Save My Game
Too Small to Matter, Too Mean to Die
By Jason Nelson-Brown

This column provides advice for DMs whose campaigns are in trouble. Do your players constantly bicker or complain about issues both inside and outside of the main campaign action? Do your best ideas fall flat? Have you set up a situation that you now wish you hadn't? Worry no more, because Jason Nelson-Brown has the answers to save your game!

Problem: Too Small to Matter

In the MM2 under Jermlaine, it lists their damage as Diminutive dart1d3-4 and tiny shortspear 1d3-4. The -4 is obviously due to their low strength score. This calculates to negative damage which is illogical, and yet under their description it says "they will swarm [over an enemy], pummeling to cause subdual damage until the target is knocked out." How do I resolve damage when the enemy doesn't appear to be able to inflict any? Please help. This encounter happens tonight.

-- Ja Mes, from AskWizards.com

Thanks to the vagaries of time and space that come into play between you asking and me answering, this won't be much help to you for your game. Still, you bring up a good point -- sometimes the flavor text and suggested tactics in the monster books don't match up with what the monsters are actually able to do. I remember a particular demon whose flavor text suggested liked to hang back and pepper its enemies with ranged attacks, but when you looked at the monster's abilities, very few were ranged attacks. It was a killer in melee, but the flavor text and the powers didn't match. Just consider that a pick in D&D (yes, it's a military pick, but work with me here) is incapable of damaging stone -- it can't do enough damage to overcome the hardness of stone. It's easier to go mining in D&D with greatswords and power-attacking barbarians than it is to mine with a pick. What the heck?

The root of your question lies in two problems. One is with editing. Monster Manual II had a few troublesome issues, and the jermlaine entry is no exception (see the errata page for full details). Take, for instance, the weapon damage under discussion. The tiny jermlaine uses a diminutive dart. A small-sized dart does 1d3 damage; a diminutive one (two sizes smaller) should do only 1 damage, plus strength modifier (-4).

Before you get an answer, though, you also suffer a cross-edition breakdown. Monster Manual II was a book designed for the 3rd Edition ("3.0") rule set, and that shows up here. Because of the way weapons were classified in that version, a dart was a 'small' weapon relative to its wielder's size, whereas it is now a 'light' missile weapon. Therefore, a tiny wielder would use a tiny dart, which would be a tiny light weapon (doing 1d2-4) rather than a diminutive weapon (doing 1-4).

Producer's Note: As folks have pointed out, according to the SRD jermlaine fall into the category of minimum damage: If penalties reduce the damage result to less than 1, a hit still deals 1 point of damage. Scoring less than 0 hp wouldn't actually heal a character, after all. That said, introducing jermlaine swarms and other strategies are effective ways of making these pesky threats a little more threatening.

Me and THIS army, that's who!While all of that is a fascinating dissection on the fine points of rule translation from edition to edition, the more important refinement in 3.5 that can help the jermlaine is the introduction of the swarm template for dealing with lots of tiny creatures. When it states that jermlaines swarm over enemies and pummel them, why not go ahead and apply the swarm template? The fact that each individual jermlaine is too wimpy to be dangerous is irrelevant when dozens of them are swarming over a person.

Jermlaines are different from a typical swarm in that most swarms are mindless vermin (like rats, a jermlaine's best -- and only -- friends). Our jermlaines, while not too smart, are certainly canny enough to use weapons. Can swarms throw darts at people? It creates an interesting problem. The swarm template works fine when you are dealing with things that just bite and sting, but would a jermlaine swarm be shooting off clouds of darts and tiny javelins? If so, how far does the ranged attack go? Who does it affect? Does it distract people the way the melee attack does? The swarm template just became more complicated. The mob template in Dungeon Master's Guide II is better set up for dealing with groups of intelligent creatures, but we don't want to deal with thousands of jermlaine in a 20' x 20' gargantuan mass, and the hit dice and damage of a mob is too much for jermlaine.

Finally, jermlaine should not only be represented as swarms. No one cares that a single toad or weasel is incapable of inflicting harm. Those exist in the game to be pets or familiars. The jermlaine, though, is supposed to be a monster -- a threat of some sort. An individual jermlaine can be a threat by setting off traps, dropping acid or flaming oil, and the like. It also can steal and vandalize items on its own, or use darts that have been poisoned or tainted with filth so as to cause disease (probably filth fever). Even if their darts don't cause any hit point loss, they can wear adventurers down through ability damage.

So what's the answer to your question? Throwing jermlaine one-on-one against PCs is pointless. They can't do damage unless you change the rules. You can do several things:

  1. Arm jermlaine with items that cause specialized damage -- flaming oil, acid, contact poison, tanglefoot bag, thunderstone, and the like. Strength is irrelevant, so they can use their attack bonuses for tiny size and good Dexterity to hit. When they throw tiny darts or spears, make sure they are poisoned or tainted with disease.
  2. Make liberal use of traps, as the flavor text suggests. Think about both damaging traps and immobilizing traps that enable jermlaine to use their small size and good speed to hit and run.
  3. In terms of swarming and pummeling, use the swarm template from Monster Manual or the mob template from Dungeon Master's Guide II, depending on how many jermlaine you're talking about. You might even fudge the rules a bit to make a 'micro-swarm' of jermlaine, say 30-50 that swarm into a single 5' square (instead of a shapeable swarm of 300 in four 5' squares). If you want to keep things easy, just use the stats for a rat swarm on p. 239 of the Monster Manual. A rat and a jermlaine are pretty similar in their abilities. If you like, assume that jermlaine cause nonlethal rather than lethal damage.
  4. Combine these strategies. Some jermlaine can be individual scouts, thieves, vandals, distractions, trap operators, and missile-tossing skirmishers. Others can be mass attackers.
  5. Hey, jermlaine love rats, so combine them with individual dire rats (perhaps as mounts for jermlaine leaders) or rat swarms overlapping with the jermlaine swarms. Swarms can, after all, occupy the same space as other creatures. Perhaps the jermlaines' empathic connection with rats and ability to communicate with them will enable them to coordinate mutual swarm attacks (not attacking one another, of course).

When using tiny creatures, you need to be creative. Try some of these tricks and it may help. Failing that, you could always resurrect the old 1st Edition AD&D rule that certain elder jermlaine had the ability to disenchant magic items just by handling them for a few rounds. That might put a scare in your players even if they never take a point of damage!

Have a question for the Save My Game column? Head over to the message boards: What's a DM to Do or What's a Player to Do. Be sure to include "Save My Game" as part of your message's title. Or, send us a question directly, to Ask Wizards -- and again, be sure to include "Save My Game" in the subject line.

About the Author

Jason Nelson-Brown lives in Seattle with his wife Kelle, daughters Meshia and Indigo, son Allen, and dog Bear. He is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one weekly campaign while playing intermittently in two others.


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