In this installment of Design & Development
, we speak with designer Steve Townsend about one of his creations appearing in Monster Vault: Threats to the Nentir Vale
. The wandering tower was first previewed in the April In The Work’s column
, described “a place that is not a place. It travels across the Nentir Vale, changing its appearance to suit its environment and preying upon the avaricious, the trusting, and the desperate, because they make the most reliable meals.”
For more on this threat, first download the wandering tower—and then read on for Steve’s design work on this creature!
Wizards of the Coast: As designer of the Monster Manual 3’s mimic, the wandering tower seems like a mimic taken to the extreme. What were your design ideas for this creature? How did you look to expand on the traditional mimic?
Steve Townsend: The notion of a giant mimic was in place during the design of Monster Manual 3, and the initial idea for this creature was very much part of that concept. One of the opening lines from the MM3 mimic entry that didn’t make the cut went like this:
“Over countless ages they have preyed upon living beings by assuming their forms, infiltrating their societies, and hunting their people—reproducing until entire lands are populated with but a single predatory creature of infinite, shifting bodies and one unified agenda.”
I essentially picked up where I’d left off when Chris Perkins assigned me the wandering tower for Monster Vault: Threats to the Nentir Vale (I even used more cut text from the original mimic entry). Chris explained that the wandering tower was an homage, tribute, or redesign of a similar creature called the shy tower from the AD&D 2nd Edition module Return to the Keep on the Borderlands (the creature also bears a strong resemblance to an element of Fritz Leiber’s story “The Jewels in the Forest”).
Wizards of the Coast: Mechanically, how did you design a living tower to function?
Steve Townsend: Since the 4E mimic has infinite shapeshifting abilities, for the wandering tower I wanted to make a one-size-fits-all monster you could use anywhere—be it a living castle, an inn, a cave, or whatever; I really didn’t want DMs to be restricted by a finite model that was difficult to customize. Thus came the idea of the tower core.
The tower core is like the central “personality,” brain, and mouth of the wandering tower. The mimic’s bodily architecture can be as large as you like, and strong as stone or whatever material you wish, but the core is simultaneously its most dangerous and most vulnerable spot. The core can move about through the structure at will, manifesting where it wishes, and can take the form of objects, floors, ceilings (like the “trapper” and the “lurker above” monsters of old). The idea was that most of the time the tower relies on its lesser children—the impersonator mimics and object mimics—to bait prey, lull them into a false sense of security, and trap them inside. Then the core manifests—with mouths and pseudopods from the walls and floors—and consumes its prey.
My first version of the tower was a big monster that had lots of control over the environment; it had powers that affected walls, doors, and other terrain features. I knew that powers that relied on terrain was a bit dodgy, but figured most people would be using the monster with that kind of environment anyway.
Wizards of the Coast: This Monster Vault includes lengthier background and story information on creatures, compared to past Monster Manuals. What story elements did you develop behind these new mimics?
Steve Townsend: I approached the story text for the wandering tower somewhat subtly, beginning with some text that had been cut from the mimic entry in MM3 and incorporating it into the opening; that text defined mimics and let you know what you were dealing with. Then I went on to color the mood of this particular creature. Mood is very important to me in D&D and fiction writing in general. For me, mood is more important than bald facts. For example, I care less about the gestation time of a dragon egg than what it feels like to hold one. I’m all for facts if such information works toward creating an emotional effect in the reader, but I’m not one for straight encyclopedic information. With that in mind, I wanted to show off the mood of the wandering tower, and I did that with a sequence of instances linked with a common theme and a recurring line: “Here may you find all you desire.”
Wizards of the Coast: How did the mirror mimic come about?
Steve Townsend: A few weeks after I’d turned in all my work on the project, I received an e-mail from Jeremy Crawford, who was in the process of editing the project. Jeremy suggested that I instead make some terrain features that could work like traps and hazards. I liked that idea and drew up the living walls, however I’d spent a lot of time on the story text and concept of the monster (and was very happy with it). I felt it was essential for the wandering tower to include something that could take the part of the impersonator mimic that appears in every single text entry to bait victims inside and say that line, “Here may you find all you desire.” Without that creature present in the monster entry, I didn’t think the story would make much sense.
I asked Jeremy if he wouldn’t mind me taking another stab at a mimic to accompany the tower, and he gave me the go-ahead. After that, I wracked my brain to come up with an impersonator mimic that wasn’t an impersonator mimic, and that did something completely different from the other mimics I’d previously created for MM3. This creature needed to be able to fit the story role I’d created for it and be mechanically interesting. After some pretty intense brainstorming, I came up with the mirror mimic, a creature that oozes through you and comes out on the other side with several duplicates, like a monstrous Xerox machine. That fit the role of the impersonator mimic in the story—something that could imitate a person—and added a new mimic to the entry. I was happy, Jeremy was happy, Chris was happy, the end.
The last thing I want to mention about the wandering tower is the lovely Howard Lyon artwork. I’d written a very complex art order for the MM3 mimic that wasn’t used in the product. Since that illustration didn’t appear in the book, I commissioned Jared Von Hindman to do his take on the impersonator mimic and he created this wonderful painting that now hangs in my hall. Howard Lyon’s illustration for the wandering tower perfectly captures the sort of mood and feel I hoped to see in the wandering tower and all mimicry everywhere—it’s equal parts subtle and nasty. I also love the “teeth” connection between Jared’s painting and Howard’s. Those guys sure are talented. Howard also did the nymphs and the banderhobbs, so I’m a huge, huge, huge fan of his work.