This is the first in a series of posts about monsters. I want to reinvent and retool some of them, while others I hope can be returned to their classical roots in literature and folklore. By making some changes, maybe we can make some old monsters interesting again, or at least surprising.
I’m going to start with several monsters from the Greek myths. Some of these, such as the hydra and Medusa, were nerfed and commoditized for D&D. First up is the hydra.
In the original Greek tales of the labors of Heracles, the Hydra of Lerna was a giant, multi-headed serpent representing the hopeless battle. A strong poison ran through its veins, and if a challenger cut off one of its heads, two more grew back in its place. According to legend, it was the son of the monsters Typhon and Echidna, and among its siblings were Cerberus, the Chimera and the Sphinx. These were major league monsters, not your garden-variety beasts. It took a demigod to defeat it and even then, Heracles needed help to do it.
But having only one official hydra makes it unlikely that players will ever see one. So let’s say the hydra of Lerna spawns smaller a smaller hydra when it loses a head. If you ever saw John Carpenter’s The Thing, you remember the scene where the Thing is under attack while still mostly in human form. The head detaches itself, sprouts legs and walks away. Let’s say that the smaller hydrae come from severed heads of the original. These heads burrow, slither or otherwise try to escape rather than attack. These heads would be very vulnerable until they grow into the body of a smaller hydra. If that hydra could in turn also spawn smaller hydrae when their heads are severed, we have the option of creating smaller and smaller hydra.
Perhaps there’s some form of psychic link between the child hydrae and their parent. The new, smaller hydra will remember what the spawning head experienced, perhaps even seeking out an enemy for revenge. Hydra might retain a telepathic link with the hydra from which is spawned in combat, and can be commanded by its “parent” when within one mile. I’d also want to make the original hydra able to send out a telepathic message to all living hydrae of any size.
All hydrae should be poisonous. The smaller varieties might have only a poison bite, while the larger ones might have a breath weapon and a permanent cloud of poisonous gas around it. The big kahuna should have poisonous/acidic blood. One note on poison: I don’t usually go for the save-or-die poisons. I like to give lots of damage, even over an extended period of time, but I don’t do save-or-die. That’s just how I roll.
The heads of a Hydra can be cut or bashed off, but care must be taken to burn the stump within 2 rounds. On the third combat round, the two new heads will have finished growing. The new heads are stuck together on one stump for the next few days, until the neck splits and allows them to be separate.
No. Encoutnered: Unique
Alignment: Chaotic or Chaotic Neutral
Movement: Body 60’ (20’), Heads 150’ (50’) up to maximum length of neck (typically 1/3 are 100′ long, 1/3 are 80′, 1/3 are 40′)
AC: 0  (heads), 6  (body)
HD: 40 HP/Head, Infinite for body
Attacks: 1 bite/head (as 20 HD Monster)
Breath 8 times/day as chlorine gas breath weapon
Poisonous gas cloud surrounding beast
Bite 2-20 + poison (1-8 hp/round)
Breath weapon as dragon—HP of all heads combined as damage, save for half
Poison gas cloud 1-8 hp damage/round save vs. poison for half damage
Poison blood spashes all characters within 10 feet of head when severed or near fresh stump until cauterized. 1-8 hp damage, save for half. Erodes magic armor, weapons, shields and items -1 per 2 rounds unless blood wiped or washed off (items may save to avoid).
Save: Fighter 18
Hoard Class: DM Discretion
This is the original Hydra of Greek legend. It appears as a multi-headed snake, although in some accounts it has legs and the body of a reptile. It’s body is immortal and unkillable, as is one of its eldest head. Heracles himself could do no more to this last head than wedge it between some rocks after killing the other heads (and cauterizing the neck wounds).
The DM will need to decide how many heads it has and how intelligent it is. If it is weak from a recent defeat, then it will have little treasure and perhaps is not that smart. If it is strong and has faced many foolish mortals, then it will have more heads (Heracles fought nine), more intelligence and a larger number of dead bodies (and treasure) around it.
A severed head of the Lernean Hydra will immediately seek to escape into the sea, burrow into the earth or otherwise escape or hide. Within 2 weeks it will grow into a Greater Hydra. This Hydra will forever hate and seek revenge on whomever cleaved it and his or her heirs and loved ones.
The Lernaean Hydra will not tolerate the presence of another hydra on its island unless it needs to as part of a scheme or a desperate situation. It can, however, telepathically contact any other hydra within 100 leagues. It can send a short (up to 1 minute) one-way telepathic communication to all hydrae anywhere once per day. It almost never does this.
The longer a blade has been near the Lernaean Hydra, the more likely it is to have a permanently poisonous or acid dripping blade. The Lernaean Hydra’s poison is the poison from which all venoms have come. It is not negated by magic. Some assassins worship this hydra for its gift of poison to the world.
The Lernaean Hydra takes its name from the island of Lerna, where it supposedly lived. It eats entire schools of large fish, whales and other large sea beasts, but it does not need to eat often. No one is quite sure whether the separate heads are separate minds or part of one mind.
If this version of the Hydra seems unbeatable in ODD/Basic/LL/S&W terms, then I’ve done my job right. As with all things I post, please feel free to tinker, playtest and let me know what you think.
Greater Hydra to follow.