Tuesday, 5 May 2020

D&D Monsters: Doppelgangers

Doppelgangers are one of those races that, were they really to exist, would surely have a significant effect on the world and be much on the minds of the general public. That they aren't in the standard D&D universes is largely thanks to the great number of other sentient races that exist, many of which are even more threatening.

The word "doppelganger", which means something like "double-walker" in German, only dates back to the late 18th century. However, the general concept of a spooky double of a person is a common one in mythology, folk tales, and just plain ghost stories going back for thousands of years. It's also a common theme in more recent fiction, with perhaps the alien in the 1938 novella Who Goes There? being a particular inspiration for the D&D version. (The story was later remade as a film titled The Thing, although the black-and-white version Gygax would have been familiar with at the time features quite a different sort of monster).


It's hard to know what we're supposed to be looking at in the 1E illustration of the doppelganger. Is this the "true form" of the creature? Is it, perhaps, partway through transforming from one shape to another? Or adopting a freakish form just to be startling to someone? Is that a literal glow around its head, or an artistic convention representing its psychic powers? Whatever it is, it looks nothing like the versions seen in later editions.

We can, however, learn a few things from the stat block and accompanying text. Doppelgangers are significantly tougher than the average human, either because of innate combat skill or some innate resistance to injury. For instance, with their mutable form, it's possible that they can seal injuries up - not enough to regenerate, but enough to minimise blood loss and so make a wound less serious. Or perhaps they lack, or can at least adjust the position of, internal organs, making them harder to strike a lethal blow on. Their high damage rating (unrelated to weapon use in this edition) also implies that they are much stronger than humans.

They live and travel in surprisingly large groups, which could perhaps represent extended families, although there's no indication of how their society works. Indeed, almost the only thing we know about them is that, despite not being "evil" they regularly kill humans and take their place. From a game-mechanical perspective, that makes their purpose clear enough; they are monsters that work through stealth and confusion rather than brute force. But what they gain from doing this in-world is less apparent.


It's in 2E that we're told for the first time what a doppelganger looks like in its natural form. They are specifically stated to be hairless grey humanoids with a tough hide. The illustration shows elongated digits and ears, dead white eyes, and a generally cadaverous form, although it's possible that it's just starting to shapeshift into, say, an elf.

They are also given a clearer motivation than before, seeking to imitate wealthy people so that they can live in luxury, effectively as parasites on society. On the other hand, while they are still not described as evil, we are told that they regularly work for evil people (and not, apparently, good ones) as spies. There's also some hint of a cultural split between comfort-loving, fundamentally lazy, urban doppelgangers and more aggressive groups living as bandits in the wilderness. 

We're told that they're "tribal", and even that they all belong to one single tribe, although quite what this means in the context of a race so scattered and widespread is unclear.


One key innovation in the 3E version is the change of spelling from the non-standard "doppleganger" of the first two editions to the usual English variant of the German Doppelgänger. The look also changes slightly, for whatever that may mean for a creature that's inherently mutable, with a larger head, green or yellow eyes with horizontal pupils, and no visible ears, pointed or otherwise.

This version, while still stronger than a typical human, seems to be far less so than those in earlier editions, judging from the damage it delivers with its fists. They are, as might be expected, agile and highly adept at deception although they don't seem to be as stealthy as they were before. They also gain the ability to see in the dark for the first time, and we learn that they don't have a native language, typically speaking the local human one instead.

Although we are explicitly reminded that they aren't evil, we're told that they regard other people as mere playthings to be manipulated solely for their own selfish ends. Which, and maybe this is just me, does sound a bit evil from where I'm standing.


The Doppelganger shown here is more muscular than previous versions, and, unlike the 3E one, has ears and no apparent pupils - or mouth. Up until 3E, they were always immune to sleep-inducing magics, but that particular benefit is lost in this version. In physical terms, they are more agile than in earlier editions, but they are no longer particularly strong and don't have the slightly enhanced intelligence of 3E. 

The large groups of the first two editions have gone, and even the small groups of three or four described in 3E now appear to be unusual, with doppelgangers often working alone. Most other changes reflect the ruleset, emphasising their existing abilities to strike from ambush and maximise the element of surprise.

The fact that the doppelgangers of the first three editions are immune to effects that would cause other beings to fall asleep might be taken to mean that, like elves, they do not naturally sleep themselves. However, there is nothing else to indicate this, and their classification as "monstrous humanoids" in 3E would, absent a specific statement to the contrary, imply that they do.

More likely, then, it's a side-effect of their telepathic powers, which are presumably also responsible for their immunity to mind-control magics, which is retained in 5E. (Notably, 4E doppelgangers have no psychic powers and also lack both immunities). The exact details of those powers don't really change between editions, except to line up with other rules on spells and, as described, are insufficient to allow the doppelganger to fully imitate a person whose mind they have read, although they surely help to some extent.

But it's obviously the signature shape-shifting power of doppelgangers that is the most significant thing about them. It's clear that doppelgangers can imitate humans, dwarves, elves, orcs and so on, but the first two editions indicate that they cannot imitate people less than four feet tall. That would include halflings and human children, but this limitation disappears in 3E.

Instead, the requirement given there, and in subsequent editions, is that the subject must be 'humanoid'; there is a size limit, but no standard humanoid races exceed it anyway. This includes non-mammalian races such as lizardmen, while excluding giants, sprites and so on. More surprisingly, a literal reading of the rules implies that doppelgangers can imitate mermen but not some actual bipedal beings such as wights or mind flayers. Not that they'd want to do either, one suspects.

We also know that the shapeshifting isn't some kind of illusion, but an actual physical change. But how it works seems to vary radically between the first two editions and the later ones. From 3E onwards, the implication is that the doppelganger is, at some level, a regular humanoid being and presumably has most of the usual internal organs. The illustrations seem to confirm, for instance, a skeletal structure and musculature broadly similar to those of humans, elves, and the like.

But it isn't just the skin tone and texture that changes when they shapeshift. The skeleton itself must also be mutable, in order to imitate different facial features, never mind in order to alter things like the length of arms and legs. Furthermore, they can sprout hair that they don't normally possess, reshape their teeth into tusks when imitating orcs, and so on.

But can they change their weight? 3E states that, in their natural form, a doppelganger weighs about the same as a human, but is that still true if they are imitating, say, a halfling? If the effect were due to something like a polymorph spell there wouldn't be an issue, but it can't be magically dispelled, so I'd argue that it probably isn't. If so, to imitate a halfling, a doppelganger must be able to compactify its flesh, maintaining the same mass - in most circumstances, this wouldn't be noticeable unless somebody tried to lift them, but the increased density might be an issue while swimming.

In the first two editions, however, it's a good deal stranger. That's because, in those editions, doppelgangers can also imitate the clothing and even carried equipment of those they duplicate. Being able to change your skin so that it looks like a shirt of chain armour is one thing, but equipment? You might not notice that somebody never undresses when you're around, but if they never put down anything else they're carrying, because it's physically part of their body, it's hard to see how the deception can work for long. And if they can... well, that's weird, to put it mildly.

It's not surprising that this idea was later ditched.

In addition to fully-formed facial features, there is another feature that doppelgangers in 3E and 5E clearly lack: genitals. While they can presumably form them at will, this does highlight the question of how the race reproduces.

In the world of Eberron, originally written for 3E, doppelgangers seemingly reproduce in the usual mammalian fashion. We know this because they can also crossbreed with humans, creating the race of changelings. By implication, therefore, doppelgangers must normally reproduce by breeding with each other, although it's entirely possible that they are hermaphrodites.

The 5E Monster Manual, however, gives a different take on its non-Eberron doppelgangers. Here, the race can only perpetuate itself by breeding with humanoids (presumably any of them, including, say, dragonborn). They are said to only ever transform into males to do this, although this may not be a biological limitation as much as being too lazy to want to bother with pregnancy and child-rearing. On the other hand, they obviously can imitate individuals of either sex and, being hedonistic, it seems likely that this is something they would take advantage of from time to time.

Speaking of which, their imitation power seems to be based on observation so, unless they've been watching the target carefully, if they want to imitate a specific person, they are likely to omit things such as hidden birthmarks they aren't aware of... or indeed, make other anatomical errors that an intimate partner might notice. Much easier, as the text implies, to take on the form of a stranger.

Aside from the actual shapeshifting powers, and any ability to read surface thoughts, doppelgangers are typically seen in D&D as more agile than regular humans, but otherwise physically similar. (In some editions, as noted, they might also be slightly stronger). Other than this, in most other systems, the key is to emphasising their powers of deception and persuasion.

If there's a stat that's equivalent to Charisma, it's likely above the human average, but, for the most part, this seems to be based on skill and experience. This means that, in systems that have specific skills for this sort of thing, doppelgangers should be good at Fast Talk, Convince, or whatever the relevant equivalent is, as well as Acting and any observation skills that might make it easier for them to pull off the con.

In most non-D&D based systems, however, the question of whether their alignment is really Neutral, or something worse, is one that won't arise.

Saturday, 14 March 2020

D&D Monsters: Medusae

While the exact details of the myth evolved over time, in the best-known version of the Greek original, Medusa was one of three monstrous sisters known as the gorgons. As the only one of the three who was mortal, she was eventually killed and her severed head used as a magical charm. As a consequence, she is far better known than her sisters, who have no independent myths. In D&D, for some reason, the word "gorgon" is used for an entirely different type of creature, and "medusa" becomes the generic term for the type of being, rather than a specific individual. This has since caught on in other fictional contexts.

(I am going to use the plural "medusae" here, because that was the way I learned it as a zoologist, so I find it more natural than the form usually used in fantasy games).

Saturday, 18 January 2020

D&D Monsters: Dryads

Looking again at D&D creatures derived from Greek myth, we come to the dryad. In the original myths, dryads are a type of nymph, or female nature spirit, associated with trees. Originally, the tree specifically had to be an oak tree, but later on the term seems to have been used more broadly for woodland spirits in general. The term "hamadryad" was used for a dryad so closely bonded to her tree ("hama" means "together") that she would die if it did, but others seemingly had no such vulnerability. So far as one can tell, they were supposed to look like regular human women.

Dryads have occasionally appeared in works of fantasy fiction, most notably in C.S. Lewis' Narnia books, which maintains the distinction from hamadryads. In D&D, dryads and nymphs are different kinds of being, albeit with a number of similarities, but the latter did not make it into the 5E Monster Manual, something that's currently one of my criteria for including something in this series. In the first few editions they are, however, said to be "tree sprites"... but it's not clear what this means, since a sprite is yet another distinct creature in D&D, and one that resembles dryads rather less than nymphs do.


The 1E dryad is clearly based on the original Greek hamadryad, being associated only with oak trees and being tethered to her tree. While it's not specifically stated what would happen if that tree were cut down she cannot travel more than 360 feet (110 metres) from it, which does imply that its continued existence is essential to her own.

It also implies that they can only be found in forests with oak trees. The term "oak", however, can be interpreted quite broadly, and even includes some tropical species in places like Colombia and Indonesia. While oaks are not found in every country in the real world (especially in the southern hemisphere), even once we exclude those that don't have much in the way of forests, it's plausible to say that they're very widespread in a fantasy world.

Physically, dryads in 1E seem to resemble elven women and dress in a similar style. Their two hit dice - more than a starting character or, say, a typical orc - implies a fair degree of physical resilience, but they clearly aren't fighters. We're told that they're typically armed only with daggers, which they use only as a last resort in self-defence, and they're one of the few creatures to have the lowest possible armour rating. The text implies they are solitary, but, in fact, they seem to live in groves with up to six members.

They are slightly more intelligent than typical humans and, as so often, have their own native language not shared with other beings. Unusually, even for fey, they don't typically speak Common, although they do speak Elven and a couple of more obscure languages. They can also communicate with plants, which is likely linked to their stated innate sense for what is happening in their forest (I'd interpret this as something like communing with the Green in the Swamp Thing comics, but it's unlikely to be the way Gygax envisaged it). Like satyrs, they are inherently resistant to magic.

The illustration shows that dryads carve a home out of their tree, living in it in an at least approximately human-like manner. The text, however, contradicts this, implying that it's not possible to categorically identify a dryad's tree even with the aid of magic. This, no doubt, is to help them escape from hostile PCs, since combat clearly isn't their purpose in the game.


In most respects, the 2E dryad is the same as her 1E counterpart. The description, however, is more detailed, adding the fact that their hair and skin colour change with the seasons; the former turns green in spring and summer, but they are otherwise visibly indistinguishable from elves.

There's also further information on the dryad's bond with her tree, stating that she takes damage as it does, and dies (usually within 24 hours) if forcibly carried away from it. Dryad groves, implied to be the normal mode of life in 1E, are now stated to be a rarity, and it's clarified that the individual members of the grove barely interact with one another unless they have to. So, very antisocial, then.


The changes in 3E are far more dramatic. On the physical front, it's no longer possible to mistake a dryad for an elf - something specifically stated to be common in the 2E text. Although their facial features remain elven, they now have leafy hair and skin that resembles polished and carved wood. The latter is as tough as mail armour, but they now also have superhuman agility, making them even harder to injure.

They are better at combat in other respects, too. They now have four hit dice (better than gnolls), and, while their skills are primarily focussed on non-combat traits such as perception, stealth, and knowledge of nature, they can use longbows as well as daggers. They have access to a wider range of magic than before, all of which is, of course, nature-oriented. They can also travel nearly three times further from their tree without ill effect than they could before.

On the subject of which, it no longer has to be an oak tree, making such things as pine and eucalyptus dryads a possibility.

Culturally, while groves are rare, as they were in 2E, they are slightly larger when they do occur. Previously described as "Neutral", which makes sense for being so shy and avoidant of others, they are now Chaotic Good, active defenders of the forests in which they live and showing more compassion to those who do not directly threaten them. They now share a language with other fey beings, and regularly speak Common as well as Elven.


After a bizarre interlude in 4E, in which the term "dryad" is used for what's essentially an angry ent, they return to something closer to the 3E form here. For instance, while the physical description is a little vague, they do seem to be leafy-haired elves again, possibly with woodlike skin. If they do have the latter feature, however, it's purely cosmetic, since dryads no longer have any natural armour rating, and have also lost their superhuman agility.

In combat, they now use clubs instead of knives - largely because there's a druid spell that makes that advantageous, and which they have access to. The longbows have gone, but they're still reasonably effective in a fight. They're also far more sociable, at least with other fey (they've switched back to being Neutral), and regularly cooperate with unicorns, satyrs, and the like. They can also communicate with wild animals as well as communing with vegetation, but have lost the ability to speak Common again.

The bond with their tree has weakened further since 3E. Although they don't like to travel too many miles from home, it's clear that there is no hard and fast limit to this and they can move through the forest more or less as they will. They don't take damage when their tree does (this doesn't seem to be the case in 3E either) and, even if it's destroyed they go mad rather than actually dying. Presumably, they do die if the tree dies a natural death, but this isn't explicitly stated, and, in any case, could take hundreds of years.

Dryads are, like many other races derived from Greek myth, portrayed as having only one apparent gender. In the original myths all dryads were female, and this is almost universal in both D&D and other fantasy RPGs that include the race. (Pathfinder is an unusual exception). However, they don't seem to be parthenogenetic, but rather created magically, either as a spontaneous effect that sometimes occurs in older trees or as a deliberate creation by powerful fey beings.

This makes it easier to see how they end up avoiding other humanoids, having had no parents or social upbringing, although it does imply that they shouldn't have anything but the simplest of tools, and certainly no iron daggers. Dryads do, however, become steadily less antisocial as the editions progress, moving from extremely shy and retiring beings to stalwart defenders of natural woodlands. In parallel with this, they become more effective in a fight and gain a wider range of magical abilities.

However, there are two core abilities that remain with dryads throughout all the versions. One is an ability to magically step into a nearby tree and emerge from a different one elsewhere. The details change between editions, but it seems mainly intended as an escape route. This, however, is not what I'd describe as their signature power, because that is their ability to Charm.

And that changes rather more dramatically.

In both 1 and 2E, dryads can use magic to charm a person into helping them. If someone is charmed they are "taken away" and will not return for several years, if at all. Quite how they are "taken away" is unclear, since the dryad still has to remain within 120 yards of her tree. Perhaps the intent is that the dryad can grant her thralls the ability to merge into trees as she does, making it all but impossible for anyone else to rescue them without laying waste to the surrounding forest, chopping everything down within sight.

1E also doesn't say what the victims are taken away for, although the fact that dryads tend to do this with physically attractive men rather gives one a hint. 2E however, is unambiguous; the thrall becomes a willing sex slave.

And this, it would seem, is the real point of dryads in the first two editions. They are there to enslave men, to be an obstacle rather than a physical threat. The fact that dryads are physically attractive adds a layer of masculine wish-fulfilment to this, perhaps something that's meant to be taken as a bit of a joke, even if it's effectively the end of a charmed PC.

3E, perhaps less willing to be seen as encouraging potentially juvenile jokes, not only removes this motivation but specifically states that it's a myth, and nothing of the sort ever really happens. Here, charmed individuals are typically sent out to further the dryad's mission of protecting the forest... and the effect lasts for six hours, not for several years. In 5E it lasts for 24 hours, but can only be used on one person at a time. Interestingly, though, it does hint that dryads sometimes use the ability on particularly attractive individuals, implying a sexual motivation, even it's now only for a brief fling.

One might also note that for the first time 5E, and this is probably deliberate, uses gender-neutral language to describe the objects of a dryad's affections...

While a number of other systems already have dryads, or something very similar, duplicating the D&D version in them depends a lot on the edition being emulated. There is a general agreement that dryads are more intelligent than humans, but, in most cases, they are physically similar to an average, non-combatant human. In 3E and 5E they have reasonable, if not especially broad, combat skills, although these may be heavily reliant on nature magic to back them up. In 1E and 2E, they have virtually nothing, with their skills entirely focussed on perception, stealth, and woodland crafts.

They do, however, have a very high charisma, usually around the human maximum. Depending on the version, this might represent an advantage such as Attractive, but it's more likely to describe a persuasive personality, with the dryad being able to charm people with her words as well as her magic. In some systems, that's likely to be a skill rather than an attribute, but if the system allows for both, it's probably just an attribute/trait - raw talent rather than social expertise, given their lifestyles. As for the magical Charm powers, the shorter-term version is surely more gameable, and can probably be based on an existing spell.

Sunday, 22 December 2019

D&D Monsters: Zombies and Skeletons

As I have noted previously, undead in D&D represent at least three different broad categories of being: mindless corporeal, sentient corporeal, and noncorporeal undead. Zombies and skeletons fall into the first of these three categories, distinguished by the fact that they have no will of their own and are effectively automata under the control of their creator. They are also the weakest form of undead, a problem only for low-level characters.

It's well-known that zombies have their origin in Haitian legends, perhaps influenced by older African legends, but probably having more to do with the experience of slavery. In these legends, a recently-dead corpse is re-animated by an evil sorcerer, which it then serves as a mindless slave lacking all free will. The modern conception of the zombie, however, originates with George Romero's 1968 film Night of the Living Dead. Ironically, that film never actually uses the word "zombie", but it has become widely used since to refer to a selection of similar beings in films and other media.

Saturday, 9 November 2019

D&D Monsters: Satyrs

Like centaurs, minotaurs, and harpies, satyrs have their origins in Greek myth. The original versions are wild nature spirits and, in particular, representations of unbridled male sexuality... this survives today in the psychological term 'satyriasis' for uncontrollable sexual desire in men. As with centaurs, this part-bestial nature is represented in their physicality, which combines various animal-like features with an otherwise human, masculine, body.

In later times, the Romans conflated satyrs with fauns, nature spirits from their own mythology that were part-goat part-man. This is quite different from how early Greek art shows them as looking, but it has become essentially universal in western lore since. Nonetheless, since "fauns" lack the rampant sexuality of satyrs, it was their name that C.S. Lewis used in the Narnia books, and his fauns were far more pleasant than Greek satyrs were said to be. Otherwise, "satyr" has generally been the more common term in fantasy, and that's the term that D&D uses.


Noting that "faun" is a synonym for "satyr" in the D&D universe, this version has the standard look that satyrs have had since Roman (but not, as noted above, pre-Roman) times. They are basically tanned muscular humanoids that are goat-like from the waist down. They also have horns, which are remarkably small for the amount of damage they are supposed to deliver - similar to a sword.

They are surprisingly skilled fighters - more effective than an ogre - with an armour rating that's superior to that of, say, minotaurs. Given that they don't wear crafted armour (or much else, for that matter) and a thick hide seems unlikely for something with such a humanoid appearance, this presumably represents high natural agility. This is supported by the fact that they can move much more rapidly than humans, and do so with considerable stealth.

Unlike the Greek version, where they are often the butt of jokes, these satyrs have fully human intelligence. They have their own native language, but always speak at least two or three others in addition. Oddly, when they speak Elvish, they can be understood only by one sub-race of elves, not by others, despite there being no other indication that elves speak anything other than a single, mutually intelligible language.

Satyrs are evidently sociable beings, always being found in small groups rather than alone. It's also apparent that they are inherently magical, so much so that other people's spells often don't work on them, and that they are very much in tune with nature.


The 2E version is essentially identical to its 1E predecessor, aside from the addition of an ability to sense heat signatures to their already keen senses. It's also clearer in this version that D&D satyrs are intended to be peaceful and inoffensive, rather than the unrestrained and chaotic (if not particularly deadly) forces of nature that we might expect from their Greek origins.

In 3E, as so often, the changes are more substantial, even though the essential nature of the satyr remains unchanged. Physically, satyrs are less humanoid, with hairier bodies, an obvious mane, pointed ears and a hide almost as tough as chain armour. The horns are much larger than before, resembling those of a ram rather than a goat, but have a more plausible (lower) damage rating.

The 2E ability to see in the infrared has been replaced by a more appropriate low-light vision suitable for starlit nights. They have lost their inherent resistance to hostile magic and can sometimes be found in larger groups than before. They are classified as fey (which, in rules terms, means that they are more focussed on non-combat than combat abilities) and speak the same language as most other fey beings, implying some sort of common origin. Their other languages have been dialled back, no longer being automatically multi-lingual, and not typically speaking Elvish.

Unlike the earlier versions, 3E satyrs are "chaotic neutral", which makes sense for a highly hedonistic race, and there is a note that they are often mischevious. Presumably as a result of their fey nature, they are vulnerable to cold iron, which they were not before. (In the real world "cold iron" is a poetic term that simply means "iron used to make weapons"; in D&D it's generally something more specific and rarer than this).


In some respects, this version returns to something closer to that of the first two editions. The physical appearance is basically the same, although a wide variation in the shape of the horns between individuals is specifically noted. They rely on high natural agility to defend themselves, specifically having skin no tougher than that of a regular human. They are also, it would appear, more likely to wear clothing and their tendency for debauchery is arguably toned down a little.

This time, they do regularly speak Elvish alongside their native tongue - which, of course, is now the same as that of centaurs, among others. They have regained some of their natural resistance to magic, and lost the vulnerability to cold iron. Their senses are now only slightly more acute than those of humans.

Biologically speaking, the only thing that is really unusual about satyrs is that they are exclusively male. Unlike, say, minotaurs, this is something stated in all the editions, and it clearly fits with their mythic origins. Naturally, this raises the question of where new satyrs come from.

Being fey creatures, rather than true 'humanoids', it's conceivable that satyrs are somehow magically created, most likely in some realm like the Feywild. However, given their physicality, it's unsurprising that most sources that state an opinion have opted for a more biological approach. There are two different possibilities here.

Firstly, the females of the species may look sufficiently different that they aren't described as 'satyrs'. This is the option used in 2E, which states that the female counterpart of satyrs are dryads. This makes sense mythically, since, in Greek myth, dryads are woodland nymphs, making them pretty much exactly the feminine equivalent of satyrs. In D&D, nymphs and dryads are different types of being, and satyrs associate with both of them, but either version makes sense.

The alternative, which is used in Pathfinder, is that satyrs are interfertile with many (or perhaps all) types of humanoid and interbreed with them. While perfectly plausible for a being that's inherently magical, this does raise a number of social questions, which bring us to the matter of the satyr's signature power; the use of magical pipes.

Only one satyr in a group has a set of these pipes, although they seem to work for any satyr (but no one else), so it's probably a matter of scarcity of the items rather than some specific skill that only a few individuals possess. These are, of course, pan pipes, named for and associated with the Greek nature god Pan, who really did look like a D&D satyr and often behaved in a similar manner.

The pipes can be used to either make anyone who hears them fall asleep, or to run away in fear. Aside from some minor differences to reflect the way saving throws work, the primary difference between editions here is how long these effects last. This essentially gets weaker with each edition from 2E onwards. In 2E, the effect lasts for several hours, while in 3E the fear effect (the word "panic" actually comes from the god Pan, who had that power) lasts for a minute, and the sleep effect for ten minutes. That's easily long to flee into the woods in the former case, or to quickly frisk slumbering victims for valuables and then make an escape in the latter.

In 5E, however, either effect is unlikely to last for more than a few seconds - considerably less than the equivalent spell cast by a wizard. This is by no means useless, but it's more of a last-ditch defence than anything of wider applicability.

It's the third power, however, that has the greatest ramifications. This is the ability to charm a victim, again, for a decreasing period of time, depending on edition. In most editions, it's stated that this power is used to seduce attractive women. 

The extent to which charm magics can be used to obtain sexual favours is a rabbit-hole of its own, but this is clearly the intent in the case of satyrs. This is especially so in Pathfinder, where it seems to be how they reproduce. In 2E, a satyr's charm can last for months, but in Pathfinder, it's eight hours, so that either the child of any resulting pregnancy must somehow be collected by the satyr at a later date, or it has to make its own way in the world. Either raises quite a number of questions of simple practicality, never mind the moral issues.

5E does not describe how satyrs reproduce, but their charm abilities clearly aren't involved, since they don't last anywhere near long enough to seduce somebody. The text description implies that they do have a natural talent for persuading people to engage in revelry, but you'd think the fact that they are half-goat would tend to limit the opportunity for consensual sex with humans - and the way they're described, it's hard to imagine they'd do anything non-consensual. Here, at least, the ethical questions are avoided, even if the biological ones are left open.

In other systems, D&D satyrs would be reflected in highly agile humanoids with an impressive natural charisma and skills that are focussed primarily on dancing, music, and persuasion/seduction. The latter may, of course, be offset by their partially inhuman appearance, although the general opinion seems to be that they are fairly attractive from the waist up. Stealth skills and acute senses may also be appropriate. Their willpower is likely not impressive, but, in many systems, this can also be dealt with by giving them specific drawbacks/disadvantages that reflect a weakness for wine and women.

Because the duration of the pipe effects has changed so massively between D&D editions, it's hard to say how they would be handled, although mirroring existing spells would be the simplest, and probably safest, options. After all, in most D&D editions, they are no more effective than equivalent wizard spells, and in 5E, they are actually less so.

Thursday, 25 July 2019

D&D Monsters: Minotaurs

Minotaurs are another creature with their origin in Greek myth. In the original, there was, of course, only one Minotaur, trapped in a labyrinth and slain by Theseus. Contemporary Greek illustrations show a male human with the head and tail of a bull, more obviously a hybrid than the D&D version, but at least broadly similar. However, some of the myths were vague as to exactly what the Minotaur was supposed to look like, and in the Middle Ages an alternative with a centaur-like form, albeit often with horns on the human-like head, started showing up in art. The latter form had some popularity (it was the first illustration of it I saw as a child) but has declined in modern depictions.

Given that crawling around in subterranean labyrinths is part of the point of the original D&D, it's unsurprising that the Minotaur would be included in the game. Here, of course, it becomes a race of beings and thereby loses its capital letter. (As an aside, both "mine-otaur" and "minn-otaur" are legitimate pronunciations in UK English, although the latter seems to be preferred in the US. In Ancient Greek, it was apparently "meen-otaur", so, hey...).


Minotaurs in 1E are significantly larger than humans. By how much isn't clear, although they can't head-butt anything shorter than six feet, which may imply a height not much more than that. They have, of course, the head of a bull, but with a full set sharp, carnivore-like teeth and lower canines that form tusks. Unlike most classical depictions, they have a thick pelt of fur over the torso and upper arms, although we don't know the form of the legs, or whether they have a tail.

Minotaurs are as strong as ogres, and even more skilled in combat, although it is slightly easier to land a blow on them, implying a thinner, if still substantial, hide. Unlike the lumbering ogres, they move with human-like speed, and they seem to be even more aggressively violent. They are described as "unintelligent but cunning", a not unusual combination in D&D, and they are also noted to have acute senses of smell and (probably) hearing. 

Like the version from classical myth, they have a craving for human flesh, although, absent cooperative Cretans, one assumes that that can't be in terribly high supply in the underground labyrinths that they inhabit. However, while they're generally antisocial, they aren't entirely solitary, and can often be found in groups of four or five. That they also have their own language implies some degree of culture and traditions among them, although presumably at quite a basic level.


The physical look changes little in 2E, although they seem to have lost the tusks. We can see that their feet are at least generally humanoid, although it's possible that they don't have human-like toes. The only significant change to their abilities is that they now have an unusual affinity for navigating mazes, and are immune to magic that might hamper this ability. This, of course, is the exact opposite of the original myth, where the whole point of the labyrinth was to stop the Minotaur getting out. They also have an ability to see in pitch blackness, which does rather make sense given where they live.

As for society, a simple "clan"-like culture is described, with the oldest and most physically powerful minotaur leading the others. The labyrinths they live in are apparently built for them by evil humans - presumably to use them to guard something else, although the details are vague. Judging from the picture, the evil humans in question also provide well-crafted clothing and weapons for the minotaurs, since they clearly can't make such things for themselves.


There is a radical change in the minotaur's look in this edition. The head is now ape-like, rather than bull-like, aside from a pair of huge sweeping horns. The legs end in large cloven hooves, the tail is relatively large and the creature is much shaggier than before. Finer detail in the base attributes in this edition means that we can now see that minotaurs are marginally weaker than ogres (although still around human maximum), but slightly more agile and not quite as stupid. They retain broadly the same special abilities, tweaked for the new rule set. It also turns out that their hide is the same thickness as that of ogres, but that the latter tend to wear thick leathers as armour.

They do, however, live in smaller groups than before, with no sign of the eight-member "clans" of previous editions, and often being solitary. They now speak the same language as giants, although quite why this should be when they seem to have no obvious connection to the giant races is a bit of a mystery.


With 5E, we return to the idea of a minotaur actually looking part-man part-bull. The key differences from the 2E version are the cloven hooves and the fact that they only have three fingers and a thumb on each hand. Compared with the 3E sort, they have lost a point of intelligence, but so have ogres, so the two remain the same in relation to one another. Unlike ogres, minotaurs retain their tough hide in this edition.

The steady decline of the size of minotaur "communities" continues in this edition, with them now being primarily solitary, perhaps better echoing their mythic roots. Indeed, we're told that they are impossible to keep even as imprisoned slaves, which would suggest that the 2E association with evil overlords just won't work. Their native language has changed again, this time to Abyssal, which makes sense given the origin story we're provided with.

Since they come from Greek mythology, and are relatively straightforward combatants, minotaurs exist in a number of RPG game worlds and systems. In D&D worlds they usually follow the standard pattern laid down in the core rules, although there are a few exceptions where they are better organised. In Golarion, they form tribes, although possibly not very cohesive ones, given that they're chaotic evil. In Krynn, there is even an apparently sophisticated minotaur culture, while those of Exandria don't seem to be exclusively evil and are capable of living in urban environments. Similarly, there is a minotaur-ruled city-state in Mystara.

Undeniably the biggest question about minotaurs, biologically speaking, is where new ones come from. Early editions of D&D are quite clear that all minotaurs are male, something that obviously doesn't make sense given real-world biological norms. The core rulebooks ignore the question in both 1E and 3E, although that's not always true in individual game settings for those editions. But, if we want to answer it, three options present themselves.

One is that minotaurs are the result of some kind of curse. This is the case in the original legend, where the Minotaur is the result of a curse placed on King Minos (by punishing his wife, but that's the Greek gods for you). It's also the standard origin in 5E, where one can become a minotaur through demon-worship and it's at least the historical origin of the race in a number of specific game worlds.

2E officially went for a different, and far less palatable option, whereby minotaurs breed with human women and all the offspring are male. Since it's hard to imagine that many sane human women would be happy about this, it's not hard to see why this suggestion was dropped like a hot potato in later editions...

The third option, of course, is that female minotaurs do, in fact, exist. That was unnecessary in Greek myth, since there was only ever the one, but it's obviously the easiest solution if you want to have a race of the beings. In fact, it's the usual option taken in D&D game worlds, even if pictures of them are rare outside of mildly dodgy "furry" fan art - although not, to be fair, non-existent. Both Mystara and Golarion explicitly have female minotaurs and even the 5E Monster Manual states that minotaurs can breed true if they ever encounter one another, which clearly implies the same thing (and the text is gender-neutral, without a mention of "bulls").

Perhaps the only oddity of D&D minotaurs, compared with those in other fantasy RPGs, is their inherent ability to escape from any maze in which they might be trapped - and even that is implied in, for example, GURPS Banestorm. In that system/setting, they have the Absolute Direction advantage and that, or some sort of special boost to navigation skills, would be the way to go in many others, too. Otherwise, D&D minotaurs have approximately maximum human strength, around the minimum human intelligence, unusually acute senses, considerable combat skill, the ability to gore or charge with their horns and at least an impulsive recklessness, if not outright berserk rage, in battle.

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

D&D Monsters: Wights

The word "wight", as D&D books are always eager to remind us, originally just meant "person". It was common enough in this sense in medieval English, and into at least the seventeenth century (Shakespeare uses it, for one). After that, it becomes somewhat old-fashioned, and it's unlikely that anyone much has used the word in this sense for over a hundred years, at least outside of poetry. In 1869, however, a translator used the term "barrow-wight" (literally "tomb-person") to describe a form of undead from Norse legends. This term, of course, was later borrowed by Tolkien in Lord of the Rings. Gygax abbreviated it back to "wight" again for D&D, while retaining the "undead" meaning.

It's likely Gygax's coinage that influenced George R.R. Martin when he chose the word to describe his own, more zombie-like, beings. However, in his universe, it's the White Walkers that most closely resemble D&D's wights, although there are a number of clear differences, not least in terms of how they are created.

Tolkien's barrow-wight, however, was quite closely based on the undead of Norse myth - named draugr in the original language - and the original D&D version is clearly, in turn, based on that. These mythical "wights" were said to be corpses animated by the souls of their original inhabitants, pulled back from the afterlife, usually to guard their tombs, although they were capable of travelling out at night to take revenge on those who had wronged them, and they often had a range of magical abilities.


The wight in the illustration has unkempt hair and long nails, but is basically just an animated corpse, albeit more intact than the typical zombie. Wights are slightly harder to hit, and can sustain more damage, than ghouls but, like them, don't appear to wear any armour or carry weapons. Much of their resistance, therefore, is, like that of ghouls, probably due to the absence of any blood or vital organs, and perhaps the stronger essence of "negative energy" flowing through them.

Unlike ghouls, wights retain their full human intelligence and their "lawful evil" descriptor implies a greater degree of cooperation. They seem to exist in small communities of up to a dozen or so individuals, haunting ancient tombs, although no details of how they organise themselves are given. They are said to hate sunlight, so even though it doesn't physically harm them, it seems unlikely that they travel between tombs, or are likely to be encountered elsewhere.

This implies that it must be possible to create them spontaneously, but whether this is by an evil spirit possessing a corpse (as in Tolkien's barrow-wights) or an evil departed soul re-animating its original body isn't stated. In fact, the only way that we are told new wights are made is by contagion, with the souls of those they slay becoming weaker wights under the control of their killer. That this generally happens through the use of energy drain, rather than the use of physical weaponry, probably explains why their bodies look so intact. Presumably, dwarven, halfling, etc., wights exist, although the reliance on tombs might rule out less architecturally inclined races such as, say, nomadic orcs.

The 2E version is very similar, but with glowing eyes, and actual claws instead of long fingernails. They - perhaps more plausibly - are solitary, aside from any servitor wights they may have created, and even these are rare.


Compared with some other creatures, wights don't really change much in 3E. In terms of appearance, they are back to having nails instead of claws, and their teeth are now needle-like. The one shown is cadaverous, rather than having the muscular build of the 1E version, but presumably, there has to be variation between individuals, so that may not mean much. They are, once again, more likely to live in packs, apparently being driven by a desire to create more of their kind, although these packs are typically smaller than those in 1E.

Changes in the rule system mean that we now know that wights are slightly stronger and faster than living humans, although this is only by a narrow margin, and they are, in fact, less physically potent than the otherwise easier-to-kill ghouls. They are, however, remarkably quiet when they move (perhaps not breathing helps here, or their movements are steadier) and they also have acute senses.

The Liber Mortis indicates that, while most wights are the former victims of other wights, they do also arise spontaneously from humans, orcs, hobgoblins, and, occasionally, dwarves. The details remain unclear, although the implication is that they are animated by their original soul - unlike Tolkien's barrow-wights.

The wights of Pathfinder are, unsurprisingly, similar to the 3E version, but far more visibly decayed, and with the glowing eyes of 2E.


The 5E version of the wight has undergone much more drastic changes, to the point that it's hard to imagine scholars within the world would consider them truly the same kind of entity. Having said which, some of the changes are relatively minor. For instance, while prior versions of the wight seem to be physically intact, albeit with an extreme bloodless pallor, the one in the illustration appears to suffer from some slight degree of bodily decay, in that's its nose has apparently rotted off... but it's hardly comparable with a zombie. Wights are also now weakened and near-blinded by sunlight, but then, they always avoided it anyway.

Wights in 5E also wear armour and carry weapons, while all previous versions were dressed in funereal clothing and attacked with fists or claws. However, since wights are of fully human intelligence, there was presumably nothing to stop them doing this before, especially if they happened to belong to a culture that buries their dead warriors alongside the tools of their trade, as many real-world peoples have. It's a difference in attitude on the part of the wight, but not a change in their essential nature.

In a more significant change from 3E, wights are now physically stronger than ghouls, as well as more intelligent and strong-willed. There's also a trade-off in terms of their physical resilience - an unarmoured wight is no longer any harder to hit than a regular human, but mundane weapons inflict less damage (in 1E, though, they had both innate armour and complete immunity to mundane weapons...) In addition, it's clear now that they can speak, in whatever language they knew in life; this wasn't explicitly stated before in the core rulebooks, although Liber Mortis mentioned it.

The most dramatic change, however, is how new wights are created. Previously, most wights were the creation of other wights, who were, in fact, psychologically compelled to make more of their own kind - now, they have lost that ability entirely. Instead, all wights are spontaneously created, differing from ghouls in that they make an active choice to enter the ranks of the undead at the point of their physical death. (We're told this doesn't always work, presumably to stop PCs trying it). This means that they are, as in 2E, more likely to be solitary, but that they explicitly serve evil deities rather than being independent operators. They have switched from lawful to neutral evil, which sort of makes sense for a being selfish enough to choose wight-hood over their deity's afterlife.

As wilful corporeal undead, wights face many of the same biological issues as ghouls. The most significant are the two related questions of how their energy drain ability works and how and why people rise again as wights, as opposed to some other kind of undead.

Energy drain is the signature attack of wights, and, in 1E, they are the weakest form of undead to possess this ability. As described in that edition, it is a terrifyingly powerful ability for something with so few hit dice - permanent loss of a level is about the worst thing one can do to a character in D&D without killing them - and it's noteworthy that the effect is progressively tuned down in later editions. It also fades more rapidly, so that, by 5E, the effect, such as it is by that edition, is entirely cured by a good night's sleep.

We're told that the energy drain works because of the strong aura of "negative energy" that animates the wight. However, its effect is so tightly bound with the rules mechanics of D&D that it's hard to explain exactly what it's doing, from the perspective of somebody living in that universe. It doesn't induce lethargy or physical weakness, or obviously cloud the mind, but it does render the victim less effective at fighting, and, in earlier editions, at spellcasting, too. Somehow, it affects skill and experience, without also causing loss of the memories that go along with them.

In 5E, however, perhaps it can be justified as weakening the bonds between the soul and the body, draining away the victim's "will to live" as the darkness rises inside them.

When this ability entirely overwhelms someone, they die (brain death, presumably, with the rest of the body following). In most editions, they then become undead themselves, and some, probably most, wights are created this way. Some versions state that they retain their original soul when this happens, although, given that they always shift alignment to lawful evil, that may not really mean very much. Perhaps it's more like an evil spirit possessing the corpse and being able to access the original's memories.

But, even so, some must arise spontaneously, and only 5E provides an explanation as to how this might happen. That version, however, doesn't seem to fit with what we know of wights from earlier editions, leaving the question open; perhaps a combination of events is required.

Because the signature power of wights is so tightly bound to the D&D mechanics, there is often no direct counterpart in other systems that use widely variant rules. The basic concept of moderately intelligent, active undead may certainly exist, but without the energy drain, they are arguably closer to D&D ghouls than to wights. With that proviso, the closest examples would be barrow-wights in directly Tolkien inspired games, or anything based on the draugr of Norse myth from which Tolkien drew his own inspiration.

For the same reason, trying to more directly simulate an original-style D&D wight in a system that doesn't use levels can be tricky. They are typically somewhat stronger and more combat capable than regular humans, and, in the earlier editions are resilient to damage, probably because they don't bleed or have vital organs. But the energy drain is problematic. Each drain reduces the victim's skills by 5% or the nearest system-equivalent, but the nature of any other penalties may be difficult to carry over meaningfully, and, will, in any case, vary a fair bit depending on how the system works. As a result, it's probably best to avoid trying to stick too closely to the original concept.

Fortunately, though, simulating the 5E version of energy drain is not as complicated as that of earlier editions. While it's not what described as happening - that is, not what an observer in the universe would see - game mechanically, a wight's energy drain attack in 5E simply gives the victim a wound that cannot be healed until the effect wears off (which takes a single night, in the standard version). That's easily enough simulated, although, in many systems, it will mean that a wight is significantly more powerful than it's intended to be in 5E, if it normally doesn't take many blows to kill someone...