Threaten Your 5E D&D World with Horror Monsters If You Dare
Over at Nerdarchy the YouTube channel Nerdarchists Dave and Ted dismiss the abstraction of hit points and delve deeper into monsters who don’t care how tough your character is in combat and other dangerous situations. Instead these threats target something much more precious — and difficult to recover. Monsters causing ability score damage, loss or reduction in 5E D&D are few and far between and thankfully so since recovering from these effects ain’t no walk in the park. At the same time they represent a different kind of horror and a campaign highlighting these awful creatures might just make players never look at things the same way ever again. So let’s get into it.
The worst best kinds of 5E D&D monsters
When we came up with the concept for the video and began looking for monsters to fit the bill the one that made the biggest impression on me is the maurezhi, a challenge 7 fiend found in Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes. This monster possesses all the makings of an unforgettable villain, falling in the 5E D&D sweet spot for me. Tier two is far and away my favorite range to run games as Dungeon Master and truth be told I’ve only very rarely played games beyond this level range either.
What I dig about a maurezhi is what the stat block represents outside of combat. In a fight these fiends are nasty ghoul or ghast like monsters in both form and function but they reach far beyond in their scope of insidious evil. In the hierarchy of cannibalistic night stalkers maurezhi stand (hunched of course) above those lesser flesh eaters with greater Intelligence, a devastating combo causing paralyzation and Charisma loss and to top it all off their heinous bite can turn creatures into ghouls plus it can revive nearby ghouls and ghasts with full hit points! Circling back to that out of combat feature though gives a DM the seed for a very evil campaign arc.
“Assume Form. The maurezhi can assume the appearance of any Medium humanoid it has eaten. It remains in this form for 1d6 days, during which time the form gradually decays until, when the effect ends, the form sloughs from the demon’s body.”
Something I noticed about maurezhi and a few other ability score draining monsters is sharing a similar trait. Whether intellect devourers, shadows or the fiendish focus on this post there’s a body horror element of taking over some part of your being. With only a handful of creatures a solid thread of insidious horror emerges and with Halloween season upon us perhaps you’ll create some terrifying scenarios in your own 5E D&D games with these monsters. Ready to put the fear into your 5E D&D adventurers? Hit the ground running at 1st level.
Horror through teamworkReaping Day comes during harvest time each year when the veil between the Material Plane and Shadowfell becomes thinner. Villagers gather for festivals, games and shared events but clerics of Light understand the cosmic implications and hold fast to their faith and traditions for the spiritual protection of their communities. But this year the festivities take on a muted tone. Many of the villagers experience inexplicable lethargy, which diminishes not only the celebratory day but also the very practical harvest. Young folks, normally hale and hearty from honest work on farm, field and orchard don’t have the energy to gather the bounty of the land.
The town’s Light cleric seems perplexed. The prayers and offerings were made just like always. Perhaps a pilgrimage to the nearby Shrine of Light can illuminate the problem further. This cleric can accompany the adventurers if they wish but that’ll be up to them for the asking — remaining in town is their priority. It’s around this time to begin messing with characters perceptions when it comes to shadows. Every so often a character catches a glimpse of movement but when they look they find nothing amiss. When the time comes to get things moving forward one of the villagers cries out when their own shadow attacks them! (Perhaps a villager visiting the cleric’s temple while the party speaks with them?)
Two shadows (CR 1/2) represent a Hard challenge for a party of four 1st level characters while a single shadow is Easy. This is a simple dial to adjust for your needs. You could describe how there’s two or a handful of villagers at the temple or wherever this event goes down and have one, two or more shadows attack simultaneously but for extra tension start with one. See how it goes — it might prove harrowing enough for the party — and if it doesn’t pack the punch you expected have another shadow attack. All of a sudden there’s panic. How many shadows are there? Will everyone’s shadow attack them? Incidentally after 1d4 hours you’ll find out who’s evil or not in town too.
The Light cleric announces there’s no time to lose! At the Shrine of Light they discover a desecrated holy site, surely the cause of these ills. The shrine is built atop a tall hill to properly celebrate the sun but the pillars and plinths cast deep shadows too. The desecration appears to be Abyssal in origin for those characters able to discern such things, the subtle markings of Doresain, the King of Ghouls noticeable to exceptionally astute characters. Hmmm…
With the Shrine of Light casting dark shadows we arrive at the perfect spot for a setpiece encounter with more shadows and if you really want to put the screws to the party throw a ghoul in there too. The vile creature creeps from a shallow cave where it feasted on the remains of a recent pilgrim. Yuck. What is the planes has this fledgling group of adventurers stumbled into?
All the seeds for a campaign featuring just three creatures lays before you. Did you catch them all?
Shadows. Your 5E D&D world is on the brink of shadowpocalypse if this gets out of hand. Almost undetectable these terrifying undead sap the strength from villagers and what’s worse create new shadows from their victims. For the rest of the campaign players will be paranoid and literally jumping at shadows — even their own.
Intellect Devourer. The poor Light cleric was the first to go of course. Their brain devoured weeks ago, the cleric host body continues it’s spiritual duties because keeping these villagers in town is all part of the plan.
Maurezhi. What other loathsome fiend of the Abyss desecrates the Shrine of Light with the profane symbology of the King of Ghouls? Your campaign villain can literally be anyone as they go about draining victims’ sense of self until they die and turn into ghouls. This maurezhi has big plans and the village is only the beginning. They’ve already moved on to a new location where they’ll create a new puppet with an intellect devourer and keep cranking up the shadow and ghoul populations.
By the time the adventuring party is 8th level they’ll hopefully be both absolutely terrified about what’s going on but also ready to kick some maurezhi behind. When they finally catch up to the thing after sleuthing out their current identity they can witness the horrible sloughing off of the mortal disguise to reveal the awful fiend beneath. To keep the tension high this confrontation can occur right out in public. That way the two shadows and single intellect devourer have plenty of commoners around to take over, drain, turn into ghouls and generally keep in harm’s way. For what it’s worth that grouping along with three commoners becomes more than Deadly for 8th level characters.
And that’s not all! Adventurers can and should feel great about putting a stop to this demonic and very dangerous threat. But if you want to keep the paranoia and horror going perhaps the maurezhi itself wasn’t the primary villain after all. Even more insidious creatures exist out there and for my gold pieces an elder oblex ratchets up these themes even more. I already love me some ooze creatures so sign me up for a hyper intelligent ooze that eats memories and creates slimy simulacrums of its victims. In fact the elder oblex I’m imagining is so smart it pits the most dangerous predator imaginable against the meddlesome adventurers who’ve been interfering in its plans for so long — themselves.
In Shadow of Your Former Self adventurers discover a chamber far removed from civilization and to their horror find the frescos and carvings on the walls depict their own likenesses. Our elder oblex is no fool and placed this tempting lure to draw the party into a scenario where a magical gem creates shadowy versions of each of them, which of course immediately attack. Fortunately, defeating them ends the powerful magic of the gem, which becomes a valuable diamond. And the adventurers will need it for all those greater restoration spells they’ll be casting throughout the campaign. Ability score damage is no joke!