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Life has a dastardly way of tossing you surprises. Today, it threw me a bloody hydra baby!
I’d heard that a band of pompous paladins had slain Harriet the Hydra (may she RIP) two evenings ago and won copious praise for avenging all the wretches who’d zigged when they should have zagged while navigating the trails of Dewmist Swamp. While that’s all good and dandy, I was more interested in investigating the ornery beast’s former nest for any bodily fluids left behind. Nothing better than hydra blood for potion-making, after all!
Little did I know that old Harriet had laid three eggs before she’d been waylaid by arrows and swords, and while two were smashed to bits, the third was intact. As I picked it up and considered its usage as a spell component, it hatched before my eyes! Out popped a hydra snakelet, wriggling eggshell fragments off of its seven little heads and fixating on the only living thing in the vicinity - yours truly! I daresay the scaly scamp imprinted upon me, because the next thing I knew, I was being cuddled by four of the heads while the other three were opening their mouths and flicking those teeny tongues, demanding to be fed!
Luckily, I had eight strips of jerky in my pack - one for each head plus an extra for myself - and after I’d fed the creature, it began FOLLOWING me, waddling on its stumpy underdeveloped legs! I told it to scat, I wagged my wand at it, I even considered polymorphing it into a beetle and running away...but something about those dark eyes made me decide otherwise.
So here I am at home, a snakelet at my feet chomping up roast pig. I daresay that my mind is now racing with the possibilities of raising this thing. Domesticating a hydra for all intents and purposes is a foolhardy venture that’s only been done 15 times in history, as far as I know, yet imagine what the other mages of the Verdant Circle would say if I pulled it off! After all, I’ve already got a wyvern who eats me out of house and home and a treant who tends to my garden. A hydra can’t be that much harder to crack, can it? And when I look at those seven pairs of little snake eyes...blast me for being a sentimental old coot, but the darn thing’s cute!
Excerpt from the diary of Maximillian Zwagrot, the eccentric swamp wizard who couldn’t stop taking care of monsters and was the 16th person in history to domesticate a hydra
Game Masters of fantasy tabletop roleplaying games are well-accustomed to monsters engaging in combat with motley adventuring crews. We spend hours studying bestiaries, memorizing stat blocks and figuring out the best tactics for a herd of bestial opponents to challenge our players at the gaming table. But violence shouldn’t be the only way to exemplify fantastical creatures, and as more and more RPGs - from mainstream cornerstones of the hobby like Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder to relative newcomers like Quest - begin to move away from the black and white narrative that “all monsters = evil,” a fresh way to inject new life into your games lies right beneath your nose.
Have your players raise a monstrous companion to adventure alongside them!
While a party of heroes traveling with a four-legged friend isn’t without precedent in the tabletop world, especially when you think of the animal companions of rangers or the familiars of wizards, it’s rarer to have the care and gradual evolution of a baby monster become a major focus in a game. But take a moment to look at the world of electronic RPGs, where the spectre of Pokémon - an entire franchise about raising monsters - looms large. Let’s face it - people like pets and people like monsters, and one of the best ways to generate player investment is to mash ‘em together.
That’s where Metal Weave Games’ Baby Bestiary duology does the trick. Both volumes contain a bevy of monster babies chosen from across the fantasy spectrum, ranging from the fairly traditional unicorn foal and dragon wyrmling to the more unusual gelatinous cubeling and aboleth spawn. And while your typical bestiary might only be filled with a few paragraphs of text for each creature, the Baby Bestiary books are exploding with lore. Did you know, for instance, that a baby gargoyle is formally known as a mouldling, and comes about when a parent binds a soul within itself, births the soul out in a stone lump known as a “geode” and carefully chisels away to reveal the infant hidden within the rock?
The Baby Bestiary books also split up each monster baby’s description into general care, rearing, and training sections, with the infants themselves categorized by intelligence and ranked as easy to rear to downright deadly. A cerberus puppy, for instance, is featured in Baby Bestiary Volume 1 and categorized as a tricky beast to train, mostly due to the three heads each having minds of their own. The aforementioned hydra snakelet brought home by Maximillian Zwagrot is featured in Baby Bestiary Volume 2 and ranked as dangerous, meaning that the ol’ swamp wizard sure had a lot of stones to want to deal with a whopping seven heads! (The elder godspawn - basically a baby Cthulhu - wins the award for the most ridiculously dangerous tot to train in my book, for obvious reasons.)
Both Baby Bestiary volumes are system and setting neutral in order to give Game Masters the freedom to place these beasties in any game, from a heroic 13th Age campaign to a grimdark Shadow of the Demon Lord adventure. If you’re playing Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition and want actual rules and stat blocks, however, the Beast Companion supplement offers up an elegant system to level any creature in the Baby Bestiary series by divvying them into Companion Archetypes - artillery attackers, brute strength juggernauts, controllers of the battlefield, defenders of their masters, sly lurkers and fast skirmishers. Three new subclasses - the Circle of Summons druid, Houndmaster fighter and Familiar Spellmaster wizard - are also present, and if you’re the sort of player who enjoys gaining magic from a patron, the Caretaker Warlock subclass is available as a separate supplement. (Instead of getting powers from an eldritch master, you learn them from the loving bond of the creature you raise, which is a great analogy for the relationship between a pet and its owner.)
Ultimately, usage of the Baby Bestiary can stir up emotions at the gaming table by granting players a fantastical, furry life to nurture, raise and one day reap the benefits of, whether those benefits be battle-orientated or in the form of companionship. The presence of monstrous companions can also deepen the ecological lore and complexity of a campaign by forcing players to ask nuanced questions and realize that monsters too are living, breathing beings with children of their own. What happens to the younglings of the beasts who are slain by parties of supposedly lawful good alignment? If your players defeat a hydra only to be confronted by its newborn snakelet, will they choose to raise it a la Maximilian or leave it alone in the swamp, forever having seven pairs of innocent snake eyes boring into the depths of their conscience?
As a Game Master, the possibilities are truly immense - and just like how babies have the tendency to greatly change the trajectory of real life, once you insert ‘em into your tabletop game, the campaign will never be the same.
Jeremy Blum (@PixelGrotto) is a journalist, gaming blogger, comic book aficionado, and fan of all forms of storytelling who rolled his first polyhedral dice while living in Hong Kong in 2017. Since then, he's never looked back and loves roleplaying games for the chance to tell the tales that have been swirling in his head since childhood.