Thursday, September 4, 2014

False Hydra

Common wisdom holds that false hydras come from the ground.  They spontaneously originate as undifferentiated masses of flesh. Potatoes that sprout from no seed.  Supposedly, they germinate in response to lies, and that each falsehood causes a false hydra to swell larger.

Scholars agree, because they have no better idea.  In fact, so much about these abominations boggles the mind that scholars really don't know where to begin.

Paranoia dominates any discussion about it.  Everyone wants to know: Is it here?  Is it in my town?  Is that long, flaccid face watching me through the window even now?

i want you to focus on the neck
and also on the mouth
There are false alarms.  Criminals and deserters have pleaded that they were merely under the influence of the false hydra, or that they were merely trying to escape it's influence.  And sometimes that was the truth.

There are ghost towns in the Grey Waste.  Victims of false hydras.  People do not revisit those sites, out of fear of vengeful ghosts.  And perhaps the false hydra is still there, the black rot at the center of the bone.  And how would you know?

In gentler lands you will find skeptics.  These erudite scholars will stroke their chin and calmly tell you that there is no such thing as a false hydra.  It is some confabulation.  Villages seized by some infectious insanity, or perhaps some subtle demon.  

But they are wrong.

so there's no pictures of a false hydra because no ones ever drawn one
but just let me pontificate about this guy for a while
How to Use This Article

Use it however you want.  But I would use it to challenge the PCs as they wander.  It'd fit very well in an episodic game.  The PCs wander into a new town--a new threat emerges.  

Can someone make a random table titled "What's the Deal With the Town?"  1 - People are all friendly, evil believers of the Worm God.  2 - Plot of Tremors.  3 - False Hydra.  4 - Et cetera.

this is dead hand, from zelda

The false hydra enters a town through a humble enough method.  Fattened on worms, it has been growing upwards these last few days (weeks? years?), but has only now broken through the soil.  It emerges in a basement, from behind the jars of fruit preserve.  Or pushes its face up through a broken cobblestone.  And then it begins to sing.

While it sings, it is ignored.  It just creates gaps in your attention and then slips through them.  It is subtler than invisibility, and more reliable.

At this point, the false hydra is only a torso--presumably about the same size as a man's--buried somewhere in the ground.  The neck grows up, up until the head emerges from the ground.  The head is only the size of a man's head at this point.  It resembles a man's head, too, but white, hairless, and with thick deformities of the brow and lips.  The eyes are wet holes.

But of course, none of this is noticed.  While it sings, the hydra exists in our blind spot.

also make sure that your head is level with regards to the image
also make sure that the image is not too small

The hydra eats people, of course.  To eat someone, it must usually stop singing, which endangers the hydra someone, since it can now be noticed.  To make this task easier, the hydra usually drags the unfortunate victim a short distance underground, into a basement, sewer, or small chamber that it has excavated, and devours them there.

A man is walking along a deserted street.  Suddenly he realizes that the silence is more profound, as if a loud noise had just ceased.  There is a rattle as a sewer grate slides over rough stone.  In that darkness, a fleshy face, leering with undisguised hunger.  It lunges forward on a thick neck that slides out of the darkness like a sheath, one foot, three feet, six feet long.  And then it bites him on the arm and drags him down that narrow gap, yanking and twisting to fit the man's body through that too-small space.  And when the sounds of eating have ceased, the song resumes.

The man has family, friends who will notice his absence.  But the song of the hydra massages their mind, smoothing the wrinkles on their brain.  The hydra has eaten the man, who is now known to the hydra.  The song erases the memories from their soft heads.  They will not notice his absence, nor remember him.

And in this way, the hydra grows.  It's neck stretches long. . . longer.  And with it, its influence.

there is so much good fanart of this guy

The false hydra's song hides the memories of the devoured victims in the same way that it hides the false hydra, but this is not a perfect system.

Wives will wonder why there are men's clothes in her closet.  People will notice that no one has lit the street lanterns these last few nights.  Churches suddenly find themselves without a bell ringer.

By and large, these gaps close themselves up.  The wife will forget about the clothes as soon as she stops looking at them.  Or she will conveniently remember how her brother left them there the last time he visited.  Or she will, on some level, recognize the wrongness implicit in the clothes, and throw them away one moonless night.  She will confabulate, powerfully and constantly.

But part of her mind is cognizant of the disturbance.  That part of her mind is distrusted, and sealed away.  But that primordial cluster of neurons still fires.  A syphilitic madman who has been locked in the attic by his family, but whose mutters can sometimes be heard during the lulls in the dinner party downstairs.

This creates pressure.  In the early stages, this feels like paranoia, especially the sense that someone is watching you (and the hydra is watching you, pressing its moony face up against the window and fogging up the glass).  More severe symptoms develop.  Reminiscing becomes a stressful and uneasy experience, and so is avoided.  Distortions of memory.  The confabulations pile up, identities become muddled.  Friend's faces seems subtly deformed.  

Human brains were not meant to bear this weight.  Mundane insanities sprout like mushrooms.  Nervous disorders. Psychotic breaks.

look how happy he is

In severe cases, split-brain occurs, when one part of the brain strives to communicate with the other.  One of the PC's limbs might suddenly become its own entity, one that crudely and violently struggles to convey the danger to the PC.

A PC might wake up and discover that someone has scratched "IT'S WACHING YOU RIGHT NOW.  THE WINDOW." into their chest, and there is skin beneath the fingernails of their left arm, great.  If they receive a distressed letter from their mother, wanting to know why the last letter the PC sent contained the sentence "it ate him ate him in front of me but i did not see it ate him" inserted in the middle, great.  If they decide that their hand is possessed by demons and cut it off, best of all.

This could also be the hook for the PCs: an acquaintance sends them an innocuous letter that somehow contains the phrase "help me for the love of god help me help".  When they get there, the acquaintance has no memory of writing it, but looks nervous (and a little bit insane) while claiming that it's probably just some wizard's prank.  

"And where is your wife?"  

"Why, I've never married.  Why would you joke about this?"

And the next day, tell the players that their PCs have forgotten about the wife as well.  You can't get rid of the metagame knowledge in their heads, but allow them to act on their metagame knowledge whenever they can roleplay an intense feeling of paranoia or distress.

Their dreams are filled with dirges, spilling from the mouths of faceless people.  And somewhere, a pale face, whose eyes are nothing but wet, black holes.

which is impressive, given that he only had about three polygons when he scared the crap out of all of us as kids

As the false hydra matures, it grows more heads.  The process accelerates exponentially.  More blood on the cobblestones.  More incongruities festering in heads like gangrenous limbs.

The false hydra gets careless.  With every meal, it becomes more powerful, more able to smother mankind.  It doesn't need to be careful anymore.

The heads stretch up higher.  Their gracile necks sway above the rooftops.  Their heads have grown feral.  The skull bulges with masses of bone.  The lower jaw juts out, low-slung, like a dagger in a fist.  Soon,  it will finish devouring this city.

But darling, my darling, there isn't enough blood in all the world to slake its thirst.

three polygons that DO NOT FUCK AROUND

The players may suspect that something is invisible, but the usual magical countermeasures for fighting invisibility won't work here.  The song is closer to charm or suggestion, than anything else; I would allow anti-charm magic to have a temporary or partial effect.  Just enough for a few gargled words of exposition.  "It's watching us right now!  Look!"  That sort of thing.

But how do we actually position the false hydra where the players can find it with good play?

One option is to make the hydra visible in mirrors.  They might come across this solution relatively early in the investigation process.  Arming the populace with hand mirrors is a solution (but also how many hand mirrors does a medieval town have, really?), and will probably stop the daytime predation.  But the hydra will continue to eat people during the night, when there is no light to make the mirrors useful.

Do cats see it?  They probably freak out around it.  Dogs have no idea, though.

A more interesting, but also more challenging option is to allow them to investigate strange occurrences.  If the lamp lighter was eaten halfway through his task, the last lit lantern is a bit ominous.  If a player slips on a blood spill, the PC will have to suffer through the cognitive dissonance of having to rationalize a huge, obvious piece of evidence, but the player is under no such compunction.  They can investigate the nearby alley.

just pretend that the hands are extra heads and you've pretty much got it
Other options present themselves.  They could figure out where the necks stand in the sky by triangulating with an ally on a different rooftop, by discovering which cloud patterns are obscured from each other (because the false hydra's neck occludes them).  Bizarre ideas might work, like shooting arrows around randomly or constantly swinging a grappling hook around.  

If the grappling hook bangs into the false hydra, the psychic suppression will probably just force the PC to absentmindedly pick up the rope and resume swinging it, but a second PC watching the first PC would notice this irregularity, because that's another degree of separation from the hydra.  The mind-song hides the hydra, not the irregular behavior of a fellow adventurer who swore to shout an alarm if the grappling hook hit something invisible.

Baiting the hydra would also work well, and is probably the easiest method.  While the hydra bites, it stops singing, making it visible again.  (Or more accurately, allowing the PCs to stop ignoring it.)

If it is wounded, it will probably retreat down to its subterranean lair.  The PCs will have to kill it now, before they fall under the sway of its song, which it has now resumed (and the PCs can hear again, properly.  It is a nightmarish howl.)

If the PCs tarry, they'll forget they ever saw the false hydra.  The fictive paranoia (and actual metagaming) will be rampant, but this is okay.  Their left hand is just giving them more useful messages today, as more as more of the PC's brain rebels.

The HD of the false hydra depends entirely on how large it has grown, which depends on how fast the PCs have acted.  The fight could be a cakewalk or a meatgrinder.

god, that worm-neck

The PCs abandon the town to its fate.  Or perhaps they just fail utterly at investigating this weirdness.  Either way, the worst has come to pass.

The false hydra doesn't just eat everyone and then die.  That would be too easy.  Things Get Worse.

When a false hydra is mature (some texts localize this event to the day when it has grown seven heads) it begins to sing a new song.  This song mentally enslaves everyone within hearing range.  It's like a broadcast of dominate person.

Yes, give the PCs a saving throw.  But even if they make it, they're going to be in the middle of a town where everyone is trying to kill them.  The colossal apparatus of the false hydra is now visible.  Monstrous heads on tree-trunk necks tower above the town, leaning over rooftops and peering into windows.  Its bellowing voices order its mindslaves to kill that man over there, or to capture the fleeing child over there.  (Of course it can talk.  It always could.  It just never had anything to say.)

and you're left wondering
what do the parts of it look like that are still underground?

Only when the town has been purged, the false hydra orders its servants to exhume its body, now grown swollen and fat.  And while they dig, it eats.

And then the false hydra orders that it should be transported to a new city, where there is new flesh to be eaten.  It will be borne there atop the backs of its slaves, grateful legs staggering under its cold tonnage.  When it gets too large to carry they will lash it with chains and drag it behind them like a wailing, blubbery siege engine.  (Which it is.)

Of course, this is unsustainable.  As soon as a mindslave is outside the range of the false hydra's voice, they'll flee.  (Unless they tamp some wax in their ears and return for their loved ones hahahahahaha.)  Unless it raids other food stores, it will starve.  It cannot farm or hunt sufficient food without spreading its servants across an unacceptably broad area.

And the uncommon adulthood of false hydras is marked by desperate aggression.  An animal convulsing as it dies, crushing people and cities under its hungry bulk.  It usually heads for the largest cities (or whichever one the PCs have fled to) while seeking the largest food source.  Sometimes it succeeds long enough to grow larger and move on to the next city.  A tour of death.

The "traditional" tactic is to set fire to the granaries and evacuate the city.  The false hydra will starve to death in a few weeks, while everyone visits their relatives in the countryside.  The false hydra's movements are tracked by scouts on horseback, who watch the abomination from the horizons and communicate by flags.  Many of them choose to mutilate their own ear canals, in order to deafen themselves.  

These tactics failed spectacularly in the summer of 882 TFM, when there were multiple false hydras colluding with each other.  (The exact number is still disputed.)

alternatively, it could just mature into this fucked up thing
with sphinx powers
A more pressing problem is bandits, preying on families traveling alone with all their wealth.  Looters also linger in the cities after the evacuation order has been given, and many eventually fall victim to the false hydra, and allow it to grow larger.  Assassinations and power struggles are also common, as different parties use the chaos to seize an advantage.  

And lastly, a military presence must ensure that no mercenary company, slavelord, or evil wizard is allowed to open up lines of communication with the false hydra (using messengers).  Those avenues of exploitation have allowed some absolutely horrific tragedies in the past.  The cancer must be isolated until it is forced to eat itself.

If the game gets to this point and the PCs want to stay involved, I would turn the focus on the latent possibilities in the last four paragraphs, instead of assaulting the god-monster head-on.  Because who wants to fight a false hydra at the height of it's power.  (Lots of players, probably.)

god, false hydras are freakish
their fragmented minds are mirrored in the people they devour

fun fact: dragon hydras are awesome
i should write a post about them specifically

fun fact: there was a false hydra in the house of hours
but the party never discovered him
he was at the bottom of a looooong stairwell

fun fact: lonely, lonely hydra
no one to talk to
except himself
fun fact: I'm actually pretty good-natured and pleasant to be around
I don't know why I keep writing such horrible things
fun fact: raaaaaaaaa

fun fact: aaaaaaaaaaawr


  1. Holy shit Arnold, you are on fire this week.

  2. This is the kind of thing that's so beautiful I want to put aside what I've been working on and place this into the campaign instead.

  3. SOLUTION: Write worlds greatest play titled "The Monster That Didn't Exist', persuade entire town to play parts in 24-hr live action 'art happening' in which they perform the roles of people hunting a monster they cannot see. If anyone questions it, say 'its just a metaphor for the modern condition, but make it look as real as possible'

  4. This would make a great Doctor Who episode. Also, I hope you don't mind that I'm going to steal all of your ideas because they're so awesome.

    1. You are the second person to mention Dr. Who to me after reading this post.

  5. This is amazing. Thank you for sharing, as always.

  6. Hey, uh, I'm Alex! :D
    Stopping in to ask about one of the pictures. If I wanted to use it, would I ask you? Did you create all of these?

    1. I made none of these. Use google's reverse image search to figure out where they came from.

  7. I just used this over the last three sessions or so. The players loved it, it was the first time I managed to really get them to experiment with their powers etc (it's a mutants and masterminds game). One of the players told me they were going to have nightmares after the first session with it. Just wanted to say thanks and I love all the stuff on this site.

  8. This frigHtEned me, actually fRightEned me. I feel weird on the inSide nOw. Why are there so maNy porcElain dolls HERE IN MY HOUSE.

  9. I'm using these as a recurring thing in my DnD campaign, and the party is going to fight one next time we meet. Thanks for the post, it's been received incredibly well.