Doppelgangers

I wanted to write this post a long time ago, but somehow I never got around to actually do it. The upload date on the image files is from over one and a half year ago. Such is the life of an AD&HD gamemaster.

I first encountered doppelgangers all the way back in my first introduction to RPGs, and really to fantasy other than The Lord of the Rings and kids TV shows, Baldur’s Gate. They are pretty prominent monsters in the last part of the game and apparently meant to play a big role in the story, but while their appearance looked really cool to me, the way they were presented was rather strange and felt quite disappointing to me even back then. They are these grey naked humanoids that can assume the appearance of other people and have at least some degree of telepathic ability to read your mind, which helps with impersonating the person convincingly. But in the game, you see people you know in the middle of a dark dungeon where they shout incoherent mad ramblings at you and then drop their disguise to charge at you with their claws. What was that all supposed to be about? There is another semi-hidden quest involving doppelgangers infiltrating a merchant company and wasting all its money in bad trades, as an attempt to help a rival merchant company to rise in power. That works better, but they still were really not subtle about it at all. And again, they drop their disguises to attack with their claws as soon as you confront them about something fishy going on.

In the 3rd edition Monster Manual, doppelgangers have one of the coolest illustrations in the book. I love all the Sam Wood illustrations in the book, but I think the Di’Terlizzi interpretation from 2nd edition still looks like a more interesing monster. But this was the first good closeup view of a doppelganger that I’ve encountered and it made me fall in love with them even back then. But even getting proper descriptions of these creatures from the 3rd and 2nd edition monster books, I still found them a bit difficult to make sense of. As described, doppelgangers are a race of humanoid creatures who have the ability to assume the form of humans and other people, and use this ability primarily to replace rich people and enjoy a life of luxury for as long as they can keep up the deception and the money doesn’t run out. Basically just being social parasites. Alternatively, they sometimes offer their services as mercenaries to spy on the enemies of their employers.

That does make some degree of sense, but I also find it really disappointing. Just look at these weird alien things with their featureless faces and blank eyes! They could be anywhere and anyone, with no way to tell how many of them there are and for how long they’ve already been in a place before their presence was discovered. And all they want to do is to eat other people’s porridge, sit on other people’s chairs, and sleep in other people’s beds? That’s so lame. These are some nightmarish horrors from that come to replace your friends and family and you might never even know it.

I always like to approach worldbuilding with the assumption that the world came into being as a product of more or less natural processes rather than the deliberate work of a creator, and that the supernatural forces at work in the world are vastly older than even the primitive ancestors of the civilized peoples inhabiting it today. Monsters existed long before people walked the earth, and any abilities that are directly targeted at humanoid victims would have evolved in these creatures alongside the mortal races. Comfy town houses for doppelgangers to infiltrate are a fairly recent new thing in mortal society, and an ancient creature perfectly adapted to infiltrate cities and palaces wouldn’t make much sense. And that raises the question of what doppelgangers would have been doing all day for the long eons in which mortals inhabited caves and roamed through the wilderness searching for food. There wouldn’t be any space for these creatures as they are commonly described and what would they use their unique ability to replace people use for instead?

There is a really simple and obvious answer to this question: To feed on the flesh of people.

The ability of doppelgangers to perfectly mimic the appearance of people, and to read the minds of people they approach to impersonate a person without acting suspiciously, is a perfect mechanism to get close to their victims and to lure them away from groups where they can kill them without being noticed. And then continue to devour them. When suspicion arises, the doppelganger can simply assume the appearance of a different person. Not only does it make it impossible for searchers to find the real murderer, it also leaves them with a false trail to the person last seen with the victim. A doppelganger that plays things careful and smart can feed on a single community for months before it becomes too dangerous and it disappears silently into the night.

The description of doppelgangers in the Basic Rules say that they assume the form of a PC and attempt to kill it, and if they can do it without being seen, they will use that PCs appearance to get close to others. That just doesn’t make any sense. If you take the appearance of your target it’s really the most straightforward way to tell it that you are some kind of shape stealing monster. This is just stupid. When you can immitate anyone, at least make an attempt at pretending to be someone trapped in a dungeon and in need of rescue. The players might not fall for it, but immitating the person you’re about to attack is literally the worst possible shape to pick.

A doppelganger as a monstrous spy or assassin hired by a villainous antagonist, perhaps even unknowingly, still is can make for really cool adventures. But it all becomes much more interesting and many times more creepier if the doppelgangers are not motivated by laziness but by the taste for human flesh.

Doppelganger
Armour Class 14
Hit Dice 4* (4 – 32 hp)
Attacks Bite +3 (1d12)
Movement 30’
Saving Throws D6 W7 P8 B8 S10 (10)
Morale 10
XP 125
Number Appearing 1d6 (1d6)

Shape stealing: Can adopt the form of any human-like creature (7’ tall or less) observed.

Trickery: Will attempt to kill a PC, retainer, or hireling, take on their role, then lure further victims away from the group.

Reversion: If killed, reverts to its original form.

Spell immunity: Unaffected by sleep and charm spells.

Source

Also, in the fantastic awesome movie The Thing, why are they always talking about “the Thing”. Clearly there are multiple of it running around, as at least two of them are seen to be killed.

From the Collective Cultural Subconscious

I was once again browsing through old posts on Planet Algol to help me get into the right mindset for overhauling Planet Kaendor as a more wild, more weird, and more quirky world than it’s been before. And there I stumbled upon this:

Also known as pack lizards, Nguamodons are a horse-sized species of iguanodon. Herbivores that can survive for two weeks without food or water, they are commonly used as pack animals although any burden limits them to a quadrupedal gait that reduces their speed and renders them unable to use their thumb spikes in combat. They are placid, stupid and easily spooked.

I know that thing! That’s a droha! Seen in the wild over six years before I thought about the idea. I based the droha on a hadrosaurus instead of an iguanodon, but otherwise it’s really the same thing. I even set it at the same 3 HD as the nguamodon.

So someone had the same identical idea, years before me. So what. It actually only proves that there is at least one person out there who agrees with me that this is the cool shit for making great alien fantasy settings.

My favorite Monster Manual

I wrote about the Monsters of Faerûn book for Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition from 2001 before in my Fantasy Safari series. At 96 pages, it is to my knowledge the shortest and also only softcover monster book that was released by WotC. It followed the original Monster Manual for 3rd edition and would be succeeded by five more full sized books for that edition. A while back I was asking around in some places about how often GMs have actually been using creatures from the additional monster books beyond the main Monster Manual, and everything I could gather from the replies strongly pointed towards “barely”. These books are fun to read, but at the end of the day, people clearly seem to continue to strongly stick towards the established critters that have been in regular rotation for over 40 years now. But even in that light, Monsters of Faerûn seems to stand out as even more obscure than the other monster books, quite possibly because it’s much smaller and because the title indicates that it’s a setting specific book for the Forgotten Realms. Which is not actually the case. There are a few creatures in it that are specific to factions in Faerûn, but these of course work just as well anywhere else, and the majority are simply somewhat popular D&D monsters that had not made it into the Monster Manual.

Since I started with D&D right when 3rd edition came out (I remember deciding to wait a few more weeks instead of getting the 2nd edition books), and as such this was my second monster book ever. That might have had some impact on how memorable it was too me. But I had also been introduced to D&D by playing Baldur’s Gate, and that game had a few creatures in it that were not in the MM, but in this book. Even though I don’t recall using much, if anything from this book back when I ran 3rd edition games, but it always excited me every time I was thinking about it again, or picked it up for another read. This has so many creatures that I always wanted to use some day.

When I started working on the Shattered Empire setting two months ago, I didn’t deliberately plan to do it, but I recently realized that a lot of these “I want to use them one day” monsters ended up on the monster list of the setting, even though I got their stats from 5th edition books. I admit to not actually having read those. I’m only using the stat blocks, going with my preconceptions of what these creatures are from the last 20 years.

Aaracockra are a quick and dirty reskin job to get harpies without the enchanting song ability, that really belongs to sirens.

Air Genasi more or less make an appearance as the Kuri people, though they are actually using the stats for high elves as PCs.

Chitines have always fascinated me, even though their image in this book isn’t very good. Small primitive humanoids with six long spidery arms that crawl along the walls and ceilings of caves. What’s not to love about these creepy crawlies, which I think make a good alternative to the regular goblin and kobold fare.

Choldriths are the elf-faced spiders that often rule over chitines as their priests. It’s a different take on the general idea of driders, but since my setting doesn’t have any drow either, I think these make for a better alternative.

Cursts are a bit like ghouls or revenants. They are under a curse that always regenerates them into their undead form over the course of days and have gone somewhat mad from the torment of their unliving existence. The only way to actually kill them is to break the curse that is on them. But mostly I just think the picture kicks ass.

The Dark Tree is just a classic of fantasy. Never an A-list monster, but always around. The image in this book is really goofy, but I’ve always been hugely inspired by this one of a different monster that’s still the same basic idea.

From Manual of the Planes

Dread Warriors are really just beefed up zombies kept in better shape and with some intelligence remaining to make them more useful soldiers for necromancers. Nothing that spectacular, but I like to use them as corpses animated by low-intelligence demonic spirits.

Earth Genasi, like the air genasi, appear in my my setting as one of the civilize people. Though again, I am using the goliath stats for PCs instead.

Fey’ri are a specific bloodline of high elf tieflings from the Forgotten Realms, with some cool backstory of being the last remnants of an old noble house that made pacts with demons. Again, it was really an image from another book that sold me on these guys, but they appeared in this one first. They appear in the Six Lands as the asura, with somewhat different stats, but it’s really pretty much the same guys.

From Races of Faerûn

Gibberlings are basically the first monster you encounter in Baldur’s Gate, and there’s a lot of them in that game! Which had me a bit surprised to later learn that they pretty much don’t seem to appear anywhere else. But they are in this book, and I still love these little screetching guys as low level enemies.

Green Warders are a bit lame, actually. They are elf shaped shrubs who were used as guardians by the elves of Myth Drannor. But they have magic powers to cast alarm, confusion, and sleep in addition to attacking with their claws, and I think make a decent base to make custom spriggans. The leafy boy type, not the size changing goblins.

The Helmed Horror is another memorable monster from Baldur’s Gate. Basically it’s animated armor that’s been beefed up to a serious juggernaut with a big magic sword. These are clearly my favorites among the menagerie of golems. Badass image doesn’t hurt either.

Quaggoths are albino humanoid bear-apes that live underground. There really isn’t much more to them. But I think they’ve still been really underused as one of the underdark races as they add some nice variety. Why are there bear-men living deep underground among the fish-men, spider-things, and squid-thingies? No idea, but I just think they’re neat.

There’s a good more cool monsters in Monsters of Faerûn, these are just the ones that are featuring prominently in the worldbuilding for the Shattered Empire. But there’s also aballins, baneguards, beasts of Malar, darkenbeasts, deep dragons, firenewts, ghaunadans, phaerlin giants, and draegloths, which are all really cool as well, though not really fitting into the world I am creating. And I really love most of the art in this book, though that might to a good degree me being biased from my strong first impression. Though I still think it’s overall a much more memorable monster book than the actual Monster Manual that preceded it.

Ducks of Doom

What are they doing at night in the park?
Think of them waddling about in the dark.
Ducks! Ducks!

Sneering, and whispering, and stealing your cars,
Reading pornography, smoking cigars!
Ducks! Ducks!

Nasty and small, undeserving of life,
They sneer at your hairstyle and sleep with your wife!
Ducks! Ducks!

Wings of Watery Death

Most people agree that geese are evil spawn of the devil, and for good reasons. But there are far more sinister feathered fiends lurking in the reeds flanking the Great River. The gavir looks like a black and white duck from a distance, but nothing could be further from the truth. Its strong beak ends in a sharp point like a woodpecker, which it uses to impale fish, salamanders, lizards, crabs, and even the occasional other water birds or really anything that gets too close. Usually it will swallow its prey whole, but can also seen pecking away at the carcasses of much larger creatures like vultures.

They are always watching. Silently judging you.

When seen close up, which generally should be avoided, a gavir has many resemblances with cranes, as well as snakes and otters. But most striking about it are its red eyes that are filled with malice and hatred for all other living things. While even its head looks similar to that of an ordinary duck, its eyes are in fact forward like the predator it is. Its duck-like body also conceals its true size, which is closer to that of a swan.

Death on Silent Wings

Unlike ducks, gavirs are fast and nimble fliers and much more silent when they attack their unsuspecting prey. The only upside of gavirs compared to other birds of prey is that their feet are lacking the sharp claws found on hawks and owls. However, their duck-like feet make them excelent swimmers and they sometimes ambush their targets by leaping out from under the water when they are not in the mood to attempt chasing intruders away.

Gavirs are extremely agressive and territorial, attacking everything getting close to their nests. While their beaks can’t get through the hides of large ubas or crocodiles, gavirs will often resort to attacking their eyes to drive them off. The presence of large one-eyed predators is often an idication of gavirs in the area. As often as not, such confrontations end with the gavir getting eaten, but that doesn’t appear to deter these rampaging birds. The only other creatures they tollerate are other gavirs. Fortunately, gavirs are rare in the warmer waters of the Lower River, but they are a serious threat to travellers going up the Green River.

Their terrifying red eyes and raging demeanor has many people regard gavirs as demons, but their fury is obviously not fueled by the fires of the Underworld. Like all aquatic monsters, gavirs are spirits of the water, though such violent agression is rarely seen in any others of their kind.

Gavir chicks are no less lethal than fully grown adults.

Gavir: 1 HD,  AC 12, Atk +2 (1d4; 1/15), Move 60, ML 10, Skill +1, Save 15. Gavirs are unnaturally resilient in a fight and completely shrug off smaller injuries, making them immune to suffering shock damage.

Peace was never an option.

The Burning Dead

The undead creatures of Planet Kaendor, with stats for Worlds Without Number.

While fire has a part in the natural world, its true origin lies in the Underworld and is the animating energy of demons. Forests have adapted to survive fires and adjust their natural cycles to deal with it, and ancient mortals of ages past have learned to harness it as a powerful tool and weapon that makes civilization possible. The ability to contain the fire and to use it what sets them apart from the beasts of the Wilds. But even though fire is useful and potent, it remains a power fundamentally hostile to life. Usually fire simple kills and destroy any living things it touches, but under the influence of sorcery, the two can merge together, creating horrifying and unnatural abomination, neither living nor dead.

Charred Husk

Charred Husk: 2 HD, AC 11, Atk +2 (1d8), Move 20, ML 12, Skill +0, Save 14.

As undead, husks are immune to poison, disease, sleep, and unconsciousness.

Charred Husks are the most basic of undead creatures. They are corpses burned by the flames of sorcery and demons, which continue to smolder even after there’s nothing left to burn. Nothing of a living creature remains in a husk other than its charred bones and flesh. They commonly arise from creatures killed by sorcerous fire or demons, but can even be created when old corpses are consumed by the flames of sorcery. The animating energy within a husk is driven to spread itself to other living beings, and they typically attack all creatures they sense with blind ferocity.

Ghoul

Ghoul: 3 HD, AC 13, Atk +4 (1d8), Move 30, ML 10, Skill +1, Save 14.

As undead, ghouls are immune to poison, disease, sleep, and unconsciousness. Unlike husks, ghouls never actually died and resemble the living in many ways. The fire consuming them manifests itself not as flames, but as a slow smoldering corruption that eats away their bodies and minds. Many ghouls are the close servants of sorcerers who have been exposed to demonic magic for many years, but they are also found frequently haunting the ruins of cities destroyed by sorcery, from breathing in the ash of buildings, trees, animals, and people consumed by demonic flames.

Ghouls can often be mistaken for living people or beasts, but they soon develop a sickly appearance, with their skin and clothing smeared with ash and soot, and eventually developing burn-like scars all over their bodies. The mental state of ghouls can vary widely, regardless of the visible corruption of their bodies. Some act like slightly unhinged but otherwise sane people, while others are ravenous beasts. Like living creatures they still have to eat, and those surviving in the ashen wastelands rarely are particular about the kinds of meat they eat and hunt people just the same as animals, or will feed on old meat, unaffected by disease or poison. But not being truly alive, ghouls are unaffected by extreme heat or cold, but they still instinctively spend the nights huddled around fires if they can find something to burn. Eventually, most ghouls are consumed by the slow fire within them over the course of many decades and end up as charred husks. Though in some cases they also transform into wights.

Wight

Wight: 5 HD, AC 15, Atk +4/+4 (1d8; 2/15), Move 30, ML 10, Skill +1, Save 13.

As undead, wights are immune to poison, disease, sleep, and unconsciousness. They automatically stabilize at 0 hit points and require decapitation or similar destruction of their body to be permanently killed. Living creatures hit by a wight must make a Physical saving throw or be paralyzed for 1d4+1 rounds.

All wights began their transformation into undead as ghouls, though the exact conditions that turn only some ghouls into wights and not understood even by most sorcerers. There appears a strong connection to sorcery, as ghoul sorcerers rarely end up as husks, and they are often accompanied by the wights of their most loyal guards and servants. In other cases, wights have risen from killed ghouls who have been laid to rest in tombs and ruins highly corrupted by sorcery. Most wights appear to be sane, but also very hostile to living things with no interest in any kind of talk. They almost always attack any intruders into their lairs, but usually wait for an opportunity to ambush them instead of charging blindly into a fight.

Shade

Shade: 1 HD, AC 13, Atk +1 (1d6), Move 30, ML 12, Skill +0, Save 15.

As undead, shades are immune to poison, disease, sleep, and unconsciousness, and can only be harmed by obsidian or iron weapons. Living creatures hit by or walking through a shade take a -2 penalty to attack rolls and -1 penalty to damage rolls, shock damage, and skill checks for every hit, which remains until the end of the scene.

Shades appear as vague outlines of people made out of hazy smoke and shadows. They are not actually remnants of the dead, but rather the lingering remains of the demonic flames that consumed them. They appear somewhat related to charred husks, but the bodies that created them have been entirely reduced to ash, with nothing left for the flames to possess. Shades are just as mindless as husks, but show even less awareness of their surroundings. Shades often stand nearly motionlessly in the very spots they were created, not moving from their place for decades or centuries. Though they are created by fire, they have nothing left to burn, and instead draw in any warmth from their surroundings. Places haunted by shades are often unnaturally cold and touching them seems to drain the very life out of living creatures. Shades may attacking living creatures that are getting very close to them, though they might just as well completely ignore people walking straight through them.

Wraith

Wraith: 4 HD, AC 20, Atk +5 (1d6; 2/-), Move 30, ML 12, Skill +1, Save 13.

As undead, wraiths are immune to poison, disease, sleep, and unconsciousness, and can only be harmed by obsidian or iron weapons. Living creatures hit by a shade (but not when taking shock damage) take a -2 penalty to attack rolls and -1 penalty to damage rolls, shock damage, and skill checks for every hit, which remains until the end of the scene.

Wraiths appear somewhat similar to shades in that they look humanoid beings made of smoke and darkness, but their nature and demeanor is completely different. A wraith is the spirit of a highly corrupted being that has been so completely consumed by the fires of the Underworld that it burned its own bones and flesh into ash, leaving behind only a spirit of fire, smoke, and hatred. Like ghouls and wights, wraiths appear to retain much of the memories of their former lives and their intelligence, but all the trappings of a mortal life have long lost all meaning to them and the only thing driving them is a blind rage against all living things.

Rolling hit points for monsters

As I was delving into the ancient ruins to seek the wisdom of the sages of past ages, I came upon this nice little gem on Planet Algol: Non-randomized Monster Hit Points is the F’ing Devil. The unknown author (seriously, there’s no name anywhere on the site) makes a point that you really should roll the hit dice for monsters and NPCs the players might fight an not just assume the average, as it has a real impact on customizing individual opponents. Would players ever notice the difference between a 2d8 creature with 8 hp and an otherwise identical one with 11 hp? Probably not. But they very much would notice the difference between a 3 hp and a 15 hp one.

A note  is being made about perhaps rolling only one die and multiplying the result by the number of die, to make more extreme results more common than under the normal distribution you get from rolling and adding up multiple dice. But I was also curious about the results you would be getting from rolling hit points normally for every opponent and so I pulled up AnyDice to check.

The added up results of multiple die rolls are a classical of a normal distribution. The classic bell curve. A typical way to compare and interpret the distributions of these curves is by using the Standard Deviations as reference points. I once learned how to calculate standard deviations and also understood the reason why they are typically used instead of any other arbitrary reference lines. I’ve forgotten all of that years ago, but I am going to use them anway. (And it turns out AnyDice can just tell you that number, spring me the need to manually crunch numbers for other reference values.) The only thing that’s really important to know is that 68% of all results will lie within 1 SD of the median value (the line between the lower 50% and the upper 50% of all cases), and 96% of all results within 2 SD.

Source

Since almost all creatures use d8 for hit points, I’m going to do the whole thing only for d8s. Obviously the spread will be somewhat smaller for smaller Hit Dice, and larger for larger ones, but the pattern remains the same.

HD -2 SD -1 SD +0 SD
+1 SD +2 SD
2d8 3 6 9 12 15
3d8 6 10 14 17 21
4d8 9 13 18 23 27
5d8 12 17 23 28 33
6d8 16 21 27 33 38
7d8 19 25 32 38 44
8d8 23 30 36 42 49
9d8 27 34 41 47 54

Now how to read this table for the not statistically trained? What this means is that 68% of all results you get will be between the -1 SD and the +1 SD columns. 96% of all results you get will be between the -2 SD and the +2 SD columns. Or in other words, only 2% of results will be smaller than the left column and only 2% larger than the right column.

Here’s the same data a bit more condensed, showing the range of hit points for 68% of the creatures if you roll their hp.

HD +/-1 SD +/-2 SD
2d8 6 to 12 3 to 15
3d8 10 to 17 6 to 21
4d8 13 to 23 9 to 27
5d8 17 to 28 12 to 33
6d8 21 to 33 16 to 38
7d8 25 to 38 19 to 44
8d8 30 to 42 23 to 49
9d8 34 to 47 27 to 54

Here the left column is the range you will see for 68% of your creatures, and the right column what you’ll see for 96% of your creatures. Results outside the range of the right column will occasionally happen, but will really be quite rare. As the number of dice goes up, the spread of the result will be come relatively narrower. The difference between 34 and 47 really is not that big and players might not notice. But the vast majority of enemies that will be fought in groups will have much lower number of Hit Dice, especially those in larger groups. Going from 6 to 12 means double the amount of hit points for 2d8 HD opponents, and when you deal 3 or 4 damage, that makes a real difference. And that’s only for the 68% group. A 2d8 creature with 2-3 or 15-16 hp will be rare, but still account for about 5% of individuals each. In a group of 10, you’d expect to see one of these outliers.

So yeah, I agree with the anonymous author. Rolling the hit points for every opponent individually seems very much worthwhile when you have a game with few fixed bonuses to the dice roll and PCs commonly dealing single digit damage.