Monday, May 21, 2018

Monster Monday: Tasmanian Devil & Dire Tasmanian Devil

Today's Monster Monday is the Tasmanian devil and the dire Tasmanian devil. Sometimes called the "marsupial wolverine" by me and at least one other person, Tasmanian devils are fierce little critters from the island of Tasmania off the south coast of Australia. At about 2 feet long, the Tasmanian devil is the largest living marsupial carnivore. They may not be big, but their jaws are so strong that these guys can eat bones. They just munch 'em down like it's no big deal, even though whenever I try to eat a chicken wing bone my dentist yells at me.

photo by Mike Lehmann, via Wikimedia
So cute! Does it really deserve to be called a devil?
The devils got their name because, when they get together at night to feast on a delicious carcass, they let out terrifying screeches. When white settlers in Tasmania heard unearthly howls and crunching bones coming out of the already none-too-friendly Australian night, they thought that was fairly devil-like. They usually eat carrion, but they can take down prey when they need to - they can even take down a small kangaroo if pressed.

What about the dire Tasmanian devil? A lot of dire animals in D&D and fantasy in general are based on actual prehistoric creatures. This started with the dire wolf, canis dirus, which was a slightly bigger than normal wolves. Fantasy game designers ran with the exciting 'dire' descriptor and applied it to a slew of prehistoric animals like the short-faced bear and irish elk. They didn't stop there, though, creating 'dire' versions of animals with no real prehistoric equivalent, like dire weasels and dire badgers. The dire Tasmanian devil is one of the latter. Although there were larger prehistoric devils in Australia, Sarcophilus laniarius, they were only slightly larger than modern devils, not five feet long like the dire Tasmanian devil below. I took some creative license because I like 'dire' animals.

Tasmanian devil skull. Nice teeth.
I've been using the name 'Tasmanian devil' a lot in this post, but you won't see it in the stat block below. Why? Let's talk some more about real-world names in fantasy worlds. I mentioned back in my titanosaur post how names that reference real-world places (like the Argentinosaurus from Argentina) don't really work in a fantasy world. The Tasmanian devil finds itself in a very similar situation, given that most fantasy worlds do not have an island called Tasmania, let alone the Dutch explorer Abel Janszoon Tasman for whom the island was named. Take away 'Tasmanian' and you are left with just 'devil', which is rather broad and pretty confusing, especially in a world where real extraplanar devils exist.

I ran through several potential alternative names before settling down on one. 'Devil quoll' sort of works - quolls are a related cat-sized marsupial carnivore that are smaller and less bitey than Tasmanian devils, but if I named it 'devil quoll' I'd have to explain what quolls are. 'Marsupial devil' gets the idea across fairly well, but it also conjures up images of Satan with a pouch full of babies on his tummy. Its genus, sarcophilus, sounds pretty cool but it sounds more like a dinosaur than a fuzzy little guy. Eventually I settled on 'tarrabah', which is one of the Tasmanian Aboriginal names for the creature recorded by early white settlers, along with 'poirinnah' and 'par-loo-mer-rer' - I went with tarrabah because it starts with a 't' like Tasmanian devil. If you incorporate it into your campaign (and boy have I been giving a lot of thought to an Australian-inspired fantasy world), call it by any of those names or none of them.

The following text in gold is available as Open Game Content under the OGL. Open Game Content is ©2018 Jonah Bomgaars.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Monster Monday: Bellwether - It Tolls for Thee

Today's Monster Monday is the bellwether, a black ram with a large bronze bell in place of its head. This harbinger of doom delivers blasts of pummeling sonic energy with every toll, leaving its targets shaken. If the bellwether is not stopped before it tolls thirteen times, all who hear its final bell are cursed, and the surrounding land is left blighted.

The following text in gold is available as Open Game Content under the OGL. Open Game Content is ©2018 Jonah Bomgaars.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Monster Monday: Termite Mound Guardian, a Swarm-Filled Construct

Today's Monster Monday is the termite mound guardian, a druidic construct full of swarming, biting termites. Crafted from the gigantic termite mounds found in the tropical regions of the world, these stalwart defenders are often created to protect villages, natural resources, or sacred spaces. From a distance, they appear to be ordinary termite mounds, but when interlopers approach, they rise out of the ground, taking on a roughly humanoid form. A flood of angry termites pours from a thousand tiny tunnels throughout its body, massing against the enemy, while other warrior termites take up defensive positions along the mound's body, ready to bite any who make contact with it.

5 meter high Cathedral Termite Mound - Litchfield National Park, Northern Territory, Australia
I like the idea that there is a whole range of naturalistic constructs that only druids can make. Like, if a wizard saw a termite mound guardian, they might think, "Why not just make a clay golem?" But druids see these as something that augments and complements nature, where golems are something that contravenes the natural order.

The following text in gold is available as Open Game Content under the OGL. Open Game Content is ©2018 Jonah Bomgaars.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Monster Monday: Creniad, Nymph of Wells and Fountains

Today's Monster Monday is the creniad, a rare urban nymph of wells and fountains. Creniads are guardians of these urban water sources, granting boons to those who respect them and leveling curses against those who defile their purity.

Detail from 'Am Schönen Brunnen' by Anton Ebert, via Wikimedia
Before modern indoor plumbing, public water sources like wells and fountains were very important for city-dwellers, especially since any rivers running through a city would likely be full of human waste and the runoff of industry. Rulers of cities would commission fountains to bring clean water into the city for the public good, often beautifying them with statuary and pools. Urban wells were less dramatic but no less important for supplying clean water. Both water sources would have been features of public squares where people could gather and socialize as they collected their drinking water.

Recently I have been interested in urban environments as habitats, and how wild animals adapt to live in man-made environments. Thinking about this in the context of fantasy RPGs brought up several ideas for urban monsters (one of which was the feral hivemind). The creniad derives from the crinaeae, Greek naiads associated with wells and fountains. There are already some urban fey, mostly household spirits like brownies and domovoi, but the idea of a nymph associated with urban water sources seemed like an interesting idea worth pursuing, since those fairies are usually depicted as being part of unspoiled nature rather than man-made environments.

The resulting monster (see the stat block below) is built around protecting these urban water sources. She has a number of water-based spells and abilities, but she can also curse those who despoil her water source, bless those who make offerings or wishes at her well, and even inhabit fountain statues. When a creniad's water source becomes polluted, she becomes ill, and she might even become corrupted, gaining an altered suite of spells and abilities that turn her into an evil spirit of vengeance!

The following text in gold is available as Open Game Content under the OGL. Open Game Content is ©2018 Jonah Bomgaars.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Monster Monday: Mummy Wraps - The Embalming Construct

I approached the door with some trepidation, my earlier discourse with M. H-- on the subject of curses weighing heavily on my fevered mind. As a man of science, I held myself above such superstitions, but in that dark sandstone tunnel, choked with the dust of ages, such things seemed terrifyingly possible. Cuvier beckoned me examine the inscription on the door. Those inscrutable hieroglyphs remain a mystery to me, and I truly have no idea how my companion, learned though he was in such things, and quite more well-endowed with critical faculties than I, was able to derive meaning from them. Nevertheless, he did his best to explain. 'The room beyond must be the embalming chamber. Therein, the cadaver was prepared for the afterlife by the removal of the organs and the preservation of the flesh.'
   This gruesome fact was not new to me. I had, of course, read the MS by the renowned Mr. B-- of the Royal Society on the details of the process, which I have already laid out for you in great detail earlier in my account. But the idea that this place of ritual disemboweling lay just ahead of me through a foot of crumbling stone was, at the time, most disconcerting to my temper. Pallid though I was already, I am certain I grew more so at this news, though good Cuvier either did not notice or was kind enough not to remark upon it.
   Cuvier bade the workers make use of the great prybars which they had brought along for that purpose, and within the hour they had shifted the stone aside enough that we could make our ingress. Cuvier insisted on going first, and to my great and ongoing regret I let him do so with no small measure of relief on my part. He cast the light of his hooded lantern around the room, revealing what to the ancients must have been an impressive laboratory. Jars full of chemicals and unguents stood intact in chests of desiccated wood. An array of tools, equally at home in the hands of an anatomist as in those of a torturer, glinted in the light as if they were new, the dry desert air having preserved them for thousands of years without rust or decay. But in the middle of that cursed room - and I say cursed now, with full confidence and the benefit of hindsight - stood a solid stone mortuary slab topped with a tangle of ancient linen bandages. O that we had taken our leave then! But no.
   Fancying that I spied a scrap of writing on the bandages and fearing that my hands, moist from the fever and - I must admit - from nerves, might damage any ancient ink, I motioned Cuvier to take a closer look. When he did - O! If only this truly had been a fever dream! - the bandages rose up of their own accord and wrapped themselves around him. Helpless before these twining snakes of fabric, Cuvier at first stared in wonder, then tried to scream. His aborted scream, cut off by the living bandages as they covered his mouth, still chills me to my very core. With his last ounce of will, my dear companion reached out a shaking hand in a silent plea for help, but before I could grasp it, the bandages tightened and forced his arms to his sides. Before my very eyes, his skin grew brittle and taut and deathly dry. I could not help but turn away and, in my cowardice, flee headlong into the night.
   I know not how I made it out of that warren of ancient tunnels, the workers long since having fled and my only light source lying abandoned on the ground at the feet of my dead friend. Perhaps the instinct for survival alone carried my tired body back to my apartment on K-- Street. I can tell you that I did not sleep at all that night, as my thoughts were focused entirely on the arrangements I must make to leave this benighted country on the morrow. The full horror and the burden of guilt did not wash over me until that dark hour which lurks in the shadowy spaces between midnight and dawn. Alone with only my thoughts, I fancied that I perceived a dull scratching on my chamber door. I attempted to dispel the notion, but the sound grew only more persistent, its terrifying reality intruding even on my fevered and terror-stricken mind. At last, in a misplaced attempt to assuage my fears, I went to the door and opened it.
   There stood Cuvier, wrapped in those ancient linens, his skin browned with naptha and pulled tight across his bones. It is his face that still haunts me - cracked and sunken, with hollow eye sockets that could only be sightless and yet seemed so terribly perceptive. His papery lips pulled back into an accusing sneer, revealing yellowed teeth and a black tongue. I slammed shut the door immediately, and pushed my steamer trunk in front of it as a barricade. The scratching at the door came again in earnest, quickly becoming an insistent rap, and then a pounding that echoed in my ears. Abandoning my earthly possessions, I made my egress through the shuttered window and went by barge that very night to the port, with the intent of catching a ship bound northward at first light.
   I write this account from within the walls of St. S-- Asylum for the Criminally Insane, in the hopes that someone might read my words and know that, while I did not kill Dr. August Cuvier, I most certainly do not hold myself blameless in the story of his death. If his mummified body is ever recovered, I pray that whosoever finds it has the sense not to touch the bandages. 
Today's Monster Monday is mummy wraps, a dangerous construct that takes the form of spell-inscribed linen bandages with the power to wrap themselves around their victims, embalming them and turning them into mummies. While the victim's companions are presumably trying to figure out how to hit the bandages without harming their friend, the mummy wraps can control their cohort like a puppet, attacking them with their body as the victim watches helplessly.

The above vignette is written in the style of Edgar Allan Poe, albeit with fewer wordy and tortuous digressions on substitution ciphers, the value of inference, and the details of 19th century Parisian police-work. Don't ask me why, it just seemed fitting. Call it a tribute to my first DM, who kept a volume of the complete works of Poe on his shelf and insisted that it was "good fucking literature for Dungeon Masters."

The following text in gold is available as Open Game Content under the OGL. Open Game Content is ©2018 Jonah Bomgaars.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Monster Monday: Borovoi - Slavic Forest Spirits

Today's Monster Monday Tuesday is the borovoi, a Russian forest spirit, trickster, and caller of storms. Borovoi are giant fey creatures who rule over large stretches of forest. They delight in leading travelers astray and then demanding heavy ransoms for returning them to safety. When angered, they bring down the fury of a winter storm on their enemies, and summon forth the wolves and bears of the forest to tear them to pieces.

Illustration from 1906 cover of Leshy Magazine No1, via Wikimedia
A more common name for these beings is leshy or leshii, but that name is already taken by a group of monsters in Pathfinder - tiny, adorable little plant constructs that look like topiary fanart of Sackboy from Little Big Planet. Why the name of a badass, godlike giant Slavic forest trickster was given to a bunch of little leafy dudes is beyond me (probably someone needed a name so they just looked through a thesaurus instead of doing research or making something up). These diminutive construct 'leshys' (why not 'leshies' - as English linguistics would suggest - or 'leshiye' - a transliteration of the actual Russian plural?) show up a lot in Pathfinder: Ultimate Wilderness, which reminded me that I needed to stat up proper leshies. The name 'borovoi' - one of several alternate names for the leshy - means 'man of the forest'.

The following text in gold is available as Open Game Content under the OGL. Open Game Content is ©2018 Jonah Bomgaars.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Monster Monday: Qishilong, the Chinese Chimaera

Today's Monster Monday is the qishilong, a chimaera of Chinese mythical creatures that serves as a powerful guardian and master of the four elements. One head is that of the qilin (or kirin), the so-called 'Asian unicorn' which gallops through the air on flaming hooves. The second head is of the shishi, or guardian lion (also known as a foo-dog), omnipresent guardians of palaces and temples throughout East Asia. The third head is of a Chinese dragon, or long (imperial dragon).

The qishilong is not itself a being of Chinese mythology, merely a creation of my own inspired by Chinese mythology. Chimaeras are inherently weird, and it is pretty fun to come up with ideas for new types of them.

The following text in gold is available as Open Game Content under the OGL. Open Game Content is ©2018 Jonah Bomgaars.