Thanks once again for dropping by my weekly feature, Irreverent Reading! It’s where my son and I read the D&D Monster Manual and ask the, ahem, hard questions that others are afraid to…
Dear Reader, whether or not you have kids of your own, you’re probably aware of their ability to ask genuinely thought-provoking questions. Touching, sometimes bittersweet questions about life and their place in it. Big questions… about mortality, the inherent unfairness of existence, the environment, and more.
And every so often they ask a question that makes you wonder if those words, in that order, really came out of another person’s mouth…
So, it was on Saturday last that my son, fresh out of his bath, asked me, “Daddy, what does Gnoll sex look like?”
“What does Gnoll sex look like?”
(My wife and I exchange bemused glances.)
“Oh, you mean, like, the D&D monster?”
My son beams and nods his head…
So, we aren’t shy about talking about sex in an age appropriate way, but we aren’t a household that dwells on it either. In any case, after thinking for a minute I found some safe ground talking about how dogs do their thing. He took that in. And then I said, “It’s probably the same for Gnolls, right?”
He nodded. Thankfully this seemed to satisfy him.
Then I explained why Mom and Dad always think it’s weird and gross when our cat gets it on with our son’s Golden State Warriors blanket. I think he’d never understood before that it was simulated cat sex, so when the realization hit him, and it all finally added up, he just laughed and laughed and laughed.
A couple of days later this incident appears to be all but forgotten. And, while I never considered that reading through the Monster Manual would lead us into this kind of territory, it’s great that he asked if he was curious, and, more importantly, that we found a way to talk about it that everyone was comfortable with.
I can guarantee you that trying to evade it would have led to hours of uneasy tap-dancing. I’m sure nobody wants my advice, but on the slim chance that you do, just tackle uncomfortable topics head on in an age appropriate way. You’ll be glad you did.
Okay, parenting advice done, because MONSTERS!
Let’s get to it…
I don’t have too much to say about Magmin or Mephits, except that it turns out kids love things that are about their size. Xander is a big fan.
Mind Flayer. At last we come to the show! There’s no way this is intentional, but there’s quite a build-up to this listing when you read the book cover to cover. You read about so many creatures that the Mind Flayer has influenced or messed with along the way… The Flayer write-up acknowledges a lot of these connections, which is good, because who’s really going to sit down with the Monster Manual and read it all the way through?
There are some cool surprises here. I don’t remember the Illithid hive mind being a thing in earlier editions… but a colony of Mind Flayers networked together via a big old Elder Brain floating in a pool is equal parts trippy and sobering. If only Jack Kirby was still around to draw one of these! Oh, well, we can’t have everything. (But now I want an AI illustration widget that can Kirby-fy anything. Are you listening, Google?)
If you read the listing closely, you’ll discover that there are outcast/outsider Mind Flayers. Now that seems like an intriguing place to turn for inspiration. I love the idea of a handful of “true believer” Mind Flayers who feel that their society has lost its way, so they attempt to enlist the PCs in a crusade to smash the power of the Elder Brains. Whether or not your heroes accept, can’t you see those priceless interactions? You want us to do what?
Mimic. As we’re reading this entry Xander jumps right in and says, “Well, if I ever see a treasure chest in a dungeon, I’ll shoot it with an arrow first!” As goofy and gamer-y as this sounds on its face, that’s the only logical response to a world with Mimics. Everyone should just schlep a bunch of arrows into the dungeon to fire at the scenery to make sure none of it is a shape-shifted, self-adhesive grapple machine. I guess you could go the 10 foot pole route, but it would play out more or less the same way. Lots and lots of table time spent poking and prodding at every little thing.
In my experience players often want high adventure, but will devolve into procedural floor tappers with very little provocation. Anything that sniffs of sneaky GM behavior slows the pace to a crawl as they triple check everything and parse their words very carefully. I’ve run sessions that have turned on a dime with a single gotcha moment.
Apparently some players love this kind of thing, but I’ve never found myself at a table like that. And while I believe there must be people that still live for La Grinda, I find real life so filled with plodding that I want my fantasy games (at least) to be full of action, intrigue, and larger than life characters with big dreams and big lives. If I can get some character development in there so much the better. An episode of CSI: Dungeon? Not so much.
Now, all that having been said, I could get behind a dungeon whose sole theme is that kind of shenanigans. Mimics, traps, pointlessly cursed mundane objects, illusions wrapped around other illusions, all the paranoia-inducing tricks in the Killer DM playbook. The question becomes what sort of story to wrap around it?
Maybe it’s some kind of delving contest… Let’s say some gnomes and dwarves were hired to make a particularly tricky dungeon for a contest. Groups have to pay to enter, but they can give up whenever they want. So far no one has managed to run the gauntlet, but by the time the PCs show up on the scene, the pot is irresistibly large… or includes something they desperately need. (Bonus: the contest is rigged somehow, and the players have to get to the bottom of that, too.)
You could take the same idea different directions. Maybe the players have pissed off a Big Bad and they’ve been teleported into the middle of a labyrinthine escape room. Or, your heroes have run afoul of the justice system in a city where their punishment is to be thrown into the old catacombs under the city (filled with gotchas, of course) to earn their way free or die trying. Either way, just be sure to include plenty of Mimics.
Tip o’ the hat for this last idea to Exiles of the Wicked Maze by Dave Woodrum.
Modron. I just did not understand these back in the day. A plane filled with these weird little creatures? Uh, okay.
I still think they’re odd. (I’m not sure what you’re supposed to do with them, exactly.) Still, there’s some combination of write-up, cultural moment, and character art that makes them make more sense now. I don’t think I need an entire plane of hierarchical clockwork bots in my game, but Xander just looooves them. The cute illustrations definitely put them over the top for him. Hell, maybe I’ll figure out something to do with these just for his sake.
We are getting there! As I write this we are down to 8 days of school at home.
Like a lot of parents, I don’t think we can count on Summer Camp to come riding to the rescue. Not that we have a ton of money for that kind of thing, but a week here and there can work wonders.
Luckily our boy loves reading. This will be the summer that we get out The Hobbit, or 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, or both! There are worse ways to spend a summer with with no vacation.
Of course gaming will feature in our plans, but to find out about that you’ll have to wait till next week.
So, until then Dear Reader, stay smart… and stay safe.