Thanks once again for dropping by my weekly feature, Irreverent Reading! It’s where my son and I read between the lines of the Fifth Edition D&D Monster Manual to find gameable story-telling opportunities for you, Dear Reader!
Even though I Hit the Wall last week I managed to fight through the malaise and get my usual Tuesday and Thursday posts up.
It’s funny, we covered 4 letters this week, when I think it might have taken us 4 weeks to work our way through D. As usual, we don’t cover all the monsters, just the ones we find intriguing for one reason or another.
Let’s start with a side note on Mind Flayers. They’ve got their sticky little tentacles in a lot of pies. Just as a recap of what we’ve read about them so far… the Gith hunt them, the Grimlocks only have eyes for them, the Kuo-Toa were changed by them, and Intellect Devourers owe their existence to them. So far I think the Illithid are connected to more other creatures in more ways than anything else we’ve read about. (Fitting for a monster that makes its living through undue influence!)
We’ll get to Mind Flayers next week when we cover the letter M, but for now, let’s start with one of their pet projects…
Intellect Devourer. So, the gruesome imagery of a brain on funny little paws predictably delighted Xander. “It’s so cute!” Sometimes I wonder if he knows what cute actually means, or if his aesthetic sense is just way over yonder beyond where the average person is willing to go.
In any case, as a parent, I appreciate that they didn’t go full horror in the Intellect Devourer write-up. Rather than reading about skull cracking, or nasal cavity sucking, we get a tidy and reserved description of their ability to “magically consume” the target’s brain.
Interestingly, it’s kind of left up to you, Dear Reader, to decide what the Intellect Devourer’s raison d’être really is. Just going through the listing you come away with (a.) they are bred by the Illithid, and (b.) they like to eat brains and puppet-master intelligent creatures.
It’s never explicitly stated, but I think we’re meant to assume Intellect Devourers are willing tools of infiltration for the Mind Flayers. In the absence of anything else, that certainly works. Obviously you can have plenty of fun with that…
A beloved NPC starts acting a little odd… and seven horrifying revelations later your PCs are having it out with a Mind Flayer in the Underdark.
Jackalwere. So, after reading the Lycanthrope entry, I’m wondering why the Jackalwere is off by its lonesome in the letter J?
The answer is simple. If they didn’t put it in J, then there would’t be a need for a J section at all. It’s the only J monster, period. I guess the Jellybean Dragon didn’t make the cut? Oh, wait that would be off with the letter D for Dragon (Jellybean).
I can hardly blame WotC, though, because the only reason I mentioned the Jackalwere is so that I, too, could talk about something that starts with the letter J.
Kobolds. I had these guys all wrong. I thought they were dog things, but no, that’s Gnolls. Maybe I’m thinking of another edition? Or maybe I got my wires crossed years ago. Like how I thought that Wyvern was pronounced WERE-vern for years, ’cause that’s how my buddies growing up in Georgia said it. (Seriously folks, you might want to challenge your D&D pronunciation assumptions with a little visit to dictionary.com!)
There were moments when reading this listing where I thought Kobolds overlapped with Goblins too much. I mean do we really need another small and not terribly tough creature that likes to trap every square inch of its lair? But then things took a turn for the interesting when I discovered they favored biological weapons.
The most insidious Kobold traps makes use of natural hazards and other creatures. A trip wire might connect to a spring loaded trap that hurls clay pots of flesh-eating green slime or flings crates of venomous giant centipedes at intruders.
I can tell you from experience this kind of thing works at the table. One of the best sessions of my old Mutant: Year Zero campaign featured a version of this gambit.
Kraken. If you ever want to have your own D&D flavored Kaiju fight, send a couple of Kraken up against a Tarrasque. Or, you know what, make it three. Three might be close to even.
Kuo-Toa. I’m pleased that even though these are obviously HP Lovecraft’s Deep Ones with the serial numbers filed off, they’re well integrated into the D&Dverse. Also, the gang at WotC added some features that make the Kuo-Toa very much their own thing.
For starters, those pesky Mind Flayers have their tentacles all over these poor benighted bastards. We discover that the Illithids enslaved them and then “abandoned” them at some point. (The mystery of that could make a good kernel for an adventure. Is there something the Kuo-Toa did, or some technology they developed to run the Illithid off?)
The Kuo-Toa have a fascinating ability to worship gods into existence. As far as I know this is a unique ability in D&D. Their “collective subconscious” can literally manifest gods. Perhaps in their sorrow they created a being powerful enough to push back against the Mind Flayers.
Come to think of it, you can get a lot of mileage out of this God Maker ability.
Imagine what an unscrupulous con-man could do with this knowledge? What about a group that’s been marginalized by your setting’s dominant society? Or maybe one of the PCs needs an apotheosis as a desperate Hail Mary to save the world. Have any of these folks go to beg the Kuo-Toa for their help, or trick the Kuo-Toa into dreaming up the god they need!
It also occurs to me that the gods in existing pantheons can’t love this. They can’t be pleased that there are random deities like Blidoolploop, the most revered Kuo-Toa god, that pop into existence every now and then. There might be a deity frustrated enough with the whole ridiculous tulpa-creating garbage fire that they ask your PCs to eradicate the Kuo-Toa… OR to get the Kuo-Toa to worship them instead of making up weird nonsense gods! (What could go wrong?) Don’t you love the idea of an “original” god, and a Kuo-Toa created version of the same god, squaring off against each other? “No, no, no, I’M the real deity around here, punk.”
Lizardfolk. So, of course in a mass market monster book you find plenty of “races” (aka humanoid species) that are conceived as just real damn evil. It’s their inherent evilosity that makes them impossible to deal with, so you should probably just murder them whenever you can. I get it. It’s not exactly my sort of game play, but sometimes you want to say, okay, when these dudes show up, they’re the bad guys.
It makes it all the more interesting when you run into a creature like the Lizardfolk. Yeah, okay, they like eating humanoids, which is maybe not ideal, but they are not raiders… they are not coming to drag you away like a wild pack of CHUD. Nope. They’ve got their territory, and if you come into it you’d better stay frosty.
In the finite realm of creature agendas, territoriality is one of the greats. We understand it from real life, and it creates a sense in the players that they are on someone else’s turf. And there are cool valences to it, right?
Well, we’re going to have to go through that Lizardfolk swamp again… maybe they’ll accept some more feral pigs in exchange for letting us through.
Wait, why does every island in this swamp have a pile of humanoid skulls?
I’m also fond of the idea that Lizardfolk can make great allies, if you can get on their good side. Seems like convincing a Lizardfolk tribe to protect your kingdom’s flank would make an awesome sidequest. Just bring plenty of barbecue.
Lycanthropes. Here’s another listing where we find some tasty variation in what could have easily been page filler. It would have never occurred to me back in the day that D&D could have a “principled” were-creature, but I really dig the Werebear. If you need a self-appointed protector of your forest, look no further. For the most part the Werebear bites by invitation only, preferring to use claws or a ginormous axe to settle disputes. (Now that I’m reading The Hobbit with my son, I’m wondering if the Werebear’s alignment is a nod to Beorn!)
I like the idea of the PCs coming into town just in time to see a skinny old man walking off into the woods staggering under the weight of a huge axe. When the curious PCs ask about him the local blacksmith says, “Oh, he’s the warden in these parts, you don’t want to mess with him.”
Xander giggled uncontrollably when he saw the Wererat. He thought it was hilarious when I voiced one of them with my Wallace Shawn imitation. I encourage you to do the same… just be sure you say “Inconceivable” as often as possible!
The Wereboar and the Werewolf are exactly what you’d expect. Although I was surprised that the Werewolf has the second lowest hit point total of any of the Lycanthropes.
By comparison, the Weretiger is surprisingly stout. (120 hit points vs. the Werewolf’s 58.) The next time I’m in a game where people are throwing out crazy race suggestions to play, I’m definitely calling dibs on this fella. They just look so damn dashing.
Okay, Dear Reader, I think we’re going to get through homeschooling without permanent emotional scarring. My boy put on his determined face when I told him how much time we had left. (13 school days as I write this.) Also, my wife is now into her last week of teaching for the semester. She got tenure at her college this year, and I have to say her timing couldn’t have been better.
We might not be able to travel this summer, and even if we could I doubt that we would take the risk, but we still have some fun things lined up! I’ll talk about that in later weeks…
Stay safe out there until then!