Steve Townshend has designed content for Polyhedron, Dragon Magazine, and the Wizards of the Coast website. His recent design credits include Monster Manual 3 and Demonomicon. Steve completed the heroic tier as an actor and improvisor, but took the fiction writer paragon path. He lives with an elf princess and their familiar in Chicago, a Big City on a Lake.
This month, Steve Townsend's design for the mimic appear in the Monster Manual 3. We've discussed the return of the classic gotcha monster, and even showcased one of its new versions. Now it's time to bounce 3 quick questions off the mimic's 4E designer—who claims, "I loved working on this classic baddie and bringing him to 4th Edition for use by evil DMs everywhere. One of the genuine highlights of my year."
Wizards of the Coast: What design tenets were you given for the 4th Edition mimic?
Steve Townsend: Originally Mike (Mearls) sent us freelancers a list of creatures he wanted to see covered in the Monster Manual 3. One of these was an ooze, which Mike said would be "a deceptively hard assignment."
My response was, "Because you've said it's difficult, I'm really tempted to dive into the jello with oozes. Most of my ideas for those revolve around semi-intelligent oozes that can morph their from into the likeness of men or other creatures. Somewhat like mimics but really sinister."
Thus began the "impersonator mimic," an amalgam of inspirations drawn from just having seen John Carpenter's The Thing for the first time (I'm way late to the party on that one), from an episode of The Tick where the Tick fights a green mucus clone of himself (as silly as it sounds), and from a similar "pod people" race in my homebrew world I'd procrastinated on making stats for over the past sixteen years; replicants and cylons may also have had something to do with it. Mike liked that concept, and when he saw that we already had oozes in MM2, he decided he definitely wanted a 4E mimic in MM3 as opposed to another ooze.
I initially proposed a mimic that included different stat blocks for each monster role the impersonator mimic could morph into: an all-purpose mimic. This was something of a noob error, since I hadn't yet considered the space problems inherent in presenting such a mimic in an adventure. Mike brought up the possibility of the mimic impersonator having different stances it could polymorph into, all included in one stat block, and that's the direction I went.
The mimic spawn's minions evolved from my 2nd Edition homebrew "dopple" monster concept, a pod person that could merge with others of its kind to create a huge monster, or else split apart into multiple smaller beings. Story-wise, it made sense to me that a morphing creature could heal itself, but Mike wisely cautioned against giving monsters healing abilities unless there was a really, really good reason for them to have it.
So I began working with the idea that the impersonator mimic was a mature mimic, and that it could reabsorb its spawn if it needed to heal itself. This was when I really started playing with the mimic impersonator being a leader, and giving various abilities to any other mimics present. The design began to inform the story of the mimic as a false creature that lived in a "nest" of other false creatures; I imagined that a mimic's lair would be an exceptionally deadly "house of horrors" environment where any object could potentially be a predator in disguise. Hopefully its prey won't have figured that out until it's far too late.
Essentially, I threw oozy mimics at the wall to see what stuck. Mike would tell me to add Crisco or to lose the chili flakes. I'd go back to my mixing bowl and substitute new ingredients. Then I'd re-throw the mimics. In the end, two-and-a-quarter mimics stuck: one new, one old, and a minion.
Wizards of the Coast: How does the 4th Edition mimic reflect the original version, and what sets him apart from previous versions?
Steve: I wanted to have my black pudding and slurp it too, so I think that in my 4E mimic design you get both: new mimic and old. The Blu-ray comes with the DVD version as a bonus.
I knew I wanted the mimic to be more than just an object imitator, since after three decades that's what you expect of mimics… but if that's all you expect, it's not doing what the mimic was originally intended to do (i.e., surprise/trap/terrify). They're from that family of old monsters that included the piercer, the lurker above, the trapper, and the wolf-in-sheep's-clothing—monsters created to trick and trap dungeon delvers in previous editions of the game, but tricks we're not necessarily going to fall for these days.
I thought that the mimic deserved an upgrade. He's been in the game forever; he's graduated from his role just sitting in a room pretending to be a chest. I wanted to open the door for the possibility of a mimic villain—and a devious, merciless, alien villain at that. There's a lot of precedence for shapechanging predators in science-fiction and fantasy that can mimic the form of man and beast. It seemed to me as though Eberron had helped subtly shift D&D's old impersonator, the doppleganger, into a more intelligent, intrigue-based kind of humanoid that wasn't necessarily good or evil, and that this left a lot of space for a real predator—a shapeshifter motivated solely by survival and the desire to consume its prey, yet possessed of greater intelligence than man, a predator with cunning and patience to outlast the elves.
I see the 4E mimic as a horror movie. This thing will lure in its prey with words and charm, gain their trust, devour them, imitate them, and repeat. It has no moral qualms and absolutely no empathy. It is the embodiment of falsehood. It can even access the intelligence and some powers of its prey (a fun mechanic), making it all the more deadly and all the more duplicitous.
Nevertheless, despite my love for the impersonator mimic, I'm attached by adhesive pseudopods to the original mimic we all know and love. If I buy a Monster Manual that has a "mimic" entry in it, there had better be a monster in there that represents everything I've come to know about D&D mimics. So I pulled out my Monster Manuals from every edition of the game and compared their stats in order to create a faithful "object mimic" adaptation of the creature we grew up with. I was a little surprised to find what little it actually did: a couple of slams attacks and some adhesive, really. I gave him some abilities that seemed to make sense, including the ability to shift into limited forms since the object mimic represents a middle stage in the evolution from mimic spawn to impersonator mimic, but I think I stayed pretty darn faithful to the original.
Wizards of the Coast: Have you ever encountered a mimic in your own games, past or present?
Steve: I recall encountering a particularly amusing/annoying mimic in the Neverwinter Nights computer game, but mostly I DM.
Every time I think of mimics, I think of James, one of my players back in high school. Our group consisted of pretty standard geekery except James, who wrestled and played football for a rival school. Whenever our game involved any kind of roleplay or descriptive narrative, James would lower his head onto his forearms and close his eyes—dropping completely out of the game until it was time to kill something.
The PCs were trekking through The Keep on the Borderlands and they were deep in the dungeon when I needed to introduce a new PC. It was one of my first times DMing and I must have had Gauntlet heavy on the brain because I decided to have the new PC "spawn" from an object. I decided his elf ranger was in a chest guarded by orcs—inspired, I know. Throughout the battle, the elf kept failing his rolls to escape the chest, so I described it shifting around and thumping. Finally he burst out of the chest, took up his bow, and began firing arrows.
The combat lasted for several rounds and the orcs were defeated. The treasure was taken. The new PC introduced himself, and roleplay commenced around the table—with the exception of James, of course. James's head dropped back onto his forearms and remained there throughout the conversation.
But just as the dialogue was winding down, James looked up—hope in his heart and bloodlust in his eyes—and said, "Hey did we ever kill that mimic?!"
Poor XP-starved James. Everyone took turns explaining it to him it was all just an elf in a chest.