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Monsters!: Darwin Gone Silly

July 16th, 2007

Creatures, even fictional ones, adapt to fit into their environment. And what amused me most about old-school D & D monsters was how their designers applied evolutionary theory in a world full of twisty passages, all looking alike.


One of my favorites was the Piercer. Like the roper, its natural environment was a stalactite/stalagmite filled cavern. Piercers invariably disguised themselves as stalactites, because their main (okay, only) form of attack was to drop from the ceiling and hope to embed themselves in the skull of a passing hero. Here was a monster that depended solely upon dumb luck (and a fresh supply of unwary adventures) for its sustenance. After its surprise attack, its only hope was to sheepishly crawl away and hope that no one noticed it.

In 3rd edition D & D, its role was filled by the darkmantle, a slightly more plausible beast with (naturally) lots of tentacles and, more importantly, the ability to fly back up to the cave roof and try again.

The very first “Ecology of the…” article in Dragon magazine featured the piercer, and unlike other entries in the series, it included a cutaway view:

Admit it, right now you’re considering a piercer’s rectum.
The Trapper adapted to the dungeon crawl lifestyle by making itself appear to be a stone floor…
…while the Lurker Above decided to carve out its own niche on the ceiling. And any would-be dungeon master that didn’t immediately see the possibility of putting both of these in the same room wasn’t worth his polyhedral dice.
What about the walls, you ask? Meet the Stunjelly.

My friend Dave reminded me that the reason that the Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing was so damned weird was that it originally came from outer space. It debuted in the published adventure module Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, in which the players stumbled upon the remains of a crashed colony spaceship. Now, you may be thinking, “Dave, it’s not that odd. It’s just an animated tree stump with the prerequisite number of tentacles.” Yes, but consider this: the rabbit is part of it.

I saved my favorite for last. Like so many other D & D denizens, the Gelatinous Cube‘s name fully described it. It was a cousin to the various oozes, but rather than an amorphous mass, it retained a cube shape (ten feet on each side) as it traversed the dungeon, absorbing loose treasure and slow-moving kobolds. What better example of Darwinism at work in a world in which the most ubiquitous architectural feature is the ten-foot-by-ten-foot corridor?

Next: Fool Me Once…

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