Thanks once again for visiting my weekly feature, Irreverent Reading. It’s where my son and I read the D&D Monster Manual and dig for story gold…
Wow. We’ve kept at it through thick and thin and look where we are now! Wrapping up the alphabetical listings. I’m certainly going to be a better GM and scenario designer now with the Monster Manual up in my memory palace. And I have Xander to thank for it. I would never have just plowed through the whole thing on my own.
Xander’s reading ability has vastly improved along the way. We’ve done the whole project as a read aloud, and on a typical listing he’s up to handling half of it himself. He’s picked up some obscure vocabulary along the way, too. I’m looking at you, demesne. Also, I’m sure he’s picked up some of the underlying structures of the game after having seen listing after listing after listing.
In any case it’s a heck of a way to bond with your little gamer. I heartily recommend it!
Let’s talk monsters…
One of the things that I noticed this week was that attacks with significant range were on the table. I play a Ranger with the Sharpshooter feat, so I’m very aware of how effective the longbow can be. I feel like there are very few creatures that use those sorts of ranged attacks… but then this week we’ve got the Wraith, who come to think of it might be the only undead with a really good ranged weapon attack, and the Yuan-ti, who seem to have put in their time at the shootin’ range.
Will-O’-Wisp. Man, this is a nasty little creature. Not a lot of Hit Points, but thanks to its Damage Resistances, does it even need ’em? And look at that fat Dex bonus, +9, and, oh yeah, they can become invisible at will.
But here’s an interesting conundrum. If you’ve read, like, three fairy tales you know better than to follow a bunch of lights off into the forest. Also, maybe it’s just the people I game with, but it feels like the play culture of D&D is notoriously risk averse. Can I really imagine anybody I DM for wandering off to chase mysterious glowing orbs? Nope. So, let’s roll up our sleeves and get creative!
I think Job One is to recontextualize the Will-O’-Wisp. Instead of lights floating off in the forest, have them float like a torchlight procession down the winding streets of a deserted city. They can walk the PCs over loose stone that would be obvious in the daylight. As the dust settles and our heroes look up at the “torches” hovering directly overhead, maybe there’ll be a moment or two of sweet, sweet fear.
I also like the idea of a Will-O’-Wisp holing up in a deserted cabin… floating back and forth, imitating someone with a candle pacing back and forth in front of a window. Or maybe it looks like someone signaling to someone else with a lantern. Heck, in the right situation a Will-O’-Wisp could lie low inside a lantern. To what end… you decide.
Thanks to its Undead Nature water is also an ideal medium for the Will-O’-Wisp. It doesn’t need to breathe! Along the coast Will-O’-Wisps might become notorious for clustering together to pretend to be the beacon of a lighthouse. If all goes well, they feast on the essence of shipwrecked sailors. It might be well known that in certain diving spots Will-O’-Wisps lure credulous swimmers to their doom in underwater caves.
If you think any of the above is far-fetched, remember that your garden variety Will-O’-Wisp has an INT of 13, a lot higher than most bandits I know.
It might also be interesting to make Will-O’-Wisps an environmental hazard. Imagine your PCs have found themselves in the steep-walled Valley of the Dead. The cleric can tell that there’s an undead presence everywhere, a field of Undeadness. And our heroes soon discover why. Whenever they get into a fight and anyone or anything is close to death, Will-O’-Wisps start appearing near it like undead vultures. If something drops to 0 HP, it’s a feeding frenzy. They all use their Consume ability to drink up precious life force. Why is the Valley infested with Will-O’-Wisps? And why don’t they attack whatever they see? All cool questions to answer in your game…
Yuan-ti. I used to be lukewarm on the Yuan-ti when I’d flip around at the back of the book. Did we really need humanoid races based on lizards and snakes? Yawn! But when we finally got to the listing my feeling changed. There’s a neat wrinkle in the Yuan-ti backstory that got me thinking in that Big Picture way again…
They were once human. They were just like us but warped their bodies and souls through the worship of dark gods. Now that process, exploring that history, that’s something I want to game; I’d much rather see the Yuan-ti as an emergent evil, than as a fait accompli!
So let’s consider a campaign where the Yuan-ti don’t exist yet, but some powerful people long to be yet more powerful… where a lowly band of landless adventurers stumble onto a conspiracy among the Empire’s upper crust…
A lot of campaigns involve traveling further and further away from civilization to find adventure. This would be just the opposite. What the players discover on the frontier takes them on a long and winding path back to the Capital, the very seat of the Empire itself. If you like to run a “zero to hero” campaign, this would be an ideal fit.
It all starts innocently enough with a Keep on the Borderlands-style adventure; heck you could just adapt that old chestnut for your game. At a forgotten altar deep in the back of a curiously humid cave, our heroes interrupt a ritual. They bust up a ring of human cultists bowing to any one of the evocative Yuan-ti gods—Dendar, the Night Serpent; Merrshaulk, Master of the Pit; Sseth, the Sibilant Death. For our purposes these gods are almost unknown.
It’s clear that a least a couple of the cultists work at the local keep. Our PCs, being a decent sort, report back with prisoners (or evidence) in hand. The Commandant claps them on the back, listens attentively to their story, and assures them he’ll look into it. But… nothing happens. If our heroes brought in a prisoner, they’re back at work in a few days; if they had evidence of the evil deeds, all of it quietly disappears. Perhaps they notice sigils like those on the altar graffitied here and there. The Sergeant at Arms tells the heroes that something is terribly wrong at the keep, and arranges to meet them. She never makes it… she dies mysteriously with no obvious wounds and her body is quickly buried.
If the heroes push the Commandant he claims he’s on top of the situation. He pretends to confide in them about the investigation, implicating perfectly innocent soldiers, and starts to plot the party’s doom. If the PCs try to leave the area of the keep there’s at least one attempt at an ambush.
Even if they do escape, THEY KNOW TOO MUCH! There’s nowhere to hide. They find they’re tailed by agents of the conspiracy no matter how far they run. (Here’s where you can use the stats for the crafty Yuan-ti Purebloods.) Eventually it dawns on them that they can’t escape the conspiracy; they have to root it out. Over time the scope of the thing becomes clear. It isn’t a local or even regional problem; the nest of vipers is in the Capital.
I see this fundamentally as a story of resistance. The TV series V (either version) is your touchstone. Our heroes know they need allies, and sometimes find them, but there are also betrayals. Perhaps they’re captured and make a daring escape. At times they should struggle to convince a fat and happy populace that there’s something deeply wrong with their society.
Do our heroes stop the Yuan-ti from emerging in this time and this place, only to have the snake gods win in another kingdom? That’s up to you, your tastes, and your table.
Yugoloths. Here’s another listing I didn’t think I would care for. With just a cursory glance these looked like leftovers from the Devil/Demon listings. But no. These guys are a blast. I love the vision of a bunch of fiends that, as fate would have it, are just in it for themselves.
Obviously as the write-up suggests, the Yugoloth would make an ultimate merc company. Even though there’s only 4 types, they cover a wide variety of skill sets. The Mezzoloths are really tough grunts and the Nycaloths make excellent flying elite troops. Add the Arcanaloths for organization, middle-management, and artillery support via spell use, and the Ultroloth as leader/boss, and you’ve got a flexible and deadly force.
I particularly like the Arcanaloth build. It’s a little more subtle than the combat-oriented models; you can tell they’re smart, because they wear little glasses. I love it that they know All languages. That’s a cool story point by itself. I could imagine a lone wolf Arcanaloth making an incredible living in, say, Waterdeep as the world’s foremost expert on linguistics. Also, these beasties know their Arcana (+13), come with Truesight, and cast at 16th level with a spell list to match. The cherry on top is the ability to cast Magic Missile at will.
So, of course, the Yugoloths could play a king-making army for hire on the Material Plane. (They fight with utter abandon knowing that they are literally going to respawn in Gehenna no matter what.) Imagine a world where their loyalty goes to the highest bidder. Perhaps your kingdom is on top—that is, until you can’t pay these bastards anymore, and then that’s it for your dominance for a generation or two.
Or, you could crew a Sky Ship with these fiends, and have them make lazy circuits of the globe extorting Danegeld at every port of call. Who’s going to stop them? Are our heroes up to the task? The Yugoloths are tough combatants with lots of ways to hurt you; they’re not something to throw at an inexperienced group. Any campaign built around besting them would doubtless involve acquiring one of the four Books of Keeping that contain the true names of all the Yugoloth. Knowing a fiend’s true name allows you to control it. So, not all the crew’s names would be in the same book, but enough, perhaps, to start sabotaging the Yugoloth’s operation…
You could also run a campaign where the strategic balance of your game world revolves around the possession of one of the Books of Keeping. Such a tome makes for an excellent deterrent. (It’s like having a nuclear arsenal in our world.) But unlike an arsenal, a simple book could always go missing…
Are your PCs tasked with stealing one of these… or getting a stolen one back?
Zombies. It’s fitting that the last image in the alphabetical listing is the Beholder Zombie. When we started Xander’s first drawing for the series was a Beholder. Four months and some huge societal shifts later, we’ve come full circle. I think we joked about a zombie version of the Beholder way back then, and whaddya know.
My only disappointment is that its Eye Rays aren’t more themey. What a missed opportunity! Maybe some sort of anti-turning blast that negates the cleric’s Turn Undead ability… or at the very least a Zombiefication Ray! That’s an easy fix, though. Just rebrand the Disintegration Ray and change the special effects. You’ll be glad you did!
So, we say goodbye to the alphabetical listings, but we’re not done yet, not by a long shot. There’s still some good stuff left. Appendix A: Miscellaneous Creatures and Appendix B: Nonplayer Characters have yet to reveal their secrets.
I’ve already found a couple of gems… come back next week, and we’ll tell you all about them!