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 let our imaginations run wild…
It’s hitting me again what a long running project this has been. I hadn’t even heard of COVID-19 when we started, and gosh, look where we are now! They say the past is another country, and it’s hard to argue with that right now.
It’s been awhile since I’ve talked book data, but here goes. It takes us roughly ten minutes to read a page, especially if you factor in our little discussions. At this point we’ve read 298 pages over 49 and 2/3 hours. I love it that Xander has this level of commitment to *anything* at 7 years old. I think it bodes well for his future!
Let’s talk monsters…
Tarrasque. Good lord what the ever loving hell do you do with this thing? My favorite fact about the Tarrasque is its challenge rating. It’s 30. There’s no other creature with a 30 CR, or 29 or 28 for that matter. You’ve got to go all the way down to the Ancient Gold & Red Dragons before you get to the next lowest Challenge Rating… at 24.
This big ‘un has just about every defense you can dream up, including the ability to scare the pants off an entire population. Totally appropriate for a D&D kaiju. Deploy these bad boys in the big city for maximum chaos.
The player-facing choices when dealing with a Big T are pretty bleak. Stand off and blast away with something that will actually affect it. DO NOT engage in melee unless you’re trying to defend a critically important person/place/thing. DO try to lead it away from anything you remotely care about.
That was about all I was going to say until I started turning the Tarrasque over and over in my mind…
Tarrasque as Doomsday Weapon
Here’s a way to shape a whole campaign around a Tarrasque or similar titan.
One kingdom has control over the Tarrasque; remember there’s just the one (supposedly). Normally it stays where a kaiju stays, under the water, out in a huge wasteland, etc. But this kingdom, let’s call it the Hegemonic Empire, has an artifact that allows the queen to call and control the thing. The artifact is passed down with the crown from generation to generation, hell it probably IS the crown.
Everybody knows that you can only push the Hegemonic Empire so far, because they’ll send 676 hit points of gargantuan beat-down to your most awesome trade city or sacred temple or whatever, and that’ll be the end of that. Of course all the other kingdoms hate these bastards, because every fifty years or so the Empire crushes something just because they can. There’s a major city in the world that was destroyed in living memory and everyone still talks about it.
Now you’ve got the makings of a campaign filled with Cold War intrigue. Since no one can take on the Empire directly there are always a million plots and counter plots. If you want to do Spy vs. Spy D&D, here’s your chance! The objective of the campaign might be to destroy, or better yet, steal the crown, and give the smug Imperial bastards a taste of their own medicine.
There’s also the potential for some very directed Rod of Seven Parts-style play. Your heroes, chosen from the various factions that oppose the Empire, go to hell and back to get the components necessary to make their own Tarrasque controller. You can work in all the epic things: quests on other planes, the imploring of gods, etc. My favorite wrinkle is that once they finally build the damn thing, it ends up controlling a second Tarrasque, one that the world has never seen before.
Maybe your campaign hits its peak against the backdrop of these two titans slugging it out.
Tarrasque as Biome
At some point I started imagining all the things that must live on a Tarrasque. I mean Black Rhinos aren’t all that big, and yet they have a symbiotic relationship with the Oxpecker, which pulls ticks off them and warns them of danger. How much richer a biome must the shell of the Tarrasque be? It could host any number of things that might take advantage of its existence. Maybe there’s a special variety of stirge that only hatches out when the Tarrasque is on the prowl.
To have fun with this, think about where the Tarrasque lives when it’s not putting a dent in civilization. If it’s “from” the Underdark, it could harbor a vast colony of fungi just under its carapace. Maybe there’s a de facto Underdark city in there. If it’s from the ocean, maybe enough sea water sloshes around between its shell and skin to keep a healthy population of aquatic or amphibious creatures alive and happy, even as it walks around in the open air.
And all that led me to think of this…
Tarrasque as Dungeon
In some campaign, somewhere, (probably more than one) someone said, “Hey, what if we land on a Tarrasque and look for a weak spot!” What a great idea. I’m sure more than one flat-footed Dungeon Master frowned and shook their head, but think about the games where the DM took a deep breath and turned that into a Yes, and! moment. Now, you probably don’t want to head into something like that with no prep time, but there’s soooo much potential for a once in a lifetime session.
It would be damn thrilling stuff to drop a group of highly trained dungeon delvers on to the back of a titan with enough poison/magick/boom juice to (maybe?) take it down. You’d need to plan it like a heist movie or one of those badass WWII “we’ve got a plan so crazy it just might work” flicks.
First, somebody, somewhere, perhaps even the PCs, gathered enough lore to figure out how to get under the Tarrasque’s carapace. That could be an entire adventure… scouring the libraries of your world, traveling to an inaccessible temple, or doing a literal deal with the devil.
Second, there’s the problem of getting on the damn thing. Are the PCs teleported just above the carapace, do they run up the tail under the influence of a spell, is it a terrifying magic carpet ride…? Whatever it is, it should be a moment of pure terror where death is very, very much on the table. Once onboard, they need to get inside. There are a lot of options here. I personally like the idea that there are small orifices along the back of the shell to vent waste heat, just big enough for characters to squirm through if they time it right.
Third, now we’re in the “it looked so simple on paper!” phase. This is where our heroes discover that getting to that nerve cluster at the top of the spine is going to be a lot harder than they thought. The motion of the Tarrasque makes moving around its interstitial tissue a challenge. No one in the city the Tarrasque is rumbling toward is banking on this crazy suicide mission working, so they’re hitting Big T with everything they’ve got. Just because it doesn’t hurt the Tarrasque doesn’t mean the characters can’t be hurt by it. There’s a d100 table of awesome random damage right there… “Oh, you get stabbed by the tip of a ballista bolt, hey, at least it’s not full damage.”
All of it would be so great! As long as there’s some internal logic to what you design, go crazy. I personally like the idea of Tarrasque as an extension of the Underdark. As it sleeps its long sleep underground, things infest it. Phase spiders, fungus, etc. For all we know there could be a clan of Drow raiders in there. They drop down on silken lines after Big T has done its worst, and skivvy back up with the best loot from shattered cities. They’d be mighty damn surprised to see a band of “heroes” in their midst.
But my favorite idea is to have the PCs stumble into the Tarrasque’s nursery. Oh, yeah, turns out these things reproduce, and keep live young like a mega-marsupial. There’s a clutch of maybe a half dozen mammoth-sized Baby T’s in a chamber they blunder into.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the intrepid heroes don’t have forever to do this. The Tarrasque’s walking speed is 40ft., so it is no slow poke. It’s moving inexorably toward its objective while the party does their thing. No long rest for this mission, and even a short one will probably cost lots of lives.
So, you’ll want a very visible timer somewhere on the table. Either a clock, like in Apocalypse World, or Blades in the Dark, or a vanishing pile of beads. “Yeah, you failed to sneak past those Grimlock cultists, so this fight is going to cost you at least two ticks on the old clock.”
At some point, the players finally get to the top of the spine or the mid-back brain, or whatever it is you’ve decided is the weak spot. The heroes plant their charge, inject the poison, do that ritual, and then what? It may not have occurred to them that they’re going to have to escape the body of a dying colossus.
If you imagine the Tarrasque as having an upscaled immune system to go with the rest of its physique, there could be Ooze-like antibodies that rush to the site the PCs have injured. Adapt an existing Ooze from the Monster Manual, or make up your own. Remember, you’re the arbiter of Tarrasque physiology! Perhaps escaping from the dying Tarrasque has its own clock, and getting by these antibodies is just one of many complications. If whatever the PCs did to bring down the beast caused a lot of commotion (loud ritual, blackpowder blast, etc.) then the current denizens might be alerted as well. One of the staples of these Ops action movies is that it can be just as hard to get out as it is to get in. And those Drow mercenaries I mentioned earlier? They are going to be pissed. They might follow the PCs to the ends of the earth to get even.
Whatever you do, make it epic. If you pull this off, it’ll be a story told round the table for years to come.
Troll. While the Troll writeup is more or less what you’d expect, there are some really nice wrinkles that it would be easy to overlook. For starters, you’ve got to use the Loathsome Limbs variant, unless (of course) hacked off limbs are a trigger party for your group. If they aren’t, this should be the source of some very dark comedy.
The thing I really like about this listing is the material towards the end of the narrative block. (If I’ve learned anything, it’s that you won’t get everything out of a monster by skipping the “fluff.” There’s solid gold stuff in that material!) Anyway, the write-up suggests that the “regenerative nature” of the troll makes it especially prone to mutation. Later there’s an example of a Troll (possibly) picking up a trait from a Fey it’s eaten.
That’s great stuff. I’d play with that rule every day of the week. It’s cool to have a reason to go back through the Troll’s past and think about what it might have encountered. Also, I just like the idea generally. I’ll have to see where I can work in this power absorption concept into other creatures that have a protean nature. Come to think of it, that would make a great PC ability, too…
Umber Hulk. The thing that keeps the Umber Hulk from being little more than a giant blinged out with a carapace is that funky Confusing Gaze ability. That can rebalance an encounter, but fast. It leans on a Charisma save which is probably your dump stat… unless it isn’t. 🙂 So, yes, a lot of PCs are going to have a tough time hitting a DC of 15. And then what? You’re just standing there doing nothing useful, or attacking your pals.
In our ongoing home campaign, my ranger tried to talk an Umber Hulk out of defending an area we needed to get through. Here’s an interesting thought experiment. Would I have done that if I had already read this listing before that session? I like to think that I would, even though I know now that Umber Hulks only speak Umber Hulk. I’d do it all over again, but this time I’d stay outside the range of that Confusing Gaze.
Unicorn. I’ve never really thought of the Unicorn as a forest protector, but that’s how they are cast in this listing. (I assume there’s some fictional precedent to that, but unlike the Pegasus I don’t actually know any stories specifically related to old Uni here.)
Xander really loves the horn in the illustration, while I’m charmed by the little billy goat beard.
Vampire. Can we blame it on Interview with a Vampire? Somehow along the way I got quite, quite bored with the whole vampire thing. It’s just not my scene. Although, those isometric maps in the original Ravenloft module… damn, I still think about those sometimes.
Anyway, Vampires. One of the things that really strikes me about this listing is how extensive the Vamp stat block is. It takes up a whole page. With all the legacy powers you need to give a vampire, of course you need room to get that all down in black and white.
It also occurs to me that bringing a Vampire into your game is by necessity a deal. There’s really no such thing as the poor vampire that lives in the back of an inn living out the last miserable days of its existence surviving on the piglets of strangers. But now I’m envisioning an Indie game where everybody plays a down at heel vampire just trying to get by…
That wacky idea not withstanding, a Vampire brings a lot of furniture with it when it moves into the campaign. There’s the coffin and where it’s hidden (probably in some sort of stronghold), but there’s also all the plot ramifications. Half the fun in a Vampire scenario is figuring out who it is, so that means a conspiracy with leads, dupes, patsies, and red herrings.
Boil it down, and you’re left with the this: when you invite a Vampire into your game, it’s there to stay.
Another week. It’s going to be a pretty weird summer in the old USA, but we’re getting through it somehow. Xander is doing a lot of reading and playing, and we’re doing tons of hiking these days. I just wish it felt like an option to allow him to play with other kids. Anyway, his school starts back up in mid-August, but who even knows what that’s going to look like.
As for Irreverent Reading, we are going to blast through the Monster Manual and then move onto other things. As we close in on finishing, I’m actually looking forward to doing the Appendices at the end. There’s some nifty and overlooked stuff in there.
I’d love to pivot to more of the “core” 5E product line when we’re done. Or even do a bestiary book from another system (maybe the one for Fantasy AGE), but, alas, Xander has his heart set on Volo’s…