(This is the first in a (hopefully long and storied) series of posts about tabletop RPG (OSR, D&D, and D&D-adjacent) game design. Today I’ll be introducing a new monster. In part two I’ll talk a bit about the problem of spells and abilities (like charm, sleep, etc.) that take control away from players, and how I deal with it in my games.)
A fungus-colonised bear with the power to control minds with its spore-laced pheromones.
Disposition: Driven by the biological urge to infect new hosts with its spores.
-> if successful: Driven by the biological urge to protect its newly infected ‘children’
Armour: as Chain
Hit Dice: 5
Speed: as human
– Claw Attack x 2 (1d4, 1d4)
– Slam Attack + Pin Target (make an Instinctual* saving throw or take 1d8 damage,
and be grappled + knocked prone)
– Fungal Pheromones (see below)
At a distance the Bearomone looks just like a regular bear. Or rather, a regular bear with a somewhat strange and distended head. A closer look reveals that it has no head. In its place is a mass of sickly-red tendrils, each the length of a child’s arm.
These are the mature fruiting bodies of a fungus that has colonised this poor bear’s skull, broken down every useful protein, lipid, and mineral it could find, and transformed the body into a Bearomone. The fruiting bodies are covered with a sickly-sweet black slime, and are absolutely full of infectious spores.
Its degenerated neural pathways cause the Bearomone to move erratically, as if being puppeted by a thoroughly distracted host. Upon initial infection, it ceases to hunt—instead adopting a purely saprotrophic diet of decaying plant and animal matter. However, it maintains its highly territorial nature, and will stalk and try to infect (and failing that, kill) any animal or sapient creature it stumbles across.
(A Bearomone can be a one-off encounter, or can be used as a part of/an introduction to a particularly fungus-infected/cursed area: gross swamp, gross forest, cursed gross forest, etc.)
In combat, a Bearomone barrels into the midst of a melee, ideally waiting to release its Fungal Pheromones attack until it is within 5 feet of at least two opponents.
Fungal Pheromones: The Bearomone violently shakes its body, releasing a cloud of spores. All targets within 5 feet must make a Mental* saving throw or be charmed into believing the Bearomone is their mama bear (charmed targets can repeat this save at end of each of their turns to break free). Charmed targets will fight to the death to protect their new mother, even against former allies. Likewise, the Bearomone will fight to the death to protect its new children.
Any successful saving throw grants immunity. Characters who are still charmed upon the Bearomone’s death are immediately returned to their senses, but experience an unbearable sense of loss for ten or so seconds.
Outside Fungal Pheromones, it will favour its claw attacks, preferring to attack anyone that happens to target one of its newly infected ‘children’.
If (a) it begins to lose the fight badly, or (b) it identifies one of its opponents as its biggest threat (DM can choose randomly if no character stands out), it will attempt to use its Slam Attack + Pin Target on that opponent, risking opportunity attacks to reach distant foes.
What is it doing when the players find it?
roll a d6:
1 = Stalking a group of hunters/goblins/(whatever works in your setting)
2 = Stalking the players
– (d3: 1 = stealthily, 2 = stealthily, but with an overbearing smell of rot, 3 = extremely
un-stealthily—stumbling blindly into trees and wetly slurping at nothing)
3 = Awkwardly gamboling about with its new ‘children’, but alert
(a deer and three ragged stoats (all of their heads already partly colonised by fungus))
4 = Standing over a rotting human corpse
(wailing mournfully through its non-mouth, and nudging it occasionally)
5 = Feeding on a fallen, rotting log, oblivious to the players
(loud and wet, sounds like a dog drowning)
6 = Currently pinning down a wailing hunter, attempting to infect him/her
(letting globs of honey-slick spores drip into their mouth)
The poor thing’s senses are a bit muddled: if it seems particularly distracted, let the players get away/get the drop on it. If not sufficiently distracted, give it a chance to notice them (stealth check for players, etc.).
In my games: I’ve used the Bearomone to interrupt (and cause general chaos during) a fight between the players’ party and a group of goblin hunters. Its ability to turn targets on both sides of a fight into its allies brought a real sense of dynamism to an otherwise ordinary fight, and led to an ad hoc player-goblin alliance that ended up having major consequences later on down the road.
Loot, Components, etc.
Being a bear, it is penniless and carries no loot. However, characters trained in alchemy will recognise the central mass of the fungus (below the fruiting bodies—buried somewhere between the bear’s neck and sternum) as a valuable alchemical ingredient:
– Can be brewed (two other ingredients required (humours: Rheum, Blood)—at least one of them rare) into a potion of mass charm (splash range: 10ft, effect as Fungal Pheromones ability listed above).
– Extremely rich in the Lochia humour (the humour of motherhood, protectiveness, and empathy).**
– Can be sold for good money, but only to alchemists/similar. Don’t try to flog it at the nearest pawnshop.
* in my game system, there are four saving throws: Physical, Mental, Preternatural, and Instinctual. Substitute for the following: D&D 5e = Dex save, a Pathfinder = Reflex save, most OSR games = Paralysis/Breath Attack/whatever seems to make sense, I dunno.
** more on my alchemy system in a future blog post.