Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The H Monsters

Continuing the Alphabetical Monster Thing. Monsters that start with "H"...


A big philosophical difference between the epic special-effects bonanza movie trilogy that informed my childhood and the one that informed the youths of children who first started watching movies during the Zeroes is that Star Wars was about a kid who couldn't wait to get the hell out of his tedious rural backwater and out into trouble, whereas the Rings movies are about a bunch of guys who are like "Oh, it looks like we're on an adventure, I don't know about this shit...I sure wish we could've just stayed in our tedious rural backwater..."

I used to have a roommate that was basically a hobbit. When the LotR movies came out we talked about Tolkien. I said how I didn't get why somebody with all that imagination would make hobbits--the most boring thing in Middle Earth--the center of the story. He felt exactly the opposite. His favorite part in all Tolkieana is when Gandalf encourages Bilbo to ignore his fear by "thinking of pleasant things".

Bilbo then lists off the pleasant things:
"A warm library at twilight...cakes."
Can't relate.

The bold and pugnacious urban halfling is by now, of course, a well-established D&D anti-stereotype and also begins with ideas in Tolkien. It works fairly well.

The outright evil halfling has two main possibilites: bad-halfling-as-icy-Machiavelli and bad-halfling-as-creepy-child. The second is automatically intriguing, and the first has possibilites--especially if you can manage to make the scheming overhalfling so austere, commanding, and vicious that it never seems funny. Tall order, as Rorshach would say.


You can call it The Demilich Rule: the less capable of causing harm something appears to be, the more disturbing it is when it starts being evil. For this reason, I've always thought harpies worked much better without arms.

Hell Hound, Hound of Ill Omen, et al.

Much as I am dubious of monsters that exist merely because of synonym-sprawl (or Gegenstandsverdoppelnde Gesinnungsdifferentiation, as they call it in Germany) I feel that there are two different and honest niches for the hell hound and the hound of ill omen/bargehest/black dog/whatever other spooky northern European dog legend you subscribe to.

The hell hound is like this horrible persuing monster that chases you like Rick Moranis got chased out of his Upper East side apartment and chews you up with it's "great black teeth" right there on camera whereas the more low key and spectral hounds appear and then howl and then go away and you're doomed.

Herd Animal

Hit dice: 1-5
Damage/attack: variable
Cop out meets Gygaxian Naturalism. It's kinda like Gygax wanted to say "look every single thing is in the monster manual" but couldn't be bothered to actually do it. Conflicting urges. Technically, you could say that all herd animals ever are in the monster manual as long as you accept the fact that that doesn't mean you don't have to make up the stats for them yourself anyway.

And who are these Whole-Earth-Catalog hippies running from the giraffe?


The part of your brain called the hippocampus is called that because somebody thought it looked like a seahorse. Which is a little confusing.

Imagine how much more confusing it would be if the science of anatomy had taken a little bit longer to develop and that part of your brain had ended up being called "that thing that pops out of Kane's chest".

It occurs to me that this blog's audience is the type where somebody is bound to point out that chest burster was actually made from hog guts so I'll just go ahead and say that for you.


Ingres does a pretty good job of making the hippogriff look not stupid in this picture. (Though you kinda have to wonder whether the damsel is just pretending to be in distress since Roger showed up--the dragon has a kind of "I thought you said he was on a business trip in New Mexico" look on his face.) However, he does it by having the knight's armoured leg sharply divide the horse parts from the eagle parts. If he didn't, the thing might look pretty awkward trying to walk around with those little talons in front and horse legs in the back--like a wheelbarrow with wings.


How's this for lame-on-paper: Last year I played in a one-shot game that was pretty much a one-way only, heavily "storied" adventure (with a moral dilemma thrown in the middle that backfired and didn't take) which turned out to be just a staged set of encounters moving toward what at first seemd like it was going to be a demon gnoll-god boss monster but was actually a giant hippo.

I had a lot of fun anyway.

Moral of the story: play with your friends. It's fun pretty much no matter what.

As for the whole hippos-being-the-most dangerous-megafauna-in-Africa thing: apparently, the deal is we don't have reliable statistics for all the animals in Africa, but that observers all agree the hippo is indeed an irritable and deadly beast and definitely kills more people than lions do.

However, an RPG is not the same medium as rowing down the Okavongo River in a straw canoe, so--in a game--I'm still way more scared of this unicorn-head guy (ice-cream cone notwithstanding) than a hippopotamus.


The militarized hobgoblin--as opposed to the hobgoblin-as-weird-little-magic-sprite-thing is entirely a legacy of J.R.R Tolkien.

You could say the same thing to some degree about other races--elves, goblins--but there are premodern stories in which these creatures had something approaching societies. What gets lost to some degree in the translation from the old ideas of fairy courts and fairy worlds to what you can usually fit in a game without trying is the idea that although they were as sophisticated or perhaps more sophisticated than human socities, they had what we would call these days a completely different technology: They value gold we value gold but one always got the sense that it was for completely different reasons.

The hobgoblin probably moved the farthest post-Tolkien--starting out as an often benevolent (a "hob" is a actually a friendly spirit) magical creature and through Gygax's translation of Tolkien's translation (Uruk'hai or however it's spelled) turned them into goblins on steroids.

Normally, at this point I would decry such grotesque simplification. However, sometime in the last few years Jeff of Jeffs Gameblog posted the really cool Hayami Rasenjin picture of a hobgoblin in full armor which graces the top of this page (thank you Blizack for the image and image credit) which made me decide DnD hobgoblins were fine by me.

The samurai-style hobgoblin in the monster manual is clumsy but I think the idea isn't so bad--a hobgoblin is a thing that actually looks like those crazy demon masks that samurai used to wear. (Putting them in somewhat the same category as gargoyles--a creature inspired by art imitating some other creature.)


The wikipedia entry for Homonculous is one of the coolest things I've read in months. So rather than plagiarize it here I will just suggest you go read it.

I think an interesting idea would be to fuse the old alchemical concept of a homonculous as a sort of reduced magical counterpart to a person with the modern scientific concept of a homonculous as an image of a person distorted to reflect the importance of certain parts of the body from a given point of view.

For example: you could have a homonculous spell which distorts your enemies bodies according to the sins they are guilty of. A greedy person might grow huge eyes an fingers, a gluttonous person might grow a gigantic mouth, etc. Alternately you could have some sort of device which copies you, only smaller, exaggerating the body parts you use most or something like that. The possible combinations seem endless.


Hordlings are to the lower planes what "herd animal" is to this one. A way for Gygax to point to anything in a Heironymous Bosch painting and say "that's in the game."


This message is for any members of my gaming group that may be reading this blog: there are no Warponies available for any price in this campaign.


Since everyone knows already that hydrae are super cool and you should use them at every available opportunity I will instead to address a specific issue concerning the hydra. That is: what does the non-snakey head part of the hydra look like? The DnD hydra has a big quadrupedal lizard body but there are also versions that have a snake body and some that have a big fat fish tail. All are acceptable. However: a hydra with four legs and a tail strikes me as unimaginably tasteless.


A note to any of my players who might be reading this: Trained hyenas are available in most towns in my campaign at reasonable prices.


letsdamage said...

The hobgoblin you're talking about has a home here, on my blog:

In the comments section of that post is a link to the site of the artist that drew it. Japanese guy, naturally.

Tom said...

So what would you qualify the ponies the various Mongol-like hordes rode into battle as? They were ponies, they were trained (or as least commonly used) in battle. They were also at least as bad-tempered as camels.

Are they light Warhorses? Regular Ponies? Nightmares on a masquerade?

Or are warponies simply not availible for sale, let alone in a pink color with a rainbow tatoo on their haunches and silky-hair-you-can-really-brush (TM)? :O

Zak Sabbath said...

In my campaign, all horses exist in a nether-dimensional-bubble until they are not only fully grown, but have acquired totally-metal-looking horse armor.

Adam Dickstein said...

First, super-kudos for using the art of one of my favorite Japanese RPG artist's Hayami Rasenjin. Love his stuff and that is one of his coolest B&W illustrations. Best D&D style Hobgoblin ever.

Second, a big fan of doggies, I've used my share of hell hounds, hounds of ill omen (cool name) and that like but I'm really more of a Church Grim/Black Dog enthusiast.

PC #1: "Hey, did you guys see that big, black wolf hound in the woods out back?"

The Rest of the Party: (taking three steps back from PC #1, biting their knuckles and swallowing the lump in their throats). "No. I wouldn't worry about it though. I'm sure its nothing."

Finally, the Hydra, Hippocampus and Hippogriff all have their place...and that place is Greece! At least in my main D&D world such things can only be found in the region they originated in, a parallel Greco-Roman area of my world.

PatrickW said...

Very entertaining, as always, but what happened to "Monsters starting with G"?

Also, the warpony and hyena comments both brought a smile to my lips.

Rock on.

Zak Sabbath said...

A very cursory search of recent posts by almost any means will reveal the G monster entry.

Anonymous said...

Zach, you seem like a good guy, and I love your blog and your Escapist videos, but sometimes, you drop a comment that shows you don't understand how normal hu-mons think. :) Like how gaming is good for imagination, but using it for escapism is stupid. Many people have crappy lives that they need a break from. Now you wonder why Hobbits are good heroes? Because they are us. They are the people who do their job, have a drink with buddies, and raise families. We might think elves are awesome, and that Aragorn will be a great king, but we see all this through Frodo's eyes. He's the one we can relate to.
As for adventures, they are only adventures after the fact. If you survive. The whole War of the Ring thing was a seriously dangerous affair that Frodo probably shouldn't have survived. I like to think that if I was put in his position, I'd have the strength to do what he did. But I am also glad I don't have to.
People play RPGs to get the chance to do the things they don't want to do in real life. I've had a gun pointed at me before. Don't feel like having it happen again.
As for D&D halflings, I liked the original version, when they were Hobbits under another uncopyrighted name. The later, halflings-as-roguish-wanderers idea didn't appeal to me too much. It's like they all got infected with Kender genes. Bleh.

Zak Sabbath said...

I have never claimed to understand how ordinary humans think.

Ursca said...

On hippos: Say what you like about them, but their skulls are badass.

squidman said...

Daaaaaamn that is a sweet Hobgoblin!

Interesting point about hobbits vs. lukes. Never thought about it, but it might be one of the reasons why I really dislike the Lotr movies.

Ragnorakk said...

Gimmie many-headed serpent hydrae any day of the week.

Capheind said...

Warponies are almost the size of a normal horse, their stock proportions, better footing, and slower movement rate are the only real way you can tell their even ponies. Also I've heard that Scottish Boarder Ponies are mean. That said I'd totally let the girls get My little Pony style war-ponies. Provided their hot pink and electric purple mains glowed brightly in the dark, and their constant prancing could be heard by men and monsters for miles....

Unknown said...

Hmm, a tail makes sense for a hydra to some extent. Picture a huge creature with near half of its body mass in front of the front legs.

You'd need the tail to balance out the heads, or a body more like a snake's to put more mass on the ground. Otherwise it would be tipping forward constantly, never mind the likely back and neck problems.

I don't get the *fish* tail part of it though, unless someone figured every limb should be from a different creature.

wormme said...

Wonderful. Now my brain worries at the thought of what, exactly, is in a homonculous's head. Is it homonculi(??) all the way down?

Stuck in a recursive loop that's ABOUT recursive loops. Hopefully the idea will afflict one of you now and leave me alone.

Rick Marshall said...

Okay, the chest burster reference rocked. All that's missing, since doctors like to use Classical Greek and Latin for brain anatomy names, is for someone with a classics education to translate "chest burster" for us, so we can have our own, less confusing, name for the Hippocampus region of the brain.

And you're right about the harpies. They're much weirder without the arms.

A GM said...

I'm so glad I'm not the only one who thought of My Little Warpony. Maybe they should be specially trained mounts for the Uncaring Bears, those small emotion-stealing ursenoids, who upon the death of their owner go beserk and fight until slain --
AND have soft silky hair you can really brush. ;)
Or something.

On harpies:
At the end of the _Devilman Lady_ anime, the final battle costs the protagonist both arms at the shoulder -- made me realize a lot of our humanity is tied up in our arms. and hands

Eric M said...



trollsmyth said...

Zak: Is that harpy your work? She looks great. :D

Zak Sabbath said...

yeah--larger than actual size.

SirAllen said...

The harpy pic is great; she looks like Gina Gershon, and that's a harpy I could 'get along' with. Thanks for sharing your art.

Also, I can't stand when people comment on the captcha word, so it is with shame and wonder that I point out that mine was 'stoutz' which is amazing considering the first part of the article is about halflings.

Anonymous said...

The Aberrant RPG used the name 'Homonculus' to describe their 'detach your eyeball(or other body part) and have it spy for you' power.

PatrickW said...

@Zak: d'oh! And I read it already as well! *foreheadsmack*

My apologies.

Unknown said...

Zak, if you find homunculi interesting you should definitely read the short story "Seventy-Two Letters" by the great Ted Chiang.

I'm a little surprised that it's online for free, albeit via WayBackMachine. The link is:

You are remarkably well-read, so you're probably acquainted with Chiang's work already. If so, please disregard. If not, you'll thank me.

Unknown said...

I always liked hobgoblins but that probably has something to do with me growing up to the Might and Magic computer RPG series.

Talking about it, it originally had snake hydras then changed to lizard body hydras for some reason... maybe as an excuse for their increased movement speed in the Heroes of Might and Magic spin-offs.

Also, how haven't you commented on the greek origin of the harpies. You always make sure to comment when monsters have a greek background. The invulnerable harpies that face the Argonauts and their tactics is a interesting way to look at them.

Grey said...

"the thing might look pretty awkward trying to walk around with those little talons in front and horse legs in the back--like a wheelbarrow with wings."

Now you mention it someone probably got the idea of a hippogriff from a flightless bird.