Monday, January 30, 2017

Monster Monday: Vampiric Treant, a Sap-Sucking Fiend

Today's Monster Monday is the vampiric treant, a ghostly white walking tree that sucks the life out of its enemies with its long, probing roots.  Vampiric treants can lay waste to large stretches of forest, and drain the blood of any who would stand in their way.

It may surprise you to know that this monster is based (loosely) on a real type of tree.  A rare mutation in Sequoia sempervirens (the coast redwood) renders the tree unable to produce chlorophyll, resulting in an albino redwood.  Albino redwoods have white or pale yellow needles, giving them a ghostly appearance in the forest.  Unable to sustain themselves through photosynthesis, they become parasites, their root systems tapping into the xylem and phloem of other trees and leeching off their sweet, sweet sugars.

Albino redwood needles
It didn't take much of a leap to turn this fascinating natural aberration into a monster idea.  A treant that sucks the life out of other trees could make an interesting dilemma for a nature-loving druid or ranger: does this creature represent a threat to nature, or is its existence a part of the natural order?  This monster is also a good one to throw in when the GM wants to show that something is 'off' or threatening about a forest.

An albino redwood in the wild
Before you grab your torches and axes and go running off into Humboldt Redwoods State Park to kill some vampire trees, you should know that real life albino redwoods are not nearly as dangerous as the vampiric treants presented below.  Aside from the obvious (they can't walk, they don't suck human blood), these parasitic trees don't actually seem to harm their hosts all that much.  In fact, it has been suggested that albino redwoods actually filter toxic heavy metals out of the soil, making it safer for the other redwoods in the grove.  Only about 400 albino redwoods are known, and their locations are generally not made known to the public so that they are not accidentally damaged or killed by overzealous visitors.  If you encounter one in the wild, be careful not to trample its delicate root system or do anything that might harm it or its connection to the other trees in the area.

Of course, if you encounter one on the tabletop, you know what to do: axes, torches, etc.

The following text in gold is available as Open Game Content under the OGL. Open Game Content is ©2016 Jonah Bomgaars.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Monster Monday: Bonnacon, the Medieval Bullshit Beast

Today's Monster Monday is the bonnacon, a strange bull-like creature often found in medieval bestiaries.  Unlike a normal bull, the bonnacon's horns are largely useless, curving inwards toward its own head.  It defends itself instead by spraying burning poop at its attackers.  As you might imagine, the bonnacon usually had the funniest picture in the bestiary.

Kongelige Bibliotek, Gl. kgl. S. 1633 4ยบ, Folio 10r, via Wikimedia
Those expressions are priceless.
The earliest recorded reference to the bonnacon (also known as the bonasus) comes from Pliny the Elder's Naturalis Historia:
There are reports of a wild animal in Paeonia called the bonasus, which has the mane of a horse, but in all other respects resembles a bull; its horns are curved back in such a manner as to be of no use for fighting, and it is said that because of this it saves itself by running away, meanwhile emitting a trail of dung that sometimes covers a distance of as much as three furlongs, contact with which scorches pursuers like a sort of fire.
Although such an animal clearly doesn't exist, that doesn't mean Pliny made it up.  Pliny's work was an encyclopedic compilation of information on animals, plants, rocks, astronomy, medicine, and magic, begun in 77 AD and nearly finished by the time Pliny died in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.  He claims to have consulted about 2,000 books, and lists over 400 sources for his information.  The bonnacon may have originated in a work that no longer survives, or belong to an earlier oral tradition.  It may have started life as a joke, a trick that Paeonians played on Romans in the same way that Australians warn tourists to watch out for drop bears, or it could have originated in an observation of a wild European bison with diarrhea, a tale which grew in the telling.  The European bison's hairy, ridged back and its inward-curving horns do lend themselves well to the description of the bonnacon, with its curved horns and horse mane.  It was not uncommon for garbled transmissions and exaggerations to lead to Roman authors recording the existence of fantastic beasts on the peripheries of Roman territory: Julius Caesar, in his account of the conquest of Gaul, describes knee-less elk that sleep upright leaning against a tree, and a deer with an single horn that sprouts into five points.

Medieval bestiaries were collections of animal illustrations combined with descriptions of the beasts and their behavior and lessons that Christians could draw from these animals.  They derived much of their description from the Physiologus, a similar work of late antiquity, but they incorporated elements of other works as well.  The bonnacon made the transition from the Naturalis Historia to the bestiaries, but the monks seem not to have made the attempt to bring a spiritual reading to the description of the beast and its flaming poop.  Its popularity may have been grounded in scatological humor rather than theological study.  The Aberdeen Bestiary, created around 1200 AD, describes it thus:
In Asia an animal is found which men call bonnacon. It has the head of a bull, and thereafter its whole body is of the size of a bull's with the maned neck of a horse. Its horns are convoluted, curling back on themselves in such a way that if anyone comes up against it, he is not harmed. But the protection which its forehead denies this monster is furnished by its bowels. For when it turns to flee, it discharges fumes from the excrement of its belly over a distance of three acres, the heat of which sets fire to anything it touches. In this way, it drives off its pursuers with its harmful excrement.
The description is much the same as Pliny's, but its location has shifted from Paeonia (roughly modern day Macedonia) to the more mysterious and less known Asia.  Illustrations of the bonnacon often feature armored hunters protecting themselves from its flaming poop with large shields, usually while looking suitably grossed-out.

Oddly, the bonnacon found its way into Jacobus de Voragine's The Golden Legend, a 13th century collection of fantastic and inspiring tales about the lives of saints.  In the story of Saint Martha, the saint tames a ferocious beast called the tarasque, which is described as "a great dragon, half beast and half fish, greater than an ox, longer than an horse, having teeth sharp as a sword, and horned on either side, head like a lion, tail like a serpent, and defended him with two wings on either side, and could not be beaten with cast of stones ne with other armour, and was as strong as twelve lions or bears."  We dungeon delvers are more familiar with the classic D&D tarrasque (with two 'r's), a nigh-unstoppable Godzilla-like monster that has served as the final boss of many a campaign.  In The Golden Legend, the tarasque is said to be the offspring of the biblical Leviathan and, oddly enough, the pooptastic bonnacon (here rendered 'bonacho').

My bonnacon is below.  After the stat block, I will talk about my decision making process in statting the beast up.

The following text in gold is available as Open Game Content under the OGL. Open Game Content is ©2016 Jonah Bomgaars.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Monster Monday: Cinder Bat - Wings of Smoke and Fire

"It all started with a sheep, so they say."  The old man leaned close to the fire, the flickering orange light throwing his wrinkled visage into stark relief.  The children, sensing the beginning of a story, hushed their burbling conversations and turned to face the storyteller.  When all they could hear was the crackling of the pine branches in the campfire, the old man continued.  

"Farmer Agrup's prize ewe wandered on to Farmer Jenton's land and gave birth to a single little lamb.  When Farmer Agrup went a-searching for the ewe the next morning, he saw Jenton leading the ewe back, clutching the newborn lamb to his chest.  He said that the lamb rightfully belonged to him, since it was born on his land.  Now, this was just another in a long line of disputes between the two farmers.  As you may know, when two farmers have plots of land right next to each other, they can find all sorts o' things to fight about.  Farmer Agrup took his case to the shire-reeve but he found no justice there.  Agrup was known in town as a loner and a drunk - which he was - and a troublemaker - which he... well, he was a bit of that, too.  Farmer Jenton, though, had a big family, and was well-liked in town.  He often had the shire-reeve over for supper, and so the shire-reeve said that Jenton should keep the lamb.

"That night, Farmer Agrup got very drunk and worked himself into quite a rage.  He lit a torch, hopped over the fence, and threw it at Farmer Jenton's house."  The old man paused now to throw another log on the fire.  Smoke and cinders burst upwards to dance away into the black sky.  "When he passed out, it had caught the thatching all ablaze.  When he woke up hours later, the whole house was burnt up, Farmer Jenton and his family with it.  As he looked on, dumbfounded at what he had done, a charred beam fell into a pile of low embers.  It threw up twisting clouds of ash and flame that seemed to take the form of wings.  

"Cinder bats!  Creatures of smoke and fire, born of arson.  When Farmer Agrup cast his torch onto the house, he cast his rage with it.  That rage festered in the burning house and mingled with the rage of the dying Farmer Jenton and his family.  The ashes gave shape to that rage.  Four cinder bats flew across the night sky from the ruins of Farmer Jenton's house to roost in the eaves of Farmer Agrup's.  Agrup could only watch as his farm went up in flames.  Out of the ashes a dozen more cinder bats burst forth, some flying into the forest, others flying back towards town.  The shire-reeve's house.  Lucinda's.  The Korb family.  By morning, they had burnt up half the shire."

A little girl raised her hand to interject.  "So, do the cinder bats represent how violence begets violence?  Like, the dangers of holding on to anger instead of seeking peaceful conflict resolution?"

The old man shook his head, his eyes never leaving the campfire.  "No, my dear, no metaphors here.  The cinder bats are very real.  I saw them that night."

Today's Monster Monday is the cinder bat, an incorporeal cloud of ash and cinders in the shape of a bat.  It breathes fire and sets ablaze everything it touches.

The following text in gold is available as Open Game Content under the OGL. Open Game Content is ©2016 Jonah Bomgaars.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Monster Monday: Beaver and Dire Beaver - Those Dam Rodents

Today's Monster Monday is a twofer: the humble beaver and the moderately less humble dire beaver which had six-inch teeth and was roughly the size of a black bear.  Why am I talking about dire beavers like they were a real thing?  Because they were.  Castoroides leiseyorum roamed southern North America 1.4 million years ago.  Its relative, Castoroides ohioensis ranged across what is now the northern United States and Canada from about 130,000 years ago up to at least 18,000 years ago.  Ice Age North America wasn't just mastodons and saber-toothed cats; we had all kinds of crazy shit, like cheetahs and camels and saber-toothed salmon.

fossil C. ohioensis skeleton, via Wikimedia
There is some debate among paleontologists as to whether Castoroides built lodges and dams.  The shape of their teeth would have made them less efficient at cutting down trees than modern beavers, but it is known that a closely related genus of prehistoric beaver (Dipoides) built lodges, and a Castoroides fossil was found in association with what may have been a giant lodge in 1912.  Regardless of paleontology, the dire beaver statted up below definitely builds giant beaver dams and lodges, because that is too cool.  Modern normal-sized beavers have a tremendous effect on their local ecosystems by creating artificial ponds.  Imagine that but an order of magnitude greater.  Giant beaver dams would create huge ponds that attract all sorts of other creatures, from mundane fish and birds to nixies and shambling mounds.  A giant beaver dam might flood valuable farmland, creating conflict between farmers and the local circle of druids.  An older giant beaver dam might have become corrupted, home to oozes, aberrations, and - of course - skeletal dire beavers.

Lest we forget, normal-sized beavers are statted up below as well.  While they are less likely to serve as foes for low-level adventurers, beavers can act as familiars, granting their master a +3 bonus on Knowledge (engineering) checks.  They can also be prime targets for hunters and trappers, as they were in real life.  Beavers were historically prized for their water-repellent fur, which was used to make, among other things, top hats.  Beavers - both North American and European - have also traditionally been hunted for their castoreum, the secretion of the scent glands.  Castoreum is used in perfumery and in some traditional medicines.  In the Middle Ages, it was even used to increase the production of honeybees.  Any hunter or trapper who bags a beaver stands to profit not only from its fur but also its extracted castoreum.  Fun fact: because the castor glands are located near the beaver's testes, an ancient legend first attested in the works of Aesop but carried on by ancient and medieval naturalists says that beavers will gnaw off their own ballsacks to escape hunters.

via Wikimedia
The following text in gold is available as Open Game Content under the OGL. Open Game Content is ©2016 Jonah Bomgaars.