More than most genres, a good horror story requires a good villain. With that in mind, here are five horror archetypes to use in your campaign.
The Creepy Child
There is something truly unnerving when you take the innocence of a small child an juxtapose it with a malign intelligence. A creepy child has knowledge beyond her years and usually manipulates the adults around her with terrifying ease. A creepy child doesn’t always have to be evil, but should never be truly good either.
A good role for a creepy child is to dispense information. Having psychic or oracular powers is plays to the child’s role as an innocent who knows to much. Alternatively, an immortal child, like a vampire, might know too much just because they have been around for a long time.
A creepy child can also be used as the main villain of the piece. If used as the main villain, it is probably best wait until the climax to reveal the child as the villain. Give the players plenty of time to interact with the child first, in order to maximize the shock and horror when they realize the child is not as innocent as they believed.
A creepy child works well alone, but they can be used effectively as minions of a “boss monster”. Imagine a malignant gnome who lures children into the woods and removes their souls. During the final confrontation he could call his children to defend him, leaving the heroes in the uncomfortable position of having to mow down children to get to the real threat.
Dungeons & Dragons is filled with monsters that make good creepy children. Child vampires, doppelgangers, fey changelings, and demonic possession are only a few examples. On the other hand, keeping the reasons for the child’s behavior a mystery can be effective as well.
The Handsome Fiend
Beautiful and charming on the outside, the handsome fiend has a soul as black as pitch. Vampires are the quintessential handsome fiends, but demons in human form, doppelgangers, and beautiful unseelie fey all can all play this part.
A handsome fiend should be a charmer, quite possibly literally capable of putting others under his spell. Unlike many monsters, the victims of handsome fiends often give themselves over him willingly.
A handsome fiend is usually intelligent. He is unlikely to risk his life in a pointless combat. Conflict with a handsome fiend usually comes when the heroes run afoul with one of the handsome fiend’s plots. Even then, they are much more likely to attack the heroes with pawns, especially in the early battles.
Sometimes handsome fiends can can be a bit too overconfident though. They are used to getting their way and are not used to the kind of persistence seen in the average adventuring group.
To truly play up the horror factor of a handsome fiend, it is important to emphasize just how vile the handsome fiend really is. They must perform depraved acts that are totally at odds with their beautiful exterior.
This should not be a character that the players feel they can compromise with. Maybe he is a vampire who feeds exclusively on young children. Maybe he is a fey lord who enjoys seducing young women and driving them to suicide for his own amusement. He may even be stuck in a cycle of betrayal like Strahd, where he is forced to relive his depraved crimes again and again.
The Sympathetic Monster
The sympathetic monster was not born evil, but was driven to it by unfortunate circumstances or by simple bad luck. There should be a sense that if things had gone just a little bit differently that a great tragedy could have been averted.
Frankenstein is the quintessential sympathetic monster. As a result, golems, warforged, and other constructs work well in this role. Lycanthropes also are good choices, since they may be decent people who have succumbed to the beast within.
Of course a sympathetic monster doesn’t need to be inhuman. A great warlord who is a great hero to his people but makes dark bargains with infernal creatures to “protect” his homeland can fall into this archetype as well.
To make the sympathetic monster effective in a horror campaign, he must cross the point of no return. While your players may empathize with the monster, at some point the monster should make a choice that puts him beyond redemption. In Frankenstein, this point was when the monster chose to murder Victor Frankenstein’s fiancée. In the module Ravenloft, Strahd can be seen as sympathetic until he chose to murder his brother Sergei out of his obsessive desire for Tatyana.
The Monster Within
Most monsters are an external threat. The monster within is an internal one. Unknown to even the character (and quite possibly the player), he is actually the villain of the piece. This is a lot like the Sympathetic Monster, except the monster within brings the horror home.
Good candidates for the monster within include lycanthropes (if you still use the infected variety), possession (demons, ghosts, and the occasional evil wizard), or even a psychotic break (perhaps after exposure to an evil artifact or Lovecraftian horror).
The monster within works best when the clues slowly pile up until the truth becomes undeniable. Done well, this archetype can bring the horror to a very personal level.
While all horror requires buy in from your players, make sure that you don’t pull this one on someone who would feel their character has been violated beyond redemption. Of course you can always work with your player to spring this archetype on the other members of the group.
After all, some twisted players would enjoy playing a demon possessed Elven wizard or a Halfling lycanthrope.
The Unstoppable Killer
Undead, from lowly skeletons and zombies to hate-filled ghosts fill this role well. Golems also make natural unstoppable killers. Unlike most of its kind, the unstoppable killer usually has some kind of regenerative capabilities that keep them from being easily dispatched.
Perhaps the skeletons the party is fighting continue reform until an evil artifact within the room is destroyed. Maybe a vengeful ghost will inevitably reform until her killer is brought to justice. Sometimes the golem will not fall dead, no matter how many hit points of damage the party inflicts, until the word Emet is changed to Meit on it’s forehead.
While they are tenacious, unstoppable killers are rarely great plotters. The puzzle should come from figuring out how to finally put them down once and for all.