Monday, June 18, 2012


How do you establish a creature as mythic in an already mythic game?  How cryptic can a cryptid be in a world where wizard consortiums hold colloquia on the proper taxonomy and dissection of owlbears and centaurs?  These are the questions a grootslang raises, if you want it to be anything more than a Monster of the Week.

(We’re not the only ones asking these kinds of questions, by the way.  Penny Arcade just pointed out this problem in one of their posts/comics: As Tycho observes, Deckard’s niece “grumps around in disbelief at her kooky uncle even when she is up to her philtrum in demonic, animate flesh.  This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”)

So the trick with the grootslang is to establish its wrongness and scariness.  Establish that it breaks your world’s rules somehow in a disturbing way. 

I’m not the biggest fantasy reader in the world—I spent too much time strictly in Middle-earth, Pern, and TSR when I should have been out exploring—but I can definitely point to Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series as a good model for this.  In this flintlock fantasy Earth, the British navy and aerial dragon corps are among the premier fighting forces in the world.  So when Laurence and his men go places that appear to have no dragons, like Africa and Australia, it becomes unsettling—then downright scary, when the true situation is revealed.

So let’s just steal that technique.  Imagine this: Your party is hired to help the coastal marines explore a newly colonized dark subcontinent.  The PCs are loaned griffons; a trio of officers accompany them on brass and bronze dragons.  Over time, they become disturbed.  The bronze reports there is no sign of dragons…anywhere.  The brasses, being brasses have heard…rumors.  Litter bearers who go to fetch water disappear and never come back.  And then, one night, one of the brasses dies horribly with a screech, in the dark.  Only part of a torn wing and one set of elephantine footprints remains.

That’s how to introduce a grootslang.

A colony establishes a distant diamond mine and begins producing smoky gems of remarkable size.  But getting them back to the colony proper, let alone the motherland, will be a challenge.  First their borings disturb a primitive kongamato that must be driven off.  Then a grootslang arrives, having scented diamonds in the mine tailings dumped downriver.  Speaking only in Aquan, demands tribute. If not appeased, it slaughters as many miners as it can and harasses the survivors all the way downriver with its aquatic elusion powers.

Demon-worshipping serpentfolk war with the surface nations.  Their struggle awakens the long-slumbering serpent god, Vessbenns.  But when the serpentfolk high priests call for his aid, he detects the demon taint in their prayers.  Rather than send his herald, he sends a grootslang to devour both his heretic priests and any brown- and pink-skinned interlopers.

Ambur’s Hearth is a continent said to be sacred to Ambur the Potter, a creator deity, who filled the land with marsupials, monotremes, sagaris, and other castoffs from his labors.  Grootslangs are the undisputed kings of this realm, hunting the quagga and kangaroo herds that visit their waterholes.

Pathfinder Bestiary 3 144

Last week over on Tumblr, syringesin asked:

“Have you ever read the “Ecology of” articles from the 1e and 2e days of Dragon Magazine? A trove of ideas in those articles.”

Answer: Totally, and you’re right!  A little context: Technically I have every issue of Dragon Magazine—a smattering from 132–151, every issue from 152 on, and a CD-ROM of 1–250.  I haven’t read all the CD-ROM issues yet, but if it appeared in print after 1989, I’ve read it.

So if you look through the archives I definitely reference them when I remember to—the gnoll and gibbering mouther entries in particular, I think also the dark naga entry, and of course there’s the barghest debacle. 

If you can find these articles in used issues or online, I encourage everyone to follow syringesin’s lead and check them out.  Spike Y. Jones’s articles in particular are mandatory, and Jonathan M. Richards are well worth it for the laughs.  If you’ve got a favorite “Ecology” author, write in and let us know!

So I may have missed my show last week, but I made up for it in spades this week, even despite some volume issues.  Download it here, and I hope you have as much fun listening as I had spinning.

(Music starts just over five and a half minutes into the file.  The feed can skip, so let load in Firefox or Chrome, Save As an mp3, and enjoy in iTunes.  Link good until Friday, 6/22, at midnight.)

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