Friday, May 27, 2016

Undermen, Grues, and Grue-coins

The Undermen

They come to greet you.

You will hear them before you see them, unless they don't want you to.  They call out to each other with whistles, the noise that carries best through the caverns.  They carry hooked staves, which they use to tap-tap-tap on the rock, the noise that carries best between them.

Pale men climbing down the slick limestone, their knife-slender fingers finding hidden holds in the dripping rock.  They wear harnesses, tight against their armpits and groins.  Small breasts wobble as one of the women traverses a wall of stalactites.

Their faces are wildly dissimilar.  They are the faces of deformity, or of accident, or of bats.

Most folks just call them Uglies. They call themselves Urshek.  When the Prophetess called, they were among the first converts.

The Underfolk are blind.  They see through echolocation, but they have no specialized organ for this.  They click their throats and cock their heads, and somehow that must suffice.  Compared to a true bat, they are greatly impoverished.

If you ever find yourself fighting the Underfolk, you must hold very still, move very slowly, and make no brazen attack.  In the dark, you are blind, and they will find you (swinging their hooked staves, back and forth) and they will spill your innards on the cold stone floor, and wash their faces in the steam.

Their weapons are the hooked-stave, the rope, and a strange form of cave-wrestling.

But in the light, you may see them a long way off, creeping through the caverns like stick insects, and they are the blind ones.  Just mind that it won't work up close--they can feel the heat from your torches.

The Underfolk have a secret.  They can turn invisible.  It isn't their first resort, since they must strip down and discard their hooked-staves, but they do it nonetheless.  They use this ability only when their primary tactics have failed them.

They have excellent senses of humor, and are valued companions among those who win the honor.  Those who are familiar with the Underdark will say that Urshek are much more reasonable than the dwarves, and less prone to wickedness.  And they are far, far superior companions than morlocks, who fetishize their own bondage and speak only of reconquering what was once theirs.

Despite their strange culture, Urshek are reasonable and open-minded.  Much more so than humans, say their devotees.  (Like small, ugly dogs, the Underfolk have stalwart fans in small, certain circles.)

These are basically a rewrite of the Ethrum.

from Merlin Tuttle

They were dire moles when they were alive.  Now they are a conglomerate of three things: the (paltry) remains of a dire mole.  A shadow,  And the deep earth, crushing and hungry.  (This is why we bury our dead; to appease it.)

Grues have the stats of owlbears, except they can move perfectly silently.  They have one special ability.  It is this:

*Unknowable -- If a grue would even be seen, it instead teleports to the nearest unobserved location.  Usable 10/day.

If a grue is ever actually seen, it instantly unravels into a pile of black, brittle dirt.

A grues world is one of strange limitations.  The are not hindered by earth and stone.  Torchlight forms the walls that limit their world.  And far above, they have a dim perception of sunlight, a vast and horrible ocean where they can be instantly seen by birds and the gods that watch from the upper air.

In gameplay, this means that a party will have an extra incentive not to leave their circle of torchlight.  If a torch goes out, a grue will be upon you, pulling limbs from sockets and crushing legs under the weight of their bodies.  As soon as a torch is relit, there will be nothing there.  Except for the carnage, it will be as if the grue never existed.

No wonder most people think that they are ghosts.

DM's Note: This is one of the mechanics that is only challenging if darkvision is difficult to come by.  And it should be.  Also, this a rewrite of my old grues.  I like the new grue.  You too?

Observing the Grue

If a grue is prevented from teleporting, and then observed, it turns into a pile of dirt forever.  To know a grue is to destroy it.  Although it eats flesh, it merely does so out of spite.  What really sustains it is its own unknowability.

If a grue is observed through scrying by someone who can see it (darkvision, true-seeing, etc), it will flash teleport through many possible locations, sometimes travelling hundreds of miles.  The scrying and the grue must make an opposed Con check.  If the grue loses, it succumbs to exhaustion, is observed, and dies.  If the scryer loses, they go blind for 1d6 days.

It looks like an enormous mole with a fleshless head.  But that is deceptive, because it's anatomy is only a mockery.  The head can swim to any point on the body, the heavy limbs can bend in any direction, and the spade-like claws pass through earth without any need for digging.

The real grue is in the shadows around the grue, and in the darkness inside the soil beneath it.

Hunting the Grue

Goblins and morlocks sometimes hunt grues.  (Urshek struggle with it, as echolocation doesn't allow them to know a grue as well as it requires.)  They spread out, each alone so that they can cover the greatest area.  And then they spin around, so that they can see the widest range of areas.  They leave no place for the grue to hide.

And yes, other monsters sometimes prey on goblins and morlocks when they are spread out, spinning in circles.  This is why grues are often exterminated last.

Dwarves hunt grues as well.  They do not have darkvision nor echolocation.  They accomplish this feat with enormous fires in every cave, mirrors in every intersection, and vast, subterranean panopticons.

Grues are the tigers of the underdark.  They only make noise when they burrow.


A grue that is seen is destroyed, but you can still kill them the old-fashioned way: cold steel and hot sorcery.  Their corpses remain on the ground (or in it) and can be butchered, clean, and rendered into a poison.  However, if the corpse is ever observed, it will crumble into a pile of black dirt as well.

And so the trick is to kill them and harvest them without ever looking at them.

Goblins make new grue-coins by blinding a bunch of people and making them fight a grue.  Sometimes the grue loses.

Grue-poison is not directly fatal, but over the next three days, the imbiber will gradually develop a deadly allergy to light.  When the curse is terminal, they will take 1d6 damage every round that they are exposed to light.  The poison retains the original fragility of the grue; if the poison is inspected too closely, it turns into water.  If detect poison is used, poison will be detected once, briefly, and then the poison will turn into water.

Grue-bones turn into black dirt.  They are often used in traps as part of the triggering mechanism.

But the most common use of a grue corpse is the production of grue coins.

Grue coins are produced by taking the long bones of a grue and sawing them into coin-sized sections.  If a grue coin is ever seen, it turns into black dirt.  They are usually transported in thick sacks, and those who handle them are very careful not to look at them.

Even learning too much about a grue-coin can turn it into a dirt.  If you rub your finger across most of the surface of the coin, you will build a picture of the coin in your head.  The coin will become known, and then it will turn into black dirt.

The standard way to test the veracity is to reach into the bag, grab a few coins, and then look at them.  If you see nothing but crumbling dirt in your fingers, the grue-coins were genuine.

Grues haunt their coins.  Except haunt isn't really the right word.

When you kill a grue, you are really only killing the mole-body, which is only part of its dread summation.  The grue is still alive when you hack it apart, and it is still alive when you spend it.


  1. Some pretty cool ideas! I like this grue variant, and I definitely like how different cultures react to them in different ways.

    One question, though: *why* do people make grue-coins? It seems like a huge amount of risk and trouble to get some haunted coins that you can't ever look at or handle too much. And yet this, rather than (e.g.) magical reagents is the most common use of grue corpses? Am I missing something obvious? If I were a PC in your game, what is there to make me more interested in grue-coins than, say, actual gold, outside of maybe tricking some goods from someone whom I really don't want to pay, but whom I'm not worried about retaliation from?

    1. Metagaming reason: because it's cool. Plus players can maybe use the coins in interesting ways.

      In game reason: it's currency because it's finite, difficult to fake, and all cultures value it and can get some. Blind races don't value gold, because it's just another metal.

      And currencies are weird in general. If one culture values something enough, it becomes worth more elsewhere. Like, imagine if Mexico tried passing a law saying that the US dollar was worthless. It wouldn't stick.

      I imagine that the morlocks were the first group to start valuing grue-coins, so everyone else had to as well.

      Also, magical reagents for currency is tricky, because they're also a trade good. That's like using wheat or semiconductors as currency.

    2. Nah, I bet the drow are behind it. Everybody else is like "Oh, the morlocks have this fiat currency; okay I guess..." and the drow are all, "Oh, wow, look at all those guys getting killed by grues without us even lifting a finger!" 8^D

    3. Due to the rarity of them, how much do you think they would be worth? I'm assuming not a single copper. Or would it be more like a good, where you would have to haggle?

    4. Magical ubermoney? 10g = 1 grue-coin, perhaps, although if you have a high-wealth game, make them 100g or 1000g. Each one is also a minor magic item (one that vanishes when you look at it) so nothing too cheap.

  2. Typo. I'm assuming not 'just' a single copper.