Sunday, April 08, 2007

Writing Monsters I: Huecava

Artwork by Justin Cherry. Used without permission.
More of his derranged monsters can be found at
Dear god, visit it with care. There's some damaged stuff on there.

DISCLAIMER: If you wrote the Huecava monster for WOTC, I apologize now if my post offended you. I'm not judging your skills as a writer, but rather the design of the creature. It was a convenient candidate to talk about this, but certainly not the most inane monster in this catagory.

Let me begin.
It was a dark night. Really dark. I mean you couldn't even see the black, it was that dark. And all around the darkness swallowed the otherwise empty blackness of everything.
Oh nevermind. Here's something to read:

In my opinion, there are five different ways in which a monster gets written by a game writer.

Version 1. Draw unreal creature from real mythology. Pegasi, Unicorn, Chimera, and so on. Sometimes these creatures look kick-ass in D&D form (newest version of Chimera and Manticore come to mind). Other times -- the flying horses for instance -- the creatures are just silly and lack any real potency.

Version 2. A creature is just plain dumb and seems to be made out of necessity instead of imagination. Magmin and Kuo-Toa come to mind. Belkar and Phatom Fungus are equally silly. The Monster Manual sequels are filled with many more.

Version 3. A beast made up of things beyond imagination. Aberrations come to mind. Anything from the imagination of Jim Pavelec. His brain is filled with many a beast that I would never have thought up. Check out his new books. Creepy.

Version 4. Slap two words together and make something from it. Night Hag, Plague Gaunt, Shadow Mastiff, and anything from the White Wolf Monster Compendium. This is one of my personal favorite ways to make monsters, but I'll get to that later.

Version 5. The final version is to take something people are familiar with (a skeleton, zombie, etc.) and change it somehow. Sometimes INCREDIBLE ideas come out of this. Usually, it's just dumb. The idea that comes to mind (mostly due to OOTS bringing this creature to my attention) is the huecuva.

Let me show you what I mean.
Huecuva are the undead spirits of clerics who were unfaithful to their faith and turned to evil before death. As punishment, their god condemned them to roam the earth as an undead creature.

Huecuva resemble robed skeletons and are often mistaken for such creatures.
Add in their special abilities of disease and change self and you have a weird jumble of ideas.

So. The question I have to ask, is why?

This is very close to be a version 3 monster, but it's not. And here's why. The creator of this writer (I have no idea who) has chosen to take a condemned cleric (a great idea, by the way), strip off his/her flesh, give him/her change self, and add in a disease ability. Because I only have the SRD material on this creature, I have to ask... why?!?!

Why would you take this magnificent starting point and then make it look.... just like a skeleton?!?

From an art perspective, that's boring... and a little trite. I won't bother listing the number of creatures that "look like skeletons," but there's three of them in the first Monster Manual... and one of them IS a skeleton.

Secondly, why does this creature have change self? Three times per day as a 10th-level sorcerer? For a CR 3 creature. That means no matter what, the creature is going to look anyway the DM wants and the level 3 PCs probably won't be able to see through it.

So. You now have a creature entry in a book that looks like a skeleton, can take any form, and ... gives disease to others?!?! Why does a condemned priest give disease? Wouldn't it grant negative levels? Reduce Charisma through boils and hemorrhaging?

In an attempt to take something ordinary, a skeleton, more interesting, the writer has added a jumble of abilities that one could generate with a dart board and a d34. The premise is off the chart good... but the application is much like factory farming... yeah... I like bacon... I just prefer it to injest it without an additional 100 or so antibodies.

Now. I can say, I'm sort of guilty of this myself. In my time at AEG I've taken a monster written by a writer and added ONE THING to give it a little twist. Sometimes, poorly.

But this is a creature by WOTC, for which there is an art director, a team of R&D folk, and a million checkpoints between conception and publishing. How did it get passed the editorial staff that this was ANOTHER picture of bone?!?!


Because, I'm not a complete jerk, I offer you, my version of the Huecuva. And I recognize that this is A LOT of creative license, but this is just off the top of my head in 15 minutes. If I were working in a studio, I could bounce these ideas off someone like Kevin Wilson or Robert Schwalb.

This artwork is by William O'Connor, for the World's Largest Dungeon.
It too has been used without permission.
More of O'Connor's work can be found


Medium-Size Undead
Hit Dice: 3d12 (21 hp)
Initiative: +6 (+2 Dex, +4 Improved Initiative)
Speed: 30 ft.
AC: 17 (+2 Dex, +5 natural)
Attacks: Claw +4 melee
Damage: Claw 1d4+2 and disease
Face/Reach: 5 ft by 5 ft/5 ft
Special Attacks: Agony
Special Qualities: Undead, domain, sorrow, damage reduction 10/+1, turn resistance +2
Saves: Fort +1, Ref +2, Will +4
Abilities: Str 14, Dex 14, Con –, Int 4, Wis 12, Cha 10
Skills: Hide +6, Listen +6, Spot +6
Feats: Improved Initiative
Climate/Terrain: Any land and underground
Organization: Solitary, gang (2-4), or pack (5-10)
Challenge Rating: 3
Treasure: Standard
Alignment: Always chaotic evil
Advancement: 3-6 HD (Medium-size)

Huecuva are the undead spirits of clerics who were unfaithful to their faith and turned to evil before death. As punishment, their god condemned them to roam the earth as an undead creature.

No two huecuva are the same. Most look as they did in life, but with their flesh mangled and scarred by a thousand years of flaggelation and torture.

Huecava are haunted by the memories of their failures in life... and the afterlife. It does not think in the same manner a human would. It's method of attack is to use its claws, raking and slashing at its opponents. It attacks relentlessly, but often changes tactics mid-stream, for no apparent reason.

If confronted by a cleric (or a cleric attempts to turn or rebuke a huecuva and fails) a huecuva directs all attacks at him (and those defending him) until either the cleric or huecuva is slain. In such an instance, the huecuva ignores all other opponents.

Agony: Those struck by the hand of huecava feel the concentrated anguish of the beast's own torment. Every time an opponent suffers damage at the hand of a huecava, he must succeed at a DC 14 Will save or be stunned for 1 round. When a huecava delivers a critical hit, the opponent also becomes shaken (if the save fails).

Domain: Huecava's are cursed by the god they once served. Sent to the earth to teach others the failing of the faithless, they are granted one domain power as determined by the god they once served.

Sorrow: A huecava is constantly tormented by his condemnation. As such, it is nearly immune to the will of others. It has, after all, been condemned by the gods. A huecava gains a +4 to all Will saves. This bonus increases to +6 when saving against an effect produced by a cleric.

Undead: Immune to mind-influencing effects, poison, sleep, paralysis, stunning and disease. Not subject to critical hits, subdual damage, ability damage, energy drain, or death from massive damage. Huecuva have darkvision with a range of 60 feet.

Artwork by Rich Burlew (from OOTS).
It has been used without permission, but more as an homage, than anything else.
Let me know if you can't find the Order of the Stick online.


Richard said...

One of the things that have always drove me crazy about D&D was the tendency to go overboard when it comes to monster creation. There just seems to be too many. Still, I realize that with Colonial Gothic, I included monsters, but I really tried to limit myself to what would fit the setting and the tone. I did not want to go crazy with the monsters, and the main reason is that for me, the best monsters make humans who do dark deeds.

I liked your new take on the monster btw.

jim pinto said...

I think monsters should be thematic. The terrasque, for instance, is just inane. The bodak and mohrg, however, are incredible ideas... although the bodak looks too sci-fi-ish.

If D&D were a board game (and it is slowly becoming one), then monsters don't need themes. You can plop a giant fig of a BRUTE down and have it do whatever you want. Boils on its skin that shoot lava? Okay. Razors for hands? Okay. Tooth decay? Okay.

But if you put down a fig of a dragon, it better breath fire. That fire can be napalm or smoke and ash, but it better follow the conditions we all believe a dragon comes from.

We don't need a backstory for it (or any fig in the board game), but if it's a dragon, it better be a DRAGON.

See that word is in the title of your game.

But when you take time out to write up a background for a Huecava that includes heavenly damnation, hell yeah.... that thing BETTER have a theme.

And better have more than 2 hit dice.

And it better cast some spells.

And no two should be the same... UNLESS... the PCs are fighting a dozen of them (all dead followers of the Cardinal Huecava)... to get to the bad ass Huecava at the back of the army raining fire and lightning down on the PCs.

Roane Beard said...

If the only thing you had changed was "It will attack clerics in favor of all other targets" you'd have a stronger monster right out the gate. Crazy what a theme will do.

The other changes are great, though. They make me want to run an adventure around solving the mystery of the boil faced peasants and destroying the hecueva cult.