Thursday, September 8, 2016

Mentzer Basic Cover to Cover: Monsters - Animal to Doppelganger

Today, we start in on the monster list, with all the stat blocks and descriptions of monsters. I may not have something to say about every monster in the book, but if I notice anything interesting, unusual, or that I usually forget about when running the game, I'll mention it.

Animal, Normal and Giant: this is the first listing in the book, and it's a catch-all reference for all the normal and giant animals listed in the book. I just checked, and this is something that was in Moldvay, but not Holmes (who doesn't have a lot of normal animal types in his monster list), so it's not something Frank came up with. It's an interesting idea to have a reference tag like this, although I don't know if it's really all that useful. I had (and probably still have) all the monsters in each book (Basic, Expert, Companion, or Master) memorized fairly easily. If I wanted stats for a bear, I knew it was in Basic and for an elk it was in Expert.

Also interesting is that the list is basically the mammals, not the reptiles, or insects/bugs. No ants, beetles, bees, spiders, or snakes even! So while there's some slight utility in the concept of the index listing like this, the execution (pretty much just lifted from Moldvay) is flawed.

Ant, Giant: The first actual monster presented by the rules, and it has exceptions to the rules. Ants never make reaction rolls, they're always hungry and will attack anything in their path. Also, despite a listed Morale of 7, they always fight to the death according to the description. At least if you do encounter giant ants (tough for Basic level PCs, since they have AC 3 and 4 hit dice, 2d6 damage on their bite), and you can track them back to their lair and wipe out the tough lair defense, they are 30% likely to have gold nuggets worth "1-10 thousand gp" (p. 25).

Ape, White: I hadn't read any John Carter novels as a kid, so it wasn't until much later that I realized the inspiration for white apes was Barsoom. Still, as presented here they are quite different, being normal Earth two-armed apes, covered in white fur because they live underground. This is the first monster entry to get a connection to another monster entry -- Neanderthals often keep white apes as pets.

Baboon, Rock: Semi-intelligent baboons, larger than normal, and with the ability to use rocks, sticks and bones as primitive tools. And it took 30+ years of me reading the entry for me to get it, finally, as I was on the bus headed home reading the entry for this post the other day. The "rock" in their name maybe comes from a big, black Monolith. The film 2001 may well have inspired this creature.

I don't think Rock Baboons ever made it into AD&D, 3E, or beyond. I wonder why?

Bandit: Here's our first human 'monster' in the list. As it says, they are NPC thieves, and can have an NPC leader of any character class, of at least level 2. One thing they don't say is whether the single hit die should be a d4 as the Thief class. Another is if these guys can use Thief Skills and Backstab. They're easier to run if they don't, but it would be interesting to try and run a non-combat encounter with bandits who try to pick the pockets of the PCs. Or if the PCs have a locked door they can't open, maybe negotiate with the bandits in room 21 to get them to try and pick the lock...

Bat (Giant, Normal): This is the first entry that contains multiple stat blocks for variations of the same monster. We get a bit of text describing bats in general, including a reminder that a silence 15' radius spell will "blind" them. Next, we get the description of normal bats (although the giant bat stat block comes first). Normal bats don't cause damage, but they can cause confusion, giving you a -2 penalty to hit and saves, and preventing spellcasting. I found this quite useful when running Ravenloft years ago. Strahd (or any vampire actually) can summon normal bats, and shut down the party's spells while still able to use his own.

Giant bats are bigger and more likely to attack (as they are carnivores instead of insectivores). One thing I love is the note that 5% of all giant bats are giant VAMPIRE bats, whose bite forces you to save vs paralysis or fall unconscious while the vampire bats suck your blood, and if they kill you in this way, you become an undead creature, possibly a vampire if you have the rules for them in the Expert Set. I'm pretty sure I use vampire bats a lot more than 5% of all giant bat encounters, because they're fun monsters. I've never managed to turn a PC into an undead, though, that I can remember. One of these days...

Bear (black, brown, polar, cave):  Ah, bears in D&D. They've all got that deadly "bear hug" ability, where if both claw attacks hit the bear hugs for an extra 2d8 damage. For Basic or lower Expert level characters, that's DEADLY! Even for the smallest, the black bear, whose claws only do 1d3 each, that's minimum 4 damage and maximum 22, with an average of 12. And cave bears get really scary, minimum 6, maximum 32, and an average of 19. And none of that is considering whether the bite might hit, too! Well, as a wise man once said, "Sometimes you eat the b'ar, sometimes the b'ar eats you."

The cave bear is the first instance of a prehistoric real-world animal in the rules. It also has an interesting note that I usually forget whenever my players encounter one. It's noted that they have poor eyesight, but a keen sense of smell, and will track a trail of blood until they've eaten if they're hungry. That would be awesome for a low level adventure! You've got this beast with hit points equal to the weaker dragons (7HD, the second highest non-dragon creature in the book) that will track you down until it's eaten, no matter how far you run...

Bee, Giant: Here we have another instance of aggressive giant insects. Bees might not always attack on sight, but the book says they are prone to, and do always attack if you approach their hive. Compared to the giant ant, the giant bee is a weakling (AC 7, 1/2 HD, 1d3+special damage, dies after one sting), but they have poison. Deadly poison. That, plus a fast flying speed make them extremely dangerous paper tigers.

I always have loved the note at the end of the description. If you can manage to survive killing an entire hive (or if you're clever smoking them out), you can take the magical honey from the hive and have a half-strength healing potion. While that doesn't make up for the danger of save-or-die giant bees, it is a good way to limit higher level PCs who want to brew healing potions. Just say they need to distill the honey as part of the potion brewing process...

Beetle, Giant (fire, oil, tiger): There are lots of different giant beetles in different editions of D&D, but the three here make a good grouping. First, the good old fire beetle isn't especially aggressive, but players are likely to want to seek them out because of the glowing glands they have. If you can snag a fire beetle gland or three, you don't need to worry so much about running out of torches or lantern oil and being eaten by a grue.

Oil beetles are kinda nasty, because when they attack they spit burning oil on you, which gives you penalties until you get a cure wounds spell (which will not then cure hit points) or until 24 hours pass. In later editions, this isn't such a problem. Hell, even in 1E, most Clerics are gonna be rocking multiple spells at 1st level. Not so here, where your Cleric needs 1500 XP just to be able to cast one spell a day. And if you prepare CLW, and need to choose between healing hit points or removing blisters, that's an interesting situation for the players. The text seems to imply that the beetles each only shoot the oil once, but it's not explicitly stated. Still, with 1-8 appearing in a dungeon encounter, and 2-12 in the wilderness (or a lair), that's still potentially a lot of oil splurting out.

Tiger beetles don't have any special abilities, but they do have slightly better AC, 3 instead of 4, and they have a bite that deals 2d6 damage, which can be nasty.

I should probably check this, because I don't think there's a mistake in my print copy (at home now, I'm at work on my lunch break right now), but the PDF version has the names of the tiger and oil beetles mixed up on the stat blocks. Or maybe I realized the mistake and penciled in the correction. If I remember, I'll check when I get home.

Berserker: Good old berserkers. I love these guys. They have normal reaction rolls, but if you pick a fight with them, or they pick a fight with you, they always fight to the death, sometimes attack their own allies (no rules given for that though, so in the past I've rarely had it happen...maybe give each a 1 in 6 chance each round?), and they've got a pretty good chance to hit in combat. First off, they're HD 1+1* so their base chance to hit is the same as a 2HD creature. Plus, if they're fighting humanoid opponents (like the PCs, they get an additional +2 to the attack. That's like them having an 18 Strength! Or being a 4HD creature. Their weapon damage isn't modified, though. The smart thing to do if you run into berserkers in the dungeon (or wilderness) and they don't automatically attack is to attempt to recruit them. Then go bust up some orcs or hobgoblins with their help.

Boar: Not much to say about them. The book describes them as being found nearly anywhere and being ill-tempered (yes, I just put my pinky finger against my mouth as I typed that). I like to use them as guard beasts for ogres or orcs, or mounts for goblins or kobolds, in addition to the occasional run-in with just some wild boars.

Bugbear: Sneaky, giant hairy goblins. This is the first instance where we see a monster with a bonus to surprise, to represent them being stealthy. They get a +1 bonus to hit and damage, in addition to being 3+1HD and so attacking as a 5HD monster. I usually forget they get the strength bonus to hit, but the damage bonus is listed in the stat block so I rarely forget that. My poor bugbears have been 5% less effective at hitting their targets than they should be! Need to remember that one.

Carrion Crawler: One of the nastiest creatures in the Basic Set, and yes, even when considering the dragons! There can be up to 4 in an encounter, and if they get the drop on the party, that's 8 attacks per crawler to resolve, and a save vs paralysis for each one that hits. If I just did the math right, 8 attacks by a 3+1HD creature against an AC2 opponent (plate and shield) gives them something like a 97% chance of landing at least one attack in a round. Yes, these guys can mess up your day, even if they don't deal any damage to your hit points.

Cat, Great (mountain lion, panther, lion, tiger, sabre-tooth tiger): The great cats are fun, if played as described, because they "will avoid fights" (p. 27) and may be likely to simply follow and observe the party, rather than just attacking. It doesn't say it, but there's a chance then of trying to tame them (for reference, the Animal Trainer specialist NPC in the Expert set is seen training a tiger). However, the last sentence of the general notes on them mentions that they always chase fleeing prey. Once they decide to eat you, you're in trouble!

Mostly there's not a lot to say, but there is one interesting thing. Usually great cats aren't found in dungeons, but it says mountain lions (the lowest HD cat) is the most willing to go deeper into dungeons. But that explicitly goes against the whole risk/reward level system of monsters of usually appropriate level on each dungeon level. Well, best not to think too hard about this one.

Sabre-tooth tigers are the second prehistoric beast presented, and they are also the highest hit-die creature in the set, aside from the dragons. Still, most sabre-tooth vs. dragon fights are going to go to the dragon, thanks to breath weapons. The cave bear, maybe if it gets initiative and bear hugs and bites the dragon, might have a chance. The carrion crawler with initiative might take any of them, though...

Centipede, Giant: Giant centipedes aren't really all that big, only a foot long. Also, they don't do damage with their bite, only deliver a poison -- and this is the first instance of a non-lethal poison in the rules. The poison just makes you sick and unable to do much except move slowly (so like many real world poisons in a way). These are more of a nuisance "might end the adventure early" monster than a threat to your life. So, put them in dungeons/adventures when the mission is time sensitive!

Doppelganger: Another monster I like a lot, but once you've gotten halfway experienced players who've run into two or three, it can make it hard to pull off. They start expecting every NPC in the dungeon to be one. It's interesting to note that they are explicitly immune to sleep and charm spells, and this is the first instance of a creature saving as a Fighter of double their level due to their magical nature.

Well, I guess I did find something to say about each of these monsters. Next post in the series, Dragons. They deserve a post all to themselves, since they're such a big part of the game.


  1. Rock Baboons not in Moldvay.
    Bat Giant/normal.
    Grizzly AC

    Interesting idea about the Rock Baboons. They don't really resemble real apes at all, in the movie, so you could call them baboons as well as any other kind. Maybe the monolith could be discovered – if played to your thought.
    Rock Baboons doesn't feature in the Moldvay Basic, so they are new to this set.

    In my two PDF versions of Mentzer (download from before I could buy it, and legal copy when Wizards made it available) I've not only the beetles messed up, but also the Bats. The stats for the giant ones are under the normal ones. I can't remember if the Danish print version had this problem. Anyway, it's odd that Wizards haven't fixed it in their PDF editor.

    An interesting thing is that the Grizzly Bears stats are different from Moldvay Basic while the three other Bear types remain un-altered with a slight exception for the Cave Bears that save as fighter: 3 in Moldvay, but Fighter: 4 in Mentzer.
    Here are the stats that are different for the Brown Bear:
    Moldvay ___ Mentzer:
    AC: 6 ___ 8
    Damage: 1-4/1-4/1-8 ___ 1-8/1-8/1-10
    Save: Fighter: 2 ___ Fighter: 4
    Morale: 8 ___ 10

    So AC got worse, but damage, save and morale got better. I wonder if it's to conform to some other product, like Advanced, but have yet to check.

    This series of posts are super. Keep on going – with my free entertainment… :)

  2. Yeah, my PDF has the names switched. I may have just forgotten to mention it when I wrote up the post. The monster section seems to have the most editing errors of any section of Basic, maybe because they got professional editors to go over the manuscript instead of gamer/editors?

    But yes, the Bat section has "Giant" listed over the stats for normal bats, and "Normal" listed over the stats for giant bats.

    Interesting changes in the Brown Bear. Thanks for pointing them out.

    And also, glad you're enjoying these posts! More coming soon (but not today, too many student writing assignments to check/grade today).

  3. Quick note. Rock Baboons IS in Moldvay p.B41. I made a mistake on that one. Just a detail - sorry.