The moment you start to describe the monster in your game I snap my fingers, shout ‘Ah-hah!’ and locate it in Monster’s Manual. Now everyone at the table knows everything about your creature. Now we can math it out, by the numbers, and plan how to defeat it.
You begin describing a magical effect–I already know what spell it is, what it’s maximum range is, and how far I need to sprint away.
You introduce a new town, but I’ve already read the companion modules and I know all of Duskvale’s secrets.
You tell us a riddle, I look it up online.
You give us a puzzle, I break it.
You place a ward, I dispell it.
Hello, my name is Joe, and I’m that know-it-all asshat who ruins your game because I’m waaayyy too invested in the online literature surrounding it. I can ruin the puzzles, spells, and traps for the whole party. And that’s if I’m the only nerd with too much disposable time at the table. God help you if everyone is an uber-geek like me. Say goodbye to surprises in your game, unless you plan to write the entire campaign from scratch without using any of the manuals.
Alternatively, if you want to throw a curve-ball at the party that would never, ever show up in a D&D companion book, novel, or manual, do what I do. Read up on exotic diseases and infections which, at first blush, sound exactly as magical and strange as a D&D spell. Diseases like…
5) Godly Tumors
There’s a special spot on the human body where, if touched just right, you’ll hear god. No, I’m not talking about your dangly bits. I’m talking about the parietal region, aka the upper rear lobe of the brain.
It seems we humans were designed with more than a few quirks where our gray matter is concerned. A handful of people over the years have begun hearing the voice of God, or experienced bouts of religious ecstasy, only to learn from their doctors that a virulent cluster of cells has given them an antenna to the heavens. Incredibly, one of these godly tumor victims was a nun, who struggled with the idea of lancing out her newly-grown walkie-talkie to the Big Man.
Turn this tumor into a feature of your game. How magical would it be, to have a deity suddenly start speaking directly to one of the players? How quickly would they assume it was a Sending Spell, or Whisper, or an actual demi-god?
Just try to be merciful when you spring this on them. If your game ends with a doctor-patient consult giving the Barbarian 2 weeks to live, things can get grim real fast.
4) Parasites & Powders That Create Zombies
For anyone who saw the 1988 film Serpent in the Rainbow you may already be aware of Tetrodotoxin. AKA Puffer Fish and Triggerfish toxin. Some Haitian Voodoo practitioners claim they can mix the toxin into an alchemic powder that will first paralyze then partially revive the victim, leaving them in a permanent near-comatose state. If everything goes well (which it rarely does) these walking, eating, breathing shadows of their former selves are then used as mindless mannequin trophies–to demonstrate the power of the Voodoo practitioner to the community.
Or, if you don’t feel like giving the players an easy villain like a Voodoo priest, how about the fungus that turns ants into plague-spreading zombies; Ophiocordyceps Unilateralis. AKA Zombie Fungus (and no, I’m not making that nickname up)
O. Unilateralis has been gaining popularity on the internet over the past few years. In short, the ant accidentally encounters the nasty fungus’ spores while foraging. The fungus then spreads to the brain, hijacking its central nervous system, and forces it to climb onto a grass stalk and latch on. Once the ant is high above the ground it dies, still attached to the stalk. Next the fungus erupts from the ant’s skull like a giant demon horn, which turns it into a spore factory. Spores then rain down on any ants passing below. It’s basically the world’s worst birthday pinata. Imagine the conversation in-game…
“Grog, what the shit, man? Why are you climbing a mountain that clearly has a dragon circling it?”
“Also, we’ve been meaning to ask about the giant fuzzy horn coming out of your skull. It’s not an Orc thing, is it…?”
3) Insects That Pilot Other Creatures Like Mech Suits
The Emerald Cockroach Wasp or Jewel Wasp (which already sounds like a D&D monster) has a neat trick when it comes to finding food for its young. Every stage of this trick, however, is a terror movie shitshow for its victim; the common cockroach.
Stage 1: The Jewel Wasp lands on the cockroach and delivers two very precise stings into the roach–at its ganglia. This paralyzes the poor cockroach, but only temporarily. Think Shelob and Frodo from LOTR.
Stage 2: The Jewel Wasp chews half of the cockroach’s antenna off. Both of them.
Stage 3: The Jewel Wasp grabs onto the damaged antenna and yanks it like a joystick, piloting the half-paralyzed cockroach to its burrow. There, in the dark, it lays an egg in its abdomen and buries it alive. Seriously nature? Seriously?
Even I’m not cruel enough to inflict a humanoid-hunting version of the Emerald Cockroach Wasp on my players without ample warning. I’d hang a sign outside a swamp that reads “Warning; Giant Jewel Wasp may paralyze you, plunge its hooks into your spinal cord, and pilot you back to its cave to feed its young. Consider using a detour.”
2) Lethargy & Cutaneous Larva Migrans (Hookworm)
In Manga and Anime there is a trend of displaying bizarre, almost fractal-like patterns on the skin of cursed characters, to display outward signs of demonic possession. Like Ashitaka from Princess Mononoke, or Lord Emo from Naruto. But what if I told you this could happen to you? Like, today. Except instead of having a curse put on you by an angry spirit, all you need do is stand too close to a pile of human excrement.
Hookworm is a fun beast that hangs around in damp dirt and loam. But it especially loves human shit in trenches of dirt or open ground. You see hookworm, once hatched, can crawl about 6 feet before it gets exhausted and dies. You might have noticed that the pits under outhouses are also dug down 6 feet. This is not a coincidence.
If hookworms are accidentally ingested (say, at a picnic near a septic tank) they can wreak utter havoc on your intestinal track, causing anemia, protein deficiency, coughing, wheezing, fever, vomiting, etc. Pretty much every symptom of illness in the book, which makes diagnosing the cause doubly difficult. Plus, it’s a parasite, so no healing potion would touch that.
Or if you’re unlucky enough to have them embed into your skin and set up shop, you get what the scientific community has horrifyingly dubbed “creeping eruption,” where they burrow and channel through cutaneous tissue, as seen in the picture above.
Just let that phrase, creeping eruptions, sink in for a while.
1) Ergot Poisoning & Hallucinations
For anyone who hasn’t heard of ergot poisoning and its effects, strap in, because this one is ripped straight from a mindflayer’s dream journal.
Ergot is a fungal growth that can spread through grain, rye, and wheat stores, mostly during damp or winter conditions. When consumed it can cause convulsions in the victim, or gangrenous sores that spread through the extremities, eventually leading to tissue loss. But even stranger; ergot can give give its victims mind-shredding hallucinations and paranoid delusions, like a naturally occurring LSD.
The picture above is from an event known as the Munster Rebellion of 1535. It’s suspected that mass ergot poisoning may have encouraged the Anabaptists, a newly formed Christian reformation sect, to lose their goddamn minds and take over the entire city of Munster. First they pillaged and murdered anyone who wasn’t chill enough to chat with god like them. Later they fortified the city and resisted the Vatican army, which lay siege to Munster, until the Anabaptist leader/priest charged the Pope’s army alone, high as a kite, wielding a broadsword. The Vatican army cut his ass to pieces.
In modern American terms this would be like if the Waco Texas siege had ended with the religious fanatics straight up taking over Waco, forcing its citizens out, and turning the entire city into their private mind-tripping sex-having playground.
Ergot specifically gives its victims hallucinations that are religious in nature. The Salem witch trials were suspected of being, at least in part, due to ergot-infused grain.
So the next time your party strolls into a new town and starts hitting on the bar wench, have her point at the PC’s and accuse them of making compacts with the devil. Have everyone in town act like they got into Hunter S. Thompson’s drug stash and couldn’t care less about the consequences. Mind control, the players will assume. Black magic. Demonic possession. They’ll drive themselves nuts trying to learn why the town is crazier than a bicycling made of babies. Meanwhile they’ll get hungry. Maybe they’ll sample some of the wheat ale, or dwarven bread, or rye pudding. And suddenly, after a few meals, they too might have the urge to burn someone at the stake for heresy.
“Meh, they would have arrived at this anyway…”
Originally Written for Statbonus.com
All pictures, including the featured image, from Wiki Commons.