Sunday, October 25, 2009

Horror Comes in Small Packages

I'm not sure about all of you out there, but it's the small things that creep me out the most. Zombies have become a 'how many cool ways can we kill them' past time. Skeletons were never very scary to begin with. Vampires get more moody as the years go by and are more annoying than frightening. Dragons are now a staple at arts & crafts shows. Not so scary. And all those goblinoids that make up the majority of the enemies in a fantasy campaign are trees waiting to be chopped down. But what about the small enemies? Enemies small enough that a sword or mace is useless. These are the enemies that crawl inside of you. Become a part of you. They cause the most horrible and agonizing deaths.

I'm talking about the Ear Seekers, small insects that search for a warm place to lay their eggs. Ears are their favorite place, but an open wound will do nicely also. While you sleep they lay 9-16 eggs and in less than a day the eggs hatch and start feast on the flesh around them.

And I'm talking about Rot Grubs. These little beauties burrow into your skin and tunnel through your body until they reach your heart. It takes1-3 turns for these grubs to finish the job giants could not do.

Here is the problem I have. In both cases the MM says both can be rid of by a Cure Disease, but neither is a disease. The PHB describes disease as a parasitic, bacterial or viral nature. Even though both would qualify as parasitic in nature I don't see as they qualify as a disease. The remedy is already give in the MM that rot grubs need to be burned off and some sort of similar thing I believe would need to be done for the ear seekers. A steady handed player with a red hot needle plunging into the infected player's ear.

These creatures are more difficult to deal with because of the harm that comes with defending oneself from them. The difficult part as a GM is using these creatures and having the possibility of having one of the players die because insect eggs in their ear. Depending on the realism you promote in your campaign this might not be an option. Heroic campaigns don't want their heroes dying from disease or infestations, but leading a battle against insurmountable odds. Not dying in their bedroll the night before the battle.

It's good to change up the expectations of the players. Any group can prepare to go against a stronghold of ogres, but have them go against the creepy crawlers and you'll see those same big badass heroes screaming like little girls running for the door.

This is a great comic from


  1. Hey Tim, good post. I have wanted to introduce some small creepy crawlies to my campaign for quite some time. The problem is I don't know how to properly referee them. I mean, the first time a player falls prey to them, the rest of the players will be like "OK, every 10 feet we stop and check for rot grubs." They will instantly try to remedy the situation, and they will be pretty skeptical if they still get rot grubs after all their hard work. It will start to shatter the DM/player contract if I keep flinging rot grubs at them despite their struggles to avoid them. But that's how rot grubs are supposed to work, right? They're insidious...

    captcha: slint

  2. I guess critters like rot grubs are like any creature, they have a habitat and that's where you can find them. If your players are sifting through garbage or an obvious unsanitary place they should be well aware of the possibilities of getting infected. They should be wary at these times and if not then there will be consequences. In that way you haven't broken your contract with the players, but rather made them aware that not everything they are going to combat comes with a sword, claw or magic.

  3. Tim - Cool article. These creatures can be used in a manner similar to oozes as a risk and bring home the importance of environment...

    @PatrickWR - You don't have to use them insidiously. I've seen more than one game use them as weapons or torture implements similar to the bore worms in the Flash Gordon movie.

  4. I've never liked the rotgrubs killing your instantly. While a rot grub or parasite could burrow into your flesh and kill you in 1 to 3 minutes and be believable...

    An arrow can burrow into your heart in 1 to 3 hundreds of a second and kill you...but the rot grub is somehow more deadly.

    This leads to then a halfway intelligent player devising the new weapon: If a rot grub is a more direct way to kill an enemy than an arrow: goodbye sling stone and hello clay pot filled with rotgrubs.

    Not that I oppose that kind of plan, I play a lot in meso america and Hornet nest throwing is part of the local warfare.

    Just because of the "can of worms" (badum ching) you open up.

    Me, That adversary and danger style is handled(Setting wise) by Pirhannas and Army Ants

  5. Tim: I guess what I'm saying is that once I mention the risk of rot grubs, the players will instantly start carrying out preventive practices, which they assume will work (old-school non-roll stuff like checking their skivvies for grubs, shaking out bedrolls, etc). I feel like a dweeb saying "OK, well after 10 minutes you feel the twinge of a rot grub burrowing into your skin. Again."