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Monster Mashups
Wandering Monsters
By James Wyatt

W e've started more meetings talking about monsters, which are going really well. Right now, we meet every day to talk about a handful of monsters. What we're looking for is the gut response of, "Wow, now I really want to use that monster in an adventure!"

Sometimes that means giving a monster a really cool hook, which is usually just a matter of exploring what's already there and finding the extra twist that makes it awesome. What we're also finding, though, is that sometimes we get the best results when we find connections between monsters that were never connected before. So this week I want to show off a couple of examples of that.

The Spider Shepherds

Ettercaps are creatures with ties to the Feywild that watch over spiders in the same way that treants watch over forests. They tend to spiders, feed them, and protect them in their deep forest lairs.

Ettercaps delight in silently killing any fools who journey too near their lairs. They have no desire to live in harmony with nature or with civilization—they prefer to despoil civilized lands and turn nature into a wild, uncontrolled garden choked with spiders, webs, and sinister predators. A forest infested with ettercaps becomes a dark, gloomy place shrouded with webs and containing a variety of giant insects that feed the giant spiders.

Ettercaps have a particular hatred for good fey and those woodland creatures that work to keep nature in balance. They're enemies of treants and elves, and they seek to capture pixies and sprites in their webs. And here's where things get interesting.

Our group talked about ettercaps while I was out on vacation. After I came back, we talked about pixies. I wrote about pixies months ago, but since then we've added the idea of pixie dust as the physical manifestation of the pixie's variety of magical powers. Pixies use pixie dust to disguise things with illusion, make lights dance through the forest, warp an intruder's mind, make a sleeping person fall in love with the next creature she sees, or give a man the head of a donkey.

Ettercaps string webs and try to catch pixies. Why? For food, yes, but also for pixie dust, which they sell to hags. Suddenly pixie dust emerges as this strange, forbidden currency of the Feywild's dark underbelly, sort of like larvae in the lower planes.

What's more, combining ettercaps with this source of concentrated magic suggests that an ettercap might become a far more magical creature under certain circumstances. For example, an aranea. With enough pixie dust and/or pixie flesh, an ettercap becomes a spellcaster and a shapechanger.

See what happens? We've created an ecosystem, or part of one, and connected six different monsters—ettercaps, giant spiders, giant insects, pixies, hags, and araneas. Instead of looking at the ettercap entry in the Monster Manual and wondering, "Why would I ever want to use these guys?" I can suddenly imagine crafting a whole adventure that ties into this ecosystem. Maybe hags actually drive the adventure, or a campaign arc of several adventures, but the ettercaps and their pixie prey can form a whole adventure, and not just a random encounter.

Tyrants of Pleasure

Here's another example. I talked a couple weeks ago about the lamia of 4th Edition, the one that consists of a swarm of beetles bound together in humanoid form. We talked the other day about the classic lamia, the one that appears as a human torso atop a leonine body.

The starting point for that conversation was our discussion about cults of Graz'zt awhile back. The 3rd Edition Book of Vile Darkness associated Graz'zt with a cult of lamias in a remote desert temple. I don't actually know where that connection came from, but we ran with it, and the association helped us flesh out the story of the lamia.

What do we know about lamias? They have powers of charm and illusion, they wear away their victims' Wisdom, and they live in deserts. Well, add that to a connection to Graz'zt, the lustful, hedonistic demon lord, and you get a picture of lamias as what we called "tyrants of pleasure."

Lamias use their powers of illusion to confuse travelers who happen near the ruins where they lair—either luring potential victims close, or hiding the ruins to prevent intrusion. They collect slaves to facilitate their lives of coddled luxury. These slaves act as bandits, raiding nearby settlements and caravans to bring supplies to their lamia masters. Lamias take particular pleasure in enslaving good creatures, especially paladins.

Graz'zt has given lamias immortality in exchange for their service, and he often charges them with guarding locations that are important to him. Lamias love to transform these desolate ruins into luxurious palaces with lush gardens, finely appointed apartments, and every earthly luxury they can acquire.

Graz'zt has also created a race of servitors to aid the lamias. He gave jackals the gift of speech, but only if they used it to tell lies and spread deception. And they can take on human form, appearing as starving or desperate people pleading for the help of adventurers. These are the jackalweres.

A jackalwere's natural inclination is to lie. If it tells the truth to an outsider, it feels a sharp pain that causes it to wince slightly. In the service of a lamia, it searches the area around the lair for people to enslave and fine treasures to enrich the lamia's lair.

So again, we've created part of an ecosystem of evil, linking lamias, Graz'zt, and jackalweres together (along with raiding human bandits) in a neat little package that offers adventure ideas in plenty. A lamia becomes a mastermind villain with servitor monsters that can help flesh out an adventure, and jackalweres have a role in the world that's more than just being a strange anti-lycanthrope.

The Role of These Stories

There's been quite a bit of discussion for as long as I've been writing these columns about the extent to which it's Wizards' job to tell D&D players how to use monsters in their game. The way I see it, we have a twofold job.

First, we need to present a Monster Manual that is interesting and inspiring, not just a collection of statistics and combat information. We want people to sit around and read the Monster Manual to learn about the multiverse of D&D and the creatures that inhabit it—the way we did when we first started playing the game. We want DMs to be inspired—not with adventure hooks per se, but with a clear vision of what a monster does and how it can be used. We know, of course, that lots of DMs will ignore whatever we write there, and some of them will complain that all that story information is a waste of space. But not everyone is a brilliantly creative DM capable of taking a stat block and turning it into a fleshed-out monster with an interesting role in the world.

The other part of our job is to create our part of the D&D multiverse. D&D is bigger than the tabletop RPG—it's novels, it's campaign settings, it's the Neverwinter and D&D Online MMOs, the forthcoming Arena of War mobile game, and more. When players explore the Forgotten Realms setting or the rest of the multiverse, it's important that they have a consistent, coherent experience. We want to present orcs in all those games and expressions that are recognizable, so if you move from Neverwinter to the tabletop game, for example, you see orcs you recognize. Some parts of the multiverse are very different from others: elves and halflings in the Dark Sun setting are barely recognizable next to the ones in the Forgotten Realms setting. That's OK, and it's OK if the world you create for your game is just as different. But when it comes to the many and varied expressions of D&D, we need a consistent baseline, even if we vary from it when we turn to something like the Dark Sun setting.

What Do You Think?

Previous Poll Results

1) How important is it to you that players can make dirt-simple humanoid characters, like orcs, goblins, kobolds, hobgoblins, or gnolls?
I can’t run my campaign or play my favorite PC without rules for this. 669 25%
My game will suffer without rules for this. 785 29%
I wouldn’t want other people’s games to suffer because these rules aren’t in the game. 954 35%
These creatures are for slaying, not for playing. 292 11%

2) What’s the best way to handle dirt-simple humanoid characters who have more than 1 HD?
Level adjustment, like in 3rd Edition, so a PC gnoll at 1st level is actually a 3rd-level character. 320 12%
Present them just like a race, like in 4th Edition, so a PC gnoll at 1st level is on par with other PCs but weaker than other gnolls. 1856 68%
Something else. 506 19%

3) How important is it to you that players can make more complicated humanoid characters, such as minotaurs, ogres, pixies, or mind flayers?
I can’t run my campaign or play my favorite PC without rules for this. 394 14%
My game will suffer without rules for this. 619 23%
I wouldn’t want other people’s games to suffer because these rules aren’t in the game. 1105 41%
These creatures are for slaying, not for playing. 577 21%

4) What’s the best way to handle these more complicated humanoid characters?
Level adjustment, like in 3rd Edition, so a PC minotaur at 1st level is actually a 9th-level character. 272 10%
As a combination of class and race, like the monster classes in Savage Species or the vampire in Player’s Option: Heroes of Shadow, so a PC minotaur at 1st level is on par with other PCs but weaker than other minotaurs. 1580 58%
Present them just like a race, like in 4th Edition, so a PC minotaur at 1st level is on par with other PCs but will never have all the features of monstrous minotaurs. 791 29%

5) How important is it to you that players can make truly monstrous characters, such as gold dragons, water nagas, and green slaads?
I can’t run my campaign or play my favorite PC without rules for this. 253 9%
My game will suffer without rules for this. 271 10%
I wouldn’t want other people’s games to suffer because these rules aren’t in the game. 957 35%
I wouldn’t want other people’s games to suffer because these rules aren’t in the game. 1211 44%

James Wyatt
James Wyatt is the Creative Manager for Dungeons & Dragons R&D at Wizards of the Coast. He was one of the lead designers for 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons and the primary author of the 4th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. He also contributed to the Eberron Campaign Setting, and is the author of several Dungeons & Dragons novels set in the world of Eberron.
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