Random Encounters: Put on a Grey Ribbon

Thanks to myths and monsters week on Daily Planet, I discovered that May is Zombie Awareness month.  According to the Zombie Research Society (who I guess are the ones who decided this… I wonder if they have a government grant?), the month of May was chosen because:

“Many films important to the evolution of the modern zombie are set in the month of May, from the original Night of the Living Dead, 1968, to the well received Dawn of The Dead remake of 2004.  Also, because spring naturally brings with it a sense of renewal and hopefulness, May is the perfect month to emphasize continued vigilance in the face of the coming zombie pandemic.”

Well, as the picture can attest to (circa the 2008 Toronto Zombie Walk); I’m certainly not unaware of the coming zombie apocalypse (in the future, undead Canadians will look at me dressed up in that picture and be offended).  And even though I’ve never really talked about the undead on this blog (hey, where’s the underwater beholder awareness month?), they are an important ingredient to any ménage à monster.
That said, zombie awareness month actually got me thinking about something else – fake undead (maybe it was the photo).  During the days of 1st edition D&D (and bleeding over into 2nd), there was a popular trend of ‘gotcha’ monster design.  That is, monsters that look like something they are not to trick adventurers into using ineffective tactics against them.  The best example of this is probably the gas spore – a monster that looked just like a beholder, but exploded in a cloud of deadly spores if you panicked and hit it with a weapon (I happen to like the gas spore – but it probably has more to do with nostalgia and the sweet Trampier illustration than good design), but it was by no means the only one.  That’s where the fake undead come in.  These were a category of gotcha monsters that looked like undead (and sometimes acted like it too)… but weren’t.  So while your party’s cleric was busy wasting time trying to turn undead, it was killing the rest of you in some non-undead way.
Now some people like using this kind of monster, and maybe I’ve been brainwashed by post 3rd edition thinking, but these creatures just strike me as cheesy one-shot adversaries designed solely to exploit the game’s mechanical assumptions.  But complaining about the design choices of monsters from the dustbin of D&D’s history doesn’t get us anywhere.  If Zak from Playing D&D with Pornstars can rehabilitate the gas spore, then perhaps some of D&D’s fake undead can be salvaged as well:

  • Adherer (from Fiend Folio): This humanoid was covered in loose folds of flesh that made it look like a mummy.  It secreted glue from its skin that made your weapons stick to it (I actually did use this monster in 2e, more for its sticky power than its resemblance to a mummy).  Surprisingly, this monster has already been rehabilitated – by Paizo in their book Misfit Monsters Redeemed.  Here they are presented as living relics of a horrible experiment conducted by phase spiders on the ethereal plane.
  • Drelb (Monster Manual II): A creature native to the plane of negative energy that looks like a wraith, and is summoned to guard an area or treasure.  It cannot be turned, but tricks clerics who try to do so by appearing to move away, but actually shrinks and moves forward.  The drelb’s special power is as lame as a monster that attacks by pretending its going down a flight of stairs.  To rehabilitate it I’d get rid of the shrinking thing and quit making it imitate wraiths.  Now it’s a malevolent blot of pure necrotic energy that can only manifest in the zone it was summoned to protect (using a mechanic like 4e homunculi).   To keep its anti-clerical theme it could do something bad (like an attack or imposing a condition) to anyone who used a power in its aura with the radiant keyword (or someone who used a healing power instead).
  • Gambado (from Fiend Folio): This one-legged creature uses a discarded skull as a head prosthetic, digs a hole in the ground, and when some adventurer comes to investigate the skull, it jumps out at them.  I’m amazed this thing survived two editions of the game.  I’d take away the ambush predator aspect of this monster and instead focus on the bone stealing and collecting.  Reimagined, it becomes a sort of necromantic caddisfly that forms a cocoon out of bones.  It can animate its grisly shell to move around the battlefield and attack.  Perhaps absorbing new bones heals it, or maybe the gambado grows weaker as its protective cocoon is shattered (yes the name comes from ‘leaping and springing’, I guess it could leap out at you and try to bite your face off it its cocoon is destroyed).
  • Necrophidius (from Fiend Folio) and Yellow Musk Zombie (from Monster Manual II): OK, neither one of these monsters really needs to be rehabilitated.  With the addition of knowledge checks to the game in 3e, these go from gotcha to cool.  Construct made out of snake bones that can hypnotize you by swaying back and forth?  Awesome.  Killer plant that controls you by planting a seed in your head?  Even more awesome.  I’m willing to admit when my idea falls apart.
  • Pseudo-Undead (from Monster Manual II): The worst culprits of the lot, pseudo-undead are humanoids that look like undead, but have none of their special abilities.  Like a Scooby-Doo villain, they spend their pathetic lives hoping others will be too scared to attack them.  Here’s a tidbit: “Pseudowraiths and pseudospectres cannot fly but walk so lightly as to leave no trace, and are often thought (unless closely observed) to be floating above the surface, although this is an illusion.”  Like the gambado, this is going to take a bit of a stretch.  First I’d call the creature something different, like a necroclone.  Then, taking a bit of inspiration from the myrmarachne melanotarsa, the monster becomes a shapeshifter with a taste for rotting, undead flesh.  It can mimic corporeal undead so fully (and is resistant to disease and necrotic damage) that it lives among colonies of ghouls, and packs of zombies.  These are not only the necroclone’s preferred food source, but they also provide the monster with protection, since few other monsters would target a large group of dangerous undead.

That covers 1e’s core monster books, but I’m sure later supplements, as well as Dragon and White Dwarf, hold more examples.  Maybe someday I’ll even get around to statting these beasts up.

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