Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Monster Archaeology - Magical Beasts


It's hard to know exactly where to start and stop the next set of monsters from Monsters and Treasure, bestial creatures that are (with one interesting exception) pulled directly from classic myth and legend.  These creatures are best described as "Dragon-like", but depart from the common structure of Monsters and Treasure in that they don't represent a hierarchy from weakest to strongest within a specific monster class.

Manticores ("Manticoras"), Hydras, Chimeras and Wyverns don't really share much descriptively or in any conceivable ecology, though all have some special attack, all appear in small numbers and all are dangerously powerful with 6-12 Hit Dice and decent armor class.  They seem to exist to provide a lone alpha predator, menace or 'boss monster' when dragons aren't appropriate.  This is somewhat unfortunate as most of these creatures are quite evocative and offer interesting encounters.

Manticores are perhaps the least dangerous of these large monsters, and Monsters and Treasure describes them as follows and continues to use the name "Manticora" which is the name of a genus of African beetle and the Latin term for Manticore - it describes them as follows:

MANTICORA: Huge, lion-bodied monstrosities with men's face, horns, dragon wings and a tail full of iron spikes.  There are 24 of these spikes in a Manticora's tail and they can be fired 6 at a time in any one direction with the range (18") accuracy and effect of a crossbow. Their favorite prey is man.

As a
6+1 hit die creature with great speed (12/18) and a good AC of 4, Manticores seem like they would be excellent hunters of man - and in the ancient Persian that provides the name it translates to "man eater".  They mythological Manticore seems to be one of those monsters of spirits of the wasteland that explains why shepards, hunters, travelers and herdsmen go missing and thier bodies are never found.  Allegedly the mythical beast devours its prey whole after stunning with it's poisonous sting.

As a monster the Manticore as a mechanical concept is far less interesting then it's parts imply.  It's a burly ranged attacker (though limited to one attack in melee) that can launch a dangerous (an with an attack bonus of +6 or the ability to hit a plate and shield armored character on an 11 or better) flurry of missiles.  The mechanics of the Manticore's missile attack present interesting possibilities, in that it can target a single enemy six times in a round at range, picking off magic users and other dangerous but unprotected characters.  Played with the human cunning that it's man's head implies a Manticore could be very dangerous, sniping party members from ambush and flying by to kill at long range.  One envisions them as predators and raiders, flying, retreating to filthy bachelor lairs in the wastelands, decorated in stolen frivolities and aping humanity, but scattered with bones and bloody bits of meals.  Goblin Punch has this lovely piece on Manticores, making them more mythical then the original myths of confused man faced and poison tailed tigers, or the later ones of cats with the faces of beautiful spiteful women, confused with the sphinx and as an allegory for fraud.  More recently Trey at Sorcerer's skull released his Manticore wizard focused adventure which takes the beast in a somewhat different direction but still focuses on the   It's hard not to think of Manticores as the idea of a monster in need of more interesting statistics.

Hydras are the next of the magical Beasts listed in Monsters and Treasure:

HYDRAS: Unlike the standard mythological concept of the Hydra being a snake with many heads, these beasts are large dinosaurs with multiple heads.  Because of its size and constitution, each head is represented by one hit die, and the hit die per head is generally of six pips.  Thus a six-headed Hydra has six hit dice of six pips each, or 36 total hit points. When six hit points are scored on it one head is then killed.  Hydras of five heads fight as 5th level fighters, those with six as 6th level fighters, and so on.  A ten-headed Hydra would fight as a 10th level fighter even when it had but one head left.  Usually all of a Hydra's heads can attack simultaneously.

Hydras are some of the most terrifying foes in Monsters & Treasure.  They effectively have the maximum Hit Points, decent AC, up to twelve attacks per round and rarely miss due to their high Hit Dice.  mechanically they are moderately interesting, and the slowly declining number of attacks is about as much of a combat mechanic as Monsters & Treasure offers.  The distinction that they are "large dinosaurs" leads to some interesting aesthetic ideas - specifically what work of dinosaur - because a 12 headed Tyrannosaur is a strange image, but not one I'm entirely opposed to.  This dinosaur imagery is not the only way that the Monsters & Treasure departs from the mythical Hydra.  Created by the Goddess Hera to kill Hercules, the mythical Lernaean Hydra is a divine assassination attempt, something akin to one of Zeus's lightning bolts or a drone strike, existing for the purpose of killing a hero who is stronger then everything.  To do so the Hydra relies on trickery, and Hercules has to overcome it with trickery.  It lairs in a poison swamp and its blood is also poisonous, features lacking in the OD&D version of the monster.  More telling is the core mythical conceit of the hydra is that its heads grew back (two heads replacing each in most versions) whenever they were severed.  There's something almost fungal or plant like about the new heads popping up whenever on is cut off and it certainly makes the Lernaean Hydra one of Hercules' more complex opponents.

While poison and regeneration aren't part of the Monsters & Treasure Hydra's skillset it is still well designed to bring down melee fighters.  In this the Hydra is that mechanically almost the opposite of the Manticore.  While both share excellent chance to hit and are reasonable powerful, the Manticore can decimate enemies at range, with six attacks per round (for the first four rounds at least - but combat rarely lasts that long in OD&D) and the Hydra can attack up to twelve times in melee.  Both the Manticore and Hydra's abilities degrade over time, the Hydra losing a head and attack each time it takes six HP of damage, and the Manticore running out of ammunition.  However, with such a high number of attacks both monsters are designed to fight multiple opponents and decimate adventuring parties that fight them in their chosen way.

The Hydra may actually be the less dangerous of the two, as its description suggests it's a monstrous beast, a dinosaur thing with corresponding limited intelligence.  While the Hydra's predatory behavior may give it the cunning to hide in pools and ambush or dart back under water if barraged with missiles, it cannot slowly hunt and snipe adventurers from the air like the Manticore.  

CHIMERAS: Combining the worst of many creatures, a Chimera has the forebody of a great cat, the hind quarters of a a goat, dragon wings and three heads.  The goat's head can gore with its long sharp horns, the lions head can tear with its great fangs, and the dragon's head can either bite or breathe fire (but with a range of only 5" and but three dice damage).

Another high Hit Dice flying, monstrous beast with a good AC, multiple attacks (3 or special breath weapon).  The Chimera is less interesting then the Hydra or Manticore, with a mix of ranged and melee abilities, but to me more an odd mishmash of creatures then something that's form and description suggest a lifestyle, combat style or anything evocative about the Chimera.  Mythologically the Chimera is another of the nasty monsters created and breed by the gods to spread terror and offer a challenge to heroes. 

Jacopo Ligozzi - 1590-1610
The main difference between the mythological Chimera and the one most often shown by tabletop illustrators, is a lack of wings and that the classical monster was much more bizarre looking.  With heads arranged along its body rather the forward facing, and its tail a snake or dragon the classical Chimera is not rationalized or biologically optimized.  The etching above by Ligozzi does the ancient concept justice, with the goat at the center sort of thrashing about, oddly situated on the creatures back.  I'm not sure why D&D (though not so much Monsters & Treasure's sparse description) tended to rationalize its monsters, trying to give Dragons, Orcs and Chimeras simulationist features/mechanics/statistics and naturalistic ecologies.  The tendency has gotten somewhat more severe with time with the newest official monster manual, Volo's Guide, spending huge chunks of pages to justify the existence of various monsters in the setting, but even Monsters & Treasure reflects the tendency, making sure that the number of heads or dangerous limbs on a creature represent its number of attacks.  This is of course unnecessary.  The Chimera can attack as many time in a round as the GM running it feels is appropriate and in any manner that makes sense to her.  Yes, a good GM will pay some attention to providing clues about monster abilities in monster description, but monster design is still an area where the GM has a great many options.  Of course some description and ideas about monsters are worthwhile, because unless the GM intends to make every monster in his setting, having ideas beyond a creature's statistics is helpful to bringing it to life for ones' players.

With Chimera's there's little to make the monster interesting, beyond its abnormality and the horrific aspect of a creature made up of several others.  The Chimera doesn't seem intelligent based on itws mythological presence, much like the Hydra it is a creature that appears as a terror weapon of angry gods, and its death from choking on a molten lead spear suggests that the Chimera lacks even an understanding of its own body's

The Chimera's main attraction as a foe is the mechanical danger of its breath weapon.  A 50' (5") cone of flame that does 3D6 HP of damage.   This is different then dragon breath, which classically does the Dragon's current hit points in damage, but it makes the Chimera's breath considerably more effective when the thing is badly injured, and 3D6 damage is the equivalent of three normal attacks, with the advantage of automatically hitting, and requiring a difficult saving throw to reduce to 1/2 damage.  The Chimera (and of course the Dragon) is very effective at killing large groups of henchmen or men at arms, making it fairly good at countering one of the more useful tactics at killing dangerous single enemies.

WYVERNS: These monsters are relatives of Dragons, but they are smaller and have but two legs.  A Wyvern hasn't the fearsome breath of a true Dragon, but they are equipped with a poisonous sting in their tail and poison enough to use it repeatedly.  It is there primary defense, and they will use it two-thirds of the time (biting otherwise, die 5 or 6 indicates the latter).  The tail is mobile and can be brought over the back to reach any opponent standing before its head.

A rare creature in Monsters & Treasure with its mechanics specially written into the description, which is otherwise minimal.  Wyverns are dangerous, though much less so then the other magical beasts above. They have a deadly poison attack, good armor (the best of the Mythical Beasts at AC 3 - equivalent to plate armor) and high HD (though less then Hydras or Chimeras), but they lack the ability to injure multiple opponents or do significant damage each round if their poison fails. The Wyvern can fly, making it dangerous in the open, but it lacks the Chimera's breath weapon or the Manticore's missiles so it's best tactic is a diving snatch and grab - maybe dropping its victim from a dizzying height.  Still the Wyvern is both vulnerable to missiles and manageable in melee combat, making it a tough but not fairly mundane foe.

Mythologically the Wyvern is also newer then the Manticore, Chimera or Hydra - it's primarily a heraldic beast, rather then one from classical legend. I have a hard time not associating it with the similarly two legged 'Lindwyrm' a Scandinavian form of sea serpent or dragon. There's nothing especially interesting about mythological Wyverns and the distinction between them and dragons is fuzzy at times.  This has always made it useful in games where actual dragons are rare or perceived as too powerful to include regularly.  As a bestial monster the Wyvern also has the advantage of making a pretty cool mount for powerful PCs or NPC that isn't itself a character. 


Fallen Empire is already a setting full of strange monstrous beasts - the most common being the Owlbear (a creature sadly lacking from Monsters & Treasure).  Strange creatures come from various sources, all related to the ongoing collapse of the ancient and magically adept Imperial civilization.  Fel Horrors birthed by 'magical sinks' and pollution, living weapons or arcane livestock run amok, summoned horrors or even  (in rare cases) natural creatures returning to ancient ranges in the wake of dying civilization.  Hydras, Wyverns, Manticores and Chimeras might be the result of any of these sources, a many headed demon host with snapping human faces atop a gross pile fused bodies or a alchemical serpent of smoke and  living stone birthed by magical esters seeping into the rock.  Monsters & Treasures' magical beasts are mechanically varied enough and have interesting enough 'tricks' to be used in multiple scenarios as a sort of ur-template for large, usually animalistic regional menaces appearing alone or in small numbers. My own tendency is also to provide large menancing beasts with additional abilities that increase their survivability such as damage reduction and attack pools. As such rather then discussing the creature type as a whole, below are specific exemplars of Magical Beasts as the would relate to my In the City at Night series of posts about the huge and crumbling Imperial Capital.
  • MANTICORE - Between the sealed arc Southern Gates and Grand Canal, across the ruined expanse of several precincts, quarters and cantonments is the hunting ground of the Wicked Brothers.  It is not entirely clear how the Brothers are related, or even if they are, but after generations of predation they are firmly lodged in the legends of the feral thralls that inhabit the glass factor beyond the plaza of roses as the returned spirits of the wicked arcanist/industrialists that created them.  The Bothers are two (or more - most likely many more) leathery winged beasts, each resembling the headless body of a large hunting cat with body of a naked and filthy man affixed beneath.  The man's body is bent and twisted to follow the contours of the beast, back arced beyond possibility, so the upper torso and shaggy, filthy head of the man fill the void of the beast's own missing head. The back and tails of the Wicked Brothers a a further abomination - a riot of mismatched fur, scale and skin, mottled and melded to provide both the base of a long snake-like tail and the monster's huge bat wings.  It is known that one of the Brothers tail terminates in a flailing ball of battered bone and flesh, and that the other's is the head of a giant spitting cobra capable of drenching victims in flesh burning venom from aloft.

    Attacks by the Brothers are without reason or pattern - sometimes two (or some claim more) Brothers will circle and dive to maul and devour individuals or groups.  Sometimes one will creep from ambush to kidnap a young man or woman and fly off with its prey.  It is unclear how the creatures survive, given they don't take enough victims to supply sustenance to a pair of such huge bodies - but they persist - lairing in some ancient tower or dome and continuing their strange cruel ways without interruption.  Rumors and theories about them also persist with the most common claiming that they are the cursed and immortal remnants of mad wizards, warped by an error in their foul magics.  This is scoffed at by most of the upper classes who insist that such creatures could only be the result of intentional alchemical manipulation.
  • HYDRA - The undercity is said to teem with fecundity and life beyond that of even the city above, and horrors both ancient and novel boil up to the surface to hunt man regularly . Hydrea are some of the most dangerous of these deep horrors, but paradoxically they are also rarely seen as threats to be hunted down.  Hyrdrea spawn somewhere deep in the oceans that is the black cisterns to hunt the among the endless dark water of the sewer and reservoir channels, growing ever larger and more dangerous.  First devouring the eyeless fish and crystal clear crabs of the Underwaters, Hydra grow and grow, befitting their vegetable nature. Wandering roots, hunting algae, tangled vine necks ending in jaws of poisonous thorn, the Hydrea are implacable but placid, floating with small motions of tendril and vine until they erupt into predatory violence.  By the time they reach the surface Hyda are sometimes a hundred feet long, and rarely under seventy, and capable of devouring adult Canal Hogs. They are also usually at the end of the mobile phase of their life cycle and ready, after a few weeks or months of furious consumption, to take root, flower and live off sunlight - growing into jagged mangroves of bright flowers and once a decade black, medicinal fruit. When in the sun, Hydrae tend to ignore prey smaller then a cow, and so are rarely a direct threat to humans (distinctly not the case when they are in the dark and must gain their sustenance without photosynthesis), making the most dangerous aspect of one's emergence into the canal competition between Demes gangs to herd the beast (usually with a trail of prey) towards their territory to root, or the sudden commotion a hungry Hydra creates among the normally placid River Hog population.  The regenerative value of Hydra sap and heartwood means that the value of a dead immature Hydra is great, but only the very foolish would enter the Underwaters to hunt an alpha predator in its favored environment.
  • CHIMERA - The Bathouse of Chibul is the home of The Unclean Goat also known as The Feaster of Foul Meat. A hideous construct of low sorcery and amateurish flesh magic The Goat is likely a recent addition to the tapestry of horrors, the efforts of some mad aristocrat dabbling with some even madder ancestors laboratory an notes.  It is ugly in the extreme - the heads of at least three beasts clumsily grafted to the abused body of a bull or small elephant.  besides its bulk and assorted snapping mouths, the Goat's belly is blistered and glows with blue balefire that some of its heads vomit, cough or sneeze outward in sprays of burning magma like bile when the Goat is forced into combat or on the hunt. A cursed and dangerous beast, it's ungainly gait, the infected appearance of its sutures, constant racking coughs, sneezes and sheen of fevered sweat suggest the Unclean Goat is ill.  The Goat itself will any who are willing to listen that it feels poorly - because the Unclean Goat is possessed with a human portion of intelligence, and while no scholar or genius enjoys learning, being something of an autodidact.  Long ago it captured and enslaved a traveling scholar of the arcane who earned his freedom by teaching the Goat to read, and no it collects books, pamphlets and broadsheets (which fare poorly in its damp lair) and will expect visitors to provide it with the latest written word (or any really).

    The Unclean Goats oddity and intelligence would not have kept it alive if it weren't for another salient feature of the beast - it eats the undead.  Hunting and devouring blackhearts, revenants and any other form of rotten walking corpse the Unclean Goat can be convinced (with books, patent medicines, promises of company or professional medical assistance) to direct its hunt to certain locations and at least three Demes have cordial enough relationships with it on these terms.
  • WYVERN - Some years ago a fool brought several pairs of Wyverns, Griffons, Marsh Harpies, Storm Birds or Cathartides (depending on ones tradition) down from the Black Mash in the North, where they persist mainly on the carcasses of sea leviathans, to display. The cold marsh dwelling brutes escaped and have been impossible to eradicate from the more temperate City since.  Mostly confined to the to the most crumbled and inaccessible abandoned mansion spires of the nobility, where they roast.  At dawn and dusk the great ragged winged avians soar high and dart down to scavenge and hunt. 

    Often portrayed as nothing more then colossal vultures, the citizens of the Northern quarters have come to ignore them, avoiding morning and evening strolls along canals or more open areas and so keeping the number of human victims to these carrion beasts low.  Slaughterhouses even find them useful, leaving waste where the great winged beasts can devour it.  Wyverns differ in several key ways from vultures, though they share the general body form and some behavioral ticks.  Great black feathered bird-things, except for thier huge-beaked, vibrantly colored, wrinkled heads, necks and talons, Wyverns stink of the foul meat they prefer and their body chemistry is so toxic and caustic that not only can they digest the most rotten of flesh but their blood and bile is extremely poisonous.  To aid in the hunt of live prey, many Wyverns cover their talons in their own toxic blood, so that any slashed by them are paralyzed, die or fall into convulsions, making them easy to carry off and hang from the broken spires until they ripen.


  1. Just to point out, Wyverns stand on a pair of hindlegs & usually have wings, while Lindwyrms crawl with a pair of forelegs & rarely have wings.

    1. This is the modern taxonomical conception yes. However, if you look at say the Wyvern of Wessex and the Lindworm of Klagenfort it's pretty much the same creature. As a Heraldic beast both are often depicted as having a sort of avian body structure, with clawed forelegs and a long tail, and sometimes wings. Heraldic and Mythical beasts vary a lot in their depiction within their class.

      I generally find this one of the intriguing things about Monsters & Treasure because it's by necessity an effort to taxonomize fictional monstrous creatures (not the first of course) but likely the one that has had the most say on contemporary conceptions of monsters (especially expanded into the 1st Monster Manual) and it's written with the idea of regularizing them, or even naturalizing them and providing biology and ecology. This may have been a new way of thinking about 'monsters' - rationalizing the mythic, ranking it, comparing it and placing it within hierarchies of power and danger.