Making Animals Scary


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(Starting new thread to avoid derailing the one about themes for APs.)

Animals and Vermin (all classified as Animals in Pathfinder Second Edition) don't get enough respect in -- as far as I can tell -- any edition of D&D and Pathfinder. This thread is for ideas on what to do to make wild Animals (that is, ones that are not Animal Companions, altered Summons, or something like that) worthy opponents for levels beyond the very early levels. I am talking about the theme in which you have to survive in the wild or on the edges of civilization, and Nature does not want you there, and will do whatever it can to put you in your place, and that place may well be in its gut.

The Messageboards don't have a Pathfinder First and Second Edition Advice subdivision, so I had to put this in one or the other, and I definitely lean towards First Edition, so that's where this went, but if you have insight into ways that Second Edition makes this easier, harder, or changes it sideways, go ahead and chime in.

Above the low levels, it becomes too easy to use magic to subvert even apex predators (because Animals have mediocre Will Saves) so that you don't have to fight them if you're not ready. Best ideas I can come up with are Swarms and Troops of Animals or Vermin: Burn, crunch, or mind-control all you want -- more are coming. Clever animals should be able to make hit-and-run raids on supplies (usually food stores), but this flies in the face of them all being assigned an Intelligence of 2 (or occasionally 1, or for Vermin usually No Intelligence).

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We should have gotten Troops for animals to represnet a pack of wolves or a pride of lions.

The thing is that for animals and vermins, they often serve as base creatures for templates in order to make them more threatening.
- The Man-Eathing Animal and the Demonic Vermin turn animals and vermins, respectively, into demonic minions.

- The Foo Creature and the Fey Animal turn animals into guardians.

- The Animal Lord, Lycanthrope and Entothrope use animals and vermins as alternate forms.

and so on.

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JiCi's suggestion to look through templates is a good one. There are plenty to be found (including 3rd Party ones if your game allows them) on has all the "official" ones, but no 3PP stuff.

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Plague beast is a nasty template to make animals ultra scary. Especially if they can get the drop on a player

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I think you'll ultimately have to get rid of the restriction of Int to 1-2 for Animals and then go through Magical Beasts separating out the ones that are natural creatures in a supernatural world and which ones are unnatural creatures in a supernatural world.

That, or you have to be OK with some kind of hive-mind or Genius Locii controlling the animals.

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Templates did occur to me, although those sort of stray away from the idea of Nature being out to get you, so at least I wouldn't want them to show up early (maybe later, as Nature reaches out to the Abyss or something similar to get rid of the Humanoids plaguing it).

I do agree about the restriction of 1 to 2 for Animals being unreasonable. Animals on Earth display a wide range of Intelligence -- Chimpanzees are definitely smarter than most Animals, although some birds (especially like some Corvids that can learn to use tools on their own) can give them a run for their money, and even among one species such as dogs, you can find a range of Intelligence from dogs as dumb as Odie to dogs capable of sometimes outsmarting the Humans (although admittedly that often isn't very hard). Likewise, I definitely wouldn't peg all of them at Alignment Neutral. Too bad the Rules As Written don't seem to account for any of this, for certain in First Edition, and as far as I can tell also in Second Edition (although I wouldn't call myself Trained in Second Edition just yet, so I could have missed something there).

One thing that did cocur to me since my first post is that somebody working to rile up Nature against the PCs could conceivably do so without needing to train any Animals/Vermin or interact directly with any of the ones going up against the PCs, and ideally without ever needing to interact directly with the PCs (although in that case they would need a spy). Use scent/pheromone trails to get the Animals/Vermin to go where you want them to go. Skills needed: Bluff ("these aren't the Druids you're looking for"); Craft (Alchemy)(*)(**) (make scent/pheromone lure trails); Heal (harvest Animal/Vermin musks, etc. with the Harvest Parts feat, as well as help patch yourself up if Cure Wounds Extracts aren't enough); Knowledge (Nature) (put Skill Focus on this -- know what you need to do to get Animals/Vermin to do what you want, and to get them to refrain from going after YOU); Perception (watch out for PCs), Profession (Herbalist)(**) (harvest plant/fungal aromatics); Sense Motive (make sure your spy isn't acting as a double agent, even accidentally); Stealth (stay out of view of the PCs); Survival (know where you are and where to find what you need); and the usual 1-pointers. Feats needed: Skill Focus (Knowledge (Nature)) and Skill Focus (Stealth) (both by 8th level from Human Focused Study); Alertness (stay alert for those PCs and for the possibility of your spy going double agent); Harvest Parts (harvest Animal/Vermin musks, etc.); Nature Soul (for more Knowledge (Nature) and Survival); Stealthy (for more Stealth and better escaping of traps laid by PCs if they start doing that).

(*)Herbalist Alchemist -- both Paizo and 3rd party -- combine this into Profession (Herbalist). Herb Witch also does this. But neither quite does what we need, which leads to . . . (**)

(**)Natural Philosopher Investigator combines both Craft (Alchemy) and Profession (Herbalist) into Knowledge (Nature). Can be combined with Cartographer, to better case the area where the PCs you want to harass are operating. Human Natural Philosopher Investigator with respectable but not totally amazing Intelligence can easily cover the required skill requirements above and have some left over to expand some of those 1-pointers like Climb, Escape Artist, Handle Animal (oddly less crucial than it seems at first -- never use this on an Animal to send against the PCs, in case they start doing Speak With Animals), and Swim into full-scale Skills to be even better at getting around the PCs without getting caught, and has every one of them in class except Swim (which could be covered by a trait like Expert Swimmer, which even has a potential flavor tie-in -- this Natural Philosopher Investigator is from the River Kingdoms, and was driven crazy by all the garbage that people throw in the water).

The above isn't an Animal, but it sure would go at least some distance in making Animals scary, especially if none of the PCs had Scent or an Animal Companion or Familiar with Scent -- and even in these cases, it might take them a while to get an inkling of what was going on, especially if this mastermind of Nature (which has nothing to do with the Mastermind archetype) is clever enough to make it look like somebody just didn't clean up the garbage properly, or like previous Animals/Vermin left a musk trail, or something like that.

Edit: Now I'm starting to want to make a PC that does this against enemies that would present overwhelming odds in a straight-up fight, like for instance in Hard Mode of Giantslayer or Ironfang Invasion.

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I did have a pretty fun Spider encounter.

The spiders had a hive-like mind, organized by "brain spiders".

They had proper tactics, typically about splitting the party by seperating them with webs, combo grappling/tripping and pinning/tieing up exposed party members (encounter was at level 3-5, so CMD levels of the party were relatively low), as well as targetted web sprays at faces of party members. But these abililites were only in place while the "brain spider" leading the pack was up.
The first encounter was a nearly party gets captured (Cleric eventually understood that these spiders were smart, and hit them with a scare spell that made the brain spider ran away and the other spiders got all ran because that what their hive mind was telling them), second encounter the PCs zeroes in on the brain spiders and dealt with it quickly (much satisfaction was had, they also got the drop on the spiders, not the other way round). Third encounter the brain spiders cried uncle, and offered a regular tribute of Silk to get the heroes of their back.
Eventually the village the heroes were protected established a silk for pigs trade with the spiders.

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Like I said, if there were troops for animals and vermins, that would have been more suitable for what you need.

"Nature going against the players" sounds more like "PCs being overwhelmed by sheer numbers". If you have a pack of wolves which surrounded your PCs, using the Troop rules, no amount of AC is going to safe them.

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Animals are not scary in my games for the same reason that mindless undead, oozes, low-Int elementals and golems are not: they attack, that's it. Now, I can weaponize any of these types of creatures to make them more THREATENING; last night I added a swarm template to zombies and also added a zombie virus to simulate zombie horror stuff in a session.

The players weren't particularly nervous; even though it was multiple swarms coming from different directions, the PCs had several short and medium range AoE spells as well as ridiculous Fort saves. 2 of the PCs are even immune to disease. But after one swarm survived a fireball and kept coming, they got a bit more invested.

My players got genuinely twitchy when a demon showed up. Not only was it worryingly powerful but it is also clever, strategic; it can use greater teleport and darkness to manage the battlefield, commands some troops, knows how to use the terrain and so on.

More than that, this particular one is good at destroying objects. It can teleport to within reach and next round sunder the magic fauchard the paladin is wielding, or the rogue's fancy magic composite longbow.

Low or non-intelligent foes are just attackers, period. Whatever threat they present is the threat of HP loss or maybe a condition. Intelligent foes can make plans and use strategy in combat. Outside of combat, they can lie to the PCs, manipulate them, create elaborate traps and force the players to make desperate, potentially morally questionable decisions.

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Mark Hoover 330 wrote:

words of truth

The best way to make animals threatening is to add coordination to them.

Without coordination, they are just speed bumps. With coordination things changes a lot. Who coordinates them? Why? How? If there is coordination, can there be negotiation?

Nearly all animal types could have some fae creature controlling them. For f.e. spiders, Ettercaps at low level, Aranea, eventually Jorugumo.
The latter 2 can also make for interesting social encounters.

Similar things apply to most other animals.

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Also... there's a reason why nature overwhelming PCs isn't much of a threat after very low levels. By RAW, nature isn't much of a threat.

Getting along in the wilderness, that is finding enough food and water in the surrounding terrain by moving slowly, has a base DC of 10 on a Survival check. Now, I want you to just think about that for a moment: there are NO caveats in the skill description for terrain type, though certainly the GM can add difficulty or make the roll null and void in, say, Desert or Tundra, but as written the RAW says if a player rolls a 10 on an untrained skill and accepts half movement speed, they are AUTOMATICALLY guaranteed enough food and water to survive.

Knowledge: Nature is a required monster lore skill for ID'ing the Fey, so knowing about animals is likely common for folks level 3 and above unless they are in a campaign that NEVER intends the PCs to encounter such creatures. Add in that Survival is the tracking skill but even Perception will allow the party to find a single track and that means that PCs from level 3 and up have a good chance to know 1. what animals they'll encounter in a given area, if they bother to ask the GM and 2. find identifiable passage of said animals if not track said animals.

Finally, let's consider the environment itself. While lots of animals have a Climb, Fly or Swim speed, some may still be just as hindered in their movement by terrain as the party is. However, the PCs have ranged attacks and spells; animals and vermin will ALWAYS need to get to within 30' to melee in order to deal with their foes. PCs are automatically at an advantage in that respect.

So... food and water isn't an issue if the PCs are lost in the wilderness. Understanding the "nature" they're likely to encounter is only a few average DC rolls away. Should the party begin to encounter natural foes such as Animals, Oozes, Plants or Vermin, said creatures are usually only a threat between 5' to 30' away, depending on size and reach, while a party containing a level 3 or higher Arcane caster COULD be a significant threat at up to 130' from the creatures (Magic Missile).

Troops or Swarms is one way to go, with other templates to add special effects or defenses to these foes, but in the end most Animal types are still bound by the need to get to melee with the party. What, pray tell, is the NUMBER ONE skill stressed on these boards for every PC to max out? Perception. Heck, there's even an informal suggestion I've seen bandied about for years in regards to PFS that, by level 6 all PCs have some way of spotting Invisible creatures. This means that having a large number of Animal types sneaking up on the party is exponentially tougher the more levels the PCs gain and by level 6 may be virtually impossible.

The only other thing I think that can be added to in this discussion though is the Grapple maneuver, and to remind everyone of the original movie, The Dark Crystal. In that movie Kyra, one of the 2 lead characters, calls dozens of Tiny and Small sized creatures to freedom and "pushes" them to attack SkekTek, the Skeksis in charge of draining her vital essence.

In PF1 terms, each of the creatures made an Aid Another check to add a bonus to the biggest, toughest of their number to start a Grapple with the villain. Once they actually succeeded in the Grapple, they used their actions to force movement of the creature until it was made to fall from a height.

Such a tactic could be employed but again, that would require some kind of coordination by a greater force. That then begs the question: are the PCs afraid of the animals, or the coordinating force?

The last thing... the very last and most annoying to players... is that nature, as a whole, never sleeps. THIS, along with a good coordinator, is the only way nature is a threat to the PCs.

Think of a humanoid tribe... let's say, mites (because I LOVE them). These creatures control a small area of swampy woodland that an APL 4 party is moving through. The most important things about the mites however are the fact that they've been in this area for a year now and their leader is a level 5 Druid.

Look through the spells a Druid 5 has available to them, then consider that druid having unfettered access to Vermin and Animals in the area for 365 days. Think of all the spies and informants they have reporting to them. Some animals are nocturnal while others are active during the day, so the mites have a 24 hour information network communicating with their leader.

What's more, if the party is for some reason still traveling over land; that is, they're not teleporting, using overland flight, or other such magical means to get around, that then means to the mites that, at some point, these PCs have got to spend 8 hours sleeping. You know what you can do with 100 acres of swampy woodlands, the animals/vermin inside that area, and EIGHT HOURS worth of night time, if you're a Mite Druid 5?

Owl swarm... beetle swarm... mining beetles from below the camp... swarm of rats... bat swarm... constrictor snakes... and now your elite mite spider riders start firing slings from 50' away using Point Blank Shot and Arc Slinger; if the PCs try to move into melee, web and flee into the canopy to reposition for the next volley. Oh yeah, and while they reposition... spider swarms...

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Spotting a track (Perception) just shows you that something seems to have disturbed the grass or bent a twig or dented the mud or left a bit of fluff on a thorn. It doesn't tell you whether it's a dire wolf or a deer. Knowing the difference is where Survival and K-N come in, and they won't be DC10, especially as multiple animals will use the same trail, the signs will get mixed up and it might be raining or under gloomy forest cover. And even on the open savannah, you won't see the lion tracks once a herd of wildebeest has trampled everything.

Added to that, you can only see those tracks if you have line of sight to them. Trees and bushes (abundant in many natural environments) obscure all that. So to see something with enough confidence to declare that it's potentially significant (there may be tigers!) will take a lot of time and effort, during which time you're not moving fast. And you'll have an awful lot of false positives.

And then (rangers and druids aside) you're hacking your way through the jungle making an incredible racket and trying to avoid the leech-infested swamps and nests of fire ants while trying to not get lost and searching assiduously for signs of the cultists you're actually after, when a python drops on your head.

Or you're hiking through the northern forests, You know the wolves are out there; you've seen tracks in the snow. You've heard them. You've had glimpses of yellow eyes in the trees. They've been following you for hours. Are you going to waste time and resources chasing them off, before you have to stop to camp? It's getting dark.

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To make animals threatening they need to be able to attack intelligently. The problem is by definition animals have 2 or less intelligence. This means they really can’t attack intelligently on their own. The solution is to have them be controlled by something. A druid or other nature based spell caster is the obvious controller. A pack of wolves by themselves is probably not a threat to most PC’s, but a pack of wolves controlled by a druid is another story.

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You can support them with the environment being more threatening. Use substantial natural events to force the players into a type of environment well suited to the animals in them, and restrict visibility enough that they can't as easily be neutralized or avoided. A storm could force players out of the air, a lava flow could force them off the ground, flooding could force them underwater, that sort of thing.

That only stretches them a little bit further though, as environmental threats can be neutralized as well.

And no matter what you do, a sorcerer with an infernal bloodline familiar is completely immune to unassisted animals from level 1.

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Mysterious Stranger wrote:
To make animals threatening they need to be able to attack intelligently. The problem is by definition animals have 2 or less intelligence. This means they really can’t attack intelligently on their own. The solution is to have them be controlled by something. A druid or other nature based spell caster is the obvious controller. A pack of wolves by themselves is probably not a threat to most PC’s, but a pack of wolves controlled by a druid is another story.

That's the idea I had in my last post, except that there the idea is to do it with no magic whatsoever (although the Natural Philosopher Investigator would still have plenty of self-only use for Extracts for self-patching, self-buffing, and disguise/reconnaissance/stealth). This means leaving no magical traces.

Grand Lodge

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Most animals have respectable wisdom. They should learn from their failures. They will test a new prey cautiously. Wolfs would follow the party for days. Harrassing them at night. Wait for a single player to leave the group.

Silver Crusade

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Give them the owlcat treatment. double their bab lol.

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Remember that RAW and Narrative can be 2 different things. It sounds spooky that a pack of wolves are harrying the PCs all day, seeming to surround them as dusk settles across the snow-scattered woods. The game-impact though is that, depending on the density of the Forest terrain, Perception distance is between 20' to 180' and much of that terrain is going to be considered Difficult Terrain for both parties.

Weather could be a factor, as would be light in this scenario. Could be that, if the wolves can use Stealth to get to within 30' they can use Scent to ignore the need for Perception checks while the party is still "blind" to their presence. Then again, if the narrative has already established the characters can see the bestial faces glaring at them, this can probably be ignored.

Do you want to add a flash lava flood in the middle of a hurricane? Ok, but those leaping magma flows are going to wreak havoc on the wolves just the same as they do the PCs. Same goes for sinkholes, bolts of errant lightning, steam geysers, stands of shriekers and other mundane, natural hazards.

Finally, let's look at animals themselves. Why would a pack of wolves surround four PCs. They've got to be REALLY hungry or infected with disease to do so without the influence of some unnatural force. If they're starving, how come all their tracks were obscured by a herd of deer passing through their woodland? If theres a disease, did the GM foreshadow that in any way, like a rotting carcass or anything?

Point is: stuff doesn't happen in a vacuum and whatever environmental or cultural tweaks you add to make your animal encounter more scary may have a direct, obvious effect on said animals. You're using Forest terrain and Snow precipitation in the weather? Ok... how many squares are Difficult Terrain, and are any of those between the wolves and the party? If so, depending on the initiatives, some or all of the wolves may not even reach the party before the characters' ranged attacks put them down.

If the wolves are suffering a disease like rabies but the characters saw signs of this earlier, they may have taken precautions. Heck, just tossing a knotted rope tied to a grappling hook up into a sturdy tree could be enough to ensure the characters have enough time and distance to just use bows and slings to rid themselves of the threat.

The last thing that keeps animal encounters from being scary is the players themselves. 4 noob players that don't know PF1 may be ill prepared for wave after wave of animal attacks. A handful of veteran players however that understand when to use Run actions, how to utilize Cover, planned out ranged as well as melee attacks, and most importantly took the time to research the wilderness they were wandering into in the first place will be that much harder to affect with your encounters.

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Love it. I can easily see a Tucker's kobolds scenario with a large pack of wolves.

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A few thoughts, and sorry if any redundancies.

Firstly, consider subbing out some of the animals pre-set feats. There are plenty of combat feats that make sense for animals to utilize, especially apex predators, herd leaders, and animals that fill the protector/sentry role for their species. The more you know about an animal in the real world, the more you can hunt for feats or traits or maneuvers to add that reflect animals' special abilities and hunting tactics.

To that last point, I will also second those who mentioned looking into the more "natural" of the magical beasts. And with that, also keep in mind that the "intelligence" we attribute to or observe in animals in the real world can more accurately be reflected by the wisdom stat in game. Instincts, pack hunting, tricks and tool usage can all be covered under the "intelligence" of wisdom. Intelligence in the game is more about book learning, communication, and "higher" reasoning skills.

Also in favor of adding templates. I don't know all of the proper names, but things like dire, greater, enlarged, primordial, legendary, and others can all supe up an animal without losing the idea of "Nature is P!$$3D".

Last bit, my group recently dabbled with the called shots mechanics. Now, we may have been a bit fast and loose with this, but I think we kept pretty close to the RAI if not the RAW. There are all sorts of bonuses and penalties you can gain/inflict when you start determining exactly where a hit took place. Thinking of big cats in particular; tigers have a special sensory gland that helps them lock in on the major blood vessels of their prey (when they go for the throat, they sever the artery and bleed their prey out almost instantly), lions I believe go for the spine bite at the back of the throat to paralyze/kill their prey, and leopards crush the airway if I remember correctly. The point is, all go for the throat, but accomplish their kill shots by affecting different systems. So too, with wolves bleeding and hamstringing their prey, etc. etc. You start having your animals capitalize on what they are built to do, they become a lot more scary.

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Just musing on the wolves. Add werewolves and worgs to the pack as well as class levels. I think you could soon setup a terrifying series of encounters. A high level worg sorcerer BBEG running a super pack of wolves, dire wolves, worgs and lycanthropes should terrify any mid-level party

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^If you're going to add teh supernatural to the natural, that's certainly a strong (even if obvious) candidate.

Of course, nothing says that Nature's mayhem all has to be centrally coordinated -- Worgs/Werewolves could be stirring up wolf packs, but then working independently, a crazed Natural Philosopher could also be stirring up trouble with other things. Of course, if they got an inkling of each other's presence, nothing fundamental says that they couldn't take advantage of and even quietly facilitate each other's mayhem. And of course, as I can attest repeatedly from experience at work here on Earth, when you have to diagnose multiple things(*) that are wrong the trouble is far harder to diagnose than the sum of its parts.

(*)Of course, I have ended up having to deal with well over just 2 things wrong at the same time. So let's hit the players with more of Nature's Rabble-Rousers.

Grand Lodge

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I think the players would find it scary if one of them woke up in the middle of the night because a big snake is crawling in under the blanket for warmth...
Or if nature is acting weird.
Like if all animals/birdlife ect. is starring at the players whenever they sees them. Or if all the town cats are following the players around at a distance.

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I'm suddenly reminded of Hitchcock's Birds movie.

I think where I'm ending up at, is the animals can be made scary by having them behave unnaturally. Rather than having them engage, they shadow and funnel the party as they move and disturb their rest when they stop.

Tension will build, not only because of the foreboding (which some players ignore- they just want the next encounter) but because of the mechanical resource drain; spells cannot be recovered and characters are fatigued and/or exhausted. The players will be worried about what's coming next whilst they are unprepared.

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Hugo Rune wrote:

I'm suddenly reminded of Hitchcock's Birds movie.

I think where I'm ending up at, is the animals can be made scary by having them behave unnaturally. Rather than having them engage, they shadow and funnel the party as they move and disturb their rest when they stop.

Tension will build, not only because of the foreboding (which some players ignore- they just want the next encounter) but because of the mechanical resource drain; spells cannot be recovered and characters are fatigued and/or exhausted. The players will be worried about what's coming next whilst they are unprepared.

One of my college classmates told me stories about camping trips in the California wilderness in which bears would actually do this. And would keep going after the party's food supply. No word on the effect on spell recovery, but that probably has something to do with Earth's Antimagic Field . . . .

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