Friday, August 16, 2013

Umber Hulks - Five Variations

Umber Hulk Classic
The Umber Hulk has been one of those D&D monsters (like the Bullette and Owlbear) that is the game's own creation and goes back forever (Greyhawk in 1975).  I don't think it's a product of the infamous bag of plastic monsters that produced the Rust Monster, Owlbear and Bullette but it's from the same era and just as weird.

As a game mechanic the Umber Hulk is a fun enough monster, a big brutal armored thing that has plenty of attacks.  In addition, hulks have their confusing gaze that makes entering melee with them more difficult.  As monsters they works something like the Owlbear and Shambling Mound - a large slow thing that tears parties apart if they fail to run or destroy the beast from a distance.  Like Shambling Mounds, Umber Hulks also enjoy attacking from ambush, but they are weaker than Shambling Mounds in terms of HP, AC and especially immunities.

New Umber Hulk
It's the umber hulk's appearance that gets weird, it's changed a bit over the years (fluctuating between beast and beetle), but always remained some kind of huge alien creature with a basically bipedal body plan, too many eyes and mandibles.   The name provides no reason for this appearance other than being big and brown. Thus, while the Hulk is a useful creature, its iconic appearance is strange enough that it doesn't work for many campaign worlds and is instantly recognizable to many players.  A giant underground bug creature that loves tunneling and has a confusing gaze doesn't really depand that much on in game explanation, but it doesn't really offer much of one either.  WOTC/TSR has suggested 1) That Umber Hulks are part of an elaborate deep underground ecosystem including purple worms 2) That Umber Hulks are some kind of slave race to mind flayers (and therefore presumably from whatever weird place those are from) 3) That Umber Hulks are from space (well Spelljammer at least).  All of these work well enough if you want a bug eyed horror from some alien world.

However, below are some alternatives for using the Umber Hulk's stats (or even it's name) in genres where giant bug men from the depths make less sense, or when you want to use the Umber Hulk without losing the sense of terror and mystery provided by new monsters.

1) Rust Hulk (Automaton) - When the ancients dug into the earth, their profligate ways frequently led to the abandonment of complex digging automatons.  Walled off or dropped down pits at the end of an excavation, these living machines have sat in the dark for endless years, slowly decaying with their clockwork minds winding down and winding up into greater and greater madness.  Many have failed completely, but others have found their own purposes deep in the earth, breaking free of their forgotten cells and tunneling mazes, galleries and runs that appear pointless to any mortal.  The ancient machines will defend their creations, using the antediluvian mining equipment that makes up their limbs as weapons and driving their enemies into terror and confusion with unnatural noises and wild flashes of light from their mechanical bodies.

2) Clay Rudiment (Elemental) - A simple and brutish form of Earth Elemental or spirit, these roughly fashioned brutes form out of mine tailings and stream clay.  They seek to return to the earth, tunneling back into the mines and excavations that created them.  There they sit and wait, ready to prey on any surface creature that passes near.  Clay Rudiments often contain numerous gems and valuable minerals which sparkle and glow with magical light that cause greed and avarice in their enemies.

3) Mine Mort (Mine Revenant) - When disaster kills men deep beneath the earth, it often does so slowly and horribly.  It should not suprise anyone with even the simplest grasp of necromancy that the spirits of men who die in such a way often return, and are often angry.  Formed from a mass of bones, earth, rusted, rotting mining equipment and fear the Mine Revenant attacks as a whirling mass of angles and claws, it's terrible presence sucking the oxygen from the air around it and projecting the confusing final emotions of the dead who make up the Mort's aggregated soul into the minds of those it faces.

4) Brown Shambles (Fungus Colony) - Another underground menace, huge brown piles of fungal growth that are often mistaken for wet rock outcroppings.  Brown Shambles are instead predatory fungal colonies with rudimentary intelligence.  Bursting into sudden movement they will club down any living creature that comes near with the goal of feeding on its body.  In combat, Shambles release toxic spores that confuse and befuddle any living creature within melee range.

5)Wumpus (Deep Predator) - These creatures of the depths are rarely seen, as the are capable of drawing darkness around themselves for protection and concealment, as well as casting it into the eyes of others to disorient and confuse them.  Some claim they are stooped albino thing  with asymmetrical but hulking muscles.  Others that the Wumpus is a mass of Brown hair, with numerous baleful eyes peering from within.  Predating almost exclusively on intelligent creatures, Wumpuses are hated almost universally, as their filthy claws will snatch at any creature which dares to descend into the deeps of the earth and are unwilling to negotiate or speak with any who have tried.


  1. Ideas to add to these. Rust Hulk as dungeon progenitor. Mine Mort seeking forever to collapse over more and more mortals, increasing it's size and danger by incorporating their risen remains (use grappling and drowning mechanics for being buried alive).

  2. My idea was always that they are some sort of quasi-elemental creature. Here's the thing, they tunnel through solid rock. Well now wait, even if you're strong and tough enough to tear solid rock, once you start tunneling you'll soon find yourself unable to move, since the volume of the torn apart stone is necessarily greater than the volume of it when it was a solid mass. Since it all has to fit in the tunnel you're making...well, it won't.

    Basically, to tunnel you have to have some means of disposing of the rubble. A lone umber hulk does not. Well, not if all it does is tear the stone apart. But if it's some sort of quasi-elemental creature then it becomes entirely possible that it's transmuting some or all of the rock it tears apart. Transmutes it into air, specifically.

    This both neatly explains the tunneling and provides that elusive link to the underworld ecosystem--umber hulk tunneling is a source of fresh air in the depths. We'll assume the transmutation is by weight rather than volumme to make sure it's a useful amount of air being produced.

  3. This is why I like thinking up monster variations. when it's one's own creative beastie one has a tendency to see how it fits in the world and think up all kinds of ambiance for what was simply a stack of HD and No. Atks. before.

  4. By the way, is anyone making a first-edition-style umber hulk mini these days? I love the monster but I don't really care for the 3E version's appearance.

    Xorn and Umber Hulks were what brought me to this game in 1979. Seeing those two seriously weird entries in the MM convinced me that I had to try this thing. ("weird" by 1979 standards, largely just by not being part of any real-world myth, monster lore, or monster movie canon. Same thing as drew me to HPL just a year or two before that.)

  5. When I was a kid, I had two of the infamous "dinosaurs" bags long before I knew what D&D was & I had one of what I assume where the inspiration for the Umber Hulk. I haven't had the toys since sometime back in the '80s but I did find a couple of pictures on flickr. and

    1. I had that lil' plastic guy in maroon as a kid (along with a bulette and the tubby blue dragon) - I never made the connection and always figured he was just a Godzilla knock off.