Saturday, 6 August 2016

with a body starred all over

The D&D salamander’s accepted status as ‘angry fire snaketaur’ is an ongoing shame. The 5e Monster Manual already has a frankly bizarre surfeit of snake-beings, between the yuan-ti, the naga, the marilith and the couatl (in the case of the yuan-ti, the 5e MM falls into the bad old ways that it mostly otherwise avoids by providing not only too many subdivisions of yuan-ti but then also a suite of unexplained and unnecessary sub-sub-divisions for the malison). Nor is the salamander more interesting or useful as a fire-centric monster than the elemental (more, um, firey), the hellhound (more hellish), the magmin (more endearing), the efreet (more personality and true villain potential), or even the azer (if you really feel the need to create a society of fire people). They’re classic instances of a monster that has intelligence and civilization and all that, such that they make for poor random dungeon beasties, but that in no way makes you want to plot out a society of them for your players to visit or plan an adventure around them.

(For extra confusion, the 5e MM also binds them to the ‘firesnake’, the purported immature salamander. The firesnake is really just an unexciting but mildly useful fire-damage-dealing nasty suitable for use as the pet of a low-level alchemist or something that has been bedevilling the furnace of some local dwarves. The rest of the MM stuff - tying in salamanders as talented smiths but explicitly less so than azers and as sometime slaves in the City of Brass - is similarly unlikely to lead to you ever actually using them.)

The limpness of the D&D salamander is particularly a pity because the scientific and

folkloric profile of the salamander is fecund as fuck D&D-wise, especially if we leave behind entirely the fire thing - which, as you probably know, has vague but counterintuitive roots in the tendency of salamanders to emerge from damp logs once you put them in a fire, but this is because salamanders - like so many other living things - do not like being put in a fire
(and do like hiding in damp logs, being aquatic and not at all interested in fire). The person who entrenched the idea was Paracelsus (real and highly D&Dable name Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim), an irritating systematiser-alchemist-mystic of the kind who did so much to make the Renaissance so dull and who conceived of salamanders as fire elementals. Paracelsus’ chief legacy to D&D is the invention of the word gnome (possibly just a misspelling on his part), but he envisioned them, rather broadly, as earth elementals and spirits of wisdom, and the game has been happy to abandon his legacy in this respect. High time the same happened to salamanders. Here are some you can use in your game without ever rolling for fire damage.

Olm – Olms live in Europe's largest natural dungeon, the Balkan karst, and were at various times held to be kin to humans, since they have the same skin colour as white people, and to be young dragons, since most people only ever saw them after heavy rains washed them out of the caves below the earth where the great dragons evidently lived. They are blind, like
many cave-dwelling beasts (tho as far as Gary was concerned this was true only for the hook horror), and they literally never grow up, spending all their time in arrested adolescence without fully maturing. They look like they might crawl out of your belly button to strangle you. They're too small to make for real enemies in a campaign without upsizing them and then they're mostly just snakes, so here's how I'd use them:

The dragons in the caverns beneath the world have no use for children; why would they, when they never die themselves? But the dragons remember all things that they have known in the days since the foundations of the mountains were laid, and in their slumber, their memories grow and thicken and ooze from the dragons' great pores into the rivers that never see sunlight, and sometimes the memories come thereby to the surface, or more commonly to the limestone tunnels and caves within the higher karst. Each olm is an idea, a memory, a piece of information: consume it live and whole and learn it. Much that was never written, or was written and destroyed, or cannot be written, lives on in this way. In the city, the great academies keep men whose duty it is to consume the olms that are brought to them, and to record what they learn. Such places pay well: and when the rumours begin that an olm has surfaced who knows and is a great forgotten secret, they will pay almost anything. 

Hellbender – I mean obviously you want to use something called the hellbender in your game. They're ugly bastards that look 700 years old and live in the Appalachian backwoods so they're clearly a gift to Call of Cthulhu campaigns full of hillbillies worshipping something that should have been forgotten. But they also have a kind of skinny, snappy, speedy vibe

and a angry, streamlined feel – hence the name, presumably – that makes them a good
candidate for the kind of thing that jumps out of a river and tries to tear your throat out, or waits until you step into the water and then fastens on your ankle and pulls you under. All the way down to hell, probably. They're also hated by fishermen who believe that they smear lines with slime and steal hooks – amphibian trickster spirits. Depending on how big you want them to be, stats are per the MM's crocodile or plesiosaur, or even the frighteningly dangerous giant crocodile. They can be a random river hazard, but I can see slaadi keeping these things as pets, too.

Pacific giant salamander – The Pacific North-West has a cluster of related giant salamanders (giant in this case meaning only about a foot long, sadly) which bark like dogs. Darndest thing. Anything that can bark like a dog is, of course, a potential guard animal.

The hag's lair, deep in the swamp, is surrounded on all sides by salamanders, waiting in the murky water and curled, unnoticed, round crumbling, moss-thick logs. When something passes by, they watch it go with slimy eyes, turning their slow, neckless heads after it and then yawning wide and barking a deep, gurgling yell that shakes the still waters of the swamp. The hag looks up from braiding the hair of the drowned. 

Iberian ribbed newt – lots of salamanders are poisonous – generally, as with toads, in the generic 'covered in poisonous slime' manner. The Iberian ribbed newt is considerably more metal than that, however - it has holes in its sides through which it can, at will, project its own spiked ribs, which are tipped with poison. They also regenerate – as do many amphibians – and thanks to a completely insane piece of 90s Russian space experimentation, we know that they regenerate twice as fast when in space. Do with this information as you see fit, sci-fi gamers.

Giant salamander – There are two kinds of these, Chinese and Japanese, but they're almost the same. They're massive – 6 feet long and hefty, like a crocodile but with an adorable

dopey smile and skin like the bed of one of those slow-moving, mossy mountain streams,
which is anyway where they like to hang out. Pictures of them wandering into the middle of Japanese towns will make you say 'oh right, that's why they came up with Pokemon'. They're also probably the basis for kappa, the things you placate with a cucumber with a person's name on it. Despite the goofy look, they also seem impossibly sagacious. I can think of few beasts better at fulfilling the key role of 'font of wisdom your players have to trek to a remote area to consult': the huge, slow thing rising gradually out of the riverbed, weeds hanging off it, little eyes popping. It's hard to imagine them in combat but they'd probably have near-bottomless HP. Cucumber seems a limited, though amusing, way to placate them. Maybe this:

As all children know, the salamander has no name. 'Salamander' is just a word, and saying it to the great beast in the river angers her: salamanders are those little worms that live in logs, she snorts, and her snort is like the sound of a dam breaking a mile away. She knows many things, but she has no name, and she hates those who do. Bring her your name – carve it onto something she will want to eat, something fresh and green and rich and fibrous – and give it to her when she raises her great head from the waters to speak with you. Give it to her, and she will eat it, and take your name too, and you will be nameless, your name forgotten by you and all who know you. And then she will tell you what you wish to know.

There's also lots of mileage in salamander-derived items: your game should be a trade in their poisonous slime, and there should be alchemists trying to learn the secrets of their regenerative powers. Nor did we even get on to extinct salamander-like amphibians, which were incredible. Another time.

In Japanese myths, heroes kill giant salamanders. Your heroes should too.