC. This time it's an already-kinda-villainous NPC. There are pros and cons to each approach. Once again, the main way to save the day is to close the Gate. This time, it was constructed with technology and can, thus, be blown up. Once that happens, the Mind Flayer again loses its psychic connection into our world and its flesh spider body falls to pieces. But there's a lot of obstacles to reaching the new Gate, so some PCs still have to fight off the Body in the meantime. They can't kill it, but the usual trick of heat/fire and a bit of brute force can help them stall it.
The latest villain introduced to the series, Vecna is so-named because 1) he curses his victims, and 2) because it was also the most recent monster that the kids had defeated in their D&D game. I'll do my best to summarize, but the season won't be finished until the end of this week. [Maybe I'll come back and edit this entry this weekend, I dunno]
[EDIT: I just finished the season. I don't really feel like updating my description below because it'll inevitably require me to start explaining the greater world lore and mythology of the show and that's not really what I think you should be getting out of this post. What I've written below is sufficient to illustrate my point and makes for a really solid "puzzle monster" just by itself.]
- Goal: undetermined. He's mostly been murdering people out of a nihilistic and misanthropic philosophy, but the PCs conjecture that he might be in league with the Mind Flayer and is, once again, trying to open up Gates between the Upside Down and our world so the invasion can begin again. He definitely seems like he's part of the hivemind creature (connected to a bunch of those vine thingies, controls some demo-bat monsters, etc.). He says to one of his victims, "I want you... to join me" so maybe he's sucking 'em up somehow.
- Hides in the upside down. Ain't no way to fight this jabroni unless you can get there, somehow. This is slightly more inconvenient than the demogorgon or Mind Flayer, though. The PCs never needed to enter the Upside Down to get rid of the Mind Flayer, they just had to close the door so he couldn't do his psychic projection. And the demogorgon at least 1) moved around and could be lured and whatnot, and 2) sometimes left the Upside Down. Meanwhile, Vecna is the most annoying: he has a physical form that must be destroyed and he specifically lairs in the Upside Down's equivalent of his old childhood home. That means you gotta go through the whole rigamarole of finding a Gate in our world, entering the Upside Down at whatever location it is, and then navigating to that house through the Upside Down's landscape which is perilous and shitty. Oh, and then fight him somehow.
- Vecna's curse. He targets individuals to torment and kill through a little slow-burn ritual he does. First, he uses some psychic powers to target traumatized people. Specifically those who are haunted by feelings of guilt and/or shame. That helps you narrow down the list of potential victims and maybe even anticipate who he'll go for next. Then, he inflicts on them headaches, nosebleeds, and hallucinations. They'll see a grandfather clock, and after a certain number of days he'll finally make his attack. All of this means that each attack is telegraphed well in advance, giving you plenty of time to plan a response. This is only fair, given how strong Vecna is.
- There have to be lots of little clues so that, over enough incidents, you can notice the connections (Alexandrian link right there, it's a good one). In fact, if there are too few connections to be made, reasonable PCs might mistakenly dismiss things as coincidence.
- Music can disrupt the curse. Specifically, when Vecna makes his attack, he draws your mind into his psychic world so he can break it. But if you can maintain a mental connection to the physical world, grounding yourself in reality, then your mind can escape. The PCs find that this is possible through music, something that pierces into the depths of the mind and emotionally resonates with people. So just pop some headphones on and turn on your most sentimental jam so you don't succumb to nihilism.
- Gates form at the sites of death. It's still Stranger Things, I mean. They gotta include that part. And since the previous Gates were closed, this monster introduces a new method that's arguably more interesting. And while this might open the door for the Mind Flayer to get back on his bullshit, it also opens the door for the PCs to access Vecna right back.
- Has a backstory. Actually, he sort of has two. He is both known to some PCs as the monster responsible for the 1959 Victor Creel massacre, and is known to another PC as a fellow psychic from their own past who's responsible for a separate massacre at Hawkins Lab. Together, these provide lots of additional details that inform how the PCs combat the monster, and allows them to still have something to investigate and learn without actually confronting the threat yet.
Vecna doesn't have as many separately moving parts as the Mind Flayer, but part of the reason why is that this season has 3 other inferior non-Vecna storylines it has to balance. He's mostly emulating slasher horror, although a PC also refers to him as a "dark wizard," which is a description I like. The season isn't over yet, but I have a feeling that he'll ultimately be defeated when a certain special PC finally arrives and uses their unique powers to blow up the plot.
[EDIT AGAIN: I am pleased to report that I was wrong. The climax actually involved the PCs coming up with a really solid plan that took advantage of nearly every single puzzle trait I just listed above in a clever way. In fact, it was kind of a master class in how to be a smart adventurer who can leverage every asset available]
In addition to the puzzle monster, the PCs of Stranger Things face two significant challenges: 1) they're always dealing with a split party, and 2) there are other forces at work (Hawkins Lab, then the Soviets, then the basketball team and police). On the other hand, they need their monsters to last them a whole season.
In short, the traits given to these monsters serve narrative needs. When designing puzzle monsters for your game, you'll likewise have gameplay needs. So let's talk about an actual RPG now.
This is from a Halloween-themed oneshot adventure I wrote a couple years ago using a system called Tricks & Treats. It's available for free here, with more info. Appropriately enough, one of the main inspirations for this adventure was Stranger Things, and I'm sure you'll notice the similarities.
The basic premise is that a normal, suburban American neighborhood is unexpectedly the site of an alien invasion on Halloween. A flying saucer landed here last week, the big alien Venusian Queen has set up shop in the lighthouse, and it's begun its scheme to conquer.
What are the gameplay considerations that shaped this? Well, for one thing, it needed to be a monster fit for a one-shot, not a campaign and not an open-world game. That means that time and space needed to be constrained more than I would normally do in an adventure scenario. Don't get me wrong, I like some "challenge by choice"-style scenarios that you drop into a sandbox along with some rumors, with the PCs picking and choosing which ones they try out. But the nature of a one-shot is different, and allows for an exception to that.
The monster also has to be beatable within a few hours of learning of its existence, so ironically you can't get too much mileage out of it. Funnily enough, a brute force solution is probably just fine for this purpose since we know the scenario will have to be simple. There'll be some stuff in here for the thinking-man, sure. But for this first adventure, I chose for the answer to ultimately be "go find the monster in its lair and kill the fucker."
Lastly, I needed to remove adults from the equation. The stars of the show are the kids, and a crucial trope of the genre is that "grown-ups are helpless." But because it's a bit of "lite horror," I also wanted to design my monster so that nobody will end up dying. There are bad consequences that the PCs will want to avoid, yes. But getting torn in half or having all your bones shattered isn't the tone I'm aiming for. It's just a few notches below Stranger Things in maturity.
So what are the traits of my puzzle monster?
- Goal: take over the world! ...Starting with this neighborhood. The stakes are high, leaving no room for a compromise solution. It's us or them. But it's also limited to a manageable and familiar area, so bringing in something like the military or the UN would be neither possible nor reasonable.
- Hypno candy. The Venusian Queen has infested several candies that will hypnotize the consumer. Hypnotized people are mindless zombies, following the general whims of the queen but unable to cause direct harm. Hypno candies include mints, black licorice, candy corn, and gumdrops (this corresponds with the "Low Quality Candy" on the random treasure table included in the rules). Takes effect immediately, but can be cured if fed a High-Quality candy. This is my method of removing adults from the equation and adding some low-level adversity to the PCs. On the scenario's timeline, I've made note of which adults eat hypno candy at which times (by default), slowly removing all of them by the end of the night. The Low-and-High candy part is an important detail. Acquiring candy is already the goal of the adventure, with every player going into it with an understanding that it'll be their "score" at the end. But it also means that they're unlikely (but not necessarily unable) to be hypnosis victims themselves, and it means that they have the option of sacrificing a resource they value if they want to make the scenario easier. I don't believe there's anywhere in the adventure that the Low-and-High rule is revealed to the PCs, but every time I've played this adventure, they always figure it out on their own anyway. It's just intuitive, y'know? There's also a creek in the neighborhood that contains trace elements of Venusians, and has the same effect as hypno candy if consumed (a little clue that the Queen has been infecting the candy supply).
- Force field. The Venusian Queen emits a force-field dome around this neighborhood that is impenetrable. People and objects may still enter, but nothing can leave, making it a dangerous trap. It also blocks all phone calls made within this area. I know this is a corny and cheap mechanic, but I said before that there are meta-factors that demand these extra constraints on the scenario. It's justified fairly well within the fiction, and in my experience, tends to add urgency rather than frustration or disbelief. It's also slightly more interesting than just a video game-style invisible wall. I've seen players actually wait at the edge of the force field and desperately try to warn people away, watching cars approach the border about to be unknowingly trapped.
- Jack-o’-Mutants. The Venusian Queen also emits spores from the lighthouse that settle throughout the neighborhood, infecting jack-o’-lanterns and mutating them into 7-foot-tall pumpkin-headed vine-limbed Venusians. The mutants will eat anyone they see and swallow them whole. They move the same speed as the PCs but must use their whole turn to eat someone. They are immune to most weapons, but can be dissolved with salt, vinegar, glue, or gardening/landscaping supplies.
The jack-o'-mutants are the most important element and are the "main" threat throughout the scenario. The lights in every jack-o'-lantern in the neighborhood turn green at 5:00 PM, and the mutants are generated starting at 6:45 PM and every 30 minutes after. The location of every mutant generated should be tracked on the referee’s map. When a new jack-o’-mutant is generated, a die is rolled to randomly determine which house’s pumpkins were mutated. If the same house is rolled twice or if the location rolled doesn’t have any pumpkins, then it’s a wasted roll (great for the players!). The referee must be sure to mention the carving on the mutants face, as a hint to the PCs from whose house the mutant grew. Don’t worry: because the mutants eat people whole, the person inside is still intact and unconscious if the mutant is defeated (although covered in pumpkin guts). I gave them several weaknesses that are each fairly intuitive and can be reasonably found within the neighborhood, so PCs could defeat them in battle after fleeing from an initial attack or two.
- The Queen herself. The Venusian Queen is a car-sized purple alien-pumpkin that has rooted itself in the lighthouse’s lantern room, their vine-limbs now growing throughout the building and down its walls. It has more than a dozen carved faces, some of them freaky-looking jack-o’-lantern patterns and others as moving caricatures of the humans it is currently controlling with hypno candy. This could be a clue I guess, showing the PCs which grown-ups have been compromised. But honestly, by the point the PCs are seeing this, that's probably not a concern. The real reason for this detail is that it's disturbing. Starting at 5:00 PM, the lighthouse begins glowing green. The queen is also surrounded by a complicated computer mainframe that they use to enact their plans, emit the force-field, and speak English in a robotic voice. The queen’s only means of defense is their vines. They have the same weaknesses as a normal Venusian, but have three times the durability. However, they have one greater, ultimate vulnerability: feeding them a Giggles Bar (ahem, the fictional best candy bar in town) will cause them to explode from the flavor. Again, this isn't spelled out anywhere, but every player I've had just figured it out intuitively. The queen also has a hivemind with the jack-o’-mutants.
Of course, there's some additional context which can help the PCs, especially with piecing things together. There are two old hippie NPCs named Ziggy and Saffron who are secretly also aliens from the Andromeda galaxy, here to defend against Venusians. They have a crashed flying saucer that the PCs might stumble upon in the woods, they are smart enough not to eat Low Candy, and they can provide exposition to aid the PCs.
So while the first third of the session is probably going to be spent with the PCs doing fairly typical Halloween stuff, choosing which houses and locations in town to visit, how much they want to trick-or-treat versus explore spooky stuff versus interact with classmates, etc., eventually the clues will start showing up around them and the invasion will escalate on its own. They'll run around a bit trying to get a grasp on what's going on, watch some NPCs get eaten by monsters they can't kill, find out that the cops have been hypnotized, etc. But signs point to the lighthouse being the source, especially because of 1) one of the rumors dispensed at the beginning of the adventure, and 2) the earliest jack-o'-mutants originating from the houses nearest to the lighthouse (per the rules written about where they generate from). By the time the PCs have pieced things together, you're nearing the last quarter of the session and need to be able to wrap things up quickly. Thus, the brute force "confront them and kill them" solution is sufficiently dramatic, exciting, and satisfying. Much like the demogorgon in season 1 of Stranger Things, the main thing for the PCs to "figure out" is that there's a monster at all.
This is the sequel adventure to Jack-o'-Lantern Nightmare, and has a lot in common. The kids are one year older, they're more prepared to face a monster threat, and a lot of the same game design tools are used. Constraints that are once again relevant are that 1) it must be a one-shot appropriate monster, 2) the adults must be rendered useless, and 3) I'd like for it to be nonlethal while still threatening.
But because I knew the first adventure was fairly novel, the scenario this time is pretty different. Instead of trick-or-treating, this is about a school field trip that takes place during the day of Halloween, in the morning and early afternoon before trick-or-treating would begin. Specifically, the kids are going to a pumpkin patch, as is a classic in North American elementary/middle schools. So we still get to have the middle school social landscape be relevant and many Halloween traditions can be included, but it feels pretty different from the previous adventure. And of course, the monster this time is scarecrows.
- Goal: survive, grow, and reap their crop. The scarecrows are alive because of an old curse that's causing all plant life to grow out of control in defiance of the harvest season. Now it's the plants who are harvesting the people! By the end of the night, the farm will be completely reclaimed by the crops.
- Old legend. Much like Vecna, this monster comes with a backstory that the PCs hear about. Paying close attention to the story is necessary for them to later figure out what's going on and what they should do about it. On the bus ride to the pumpkin patch, the teacher reads the kids the traditional spooky story associated with the farm, which he printed off from their website. Here it is in full:
- When the MacCormick clan first came to this land, their harvest was barren. They brought with them seeds from Scotland that the land refused to accept. In desperation, they sought answers in the old faith and found legend of an old Celtic fertility god called Ùrachadh (YOR-uh-cath). The clan formed an effigy of Ùrachadh woven from straw and filled with fruits and vegetables. The spirit of the wicker man spoke to them, and they asked from him the gift of life. He warned them that death, too, must be accepted, as is the natural way. They insisted on their seeds bearing fruit, so he promised that as long as he lived, the land would bear life. That year brought the greatest harvest in generations, making the MacCormick farm wealthy beyond belief. But the reaping never ended. The earth bore more and more life, until eventually it overtook their farm. The crops began to walk and harvest the people. The clan members spoke again to Ùrachadh and found that he had grown old and hollow and his fruit all rotten. He reminded them of his warning, and they knew then that it was time for death. They burned the wicker man so that their crops would wither. With their farm back, they faced a problem: the land would not take to their seeds, nor any life ever again, without the harvest god’s help. So began the cycle, with an effigy raised in the spring as Ùrachadh reborn, then to be sacrificed in fire in the fall before things get out of control. Ever since, the MacCormicks have held this tradition every year and used the ashes to fertilize their fields in the spring.
- Wicker man. As the story says, there's a wicker man somewhere on the farm that the PCs can burn to end the curse. The reason for the scarecrow problem is because the yearly burning was canceled due to anger from local Evangelicals who oppose this pagan tradition. However, the effigy is split into several pieces that are each too large for one person to carry alone, and must be assembled and burnt at the right site (the center of the corn maze). Thus, the ultimate solution is: 1) connect the current horror to the spooky story from the beginning of the session, 2) find the wicker man pieces, 3) find a way to transport them to the corn maze, and 4) set it on fire and make sure it burns all the way down. It's easy enough to notice the wicker man pieces in the barn during the linear "farm tour" section in the first third of the adventure, and there are several other ways for the PCs to learn the solution throughout the adventure if they can't figure it out on their own.
- Wall of corn. The corn fields grow in a massive ring around the perimeter of the farm until it’s fully enclosed. The wall is at least 15 ft thick, 10 ft tall, and essentially impenetrable. Yeah yeah, I know. But again, it's a one-shot. Also, horror games aren't supposed to make the players feel free and adventurous. They're supposed to feel exposed, helpless, and trapped.
- Violent veggies. The apples, pumpkins, corn, and grain are all alive and angry at these intruding humans. They can’t do much without limbs or mouths, but they’ll roll, vibrate, short hop, and whip at people who get too close. The curse even applies to severed crops, so any veggies the PCs have on them are gunna be angry (and yes, there's a part where the kids are allowed to pick out a pumpkin to take home with them!). This is added partially as a little bit of extra, low-stakes fun. But it's mostly meant to serve as a clue to help the PCs figure out what's going on, since they might not intuitively connect the scarecrows to the curse of life. Luckily, the wicker man pieces are immune to the curse, because I'm not a total asshole.
- The scarecrows themselves. The primary agents of the curse of life, there are three active scarecrows who will stalk the farm hunting humans, drag them to a nearby wooden cross they just planted, tie them up to it, and let the cursed straw grow up through their clothes and out the openings. The process takes 15 minutes, and the victim will be stuck hanging and unconscious. We have...
- Corn Cobb: based in the corn maze, Cobb has a burlap sack face, a witch hat, a tunic and hose, and looooong, thin, curly-toed shoes. He carries a pitchfork.
- Apple Jack: based in the apple orchard, Jack has a skull head, sun hat, overalls, thick work boots, and a huge spade.
- Peter Pumpkin: based in the pumpkin patch, Peter has a pumpkin head, a big overcoat, and hops around on his pole like a pogo stick. He carries a lawn rake.
They prioritize their region of the farm, and specifically target the adults first (seeing them as the main threat, compared to a bunch of children). They move the same speed as the PCs but must use their whole turn to set up a crucifixion. If confronted in battle, they will scoop up opponents and toss them aside. If torn apart, they’ll reform themselves over the next 15 minutes. If the players reach the center of the corn maze and begin the ritual, all three scarecrows will make their way there and try to stop it by trapping the PCs in garbage cans, wheelbarrows, and wooden crates.
So we have a magical threat with its own internal logic, distinct methodry, and a puzzle to solve in order to save the day. But this one has a good deal more additional contextual factors fleshing out the situation.
- Rain the night before. Everything on the farm is wet and muddy and slick from the weather. I added this in because I knew that it would be too easy for the scarecrows to be killed if the PCs just get their hands on some fire. As I mentioned with the demogorgon, fire is a pretty easy kryptonite to get your hands on, and I wanted my scarecrows to be a bit tougher than that. Unlike last time, I kinda wanted to force the "solve the puzzle" answer rather than leaving room for brute force. But since this is kind of a dick move, there's a beneficial tradeoff! The scarecrows leave tracks in the mud. Once the scarecrows come alive, each turn the referee should draw a line on their private copy of the map showing their routes as they move through the farm. This way, the PCs can come across the tracks and get an idea of where the enemy has been, is going, how close it is, etc. In fact, each scarecrow has unique tracks so you can even tell which is which. Also a side effect of the rain: the farm is covered in thick fog, impairing visibility a bit in an otherwise-wide-open "dungeon."
- Stanley's contest. One of the PCs' classmates, Stanley Salem, announced on the bus ride that he will give out a ton of Giggles Bars as a prize for anyone who can come up with the best improvement on the Curse of Life story to actually make it scary. Partly this is because the middle schoolers all found it dull and they each have cringey and funny attempts to make it "scarier," partly because it's a fun side quest for the PCs to participate in, but most of all because it keeps the story in the players' heads. It's a hefty paragraph with a lot of detail, read once at the beginning of the session long before the supernatural stuff starts happening. It's a risky game mechanic to rely on, so I thought that this would be a convenient excuse to keep bringing it up again and again and reiterating the details, even if they're getting slightly transformed with each re-telling.
- Flock of ravens. They’re “psychopomps” meant to help usher the Wicker Man into his death, but must be paid their fee of 4 shinies/trinkets first. If hired, the flock can carry 2 pieces of the wicker man. They are frightened off by the scarecrows, however. Up until they’re paid, they’ll just ominously accumulate around the farm and steal stuff from people. This happens many times throughout the first act of the adventure so that the PCs are definitely aware of their presence, which helps to build mystery and tension. It's also a small side quest that can make the scenario easier to beat if the PCs go out of their way to complete it.
- The witch. Old Gray Maisie is an eccentric druidess who will shelter anyone who dares approach her cottage. Her decrepit shack is seen during the bus ride in and everyone in their class already knows that she's supposed to be bad news (obviously attracting rebellious, trouble-seeking middle schoolers to investigate). The black cat that wanders the farm is secretly her familiar and spy. Much like with the Andromedan aliens, if the PCs meet her then she will review any details of the Ùrachadh story and tell the PCs all about the ravens and the wicker man. She’s ready to flee her home, but might encourage brave PCs to attempt the ritual for her. Remember: if your PCs aren't sharp enough to figure out a mystery, it's nice to have a backup plan.
This is a much fiddlier scenario than the previous one, and I've only played it once. It worked out well, but I wouldn't be surprised if it doesn't hold together as tightly (not unlike seasons 2-4 of Stranger Things compared to the first, har har har). But the added complexity is meant to make it more interesting and challenging as a puzzle.
First, come up with the basic monster idea.
I rarely invent something whole cloth. For example, I'll start with, "vampires" or "doppelgangers" or "beholder." I also make a list of other little motifs, images, and ideas I know I want to play around with as well. "Tarot cards" or "mirrors" or "moths" or "the radio." I don't need to know how it'll all fit together at first. So for Harvestland Horror, I knew I wanted scarecrows, a wicker man, a corn maze as the site of the climax, lanterns/candles, and ravens.
Of course, vampires and doppelgangers and beholders already have quite a few rules they come with. Lucky you. But "jack-o'-lanterns" and "scarecrows" aren't actually monsters, really. They're just images that we can imagine being monsters. I had to decide what the "jack-o'-lantern" monster in my scenario would be. I could have gone with a folklore thing or a religion thing or something, but I decided on "aliens" because it's really flexible. For scarecrows, I made a list of possible backstories:
- Brought to life by a spell? Who cast it?
- Ghosts of farmers?
- Curse cast on this place?
Next, decide the monster's goal.
Vampires want blood, dragons want gold, but what do scarecrows want? Again, I wrote down a list of possible motivations:
- Turn people into scarecrows?
- Trying to sacrifice someone in their wicker man?
- Grow and grow and grow all their plants and crops?
"Turning people into scarecrows" was an idea I was working off of for a while. Vampires, werewolves, zombies, and other monsters that "spread" their status are pretty good I think, and I like the escalation of starting the scenario with few monsters but gaining more and more over time. But I felt it was a bit too similar to both the hypno candy and the increasing number of jack-o'-mutants, plus it wasn't meshing with any of other internal logic or elements I was working with, so I scrapped it. But it did give me a good idea for a terrifying-yet-nonlethal consequence they inflict on their victims: crucifying the adults and making them into inanimate "scarecrows" as a sick form of revenge and mockery.
I also knew I didn't want an army of scarecrows like I had with jack-o'-mutants, so I was actually planning for a while on just having one, sole scarecrow. I still enjoy scenarios about "the" monster and will do them plenty often, but for this one I upgraded it to three monsters because I needed to make it a bit more difficult and because I had too many ideas for visual design elements I wanted to include in the illustration.
Then, figure out what the solution is.
This can be as simple as "kill the monster" or it may be as complex as "perform the ritual" or whatever. Maybe it's a competition, where the monster's goal and the PCs' goal is one and the same (e.g. you're both trying to obtain the magic treasure). Maybe it's just "stop the monster from achieving their goal." Maybe it's just survive. Knowing the PCs' solution is probably the most important factor defining the shape of the scenario. Of course, don't confuse "solution" here with PC goals in general. In a sandbox game, the PCs should be setting their own goals, driving the campaign where they want to take it. What I'm talking about is more specifically, "if the PCs decide they want to be rid of this monster, then how would they do that?"
Of course, many game designers will tell you that you shouldn't have a solution in mind ahead of time. Open-ended problems are more fun and the players will enjoy coming up with their own way of dealing with the puzzle. This is, generally speaking, true and good advice. But there are a couple counterpoints. 1) Many other game designers will tell you that it's wise to have at least one solution already in your back pocket, just in case the players aren't clever and so you know you didn't accidentally create an impossible puzzle. 2) The "solution" you have in mind can still be incredibly broad! I mean, come on. "Kill the monster"? That's not railroading an answer on them, that's fair game. You can declare that the solution is "kill the fucker" and still see an infinite number of ways in which the PCs might decide to do that, with different strategies, battlefields, plans, weaponry, timing, and so on all being variable. Even my hyper-specific "construct the wicker man in the corn maze and burn it down" solution still has a surprising amount of flexibility. How are the PCs going to transport it? My own players didn't use the ravens at all. They loaded some parts into the back of a truck and drove it to the corn field. When it crashed, they gathered some NPC classmates to help them carry the rest of the pieces. Plus, there are enough other elements at play that even the solution can be fairly specific without the adventure becoming too fixed. Three player groups might come up with exactly the same idea but end up resolving it in completely different ways because they all got disrupted by the scarecrows and diverged into wildly different directions. Fighting the scarecrows isn't required for the adventure at all, but you're going to run into them and find yourself thinking of ways to get them out of your hair. After a few nasty run-ins, my players decided the safest option was to steal the schoolbus, drive it around the farm, rescue every NPC they could, and plow it right through the corn maze so they wouldn't be exposed in the open.
Lastly, revisit your list of elements and try to work them all in, assembling the puzzle for yourself.
So I sifted through the options I brainstormed, considered the gameplay implications of each, how they'd relate to one another and construct challenges and choices for the players, and decided on a set of them that I thought melded well. Then, additional elements were added in as necessary. For example, when I decided on "a curse was cast on this place," this implied there must be a story of the curse. There's some history here. And right on my brainstorming page you can see a note saying "spooky story told to PCs contains clues." Even then I knew that it needed to have utility, especially if it was going to ask the players to sit back and listen instead of have fun for a few minutes.
I was going to have the ravens be an agent for the scarecrows, since they seemed like the natural minions for them. Maybe they would be the arms that can pick things up for the scarecrow, or they can swarm stuff and cause harassment on its behalf. This was a better idea back when I was only considering one scarecrow. Eventually, my brother and co-writer came up with the idea for them being a potential ally instead. Only after I made and ran the adventure did I have an even better idea that I'm still kicking myself for not thinking of sooner: the ravens should have spoken for the scarecrows. Imagine how fucking freaky it would be if the scarecrow was surrounded by a flock of crows that all spoke in unison for it. Ugh.
The witch/druidess felt a bit too similar to the Andromedans for me, but I added her anyway because I wanted the implied morality of the scenario to be a bit clearer. Same thing with the evangelicals. I didn't just want to demonize paganism (even fictional paganism), so flipping the script felt like the natural answer. My mom helped me brainstorm the curse story and the logic and whatnot and was really pushing for me to make it a Native American thing, but I thought that was too cheesy and a bit tasteless. Plus, Wicker Men are (allegedly) Scottish, so I needed to stick to that mythology. But she pushed for the "death and rebirth" deity motif as being something that fits with the harvest setting and felt that it was a good foil for Christianity.
As you're on this final step of just filling out the rest of the puzzle and connecting it all together, you'll have to accept that not everything will find it's way in. That's okay. I never figured out how to incorporate lanterns or candles. I thought of them as maybe being points of safety or maybe revealing the monster, but the scenario got crowded enough and they were ultimately cut. I'll use them later.
- For whatever reason, the PCs can't just go straight to the monster and kill it. Either it's too strong to kill without knowing the right method or having its weakness, or it can't be found easily, or killing it won't solve the problem, or maybe it's just going to take awhile before the PCs even understand what they're dealing with at all. Puzzle monsters should never be a one-and-done random encounter. The puzzle monster must always be defeated in a showdown of some sort. Figure out what it is that's delaying the PCs from immediately killing it as soon as the adventure starts.
- Have a good balance of traits that are in the monster's favor and traits that are in the players' favor. Things that make the PCs feel the situation is helpless or that the enemy is totally overpowered, but then also things they can exploit and feel clever for noticing.
- Some information or assets will be necessary, but it's also good to add information or assets that are merely helpful. It rewards players who go the extra mile and/or pay attention to the little stuff, granting them a tangible bonus towards their effectiveness.
- Think about what the players would do with the information they have starting out. Take the first idea and make it impossible. Do the same thing for the second idea, and maybe the third one. Protagonists always run to the police first, so get rid of the police. Obvious and intuitive answers are good for small tasks in an RPG, but for adventure-sized problems it's better if the overall solution comes from outside the box. Killing the pumpkin monsters with herbicides makes sense and should be effective, but asking the PCs to cut off the brain of the hivemind is something they're only going to get by engaging with the adventure more deeply and probing the scenario for information. Giving shiny offerings to ravens is pretty obvious, but performing a Pagan ritual probably isn't going to come from mere guesswork.
- Having different manifestations of the threat is also key to keeping the monster from being reducible to a mere "bear" statblock. The Mind Flayer includes the Flayed, the demodogs, and the vines. The aliens include the Venusian Queen, the hypnotized people, and the jack-o'-mutants. The curse of life includes the scarecrows, the violent veggies, and the wall of corn. This also gives the PCs a chance to "fight" the monster before the final showdown, since they're fighting its agents or lesser aspects. It's okay to have some low-threat hack-n-slash monsters like the demodogs to add some combat and thrill to the scenario, provided that they don't undermine the true challenge. You can use a "bear" or two as long as that's not, like, the monster that needs overcome.
There are also some big decisions you have to make which will have sweeping effects across the whole scenario. How many monsters are there? Is the monster intelligent? Can it speak? Does it move around or stay in one place? What happens if the monster succeeds/the players fail? Why would the players even get involved with this monster? My own two adventures came with their own design needs, which might be quite different from yours. For example, in my D&D game, my monsters are usually very deadly, but I also don't need to "remove the adults" for any reason. Because I was designing one-shots, I needed scenarios that would quickly escalate out of control unless something was done immediately. But in a more conventional adventure game, you probably want something that still allows for the players to set their own pace. Why not have a puzzle monster that's part of the status quo rather than a disruption to it?
And remember: when in doubt, the monster wants to eat the players and the players want to kill the monster. Start there and just add shit that makes it a more complicated situation than it initially appears.