U is for Umber Hulk, Lying in Wait

Today I really wanted to talk about the Friendship is Magic session during Delve Night, where we pitted the players against the show’s heroes, including unicorns, to disable a magical ritual that hurt anybody without friends. But on reflection, I didn’t design that session. I helped with some of it, but I really just took somebody else’s custom monsters and used them. And if I can’t talk about how I used unicorns, I have to talk about the only other U creature anybody can name.

Umber hulks are another creature proprietary to D&D. They’re something like a gorilla covered in chitin with the face of a beetle. They live underground, they burrow, and they’re pretty good at grabbing things and either eating them to death or absconding with them. Their signature ability is a gaze attack that confuses enemies, often baffling them into attacking themselves or each other. Depending on your edition they’re either somewhat clever or startlingly intelligent, and they’re better at guerilla tactics than one might expect from a cave-dwelling bug.

I just realized they use guerrilla tactics and look like gorillas. There is no need to comment about it.

I’ve always liked the look of the umber hulk, but I’ve never found a good opportunity to use them as written. My main problem is the very hit-or-miss confusing gaze. When it hits, players lose their actions bumbling around like fools, which isn’t fun for them. When it misses, the umber hulk loses most of what keeps it from being a boring claw-claw-bite monster like a dozen others at its CR, and that’s not fun for me. The things that make them fun are the things the book trusts the DM to come up with: its lair, its tactics, its priorities, and the way it moves across the battlefield. The good news is that you could take out the gaze and use the remaining stats for any burrowing creature (take a drink), but the bad news is they’re still a lot more work than other creatures are, and a lot of its fluff is also hit-or-miss depending on how the players react.

Instead I went the other way, using the concept of the umber hulk instead of its stats. I used that idea for bosses in two campaigns, both large insectoid creatures who lurked in shadows and had weird, confusing lairs. One passed through walls, grabbed characters, and carted them off, and a significant portion of the fight was trying to save the ranger’s animal companion from its clutches. The other was a Zelda boss, so it didn’t do much until its final battle but I peppered the dungeon with foreshadowing about it, and it was completely immune to damage from everything but environmental effects so the players had to engage it in a set piece instead. The large, crafty monster who attacks from ambush is a fine idea to strike terror in players’ hearts, and if anything the umber hulk’s stats detracted from it, so I made my own. And I got to use my huge umber hulk miniature even though the umber hulk is normally large, so that’s a bonus.

I think Wizards understood some of the issues with the umber hulk given the options they presented for it. I recall one book recommending that DMs give monsters class levels to mix things up, and the example they used was an umber hulk druid. The players would approach it expecting a straightforward fight, then it would cast flame strike and the players would rethink their lives. My first thought when I read that was “that takes seven levels of druid, which isn’t a good fit for the umber hulk’s skills and abilities”, but my second was “that’s a neat idea.” The under-appreciated Enemies and Allies splatbook also had Blind Jak, a traveling umber hulk monk who wore a blindfold so he wouldn’t confuse his allies. Neither of these really works with the flavor of an umber hulk, but I appreciate it when the designers try to make a monster more interesting than it deserves.

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T is for Tyrannosaurus the Great

T was surprisingly difficult, though not for lack of options. My players fought a tojanida while riding on its back, but that was more of a set piece, and that’s a different topic. They’ve fought several titans, but of the “_____ titan” varieties, not the vanilla Monster Manual titan. They fought the tarrasque, but it’s surprisingly underpowered in 4E. We wrote our own version of the troglodyte for the 4E version of Savage Species we never finished, but we didn’t play it. Trolls, treants, tigers, tieflings, thri-kreen, these all made it into campaigns, but I didn’t do anything interesting with them. The only T creature I’ve spun to my satisfaction wasn’t a fight at all. It was window dressing.

A tyrannosaurus is a one-trick pony, even more than the hezrou. It approaches a target, it bites them, it grapples, it swallows, GOTO 10. The specifics of that strategy depend on who you ask; Pathfinder uses a larger tyrannosaurus with significantly higher damage, AC, and Perception but fewer hit points and an easier-to-escape stomach than D&D’s version. Neither book spends any time describing the creature because there’s nothing to say. If you don’t know what a tyrannosaurus is, you’re probably not interested in the stats for dinosaurs.

Truth be told, I don’t really like the tyrannosaurus. It’s normally too blunt for me, and I have a hard time having a dinosaur show up like a villain airlifted one in. I’m more likely to reskin it as anything with a single huge attack, especially one that can incapacitate a player for a while (take a drink). But for various reasons my players have fought several tyrannosauruses over the years. They sit at a good CR for me, at a level where the party is powerful but not “scry, teleport, coup de grâce” powerful. They’re easy to run and they usually strike fear in players’ hearts. The first huge-sized miniature I ever got was a fiendish tyrannosaurus, and I lean toward monsters I can represent on a table. And a tyrannosaur was responsible for one of my early player deaths, when he decided to climb down the creature’s throat to attack it from the inside but did not count on taking bite damage every round while the dinosaur was perfectly happy swallowing at its own pace, thank you very much. I do like monsters with player history attached.

But all of those were blunt applications for a blunt object. You don’t get to take credit for innovation by using a tool as intended. Rather, the instance I’m proud of happened in the first Eight Arms campaign, which took place mostly in the party’s home city. That city had a park, and inside that park lived a druid nicknamed Crazy Eddie. He was a legal resident of the city and by law technically could not be forced to vacate the park due to outstanding statutes only he remembered. He stood against modernization and wanted to preserve the last bit of relatively natural land in and around the city. Normally nobody would care, but in Pathfinder druids could have a tyrannosaurus as their animal companion, and as it turns out a giant dinosaur is an excellent deterrent to crime and government overreach.

Animal companion tyrannosauruses can normally only grow to large size, but I could not bring myself to care. In Pathfinder tyrannosauruses are normally gargantuan, so if they can be both size categories, they can also be the one in between. This let me use my mini again, so everybody was happy.

The players loved Crazy Eddie and his companion, and I think that’s mostly because he hated dealing with their characters and my players make an effort to inject frustration and entropy into every social system they come across. He and his tyrannosaurus made an appearance in the final city-wide battle, effectively defending the park from invaders by themselves, and the next time we have a campaign set in that city I’m going out of my way to make sure he shows up. Whether he is an ally or an enemy will depend on what the campaign is about and how likely the party is to be scared of a dinosaur in combat.

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S is for Stymphalidies, the End

Yesterday I talked about a creature I intended as the campaign villain from his first appearance. Today’s monster, not so much.

A stymphalidies is a large, carnivorous bird with beaks and feathers as sharp as metal. They’re based on the almost-identically-spelled stymphalides of Greek myth, who were the subject of the sixth labor of Hercules and maybe also met the Argonauts depending on whose translation you read. The Pathfinder version of the creature retains the ability to hurl its feathers and can also blind its enemies by reflecting torchlight at them like a middle-schooler with a wristwatch. They’re kind of like a flying bulette with lower offense and higher defense and ranged capability.

I hit my players with one during The Eight Arms and the Memento Mori, which was supposed to be our monster-hunting campaign. The campaign villain could control monsters through magic and song, and his mount of choice was a stymphalidies. I described it to the players as a shiny gold chocobo, and they not only understood both how it looked but also why it was a good choice for a character in an ocean-based campaign. The bird accompanied the villain everywhere, even waiting outside cafes during lunchtime. I intended it to serve as a deterrent in case the party tried to attack the villain before the campaign could come to a satisfying conclusion. Instead they befriended the villain and tried to seek a middle ground, talking him down from revolution while working to set him up with his own country.

When the plans to develop a sovereign state fell through, the villain decided to commit to war, commanding legions of sea monsters to devastate every coastal city he could. The party decided he had to be taken out, and they snuck into his house and killed him in his sleep. Not only was this incredibly unsatisfying for me as a DM, it ended the campaign on a down note in the middle of our scheduled session time, so I did the only thing that made sense and had the stymphalidies wake up and attack.

What followed was the most unexpected final boss I’ve ever run, and as you’ll recall from earlier in this month, I once designed a final boss during the fight that came immediately before it. The stymphalidies proved startlingly effective, blinding the party and tearing it apart with more attacks per round than was fair. Its mobility didn’t matter since the party’s main source of damage was an actual cannon, but its defensive skills worked wonders. There was a brief moment when I felt the players legitimately wondered whether they would win without casualties, and that’s half of what I want out of a final fight anyway. The other half is a fulfilling end to a story arc, and we lacked that, but if I had known where we were going I probably could have made it work too. Technically, any creature can be a climax if you sell it appropriately. I mean, your average player wouldn’t expect a chimera to be a final boss battle, but there you go.

I have a slow, ongoing project to get miniatures made of the final bosses from all of my campaigns. Somewhere alone the line, somebody is going to see this one and ask “What’s up with this bird? Was it like a chocobo wizard or something?” And I’ll say “Nope, dumb as a hammer. Funny story…”

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R’s for Rakshasa, a Foe and a Friend

Is this really the first monster with the accent on the second syllable? Cripes.

Every once in a while I like going back through books of monsters and wondering why I’ve never used certain creatures. Often the answer is something obvious, but every once in a while I stumble upon a gem for which I just hadn’t found the right setting. Today’s creature was in the first Monster Manual I ever picked up, and I rejected them because I thought they were weird and poorly-designed. I still think that. But the Pathfinder version fixed some of its problems, and I found it just in time to use it.

Rakshasas in D&D are inspired by, but seem to have nothing to do with, the creatures from Hindu mythology. In D&D they are tiger-headed humanoids with backward-facing hands and magical powers. They are evil, and you are now fully caught up on the culture and backstory of rakshasas as a race according to the 3E Monster Manual. 4E added that they can have other feline heads and they like nobility and finery, Pathfinder let them have any animal head and made them anti-religious, and the Bestiary 3 finally gave them an inkling of background by making the original rakshasas just one of a race called “rakshasas” for maximum confusion.

I want to come back to the 3E rakshasa to give you an idea of just how terrible a creature this was. When I said their culture was sparse, I wasn’t kidding. Here is the full text of the rakshasa’s entry after taking out their height, weight, language, and the description of their hands:

Some say rakshasas are the very embodiment of evil. Few beings are more malevolent.

I would say this is the worst sort of Saturday morning cartoon villainy, but even Skeletor had a backstory. Rakshasas are as boring as monsters come, and they’re no better in combat. Their physical ability scores are terrible, and their attack, damage, AC, and hit points are nowhere near what their CR warrants. All they have going for them offensively is the casting power of a 7th-level sorcerer, somewhat underwhelming to the 10th-level players who usually fight them. But it’s their defenses that make them shine like a ball of polished mud. They have ludicrously high damage reduction that can only be bypassed by a weapon both good and piercing, and their spell resistance lets them ignore some eighty percent of the spells cast at them. Fighting them is a slog without value, where either you have the perfect solution that can end them in one or two rounds (a holy pick or a spell that ignores SR) or you beat your head against them for a while as under-leveled magic plinks off you. It’s just bad.

I completely ignored the rakshasa for ten years, because that’s what it deserved. The Pathfinder version fixes a lot of these problems, mostly because Pathfinder was designed with some concept of appropriate statistics by CR. But also because they finally defined what rakshasas want to do in the world: corrupt society from within. I ran across them when I was building The Eight Arms and the Empire of Sin, where one of the major themes was “at what point does a society’s evil condemn it?”* And rakshasas have always had the ability to disguise themselves as a PC race to walk among them and act without hassle, so I had everything I needed.

In true rakshasa fashion, the players didn’t know they were dealing with one until the end of the campaign. He had set the wheels of the campaign in motion, convincing up a specific king to overextend himself and waiting for somebody to have a problem with it so he could set himself up as a leader once the king fell. He helped the party throughout the campaign, giving them information and connections when they needed them, and in the end he picked up the pieces. I did specifically want to avoid the “you have served me well, now you must die!” trope that always seems to knock villains off their pedestal, and once the rakshasa had power he gave the party and their guild cushy positions in his new order. I was mentally prepared for them to fight him anyway, but they shrugged and figured he was fine as long as he wasn’t actively hurting anybody (except for the paladin, who stormed off).

This is how a rakshasa should be used, not as a creature to actually fight but as a manipulator in the background. They’re not built for anything but surviving to fight another day, and that’s how their defenses and spells should be used, as escape mechanisms. There’s no fighting a rakshasa, only backing it into the corner like a feral cat.

Oh, feral cat, feline heads, I just got it.

* — This theme may be news to my players. But consider that the first act was about fighting the qlippoth, who wanted to fight the campaign villain’s evil acts but mind-controlled everybody to do it. The second act was about defending a sinful society, but by destroying the manifestations of that sin come to exact punishment. The third was about overthrowing a formerly-immoral kingdom that found religion and wanted to forcefully spread the word of good, but did it by killing anybody who opposed them. And the story ended with a rakshasa in charge of that kingdom intending to turn it into an even more debauched civilization than before, but in a benign way that caused no direct harm to its neighbors, and the party accepted it. I figured if my players want to kill angels, I might as well give the angels a reason to throw the first punch.

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Q is for Qlippoth; I Guess They’re from Space

I never understood the fascination with Lovecraft. I assume it’s because I’m an escapist who loves happy endings and triumphing over evil, and the Lovecraft mythos is about creatures so alien and powerful that to merely look upon them is to collapse the scaffolding of our ephemeral sanity, scattering our concepts of morality, strength, and even space like roaches in the light. Also, he was more than a little racist. But if yesterday’s post was any indication, I’m not above stealing the bits I like from something while ignoring the rest, and I can get some mileage out of Cthulhoid creatures.

Qlippoth are a race of outsiders in Pathfinder, like angels or demons. They existed before creatures who existed before time, they probably come from the most vast reaches of the Great Beyond, and they all have horrific appearance traits that inflict status ailments. Though their Bestiary 2 entry doesn’t mention the Great Old Ones, and the Bestiary 3 entry for the Great Old Ones doesn’t mention the qlippoth, their Lovecraftian influence is clear. They share no physical features and there’s no indication that they work together in any way. They have no culture besides “hurt things.” They’re D&D monsters in their purest form, bundles of dangerous abilities and little worldview or coherence, enemies of the sort only a fool would try to reason with.

The one thing that makes them significantly different from a typical Lovecraft creature is that they do, as a race, have one goal: they want to abolish sin. Originally they lived on the Abyss, and when the demons started rising from evil and taking over, the qlippoth figured out sin was the root cause of their woes. One might assume they would be militantly good, but a nuanced villain doesn’t suit the game’s intended narrative. No, instead the qlippoth reasoned that as sin was the root cause of demons, mortal life was the root cause of sin, so they want to destroy all mortals. Especially humanoids. Especially children and pregnant women, because if you’re going to kick a puppy you might as well go for a field goal. I hesitate to call them the result of lazy design, but they’re definitely the result of a lazy gaming culture.

Luckily, The Eight Arms and the Empire of Sin was about sin, so I had a chance to do something interesting with them instead of just slapping a crazy cult together and going on lunch break. The two lowest-level qlippoth are a sort of spore that infects tiny creatures and a squid thing that uses mind control. Their CRs were perfect for the party to fight several of the former and deal with the latter as a boss, so I built the first act of the campaign around them as a red herring villain. I went full horror with it; the books only provide the stats for a tiny infected creature, but there’s nothing in the monster entry to suggest there’s a size limit on what the spore can control. By the time the campaign started, a good portion of a major town had already been infected or dominated, and in the early sessions the players slowly learned just how far the spores had spread. It culminated in a battle against the squid and a hasty retreat as the infected townsfolk attacked the party, but after the spores died off the party received a hero’s welcome.

This as I understand it is how Lovecraftian horror should work, that growing sense of unease and otherness building to a point from which the protagonist cannot recover, spurred on by a gradual discovery about the true nature of things. D&D and Pathfinder have little patience for that, but I am very dumb and I tried to make it work. I’d say it went alright; I didn’t give any players nightmares, though I hit them hard enough for them to fear for themselves and others. I do think I about peaked the entertainment value of the qlippoth. I don’t see them as a campaign villain or even much of a recurring threat. They’re more about a brief moment of shock, maybe after a bit of buildup, and a battle. No matter how alien or special they’re supposed to be, they’re exactly like every other uninspired creature, and that’s the real sin.

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