Friday, April 23, 2010

"S" Is Where The True Classic Monsters Hide

Perusing all the monsters alphabetically, "S" is clearly the mother lode. "D" has demons, devils, and dragons, but for real-life terrors--sharks, snakes, skulls, scorpions, slugs--you can't beat "S". Things that start with "S" have been frightening people since before the letter was invented.


Along with the ixitxachitl, the morkoth, the masher, and several other pointless underwater monsters were apparently created by Steve Marsh for the Blackmoor supplement in 1975 (if you spend more time researching than I want to then I'm sure you can figure out what's Marsh and what's Arneson and what's Gygax here, ANYWAY...).

The sahuagin entry is one of the longest in the book and details sahuagin society extensively though god know's why. I think Marsh was working in the wrong medium: his manta ray philosophers and brutal shark men and crazy fish might have been great in a pulp novel or in a Jae Lee-illustrated run on Sub-Mariner but, as gaming material, all these interlocking, backstoried monsters boil down to is a set of stats and a small crappy black and white illustration (or, in later editions a cartoony, superdeformed color illustration). And in that medium, they do not come particularly alive.

There are lots of details about the organization of sahuagin society with weapon lists and percentile charts, but no details on, say, what makes them any different from underwater hobgoblins or what weird beliefs they might have or the peculiarities of their architecture or beast-of-burden breeding practices. Telling me the percentage armed with a trident vs. the percentage armed with a net might--theoretically--be useful, but not as useful as giving me details that make me care whether one has a trident or a net.

The sahuagin looks like a dumb ape with fins and nothing written in the entry overcomes that. If I mentally change their name to "sea devils" rather than their egregiously pseudo-exotic original name and transpose the finned ape picture with the awesome Trampier salamander on the next page I suddenly feel like a race of cruel sea slavers might might might be worth all the effort and non-dungeoneering it would take to get my players to care about things happening dozens of miles underwater to yet another race of ill-tempered humanoids.


Actual salamanders sleep inside logs, so sometimes when you build a fire you suddenly see salamanders crawling out of it. This gave rise to the idea that they had an affinity for fire. I like salamanders a lot (it's probably all down to Trampier).

I like that they come to the material plane for "purposes known only to them". I imagine them surrounding people and hissing and poking them with their strange spears bathed in a wrong glow.

I also like the idea of frost salamanders. Lizards and amphibians usually hate the cold, but in our minds they are cold so somehow it all works out.


The modern conception of Satan is a streamlining of the satyr or, more specifically, of the satyr and the satyr-gods Bacchus and Pan. Through an injection of serpent blood--or perhaps simply because of the difficulty of carving curls into stone--the image of Satan often lacks the goat hair on his goat legs. It's an improvement.

Scorpion, Giant

It's hard not to like scorpions, but my heart belongs to the man-scorpion. It's one of the very first monsters in history--Gilgamesh meets them when they're working as underworld bouncers (one of the only jobs available to monsters in those less enlightened times).

"...their glory is terrifying, their stare strikes death into men, their
shimmering halo sweeps the mountains that guard the rising sun."

It's interesting how no matter how much we think we know about the world, the scorpion's sting still strikes us as fundamentally dishonest just because it's on its tail. The scorpion always has to play the bad guy.

Sea Hag

I did not realize until looking at this entry just now that the canonical sea hag had a three times daily death gaze. Anyway...

For me there are two kinds of sea hag, the one with a sense of humor and the one without.

The sea hag with a sense of humor is the one you might find at the head of a lusty pirate crew and the one that turns you into a frog just for fun. The sea hag is mad and reckless and will pretty much do whatever.

The sea hag without a sense of humor is the hag who bemoans her lost youth (what are hags when they are young? Maybe dryads, maybe nymphs?) This sea hag has straight gray hair and turns you into a toad specifically so that you will be as miserable as her. She generally occupies a lonely sea tower and is anti-social.

When there are three sea hags they must all be of the same sort, otherwise the PCs may be able to exploit their differences in disposition. Plus then what's the third one?

Sea Horse, Giant

If you ever go to an aquarium and look at seahorses they're almost unbelievable. Like you look and go "I do not believe that I am seeing an animal that;s real". Not just their shape, which is--granted--very weird, but the fact that they manage to stay upright bobbing like fishermen's hooks no matter what. They look more like they were designed by some rococo theatre-background painter than by natural selection. I find the idea of anything really violent managing to get around to its tactical satisfaction while mounted on a seahorse pretty implausible.

I think the giant seahorse is more made for your underwater annoying magic weirdo types like water sprites or sea goblins. (Mandy opines that sea goblins would ride on these

Sea Lion

The sea lion is ok in a kind of public-swimming-pool-Neptune-mural-gone-wrong-aquatic-Lewis Carrol kind of way. I've got nothing against it as long as it doesn't ask to be taken too seriously.


I like to treat shadows like shadows: I like them to be related to some indentifible source (as in the shadow of some object or monster) and I like them to depend on where the light is coming from. I also really like that part of Peter Pan (the only part of Peter Pan I can remember) where he gets detached from his shadow and has to sew it back on anyway, point is the possibilities are endless.

Shambling Mound

The shambling mound is the DnD version of the Man-Thing. The carrot/tuber nose is the giveaway and makes it more like the Man-Thing than the Swamp Thing--who was invented a year later by the roommate of one of the guys who invented the Man-Thing. Both of these, in turn, derive from an older character known as The Heap and The Heap no doubt derives from an even earlier monster which I have no idea what it is but I'm a hundred percent certain that someone in the comments will let me know all about it as soon as I post this entry.

Anyway the point is--in the seventies a lot of people thought that fighting things that were sort of dull green and slow moving and shaggy was a good idea. Was it because they were hippies or because they liked the idea of fighting hippies? Who can say?


What you'll notice about the Monster Manual shark entry is that it's completely wrong in every way down to the fact that most sharks do NOT have to keep moving in order to survive. The manual also leaves out the coolest fact about sharks which is that they're immune to bombs. According to Wikipedia "In 1957, after a series of shark attacks, the South African government ordered a warship to drop underwater bombs on the sharks, but it failed and the attacks continued."

Although they are fairly predictable as a monster as you'll find at sea (the Rat, Giant, (Sumatran) of marine encounters), I'm not going to be such a stick in the mud as to say sharks are boring. Really, as Steven Spielberg knew, it's the threat of sharks that's great: "Oh look you're in the water, oh look you're bleeding, what will you do now?"

And the megalodon? I don't know how big a megalodon is really supposed to be and I don't feel like looking it up but I imagine it's about big enough to eat a sailing ship or to take a decent sized bit anyway and I imagine it likes to eat wood as much as flesh. Or at least I imagine that's what the PCs have heard.


The most interesting thing about the shedu is if you drive to Anahiem from Los Angeles there's a whole bunch of them carved into the shopping mall you can see from the freeway. It's like they were thinking "Wal Mart is stupid, Shedus are stupid, let's just put everything stupid in one place."


I like shriekers. It's odd because I hate car alarms. I wonder if intelligent monsters who live in dungeons get pissed off about shriekers the way the rest of us do about car alarms.

What I don't like is the idea people purposefully cultivating shriekers as guards--or at least I'm afraid of overdoing it. After you do it once or twice, they become less weird and mysterious and they feel like just a piece of technology.

I think the concept of the shrieker could be extended to a great many different creatures: something basically immobile and dumb that explodes in howls whenever anyone comes near. That's what I was thinking when I had that woman filled with spiders that showed up in the third episode of I Hit It With My Axe. Mandy just had an idea--a spell you cast on someone, a curse that makes them like a terrible infant: you shriek uncontrollably whenever anyone (except perhaps some single specific creature) comes near you.

Now that I think of it, there's really all kinds of shrieker spells you could do, turning someone unwillingly into an alarm system or maybe you could just put shriekers in their food. Alright I'm gonna keep quiet now so as not to give anything away to my players.


Why do the dead hate us? Well like they say in Full Metal Jacket "the dead know only one thing, it is better to be alive" but also, they seem to hate us because they smile. That's really hard to take, I think.

Why are they smiling? Since the idea that they're smiling because they're dead seems to be anathema, we assume it must be some sort of evil glee like they're laughing at us. It's pretty self- absorbed, maybe they really do just like it better that way.

There's also monster skeletons--which are nice because, often, they look like whole new creatures under the skin. An ironic law is in effect here: the kindest animals change their aspect most radically. A snake skeleton has roughly the same aura as a snake--but a cow or a horse turns completely fiendish, and few things look as positively diabolical as an elephant skull.

Once in a while I'll come across a monster in the course of these entries and ask if anybody reading has ever used it. With skeletons I have to ask whether anyone reading hasn't?

Skunk, Giant

I will simply say that the skunk backs up my S monster thesis. People are afraid of skunks. In real life, anyway.

Slithering Tracker

I don't think the slithering tracker has to be boring. It could be a sort of three foot long centipede sort of thing with a gelatinous body like a jelly fish and when it drinks your blood you can actually watch it fill with red before slithering back to it's master.

Slug, Giant

Anything a giant slug can do a flail snail can do better.

Snake, Giant

Like skeletons, snakes are almost too good. Plus there are all these snake monsters with snake parts.

In order to avoid feeling like you're just repeating the same thing over and over, I like the idea of organizing snake monsters into a snakey hierarchy. The Greeks did it: they assumed that most snake monsters were related--as in "had the same parents". My ideas about relationships between snakes and snake monsters are pretty involved and I'm going to keep it a secret for now.


Although it's a synonym for ghost, "spectre" is a more ominous word. A spectre is (etymologically) something you see but don't fully understand. Ghost is a kind of harmless-sounding word--it still has something of a person about it (maybe just because of Casper), "spectre" though is definitely bad.

A spectre is not something that you can just ignore, a spectre is a serious problem. There are alternate kinds of ghosts: spooks can be things other than what we think of as ghosts--spirits of single dead individuals. The "egregore" or at least one version of it, is a collective spirit created by a shared emotion--a spectre could be an egregore formed from feelings originating with a massacre or other horrific event something much more complicated and subtle than one dead see-through person. I think a spectre should be a master villain.


The only sphinx that interests me is the gynosphinx (though I will say that the hieracosphinx seems pointlessly close to a gryphon).

I like the idea that they are smart, that they go around collecting information, and that they are neutral. Occasionally a sphinx will pop up in one of my dungeons disinterestedly commenting on the action and possibly willing to trade information.

Of all the monsters with the heads of women-the sphinx is the most catlike and so can combine the fuck-off-ness of cats with the fuck-off-ness of beautiful women. It's a formidably vigorous hybrid fuck-off-ness.


Completing the scary trio of classic archetypes--with skeletons and snakes.

What is it about spiders? The many legs, the many eyes, and especially the webs suggest intelligence--but a totally alien intelligence. Snakes are just pretty clearly the enemy--they are predators with heads full of poison--but you look at their heads and it has a face that we recognize: clean shaven, but still following the plan.

The spider is something else entirely, even if we don't feel that they're a threat to us, we could see them very clearly being cruel on their own scale in basements and windowsills. Is there any other animal that nearly everyone on earth can say: I have seen it hunting, I have seen a trap it laid, and I've seen, moreover, that they have a continuous and coherent world existing in the margins of our own world.

Plus, spiders can actually kill you. Which seems ridiculous. But obviously something deep in your DNA knew it all along. Spiders are perhaps the smallest animal which the caveman part of your brain still registers as deadly. And it's right. And this is maybe another reason a spider seems crafty. If you find a black widow in the garden or in the garage or--worse--a funnel web spider, part of you will think "this thing's been living in my house for god knows how long and it could have killed me at any time--it's just toying with me."

So: inscrutable, discreet, alien, deadly, crafty, unique, poisonous--and all that even before you make it into a monster.


It's hard tot ell a sprite form a pixie but if something has crazy hair sticking out in all directions it's gotta be a sprite.

Squid, Giant

Because of its pointy head the squid seems a little bit dumber than the octopus, but because it's streamlined it also seems a little more malevolent.

Giant squid exist and are still, to this day, mysterious. A 50ft squid will leave a 4" diameter sucker mark on a sperm whale but 16" diameter sucker marks have been found. The corresponding 200 foot squid has not been found but scientists conjecture it may exist.

Cephalopods have a sort of lite version of the unintelligability and craftiness of spiders, but they're a little more relatable. In the mating frenzy male squids have been known to miss the females and accidentally inject their own arms with sperm.


Stag-headed monsters are scary enough that I can't think of too many reasons to use a regular old stag unless you're doing some kind of chivalrous hunting thing so I haven't much to say on the subject.

But here's a new monster while I'm at it--it's a demon with a body like a man and the head of a stag. Entwined in its antlers are candles made from (something gruesome) its weapon is a long thin brass staff with an ever burning candle at either end. They generally wear long white robes.


I have nothing against the concept of the stirge, but the original pictures look like angry sparrows wearing bad halloween costumes. If I want a blood sucking bird I'll make it like a nightingale or something.

Strangle Weed

Aside from being a perfectly decent minimum-wage-utility-monster the strangle weed also has a pretty decent mechanic attached to it:

"A victim compares its strength against the frond or fronds which have entangled it. The difference in the victim's favor is it's chance of escaping, i.e 1 equals 10%, 2 is 20%, etc. A negative difference, a balance in favor of the weed, indicates the victim has taken that number of points of crushing damage, i.e a victim's strength of 18 compared to the 3 fronds holding it, 30, so the strangle weeds inflict 12 points of damage on their prey."


I think the su-monster is supposed to be some kind of pseudo-Asian evil monkey though I'm not really sure what the point is supposed to be. Anybody know? Same problem with the kech.


Aside from the wings, the sylph can be distinguished from the dryad and the nymph in that it's both less attracted to-, and less hostile to-, ordinary humans. It can be distinguished from the SILF by the fact that it's not related to you.


When I do hex maps I tend to be interested in the cities and the forests and try my best to ignore all that farmland that, in any reasonable facimile of medieval Europe, should be in between.

The only thing that tempts me to maybe stick a farmhouse in is the possibility of getting a chance to use a scarecrow.


The key for me to making these demonic frogs convincing is that they aren't all round and bouncy like Mister Toad--their skin hangs and sags around their aging eyes. I always imagine a slaad leaning on a poleaxe, both hands holding it high up on the shaft, its head sinking into its old man neck folds: bored with you, bored with life, bored with your plane of existence. The neutralest evil.


But here among the scorpions and the hounds,
the jackals, apes and vultures, snakes and wolves,
monsters that howl and growl and squeal and crawl,
in all the squalid zoo of vices, one
is even uglier and fouler than the rest,
although the least flamboyant of the lot;
this beast would gladly undermine the earth
and swallow all creation in a yawn;
I speak of Boredom which with ready teats
dreams of hangings as it puffs its pipe.


John Matthew Stater said...

"Anything a giant slug can do a flail snail can do better."

Except cuddle.

Kit said...

The best thing about slaadi, to me, is playing one as a PC, particularly a Blue Slaad. Gradually, the entire party turns into slaadi, after finding cuts on themselves when the original Slaad PC has night watch. "What, it wasn't me! Must have been something you ate."

James Maliszewski said...

FWIW, Gygax claimed that it was in fact the Heap, not Man-Thing or Swamp Thing, who was the inspiration for the Shambling Mound. Take that as you will.

Conrad Kinch said...

From Sea Monsters, a BBC program.

letsdamage said...

The D&D Rules Cyclopedia has a monster called the Actaeon, which is a stag-headed man with a breath weapon that turns people into animals. Greek mythology's always improved by the addition of a breath weapon.

Anonymous said...

I found this image of the Megalodon that gives an excellent scale comparison to a person and a Great White. At up to an estimated 60' long an 50 tons, plenty large enough to eat or severely damage most D&D type watercraft.

As far as your question about using Skeletons, I haven't. Although that's mainly due to the majority of the games I've run being in genres not as suited to them. I've faced them in many a game I've played in and they're an excellent creature.

Anonymous said...

Best phrase in this post:
"minimum wage utility monster"

Anonymous said...

Some more excellent Monster Meditations (Oooh, I just made that up - steal it if you want, heh)

I don't know if you're familiar at all with the White Wolf game Exalted, but they give an example of a monster called a Buck Ogre: a mutant beast from the chaos at the edges of Creation, it's a giant with TWO stag heads.

I really like your idea for a stag-headed demon as well, very cool.

richard said...

So much goodness here.

I'll see your diabolical elephant skull and raise you a whale.

When there are three sea hags they must all be of the same sort, otherwise the PCs may be able to exploit their differences in disposition. Plus then what's the third one?

I wouldn't be able to resist partnering the sea hag with a sea mother and sea virgin/maiden if the subject of threes came up. But maybe I like your reckless/maudlin dyad better. The third one could be cooking.

There should be a "make shrieker" spell that you can cast on ANYTHING, that makes it grow a screaming mouth and freak players the fuck out. Also, "make unsettling whisperer."

You're making me think about skeletons of creatures that shouldn't really have them, now. Cuttlefish, maybe. Beholders, which turn out just to have a pair of viciously sharp little stirrup bones that aren't joined together, but which move together when reanimated. Shadows... Can exoskeletons be reanimated?

Re snakes: Amphisbaena. Amphiptere.
Verification word: stedra. A hybrid of Hydra and Stevia?

Chris Maler said...

I like the stag idea, but These cow headed guys work pretty well too

Chris Maler said...

that should have been "cow skull headed"

Duglas said...

Nice! Your slaad entry more than made up for the uninspired sahuagin entry. And the spider insights are extremely well said!

Duglas said...

Whoops, sorry... wasn't meaning to sound so bratty. I just like sahaugin!

Menace 3 Society said...

Fun fact: scientists believe that ticklishness is an evolved response to the threat of spiders crawling on one's skin.

thekelvingreen said...

The stirge is a really good horror-type idea, because while there are birds which kill, and birds which scavenge, they don't generally suck blood from living creatures, so you've got that brilliant unnatural wrongness in the stirge. But then you've also got the ridiculous picture, which tends to scupper it. Like you, I'd probably just have them look like normal birds, and have the horror arise when a player finds one of their sleeping henchmen covered in blood-sucking sparrows.

mordicai said...

The best thing about Sahuagin is that sometimes the bosses (dukes?) have four arms.

A friend was telling me the other day of a dungeon he built filled with sphinxes & escalating "symbol of..." spells. The puzzle dungeon that sort of made sense, basically. Personally, I am terrified of kerubim/sheda/sphinxes. Something just GETS me.

Spiders are the DnD & real life.

Delta said...

Shriekers -- My major problem with shriekers is that I don't know how far to take my vocal portrayal of them. Part of me feels like to be relevant, I have to personally start shrieking non-stop, forcing the players to shout as they fight the things. But (a) my voice may not take it, (b) I can't adjudicate like that, (c) neighbors wind up calling 911, etc. Merely describing it "it's a car alarm and really annoying" feels so wrong, I'd rather just skip the whole thing.

Slaad -- Of course, they're not evil at all, they're Chaotic Neutral. Which I think you may agree is the wrongest thing about them.

Dan said...

I am considering throwing out demons and devils in my campaign and replacing them with Shadows. The standard D&D Boschian demons really don't do it for me, they seem totally ridiculous patchwork monsters. Shadows are a lot scarier in that niche, tapping into the primeval concept of demons as "evil spirits".

Adam Dickstein said...

"Mandy opines that sea goblins would ride on these."

As would Atlanteans, according to DC Comics anyway.

Funny, they're also responsible for my favorite version of 'Spectre'.

"S" is very comic book-y. I hear one character even wears the letter on his chest...

Zak Sabbath said...

Mike Haskell tried to post--it didn't work--so he sent it instead:

I don't really know where su-monsters are supposed to come from. I always got a Malaysian of Philippines vibe off them. I *do* know that a bunch of undead psionic su monsters in a twisted labyrinth of petrified trees and the debris of a sunken graveyard that collapsed even deeper in the earth made for a pretty fun afternoon of gaming! Even Guy Marine the Arcane (MU 3) who was driven mad and then torn apart would agree!

And yesterday a summoned salamader realized that once the cleric who summoned him was dead and he had been trampled by a herd of war and riding horses, there was just no reason not to go back to his home plane with the unconscious adventurer lying in front of him (Blackjack Twenty-one, same player as Guy Marine, it turns out). I thought that ended matters until a couple hours later when the party managed to catch a breather from their day-long running battle and actually tried to use a crystal ball to look for Blackjack. So the "mysterious purposes" came back to me, and I described them watching the salamader in a palace of flame squeeze a now awake Blackjack into a small gem, burning full-spectrum flames. The gem was then fed into a mouth that formed on an even larger creature of fire that resembled absolutely nothing at all, being in itself the ultimate expression of what it was--whatever that is.

Pretty fun.

BigFella said...

@ Delta:
You could just get a simple alarm clock or similar device and set it going. If that fails, you could use an airhorn. Your neighbors would LOVE that.

Regarding the Shambling Mound, there's also an old Theodore Sturgeon novella called "It" which was about a swamp critter formed around a submerged skeleton which I think was the inspiration for all of the moss men that cropped up mid-century.

Bard said...

Some more pictures of some stag guy, complete with candles:

SirAllen said...

Sylph: the only illustration in the MM in which the vulva are visible.

charles mark ferguson said...

Stag-head-candle-guy = totally cool.

Bard's links are obviously the esoteric-as-fuck but neutral rather malevolent variety--some kind of arcane guide/guardian. You know, initiates those who are worthy into whatever lore he/she is charged with, & keeps off/punishes the unworthy. So their peril, while no doubt mortal, is of the wise / neutral "the LAW must be upheld" kind of peril.

Zak's is unrepentently evil. I imagine it with yellow goat eyes with those freaky black vertical slit-pupils, that maybe when you get up close you see are actually in the shape of hourglasses or stretched out inkblots that resolve into a shreiking face (probably your own). I figure its a Predator-style trophy-hunter: the candles are made from the rendered down fat of its most prized victims, and the flames are their trapped souls. Maybe it has a number of lives = the candles, and as each candle is snuffed out it loses a life? It would very likely flee by arcane means if it lost a candle, only to return (extremely pissed off with the snuffer for denying it one of it's trophies) to exact revenge & replace the candle with whoever inflicted the terrible indignity of defeat upon it.

I wonder what it's called?

Dan said...

Charles: Well looking in mythology we have Cernunnos, the antlered celtic god. Or there is Herne The Hunter, a 14th century Berkshire ghost who became conflated with tales of the Wild Hunt.

So it could be called the Cernunian, or the Hernite maybe.

On stirges: I too have always felt that stirges have potential but missed the mark a little. I would like to redesign them based on their inspiration; the Strix. The Strix is more like an owl and has links to witches and vampires (strigoi). Much spookier.