Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Two Monsters That Begin With U Have Nothing In Common

All the monsters...U time.

Like its good friend Q, U has but two monsters:

Umber Hulk

In the comics, the Hulk got his name 'cause he was marauding around and some soldier said (approximately) "It's some kind of....hulk!" Do you imagine this thing got its name because it waddled out of the shadows and some terrified henchman went "oh no, it's some kind of...hulk! A-and it's umber!"

In recent years, illustrations of the umber hulk have turned it from its original Kirby-esque form into a sort of bipedal giant flea. The original at least has wackiness on it's side, the new one is the kind of thing that'd look really great in the 3d animated giant bug movie but has very little cache in the imagination. The original umber hulk--if we ignore the comic bookiness of the picture-is really not too far from a Bosch demon: it looks at you and you are confused and then it bites you with mandibles. I think my real issue with the hulk as originally presented is that it's treated like an ordinary species rather than some abyssal abomination.


We are all the way down to u, very near the end, so you probably already know--if you've been reading these since the beginning--two things I'll say up front:

-the unicorns I'll use will be nasty or gruesome or gritty or appalling victimized and,

-the girls would desperately like to get their hands on one.

But what else? Long before Christians or even Europeans got ahold of unicorns, their defining feature was untamability--it signified this to every culture that ever dreamed of a horse with a horn. Why?

Well, what's a horse? To the kinds of people who sit around thinking up things to engrave and to symbolize, a horse is an aid to war. You ride on it so you can fight people and the horn is a weapon. In other words, in a unicorn you've got the horse and you've got the sword, so who really needs a guy since all they really do is sit on the horse and hold the sword? It's the premodern equivalent of a tank. So a unicorn very neatly symbolizes self sufficency--it is, if nothing else, independent.

This is perhaps why riding a pegasus into battle seems a little bit less overkill than riding a unicorn. It's actually a kind of interesting paradox: no matter how it's set up, the point of the unicorn is generally going to be that the PCs want the unicorn--but the other point of the unicorn is that the unicorn makes the most sense when it's independent. Doing pretty much the only thing a PC could do with it takes away the very thing that makes it itself.

Most monsters you can only kill their bodies, but a clever enough PC can actually do worse to the unicorn: it can rob it of meaning.


  1. "...the unicorns I'll use will be nasty or gruesome or gritty or appalling victimized and..."

    seek out really dirty girls, rather than virgins? ;)

    Unattainability: it's an essential part of the unicorn mystique (hence all the sappy pre-Raphaelite pictures of bint+horse w. corkscrew attachment)

  2. Why would you ignore the comic bookiness of the Umber Hulk if you were playing a game like D&D?

    Hell, in my D&D its the medieval equivalent of the Hulk, a burrowing opponent and the Legion of Superheroes villain Validus. Its big, angry, superhumanly strong, launches itself up from out of the ground and has a strange otherworldly cool to its appearance. Right on! I say stat it up for Champions too while you're at it. This thing has arch-enemy written all over it.

  3. "seek out really dirty girls, rather than virgins? ;)"

    i like how Chris' statement builds up on your idea of it being a self sufficient spirit of war...

    with your propositions combined - we can have a pretty bad ass, metal unicorn

    perhaps instead of the booring star-metal swords, the best blades in the world are carved out of unicorn horns?

  4. remember U is also for ULSIO

    “The Martian rat is a fierce and unlovely thing. It is many-legged and hairless, its hide resembling that of a new born mouse in repulsiveness. In size and weight it is comparable to a large Airedale terrier. Its eyes are small and close set, and almost hidden in deep fleshy apertures. But its most ferocious and repulsive feature is its jaws, the entire boney structure of which protrudes several inches beyond the flesh, revealing five sharp, spade-like the upper jaw and the same number of teeth in the lower, the whole suggesting the appearance of a rotting face from which much of the flesh has sloughed away . ..
    Its only weapons are its jaws since its broad splay feet are armed with blunt talons. With its protruding jaws it excavates its winding burrows and with its broad feet it pushes dirt behind. To keep the jaws from his flesh then was Turan’s only concern and this he succeeded in doing until chance gave him a hold upon the creature’s throat. After that the end was a matter of moments. Rising at last he flung the lifeless thing from him with a shudder of disgust.”
    (CMM, XII, p.116)

  5. I wonder how much monster image manipulation has to do with computer graphics potential usage for WotC.

  6. I never liked 3rd. ed's gangly bug version of the Umber Hulk.

    To go with the whole comic book thing, I always envisioned 'em like the Juggernaut. Or like the Garthim from the Dark Crystal, only more muscley.

    Hideously strong, filling the tunnel 'cos it's as wide as it's tall, with tree trunk limbs, iron claws, a hide like a cross between a beetle and a rhino, an unstoppable crusher at the top of a weird, subterranian food chain.

    The confusing eyes things I could take or leave, but I guess they're like little blinking warning lights on the front of a train that's coming down the tunnel after you. If you're not smart enough to GTFO you stand there like a deer in the headlights until it smears down the hall...

  7. i've always found D&D unicorns unsettling, even creepy. they remind me of jealous, manipulative boyfriends.

    i have an NPC built right now who is a paladin with a unicorn mount, and said mount has convinced the paladin that she can't ever go into civilization because she might get seduced by a man and then the unicorn would have to leave her forever and she wouldn't want that, would she?

    maybe my definition of 'good' is a little off.

  8. I don't know if it is apocryphal or not, but I always liked the story about how the unicorn was from a drawing based on a really bad description --- someone came back to Europe from Africa, having seen a rhinoceros, and said something like, "Well, it's shaped more-or-less like a horse and has a big horn on its head!" And, in the medieval equivalent of a police sketch, someone sat down and drew exactly what was described. The only thing they left out is the birds that sit on its back. Is that story not true? If not, it ought to be.

  9. @cayvie: I was very close to having a PC paladin have to swear a chastity oath to have an unicorn's aid in destroying a particular villain. Too bad the player had to leave the campaign for real life before I could introduce the "offer she couldn't refuse."

  10. I remember about ten years ago, my D&D group was saying, "Hey, unicorns should be inherently badass. A stallion with a horn that hangs out with virgins? That's pretty damn metal! How did they all end up white and pink with big soulful eyes hanging out in posters on teenage girls' bedroom walls? Is it a scam?"

    I will also note that at the time, we predicted that in ten years, all the teenage girls would have vampire posters on their walls. I like to think that we were awesome.