Saturday, April 10, 2010

"N" Monsters Believe In Nothing

All the monsters: N.

N is a dangerous letter. Nastiness, nihilism, nothingness, and the night all start with "N". There are no giant animals, amiable bumblers, or typical PC races under "N". Even the nymph is, as wrtten, one of the deadliest things in the book.


"Naga are snake-like creatures with good brains and magical abilities". (Good brains?)

In real life, nagas are still very important in parts of India. I find the idea of humanoid creatures worshipping a naga (an "ordinary" naga--not some ethereal naga god) interesting since--assuming the naga has a range of desires and interests broadly equivalent to an ordinary aristocratic human--then a naga is esentially a kind of royal invalid. Unlike a dragon or something, the naga might actually need its worshippers--"Charles, would you mind turning the pages of this book for me, I've dreeadfully tired of these papercuts on my nose"--and risks becoming pathetic without them.


I suggest that the otyugh is a tedious, uncompelling, and redundant monster unless you have a really cool and gross little miniature of it, in which case it can make a very pleasant unpleasant pulp diversion. The neo-otyugh doesn't even have that going for it.

Night Hag

So there's a hag meaning like just an old witch and there's a hag meaning like a sort of stringy gross giantess, and there's a zone in between. Either way the hag is always a GMIWNLF. That thing Jack Nicholson makes out with in The Shining also partakes somewhat in the horror of hagness.

There's some pop psychology quiz where they ask you how you'd react to seeing a naked member of the opposite sex that's 50 years older than you. The answer is supposed to be how you feel about death.

This is thinking about death in a different way than the way the undead make you think about death. The skeleton's about simply being gone--simply not being there any more. The hag is about all the humiliating, pitiless, flabby, gooey things that are going to happen to you on the way to bodily extinction. Horror of age, the body, the skin, physical need. There's a reason they're always cooking.


It is a mare of the night. I feel like the nightmare as presented is a little too big on bluster .

I mean. look at a hell hound--what's it going to do? It's gonna leap through the air with its paws on fire and land on your throat and chew on you. The nightmare? Not so much. And while it is true that horses bite hard, the symbolic point of the nightmare is that it's just something for something considerably more badass to ride around on.

You don't need a nightmare. If you go look at the cover of Death Dealer that guy's just riding a horse. It's a big, black, tough, scary-looking horse but it doesn't have webbed ears. Likewise, the steeds upon which The Nine ride in the movie are just horses.

Horses have inherently understated faces--their eyes are looking down at what they are doing--they concern themselves with chewing up ground and leave the rest to you. Horses with wide eyes or crazy expressions usually just look like they are doing their job wrong. If you really can't do without a flamboyantly menacing transport I suggest a skeletal steed.


Apparently "nixies delight in enslaving humans" and also apparently a nixie won a gold medal in the Olympic 40 meter freestyle and had its smiling, waving portrait taken for the cover of a Wheaties box and also apparently a black and white version of this picture graces the otherwise very menacing entry in the Monster Manual.

Since they are supposed to appear in lakes rather than the ocean, the idea I guess is that Nixies are supposed to be frightening aquatic fairy folk of the indifferent-to-human-morality-variety. They need a better pr department.


The nymph both has higher standards than the dryad (it takes a male with an 18 rather than a 16 charisma to catch her eye) but she's also less desperate (the dryad steals desirable men away whereas the nymph merely has a chance of being "favorably inclined" towards the person.)

Mechanically, the nymph as presented is little more than a trap--you have a pretty good chance of dying or going blind just from looking at her and if you manage to pass your saving throw she'll probably unleash some 7th level druid trouble on you just for coming near her house.

The nymph represents a common Monster Manual solution to making good creatures interesting, that is: find a way to make them hostile.

It seems like playing a nymph as a Gandalf-esque, charmingly manipulative schemer rather than some sort of fragile woodsy xenophobe is the way to go. And, needless to say, in my campaign they're pretty much useless unless they can get over their strict heterosexuality.


  1. skeletal steeds are fucking uncomfortable, just sayin

  2. What makes the Neo-Otyugh slightly more interesting (in a horrific way) than the Otyugh is that Neo is average to very intelligent. I mean, eating dung, offal, and carrion is horrible enough, but to be a sapient species who does that—I can't even imagine. The psychology of Neo-Otyughs must be seriously messed up.

    You're right about the nightmare's weak threat and the underlying horsey issue. I did like the spider-spewing horse from The Brothers Grimm, though.

    You're also right about the Nixie picture: it just doesn't say "slaver" to me. Those Celtic lake monsters are supposed to conjure dark dread, not howdy neighbor.

    The nereid, at least as presented in The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan, had some bad-aquatic-nymph-with-accessories vibe going for it, a kind of tangible elemental like you discussed under the Es, but still feels a bit empty, too much been there done that (nymphs, dryads, nereids, etc.). Why they wrote that "nereid" means "the honeyed ones" escapes me, when the Greeks were so clear that "daughters of Nereus" was the real derivation. Maybe they were trying to obscure the cultural inappropriateness of putting a Greek sea spirit in an Aztec/Mayan dungeon.

    Noisms over at Monsters and Manuals is fond of the Neogi from Spelljammer. Any opinions on them?

  3. Where's the Norkers? Sure they are from the Fiend Folio but they believe in bashing belligerent believers of benefic beings.

  4. If you want a creature that like to take humans as slaves, the neogi are the way to go. I was a big Spelljammer friend and I was creaped out by them forever after having read about them in the Spelljammer novels.

    Speaking of Spelljammer, a couple of posts ago the Lizardmen were mentioned. Spelljammer lizardmen were more sophisticated than their ground dwelling cousins to the point of being PC viable. The main theory was that closeness to nearby suns in space made them smarter. Because of this, most Lizardmen NPCs that you ran across in spelljammer were druids actively engaging in eugenics experiments with their eggs.

  5. like most sci-fi monsters, my problem with the neogi in a pnp rpg context is describability:

  6. Neogi are pretty easy to describe: Horrible spider people with lamprey mouths and spikes everywhere.

    They're also fucking horrifying.

  7. > The Nine ride in the movie are just horses.

    They looked rather oozy and decayingly undead to me. Perhaps freshly undead but not "just" horses.

    It's what you do with a monster more than the monster itself. Even the Flumph has been made cool by Stuart Robertson's Dungeon From A Distant Star.pdf.

  8. I'd like to also throw in my support for Neogi. They're spider based, so have that near instinctual revulsion most people have for spiders going for them. I always though of them as a cross between a spider and predatory eel. Although the above mention of lamprey also works well. And there are some pretty decent pics of them floating around.

    The official WotC pics are also not bad. However, looking at one of the WotC pics, the neck head parts look more like the Graboid tongue/appendages from Tremors than anything else.

  9. The Folklorist in me has always been slightly agitated by Gygax's nymph classification. In Greek myth dryads, nerieds, naiads etc are all 'flavours' of nymph, rather than different types of being. While it would be cool for each one to have it's own subset of powers (although there are a LOT of different nymphs), I don't feel that plain 'nymph' deserves it's own entry except as a template.

    AS for the nightmare.. I don't like that particular one, but I do like monstrous horses. There's definitely some mileage in domesticated herbivores that become murderous. Sheep cant pull it off, nor domestic pigs and neither can cows (unless they are Minotaur). Horses though can be credibly malicious and evil without being funny. My favourite is the Kelpie, although the Nuckelavee is pretty cool too. Oooh, N for Nuckelavee!

  10. @Dan: Yes, the Nuckelavee is horrible. I didn't see D&D stats for it until 1992's historical supplement Celts Campaign Sourcebook by Graeme Davis, but Roger Raup's distant illustration of them on page 44 doesn't do them justice. I suspect that like most people he was too busy thinking WTF?!?!? to get into the hideous spirit of the things. Katharine Briggs's An Encyclopedia of Fairies describes these accursed, skinless horrors much more effectively with words alone.

    I bet Zak could do a killer illustration of the Nuckelavee that truly captures the awful horror of them.

    The man-eating mares of Diomedes from the eighth labor of Heracles are also pretty horrible. Poor Abderus.

    This proliferation of nymphs is probably another example of Gygax's Gesinnungsbedingte Synonymdifferenzierung (thanks Zak & Cyberpunk2020!)—although there's some Gygaxian naturalism at work here, too (each creature in its own ecological niche). This effectively strips the mysterious ineffable quality out of nymphs and so many other monsters similarly treated. They thrive best when they aren't natural species, when they're otherworldly and spiritual and retain both their protean, shifting quality and their abundant, inexplicable variety.

    I mean, Gesinnungsbedingte Synonymdifferenzierung soon starts to give a D&D campaign a been-there-done-that quality that sucks the magic out of it. Where Gygaxian naturalism done with taste can help ground the adventures and make them feel more real—and can set you up to modulate into alternate adventures where the evil is spiritual and mysterious or cosmic—done to excess it strips the cosmos of magic and mystery and makes the game start to feel like killing one rabid dog after another. Rebalancing these two excesses in D&D is one of the keys to revitalizing the game in my experience. YMMMV.

    I mean, when a simple, tangible species wants you out of the gene pool, you know the problem is with them, and a sword seems like a reasonable tool for a response. When a spirit being, a representative of the divine, wants you out of the gene pool, it means the problem is with you and your days really might be numbered.

    Sorry to go on at such length. This series of articles nicely percolates my creativity.

  11. @Zak: Ah, having reread your article on imaginable monsters, the problem with the Nuckelavee becomes clearer: if even artists can't visualize them clearly enough to draw them, most players & DMs don't have much of a chance.

  12. And don't forget the Nilbog. It's right up there with the Gas Spore, the Rot Grub, and the Rust Monster as a fuck-all-you-guys monster.

    By the time the party's stopped hitting it and throwing fireballs at it and actually begun thinking about why it isn't dead yet, it probably has like 45HD and 300 HP.

  13. In my current campaign, a "tame" otyugh is kept in a pit in the stockyards district near the slaughter houses. A nasty critter with an actual useful purpose... helps keep things sanitary.

  14. Open scene: Players boldly sailing this seas as corsairs on a longship. OD&D waterborne random encounter table sayeth: 60 nixies, popping up in the sea before them and begin singing a dark, enticing song.

    PC commands: rip down the sail, immediate stop on the oars! A barrage of arrows is fired, which then sics the unseen giant fish at the ship, pulling 20 men overboard. PCs yell at the oarsmen to row backwards off the tabletop as fast as possible, screaming dying men in the water torn to pieces before the receding prow. End scene.

    That's the first time nixies ever appeared in 30 years of me playing D&D, and it happened by chance in my convention game this morning.

  15. hi, zak. haven't played d&d in years but love the blog regardless, esp the gonzo monster reviews. the observation that fantasy is archetypal and therefore psychological is spot on and i think the best superhero fiction inhabits this territory too.

    in fact we've been playing with ideas similar to yours for some time now:

    many of these are quite old and littered with arbitrary links, rampant adjectivising, punctuation and spelling errors, but i think a lot of the core ideas are still strong.

    btw, this is not intended as a plug - we don't need to plug the site anymore - rather it's a thank you for the hours of good readin'.

  16. When I think of the Nightmare, I think of the horse the Headless Horseman was riding in the original Disney cartoon that scared the piss out of me as a child. Flaming eyes. ANGRY HORSE.

    It WILL trample you - it doesn't care that there is a wall there - it will get through and pound you to mush under it's creepily glossy, inescapible hooves. You can try to run - you can try to escape on horseback - it will chase you down and trample you.

  17. @Rick; I've never had too much trouble visualizing the Nuckelavee: A lifeless rider melded to a horse and the whole thing has no skin. The other stuff like one eye and flippers is just extra detail that varies between tales anyway.

    I'm not sure what to think of the Nilbog; I can't help but think of it as a reference to the movie Troll 2. Then came the Llort. If you wanted you could make a backwards version of every monster in the game.