Supervermin! Making Old Hat Critters Fun Again

From Ian Winterbottom

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0247

A Brief Word From Johnn

D&D Turns 30

This is old news, but D&D’s celebrating it’s 30 year anniversary this year. What’s notable is all the mainstream press attention the game is getting. I think back to the 25th anniversary, and there was much less industry fanfare and barely a mention in the news. I think public exposure, education, and acceptance is great for our hobby. I also feel that this milestone and the positive press it’s getting will help many parents make better informed decisions when deciding about allowing their children to play.

Also, as happened in the 80’s and 90’s, the latest resurgence of D&D with the 3.x version is starting to spawn new games and ideas within the industry. I have no data to back this up, but I think that a certain percentage of new gamers brought into the hobby start to look for other experiences and other rules systems after playing D&D for a few years. 3.x has been out since 2000, and we’re definitely seeing new RPGs on the market–and not just under the d20 license.

Happy birthday D&D.

The Myste Cryk Campaign turns 4

We had our 4th session of my Birthright campaign last week. There’s one more session planned for 2004 and then we’re taking a Christmas break. It’s so much fun GMing again!

One experiment that has worked successfully is using a desk at the head of the game table. I have an old, old desk from my grandfather and I’ve t-boned it to the table the players sit at. At first, I thought this might create too much distance between the players and myself. However, that’s not the case.

The desk is great. It gives me drawers to store stationery and books, typewriter boards to stack books on during play, and a huge GMing space free from player meddling.

Roleplaying Tips Weekly Turning 250

Speaking of milestones, in a few issues this e-zine will hit #250. I’m thinking of doing some kind of special issue but haven’t come up with a good idea for it. Do you have any suggestions?

Be sure to get some gaming in this week–be it in person, on your computer, online, or PBM!

Have a game-full weekend!


Johnn Four,
[email protected]

Supervermin! Making Old Hat Critters Fun Again

There comes a point in the career of every GM and every PC where orcs, the standby of the GM since time immemorial, just aren’t enough. Not even when they come mobhanded. They simply aren’t the challenge that once they were. The budding hero of second or third level actually gets bored as they fall in rows before his flashing blade, and the GM gets sick of keeping track of those dozens of one-hit-die monsters with the THAC0 of 20, queuing up obediently to attack one at a time!

On the other hand, if the GM throws the real heavy mob at neophyte PCs, vermin who can’t be harmed except by magic, require silver weapons to hit, or have such powers as level drain, petrification, paralysis, or poison, he can run out of players very, very quickly!

Enter the perfect answer to the noble hero: the new, improved Supervermin! Abounding in forgotten temple and underground passage, these nasties, beyond the scope of your normal exterminator, are the new, improved, stronger orc! In fact, these are the ones the orcs run away from! The blase players will find themselves once more facing a challenge; they can no longer afford to take victory for granted, and vigilance and careful strategy become the order of the day!

What it amounts to is the age-old favourite: surprise. Give them foes with a twist. Not just more of the same, but enemies not as easy to kill and capable of doing real damage. And keep thinking of vermin–not arch-villains–just souped-up pests. We don’t really want to kill the PCs, just terrify them!

Here are a few ways of doing just that.

Make ‘Em Smarter

To begin with, try adding intelligence. Make your next vermin smarter than the average rat:

  • Coordinated attacks: flanking, swarming of strategic PC types, holding and readying actions until the perfect moment.
  • Use of equipment: through years of exploration, plunder, and theft, your Supervermin will have built up a cache of useful equipment, such as potions, ropes and chains, books, storage, apothecary equipment, and so on.
  • Traps. Smart vermin will protect their lairs with flammable liquids in trenches, nets, pits, gravity traps, and other mean PC surprises.
  • Tricks. Many wild animals already employ tricks for self- preservation or to capture food. What would your PCs do if they spotted a “wounded” rat limping its way around the far corner? Probably nothing. They might even suspect a trick.

However, what would the PCs do if that rat seemed to have “accidentally” caught itself up in a diamond necklace? You’ve heard of wandering monsters? How ’bout wandering treasure!

And, of course, if the PCs pursue they’ll be lured into a nasty trap.

  • Attract, contain, and control other creatures. Perhaps it’s not the vermin themselves the PCs should fear in your campaign, but their pets!

Consider a smart mother rat coordinating breeding stock to keep a nearby, powerful creature well-fed and content to stick around.

  • Genetics. Haha! Give your vermin no morals and let them experiment on themselves to produce new species to serve their purposes. With a high breeding rate, these experiments could generate positive results in just a few generations.
  • If animals in your world can speak, give your Supervermin the power to communicate with the PCs. Perhaps the creatures will learn ventriloquism and trick the PCs to journey where they shouldn’t.

Would your players get unnerved if they were forced to negotiate with rats and bugs? It would be unsettling to have to make some kind of arrangement with the Larvae Queen should your Supervermin successfully put the PCs in a tight spot.

A chieftain, too, is certain to have at least a modicum of intelligence; enough to plan ambushes, lay traps, use anything he has to his own best advantage. Gone are the days of the mass, headlong charge, let alone the days of queuing up one at a time to be slaughtered! Even a plate-armoured fighter will be disconcerted to find himself peppered with arrows from the rear! And that wizard hiding at the back to be the heavy artillery is going to be surprised, isn’t he? Make them think on their feet.

Battle in confined spaces, or at some other disadvantage. Think about cliff paths, dizzy heights, swamps, and tunnels. Imagine the PCs in a fighting retreat where they must decide whether to give up the protection of that narrow doorway to face overwhelming numbers.

Make ‘Em Bigger

Large versions of beasties are often old hat, so try some real giantism. How about a giant cockroach? Not measured in inches like the real thing, but in feet? If you’ve ever seen roaches move, you’ll know they could easily be faster than humans over short distances, and they’re one of nature’s omnivores – they’ll eat anything.

What if they were also not phototropic, like moths, but photo-phobic? Suppose they hate and fear light, and suppose further that their instinct is to attack instead of running away? Next session, have your photo-phobic Supervermin attack the party’s light source (and then proceed to eat the light-bearer, of course). You might wind up with a party who are awful reluctant to carry a torch!

Imagine a 10? long beetle, a 50? tall rat, or a 1000? long centipede. These creatures don’t need to directly threaten the PCs in an isolated encounter, either. What effects would these creatures have on your game world? How would city dwellers react to an outbreak of carnivorous, 25? moths? Say goodbye to city nightlife (and say hello to another kind of nightlife :).

What would a village do if a swarm of 5 foot omnivorous locusts descended upon them in the middle of the night? Not only would their crops be destroyed, but livestock, pets, steeds, roofs, and equipment would be consumed as well.

Make ‘Em Stronger

There are other ways to increase the threat and bring back that crawly feeling up the spine. How about stronger monsters? Think about the fact that not all monsters are the same. There may be exceptional, even Levelled leaders who are much harder to kill and have heavy abilities.

Ask yourself, how did these individuals rise to leadership in the first place? Perhaps they are capable of using magic, possessing magic, or employing equipment. And if they have it, they’ll use it – not hide the stuff in a lair somewhere as loot for PCs.

Think about dusts, potions, and other magic items. Imagine an orc wearing a Belt of Giant Strength. At the very least, leaders will have better armour and weapons, and they may have powerful henchmen too. Let that big dumb ogre swap his club for a nice shiny double-bitted axe that does the damage of a halberd! Think “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”!

How about some Dust of Invisibility sprinkled liberally over swarm of scorpions just as they’re about to drop down on the PCs from above?

Increasing vermin size should will probably increase their physical strength too. Ouch. The PCs might be hard-pressed to defend themselves against super-strong Supervermin who Bull’s Rush them into pools of acid or over crevasses.

Make ‘Em Tougher

Someone came up with a beauty not long ago, the Dreadguard. This is the revenant of a turned or failed Paladin and is virtually animated plate armour whose terrifying quality is his Terminator-like invulnerability. All he does is keep on coming, and coming, and hand out – and take – punishment!

Improve the natural armour of your Supervermin. Ants might collectively only do a very small amount of damage per round when swarming a PC (and, due to their size ability to crawl under and into armour, their chances of hitting are pretty good), but if they have titanium exoskeletons, they might be hard to defeat, and so the battle becomes a race for time.

Increase the hit points and wound levels of your Supervermin. Imagine a primitive tribe of mindless, dung- eating, mud-slinging orcs. “Ha!” the PCs exclaim. “Let’s get ’em, boys.” Then imagine their faces when they figure out it’s going to take 100 points of damage to slay each one!

Send More Of ‘Em!

This idea was spawned by the Gubluns, the miniature stick figure from S John Ross’ SPARKS font of card figures from the Cumberland Games site. Cumberland Games & Diversions With card figures, the sky is the limit. You can have them coming out of the players’ ears! Even the smallest of creatures can do cumulative damage. Imagine the little blighters coming at you from all directions, front, rear, both sides, secret passages, and the roof, employing nets, ropes, pits, lassos, arrows, and the dreaded Kneecap attack – it’s as high as they can reach!

Hanging from your neck and throttling you, tripping you up unless you can save on Dexterity, dropping rocks on you. Gods help you if they stampede you into a dead end! Or cut the vital bridge?

Make ‘Em More Powerful

Another way to soup up your Supervermin is to give them just a little more power. You needn’t go mad, just use a judicious nudge. So, your Munchkin thinks he’s invulnerable? Your PCs might think they have little to fear from what looks like a wizened, skyblue monkey – until someone notices the crackling of the frozen ground under its bare feet. It’s an Icetroll, straight from the bowels of the Frozen North, and with an aura of supernatural cold about it that renders its touch akin to Paralysis. Heaven help the softhearted type who tries to pick it up and pet it!

Reverse it, and a power like Heat Metal could be disconcerting for that plate-armoured Paladin.

Look through your spells, magic items, and equipment lists for neat, small-scale trait, ability, and power improvements.

The next time you’re thinking about orcs, rats, grasshoppers, and other vermin, consider how these abilities could be used to make them more interesting – and scary:

  • Grappling hook appendage
  • Greek fire
  • Create water
  • Cure wounds
  • Charm animal
  • Entangle
  • Ray of frost
  • True strike
  • Haste

Just Add Wings

Your average adventurer is geared to expect attack from any direction except one – above! He’s looking down at the table, he isn’t expecting anything dropping on him from behind!

Creatures that can fly become three-dimensional. They can attack from any direction and can employ hit-and-run tactics. One flashing attack, such as a sting or bite, and they can take out a character, at least temporarily; and again there’s nowhere for that vulnerable wizard to hide!

Even small creatures can have cumulative damage, sucking blood or the like; while if they are something like the flying monkeys from Oz, with missile weapons, they go from a nuisance to a menace in one swift jump. Attacks from the air by flying creatures, or nets or rocks dropped from above, might be still more terrifying – they don’t have to hit anyone, so long as the players think they might?

What else could Supervermin drop on the PCs? Boxes of scorpions? Jars of acid? Green slime? Confetti?

A single, larger monster can be as bad or worse than a horde. Take the solitary wasp, so called because, thank heaven, it doesn’t swarm. However, it’s a devoted mother that leaves its grub in a cave or crevice while it buzzes – literally – off to find something to eat. Imagine the party finding this loathsome giant worm, all gnashing teeth and clicking claws, and wading in full of righteous indignation to clobber it.

Covered in yuk and panting for breath, they are just congratulating each other and totaling up the XP when there is a noise like an incoming Apache gunship and Mummy comes home carrying a cow in each claw! The expression on their faces should be worth seeing.

Alternatively, think of some other direction for the problem to arrive from. Perhaps something horrid smashes up through the floor? Some tunnelling worm or other creature? Or something materialising through a seemingly solid wall? Blinking, teleporting, and phasing Supervermin would be challenging as well.

Give ‘Em Immunities

Aren’t cockroaches supposed to be able to survive a nuclear winter? Consider giving your Supervermin unexpected resistances and immunities:

  • Magic: all, divine, arcane, elf, alteration, etc.
  • Elements: fire, cold, lightning
  • Do not require air
  • Wound resistance: slashing, bludgeoning, piercing
  • Poison, disease

If you do give your critters immunities, consider how they will have incorporated this into their tactics and lairs. Perhaps your Supervermin ants fill their lair with poison gas. It’s breathable for them, but woe be to the adventurers who are charged with finding the anthill and getting rid of the local pests.

The Power Of Strangeness

Following on from the ideas above, add some other ability. You can really put the wind up your players by giving them something they’ve never met before, and particularly if you can turn one of their own against them.

Avoiding the physical, try something like my little friend the Mindsnatcher, which is a kind of octopoid beastie, resembling a set of rubbery black bagpipes. It thrives on emotion and released life force, and clinging to the roof or walls of dimly-lit dungeon corridors with the Shadowhiding ability of a high level rogue, it possesses the strongest fighter in the unsuspecting party – perhaps that noble fighter henchman, or even (shudder) the Paladin, and causes him to attack his nearest neighbour.

He can be switched off, as it were, only by subdual damage, i.e. by knocking him unconscious. Best of all, only if someone mentions that they are looking around do they get the chance to notice the true author of their misfortune.

A “relative” is the Puppet Master, originally by the late, great Robert A Heinlein, but my version animates any reasonably undamaged dead body in its neighbourhood, turning it into an impromptu Zombie; it could be just an orc, or it might be a henchman or even a PC. If you let that body out of your sight, zzzzap!

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Supervermin Examples

Meet the Underlizards

Years ago, an overconfident sorcerer’s apprentice stole a peep at his master’s spellbook while he was away. However, instead of merely enchanting a broom, this one tried some real magic.Nobody knows what he was trying to do, and he isn’t available for questioning, short of speak with dead, but his endeavours included animal growth, some sort of time- affecting spell, and a chime of hunger. What he got was one almighty bang and the equivalent of a magical black hole. He and the whole house disappeared.

Unfortunately, below the floorboards, was a nest of young lizards, and the spell backlash hit them like radioactive ooze hitting turtles. Enter the Underlizards, regressed reptiles, mini-dinosaurs roughly the size of a man. All carnivorous, always hungry, and as mean and tough as you like to make them.Cave or sewer, tunnel or ruin, they’re everywhere. They’re silent, patient, and hunt in packs. If you’re feeling really mean, put them in a confined space, such as a tunnel where the party must walk in single file, perhaps coming in from both ends.

And when the PCs are hip deep in sewage, give the lizards the ability to swim! And, of course, with a brain the size of a walnut they don’t feel pain and keep on coming. If in doubt, think Jurassic Park Velociraptor, but nastier. And if you saw Jurassic Park 2, the damn things can almost talk! Ambushes, flank attacks, cutting the party off….

Magic chest of Goblin Holding

A goblinoid figure springs from a chest the PCs have discovered and begins to lay about it with a battle-axe, hopefully gaining automatic surprise. As long as the chest is open, goblins keep coming, unless someone has the presence of mind to shut it. Could be unfortunate for the nimble-fingered thief.

Spinifex Exulana: The Psionic Rat Queen

A humongous, intelligent female rat has bred a horde of soldiers, scientists, and other vermin castes. She can communicate psychically with all her children, and within a certain radius, can see and hear what any rat is experiencing. She can also send emotive bursts to any rats within a large radius, a power that she uses to crudely direct her minions.With these abilities, she can detect incoming intruders and ready her lair for their arrival. Via a series of small tunnels dug out over the years, rat scouts are always stationed at entry points within her communication radius.

Traps, tricks, and pets have been placed along a single, non-vermin route into her lair.She has singled out potions as her primary tool. She uses her specially bred-rat hunters who can travel long distances without deviating from their mission to seek out requisite ingredients. She has made an alliance with an alchemist in the area who benefits from the steady supply of components and materials the rats scrounge up. Spinifex has a growing horde of potions now that includes a wide variety of powers, including buffs for her guards and herself in case of trouble.Her rats also make excellent spies, especially with her psychic link.

Three years ago, she moved to a new lair underneath a small city. Using potions that reduce her enormous bulk, she makes regular forays through special tunnels so she can extend her eavesdropping radius.She is fast becoming a powerful underworld figure who trades information in exchange for various services, goods, and materials. A worthy Supervermin for your campaign, perhaps.

Finally, remember that familiarity breeds contempt. If the characters know what they face, then the battle is on their terms from the beginning. Give them slightly different enemies, using some of the tricks above, or changing the appearance or habits of the enemy, to knock them off balance.

If they are getting good at recognising the enemy, change the appearance, colour, and behaviour of their adversaries so that they have no idea what they’re facing.

What about a wererat dressed in fine armour and weapons, leading a mass of “ordinary” giant rats? Perhaps key rats have been administered potions. Various traps and pitfalls manned by the Supervermin await the PCs should they flee or force back the horde. The rats’ pets also lie in wait, eager to be released by their masters: rusts monsters, a basilisk, and zombies.

November Issue of D20 Filtered Now Available

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Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Get Players In The Mood With Poetry

From Tony Den

Hi Johnn,I find that a good way to set the mood for a specific section or to give away some history of a place is to read the players some poetry – and no, I do not inflict my own verse upon them. I have had success with extracts from Coleridge (Kubla Khan and Ancient Mariner) as well as Poe’s Annabel Lee. I am sure there are many more gems out there that can be used by a skilful GM. It also gives the average bard in a tavern something to say/sing rather than “A bard is present and sings a few ballads.”

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Get Inspired By Photo Of The Day web Sites

From David Dorward

Having just spent the past few hours browsing the National Geographic website (and wishing I had broadband) I’ve come up with a tip for you:

Get inspiration from photo of the day websites.

Stuck for an NPC or an encounter location? A striking visual can make for good inspiration. Good sources for images are Photo of the Day sites:

  • Garden Spider and Web

And once you have taken your inspiration, you can show the image to your players. (Oh, and players? It works both ways. Spin your character history out of a couple of photos.)

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Focus On NPC And PC Interaction

From Neil Faulkner

I’ve learned the hard way that the one thing the GM should never do is try and tell a story. Any GM who wants to do that should put away their dice and pick up a pen to write a novel. It is the PCs who make the story out of the setting, characters, and opportunities provided by the GM. Any ‘plot’ is what has happened before the PCs arrive, and what would have happened had they not arrived.

The important thing is not to have an enthralling narrative prepared, but to have a solid grasp of the NPCs, especially their goals, their motivations, and the means at their disposal to achieve their goals. It’s the interaction between PCs and NPCs that creates the story.

If rolegaming is a nightclub, the GM is not the star turn of the cabaret. He or she is the waiter–of the kind who serves a perfect cocktail.

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Characters Are Not GM Puppets

From Ria Kennedy

(Fab — spoiler alert – do not read this!)

I had really done a couple of stinkers. I was ready to give up and then I found your site. I immediately started seeing where some of my problems were (focusing too much on skin, and not enough on skeleton) and started getting ideas for how to fix them.


Also, I started having some discussions on how to set up a campaign, what kind of character to choose for the PC, and why. I had an idea where the PC was to be a future king, and be stolen away and sent into slavery as a child by an evil sorcerer, allowing someone else to take over the throne when the current king died.

I was surprised when the player said such an idea took away the character design from him, and that it made him have to hate the people who enslaved him, when he didn’t see the character that way.

Also, he said, what would make you think I would want to be king if I had never had the chance to before? And what would make you think the people would want someone who had no experience to be king? When put that way, I had to agree, my idea was a bad one, and not fair to the character or player. As my player said, his character is NOT a character in a book, to be a puppet to the GM’s whims.

Then, I had seen on the site that someone had tricked their PCs into releasing a powerful wizard, and thought aha! That’s what I’ll do. The player demanded to know what my idea was (since I have had many bad ones lately) and thinking about it, I hinted at what would happen. When he found out it would again be about manipulating the character, he was upset.

Finally, I told him the idea, thinking then he would have to see that it wasn’t bad. He was even more upset. How would it be fair to trick a PC into releasing something that dangerous and powerful with no choice that they could avoid it? What would prevent the PC from killing the party that misled him into releasing the powerful wizard, and why should it be prevented? And, just as importantly, since my plot would revolve around making the PC release the wizard, what would happen to my plot if the PC said no? (It would go out the window, obviously.)

Put that way, I was sincerely frustrated, and horrified that I had succumbed to the dark side of PC manipulation–unfair to the player AND the character! As he said, only the NPCs should be manipulated that way, as that is really the only character the GM has control over. Let the PCs decide how to deal with the affected NPC.

We got into a deep discussion of what it would mean if a character really had NO choice and decided that the PC would have to be the main character, like Elric (the only one who could wield Storm Bringer, the Dragon Sword) or King Arthur (the only one who could pull Excalibur from the stone). It also came out in this discussion that the player really just wanted to explore Middle Earth and build up to an epic (where I had thought he wanted a huge epic ala Lord of the Rings out the door, putting a lot of pressure on me to deliver).

Finally, everything in our talk clicked and I had a plan. Let the character have many adventures. Let him explore the world and make friends and enemies as he would. Eventually, involve him in the battle of Helms Deep, along with his NPC human friend. Have that friend be (unbeknownst to the character) corrupted, and try to assassinate Aragorn.

It will come down to the character’s choice about what to do, and that one choice will forever effect the future of Middle Earth. Does he do nothing? Does he side with his long time friend, someone he has adventured with for many years, and allow him to kill Aragorn? Middle Earth will fall to Sauron.

Does he kill his friend and stop him, turning his back on friendship and living with these consequences? Does he figure out his friend is under the spell of a ring he found in a barrow, and redeem him? These are personal choices that the character will have to live with, and that will effect him deeply, having travelled with this man for so long and gone through so much with him.

In addition, the PC will have direct effect on the future of Middle Earth, which otherwise would not happen–the PC will condemn or save the world! And there is no GM-PC manipulation, absolutely none. It will be the character’s choice, however the player thinks the PC would act.

So, for those poor struggling GMs out there who think they have to do a huge scripted epic, the real thing is to give the PC a choice that will effect the future of the universe, and let them make their decision. It may come down to a series of choices, or one single moment and one critical choice. But DO NOT hinge your campaign on the PCs doing one thing in specific or making the choice you want them to– not fair and not reliable.

You may have to choose one of your players to be the main hero (ala Elric or King Arthur) or you may assign this role to the whole PC party (ala Star Wars) where everyone has to choose to do a specific thing. Just make sure that you switch the spotlight onto different players if you choose to feature one as the hero (tragic or otherwise) of your epic.

Also, my husband has an idea for how to do random encounters: pre-plan them, and drop them in as needed or wanted. That way, you can attach them to the plot (big plot or subplot) at will and have NPCs that are directly relevant to the setting and location.

And finally, we have an idea for those who tend to do talkies (like me). A roleplaying game should be mostly action. Don’t do more character development scenes than action scenes. For example, if you do 2 to 3 action scenes, do not do more than 2 to 3 character development scenes — and these should talk about what the PCs are planning to do for the most part or showcase the plot (i.e. these orcs are kidnapping people; orcs usually kill their captives; what’s going on?) This rule of thumb should keep things happening!

Thanks again for such an excellent work!


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