They gotta live somewhere
Next in our near-completed series on random fixed encounters is the monster lair—what it is, what it isn’t, and why you need them in your setting.
Monster lairs—in and of themselves—get scant attention, because most fixed encounters are driven by location, not inhabitant. When we populate our setting maps, we tend to focus first on dungeons, towns, and ruins.
But there should be (in a fantasy-logic sort of way) monster settlements—fixed locations on the map where legendary or particularly fearsome creatures dwell. These could be singularly powerful monsters (think of Shelob or Beorn), or they could be masses of low-level rabble (think of Goblin Town).
Either way, keep in mind that the lair is a settlement, built by and for the monster to serve as its home. As such, it’s not a dungeon, it’s not a fortress, and it’s not a ruin. It might be explored as such, but the distinction is important because it differentiates the lair-as-a-home from a-repurposed-place-where-a-monster-happens-to-live. Tolkien can help by way of example:
- The Barrow-downs – a bunch of wights live in and amongst these burial cairns, but they didn’t build them. I’d classify these as ruins inhabited by undead.
- Lonely Mountain – Smaug’s home, which used to be a dwarf citadel; ruins inhabited by a dragon.
- Moria – Similar to Lonely Mountain in that it used to be a dwarf kingdom; now its ruins infested with orcs and a balrog.
- Isengard – littered with orcs, but they didn’t build it. I’d say this is a fortress with an orc garrison.
When creating a lair, roll once each for: Monster, Activity (what the monster gets up to), Pets (any non-intelligent monsters trained, indentured, or otherwise utilised by the monster); and Feature (what makes the lair itself interesting):
ROLL MONSTER* ACTIVITY PETS† FEATURE‡ 1 Dragon Spying Bugs Completely Normal 2 Planar Raiding Bugs Geothermal Activity 3 Humanoid, weak Expanding Animals Natural Springs 4 Humanoid, strong Searching Animals Wild Magic 5 Deep Horror Organising Animals Unnaturally Dark 6 Hive Minded Venerating Shrooms Enchanted Fountain 7 Fey Guarding Plants Portal/Gate 8 Alien Activating Plants Ancient Graveyard 9 Roll x2** Serving Hybrids Partially Submerged 10 Roll x3** Summoning Weird Things Rare/Magical Resource --------------- * Minimum population = [(20 – monster’s level) x 1d6]; alter die type to reflect resources: Sparse 1d4; Ample 2d6; Abundant 3d6; Idyllic 4d6 ** Determine relations between each monster type (d6: 1 allied; 2 cooperative; 3 oppressive/enslaved; 4 neutral; 5 competitive; 6 at war); ignore if rolled again † Chance of pets = [(20 – monster’s level) x 5%] ‡ Except for results of “1,” replace each entry as it’s used; the feature may be pervasive or isolated to a single location within the lair
Remember that, like other settlements, monster lairs are communities with regular activity cycles. While they may not support the same populations as “normal” settlements, they will have a similar influence on the surrounding countryside (and there are some guidelines for determining how big a monster’s territory is, based on its size).
Using the table above, here’s what I came up with for Minocra’s four major lairs (my results are included to show you what I was working with).
Hex #1506: Tayblat (pop. 180)
(What I rolled: weak humanoid organising; hybrids and unnaturally dark)
The river goblins of Tayblat have a history of skirmishes with Saba hunters, but they control much of the riverlands of north Minocra. Eager to expand their borders to the highlands east and west, these humanoids are creating a warrior caste of hybrid amphibious goblins that can leap, hold their breath, and hit opponents with their sticky tongues. These warriors are “grown” through some disgusting shamanistic process in the dark recesses of their muddy riverbank warrens. Right now, the goblins are simply organising their forces, though they’ll likely spread if unchecked.
Hex #1915: Caves of the Paal (pop. 60)
(What I rolled: planar serving; bugs and wild magic)
These remote caves are home to a race of 7’-12’ long segmented worms with human heads known as the Paal. These planar beings were summoned by agents unknown for reasons none can guess; apparently stranded, they toil to create a portal home (or, as some posit, a doorway through which to invite more of their kind). They are capable of regeneration, they can distort powers, and they have limited telepathic ability, which they use on giant beetles to carry out complex tasks such as waste disposal, excavation, and reconnaissance in and around their lair. As the “bogeymen” of Usibir lore, the Paal largely are considered fantasy, but some planar scholars take the Usibir tales seriously. While these sages agree that the Paal currently dwell in ambivalent solitude, they also believe that they serve a less passive master whose arrival may be the focus of the Paals’ attention.
Hex #2001: Sharmat Island (pop. 108)
(What I rolled: alien & fey (allied) raiding; plants and portal)
Sharmat is a small, tidal island housing a portal that leads to the Garden of Earthly Secrets. The portal is guarded by the vuca, a race of wily vegetable shapeshifters, who challenge visitors to a riddle contest; losers are magically entangled by vines and tossed into a pit called Sharmat’s Maw (literally the mouth of the gigantic sea-crab Sharmat, whose body forms the eponymous island; Sharmat may be the same creature sought by the mad scion Shilaas in the Tower of the Brine (hex #1005)). Those who baffle the vuca are allowed through the portal, where they find a lush, sunlit garden of fruit trees, berry bushes, and flowering vetches. Here, a visitor may ask the plants for a true and correct answer to any question each day, though each day within the Garden imposes a 5% cumulative chance of transforming into one of the vegetable denizens. Once started, the transformation completes in 2d6 days, during which the victim’s features progressively shift to plant-like aspect. Visitors may leave the Garden only via a test of will (and at a progressive penalty if the transformation has taken hold). Of course, by virtue of residing within the Garden, the remedy for the victim’s predicament might be revealed merely for the asking.
Hex #2407: Lepidorm Groves (pop. 72)
(What I rolled: hive minded activating; no pets and enchanted fountain)
The lepidorms are a race of small humanoid moths who obey a hive queen. They are nocturnal hunters, silent, and their wing scales may be blown at a foe to induce sleep when inhaled. The hive’s water supply is a natural spring, whose waters—if properly enchanted—could provide enough energy for her drones to work and hunt during daylight hours, thus increasing food supply and growing the colony. Or so the hive queen believes. As a result, aggressively search for magic to infuse the spring (this includes PCs spell-casters and party magic items), though neither they nor their queen understand how such a process might work.
Admittedly, the table above is sparse—I can’t help but think that maybe it’s missing some more random suggestions to determine how the monsters may be going about their business, or some sort of history as to how they got there, maybe. I say that because the descriptions above required me to fill in the blanks more than other tables in this series. At the very least, this table necessitates that you have decent working knowledge of a monster’s niche in the setting’s ecosystem.
What do you think—how could this table be improved?