Friday, July 15, 2011

Fiend Folio Friday: Monsters as Dungeon Features

The Crypt Thing looking cryptic
Among my least favorite monsters in all of D&D are the creatures I think of as dungeon features disguised as monsters. Examples in the AD&D include Gelatinous Cubes, trappers, mimics, piercers, and shriekers. They aren't really monsters, they're traps or puzzles disguised as monsters. Which isn't really the heart of the problem -- the problem is that they are one-shot critters who are just part of the arbitrary weirdness of the dungeon. Sure you can make them work, but why not just use a trap or a puzzle? Expecially given the really weird nature of the critters you end up putting in the dungeon.
The Disenchanter.
The Fiend Folio has its own share of these kinds of monsters. Some are moderately clever to use once, like the Crypt Thing. Of course, the undead fake-out in appearance and the teleportation trick seem more clever to implement, and more disappointing on discovery. The real point of this is to put a monster in the dungeon that seems one thing, but is really an atmospheric teleportation trap. This might be cool in a megadungeon, and screws up mapping, but really is an annoying f-you from the DM.
The Jaculi
The Disenchanter follows up in the fine annoying tradition of the Rust Monster as a way of taking away your character's stuff. Again, this is the kind of thing to put in your megadungeon as a scary obstacle, a motivation to find more magical stuff or, more likely, to undo the mistake of having a vorpal sword in that treasury on level 2. Mostly, the purpose of such monsters is to remind the players that you can take away their stuff at any point.
Bilbo hates Stunjellies.
The Goldbug, like ear seekers or rot grubs, mostly exists to remind players that the dungeon-delving that is supposed to be the goal of the megadungeon you designed, is a stupid thing to do. Like the ear seekers existing to make players hesitate to listen at doors or the rot grub existing to make your characters hesitate to loot bodies, the gold bug is there to make players wonder about picking up gold, because it's a bug that looks like a gold piece, except that it can kill you with a poison bite. Sure, it's loosely based on the title of a Poe story. But mosty, it's a trap your thief can't disarm. The Jaculi, on the other hand, is a spear trap that slithers up to reset itself. And that your thief also cannot disarm. It's a snake that launches itself from trees or pillars like a javelin, then slithers back to height to do it again.
The Tentamort gets busy
Stunjellies are definitely in the Gelatinous Cube-Trapper-Lurker Above-Mimic family of killer creatures disguised as part of the dungeon. Again, while this does a great deal to build up paranoia about the megadungeon setting, these things really have no place outside of the megadungeon. And used more than once or twice become tedious at best, annoying at worst. Even the slimes and jellies can be that way. They also promote the kind of paranoid delving that lead to a desire to create ways to speed up play like rot grubs and ear seekers. Add things like the tentamort, which can crush one character while turning another character's bones to jelly, and you end up with a family of monsters that are just death traps that can be killed, and which add to the nonsensical nature of the dungeon. Now, you can get all Philotomy Jurament on my ass and tell me about the dungeon as mythical underground, but monsters like this don't feel mythical at all. They feel cynical. I get more inspiration from watching Labyrinth than I do from stunjellies and tentamorts, despite the gratuitous David Bowie musical numbers.

The Vortex
The Vortex is, on the other hand, a way to justify a trap. The idea of some sort of whirlwind that traps characters who get into the room is interesting, but maybe you don't want to have elementals, or some site of high-tech fans, or a magical trap. So instead, it's a living ball that makes a whirlwind. Personally, I'd rather go with the fans.
Of course, much of this reflects my dislike of the dungeon as a setting. This may revoke my old-school card, but dungeons are generally pretty dull. The ones I have thrown in over the years tended to be small, focused settings. A ruined building. Some mines. A place to explore with a purpose and get out of. I tired of megadungeons a year into running D&D in the 1980s, and while I have tried to like them now as an adult as gonzo fun, I just can't do it.