It's October, and Halloween is getting closer, so when I think about D&D I think a little more about horror elements than I usually do.
Scarecrows have been D&D monsters for quite a long time - since the beginning, really. I've only been playing since 3rd edition, but the internet tells me that the scarecrow goes all the way back to the 1e Fiend Folio.The common themes behind all versions of the scarecrow are that it's a form of construct made of straw, and that its purpose is to scare in order to protect something. In real life that something is crops, and the scarecrow is scaring off birds (like crows) by making them think a human is present.
But looking at 4e's scarecrows, they don't really sell the horror for me. I've come up with a different approach that I think makes them much scarier.
4e has three versions of the scarecrow. Each of these has immunity to disease, poison, and sleep, and has a vulnerability to fire. Here's a quick summary of each:
- the Shambler: a level 10 minion that whacks things, but more interestingly, creates a zone of toxic straw when killed.
- the Haunter: a level 13 lurker with some fear-based control abilities, a damage bonus against creatures that can't see it, and the Fluttering Straw ability that turns it invisible and insubstantial (so it's kind of a ghost scarecrow)
- the Guardian: a level 13 soldier that draws attention to itself with marks, can halve the damage it takes once per round, and also has some fear-based control.
So these are pretty cool. The Haunter and Guardian do a good job of bringing in the fear elements of the scarecrow and can be quite annoying, with abilities that immobilize and move their enemies.
What disappoints me a little bit, though, is the relative lack of emphasis on the scarecrow's material: straw. To approach the scarecrow from a slightly different angle, think of it more like a sand golem or a swarm: it's a somewhat insubstantial body made of many small pieces, such that it's very difficult to damage the whole. As I was thinking about scarecrows on the way to work, an idea occurred to me that might make scarecrows really scary in combat: what if they tried to suffocate you by stuffing straw down your throat?
Here's my rendition of a scarecrow. I made it level 10 and followed the basic 4e scarecrow template, but I also gave it fear immunity because fear is a scarecrow's weapon, not a potential weakness. You could use it at a lower level but even scaled down it might be too much for lower level characters to handle.
I wanted to put a lot more emphasis on the combat effects of having a body made of straw. If you've ever made or lifted a scarecrow, you know that they aren't very heavy. With that in mind I'm kind of wondering how D&D scarecrows deal damage by whacking people. Some of them attack with claws, so I guess that works, but I mean... hitting someone with a scarecrow is like hitting them with a pillow. There's not really any substance there.
This scarecrow deals no damage with its basic attack. Instead, it grabs you and then tries to stuff straw down your throat. Damage comes from suffocation and choking, not from a direct assault. To me this is a really scary image and really gives the scarecrow more of a horror feel, especially when this suffocation damage sticks better than normal ongoing damage - you can only stop it by spending a turn coughing the straw out of your lungs. If you read the "special" entry on the Stuff attack, you'll note that enemies killed by straw suffocation rise as scarecrow minions (the Skinny Scarecrow stat block just below the main one). The minions represent newly formed scarecrows that don't have the full range of abilities yet - all they do is grab and hold things for the "adult" scarecrows to stuff. So not only do you get that horrific image of an evil scarecrow stuffing straw down your throat and the relentless fear of suffocation, you also turn into a scarecrow if one kills you!
While we're on the topic of that horror feel, this scarecrow is also much more resilient to damage: its Straw Body halves damage from melee and ranged attacks. 4e doesn't make a distinction between different weapon damage types so it resists all melee attacks, but if there was differentiation I'd have it take slashing damage normally. Anyway, this resilience combined with its high HP total make it a very tough monster to deal with - which is why it also has a major weakness.
4e's scarecrows have a fire vulnerability, but I don't think a simple vulnerability really captures just how flammable dry straw is. As soon as this scarecrow takes fire damage it lights up and won't stop burning until it dies, which gives the players a very reliable way to take them out once the weakness is discovered. But since the scarecrow doesn't burn up instantly, well, now you're fighting a scarecrow that's on fire! Its flaming body adds fire damage to its attacks, so the grab and stuff attacks become even more dangerous.
You might have also noticed the Strawburst and Refill powers. When the scarecrow dies it bursts, and the straw fragments float in the air until the fight ends, obscuring vision. However, other scarecrows can grab this floating straw and stuff it into their own bodies to replenish their supply, which heals them.
And of course I needed to have some fear effects on here because these are still scarecrows, so there's a fear aura and a gaze that sends enemies running (temporarily at least).
Now, how would you go about using these scarecrows in an adventure? I'd recommend a slow buildup to gradually ratchet up the tension. While the players are on an unrelated adventure in a village somewhere, they occasionally overhear conversations about farmers' scarecrows that went missing and reappeared later. Well that's weird, they must have been seeing things.
Then the players start to hear about the disappearances. At first no one's really worried - kids and drunks sometimes run off for a while, but they always come back. But after a couple of days when the missing people haven't come back, the townsfolk start to get nervous. Some of them have even seen some shady characters hanging around - somewhat lumpy and misshapen, wearing wide-brimmed hats and sticking to the shadows, and fleeing if confronted.
The players should encounter only one or two scarecrows to start. Really play up how tough they are and make sure that at least one PC feels the effects of the Stuff attack during combat. If they're having a really hard time, a monster knowledge or intelligence check can reveal the weakness to fire.
After this encounter resolves, the party discovers that most of the townsfolk went missing overnight. The scarecrows are building an army. Have the scarecrows wear the same clothes the missing townsfolk were wearing and see if your party can put two and two together. To push the transformation for even more creepy points, maybe the scarecrows' burlap-sack faces are identifiable caricatures of the scarecrows' victims.
So those are my thoughts on making scarecrows scarier. I'd love to hear what you think!