In conversation with someone in DMAcademy, I was spitballing a monster concept that was the personification of paranoia, and then it occurred to me: the best monster for instilling paranoia is no monster at all.
That's not to say there was no monster to begin with, only that there is no monster now. What happened to it? It was probably defeated. Or it fled. But what it left behind was doubt. As long as that doubt persists, the monster still lives, in a way. It can generate sightings, clues, rumors, etc., indicating its continued presence. Those indicators all have non-monster explanations, but a monster remains a plausible explanation as well, so the doubt and paranoia linger.
Now, if you were to introduce this monster into a TTRPG, you might wonder how to run such a thing, as well as whether it can be done again. As for the second question, the fun thing about doubt is that you can instill this over and over again in your players. Think, for instance, about how many players instinctively have their characters reach for 10' poles.
But running the absence of a monster will take some work. It's not enough to come up with a monster stat block and run it according to the monster's tactics. There is no monster, remember, though because there WAS one, you can use its modus operandi as an inspiration for the various acts of malfeasance that will be attributed to it in absentia. These acts of malfeasance do not need to perfectly correlate with whatever the original monster did, would have done, or is even capable of doing, since the monster itself is not the point. That said, there are still some concrete things to consider:
- The original monster should be something that is strong or vile enough to instill fear, especially in the public mind, if not the PCs' minds. Things that are known to hide well and wreak malicious mischief are good candidates. Think along the lines of gremlins, grindylows, etc., but less joyous in their mischief, perhaps. Vampires and werewolves make sense for this as well.
- You'll need a table of acts of malfeasance that can be attributed ambiguously, but with a monster always a plausible explanation. Mysteriously dead animals? Monster. Missing person(s)? Monster. Something prowling the woods at night? Monster. Food, tools, or something else goes missing? Monster.
- But it's not enough to have the acts themselves. They all have to be interpreted and reported with the idea of the monster already in mind. So for each act of malfeasance, you will need not only the true cause, but also the monster-based interpretation, what gets reported to PCs who go looking around for clues.
- Which also means that the clues themselves should be reported to PCs rather than directly observed by them whenever possible. This limits the tools PCs can bring to bear on the clues, tools which, depending on the TTRPG system in question, may unmask those clues quite easily. You can do this by making sure the evidence itself is always contaminated in some way, reported through hearsay, or in other ways passed through unreliable (and biased) people.
So with all this in mind, let's create a scenario in which the absence of a creature is the animating force.
The monster archetype: A werewolf. Werewolves are good for this exercise because the lore surrounding them is often contradictory, they may or may not be aware of their nature, and while they're not in their animal form, they live among regular people. Additionally, according to many traditions, lycanthropy is a transmissible curse, so you can rely on this to infuse the community with a fertile doubt.
The acts of malfeasance/clues, and the truth in parentheses:
- Local livestock has been found mauled and partially eaten. Farmers have dispensed with the carcasses already by the time the PCs arrive. (Truth: there are wild animals who sometimes raid farms).
- Villagers report having heard sniffing and growling, or having smelled the musky scent of some predator, then seeing tracks the next morning “too big to be a wolf”. The PCs may catch hints of the remaining tracks, but should not have any conclusive proof that the tracks are too big/small or even wolf-like. (Truth: more wild animals, and/or a prankster or two.)
- Local children have reported seeing a furry creature walking upright in the woods on their way home in the evening. They ran away before they could get a closer look ... or be eaten. The creature left prints, but they're a confusing mishmash of shod feet and paws, and it's difficult to know when each was made. The tracks lead off toward the village but disappear on the cobbled roadway. (Truth: A villager was out hunting and ran down a bear or dire wolf; the children saw that and conflated the two, which also explains the tracks.)
- Several village teenagers have been reported as “missing for a good part of the night” for some nights, and are either cagey about their whereabouts or convincing in their assertion that they don't remember. When they return, they are dirty, scuffed up, and reek of animal. (Truth: the teenagers have found the cub of a predator and are taking turns caring for it in secret. It's caged up in a nearby cave, but getting to and from the cave in the dark is difficult.)
- The family who recently moved to town? At least one of them appears to be quite hairy, causing people to gossip, especially since in the villagers' minds their coming is correlated with the rise in “werewolf” activities. The family is standoffish and a bit dour. (Truth: they're regular people who are being unfairly maligned, and their standoffishness is a result of the whispers that started the moment they set foot in town.)
- Villagers are reporting that some animal appears to have dug up a grave or two in the cemetery. The digging was not done with shovels, that much is apparent, though there aren't any identifiable tracks around. (Truth: there's a grave robber in the area, and they dig with a pickaxe. By the time the PCs get involved the grave robber is probably moving on.)
Feel free to repeat these in variations, especially while the players have yet to uncover the truth behind the clues. Add some atmospheric details like howling at the moon, dogs and horses acting skittish, odd musky smells, etc., and let the players run with them. You'll be able to maintain doubt for a while, but players may eventually give up and just accept the hauntedness of the situation rather than trying to resolve it. That's okay too.
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