A new species of termite was discovered recently. That, in itself, is hardly news. New species are discovered all the time, and in fact, I recall hearing that there are many thousands of undocumented insect species in particular. But what makes this species worthy of note is that they explode. No, seriously. When the worker termites grow old, they can fill a cyst on their backs with toxic crystals which have been produced throughout their lifetime. Once the ‘backpack’ cyst is full, it bursts, killing both the termite, and any enemies unfortunate enough to be caught in range of his toxic explosive.
My first thought when I read about these was “Wow, all those video games with exploding insects suddenly have a lot more grounding in reality.”
The scientists who documented this find even released some brief video footage of the phenomena. It’s a little difficult to make out, and it only shows the cyst filling, not exploding. None the less, it’s a fascinating discovery, and one which prompted me to finally cover a subject which I’ve been thinking about for several months now.
Animals are strange. Exploding termites aren’t even the most bizarre creatures I’ve heard of. Did you know that many species of shark fight their siblings to death while still growing in their mother’s womb? Or that some species of hermaphroditic gastropods fight each other to determine which one of them has to be the female? And then there’s shit which just looks strange, like the soft shelled turtle. And for me, the strangest part about these creatures, is that I’ve never seen anything in a tabletop game based on them. The world is filled with potential monsters, all we need to do is make ’em big enough to eat an adventurer.
Angler Fish: I’ve linked before to The Oatmal’s excellent description of the life of a male angler fish, but I’m linking to it again, and if you haven’t read it, you should. Anglers are fascinating, and still very mysterious, creatures. You could base a dozen different monsters off of them, but here I’m specifically interested in the fact that the skin of the female absorbs the male, and uses his remains for reproduction. A Pathfinder monster could do the same thing. Except instead of luring the males of the monster’s species, the creature could instead lure male adventurers. Once their skin touches the monster’s flesh, the contact poison the beast secretes would begin to melt the adventurer, until nothing was left but his testicles. (Or, if you’d like to go more creepy and less vulgar, nothing is left but his expressionless face).
Speaking of angler fish, I just noticed…were they the inspiration for the modern design of the Beholder?
Traumatic Insemination: One of the most interesting things about animals is the way they have sex. Often that’s where the truly unique and bizarre aspects of an animal really come out. I’ve made an effort to avoid filling this list with dicks (which was not easy, let me tell you)! But this one has fascinated me for years, and it translates well to a game.
Essentially, many species of invertebrates do not have external female genitalia. Not even a Cloaca. So since there’s no opening, the male’s phallus makes one. It stabs the female in the abdomen with a sharp phallus, and that’s how insemination is handled. It’s gruesome, kinda disturbing, and a perfect way to fuck with your adventurers. I’m not saying your game should be filled with dagger-dicks (though I did once post a dick-dagger…) but why not have a prehensile blade extending from a monster’s chest, or back? The creature gets an extra attack with it, and upon scoring a critical hit, the monster implants a parasitic larva within the victim, a-la the Alien films.
The Almighty Squid Worm I really don’t have anything specific to say about this creature, or how it acts, or the abilities it has. But I marvel at it’s profoundly alien shape. These are the dreams of a mad god.
The Hagfish: Ocean life is often the most unusual. As humans, we’re at least somewhat familiar with what it’s like to live on land. Legs are a good way to get around, warmth is needed to keep our bodies functional, light is useful to help us understand our surroundings, and so on. Creatures which have adapted to living deep underwater need none of these things. And, as such, serve as perfect inspiration for game masters hoping to create interesting monsters.
The Hagfish is one such creature. For starters, it has a skull, but no column of vertebra. To my knowledge, it is the only known species where this occurs, and that is awesome. But far more interesting to potential monster-creators is its slime. Hagfish can exude insane amounts of slime which reacts with the water around it. If the Hagfish is captured, this slime can clog the gills of an attacking fish, suffocating it. And after it does so, the Hagfish needs to literally tie itself into a knot to clean itself off, restoring its own gill function.
Imagine a creature which could excrete goo which expanded into a foam capable of filling dungeon corridors. Or a giant hagfish which waited until adventurers tried to swim across its pool, only to quickly turn the water around it into a thick gooey substance which is impossible to swim through.
Elephants: A long time ago, Elephants captured the imaginations of the western world. They were huge, majestic, and interesting. And because of the way Elephants captured the imaginations of our ancestors, they had become ubiquitous by the time we were born. While we were growing up, we regularly saw elephants depicted in drawings and cartoons. Most of us even saw them up close at a zoo. I personally, find them somewhat boring.
Then I remember that they have a FUCKING THIRTEEN FOOT LONG, PREHENSILE NOSE. WHAT THE FUCK!?
It’s funny, actually, because I have a difficult time imagining a fantasy creature where such a thing doesn’t look goofy. Yet on an elephant it has a certain majesty, appearing almost regal.
Vampire Squid: Vampire is an acquired template which any intelligent creature can gain if their life force is completely drained by another vampire. But if a mer-person gains the vampiric template, surely they don’t turn into a vampire bat, right? So what do they turn into?
Based on what I’ve read, the Vampire Squid is quite unique. Its order is somewhere between that of a squid and an octopus. It is almost entirely covered in a special organ called a Photophore, which can produce light. The creature can either use a quick flash to disorient attackers, or can sustain its light for several minutes at a time. The vampire squid’s “cape” is covered in spines which, while technically harmless, look quite dangerous. When threatened, it will turn its cape inside out, making itself appear larger, and covered in dangerous-looking spines.
This post could keep going on forever. There are hundreds and thousands of creatures with unusual anatomies or abilities ripe for use crafting monsters. I’m sure the subject will come up again in the future–though someone with a better grounding in biology would probably do a much better job than I can.