The Doppelganger

The Doppelganger

“As her eyes begin to close, blood flowing from the massive gash in her head and the wound in her shoulder, she meets your eye and utters her final words. ‘I’m sorry.’ You have no idea what she is apologizing for. And then her form seems to turn to wax, like a melting candle. It elongates and shrivels, her facial features melt away, leaving a gaunt, emaciated purple-skinned humanoid. She was a doppelgänger. And she died protecting you. But why.” – From The Angry DM’s Living City campaign as explained (briefly) below

The doppelganger (or the doppleganger, if you were playing between 1977 and 1983 and your edition of D&D didn’t have “Advanced” in the name) is one of those monsters that has been included in D&D from the very beginning. It first appeared in the Greyhawk supplement by E. Gary Gygax back in 1975 and it has since appeared in every edition of D&D, though it had to wait until the second Monstrous Compendium in AD&D 2E before it got any love. And in Basic D&D, it’s name was mispelled.

In D&D, the doppelganger is a shapeshifting humanoid with limited mind-reading abilities. The DG would kill someone, transform into an exact duplicate of them, and then take over their life. And it would read the minds of friends and family to pull off the trick. In some editions, it would actually eat the brain of the victim and absorb their memories. And different variants like the greater and dread doppelgangers appeared in various supplements and settings with different powers of mimicry. But they all do the same thing.

"How They Met Themselves" - Dante Gabriel Rossetti; By law, every article about doppelgangers MUST include this painting. Trust me, I researched it. Every. Single. One.

“How They Met Themselves” – Dante Gabriel Rossetti; every article about doppelgangers MUST include this painting. Trust me, I researched it. Every. Single. One.

And that leads us to the doppelgänger (note the fancy umlaut), which is a German that means “double walker.” While the word is of fairly recent origin, the idea is a bit older. In various European mythologies, the doppelgänger is a ghostly double of a person, an identical apparition. According to legend, when someone sees your doppelgänger, it is a bad omen. If you see your own doppelgänger, you’re going to die. And there are famous accounts of doppelgänger sightings in history. Abraham Lincoln once reported seeing his doppelgänger in the mirror. And you might just assume that our 16th president just didn’t know how mirrors work, but he saw a double of himself standing behind him in the mirror. So there were two of him in the mirror, okay? At least, that’s what he said.

In most doppelgänger stories, the doppelgänger is just hanging around, doing people things and acting normally. Most of them are just about people seeing someone they know and then later discovering the person couldn’t possibly have been there or else discovering the person was dead. But some stories ascribe more sinister acts to the doppelgänger. Doppelgängers have been accused of providing malicious advice or corrupting people in the guise of a friend or confident or even given bad advice to their own duplicates. The doppelgängers are occasionally recognized because they cast no shadows.

Because when you think doppelgänger, this is the first thing that comes to mind. Right?

Because when you think doppelgänger, this is the first thing that comes to mind. Right?

But let’s talk about a doppelgänger almost no one knows about. Let’s talk about Roger Rabbit’s doppelgänger. Yeah, you heard me right. Remember the 1988 movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit, about a hard-boiled detective in 1940’s Hollywood trying to prove that cartoon star Roger Rabbit is innocent of the murder of Marvin Acme? The one that was famous for the way it melded live action actors and cartoon characters so seemlessly that Bob Hoskins was allegedly institutionalized for a month after filming ended to help him stop talking to people that weren’t there? Well, before it was a movie, it was actually a book. The book, Who Censored Roger Rabbit, involved Eddie Valiant trying to solve the mystery of who murdered comic strip star Roger Rabbit, teaming up with his widow, Jessica, former co-star Baby Herman, and also Roger Rabbit himself. See, in the book – which, incidentally took place before the invention of animated cartoons and was therefore about comic strip models and had cameos by Dick Tracy and Beatle Bailey – in the book, the toons could generate doppelgängers of themselves. Short lived, ghostly phantoms that looked just like them and could perform dangerous stunt work. Roger was very good at making a doppelgänger and his lasted for several days AFTER he died. I s$&% you not. This was a major plot point in the book. And it was never really explained.

"I tap my swamp to play gengar in face-down defense mode!" - What every trading card game sounds like to me

“I tap my swamp to play gengar in face-down defense mode!” – What every trading card game sounds like to me

But if Roger Rabbit isn’t your thing because you were a zygote when that movie came out and thus you’re making me feel old, let’s talk about a more modern -gänger. How about a Gengar? That’s right, I’ve hit rock bottom. I’m referencing Pokémon (not the accent). So, Gengar is a ghost-type pokemon which basically looks like a shadowy vaguely humanoid cartoon thing. If you aren’t familiar with Pokémon, it is a giant, all consuming franchise encompassing multiple video games, animated series’ (anime), movies, comic books (manga), a trading card game, lunchboxes, toys, and pretty much every other goddamned thing you might sell to a child. In the Pokeverse (a word I sword I would never say), children travel the world capturing strange creatures called Pokemon and forcing them to fight in vicious battles for their own entertainment. Obviously, since it’s basically fantasy cock-fighting for children, people get very upset about how the series sometimes mentions the word evolution, misusing the word so badly that Charles Darwin’s ghostly form is going to rise from the dead someday and beat series creator Satoshi Taijiri unconscious with a copy of “On The Origin Species by Means of Natural Selection; Or the Preservation of Favored Species in the Struggle for Life” (yes, THAT is the full title, I s$&% you not).

Speaking of ghosts named gengar and vengeful spirits rising from the grave, it’s actually interesting to note that Gengar might not be named after the doppelgänger after all, despite the fact that he likes to imitate people’s shadows and follow them around. In fact, Gengar is probably a reference to the gjenganger. What’s a gjenganger? Well, it’s actually a Norse spirit which we might call a revenant. The gjenganger was a restless spirit that rose from it’s grave for some reason and took on bodily form. The Vikings called them draugr which you might recognize if you played Bethesda’s massive productivity black hole, Skyrim. There are lots of legends about the gjenganger and the draugr, which, by the way were mortal and physical and could be killed with swords because in Viking stories, everything worth talking about could be killed with swords. Lots of superstitious rites existed about how to keep the dead dead. But what’s more interesting about the gjenganger is how they came about. It was said that gjenganger were spirits that could not find rest in the afterlife because of the way they died. Murder victims couldn’t sleep peacefully, nor could those who committed suicide, but most interestingly, neither could those who were guilty of murder.

What about this? You remember this, right? Oh gods, I'm so old!

What about this? You remember this, right? Oh gods, I’m so old!

And that brings us around to how you can use doppelgänger and gjenganger and revenants and other such things in your D&D game. In an interesting way. I mean, the “doppelgänger tries to replace one of the heroes” thing has been done to death, right? As has the “oh no, the king is really a doppelgänger” plot. You’ve got to mix this stuff up a bit. For example, once upon a time, the party in my campaign befriended someone who became an ally and romantic interest and then, by accident, she got killed and the party discovered she had been a doppelgänger. Some time later, they discovered the original person was not dead because they rescued her from an enemy stronghold. But it turned out, she had been replaced BEFORE she met the party, so the original real person was less real to them than her doppelgänger. And they never found out what the doppelgänger had been up to. I’m just saying, if you want to pull off a doppelgänger, you have to work at it.

Likewise, the whole “spirit trying to solve it’s own murder” thing like Roger Rabbit and the gjenganger is neat, but also overdone. I’m actually more interested in the ghost of the murderer who can’t rest. Imagine a plot line where a ghost lies to convince the party to help him find the ghost of someone else lost somewhere in the world. In the end, they discover the ghost is a murderer, hunting his own victim’s ghost, trying to make amends so that both can move on to the afterlife. THAT’S a twist.

Granted, if you do it right, even a story about a cartoon rabbit's ghost helping to solve it's own murder can be pretty damned disturbing

Granted, if you do it right, even a story about a cartoon rabbit’s ghost helping to solve it’s own murder can be pretty damned disturbing


The Plague of Athens

The Plague of Athens

You might have noticed that there was no Word of the Week last week. The reason is because, medically speaking, I was dying. According to the hypochondriac’s best friend, WebMD, my symptoms indicated I was suffering from either a cold, flu, cancer, or pregnant. Given the uncertainty, I simply took to telling people I had the plague and left it at that.

Now, you might think that the word plague is a general word for any spread of infectious disease. But, if you want to get very technical, and I always do, the modern word plague officially refers to a single disease. Actually, three, closely related infections caused by the same bacteria. There’s the bubonic plague if the infection is in your lymph nodes, the pneumonic plague if the infection is in your lungs, and the septicemic plague if the infection is in your blood. The sources of all of these names are the fairly standard mix of Latin and Greek. Plague comes from the Latin plaga, meaning to attack or wound. Septicemic comes from the Greek septikos, meaning blood. Pneumonic comes from the Greek word for lungs. And bubonic comes from the Greek word for crotch or groin.

Instead of a Hideous Picture of the Bubonic Plague, Here are Pictures of Bunnies and Kittens. You're Welcome

Instead of a Hideous Picture of the Bubonic Plague, Here are Pictures of Bunnies and Kittens. You’re Welcome

Why crotch or groin? Well, the bubonic plague causes these nasty black, swollen nodules as it pools in your lymph nodes (which the body uses to help flush away infection and waste). These nodules occur all over your body, wherever you have lymph nodes, which include the armpits, throat, and especially the groin area. Hence, they got the name buboes (singular: bubo). And hence, the bubonic plague. Also, because they were ugly festering black, the bubonic plague which swept across Europe in the 14th century and killed between one and two thirds of the European population was also called The Black Death. Incidentally, do not do a Google image search for buboes, the bubonic plague, or the Black Death.

Apart from this, the movie was really good. Seriously. Just ignore the stupid robot owl.

Apart from this, the movie was really good. Seriously. Just ignore the stupid robot owl.

Now, if you’re a Harryhausen fan, you might recognize the name Bubo, not as a swollen, black lymph node, but as a robot owl. In the classic 1981 Ray Harryhausen stop-motion masterpiece, Clash of the Titans, the smith god Hephaestus crafted a clockwork owl for Athena. The goddess gave the owl to Perseus to help him rescue the princess Andromeda. Bubo is also briefly seen in the 2010 remake of Clash of the Titans, where the Argosian soldiers call it trash, showing that no one appreciates the classics anymore. And, insofar as horrific diseases can ever be mentioned in the same sentence as the word “funny,” there’s a funny coincidence here.

See, the Black Death of Europe gets a lot of play as THE pandemic. By the way, that’s the word for a general spread of disease. Actually, there are a couple, and they have the same root as the word democracy. Demos means people in Greek. So an epidemic is an infection “among the people,” which is generally limited to a single geographical area. And a pandemic means an infection of “all the people,” which means that the disease has spread across many regions. The Black Death is famous for being THE pandemic everyone knows. But there have actually been a lot of major disease outbreaks that shaped the course of history.

For example, and this gets back to the not-funny coincidence, the Plague of Athens. See, from 431 BCE to 404 BCE, Greece was at war pretty much with itself. Actually, to be totally fair, the situation was complicated. Greece was really a collection of leagues and alliances ruled by various city states. A series of wars between these leagues, chiefly lead by Athens on one side and Sparta on the other, called the Peloponesian Wars had broken out. It was complicated. But in 430 BCE, Athens was under seige by Spartan forces. And it might have held out, but then, the plague of Athens hit. And it spread quickly due to the close quarters and poor hygiene caused by the seige. Interestingly, it does not appear that this epidemic was actually the plague, but despite excellent records from the time, historians have still be unable to identify what disease it was that killed off one quarter to one third of the population of Athens. By the way, Sparta eventually went on to win the war.

Apart from the illness and the death, one of the most devastating impacts of both the Plague of Athens and the Black Death and many other epidemics in history comes from a single Latin word. The word is germ. And, until the 17th century, the word germ meant “seed.” Until that time, people had no idea what caused disease and how it spread. In Athens, many people believed that the plague was a sign that the gods had turned against them and had sided with Sparta. Temples were abandonned or used to store the dead and people became miserable and hopeless. There was a failure of morality and a breakdown of social structures. The same happened in Europe during the Black Death when people believed that the plague had been a punishment from God, weakening the church’s role in society and, by many accounts, causing rises in crime, immorality, violence, war, and general strife. People were afraid and they had lost hope and faith.

Plague Doctor: Literally "Dr. Beak of Rome"

Plague Doctor: Literally “Dr. Beak of Rome”

However, some folks were more savvy than others. In ancient Greece, for example, some scholars observed that when carrion eaters ate the corpses of the plague victims, the carrion eaters quickly got sick and died. They concluded that the disease was spreading by more natural means. In the Medieval period, miasma theory became prominent. Scholars believed the plague was spread by “bad air,” including the fumes of decaying bodies. Victims of the plague were advised to get clean air to help cure them. Because of this, traveling plague doctors took to wearing bird-like masks. The prominent beaks were filled with linen, spices, and armoatic herbs that were thought to clean the air. It seemed like a good theory. The trouble is, what actually spread the Black Death was contact with bodily fluids of the infected, usually thanks to fleas biting victims and then passing the infection on to others. So the “clean air” idea did no good. What did even less good were the flagellants, groups of religious zealots who traveled from town to town, whipping themselves to atone for the sins of man and hopefully convince God to end the plague. That’s right, you had people traveling from town to town across Europe opening bloody wounds to prevent a blood-borne illness. But you can’t fault people. No one had any idea about germs.

The Tarrasque's Rebranding Campaign: "At Least I'm Not as Bad as the Black Death"

The Tarrasque’s Rebranding Campaign: “At Least I’m Not as Bad as the Black Death”

And that brings us to D&D and how this relates to your game. See, no one really thinks much about it, but D&D is technically a world without germs. I mean, sure, some of the vectors for disease in various editions have been explained, but given that you have divine magic that cures disease and causes disease and given that you have magical diseases that defy any sort of rational explanation, most players and DMs take a sadly scientific view of illness. And that’s a shame because we simply don’t think about the full impact of an epidemic on a society that is literally ruled by aloof deities rather than science. An epidemic is already a pretty horrible occurance, it’s a natural disaster, but it’s a slow natural disaster and it spreads and it lasts for a long time. Earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanoes, the tarrasque waking up, Far Realm invasions, those things happen pretty quick. They occur, they are over. But a pandemic can last for many years, devastating a region. It doesn’t just kill, it crushes spirits and destroys faith and social order. A plague is probably the most terrifying natural disaster that can occur in D&D. And that’s a world that includes motherf$&%ing dragons. No one knows how plagues happen or why or where they come from or how they spread. A city in the grip of plague could be quarantined by the rest of the world, starved out, as civilization inside collapses and people try to escape. And, because germs aren’t really a thing, such containment measures might fail. People might be convinced to turn to dark gods, begging for relief. Refugees might be slaughtered as healthy populations try to prevent the outbreak from spreading. It’d be an amazing basis for a campaign.

Of course, it’s too damned easy for players to cure their characters of disease in D&D. So, if you want to make a plague the basis of a D&D game, or even just the driver of a single adventure, maybe limit the curative magic so that the players might be afraid of being infected. Just remind them that diseases are magic and all the handwashing in the world isn’t going to help them when the gods are pissed at them.

By the way, if you’ve played Shovel Knight, now you know why Plague Knight looks like a bird. And if you haven’t played Shovel Knight, PLAY IT! It’s on Steam and it’s awesome!

Why are you still here?! Go download and play Shovel Knight! Now!

Why are you still here?! Go download and play Shovel Knight! Now!


Bactrachian - It means "amphibian without a tail" and it isn't interesting enough to be a Word of the Week. Sorry.

Bactrachian – It means “amphibian without a tail” and it isn’t interesting enough to be a Word of the Week. Sorry.

“The bullywugs are a batracian race of bipedal monsters which inhabit wet places – rainy forests, marshes, damp caves or virtually any other place which is shady or dark and has water nearby, for bullywugs need to dampen their skins from time to time. ” – The Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Fiend Folio

When I talked about the origins of the kobold last week, I had no idea I was stepping into the middle of a war. Apparently, entrenched factions have been going at it for months on Twitter, arguing about which beast, the humble kobold or the goofy bullywug, is superior. Now, the fight is obviously ridiculous. But I don’t want to be seen as choosing a side, so, for my own neutrality, I have to give equal time to the bullywug. So, I’m doing one more monster this week and then I’m moving back to real, useful words like hoary or waif or xanthous or something.

If you don’t know the D&D version of the story, the bullywug is a tribal, humanoid frog-person that lives in swamps and damp caves and serves as an alternative to goblins and orcs for marshy, tropical adventuring environments. It’s basically just another in a long line of tribal humanoids for adventurers to kill and loot. But, if you’ve been keeping up with the Word of the Week, you know this is the part where I tell you the more interesting story of the bullywug’s mythological or historical origins.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t have one. At least not one I could find. And I really tried. I couldn’t even turn up a cool quote on a message board. Nothing.

The bullywug seems to be one of those creatures that was dreamed up by some wacko game designer who thought “what this game needs is a clumsy, slow, hopping creature that dies if it doesn’t moisturize its skin.” My theory is that the game designer in question did a kickass Kermit the Frog impression (similar to my own, ask me to do “Kermit the Shaman” if you see me at a Convention) and wanted an excuse to do it in game. And who was this game designer? Well, according to the Fiend Folio’s credit page, the bullywug was a joint effort by the Godfather of Gaming himself, E. Gary Gygax, and his son Luke Gygax. Now, it is the only creature in the Fiend Folio to bear Luke’s name (in my mind, that supports the Kermit hypothesis), but you might also recognize Luke as the original Melf. That’s right, the dude who invented the Acid Arrow. See, Bigby and Melf and all those other named characters who have spells and magical items named after themselves were actually characters played by real people in the formative days of D&D. And, if you ask me, it’s kind of cool that the original game bears so many nods to the people to who created, played, and loved it.

But that does leave us with nothing to talk about. The word just doesn’t have an origin. It’s gibberish. So I guess we’re done for this week. Thanks for reading the Word of the Week.

Well, okay, I suppose we could talk about OTHER swamp dwelling monsters that probably didn’t inspire the bullywug at all, but do have goofy names.

This is the cutest damned grindylow I could find.

This is the cutest damned grindylow I could find.

For example, let’s talk about the grundylow (also spelled grindylow because who knows?). The grindylow was your basic, long-fingered water monster. A green-skinned aquatic beast, the grindylow lurked in bogs and ponds and waited for children to fall into the water (or just get too close). Then it would reach out, grab the child, and drag him to a drowning death. This was probably just a way for English parents to keep their kids from playing in the water because nothing says good parenting like telling your children that horrible killer demons lurk inside of virtually every natural phenomenan waiting to kill them dead. Now, you might be surprised to know that the grindylow found its way into the Harry Potter stories if you have absolutely no sense of pattern recognition. Every goddamned mythical beast and boogiemonster ever invented found its way into either Harry Potter, Dungeons and Dragons, or both. I mean, seriously. An eighth book where Harry Potter fights three beholders and illithid named Harry Potter and the Killer Dungeon Master was probably only narrowly averted by Wizards of the Coasts’ lawyers.

Also, Jenny Greenteeth made it into Scribblenauts. Good for her!

Also, Jenny Greenteeth made it into Scribblenauts. Good for her!

Speaking of Harry Potter and grindylows, let’s briefly mention Ginny. Not Ginny Weasly, but Ginny Greenteeth, which is an alternate spelling of Jenny Greenteeth. Who is Jennie Greenteeth? She’s a central and eastern European river demon. Same basic story: she lurks in ponds and marshes and drowns bad little children who are too dumb to listen to their parents about not playing in the water.

But if you want a real crazypants river monster, you have to jump over to the good ole eastern hemisphere and visit the Land of the Rising Sun. See, in Japan, they also have a river demon called the kappa. And the kappa is CRAZY! The name, kappa, is derived from the words from the words for “river” and “son,” but that’s the only sane thing you can say about the kappa. Visually, kappa generally have tough carapaces, a sharp, beak-like mouth, and green, scaly skin. They also have a little bowl on their head that is filled with water. If the kappa’s head bowl ever spills, they lose all their powers or maybe even die. Some legends say that they become paralyzed if their head bowl spills, but if you refill it, they will become your loyal servant for life.

This is NOT a kappa sucking an anal soul out. The person is actually defending himself from the Kappa by farting at it. I s$&% you not.

This is NOT a kappa sucking an anal soul out. The person is actually defending himself from the Kappa by farting at it. I s$&% you not.

Kappa are mischeivous creatures who get up to all sorts of pranks like farting, looking up women’s dresses, stealing horses, drinking blood, drowning people, raping and impregnating women, and pulling people’s souls out through their anuses. THAT is quite a range of extracurricular activities, huh? It is also said that kappa are obsessed with etiquette and politeness and can be tricked into bowing to you, whereupon their cranial water dish spills and they become powerless. Because when you try to imagine what the one weakness of a farting, raping river demon who will literally pull your soul out throught your a$&, you think “scrupulously polite.” Right?

Yeah, people just mistook that thing for a farting, sumo-wrestling, souls stealing demon. Just like people mistook manatees for mermaids, right?

Yeah, people just mistook that thing for a farting, sumo-wrestling, souls stealing demon. Just like people mistook manatees for mermaids, right?

But the kappa is more turtle than frog, sort of. Actually, some scholars have suggested it was inspired by the Japanese giant salamander. And the grindylow are just monsters. Can we have something that is more legitimately froggy?

Let’s talk about the Beelzebufo ampinga, the devil frog. Yes, the name is literally a portmanteu of Beelzebub (the Lord of the Flies, one of the names for the devil or one of his chief lieutenants) and bufo, which is Latin for frog. The frog lived some 70 million years ago. It got to be nearly twenty inches long, which is huge for a frog and could eat things nearly as big as it was, including infant dinosaurs. Yes, there was a thing called a devil frog that ate baby dinosaurs. For REAL! Interestingly, the occurance of Beelzebufo fossils in Madagascar, India, and South America (where they still have ancestors in the horned toads) has created some questions about when the southern supercontinent of Gondwana (which connected all three of those landmasses) actually broke up.

So, you’ve got grindylows; river demons named Jenny; farting, soul-stealing ninja turtle monsters; and a giant toad that ate dinosaurs. Surely you can find some inspiration for your game somewhere in there. But maybe you’re saying that even the devil frog doesn’t cut it. After all, it’s just a big frog. Maybe you want an actual demonic frog. Well, if you want devils and demons, the best place to go hunting for a frog demon is the Bible. Specifically, the Book of Revelations. Now, I’ve mentioned this before. Basically, it lays out what is going to happen when the world ends. And in Revelations 16:12-21, you’ve got your demon frogs. Three demons that look like frogs come into the world and unite the world’s current rulers against the Heavens for the war to really really end all wars. And that right there just goes to show who’s really the best monster, the kobold or the bullywug…

The answer is the Slaad. Go Team Slaad!

The answer is the Slaad. Go Team Slaad!


The Evolution of the Kobold

The Evolution of the Kobold

“Kobolds are a cowardly, sadistic race of short humanoids that vigorously contest the human and demi-human races for living space and food. They especially dislike gnomes and attack them on sight. Barely clearing 3 feet in height, kobolds have scaly hides that range from dark, rusty brown to a rusty black. They smell of damp dogs and stagnant water. Their eyes glow like a bright red spark and they have two small horns ranging from tan to white. Because of the kobolds’ fondness for wearing raggedy garb of red and orange, their non-prehensile rat like tails, and their language (which sounds like small dogs yapping), these fell creatures are often not taken seriously. This is often a fatal mistake, for what they lack in size and strength they make up in ferocity and tenacity.” – Kobold, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition Monstrous Manual

Kobold - The New Hotness

Kobold – The New Hotness

Let’s talk about the kobold. These poor things have had such a f$&%ing identity crisis throughout the editions of D&D. Once upon a time, the only description they got was “like goblins, but weaker.” Since then, they have been scaly lizards with dog faces, dog creatures with scales, dog creatures that look disturbingly like rats, tiny lizard people, and basically baby dragonborn. They are another one of those things that have been in every edition. Even the original White Box in 1974. And they are steeped in D&D Lore. Every group has thumped their way through a kobold cave at low levels, treating the kobolds as experience point filled pinatas. They dwell in every climate, and they can be found just about anywhere where first level adventurers need an opponent. And as much as the books try to tell us that the kobolds are clever, cunning, and inventive alchemists and trapsmiths, that never seems to be borne out at the table.

Unless your DM is named Tucker.

But the kobold goes back a lot farther than 1974 and Gary’s Game. It actually goes all the way back to Germany. Maybe even all the way back to Greece. And if you ever had a radio controlled car, it was only thanks to kobolds that the thing worked. I s$&% you not.

Enjoy These Creepy Puppet Kobolds - In Your Nightmares!

Enjoy These Creepy Puppet Kobolds – In Your Nightmares!

See, in ancient Germany, they had legends about these tricksy little spirits called kobolds. The kobold was a house spirit, it would live in the home, help out with chores, and it loved children. It was also tremendously ugly, about two feet tall with green skin and hairy feet instead of hands. And while they were very loyal to the housheholds they lived in, they were very tricksy too. Sometimes, they would hide tools and they loved kicking over people when they bent over. So, basically kobolds were the German explanation for losing your keys and falling over when you spotted them on the floor and bent down to pick them up. It’s more fun than admitting you’re both clumsy and forgetful.

According to legend, if you wanted to get a kobold for your house, you had to go into the woods in the middle of summer and find a bird sitting on an anthill. Birds sitting on anthills were ALWAYS disguised kobolds. Once you found one, you had to talk to it and lull it into a false sense of security, presumably by telling it “yes, you’re a pretty bird and not at all a disguised house elf who will fix my shoes by steal my keys and no, this sack is not to catch you and subject you to a life of mystical servitude.” And then, once the “kobold” trusted you, you caught it in a sack and brought it back to your house where it would totally turn into a kobold at night while you weren’t looking.

And steal your keys.

NOT The New Hotness

NOT The New Hotness

But see, kobolds weren’t just house spirits. If you’ve played your World of Warcraft, you know they are really more at home in mines. And the kobolds in mines weren’t nearly as nice. They were very mischeivous. And here mischeivous means “would cause mine disasters that killed people.” Yeah. Real Candid Camera level stuff, that. But kobolds were also thieves. At night, they would sneak into mines and steal the silver ore right out of the walls and replace it with worthless fake silver, called kobold ore. Eventually, they shortened to cobalt.

Silver mining was very important in central Europe for a long time, until most of the silver got mined out, but cobalt was considered useless. Well, not completely. You could make a really nice blue dye with it and really pretty blue glass. But it sure as hell wasn’t silver. Cobalt really didn’t become valuable until the 20th century when we discovered it was useful in magnets, high strength metal alloys, and as an ingredient in batteries. Like those NiCd batteries that powered radio-controlled cars. See? I got there.

But the origin of the kobold may go back even farther. See, in ancient Greece, the drunken whackadoodle god Dionysus was friends with a bunch of mischeivous, shape-shifting thieving goblins called kobaloi (singular: kobalos). Greek parents used to use threats of the kobaloi to frighten small children. THe koboloi are also beleived to have inspired impish spirits like the British boggart, the Scottish bogle, and the French goblin. So, basically, every creature in the Harry Potter universe from house elves to bankers were all inspired by the same gree, frog-like spirit that Greek parents made up to get their kids to just shut up for five minutes.

According to Google Image Search, THIS is the Norn Urd - Anime Ruins Everything

According to Google Image Search, THIS is the Norn Urd – Anime Ruins Everything

By the by, did you know that in AD&D 2E, variant kobolds were introduced with wings. They were called urds? Where does that name come from? Well, although there is a Norse being named Urd, she was one of the three Norns or Fates who ruled the destinies of the gods and mortals, so that probably isn’t. More than likely someone pulled that name out of a lower orifice, if you get my meaning.

So, how do you use the kobold in your game? Honestly, try showing them a little respect like Tucker did. If you don’t know the story, I’ll give you the short juicy version. In issue 127 of Dragon Magazine, editor and game designer Roger E. Moore responded to questions about how to create high level adventures by pointing out that you couldn’t get into a power-level arms race with your players. If you just keep creating more powerful monsters, things get out of control.

I Think I Miss Dragonmirth Most of All

I Think I Miss Dragonmirth Most of All

Instead, you need to use weak opponents in clever ways. Enter Tucker’s kobolds. Tucker had run games for Moore back in the day. And his kobolds were brutal. They used cunning, ingenuity, guerilla tactics, flawless knowledge of their dungeon environment, and pure mean-spirited spite to brutalize Moore and his friends. The kobolds would lock them into rooms, spike the doors closed, and set the room on fire with Molotov cocktails flung through murder holes. They would push flaming moving barricades before them. They would confront the party in tight spaces with no good lines of sight so the wizard’s spells were more a danger to the party than to the enemy. The 6th to 12th level PCs were humiliated time and again and learned to flee from the kobolds’ territory whenever they were discovered. And that s$&% makes sense. These are cunning, inventive little creatures defending their homes. They SHOULD be brilliant and cruel and dangerous.

Of Course, If You Can't Pull Off Cool Kobolds, You Can Just Go With Key-Stealing Sprites that Trip the PCs. THAT'LL Make a Great Adventure

Of Course, If You Can’t Pull Off Cool Kobolds, You Can Just Go With Key-Stealing Sprites that Trip the PCs. THAT’LL Make a Great Adventure


When DM's Say "You Know Who," They Don't Mean Lord Voldermort

When DM’s Say “You Know Who,” They Don’t Mean Lord Voldermort

“[The scimitar] is a long, curved, single-edged blade intended mostly for horsemen. It is a popular weapon for light cavalry. Members of the foul race of yuan-ti often use scimitars.” – The AD&D 2E Arms & Equipment Guide

“Scimitar: The curve on this blade gives it the effect of a keener edge.” – The D&D Player’s Handbook (v.3.5)

“Scimitars are only light weapons in the new PHB because otherwise Drizzt Do’Urden makes no mechanical sense” @travisnorris of Twitter.

No one really understands the weapons in D&D. No one. Not even weapon scholars. Of course, it’d be easier to understand them if the new Player’s Handbook could be bothered with a sentence of description for each weapon. But even then, D&D grossly oversimplifies weapons. We look down at that equipment list and see entries like long sword, mace, flail, greatsword, and we may think there was just this one thing called a long sword or a mace or a flail, maybe with some minor variations. But that just ain’t the way it works. There were a bajillion f$&*ing swords that would all be broadly classified as a “long sword” by D&D standards. It was different from region to region and era to era. And D&D draws from a LOT of eras and regions.

Take, for example, the scimitar. That blade that various D&D PHBs and supplements describe as a scimitar could be a shamshir, a pulwar, a shotel, or a talwar. You could make a case that it matches up with deeply curved falchions. You could call it a f$&%ing sabre. Hell, scimitar isn’t even the name the people who made the first real scimitars gave it. That was a European name for a blade that had been in use for centuries that they really only got to know intimately during the Crusades. The name scimitar didn’t come into use in Europe until the 1,600’s, but the first scimitars were in use in Egypt 3,200 years before!

Scimitar, AKA Shamshir, Shotel, Falchion, Etc.

Scimitar, AKA Shamshir, Shotel, Falchion, Etc.

So what is a scimitar? The scimitar is a curved backsword, a single edged sword with a single-handed grip. It wasn’t much use for thrusting like most European swords were, but the curve made it especially dangerous. As you slashed with the curved sword, you didn’t need to draw your blade back to reset it. You kept swinging in an arc, following through your cut. And as you followed through, the sword was cutting through your opponent. It was pretty nasty and there are some accounts that it could cut a limb or head clean off. Because it was light and because of its curved shape, it was very effective from horseback, which is why it is similar to the cavalry saber. The biggest drawback of the scimitar was it’s range. Because of the curve, you had to fight at much closer range. Still, when the European straight sword met the Saracen’s scimitars (that’s the broad term for Muslims) during the crusades in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and northern Africa, they discovered they were very skilled with their curved swords. Some even used the scabbards in their off hands to parry.

We Have Reached the Meme Singularity

We Have Reached the Meme Singularity

But this leads to a weird question: why do D&D druids use scimitars? The scimitar is most notably a Persian weapon, right? Actually the Persian name for it was the shamshir, which means “lions paw.” But except for the association with cats in the name, there doesn’t seem to be any compelling reason for the scimitar. Well, according to hearsay, which I can’t confirm, Gary Gygax himself gave an answer in an internet forum. He said it was the closest weapon he could think of that was similar to the sickle that existed in AD&D. And why might a druid wield a sickle? Well, because of something called the ritual of oak and mistletoe.

According to the prolific Roman author, Pliny the Elder, Magicians in Gaul (members of the druidic social caste – hence druids) used to harvest mistletoe whenever they found it, especially during certain lunar cycles, because of it’s sacred healing powers. And they would use sickles to cut it. The sickle is, of course, a small crescent shaped farming tool. The druids were very into the moon.

The D&D Druid: A Perfect Reflection of Real Druidic Traditions

The D&D Druid: A Perfect Reflection of Real Druidic Traditions

But the thing is, that connection is actually stronger than maybe Gary himself recognized. See, in the mid-11th century, curved backswords started to appear in Europe and were especially popular amongst conscripts and peasant militia (as opposed to the straight swords used by knights and nobles). These blades came in two varieties. One was broad and thick, curved, but heavy. And the other was slimmer, lighter, and more deeply curved. That second one, the more popular one that lasted up through the 16th century, was very similar to the Persian shamshir or scimitar. But it was longer and heavier. Thing is, that sword had a name. The name was falchion. And falchion comes from the Latin word “falx,” meaning sickle.

So, D&D druids wield scimitars. Scimitars are similar to falchions. Falchions are named for the Latin word falx. Falx means sickle. And real druidic magicians used sickles in their sacred rites. Good job, Gary.

One Depiction of the Shamshir-e Zom... the Emerald-Studded Blade

One Depiction of the Shamshir-e Zom… the Emerald-Studded Blade

So how can you use this in your D&D game? How about a neat legend for some inspiration. Let’s end this with the story of the Shamshir-e Zomorrodnegār, the Persian name for the “emerald-studded sword” and Amir Arsalan, the Legend of Arsalan. This is classic Persian legend of a gifted hero named Arsalan. In the story, there is a terrible demon called Fulad-zereh. The witch who sired the demon used magic to make the demon invulnerable to everything except the emerald-studded shamshir, which had originally belonged to King Solomon. But the demon had gotten hold of it and guarded it carefully because it was the one thing that could kill him. The sword itself was also said to protect the wielder against evil magic. Of course, if you can’t get inspiration for your game out of that story, you might be interested to know that the name Arsalan translates to “lion,” and THAT name might lead you to some more wonderful inspiration for your game.

That's Right: The Heroic Legend of Arslan Manga ... What Did You Think I Meant?

That’s Right: The Heroic Legend of Arslan Manga … What Did You Think I Meant?


“You lash out with your sword, which passes right through the tentacled cat-like beast as if it is not there. Suddenly, you are knocked aside and huge gashes open in your side as something attacks you from the flank. Something unseen…”

I'll Skip the Inevitable C&D and Pre-Remove the Image, Okay WotC?

I’ll Skip the Inevitable C&D and Pre-Remove the Image, Okay WotC?

All right, time for a change of pace. Let’s talk about monsters. Specifically, a monster whose name I’m not allowed to mention. But I will give you a hint. It is a six-legged cat-like BEAST with tentacle shoulders that projects an illusion that makes it appear to be DISPLACED from its actual location. It is a DISPLACED BEAST if you get my meaning. *wink* *wink*

So this thing, this beast, has been a part of Dungeons and Dragons forever, or at least since the Greyhawk supplment written by Gary Gygax and Robert Kuntz in 1975. It has since then appeared in every edition’s Monster Manual so far, though we’re still waiting for the official release of the 5E Monster Manual to be sure. It was considered so iconic by Wizards of the Coast, that along with certain other beasties, it was classified as Product Identity and not released under the Open Gaming License. That’s right. You just can’t use the beast that shall not be named in your RPG unless you’re Wizards of the Coast.

The Beholder is an Amateur, It's Looking Right at the Camera

The Beholder is an Amateur, It’s Looking Right at the Camera

Unless you’re Paizo and you’re clever and you know where E. Gary G. ripped off the thing I am talking about from. Which brings us to the actual word of the week.

Way, way, way back in 1939, a science fiction author with the AMAZING name of A. E. van Vogt published a short story called “Black Destroyer” in which the sterilized, all male crew of the science vessel “The Space Beagle” lands on a planet and encounter these terrible, psychic, six-legged, tentacled cats call Coeurl. The sentient, evil beings deceive the crew and hang out with the scientists in order to learn more about them, but eventually they give in to their hunger and feed on the humans. The humans eventually figure out that maybe the tentacled, black alien creature is the one eating them and the alien kills itself.

Anyhoo, in the 4th part of the Pathfinder Adenture Path “Legacy of Fire” entitled “The End of Eternity” Paizo included a coeurl as an alien creature that came to Golarion via a magical portal and feeds on the “id” of other sentient creatures. Which is also what the coeurl fed on in The Voyages of the Space Beagle. Except, weird, id did not refer to some pyschological construct or anything. It was phosphorus. I s$&% you not. Id was just phosophorus. That’s how the Space Beagle crew proved the alien was the one murdering them.

Coeurl, Not That Other Thing, Got It, Wizards?

Coeurl, Not That Other Thing, Got It, Wizards?

There were other stories of the Space Beagle (a reference to Charlie Darwin’s ship) which inspired all sorts of other things, including many episodes of Star Trek. But it is interesting to end with another legal battle. See, there was this other evil alien called the Ixtl which came aboard the ship and started implanting people with parasitic eggs in their abdomens. And they actually bore a striking similarity to a certain Xenomorph (which, by the way, just means “alien shaped”) in a certain movie about an Alien which spawned a sequel about more Aliens and eventually lead to me trying to beat my $15 bucks out of a theater manager while the end credits to Prometheus rolled.

Now, while Ridley Scott and the folks behind Alien insisted they were not in any way inspired or influenced by the Ixtl that attacked the Space Beagle, there WAS a lawsuit for plagiarism, but it never went to court. It was quietly settled out of court. So you can be the judge.

Squenix: "Yeah, ours is a coeurl, too. Not a displacing thing!"

Squenix: “Yeah, ours is a coeurl, too. Not a displacing thing!”

Meanwhile, one might also wonder about the Xill that appeared in the 1981 Fiend Folio and eventually in the 3rd Edition Monster Manuals who lay parasitic eggs in the chest cavities of their victims. What a weird coincidence.

How do you use this s$%& in your game? Well, I actually want to go back and talk about the original monster I started talking about whose name I dare not utter. Because, there’s a lot of in-game lore about the damned thing. Its pelt is usual for making magical items based on illusions. Its eyes are said to have magical powers that mask the bearers location. It is the mortal enemy of blink dogs, which are teleporting magic dog creatures. And so on. And I have to be honest, I kind of miss some of that crap. Not the specifics. But I like the idea of bits of monsters being useful for things or sallable. In point of fact, in my current Pathfinder game, the PCs are often able to (with the use of the right profession and craft skills) harvest useful bits from magical creatures which they can then sell to wizards, alchemists, and artificers. It’s actually a really cool way to put “treasure” in the game. My displacer beasts don’t carry around money, but those pelts and eyes fetch a decent price if they are harvested well.

Though, It's Not Like You Can Get a Whole Game Out of Hunting Monster for their Useful Bits, Right? That'd Be Silly...

Though, It’s Not Like You Can Get a Whole Game Out of Hunting Monsters for their Useful Bits, Right? That’d Be Silly…


"Heavenly shades of light are falling/it's twilight time.."

“Heavenly shades of night are falling/it’s twilight time..”

“The sun finally dips below the horizon and the hills are bathed in red-gold light as twilight descends upon you. The elf warns ‘it is time to make camp. The hunters of the wild will be out in force now. The twilight is their time.'”

Remember back when the Monster Manual (or the Monstrous Compendium if you’re of a specific generation of D&D gamers) listed activity cycles for all the little beasties? Let’s talk about activity cycles. Specifically, let’s talk about all the animals that are not nocturnal.

See, a lot of the normal animals we think of as nocturnal aren’t really nocturnal: lots of rodents and many bats, also cats, some wild canines, moths, and lots of other insects. It’s actually a pretty long list. You thought your cat was nocturnal, right? But many cats are actually crepuscular.

Crepuscular animals are neither nocturnal (activity peaks at night) or diurnal (activity peaks during the day). Their activity peaks at dawn and at dusk. They are most active in the twilight hours. In fact, crepuscular comes from the Latin word for twilight. And twilight can be the most dangerous time to be out and about in the wilderness because so many predators are crepuscular.

So how can you use this in your game…? Wait, what? You think that was kind of short? Fine. Let’s talk about New Zealand and about demigod sibling rivalry and the imprisonment of the sun.

"Also, in churches. Always in churches."

“Also, in churches. Always in churches.”

Do you know what else is crepuscular, apart from various animals? Rays of sunlight (speaking of cats). Specifically, crepuscular rays. Crepuscular rays are those shafts of slanting light that come down between the clouds or between objects. Ancient temples in movies always have them because they look so damned cool? Well, those are crepuscular rays. But they have a lot of other nicknames too.

Those wacky Greeks with their crazy myths, right?

Those wacky Greeks with their crazy myths, right?

The ancient Greeks called them water draws because they had this crazy theory that water rode sunbeams into the sky to turn into rain (oh those wacky Greeks). They are also called Jacob’s Ladder after a Biblical tale in which Jacob dreamed of a staircase to Heaven. And they are also called Taura A Māui, which is Māori for “Ropes of Māui.”

Māui, in this case, is not the Hawaiian Island. But rather, it refers to a Polynesian demigod, which is why the phrase is of Māori origin. If you didn’t know, the Māori are the original settlers of the islands of New Zealand. They arrived sometime in the 1,200’s which makes New Zealand one of the last landmasses ever to be settled by human beings. And New Zealand has a pretty interesting relationship with the demigod Māui.

"But you should have seen the one that got away!"

“But you should have seen the one that got away!”

Māui, whose full name is Māui-tikitiki-a-Taranga which translates roughly to “Māui the hair of his mother Taranga” for reasons that would take a little too long to explain did not get along with his brothers, which would also take a little too long to explain. What’s important is that his brothers were going fishing one day and they left him behind. So, he took his own canoe and an ancient, enchanted jawbone which he made into a fishing hook and went fishing on his own. He fished up a giant fish and his brothers saw it and rowed over. They wanted to cut up the fish at once, but Māui insisted on making a proper offering to the god Tangaroa who ruled the sea first. His brothers wouldn’t listen and started cutting up the giant fish. According to Maroi legend, the giant fish was the northern island of New Zealand. And all the valleys and rivers are the cuts his brothers made. The southern island is Māui’s canoe.

"But you should have seen the one that got away!"

“But you should have seen the one that got away!”

So why are shafts of sunlight (crepuscular rays) called Ropes of Māui? Well, before Māui used the jawbone (which belonged to his ancestor) to fish up New Zealand, he used it to beat the sun into submission. See? Again, according to Māori legends, the sun was whipping through the sky so fast in ancient times that there weren’t enough hours in the day to get anything done. We’ve all felt that way, of course, but Māui went out and did something with it. On a hunt, he (with the help of his jealous brothers) lassooed the sun and beat it with the jawbone until it agreed to slow the hell down and let them have a nice, long day. Thus, in addition to pulling islands out of the sea, Māui is also the reason why you have to work at least 8 hours every day. Thanks Māui! So crepuscular rays, shafts of sunlight, are called the Ropes of Māui because they resemble the ropes he used to lasso the sun.

But there is something else crepuscular on New Zealand and we’ll end our story with it: cats. See, New Zealand didn’t have any terrestrial mammals. So, when the Māori arrived, insects, birds, and reptiles had evolved to fill every ecological niche on the islands. But the settling Māori and later Europeans and then everyone else brought various animals with them. Among them, cats. Cat ownership is extremely popular now in New Zealand. But it’s also problematic. They have become what is called an invasive species. That’s when a new animal arrives in a place and outcompetes all of the other animals because there are no predators or other natural checks on the new animal population. And stray and feral cats are just that. And while they control other invasive species (like rats), they are also driving native reptiles and birds to extinction. The ecology of a given place is usually reliant on a very delicate balance. And the sudden introduction of a new species can be an ecological disaster.

"I m in ur ecosystem, killin ur native species"

“I m in ur ecosystem, killin ur native species”

There are two great takeaways for your game here. The first is the story of Māui. Or rather, why are there so few stories like the story of Māui in D&D lore? In a universe where the pantheon of gods’ is objectively real and provable, why don’t more stories like that figure into the creation of the campaign world. Most DMs and campaign authors design worlds that are explainable with natural processes: plate tectonics and geology and meteorology and stuff like that. And there’s no reason for that. You have a perfect excuse for things being wonderful and inexplicable. Use it.

The other great story is the story of invasive species. Granted, that isn’t great from an ecological standpoint, but think about all of the problems that could be caused when settlers or refugees bring their pets to an environment that can’t handle them. Or are brought in on purpose. What if a city introduces slimes and oozes to control the dire rat problems in the sewers and find that the slimes and oozes are now the dominant species and they are taking over? Great fodder for adventure.

"Sire, the good news is Operation Gygax HAS brought the dire rat population under control..."

“Sire, the good news is Operation Gygax HAS brought the dire rat population under control…”