For Halloween, Jeremiah and I decided to collaborate and create a horrific monster befitting the season. The monster we ended up creating is the hannibal, a brain-eating undead worm parasite that is perfect for your spooky intrigue games. You can see the monster’s full lore and stat block here.
The process of creating the hannibal monster was a unique one. To challenge ourselves and to force us to be more creative, we decided to follow a set of restrictions which are listed below:
- The monster must be undead.
- The monster can not have legendary actions.
- The monster must have several paragraphs of lore.
- The monster must have an interesting or unique purpose.
- The monster should be able to have an adventure based around it, but not an entire campaign.
- The monster can’t be a port or rehash on any undead in another edition of Dungeons and Dragons (D&D).
This unique design process was an interesting experience for both of us. In this blog, we wanted to deconstruct the hannibal, talk about our design principles, and give an example of how it played in a one shot. We hope that by discussing our design process we will instruct you on how to best play the monster and what lessons you can learn if you want to create your own terrifying parasite.
Brainstorming the Hannibal
Out of all of these restrictions, perhaps the most interesting was the need to make a monster that could be the focal point of an adventure, but not a campaign. Because an adventure is a self-contained story or quest that players can resolve in a few sessions, we needed to create a monster that lent itself well to a short narrative story with interesting plot elements. This meant that the monster couldn’t be just a hulking beast with high damage. While such a monster makes a challenging combat, it does not make a particularly interesting story. We believed that our monster should instead be intelligent in some way, capable of creating a conspiracy or a mystery that would interest players. In keeping with Halloween, we wanted our creature to be cunning and predatory, allowing for a mirade of terrifying and horrifying plots.
Yet this restriction also mandated that the monster be for an adventure, not a campaign. This meant that the creature had to be limited in its power and that players could defeat it in a few sessions. In other words, it could not feel like the ultimate evil or big bad, it needed to be either a creature that presented an isolated, localized threat or something that adventurers could deal with while on their quest to slay something else. This meant that the creature should not have incredible mystical powers or magic, such as a lich (Monster Manual pg. 202) or mummy lord (Monster Manual pg. 227), since such powers and lore feel more at home with the end boss of a campaign.
Understanding these limitations, we brainstormed a few ideas on what we could create. We don’t’ remember all the ideas leading up to the hannibal, but we thought of many ideas, and ultimately decided they didn’t fit. Here are some of them:
- An undead creature similar to a pseudodragon or imp, that could act as a special familiar for warlocks or a wizard. However, this was scrapped, as an adventure focused on this wouldn’t be especially fun if the player wasn’t the warlock or wizard in question.
- An undead creature that would tear the limbs off of its victims and attach them to its own body. This one lead to the mechanical issue of how it would work, while also feeling a bit too overt to make an interesting adventure hook.
- An undead creature that cannibalized creatures to gain strength or other powers. This idea matched our desire for a predatory enemy that had limited and localized consequences. Yet, we recognized there are plenty of creatures that eat other creatures in D&D. We knew this idea needed to be expanded upon in a unique way. This is about the time in our planning that we transition into looking for inspiration for this creature and began fleshing out the core hannibal creature.
Although we had our concept and both loved it, designing the hannibal wasn’t a completely smooth process. We had to determine how to transition the various themes into mechanics clearly and effectively. This was a challenge as we wanted the hannibal to grow over the adventure and gain power. But, we wanted to avoid creating a situation similar to dragons (Monster Manual pg. 87), where each stage has it’s own stat block.
The first and largest obstacle was taking the idea of eating brains to gain intelligence and converting that into something mechanically interesting. To accomplish this, we had to first accept that it would be a spellcaster and that the spellcasting feature of the hannibal would be harder than normal to understand.
Typically, the monster block states what the creature’s spell save DC and spell attack rolls are. We made the hannibal different. It had a variable spellcasting ability score (Intelligence) to showcase its reliance on its host and its need to feed on victims. As such, we needed the DM to do a bit of math. Similarly, to emphasize the feeling of intelligence being gained, the hannibal gains spell levels as its intelligence increases.
We felt that this variable spellcasting feature worked well, but there was another obstacle of how the hannibal would gain and grow its intelligence to make this spellcasting feature matter. In order to gain intelligence according to our lore, the hannibal had to eat a brain. However an ability that was “save or die” was no good, even a banshee’s wail only reduces you to 0 hit points, it doesn’t just kill you (Monster Manual pg. 23). The solution was to create an effect similar to disintegrate (Player’s Handbook pg. 233): the target takes large damage and if they are reduced to 0 hit points by the action, the target is killed by brain removal.
We realized though that this Consume Brain ability, if left unregulated, would lead to a situation where the hannibal would just spam this one action for massive damage. Therefore, we needed to add some sort of restriction. The solution was to create an action that acted as a prerequisite to Consume Brain. That is why we added the Pre Digestion attack that coats creatures in acid. That way, before the hannibal targets a creature for brain removal, the creature must have failed a saving throw against this acid attack. Not only that, we added another restriction: the target must also be incapacitated. Both of these restrictions provided player characters multiple chances to survive and avoid a “save or die” situation.
Yet this solution opened another issue. We didn’t want it to be impossible for the hannibal to consume a brain. Additionally, we didn’t want the hannibal to be reliant on other creatures in order to perform an essential part of its existence. Thus, we gave the hannibal’s stinger the ability to paralyze a target. This provided a needed basic action and another saving throw for the players, but it also allowed an efficient way for the hannibal to try and combo its attacks in order to consume a victim’s brain. We also allowed the hannibal to cast hypnotic pattern and hold person to give it a variety of saving throws and to increase its efficiency as it grew in strength.
After these solutions, the last difficult aspect was to make the hannibal’s tongue animated and able to flee to a new host. There were ideas of giving it it’s own stat block, or even making some complex or elaborate feature. However, we believed the simplest solution is normally the best. So, we told the DM that the detached tongue/stinger had the same statistics as a poisonous snake (Monster Manual pg. 334) except that instead of a bite action, it possessed the hannibal’s stinger action. We felt that this kept the flavor of the hannibal intact and made it easier for the DM to deal with the tongue without creating even more stat blocks or complex transformation rules.
With all this, we felt the major design obstacles were overcome, and the only remaining question was how the hannibal would play out in an adventure.
Creating an Adventure with the Hannibal
To test the hannibal, I made a one shot adventure. The one shot consisted of three players who were level five: two clerics and a barbarian. The players were brought to this town after a series of murders happened over the period of the past month. Try as the town might, they were having a hard time tracking down who the murderer was, so they hired an adventuring party to solve the problem.
When first designing this one shot, I tried my best to make the Hannibal the sole creature of the adventure. In order to accomplish this, I thought it would be best to make an intrigue adventure because the hannibal’s strength was in its ability to deceive and take the place of a seemingly innocent person. The fun, I thought, would be in the players trying to find out what was going on and then who was the monster in disguise.
I tried to maximize my fun as well by making the hannibal’s host the town simpleton, Grund. I figured he would be an unsuspected individual because not only was he dumb, but to the players he might seem as a form of comic relief.
Likewise, to give the hannibal a fighting chance against three fifth level players, I also allowed it to feast for a month before adventures were called in to deal with it I felt this was best because this game would only be a one shot, so the hannibal would not have a lot of time to slowly grow in power over the course of multiple sessions.
Since I have several experienced players, I planned for my party to come into town, try to follow the clues, and be misled through player metaknowledge. I knew my players were aware that there were aberrations who consume mind and steal knowledge exist in D&D. This kind of metaknowledge, as explained by Jeremiah in his blog on Invoking Horror and Terror, can severely undermine a scary intrigue story. So I decided to use that metaknowledge against them. Ultimately, I wanted the hannibal to be a lesson for my players, not to rely on metaknowledge for intrigue games but to follow the clues that would eventually lead the players to Grund.
The series of clues were the following:
- The murders had been happening over the past month.
- Every person murdered was missing their brain
- The first murders were gruesome and animalistic, there was elements of a struggle. After the first three murders though, the murderer seemingly got more clever, the victims didn’t seem to put up a fight, and there was only some damage around the skull.
- None of the items in the homes had been touched and could be investigated
- There was residual acid at the scenes of these murders as well as on the murdered victims linking them.
- Grund was at the scene of every crime with other towns-people trying to ‘help’
- Grund starts preventing people from stealing his pickles, pickle prices go up slightly, he starts to wear a sturdy iron pot that was made for him at the request of the town constable to protect his brain.
- If the party starts to get onto his trail, Grund will tell the party he saw the brain eater, not knowing what it is called, but making tentacle motions around his mouth to throw the party off his trail.
- If the party continues to suspect Grund, he will use the Dream spell and have a Mind Flayer come into one of the party members dreams and warn them to take this no further. The tell that this is not actually a Mind Flayer is something about the appearance of the Mind Flayer. My experienced players will be tipped off by this fact.
When these clues were followed and the climatic combat eventually occurred. Because Hannibal would be acting as a sole enemy, I decided to split the combat into three parts (an initial encounter, a chasing encounter, and a final fight), each with a new initiative roll, to prevent the players from winning based on a lucky initiative roll and their higher action economy. Additionally, because I was uncertain of the monster’s strength and didn’t want it to kill the players by surprise.
Pros and Cons of the Hannibal
After playing with the Hannibal, I can say that it leads itself well to an intrigue game. There are several aspects of the monster that help master this genre.
- It has a good thematic focus that is dedicated to parasitism. The creature is a danger because it will try to take on a host and, like all good parasites, take advantage of the host without anyone noticing.
- Its abilities combo and work together. In combat, the hannibal is only interested in eating people’s brains and goes to great lengths to try and accomplish that.
- Its spell casting and magical features makes it versatile and able to avoid common pitfalls found in intrigue games. For instance, the hannibal’s Turn Immunity or its ability to cast spells like Nystul’s Magic Aura (Players Handbook pg. 263) allow it to not be discovered early by a Paladin’s Divine Sense (Players Handbook pg. 84) or a Cleric’s Detect Evil and Good (Players Handbook pg. 231).
- Its ability to detach from its host allows the hannibal a chance to come back in the future. This has several advantages for designing adventures in your game. It also forces the players to have be deliberate and purposeful when trying to kill it.
- It keeps players on their toes as it grows in strength with every victim. With this growth, it is visibly stronger and is able to cast higher level spells to aid in killing and eating brains. As well, it also gains new spells to use against its victims in the mystery, such as the spell Knock (Players Handbook pg. 254) to get past locked doors. This allows the hannibal to seem like an intelligent murderer who learns over time.
- It is great to use against experienced players, as many of them have preconceived notions about aberrations and mind flayers. A parasitic undead monster will be a surprise for these players.
Nevertheless, while the hannibal is an intrigue focused monster, its combat aspects can fall flat if it is discovered too early. Despite the fact it does have a good number of abilities and spells to help it along, if the hannibal is discovered early by players and they seek to attack it, the group can make quick work of it, making the whole mystery rather anti-climatic. The reasons for this are three-fold.
- If not given enough time to grow in intelligence, it cannot use higher level magic. Most of its early spells rely on keeping it hidden as opposed to defending itself.
- Offensively, it relies on its stinger and its ability to cast 4th and 5th level spells for combat effectiveness.
- Its lack of legendary actions, makes it vulnerable in action economy, especially if it is discovered too early. The hannibal needs several actions to perform its coup de grâce. This can be problematic if it is too heavily outnumbered or not properly positioned.
The hannibal was a project that Jeremiah and I undertook to challenge ourselves. After playing with it, we believe it works well as a monster for players to interact with and try to discover. However within a combat encounter, despite it’s power level and its flexibility, it is not likely to be a challenge to groups of large size or sufficient level due its limited offensive tools. We would argue that this is not a clear flaw as the monster was made to be an intrigue and discovery obstacle and not a combative one. This is reinforced in practice, as the utility and skills of the hannibal lent itself well to an intrigue adventure.
The hannibal is different from what one would see in the Monster Manual and different from what one would expect from an undead creature due to the unique aspects, both mechanically and thematically. This reinforces it as a strong contender for a role that is very barren: undead that lend themselves to intrigue and mysteries. Normally undead are puzzle pieces with information, very rarely are they the end goal of major mysteries. It’s easy to see why this is the case, even basic divination can detect and find them. But, the Hannibal can prevent all that and stay hidden in plain sight. This is what it was made for and what it excels at