While the advice below focuses on LARPs, you can use them in your role play and descriptions of monsters in tabletop games as well.
So how do you make it work?
Darkness is your friend. Honestly, the harder it is for folks to see the details of the monster’s costume, the better. This doesn’t mean the area needs to be pitch black, which can be dangerous if the players need to fight or run, but making it shadowy will help cover up the seams. You can also add tension by giving the player’s flashlights so they don’t have a perfect field of vision or decorating the area with coloured LED lights to add to the aeshetic (green, blue and red all give different vibes).
Be unpredictable. The less folks can predict your monster, the more nervous they’ll get. This will depend somewhat on your player base, but if you have the big scary thing slowly approach or ignore the players and simply stare at the wall until they’re attacked, you’ll have the chance to build anticipation and give the players time to dread its reactions.
Subtly Inhuman. Moving abnormally slowly, silently timing your blinks to be 8 seconds apart, talking while looking over someone’s left shoulder, inappropriate laughter during conversation, exaggerated or off facial expressions, or constantly looking around and behind yourself can all help create a sense of the uncanny valley in monsters that speak.
Off Noises. You can use Bluetooth speakers hidden among costuming to create the sound of creaking bones, burning wood or sibilant whispers.
Cover the eyes. You can make your monster seem less human, and make them harder to read, by covering their eyes with a mesh or fabric that you can see through but which makes it impossible for others to see your eyes. An alternative is to wear pure black or white contact lenses which make your eyes seem abnormal. Bonus points if you can safely wear sclera contact lenses.
Stillness. Especially if people can’t be sure if you’re just set dressing or an actual monster, staying still can build that sense of anticipation and fear of what you happen while you move. This can also lead to a good jump scare but I recommend being out of arm range if you go down that route as some people may instinctively lash out if you do too good a job.
Unknown Enemy. Perhaps they are a shapeshifter who can look like anyone, or an infection that hasn’t fully taken hold. Having to blood test your friends or be paranoid that your friends aren’t who they say they are can add anticipation and dread. Bonus Points with infections that are slow to take hold where you might not even know about yourself.
Strange Movements. Anything that is unnatural or unexpected will work. It could be an insectile slow-but-jarring movement, rapid crawling toward your enemy, moving in a stop-start fashion, cowering behind your raised arms while slowly scuttling forward, or charging in a wild manner. Heck, even a slowly walking monster that seems to shrug off every attack can be threatening even though it’s just someone walking forward. If this is a combat encounter, bear safety and combat considerations in mind. If you make your monsters move slowly and die in three hits, it’s unlikely to have the chance to scare anyone in a combat game.
Asymmetry and unusual body shapes. A pair of horns and wings might look demonic, but the symmetrical patterns will disturb people far less than someone with a single mutated arm or several bony protrusions on one side of their face.
Hide the face. There’s a reason why monsters wearing gas masks, hessian sacks or doctor’s masks. We’re not used to people covering their faces and it makes it off-putting when they do as we wonder what they’re trying to hide their identities from. It’s also an easy way to create a group of faceless monsters. And if you’re playing a truly monstrous creature than odds are it wouldn’t have a human face to begin with.
War Paint. People have been using paint to threaten others for millenia. So long as you take care not to directly appropriate something of cultural significance, you’ll have plenty of options for using smears or stripes of paint to give you a threatening and aggressive appearance. War paint can also break up the face and make it easier to hide in shadows.
Height. If you know someone who can fight safely on special stilts, or are simply very tall, you can use their height advantage to threaten others.
Coming out of nowhere. If your NPC is patient enough to wait under a table (covered with a table cloth) or in a closet in a room that others think is empty, you can get that dramatic shock appeal when they crawl or step out of it. This is even better if you can crawl out unseen and just stand there, waiting, until the players turn around. They’ll never feel safe at a LARP again (in a good way) if they can’t be certain that the rooms they’re in are empty.
Sounds. Screaming, weeping, hissing, whispering, repetitive phrases, singing and chanting can all be effective sounds to make while either attacking a person or standing still. I do recommend practicing the sounds you make, though, so that you feel comfortable with them. And don’t worry too much about sounding corny. So long as you commit to the bit, even the corniest lullaby can sound creepy if you commit to the bit.
Fluids. Bile, pus, mould, tears and especially blood can disturb people as it can evoke a sensation of disgust in others that the gore-soaked character seems to ignore. Using the right materials you can make it less likely to run and stain other objects, especially if you use paints that dry but look wet.
Signs of Sickness. Signs of mutilation or disease can be frightening, as it can remind the player characters of what they could suffer at the creature’s hands. Pustules, grey-tinted skin, stitches, scars and the like are all a great way to disturb others.
So there’s a bunch of ideas for monster design. Do you have anything you can add to it? Or any examples of where these things were used to truly terrify?
If you’d like to read more articles on creating horror in tabletops or LARPs, check out the main article.