Strange cousins from the East

Some of our strange cousins in Oriental lands, according to the anonymous book De Rebus In Oriente Mirabilibus (Marvels of the East or Wonders of the East).  This is a 4th or 5th century anonymous work which has survived in three manuscript versions, the most well-known being a copy that was copies with a number of works in a manuscript identified as the “Cotton MS Vitellius A XV“.  (Cotton as it was in the collection of a Sir Robert Cotton, MS being an abbreviation of manuscript … I’m not sure about all he details of naming conventions for ms. in the British Library though.)

Some of the familiar “monstrous races” seen in Medieval art and romances are here, but given different descriptions than usual.  For example, the dog-headed men or cynocephs of Pliny are described as having the dog face we expect, but they also have a horse’s mane and boar tusks, and can breathe fire.  They are called Cinocefali or Conopenae.  (Speculation that cynocephs are a garbled account of baboons seem to be confirmed by the mane and tusks, anyway.)  The usual blemyes, sciapods, and so forth are cataloged.

Other monstrous races are, as far as I know, unique to this book:

  • Near the Nile, there are 15′ tall giants with white skin, two faces, long noses, and red knees.  They sail to India to give birth to their children, which are three-colored, lion-headed, twenty-footed monstrosities.
  • Near the river Brixontes, there are 20′ tall, man-eating giants.  Their skin is black and their legs alone are 12′ long.
  • There are also 13′ tall women with white skin, boar tusks, ox-tails, and hair to their feet — which are the feet of camels.
  • Also, there are bearded women who wear horse-hides, and hunt with trained tigers, leopards, & other wild beasts.  They are normal-sized but still rather fearsome.

More info, and pictures, here.

Published in: on March 26, 2014 at 8:35 am  Comments (2)  

Random encounters in the Land of Prester John

The famous 1165 letter of Prester John to the Pope catalogs some of the creatures of his empire:

“Our land is the home of elephants, dromedaries, camels, crocodiles, meta-collinarum, cametennus, tensevetes, wild asses, white and red lions, white bears, white merules, crickets, griffins, tigers, lamias, hyenas, wild horses, wild oxen, and wild men — men with horns, one-eyed men, men with eyes before and behind, centaurs, fauns, satyrs, pygmies, forty-ell high giants, cyclopses, and similar women. It is the home, too, of the phoenix and of nearly all living animals.   We have some people subject to us who feed on the flesh of men and of prematurely born animals, and who never fear death. When any of these people die, their friends and relations eat him ravenously, for they regard it as a main duty to munch human flesh. Their names are Gog, Magog, Anie, Agit, Azenach, Fommeperi, Befari, Conei-Samante, Agrimandri, Vintefolei, Casbei, and Alanei. These and similar nations were shut in behind lofty mountains by Alexander the Great, towards the north. We lead them at our pleasure against our foes, and neither man nor beast is left undevoured, if our Majesty gives the requisite permission. And when all our foes are eaten, then we return with our hosts home again.”

Some of these creatures are familiar, and some appear nowhere else but this list, possibly attesting to the hoaxer’s bad spelling or imperfect Latin?

White and red lions.” Medieval Europeans did sometimes call tigers “red lions,” but having tigers appear as well in the list is a little confusing — then again leopards and other big cats might be called “tigers” too, so really I’d assume any period reference to big cats should be taken generically and not too strictly, just as the Conquistadors might call llamas “camels” or call capybaras “pigs.” (And BTW when I spell checked ‘capybara’ in Google, holy shit there are adorable capybara pictures.)  Where were we?  Right, the list of animals.  As these are worth mentioning in his letter, I’d want both red and white lions to be variants of normal lions.  The obvious path would be to make white lions have a cold/frost theme and the red lions a fire theme, like the big-cat equivalent of winter wolves and hell hounds.

A “merule” has been identified as a blackbird or crow, so the “white merule” might just be a white blackbird, whatever that means.  “Merule” also seems to be used in classifying certain types of mold, specifically dry rot.  So we could crank up the horror-fantasy a little and assume a “white merule” is a blackbird infected with a fungal disease that turns it white.  No doubt the fungus also affects their behavior, and they seek to infect other creatures, especially humans and demihumans.  So there’s one new monster, unless there is some kind of plague-bearing bird already in D&D.

The “meta-collinarum,” “cametennus,” and “tensevetes” have defied scholars, as far as I can tell without resorting to actual research.  I did find this inconclusive discussion which gives the light-hearted suggestions that these terms could refer, respectively, to hill-dwellers, a third kind of camel (assuming “camels” means Bactrian camels, since it follows dromedaries?), and either a “devourer of the young” or a tin rodent.

Three varieties of camels seems excessive.  So instead let’s assume that the hill-dwellers are obviously hill giants, and the “devourers of the young” must be either witches or ogres, let’s say witches since we already have hill giants, and all those cannibal hordes to the north.  I hate to give up on the “tin rodents” though so maybe that’s an ironic term for the D&D “gorgon” — the metallic bull with the petrifying breath.

As long as I’m revising things, “fauns” are actually the same thing as “satyrs” in my book*, so let’s replace them with, say, generic beastmen, and “pygmies” is a little hate-speechy so let’s substitute a more generic “little people” like gnomes.  Later on in the letter we also hear he has salamanders who live in fires and, like silkworms, weave cocoons that can be used to make fire-resistant fabric.  Our d30 encounter chart then reads:

  1. elephants
  2. camels (dromedary or Bactrian, 50-50 chance)
  3. crocodiles
  4. meta-collinarum (hill giants)
  5. cametennus (gorgons)
  6. tensevetes (witches)
  7. wild asses
  8. lions (white or red, 50-50 chance)
  9. white bears (polar bear)
  10. white merules
  11. crickets
  12. griffins
  13. tigers
  14. lamias
  15. hyenas
  16. wild horses
  17. wild oxen
  18. wild men with horns
  19. one-eyed wild men
  20. wild men with eyes before and behind
  21. centaurs
  22. fauns (beastmen)
  23. satyrs
  24. pygmies (gnomes?)
  25. forty-ell (that’s 150 feet!) high giants
  26. cyclopes
  27. phoenix
  28. [nearly any other] animal, use some other chart
  29. cannibal berserkers of the tribes of Gog, Magog, etc.
  30. salamanders

Granted some of these are more nuisance encounters than dangerous, but that’s a feature more than a bug for travel in a strange kingdom.  Would an encounter with “crickets” mean the party is bothered by the unusual sounds of the local crickets (which sound like something very different than the crickets they know back home, and maybe disrupts an attempt to rest, as the watch keeping hearing strange noises in the dark?) or an annoying talking cricket like the one Pinocchio smashed with a mallet?**  The wild oxen is strange — how do they reproduce?  who gelds them in the first place? —  and they and wild asses might cause problems by depleting forage, stampeding, and just getting in the way.

Later the letter mentions that Prester John’s land has no poisonous animals or plants, so there’s some good news for adventurers.

The letter goes on and on, and other medieval writers embellished their travelogues with descriptions of this kingdom, so maybe next time I’ll pull out some special locations for hex-map stocking, like the river of stones and the pool of healing in Prester John’s lands.


*Actually I just looked this up and it turns out that ‘fauns’ were originally the jovial, trickster half-goat forest dwellers and ‘satyrs’ were ugly, woman-chasing woodwoses with the tails and ears of asses, and more wise than fauns which were more on the foolish side.  So really the “fauns” should be read “satyrs” in D&D terms and the “satyrs” would be beastmen, mongrelmen, or something like that.

**Yeah, the original version of this story was pretty dark.  In fact the serialized version that first appeared had Pinocchio die from being hanged by bandits (which he deserved) but outraged fans demanded he be saved and the book version has him survive and get a relatively happy ending with the Fairy with Blue Hair.  (Not that kind of happy ending.)

Published in: on March 13, 2014 at 10:06 am  Comments (5)  
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I recently posted a Reaper centipede I painted; in fact I also made a bunch of low-resolution copies in Sculpey so that I’d have a nice swarm of centipedes, because who ever encounters just one?  Here they are:

centipedesI got the idea from an earlier project I did, replacing a lost Heritage giant rat with a Sculpey copy.  In that case I had a few nice decent lead and plastic rats to begin with.

rats-1Upper left, a Reaper rat; lower left, three Heritage rats; upper right, three rats from the HeroQuest game.

I decided to try making a copy of the flattest rat — the one in the extreme lower left.  Here is what I ended up with:

rats-2And finally the whole lot of rats, metal, plastic, and Sculpey:

rats-3I also picked up some toy ants a while back and made an encounter’s worth of giant ants from them, just painting them and mounting them on bases.

ants-1Here’s another picture from a lower angle:


Published in: on February 20, 2014 at 8:55 am  Comments (2)  
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The first flesh golem was not a flesh golem

I recently read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for the first time. (OK actually I listened to it being read during my commute, but I think that counts as reading it.)  Many things about the book surprised, even though I knew the book was very different from the movie depictions and that the monster in particular was nothing like the movie monster.  What I did not know was that in the book, the monster is not actually assembled from body parts, is not brought to life by electricity or “galvanism,” and was made eight feet tall in order to make it easier to work with — Victor Frankenstein figured a larger scale would make the little details easier to manipulate. 🙂

The descriptions of the monster are mostly very vague (hideous and misshapen are the main descriptors), but the few details we get — yellow, semi-transparent skin, watery eyes, huge grinning teeth, long black hair, and his mummy-like hands — certainly seem freaky.

The details of the construction of the monster, and his aborted bride (I am not worried about spoiling a nearly 200 year old book!) are vague also, but we do learn that Victor relied on “chemical instruments” to accomplish his work.  He describes the work as horrifying and disgusting at various points in the narrative, but it seemed to be more of a moral, rather than visceral, repugnance.  I should mention that this was far from being purely a scientific undertaking; Victor alludes to an intense study of alchemy and ceremonial magic that he undertook before going off to university.  But the important point is that at no point does he mention needing body parts or digging up graves.  In fact his second attempt at creating a being takes place on an isolated island with hardly any inhabitants and no graveyard.

So the monster usually identified as the archetype of flesh golem was not really a flesh golem, in the D&D sense, at all.

Flesh Golem.JPG

This is not Frankenstein’s monster.

Fun fact: in the novel, the monster is also a fruitarian, living on nuts and berries.  When he is trying to persuade Victor to build him a wife and let them go live peacefully in the wilds, he says: “My food is not that of man; I do not destroy the lamb and the kid to glut my appetite; acorns and berries afford me sufficient nourishment.”

(For the curious, my review of Frankenstein is on Goodreads)

Published in: on October 18, 2013 at 12:00 pm  Comments (2)  
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Sexton Beetles, Giant

Has Nature, then, her undertaker? Certainly she has. He is appropriately known as the Necrophorus mortuorum, or more popularly as the sexton beetle, for he is equipped with spade and all that is necessary for “undertaking.”

There is much that the human variety might learn from this humble and industrious insect. Whilst he is dressed in a conventional garb of black, he seeks to enliven matters by means of two broad bands of yellow on his back. He is cheery, and when his duties are over for the day he indulges in a little music, not perhaps entirely a matter of art for art’s sake, but like most joyous notes of nature, his immediate object is to attract the attention of the opposite sex.

–Bertram S. Puckle, Funeral customs

Nicrophorus, a genus of beetles including species known as the “carrion beetle,” “burying beetle” and the “sexton beetle,” are nature’s undertakers.  They bury the bodies of small vertebrates to create a nest for their larva.   Nicrophorus giganticus, as the sages call them, are a gigantic variant capable of burying large mammals, including humanoids and (of course) adventurers.

Whereas their tiny cousins use their club-like antennae to sniff out tiny corpses, the Giant Sexton Beetle is far less patient and will often help living creatures make the transition to grub food.

The giant sexton beetle can detect the odor of blood from up to two miles away.  Hunters and trappers consider them a nuisance, as they steal and bury their quarry, but many a traveler has also reported being set upon by sexton beetles after fighting off bandits or brigands.

Giant Sexton Beetle

AC 3 (17), Move 12″/fly 24″, HD 3, Att. 2 (antennae, d6/d6), Ml. 12.

In areas home to a population of Giant Sexton Beetles, roll a d6 on the first round after blood has been spilled and every other round thereafter.  On a 1, d4 Giant Sexton Beetles have been attracted by the smell of blood.  After a battle, any corpses will eventually draw d4 Giant Sexton Beetles as well, in d6 turns.

The beetles will gather and surround combatants, perhaps waiting to see if one falls, and will attempt to finish off wounded creatures.  They will feed on corpses, and will then mate, lay their eggs inside the corpse, and bury it.  Larva hatch 2d4 days later and emerge as d6 small (1HD) beetles one week later.

Being beetles they have no treasure and no lair, but the corpses they’ve buried may have valuable personal effects, and can be found by diligent trackers or dogs.  Searches may turn up skeletonized corpses (50%) or fresher corpses still swarming with grubs, which will attack if disturbed.  (AC 9 (11), Move 3″, HD 1/2, Att. 1 (d4 bite), Ml. n/a)


There is an amazing gallery of sexton beetles here.  Note the photos of mite-infested beetles.  They look horrific, and suggest a giant beetle made of a swarm of smaller beetles.  (That would be a great monster too!)

Published in: on October 1, 2013 at 12:00 pm  Leave a Comment  

Least favorite monster

Fallen a little behind on the challenge, but here’s the 23rd: my least favorite monster.

There are plenty of monsters I never use, and don’t care for; there some monsters I use and regret introducing.

Starting with the second type — monsters I regret using — the answer there is vampires.

You’d think they’d be great monsters — they are a classic, a staple of horror movies, Halloween, and folklore.  There are lots of weird variants so if you don’t like the (now) vanilla Bram Stoker version you can do the Philippine flying head with a tail of guts or any of a number of different things.

My problem with vampires is that they take way more planning than most monsters, and their vulnerabilities and dependence on a coffin make them fairly easy pickings for a party of adventurers that is tough enough to face them in combat.  So, due to either my incompetence as a DM or my player’s excellence (or both), the vampires that have appeared in my campaigns have always been duds, and never prove to be as challenging as they should be.

Vampires as I intend them to be…

…vampires as I actually run them.

Regarding monsters I just don’t like and never use, I spend a lot of time thinking about them, but having just had a question about dragons I am reminded of the “good” metallic dragons which I kind of hate.

In principle, a good dragon could be a problem or foe for a party since they will have their own agendas and possibly stand in the way of the party’s goals.  But in my experience, mainly as a reader of adventures more than as a player or DM, good dragons are usually handled as powerful NPCs that railroad a party or just show off how awesome they are.  There is no reason to have a good dragon in an adventure unless it is there to be defeated.  Yet when I see them in old magazine articles, published adventures, etc. they are usually just “Mary Sue” NPCs that are there to hog the limelight and waste my time.  So screw good dragons.

Published in: on September 23, 2013 at 8:08 pm  Comments (2)  
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Favorite elemental/plant

I’m not sure when elementals are grouped with plants for today’s question, especially since they are outsiders (see yesterday) but I guess the combination makes sense if you look at it as nature-based monsters? (But why separate these from animals…?)

Anyway I am not really a big fan of elementals.  They are sort of boring.  Plant-monsters are awesome though.




and treemen/treants/ents!

DSC03647-2Lately though I’ve come to appreciate shriekers more.

As monsters that just bring more monsters, they are a great obstacle.  The fact that some might be violet fungus in disguise is just icing.

I never looked that closely at this picture before, but I used to think the guy was praying or something, and the fungus was creeping up on him.  This is the first time in all these years of looking at the Monster Manual that I noticed he’s holding his arm…and it seems to be falling off.  How did I never notice the fingers before?

Published in: on September 19, 2013 at 9:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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Favorite immortal/outsider

Again with the 3rd/4th edition taxonomies.  I think “outsiders” are just from planes other than the prime material plane (elementals, demons & devils, ethereal creatures, that sort of thing) and I assume that an immortal would be a god or demigod.  Or a “godling” — I remember seeing godlings referred to in the boardgame “Swordquest” (which I still have somewhere) and other late 70s/early 80s gaming stuff.  I’m not sure if the little brown books mentioned godlings or not but it seems like the vague sort of term you’d see there.  On the other hand we already got asked about deities so maybe immortals are a type of extraplanar creature?

This makes it a very tough question — so many cool monsters are outsiders.  I like Efreeti a lot.  efreet1The fact that they can grant wishes makes them so much more complicated than regular demons.  Maybe you can make a deal…

As far as demons and devils go, I pretty much like them all.  I’ve become kind of partial to imps because they are small and not that hard to kill, but can cause all kinds of trouble with their invisibility and poison sting.  An imp stole the party’s Cube of Force (which I should have never given to them, random rolls be damned) and has become a bit of a recurrent villain, at least in the sense that the party would love to find him again and came close once.  Another encounter with imps cost the party their wizard.


Published in: on September 18, 2013 at 9:00 am  Comments (1)  
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Favorite “animal/vermin” monster

This question is another one that is probably more meaningful to 3e/4e players than old school D&D pleyers.  I’m not sure if the question means “which animal do you like best as a monster” or “which animalish monster” — I mean, is a chimera an animal?  All the parts are basically animal… by that standard I probably like owl bears the most.  I know they are kind of a stupid idea — what exactly about an owl makes a bear more dangerous or scary, really?  Especially a non-flying owl.

On the other hand they do look awesome and the beak may be an improvement over teeth.  Especially the toothy beak you see in some illustrations.

Dave Sutherland’s owlbear is kind of a sad sack, at least compared to the comic-booky illustrations you see these days, but there is also something really creepy about those almond-shaped eyes (more human than owl) and the hunched back.

As far as “vermin” go, I can’t say I have a favorite.  I think the choices are probably giant rats, giant centipedes, and bats?  Those are all good.

Published in: on September 17, 2013 at 8:00 am  Comments (4)  
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Favorite abberation

Here’s where 30 day challenge gets a little less edition neutral, as some of this taxonomy of monsters is really just used in later editions.  Honestly I’ve never owned a 3e or 4e Monster Manual but I beleive an abberation is an unnatural monster in the sense that it doesn’t have a “normal” anatomy like an animal or even a chimerical monster like a griffon, but instead looks alien; some just have weird origins or abilities I guess based on the wikipedia entry.  Going by that list, I see that some of my favorite monsters are abberations.





DSC03617Mind flayers

flairs2and others all have played a role in my campaigns.  My favorite, though, has got to be the rust monster. really do fill my players with fear.  Earlier this summer there were some madcap hijinks as the party’s front line fights cowered and fled from a lone rust monster, leaving the often-maligned back line to deal with it.  Come to think of it, that adventure ended with a near TPK as the cleric, apparently despondent over the loss of his magical plate mail, walked suicidally into a hallway he knew was filled filled with yellow mold….  The most infamous and feared part of the dungeon in my campaign is surely the room with what appears to be a rust monster spawning device, which will dump a new rust monster into a large open chamber every round until someone pulls a lever on the far side of the room.    Various parties have dealt with it in different ways, perhaps the best  was sending in a naked dwarf with a club fight the rust monsters — cruel but effective.

Next campaign, rust monsters will look like baby seals.

Published in: on September 16, 2013 at 9:00 am  Comments (2)  
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