Thanks once again for stopping by my weekly feature, Irreverent Reading. It’s where my son and I read the D&D Monster Manual and bond in a time of great, and necessary, change…
Let’s talk monsters…
Sahuagin. I didn’t expect to dig these guys so much, but I do. Hunh, my Dad was endlessly amused by the B-movie effort Humanoids from the Deep when I was kid. Maybe that’s why? The Sahuagin are tough little cookies. Aside from coming with a solid “foot soldier” build, you also get a shaman-type (the Sahuagin Princess), and the big bad leader (the Sahuagin Baron). Taken as a group, they make a nice combined force.
And every single one of those builds uses Blood Frenzy:
The sahuagin has advantage on melee attack rolls against any creature that doesn’t have all its hit points.
Think about how much the PCs will learn to fear and hate them after a battle or two! Remember, Advantage doesn’t just mean getting hit more often, it also doubles the possibility of getting critted with each strike.
So, here’s my grand plan… I really, really want to run this some time:
You pick a wealthy, but low-lying, coastal area in your game. The kind of place where it used to be swamp, but look, now there are dykes and fields and much more arable land. Crops = $$$. Things are going great! (If you don’t have a place like this already, just invent one. You know how to do it…) Well, when you passed by here a few years ago this was all mudflats, but ever since Queen MucketyMuck put an end to the pirate raids she’s added windmills and drained all that land. Oh, and she dredged out a deeper harbor for MuckTown. It’s just a hopping place now, what with all the new trade that goes up the road to the Capital.
So, that’s your setup. You’ll want to have a side adventure or two in this area. Maybe your gang stops off in MuckTown to resupply and rest after some tough sessions on the high seas. And then your PCs are around for a couple of interesting incidents.
What’s that weird artifact that the dredgers found in the harbor? Or, wait, those pirates have one last gasp in them: “Everyone to the defenses!” You’ll want an incident or two that connects the PCs to this place. Enough to make them feel at home, to get them acquainted with some fishermen, and the old woman and her grandson that weave baskets from the local reeds. You want the players invested in this place. (It’s way less interesting if they’re just murderhoboing their way down the coast.)
Our heroes are growing to like MuckTown, at least a bit, so when they get back from a little adventure in the ruins of MuckTor, they are (hopefully horrified) to see that the dykes have failed and that the streets of MuckTown are flooded. Come to find out something wrecked the dykes and let all the water in during a flood tide. And it’s almost like the Sahuagin knew it was going to happen. They hit MuckTown almost as an afterthought and they’re riding their sharks (remember they can control sharks, right?) as far into the floodplain as they can. For sure give the PCs a chance to save some of the locals, too! Imagine tense boat rescues where our heroes have to pluck up survivors from rooftops while defending them from ravenous Sahuagin.
How far you take this is, of course, up to you! Is MuckCastle threatened? Are the sewers of Muckburgh infested? And, wait a minute, how did this all get started anyway? Is this a big FU from those pirates? A case of, if we can’t have the coast then no one will. Or is there a powerful schemer behind all this ? You could definitely use a conspiracy as a backbone for your plot if you’re going for long term play.
And you can pick any number of angles to frame the whole thing. Is this a story of environmental engineering gone wrong, the repercussions of denying the Sahuagin their ancestral spawning grounds, or something else?
As a footnote here, Xander was so into my scenario idea that we needed to pretend to be Sahuagin raiders on our last family hike. At his prodding, I mean literal prodding, we acted out breaking into the homes of townsfolk and just eating them right up. He kept saying, “Mmmm… I smell bloooooood.” And he would go into some detail, until we were like, nope! Okay, enough! He’s so interested in guts, blood, etc., that I’m worried he’s either going to turn out to be a serial killer, or worse, a thoracic surgeon. Let’s hope this is just one of those natural phases of development we hear about, right?
Scarecrow. The art department nails this fella. At 7 this scarecrow illustration would have been pure nightmare fuel for me, but Xander was like, “Oh, Daddy, that’s cool.”
Putting the Shadow on the facing page makes me think WotC is sorta kinda hoping that you’ll run a Shadow/Scarecrow team-up. Maybe once a generation these two pal around doing murders because of (an ancient curse, it’s how they nourish themselves, etc.) and it’s up to our heroes to figure out that the reason the MOs on the crimes are different is because there are two killers. Dunh, dunh, DUNH! The beauty is that these are relatively easy to kill creatures once you get them out into the light of day… but getting to the bottom of the mystery is the real trick! And, you know, just maybe toss in the Specter… it’s only a few pages away, and it would be happy to join the team.
Shield Guardian. Maybe it’s because we finished watching the show a couple of weeks ago, but I’m realizing if you want to play Tales from the Loop via D&D all you need is a kid kicked around by life who manages to get his hands on a Shield Guardian.
The WotC design team must have had some mischief in mind when they made the Guardian a transferable asset. (This is clearly stated in the Master’s Amulet section in the write-up.)
There’s something just so great about a kid, or a downtrodden peasant, or even a pesky goblin getting their hands on a Shield Guardian. That’s a scenario with a shot of bittersweet empowerment, and a chaser of tragedy. I love sessions where things could spin out of control… and there’s a little anticipation and nervous fun seeing if they will.
If you want to go in a different direction, you might do something a little like Power Rangers. (Edit: I know nothing about Power Rangers… mentally add your better example here.) A small group of kids, your PCs, all find amulets for Shield Guardians in a forgotten cave. There’s some long-standing problem in their community or region that they vow to change. Do people accept them? Who tries to co-opt them? What do the authorities do about it? Hell, what do their parents do about it?
Hunh, yeah, I think that’s just the tip of the iceberg…
Sphinxes. D&D doesn’t seem to believe in a Creature/NPC that you can’t attack, but that doesn’t mean you have to. It’s my feeling that something with stats invites the concept of an in-game confrontation. It’s probably always been this way, but seeing a bunch of 12 year olds sitting around with Deities & Demigods talking about how their 25th Level Paladin could kill this one or that one put me off that idea long ago.
Why bring this up… aren’t you going to talk about Sphinxes? Glad you asked, because my larger point is this. If you’ve decided to do the whole riddle of the Sphinx thing, and someone is wagering their life for the challenge, then that’s the challenge. Solve the riddle and live, fail and die. There shouldn’t be the chance to wriggle out of it with a pitched battle.
Sure, you can fight a Sphinx like just another monster, but why?
Stirge. Turns out I have a knack for running these, as I found out when I first stretched my legs with Fifth Edition by running Lost Mines of Phandelver. I hate mosquitoes, and I hate ticks even more, so perhaps it comes down an ability to impart this revulsion to my players.
The random encounter table in Lost Mines is pretty thin, if I’m remembering correctly. The result just lists a creature type and “number appearing” with no further context. I realized right away that I’d want to dress the encounters up a bit. I thought if I did it well then my players wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the random encounters and the regular ones. I rolled several days worth of wilderness encounters in advance and dreamt up options for how they’d be framed when they came into the game.
When I rolled a swarm of Stirges on the encounter table, it didn’t take long to come up with something fun. Dwarven prospectors are important to the plot of Lost Mines, so I thought, oh yeah, let’s tie into that. When the encounter came up in our run, the PCs were trekking cross country…
Traveling down an old deer path, they almost stumble over a small, dusty figure laying facedown in the dirt. It’s obviously a Dwarf who’s been dead long enough to turn leathery. At this point the PCs were looking for a pair of missing Dwarven brothers, so they turn over the unfortunate only to get swarmed by a dozen Stirges erupting out of its desiccated corpse.
I made a meal out of describing how leathery and gaunt the Stirges looked, and how they appeared to be almost translucent. When a Stirge attached itself to one of the PCs, I was sure to explain how healthy it started looking, its little blood sac just swelling with rich arterial blood.
Folks, I try to keep the blog light and fun, but I’ve been very troubled by a few incidents in my own life that bear speaking on in the current climate. You don’t need to know the particulars of them, but they involve white people, and as a white person, I’m disappointed. I’m not sure what’s wrong with us that we can’t just listen to people of color without tossing our oar in, but it happens over and over again.
White people constructed the idea of race in the first place. You know how you can tell? White people ended up with the power. Now, if we want to tear down the BS our forefathers built up and make our corner of the world better and more fair, we’re going to have to participate. And not in a crappy-work-seminar, weekend-tolerance-training kind of way. We have to want to be better, not just ride it out until we go “back to normal.”
I know this can be hard, but get comfortable with being uncomfortable. We are at the beginning of this. Maybe your friends who aren’t white do not have the energy to educate you or tell you their stories of trauma. But it’s never been easier to look for those stories. People are stepping up in a way they never have before. I’ve never seen so much bravery.
So, if someone has the energy, grace, and compassion to tell you their personal story, for god’s sake listen. For the price of a little attention, they’re giving you a look into themselves and what they’ve been through. Cherish that. And let it change you.