The second edition of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons is often not remembered fondly. The convoluted calculations THAC0 scores enforced (which all too often involved dealing with negative numbers) look arcane compared to the streamlined nature of the modern d20 system. Even throwback games tend to gloss over the bones of this edition, aiming more for emulating the theme of the game rather than the specific mechanics. However, Second Edition is what I grew up with, and I still carry around a dice bag full of nostalgia for the game.
One core rulebook in the Second Edition canon stands out specifically in my mind: the Monstrous Manual. This tome, gloriously illustrated by the likes of Tony DiTerlizzi, contains some of my favourite pen-and-paper monsters of all time. Sure, many are goofy by modern sensibilities (giffs, otyughs, and xorn come to mind), but the Monstrous Manual was the king of set piece monsters. Many creatures lacked direct combat abilities or employed tactics that whole rooms or dungeons had to be designed around. A dungeon master could flip to a random page of the Monstrous Manual and plan out a whole night’s worth of adventuring based on the one creature he stumbled upon.
In homage to this great core rulebook, I’m going to highlight three of my favourite set piece monsters from the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Second Edition Monstrous Manual.
Visually speaking, the feyr isn’t much to write home about. Looking somewhat like a beholder that’s been left in the microwave for too long, the feyr is a bulbous sphere adorned with a superfluous number of eyes, mouths, and tentacles. It’s lazy monster design at its most heinous.
The origin of feyrs is what makes them an interesting set piece monster. Feyrs are brought to life by the strong negative emotions of a large community of people mixed with wayward magical energies. These creatures will commonly spawn in the sewers and back annals of a city in strife, under siege, or grappled by oppression. Once spawned, they’ll stalk the city at night, engorging themselves on the fear of their victims.
Tasking the party with seeking out a monster who has been terrorizing a city is a classic adventure hook. By making the creature a byproduct of the city itself, it reinforces the seedy and unsavoury nature of the locale. The feyr may be easily dispatched, but what shadow must be cleared from the city to prevent more of the beasts from spawning? It’s also a great foe to drop on the hometown of a party that’s acting less altruistically than their alignment would designate.
A living wall is one of the most daunting foes in the Monstrous Manual. Another in a long list of monsters created for no damn good reason by an evil wizard, this creature is a grotesque amalgam of bones and flesh. It absorbs its victims and their equipment after defeating them, gaining additional hit points, spell-like abilities, and – most frightening of all – bonus attacks for doing so. A living wall that has absorbed ten people will attack ten times in a single round, giving it the highest potential burst damage of any monster in the Monstrous Manual.
Dropping a living wall into a random dungeon is a sure way to kill your players. The capacity for a living wall to demolish a single party member in one round and the inability to rescue a consumed comrade with anything less than a wish spell make a blind encounter completely unfeasible. Slaying a living wall is a quest in its own. A party must devote weeks to collecting the equipment and spells necessary to ensure their survival. Since the living wall is immobile, it provides the perfect opportunity for players to flex their strategic muscles; the dungeon master should reward them for thinking outside of the box.
It’s also the perfect monster to pull out on Halloween or in a gothic horror campaign. There’s little as terrifying as a wall of corpses whose engulfed victims continually murmur for help.
The zaratan holds the distinction of being the largest creature in the entire Monstrous Manual. Essentially a colossal sea turtle, the zaratan carries a small island with it on the back of its shell. Having the propensity to sleep for centuries at a time, the creature is often mistaken for a lost tropical paradise.
The zaratan is one of my favourite monsters of all time. The possibilities for storytelling here are endless. An uncivilized tribe may dwell on the zaratan’s back, worshipping it as a god. They could seek to capture the shipwrecked players and offer them as a sacrifice to their deity. Alternately a villainous group of pirates could establish a mobile base on the beast’s back. In order to foil the buccaneers’ plans, the players could attempt to rouse the zaratan from its deep slumber. The back of the zaratan is one of the most fertile settings for a quest a dungeon master could ever ask for.
Getting swallowed by a zaratan doesn’t end the adventure either. The stomach of the massive turtle is an expansive cavern. Players are able to survive for days before being digested by stomach acid, and there are often sunken ships and lost treasures (or perhaps even NPCs) sitting forgotten in the bowels of the beast. Exploring the inside of a zaratan can be an adventure in itself, as long as the players have an escape plan.