Thursday, April 22, 2010

The "R" Monsters

All of the monsters: R.


The smoking jacket is the key. Without it, it's just one more organic impediment with a zoomorphic head. Strangely, the game often ignores the smoking jacket and all it implies and treats the Rakshasa as just one more high-level nasty. A recent WotC product has a beholder summoning one as a kind of bodyguard.

A quick perusal of the wikipedia finds no mention of the tiger head at all--the Rakshasa is just a sort of catch-all magic cannibal demon. The tiger head,gives the D&D Rakshasa a distinct identity: tigers have both the coiled poise of housecats and the pimpiness of their striped orange coats. Tigers seem to be saying "I know you know I'm right here, and I know that you know that I know that there's nothing you can do it about it. Because I'm a fucking tiger." Ferocity and royal ease. This eastern demon is not a tempter but a tyrant. Shere Khan acts like Shere Khan for a reason.

Ram, giant

Slightly more dangerous and slightly less interesting than Goat, giant.

Rat, giant (Sumatran)

Giant rats appear all the time in dungeons, they're the monster that tells you that you're in a dungeon but you haven't gotten anywhere that anybody else hasn't managed to get yet.

Giant rats do actually exist and--aside from horses--probably therefore qualify as the real animal most likely to appear in Dungeons and Dragons. The giant rats in the Manual are size S which means that they probably aren't yet riding-animal size, but that never stopped people from writing them that way.

What I like about the idea of a goblin or something riding around on a--say--wolf-sized giant rat is the image of the rat getting up on its hind legs and sniffing the air while the goblin scouts around. Perfect thing for going around a dungeon on.


It's strange how modern rays seem. It's difficult to picture anyone before the Sherlock Holmes era having anything to do with them (except maybe in Japan).

Judging from the Monster Manual, Gygax apparently regularly had need of rules to determine what happens when a PC gets swallowed whole by a giant version of a regular animal. He also seems extremely prepared for the prospect of PCs looking for treasure while they are in there. "The manta ray's stomach is the repository of indigestible items--such as the treasure types indicated."

I catch myself wondering if Gygax's original players didn't spend half the Greyhawk campaign just wandering around temperate salt water biomes hoping to get swallowed.


A remorhaz is another one of those sci-fi type monsters that you can't really picture properly unless you've seen an illustration. The job with the remorhaz is to distinguish it from the purple worm and (later) from the frost worm. The only thing that really makes it come alive is the original Trampier picture.

When I was younger I never realized it, but I realize now that he had a peculiar talent for defining things. Whether or not any individual one of his pictures was spectacular or memorable, the Trampier picture always etches the substance and the aura--the idea of the monster--very clearly. I can't immediately think of any comparable artist in that regard in all of art history.

With, for example, Ian Miller or Erol Otus' expressionism you always seem to get more mood (or more Otus, or more Miller) than monster--not that this is a bad thing, it's just that they're more about the image than the thing.

Other artists can define a thing, but in the way a dictionary does--they generally rely so much on realism that it ends up looking like the thing has been observed rather than summoned. A Bosch demon, for example, just looks like he just saw that bug-faced five eyed thing walking around in the Netherlands somewhere and painted it. Durer's work looks like every monstrosity he ever drew resulted from careful scientific study of the beast in its habitat or on a dissecting table. Frazetta seemed to be trying to carefully re-create vividly-colored dreams using all the technical tools at his disposal.

Trampier stylizations, on the other hand, seem to be neither expressions or observation--he looks rather as if he has lived with the legend of the remorhaz as did his father before him and his father before him and so when he's called upon to depict it he gives you a sort of codified but still vital representation of this thing--his work is a sort of pulpy equivalent of the eerily specific monster sculptures produced by early Chinese and Mesoamerican artists with a sort of supreme cultural confidence that the monster has a broken tooth right there and a third arm right there and that you have a sort of sacred responsibility to represent it properly.

Anyway, he makes me want to make the girls want to know what a remorhaz is.


I can't really picture my campaign including a rhinoceros, although I can imagine my PCs seeing a bizarre print on the wall of the library depicting one and wondering what the hell kind of crazy monster that is and wondering whether there is any treasure in its stomach.


See Eagle, giant.

Roper and Rust Monster

I would maintain the roper is superfluous and the rust monster isn't.

Superficially, they have a lot in common: both are original to D&D, both are sort of sci-fi-ish, both have tentacles.

But the roper is basically nothing at all interesting without its tentacles--and so many other things have tentacles. And if they don't then you can easily stick them on.

The rust monster, on the other hand, has a unique ability, is less shapeless in the mind's eye (a roper is "cigar shaped" whereas the rust monster is basically a giant four-legged bug), and the rust monster has personality.

It has personality because while the roper is just one more yellowish brown blob trying to kill you, the rust monster has the subtle agon of all insects--it means you no harm, it's simply gross and in your way and wants to eat something you happen to value.

In an actual fight, the roper is going to lash out and try to eat you and if it doesn't then what's the point? The rust monster, on the other hand, has a million different uses: goblins can prod it toward you or drop it on you, it can simply be in your way minding its own business in a narrow tunnel you need to get through, or hundreds of them can infest a town like rats.

Mandy wants to know if--when you drop them--they helicopter slowly to the floor with their propeller tails.

Now is as good a time as any to mention that when I complained about the gelatinous cube in the G entry, the nice people at Otherworld Miniatures sent me a very nice deluxe cube and also threw in a pair of rust monsters. I'd like to put a picture of them here but I had a hell of a time gluing them together and I wouldn't want my hamfistedness to reflect poorly on them. Anyway, point is they make some pretty good rust monsters over there at Otherworld.

Rot Grub

I'm sure there's some story about some circumstance that made this incredibly boring kill-your-players-immediately monster seem necessary when they were originally invented.

I feel like if I was an entrepreneurial lower planes creature aiming for Demon Prince of something, there's unexploited psychobioarchetypal real estate in the Lord of Rot Grubs, Cerebral Parasites, Ear Seekers and Other Creatures That Are Ubiquitous, Almost Undetectable, and Almost Always Fatal niche. Why isn't there that guy? He'd be the boss in no time.


Classically, a revenant refers to someone who's dead, walking around, corporeal, and still in possession of all or most of his or her faculties. So: not a ghost, not a zombie, and not a vampire (the revenant doesn't necessarily have any special powers).

The interesting thing about this kind of revenant is that if it's still walking around and thinking, then what--in practical terms--makes it dead? For this reason, the revenant asks you to define "soul" in one way or another, in order to define, therefore, what it would mean to be "soulless".

In the medieval mind, the soulless were considered animalistic (thus vampires), in modern pop terms we think of soullessness as almost the opposite. "Soulless" suggests to us something Kafkian--without emotion, without appetites or drives, mechanical. Without the passions of the animal.

Strangely, we think of the soul as the animal and the body as mere machine, whereas early Christians though of the body as the animal and the soul as the restraining mechanism.

At any rate, revenants in a campaign that already has ghouls or vampires would be modern Kafkian constructs joylessly going about repetitive rituals or bureaucratic tasks. Better than ghosts, in my humble.


mordicai said...

I like Rakshasas as non-western devils; that is, otherworldy & diabolical guys that aren't THEE DEVILE. Plus, you can mess with their philosophy-- make them all Manichean & ha-satan, & make them really BE the guys who are evil to test the virtue of the good; Maybe they were heroes in another life who became Bodhisattvas of evil to help the world achieve enlightenment or whatever.

Rust monsters work great as long as you do a couple of things. You can make the dungeon have lots of metal...or formally lots of metal...& say that is why they are there. You can make them a spontaneous generation (like rats from straw!). I personally like to have a rust monster continuum; in the 3e Underdark book there is an albino rust monster called the Anihilator that just disintegrates whatever it touches. Then also, I have an irrational soft spot for rust dragons, too.

thekelvingreen said...

Mandy wants to know if--when you drop them--they helicopter slowly to the floor with their propeller tails.

That is so brilliant that of course it must be the case. And goblin zeppelins drop them on castles as the precursor to a siege.

The Hex Master said...

The Rust Monster is a classic D&D monster in that it is vividly imaginable, greatly feared and reviled by players and yet operates on pure game mechanics. It's like fighting a "go back two squares monster" or the "discard three cards from your hand monster". It really seem to polarize people. There was a Planescape module with an encounter featuring a Rust Monster right next to another encounter area starring an Iron Golem. The module specifically noted that PC would get little or no XP for the leading the Rust Monster to the all-you-can-eat buffet next door. It seemed like the game designer was trying to teach some sort of deeply felt and poor externalized lesson with that setup but to this day its true meaning escapes me...

Assuming I succeeded on my legend lore roll, I recall that the Remorhaz was originally the first illo for TSR that Otus drew and Gygax stated it up after the fact. I think that illo first appeared in an early Dragon.

I recently re-read all of Trampier's Wormy comix from Dragon. The level of detail, especially in the later issues is astounding. I think it really supports your observations on his immersive style. It might also partly explain his sudden burn out and retirement from the RPG scene. I would love to see Wormy finished. :(

Eric M said...

Great analysis of the Rakshasa. I like to think that the Tale Spin era Shere Khan was just a Rakshasa in disguise the whole time. If Baloo had ever seriously challenged his power, I suspect he would have fashioned a bearskull mug to drink blood from. Just saying.

Anonymous said...

Wow. This is, so far, my favorite All The Monsters entry. Excellent thoughts about all of these. You're right about Trampier; the old MM has such a bestiary feel to it, like these are things we've heard of, but maybe not all of them are real. But here's what we think they might look like.

What I always liked about the Rakshasa from the original MM, too, was that it said they were from India. I was like, India? WTF? Where is India on the World of Greyhawk map? That is so boundary-busting insane; the kind of thing they would never do now.

Clovis Cithog said...

Actually, if you represent them correctly, a rhinoceros is a fierce opponent. Like elephants, these animals are considered pachyderms (latin = thick skin) which means they are highly resistant to physical damage.
Using the concepts in MMv3.5, p.307 reduce ALL individual hits inflicted on a rhinoceros by five, with a minimum of one hitpoint scored per damage die and magical damage bonus.
(i.e., a +2 long-sword would inflict a minimum of 3 hp with each strike
or a fireball from a six level wizard would do a minimum of 6 hp).

Adult rhinos and elephants are extremely strong and very hard to kill . . .

Anonymous said...

For rot grubs, ear seekers, etc try mega-sizing them and having them be parasites in a giant's lair. One of the really sloppy ones like hill giants or fomorians. The group kills the marauding giant and as it guts go sliding out they have to deal with the Giant Tapeworm that had been driving it mad with hunger or something...

Zak Sabbath said...

is someone somewhere suggesting a rhinoceros is not a fierce opponent?

Scott McDaniel said...

Great entry - your descriptions of the artists were spot-on.
It had been so long, I had to look up which artist was Trampier, and this article came up:

Also, my Junior year in high school, a friend was dumping out a big bag of random Chinese produced plastic doodads and whatzits, and one of them was an almost perfectly done rust monster. No D&D context, just sitting there amongst soldiers, American Indians and amphibians.

BigFella said...

And don't forget the creepy, backwards folding hands thing with Rakshasa. Those little touches, like the duplicate mouth on the back of the neck of a werehyena, really add to the creepy factor.

@The Hex Master: "The Go back two sqares Monster" is incredibly apt. That's the funny thing about players. You can threaten 'em with death and dismemberment and they'll shrug it off. Deprive them of their stuff, though, and hell's out for breakfast.

Finally, I'm with ya all the way on Trampier's stuff, Zak. If you've ever had a chance to see his "Wormy" strips in Dragon, especially the later ones before he up and quit, he was doing AMAZING stuff with atmosphere and setting.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Adam Dickstein said...

The only drawback to your interpertation of the Revenant as a joyless,almost robotic, entity is it leaves out the driving force behind why it has returned from the dead...Revenge.

Revenant = Revenge.

I have used them in the past as 'heroic' NPCs that the players meet and team up with to achieve some goal.

The Revenant will hide its unliving nature in some way. Later, as the goal of the adventure is in site, their new 'ally' seems to obsess over certain elements to the point where he will ignore PCs requests for assistance and even endanger them to get at the main villain.

Its also fun to use them to turn the tables on a typical hack-n-slash party. The Revenant, bent on revenge, kills a villain the PCs were trying to capture. The PCs were hoping for information but the Revenant, already knowing the info, simply wanted the individual dead for what he did the Revenants family or what-have-you.

Also, I am a big Trampier fan myself and your assessment of his work is indeed spot on.

Great stuff.

richard said...

I just landed here and I'm so glad I did. Genius. Especially Rust Monsters and the Trampier bit. Thank you.

mordicai said...

I have to say, I'm with the Barking Alien-- as cheesy as it sounds to describe, making the Revenant "The Crow" is an okay way to go. Or if you prefer, making it a corporeal "ghost" that animates to take bloody revenge.

Chris said...

There was a Planescape module with an encounter featuring a Rust Monster right next to another encounter area starring an Iron Golem. The module specifically noted that PC would get little or no XP for the leading the Rust Monster to the all-you-can-eat buffet next door.

Well ain't that just a prime example of ascended fan boy meets dick DM.

The specificity of Giant (Sumatran) Rat always puzzled me. Why not just Rat, Giant? Oh, right. Thanks google!

Jomo Rising said...

I took the intelligence of the Roper into consideration and made it a mage. More uses that way.

Delta said...

"I catch myself wondering if Gygax's original players didn't spend half the Greyhawk campaign just wandering around temperate salt water biomes hoping to get swallowed."

More like Ginsu chefs, leaving a trail of diced, sliced, minced, searched-for-treasure bodies everywhere they go.

Sean said...

The Rakshasa always seemed like no matter how intelligent it was *supposed* come across, it was still smarter, craftier than it would ever let on. The idea that another creature could summon one just strikes me as beneath a Rakshasa's caste. I feel like if it were a creature you could summon, it would turn on the summoner before attacking anyone else, taking it as an affront to being beckoned for so dismissively. Kind of like how I'd imagine Satan himself would deal with those lip-service high schooler Pagans who try to summon him in a graveyard, were they successful in doing so.

Unknown said...

"[T]he Trampier picture always etches the substance and the aura--the idea of the monster--very clearly. I can't immediately think of any comparable artist in that regard in all of art history."

I couldn't either, but my brother came up with two artists like Trampier.

(1) Hokusai. Hokusai had a different style, but like Tramp, he usually set out to DEFINE what he was depicting.

(2) M. C. Escher. Trampier's crosshatching style, razor-sharp perspective, and woodcut-like inking was a clear homage to MCE.

Hokusai examples similar to DAT:

Escher examples similar to DAT:

Anonymous said...

Since you mentioned the Gelatinous Cube, I think the coolest way (well, the only way) I've seen them done is when my party was down in murky, claustrophobic sewer tunnels and suddenly we got into an area where everything was really, startlingly clean. Suddenly, we see a huge blobby thing squeezing its way through the tunnels towards us, on the passage to get to the other side, and bam, instant troublesome monster fight.

I actually like the idea of canny officials unleashing gelatinous cubes within their city sewers with the intent of keeping them clean of foul messes and vermin. Makes them an environmental hazard as much as a deadly creature.