B is for Brains, Who Walk, Still Alive

When I started on the list of monsters for this month, I expected to hit snags on certain letters. I had ideas for Q and X, but J? Y? I anticipating having trouble with the smaller sets of monsters. I did not expect to have trouble with B. It is with some regret that I admit I have never had my players fight a baleen whale. I ended up going through several monster manuals before I realized I was thinking too specifically. My players have never dealt with a brain ooze or a brain golem specifically, but they have fought a lot of brains.

Brains appear a surprisingly high amount as D&D monsters. I’ve never seen a heart crawling around on tendrils, or a monster who eats hands, or a spell that swaps hair, but brains can do all this and more. I think it’s all about impressions. If you don’t know anything about biology, you might believe a brain could remain functional outside of a body, and it makes some sense that such a brain might still have a will the way other organs can’t. A brain in a jar is an immobile but probably brilliant and crafty enemy. A hand in a jar is a science project that gets you on a watch list.

In that context, my players actually have encountered several brains, and some of them occurred outside their enemies. The first birthday session I ever celebrated involved pitting the players against video game villains, and the role of Mother Brain was played by a brain in a jar on the top of a clockwork giant of some type (take a drink). In the Great Tower of Oldechi, the players spent an entire level inside a body, and at one point they tapped into its central nervous system to speak with the brain directly. I once had a campaign villain planned who gained psychic powers because her brain had been replaced by something else, though the players managed to dodge it.

But the most fun I had with them was in the improvisational sessions I ran recently, where the players stumbled upon a group of parasites who took over the brains of other creatures. The parasites themselves weren’t that interesting, but the second stage of their lifecycle involved becoming a sort of cytoplasm that carried the victim’s brain, and only their brain, around and used it to provide a tentative sort of will. Unusually for me, I came up with the monster concept and searched for pictures, then used that picture to decide what the creature actually did. The final battle was in the creatures’ mindscape, where they controlled every aspect of it but weren’t really creative enough to leverage that into a guaranteed victory. The short version of the battle is that I made a series of attacks at the players from a creature whose name in our gaming program was “Everything”, and we leveraged a lot of the language from the Giygas fight at the end of Earthbound. We used a combination of “the enemies are brains” and “the players have brains” to do something D&D in general doesn’t have room for, and it was pretty stellar.

I think I’ve about hit peak brain, and I probably won’t use them for a while unless it’s this specific parasite we invented. I mean, a brain is just a smaller, creepier version of a person, so most of them already have meaningful personalities. They don’t need to be elevated to something interesting. If anything, I tried to make them interesting by taking away the parts that make them brains, and it ended up being surprisingly functional. If I’d had my way I would have saved this for later in the month so we had more examples of adding character to monsters, but I didn’t design the alphabet.

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