The scariest thing in the dungeon is the artwork
There’s something that I’ve noticed, here and there, and finally had it confirmed. Every time I mention that there’s a statue, or a decorative gargoyle, or something of that sort, there’s a noticeable twitch that goes through a couple of the players. Seriously, I don’t get that kind of flinch when I say there’s an actual monster standing in the middle of the room, brandishing a club and drooling acidic spittle. I just thought it was funny, but just the other day, Jed’s player started asking me questions about the wizard’s job and how to perform it. One product of that conversation was the idea of investing in the Hidden Lore skill. I was surprised when he mentioned “Constructs” as his area of focus. When I inquired, he mentioned the animated stone dwarves from the old storeroom by name, but he also expressed a concern about not-really-statues coming to life.
I can only assume that some GM in the past just abused ’em with that trick. I don’t believe I’ve ever pulled it on them. Not in this campaign, anyway. The animated goblin statue that gives directions didn’t really conceal its animated nature. Neither did the stone dwarves.
Or, maybe it’s just a question of how scary such a thing could be. Realistically, big stone or metal statues could be justified in having tremendous strength and durability, and they can be just about as big as you care to make ’em. I wouldn’t want to try to damage a marble statue with a sword, that’s for sure. It’s been a long time since I read any of the Conan stories, and I can’t track down the name of the story I’m thinking of, but the way I remember it, the only time that Conan seemed to fail a Fright Check was when an evil priest called upon his god to animate the giant statue of the god in its temple. When a fifty-foot tall jackal-headed stone statue stands up and stretches, even the Original Barbarian is at a loss.
As far as Jed picking up the skills goes, I would say, if it’s just for the sake of those particular animated statues, it’s not worth it. Regular ol’ Research can turn up information about those guys. Hidden Lore is for when you’ve just bumped into it down in the depths and you need to know now if it’s a horrible man-eating beast or a fluffy puppy. With tentacles.
Now, as far as the “never turn your back on a statue” thing: It won’t ever work if the PCs never turn their back on a statue. The only way to ever have it come off, even once, is if the dungeon really does have a bunch of statues to hide among.
And I mean that in a couple of different ways. First, literally, the fake statue needs to be hidden in among regular statues, or there needs to be some other source of distraction. If the party busts into a room and find that it’s bare aside from the big bronze warrior on a pedestal, they’re going to assign somebody to keep an eye on it just from general principles, just like they (now) have a person watching the ceiling* as they travel. I’m not saying they couldn’t stumble across such a set-up, I’m just saying, the ambush part isn’t going to work. Maybe if there’s a carnival on the other side of the room, or something.
Second, there needs to be a scattering of statues around the whole place. Otherwise, when the party opens the door and finds dozens of statues scattered around a room, they’ll just slam the door shut and back away muttering “Nope nope nope nope nope”. If you’re planning on jumping out and surprising somebody, you shouldn’t try to hide behind the only bush within a ten mile radius. Luckily, when I start listing off instances of treasure, “artwork and statuary” are near the top of the list. They’re scattered all over the place. Some are decorative, some are meant to be treasure…
… and who knows? Maybe a couple of them are just lying in wait, looking for the third or fourth time the party passes by, in a hurry, not paying close attention…
* Granted, in their usual marching order, that “someone” is TKotBO, who often needs a pat on the shoulder to know when to turn, in some of the darker hallways. Sometimes, I think the bravest person in the party is Needles, because he’s the one sneaking along just past the edge of the torchlight, in the pitch black darkness, keeping a firm watch on the floor to avoid pit traps… while TKotBO keeps one whole eye out for anything that might jump on his back.