Thanks once again for dropping by my weekly feature, Irreverent Reading! It’s where my son and I plumb the depths of the Fifth Edition D&D Monster Manual for those glistening narrative pearls…
Now that we are rolling downhill, Xander seems more into the MM than he’s been in awhile. We are reading a creature or three every afternoon, with one or two more at bedtime.
At this point we are down to our last 4 weeks of school at home. He’s getting through his days by taking short breaks between each assignment. It works, there have been far fewer frustrating standoffs, but it does leave Mom & Dad tired at day’s end. Without true social outlets, my sense is that Xander needs to have his days filled with activities of one kind or another.
Luckily for us, that’s reading/home-school/gaming for the most part, with a side of screen time. I feel fortunate that he’s gotten into mythology in a big way during all this. He’s learning so much in and out of school… I just wish he had a “relax by himself” mode.
Anyway, taking a breather last week means that I’m not pushing up against my deadlines with every post. For you, Dear Reader, I suspect that means you’ll get better writing!
So, let’s test that theory by taking a look at the letter H…
Hags. Did not expect to see a crone with a bloody heart in her left hand and a bowl of offal in her right! I’m always worried that this gruesome imagery is going to mess up Xander’s mental state, but no, nightmares are nowhere to be found. (In fact he told me last week that he dreams of heroic deeds in our Mecha Hack campaign.) Go figure. Maybe all this stuff pales in comparison to Covid-19.
Mechanically, Hags have a lot of bang for their challenge rating. For example, the Green Hag is loaded with stealth abilities that could keep even sophisticated players guessing: Mimicry, Illusory Appearance, and Invisible Passage. This last makes them both invisible and untraceable.
The Night Hag’s Nightmare Haunting ability gives a nasty mechanical bite to the disturbed dreams of her victim…
Nightmare Haunting (1/Day): While on the Ethereal Plane, the hag magically touches a sleeping Humanoid on the Material Plane. A Protection from Evil and Good spell cast on the target prevents this contact, as does a Magic Circle. As long as the contact persists, the target has dreadful visions. If these visions last for at least 1 hour, the target gains no benefit from its rest, and its hit point maximum is reduced by 5 (1d10). If this effect reduces the target’s hit point maximum to 0, the target dies, and if the target was evil, its soul is trapped in the hag’s Soul Bag. The reduction to the target’s hit point maximum lasts until removed by the Greater Restoration spell or similar magic.
I’ve always been fond of delving into the dreams of fantasy characters. There’s usually something supernatural going on in their lives. And even if there isn’t, these are characters with powerful needs and drives. The Night Hag is a great alibi for a DM to enter into their deepest hopes and fears, even if you haven’t gone there before. Certain players might be down to explore their character’s nightmares with you. You never know until you bring it up!
If you want to go witchy horror, then look no further than the Sea Hag. Your PCs are only two failed Wisdom saves away from having 0 hit points. (Horrific Appearance and Death Glare make for a potent combo.)
Half-Dragon. Conceptually I don’t love the idea of the Half-Dragon. It feels like a creature created to fill a niche between a true dragon, and the playable Dragonborn “race.” Usually I find that kind of thing conceptually lazy. It’s the sort of thinking that says, if there’s a big and a small version, there needs to be a medium one, too! Creativity by spreadsheet.
But there’s some tremendous story potential in the Half-Dragon narrative chunk, so let’s explore!
For starters there are a surprising number of paths to Half-Dragondom. If a dragon parent mates with a humanoid while polymorphed, it produces a Half-Dragon offspring. I’m guessing you are not the typical dragon if you’re getting down like that! Do other dragons approve, or do they think it’s disgusting? Maybe dragons get it on with their humanoid lovers because they sense they’re a dying breed and they see some kind of future with humanity. Perhaps they believe that they are giving humanity the gift of their strength and magical might.
We eventually discover that Half-Dragons are sterile… but, of course, there’s always magical intervention to fix that. You could get an entire campaign out of exploring human/draconic intimate relations if that’s your jam. (I’ve heard that Council of Wyrms might play with some of those ideas.)
Another way you can produce a Half-Dragon is through “a ritual bath in dragon’s blood.” Now that’s an interesting tale waiting to be told. Who would do such a thing, and to what end? Is it done to preserve a dying hero, or is it the lifelong dream of an evil bastard? How does it actually work? And is it a one-ritual-per-dragon thing, or can you do a group baptism? If you wanted to give your Knights of the Roundtable-style heroes a more epic origin, perhaps they all bathed in the blood of a dragon who wanted to share this transformative gift as their dying wish. A final, noble legacy to those he or she fought beside. Of course, you can invert this to an unwilling sacrifice for the creepy version!
Helmed Horror. This rather unassuming little write up had me from the jump…
This construct possesses intelligence, the ability to reason and adjust tactics, and an unswerving devotion to its maker that persists after its maker’s demise.
Elsewhere we discover that a Helmed Horror is…
…intelligent enough to understand the difference between an order’s intent and its exact wording. Unlike many constructs it seeks to fulfill the former rather than slavishly follow the later.
Excellent! A construct that is much more than a mindless automaton. The Helmed Warrior is to a typical construct as the Death Knight is to your typical undead. There’s just more there there to play around with.
You can build a lot of story with these…
Maybe the PCs realize that someone is sending these implacable foes after them one at a time. Even if the party keeps defeating them, the relentlessness of the gesture would eventually get their attention. Let your imagination run wild with what could be behind this! Maybe there’s a magical sweatshop somewhere that’s slowly churning these out. A community of gnomes the characters know is being forced to create them, and this is the only way they could get them some kind of message. OR maybe a big bad they bested left an endowment to pay for one of these a month to hunt down the PCs. Revenge from beyond the grave!
I also like the angle of exploring Helmed Horrors as a weapon from a forgotten war. Perhaps while delving in places they shouldn’t go, your party inadvertently looses a small army of these into the quiet countryside. Maybe our heroes come to the surface just in time to see the Horrors splitting up to head off toward their centuries-old objectives. Now what? Everybody knows the party was messing around in the old ruins, they were just getting provisions in town after all…
Maybe this is really off the wall, but I’d love to build a convention scenario around these. A squad of Helmed Horrors is sent off to assault a stronghold held by a group of murderhobos that have set themselves up in a keep. They won’t pay fealty to the local lord, so they get his wrath. There’s just something deeply and darkly amusing to me about a group of unspeaking killbots going after the usual protagonists. I mean, who doesn’t want to play the D&D Terminator for 4 hours?
Hobgoblins. These are another big feature of our regular D&D game, so we’ve come to respect the fighting prowess of your typical band of Hobos. In our game, there’s a small chance that we can turn a group of these to our side, and that would certainly be interesting to see! My ranger character is willing to give just about anything and anybody (short of a fiend) the benefit of the doubt, so it could happen.
One of the things that I like about the new editions of D&D over the old is that they put mechanical teeth behind narrative ideas. The Martial Advantage ability of the Hobgoblin means it fights quite a bit better with a shieldmate, and it gives the DM an easy means to show that at the table. Hobogoblin Captains and Warlords, aside from being buffed up versions of the standard model, also come with a Leadership ability. This ability, which models the barking of orders, allows the recipient to add a d4 to an attack roll or saving throw. It’s a simple way for the GM to show what a good commander means to his troops. Also, I really like that Leadership can be thwarted with magic, and maybe even plan old craftiness. Obviously a silence spell would shut Leadership down, but so would deploying the right battlefield trick… say the incessant blowing of warhorns.
Homunculus. Xander could not get enough of this little guy. Here’s some can’t miss art direction… if you want to make your Tiny Construct cute, just give it the face of a French bulldog. Works every time.
I think Xander also really enjoys imagining a psychic connection with a critter like this. He goes through phases of longing for a dog (not allowed in our building), but I think a homunculus would be even better. Maybe I should check the terms of our lease…
Hydra. The Hydra presents an interesting tactical challenge, but maybe not the one that you think. My main concern with bringing one of these to the table wouldn’t be a TPK, but rather player boredom. It’s one thing to read about heroes besting a hydra in a mythological tale, quite another to do the bean-counting of subtract one head, add two back.
The Hydra starts with a healthy 175 hit points, and any time it takes more than 25 HP on a turn, a head dies. Then, of course, the hydra grows two heads, each of which bring along 10 HP a piece. This turns into lots of extra HP over multiple rounds, along with lots of extra attacks (because, of course, each head gets its own attack.)
None of the attacks would be withering, so in my mind this could devolve into a battle of epic nibbling, notable only for its length. One wonders if it’s worth tipping the players off that fire damage blocks the Hydra’ regeneration ability just to keep this particular boss fight fun.
And that’s it for this week!
Maybe it’s just a fantasy, but I’m thinking that summer, without the pressure of getting through the daily dose of home-schooling, should be a lot of fun around here.
We shall see.