Monday, October 16, 2017

Monster Monday: Titanosaur, the Biggest Dinosaur Ever

Today's Monster Monday is the titanosaur, a mindbogglingly tremendous sauropod dinosaur. The titanosaurs were actually a group of many sauropod species, the largest of which were also the largest dinosaurs ever and the longest and heaviest land animals ever to walk the earth.

by ДиБгд, via Wikimedia
A life-restoration of the titanosaur ampelosaurus atacis, shown with spiky osteoderms along its spine
One of the cool things that makes titanosaurs stand out from your more well-known sauropods like brachiosaurus, diplodocus, or apatosaurus is that many titanosaurs had osteoderms - large bony plates embedded in their skin. These plates may have acted as additional armor for these already formidable beasts, and some (such as ampelosaurus, above) even had spikes. The ampelosaurus above shows a conservative distribution of osteoderms, but the diamentinasaurus illustrated below is depicted as rather more well-armored.

by T. Tischler, Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum of Natural History, via Wikimedia
Life-restoration of diamentinasaurus matildae, showing one possible level of titanosaurid osteoderm distribution
What's in a name? Translating a real-world monster, whether mythological or real, into a fantasy world can be difficult, especially when they are saddled with a name that instantly ties them to our world. With many classic dinosaurs, this isn't so much of a problem. Household names like tyrannosaurus and velociraptor, while clearly grounded in our world's scientific Greco-Latin naming conventions, seem to fit in relatively easily to a fantasy world alongside dragons, chimerae, and basilisks. Equally interesting but more newly discovered animals often have names that stand out like a sore thumb, either because they are overly long and complicated or because they specifically reference a real-world name or place. Titanosaur names like argentinosaurus, aegyptosaurus, or isisaurus (named after the Indian Statistical Institute) do not lend themselves to a fantasy world's immersion.

The monster statted up below is an argentinosaurus, by many estimates the largest of the titanosaurs. I chose to call it, simply, titanosaur, a rather generic name which can cover many species (including the horse-sized magyarosaurus). Identifying this monster by its scientific clade is akin to naming the stat block for tyrannosaurus 'coelurosaur'. Still, I thought it was better than identifying it with the real-world nation of Argentina, or calling it 'titanosaurus', which, despite lending its name to the titanosaurids, is a much smaller titanosaur than argentinosaurus (13 tons compared to argentinosaurus' 70-100 tons) and is now usually considered to be a nomen dubium - a name or classification unsupported by current science.

Also, it is important to remember that paleoart is often minimalist, omitting many potential features of a dinosaur that are not preserved in the fossil record. More adventurous paleoartists like to go out on a limb with their reconstructions, giving them interesting features that, while not necessarily supported by the fossil record, are also not disproven by the fossil record and thus may rest within the realm of possibility (I call this the Air Bud approach to paleoart, i.e. "There's no rule saying dogs can't play basketball"). This type of paleoart emphasizes naturalism, showing prehistoric animals in all the variety of coloration, integument, and behavior as other animals we are more familiar with. This often breathes new life into depictions of prehistoric animals, and generates renewed public interest in paleoart. With that in mind, here is another titanosaur illustration that would certainly make an impression in a fantasy world.

by Danny Cicchetti, via Wikimedia
A be-striped, be-quilled, and be-dewlapped life-restoration of the titanosaur overosaurus paradasorum
The following text in gold is available as Open Game Content under the OGL. Open Game Content is ©2017 Jonah Bomgaars.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Monster Monday: Phase Serpent, the Slithering Ethereal Hunter

The serpent stirred at the approaching footfalls - a telltale sign of incoming prey. It uncoiled its sleek body, muscles rippling under silvery blue scales, and dove into the floor, passing through the ancient flagstones and into the misty mirror universe of the Ethereal Plane. It slithered through curling wisps of vapor until it came to a place where it sensed the echoes of creatures on the material plane. Slowly, cautiously, it passed its head up through the floor behind the interlopers. There were four of them, two in gleaming metal armor, one in flowing robes, one in black padding. 
   Like flowing water, it lunged, piercing the robed one with its long fangs, then dropped back through the floor and into the ether. The one bearing its venom glowed, visible to the serpent even across dimensions. It followed the warm glow of the venom as the material creatures continued through its lair. When it judged the time to be right, it found a passage through the ether to the ceiling of the room the prey were in. It struck boldly now, hissing and rearing. At it attacked, it blinked back and forth between ether and material. One of the prey swung a cruel sword at the serpent, but the blade passed through curling mist as the creature popped back to the Ethereal Plane for a split second.
   Taking advantage of its distraction, the black padded prey cut deep into the serpent with twin short blades. The serpent recoiled into the ceiling. The black one was a greater threat when part of the group. It needed to be isolated. The serpent sprang out of the ceiling, barreling into the black figure, sinking its fangs deep into its shoulder and pushing it into the floor and through it, dragging it into the shrouding ethereal mists that lay just beyond the edge of the material world. The black padded figure was startled. The serpent tasted its fear on the air. It tried to strike back at the serpent, but the silvery beast simply coiled around it, biting it again and again.
   Suddenly, there was a burst of flame searing the serpent's hide. The serpent turned to find the robed prey blinking erratically in and out of the Ethereal Plane. It was terrified even as it blasted the serpent with another gout of flame. The hunter reared back and struck, but it bit down on nothing as the robed one blinked away. As the serpent hissed in frustration, the robed one reappeared and unleashed a crackling bolt of deadening energy which struck the serpent square in the snout. It felt heavy. It tried to pursue the robed one back to the Material Plane, but it couldn't make a passage there. The ethereal connections to the solid world were closed to the serpent by some magical force. It could only watch angrily as the three remaining prey, still lit up with the serpent's venom, passed deeper into its lair.
   It watched, and it waited.
Today's Monster Monday is the phase serpent, a silvery hunter from the ethereal plane. Armed with an array of dimension-defying abilities that let it strike from anywhere, this slithering terror is the perfect ambush predator to stalk the halls of any dungeon.

The following text in gold is available as Open Game Content under the OGL. Open Game Content is ©2017 Jonah Bomgaars.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Monster Monday: Platybelodon, the Shovel-Tusked Elephant

Today's Monster Monday is platybelodon, the weirdest elephant ever. This prehistoric elephant-like creature is distinguished by its four tusks, the lower two forming a shovel-like growth jutting out below the trunk.

Platybelodon sculpture by Sean Cooper & Martin Garratt, photo by RobinGoodfellow_(m) via Flickr
Platybelodon and related amebelodonts were gomphotheres - elephant-like creatures that roamed the earth 12 million years ago up until the end of the last ice age. While most gomphotheres had four tusks, amebelodonts had these specialized shovel-like plates. It was once thought that they used them to literally shovel up their food, but according to recent reconstructions of their life and diet, these creatures used their shovel-tusks to scrape tree bark and even as a saw to cut down small saplings and shrubs while their flexible trunk held them in place.

It also has one of the most terrifying skeletons of any herbivore:

via Wikimedia
The following text in gold is available as Open Game Content under the OGL. Open Game Content is ©2017 Jonah Bomgaars.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Monster Monday: Giant Camel and Two-Humped Camel

Today's Monster Monday is a twofer: both the two-humped camel and the giant camel, two sure-footed pack-animals specialized at living in harsh conditions.

Tang-Dynasty model of a Sogdian riding a camel, via Wikimedia
Modern camels aren't as big as that tiny rider makes this one look, but the scale is about right for someone riding a
prehistoric giant camel like titanotylopus. Also, the rider looks like a lawn gnome, which amuses me.
The two-humped camel is more commonly known as the Bactrian camel, but Bactria is a real place on Earth, so that name is probably not suitable for most fantasy campaign settings. The one-humped dromedary or Arabian camel has already been statted up, but I felt the need to stat up their hardier, stronger, and more wide-ranging two-humped cousins as well. Two-humped camels have higher Strength and Constitution scores, making them ideal for hauling heavier loads in harsher environments than dromedaries, and also making them more formidable in a fight - both of which are characteristics that adventurers in camel-country might want to look for in their mounts and pack animals.

Bactrian camels resting in Jiayu Pass, by Emcc83, via Wikimedia
Prehistoric North America was home to many species of camel, including the gigantic megacamelus, titanotylopus, and gigantocamelus (those last two are considered by some paleontologists to be the same). These giant camels could be roughly 12 feet high and weighed over 5,000 pounds, making them about twice the size of the largest modern camels. In your campaign, giant camels might be employed by wealthy merchants to ship large quantities of goods across the desert, or they might be ridden by desert giant warriors. They could even be used as fighting platforms similar to war-elephants; imagine a giant camel draped in scale barding armor, with two archers firing from its back and two pikemen fighting from armored baskets hanging on either side of the beast.

(Don't forget to check out the encounter ideas and adventure hooks for these camels below the stat blocks!)

The following text in gold is available as Open Game Content under the OGL. Open Game Content is ©2017 Jonah Bomgaars.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Monster Monday: Hellmouth, the Gateway Monster

Today's Monster Monday is the hellmouth, a tremendous beast whose very mouth is a gateway to Hell (as you may have guessed from the name). Hellmouths were a motif in medieval art that tended to result in some pretty metal images, as in this detail from an icon showing a black hellmouth swallowing a bunch of damned souls, who are also simultaneously being roasted in flame, tortured by devils, and/or attacked by snakes:

Hellmouth, via Wikimedia
As it is statted up below, the hellmouth is not a monster the GM should use lightly. It is always important, when designing encounters, to take into account what might happen if one or more of the characters succumbs to the monster's powerful abilities. You don't want to throw a medusa at your players if you aren't prepared to spend some time with one or more of them petrified. Just so, you don't want to throw a hellmouth at your players if you aren't prepared to spend the rest of the session with half the part stuck in Hell. The hellmouth is best used when necessary as part of the story, rather than as a random encounter. That said, suddenly having to improvise a rescue mission to get your bard out of Hell sounds like a pretty fun session.

The hellmouth does not have to be a potential campaign derailer. If you aren't ready to randomly throw some of the PC into a screaming torture-dimension, the hellmouth can suppress its throat-gate, allowing it to simply swallow folks into its flaming stomach. It is also designed to act as a living infernal siege engine, launching flaming boulders at distant targets and calling in reinforcements from Hell.

By the way, I've decided to start giving some adventure hooks below each monster, so even if you don't feel like reading a stat block, scroll down for dem sweet hooks.

The following text in gold is available as Open Game Content under the OGL. Open Game Content is ©2017 Jonah Bomgaars.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Monster Monday: Salt Ghouls, Desiccating Dead from the Desert

   When the sun was at its highest and the caravan had stopped to give the men and the camels rest, the howlers came pounding out of the desert. They were dead, emaciated men, their cracked faces twisted into cruel sneers. The monsters dashed across the dunes on all fours, kicking up a cloud of sand as they plowed toward the caravan.
   Hassan drew his falchion as soon as the first scream hit the hot air. He watched the undead horde with trepidation, eyes occasionally darting back along the road whence the caravan had come. No, fleeing was not an option here. His only chance of surviving in this harsh desert was to stay and ensure that the caravan survived. He dashed up to where the first of the ghouls were already swarming a panicked camel laden with silks. Hot blood sprayed out, staining raw silk red and sizzling on the skillet-hot sand. 
   Hassan's falchion bit into one of the ghouls, producing no spray of blood but a small puff of ancient dust. The creature was caked with sand and salt crystals. Its shriveled yellow eyes fixed on Hassan and it lunged at him, raking a gnarled claw against his upraised forearm. He kicked it in the chest, gathering space, then swung his sword with both hands, decapitating the ghoul. Its husk fell with a light thump. Hassan took a second to examine his wound. His flesh was puckered and cracked around the three gashes, but no blood was coming out - not even a trickle.
   Another scream ripped the air close by, and he turned to meet another leaping ghoul with his blade, blocking its claws and using its momentum to toss it over his shoulder. But another leapt for him at the same time, clawing at his silk jazerant and sinking yellow teeth into his neck. He dislodged it with an elbow to the skull and brought his curved blade down into its back. But Hassan's strength was leaving him. His muscles were slow to respond, and his tongue was glued to the dry roof of his mouth. He stumbled back, clutching at his neck wound. His vision blurred, he tripped over something and fell, splayed out on the sand, eyes closed. 
   Thirsty. So thirsty. Hassan rubbed sand and grime out of his eyes and sat up. The sun was low and orange on the horizon. Dead men and camels and dismembered ghoul husks littered the road around him. Not enough to account for the whole caravan. So they had made it. They had weathered the ghoul attack and gone on. Gone on without Hassan. His situation began to dawn on him. He was alone in the desert with almost no water. He frantically patted his hip, searching for his canteen, but it was absent. They had left him and taken his water. Bastards
   He rushed to the nearest camel corpse in hopes that they had overlooked a waterskin. There was one resting on the camel's side, shredded by ghoul claws and drained of its contents. But the array of leather straps suggested there might be another under the bulk of the dead beast. Hassan began to dig, heedless of the pain. At last, he drew forth a small bladder of water, though his cry of triumph could not escape his dry throat. He uncorked the skin and upended it into his mouth. The water seemed to disappear as soon as it hit his tongue. No cool wetness soothed his dry mouth, no refreshing fluid filled him. It was as if he was drinking ash. A cry of frustration and pain escaped him now, rasping and high pitched like the screams of the ghouls. He touched his neck wound and his fingers came away crusted in salt. As the last light of the sun dipped below the dunes, Hassan stumbled down the road after the companions who had left him to die. 
Today's Monster Monday is the salt ghoul, a ravenous undead creature from the dry dunes. Their cursed claws and bite can drain the water from a living being, leaving them dehydrated and desperate in the desert.

The following text in gold is available as Open Game Content under the OGL. Open Game Content is ©2017 Jonah Bomgaars.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Monster Monday: Zitiron, Mer-Knight in Shining Scales

Today's Monster Monday is the zitiron, a merfolk-like creature with a body covered in bony armor plates that gleam like steel. Zitiron are knightly sea creatures, who train by jousting with each other under water or at the ocean's surface - much to the delight and amazement of passing ships. Zitiron knightly orders are often called upon to fight in wars between merfolk kingdoms, or enrolled by port cities and merchant concerns to defend stretches of sea from rampaging sea monsters.

One of many zitirons depicted in the awesome Bosch painting, The Garden of Earthly Delights (c.1490-1510).

A black-scaled zitiron dueling a woodwose on a battle-gull. From the Hastings Book of Hours (1480).
As A Book of Creatures points out, the fanciful, knightly depictions of zitirons likely derive from descriptions of sea turtles. A common medieval artistic trope is that everything in the surface world has its counterpart in the sea. On many medieval maps and manuscript illustrations, you will see sea cows, sea horses, sea goats, sea cats, and other aquatic versions of surface animals. Early modern fishermen reported encounters with sea monks and sea bishops. Dolphins and porpoises were even sometimes called mereswine - sea pigs. In this context, is it any wonder that late medieval Flemish artists reinterpreted stories of sea turtles - altered through oral transmission as if by a game of telephone - into sea knights?

c. 1350 illustration of a zitiron accompanying Jacob van Maerlant's poem "Der Naturen Bloeme", via Wikimedia
The following text in gold is available as Open Game Content under the OGL. Open Game Content is ©2017 Jonah Bomgaars.