Monday, February 22, 2016

Monte-Carlo Measures of Monster Levels, Pt. 4

The devil is in the details. More discoveries on running OD&D monsters through a computer simulator a few million times each, here focused on some giant versions of real-world creepy-crawly animals:

Giant Ants: OD&D situates these creatures on the 3rd level table. This monster doesn't have any statistics specified in Vol-2, or even a suggestion for damage in Sup-I (like most giant animals do), so we necessarily turn to the Monster Manual. The basic type of giant ant is AC 3, HD 2, Atk 1 for the canonical 1d6 damage; the text indicates that this is a worker ant ("90% likely") -- and the simulator measures this simple creature at only EHD 1, which would suggest that we move it one table lower in OD&D. But the text also indicates another option (presumably 10% of ants): the warrior ant with HD 3 and a poison sting (save or die, of course) -- and this type the simulator assesses at EHD 5, which would put it one table higher than shown in OD&D. So here we have a dilemma: the worker ant is too weak, and the warrior ant too strong, for the given location in the OD&D random monster tables. I've left it as the warrior type in my charts, just because the poison sting makes it a little more interesting; perhaps that's a mistake thematically.

Giant Beetles: The type is shown on OD&D random table level 4. Sup-I (p. 18) suggests that Giant Beetles be given 3-30 (3d10) damage per bite; that seems highly excessive in our context of non-revised OD&D combat, because even Giants are originally given only 2 dice of damage (d6's). Looking at the Monster Manual with its half-dozen options for Giant Beetles, the one that seems the most appropriate is the giant Boring Beetle, with AC 3, HD 5, and Atk 1, now reduced on average to 5-20 points (5d4). If I lower this to simply 2d6 damage, to match it with Giants (and the only type on my list below Giants to get more than 1 die of damage), then the assessed EHD is 5, the same as its Hit Dice -- so no bonus to XP, but nicely situating it in the middle of the Level 4 table where OD&D says it belongs.

Giant Snakes: OD&D places these creatures on the Level 3 table; and there are so many issues to juggle with this one (again, we can only guess at it assumed Hit Dice, Attacks, etc.). Sup-I suggests that the Giant Snake should have both a poison bite and a constriction attack (if I read it correctly); a combination that doesn't actually occur on Earth for any type of snake. The Monster Manual thereafter takes a more naturalist stance, splitting up the types of snakes into either a giant Constrictor HD 6+1 or Poisonous HD 4+2 types (among others: Amphisbaena, Sea, and Spitting snakes, not considered here). So we have a number of different options to consider for our OD&D serpent.

Let's take a step back and consider the pulp literature for the type. Conan is known to deal with monstrous snakes in many of his stories (including famous cover artworks), so let's look there. Fortunately, I found a post compiling those giant-snake encounters on the Official Robert E. Howard Forum precisely one day before it's scheduled to be shut down (currently at; I'll be copying the content in comments below when I get a chance). Poster blanor notes that Conan fought giant snakes in 4 stories (Hour of the Dragon, Queen of the Black Coast, Beyond the Black River, and The Devil in Iron). As I look up the scenes in the various stories myself, I note that in each case they are described as a tremendous python, a constrictor type that tries to crush Conan or someone else in its coiling mass (the word "python" is directly used in all of the stories except for Devil in Iron; although tellingly the description of a "wedge-shaped head" is used uniformly in all of those stories). The serpents are each described as being variously 20 or 40 feet long (and The Scarlet Citadel has a whopping 80-foot snake that chases Conan for a while, but he never actually comes to blows with it). But the creature in Beyond the Black River is given an additional terrifying aspect:
That was the reptile that the ancients called Ghost Snake, the pale, abominable terror that of old glided into huts by night to devour whole families. Like the python it crushed its victim, but unlike other constrictors its fangs bore venom that carried madness and death. It too had long been considered extinct. But Valannus had spoken truly. No white man knew what shapes haunted the great forests beyond Black River.

Taking the Conan stories as a cue for the basic type, my list features the MM Giant Constrictor as the basic Giant Snake: AC 5, HD 6+1, can bite and constrict at the same time for 1d6 damage each (this requires an initial successful bite; thereafter it gets 1d6 constriction every round automatically, and can still bite normally as well; the victim can act normally meanwhile); this gets assessed as EHD 6, the same as its HD (so no XP bonus), but placing it one level higher than in the OD&D tables (and on the tail end of that table, in fact, almost into Level 5).

So perhaps we should consider some other options to rectify that. Take the MM Giant Poisonous type (HD 4+2). Unfortunately, the save-or-die poison makes this even more dangerous, at EHD 8 -- clearly into the Level 5 table, then. Or we could simulate the infamous "Ghost Snake" at HD 6 with both constriction and poison -- of course, that's even more deadly, at EHD 11 (pretty deep into the Level 5 monster table at this point). We could consider a mini-Ghost snake, 3 HD with both constrict & poison, as per Sup-I -- that's EHD 5, still one level too high.

If we decide to dial things down to a simple snake of 3 HD and constriction as its only ability, then in this case, we get EHD 3, properly placing it on the Level 3 table as OD&D is printed. (The constriction ability by itself always generates EHD = HD.) Of course, as DM you can create a snake of whatever hit dice and abilities your heart desires. For example, the Holmes Basic D&D Sample Dungeon has a 2 HD snake in room "S" (no special abilities noted; are we meant to assume this is a constrictor, poisonous, both, or neither?).

What do you use for baseline giant ants, beetles, and snakes in your OD&D game? Bigger, badder, and more fantastical stuff considered in the next post.


  1. Whenever I hear Giant Sized "X" my mind automatically goes to a larger than man sized creature. While a dog sized ant would be giant by ant standards, and surely terrifying, I always assume giant relative to humans.
    Giants snakes? Constrictors only, I just imagine the fangs being so big, they go right through the target.

    1. I tend to agree. Plus, the only example I've found in folklore of giant ants has them the size of foals.

    2. I can sympathize with that. But of course that would indicate HD levels beyond those suggested by the Monster Level Tables in Vol-3 (among other places).

    3. Maybe, maybe not. A "Light Horse" is given 2HD in Vol-2, so perhaps a foal-sized Giant Ant is similar.

    4. That's a fair point. I guess I was thinking more about the spider, centipede, giant rats on the Level-1 list (hopefully 1 HD or less).

  2. I consider the combat encounter will probably be against the soldier ants, with workers ignoring at first and fleeing as they're attacked or soldiers begin dying. But it doesn't make sense to put a worker ant encounter on an early dungeon level and soldier ants on a later one; instead, I'd figure out where the soldier ants should be and then use the workers as a "local wildlife" encounter, like elk or giraffes aboveground.

    I like making snakes either poisonous or constricting. I usually treat constriction as wrestling, so the victim can take actions to throw off the hold. Recently I had a nasty constrictor use an additional rule: that the snake could continue piling on constriction units each round if it "hit" with the constrict attack. So for example the snake might drop on the victim and constrict on round 1, and the victim could throw it off with a successful wrestling attack. But if he failed, or did something else, the snake next round would (1) deal 1d6 auto constrict damage, AND (2) try to add another constriction. If it succeeded, the victim would have to successfully make a wrestling attack twice to be free - this quickly becomes impossible and the victim will surely die. Because of this, I limited the number of constriction units based on snake length - 1 unit per 20' - which works with the general 1 HD per 5' standard I use. The constrictor would bite only against other attackers.

    I know this is a very secondary issue to the topic, but I don't do strictly save-or-die poison. Instead it's more like the DMG 1E poison chart for injected poison, so low-HD poisonous snakes will be save-or-15 HP. Which is very much deadly for 1st and 2nd level PCs, and when encountering numbers of poisonous snakes even high-level PCs are in danger. Further, the snake will likely attack the same target even if it falls, meaning death at -10 is definitely on the table. I feel like Type A would work for 1-2 HD, Type B (save or 25) for 3-4, Type C (save or 35) for 5-6, and death poison would be needed on higher level monsters to quality for the XP boost.

    I know people want to preserve the danger of save-or-die effects at high level when HP are abundant, but the 2 HD poisonous snake that can just kill a 20th level Fighter (but not give him any real XP) is a huge bummer.

    1. "Snakes. Why'd it have to be snakes?"

      I kind of like your rule with the increasing-constriction effect. That's a nice idea.

  3. I'm curious - using your simulator, can you peg an "correct" AC, HD, and average damage output for a given "level" of monster?

    1. The short story is "no". I'm finding that the effect of special abilities is irreducibly complicated, and you can't abstract that out of the picture.

      Now, if you remove special abilities from the question and just look at brute physicality -- effectively you're looking at the humanoid/"giant class" list. And in that list pretty much the AC is constant at about 5, attack is always 1, and damage is either 1d6 or 2d6 for giants. And then simply HD = EHD = level.

      Now, this model intentionally assumes a Fighter of a given level with fixed abilities (3d6) and equipment (chain, shield, +1 sword -- gauged about the same as the humanoid AC). Depending on your game's bonuses to abilities, powers, magic, etc., your PCs can confront greater challenges (greater total EHD's).

  4. "Conan Kills a Giant Snake" References (thanks to poster blanor of the old Official Robert E. Howard Forum):

    Snakes, big and small, are prominently featured in the original Conan stories, so much so that it seems that our hero did away with more than he did, but the total is four. They are:

    - The Hour of the Dragon, Chapter 17: On the streets of Khemi, Conan slays, with a knife, a ?sacred son of Set,? a snake big enough to swallow a person.

    - Queen of the Black Coast, Chapter 2: Out of the Zarkheba River comes a python, ?thicker than a man?s body? and big enough to grip a warrior in its jaws. Conan kills it with his great sword.

    - Beyond the Black River, Chapter 4: With a spear, Conan kills a snake with a head as big as a horse?s that is summoned to a Pict village to do away with Balthus.

    - The Devil in Iron, Chapter 6: In a building on the island of Xapur, Conan grapples with, and finally kills with his scimitar, a forty-foot snake. This is the only serpent that Conan battles with that comes close to doing away with him. The scene is depicted on the cover of Weird Tales, August 1934.

    There is no formula snake confrontation, as they all take place in different settings, in different parts of the Hyborian world, and are killed by different weapons. As for other snakes:

    - The God in the Bowl: The title being has the head of a godlike person and the body of a snake, but to call it giant or a snake is stretching it. Conan cuts it head off with a slash of his sword.

    - The Scarlet Citadel, Chapter 3: In the dungeons of the castle in Khorshemish known as the Scarlet Citadel dwells Satha, a venomous snake. At eighty feet long, it might be the largest serpent in all of the tales, but Conan does not kill or even attack it. Although it threatens the Cimmerian, it ends up helping him, thwarting a beheading and making a set of keys available. In describing Satha, an allusion is made to Conan breaking the neck of a python on the Stygian coast in his corsair days.

    - The People of the Black Circle, Chapter 9: In the mountain castle Yimsha, there?s a scene where an arrow is turned into a snake, kills one of Conan?s companions, then turns back into an arrow. Soon after, the Master of Yimsha turns himself into a snake, which Conan wounds, but the serpent escapes.

    - Shadows in Zamboula, Chapter 4: Zabibi dances in the midst of four cobras (the scene is depicted on the cover of Weird Tales, November 1935). The snakes do not harm the girl or Conan, and as they seem to be illusions there is some doubt that they could harm anyone. They disappear after Conan kills Totrasmek.

    - Black Colossus, Chapter 1: A thief confronts and kills a twenty-foot snake in Thugra Khotan?s crypt, but Conan is nowhere around.

    - Black Colossus, Chapter 4: In a final confrontation, big bad guy Thugra Kohtan throws a staff at Conan that turns into a standard-sized cobra. Conan cuts in two, then dispatches the evil sorcerer.