Thursday, March 14, 2013

What's the Matter with Giant Rats?

"Rodents of Unusual Size? I don't think they exist." - Westley, The Princess Bride.

In a negative playtest review of James Maliszewski's Dwimmermount (I'm going to refrain from linking anything here for the time being), a player complained about facing off against a group of giant rats and being rewarded with 2000 copper pieces and some random jewelry. Giant rats are a staple monster of low-level adventuring, much like the lower levels of the undead or the humanoid food chain of kobold, goblin, orc, hobgoblin, gnoll. And it seems like most of those monsters have reached the point where they're even beyond cliche, they're just tired. Inversions of expectations aren't even fresh - it's a cliche now to Tuckerize your kobolds and make them into experts in irregular warfare.

With the giant rat, though, I think there's a problem of DMing philosophy at work. Like their smaller cousins they are basically scavengers, and will only attack if necessary to defend their lairs, or if under the command of another monster, such as a vampire or wererat. The problem with the giant rats in most commercially published dungeons is that they wind up being just another encounter to grind through, none of which makes sense from the description given to rats in early D&D materials.

Most dungeons stick giant rats in the wandering monster charts or in random dungeon rooms, frequently full of trash. Real world rats do nest beneath piles of trash, or generally anywhere their nests can be hidden - and the latter should be the trope. More intriguing are the other places rats build their nests, such as walls, chimneys, vents, attics, crawlspaces, and so on. Why are most of these dungeon rats nesting in big open rooms where other dungeon denizens are likely to get territorial? The 20' x 30' room in Dwimmermount that is set aside as a giant rat nest is downright palatial compared to what should be the actual space requirements of rodents that are smaller than many dogs. In that 20' x 30' room, the PCs should have to search just to find the rats' nest in the rubble, and the rats should be in it rather than running about the room attacking PCs.

But what I'd like to see more of in dungeons is other places for rat nests, in vents and shafts and holes in the walls. Presumably fresh air is coming from somewhere, and there are places that are more or less stable in the masonry. Rats are fundamentally opportunists, and the giant rats are even bumped up to "semi-" in their intelligence ranking. Instead of mindless PC-gnawers, they should be savvy scavengers; they show up when the PCs try to go to bed for the night, stealing their rations and leaving "rat presents" in their place; gnawing at leather helmets and armor and scabbards and anything kind of edible, and carting it off if possible. And they're fast as a man when confronted.

An average encounter with a giant rat, rather than starting with "roll for initiative," should begin and end with the creature darting out of sight, and out of reach of most armored adventurers. This way they become the curious thieves of the dungeon rather than just a filler monster for the average grind. This goes along with an idea I've been building up about dungeons being a really living place, which I've hard coded into the Caverns of Temeluc.

For giant beetles, I got nothing. Just walking bundles of HP. But we should be able to at least make the giant rat an interesting and worthy denizen of the dungeon.


  1. Nice. I just ran a party through a giant rat encounter--or rather, I read "Giant rats" in the module text and decided to skip it. Had I read this post first, something far more interesting might have come of it.

  2. I like your thinking here - I've taken to replacing giant rats with various things, and when not doing that reading them as slightly larger than the D&D norm.

    More a hunting pack of crafty predators than darting scavengers. Rats the size of a medium dog (say a pitbull) are dangerous and when they run in groups of ten or more, a real threat to a 1st level party. I also let them get around most space related limitations to their attacks, leaping onto defenders and climbing around each other to nip. Also what of giant "rat kings" you'd think in D&D land that six to twenty giant rats with their tails fused together would be able to cast spells like a 7th level cleric at least. Well something like that.

    I guess this is to say - you're right, giant rats need some attention but can be a lot more than a cliched random encounter.

  3. This is good stuff here. Interesting comcepts I will definitely put into play. Keep it up!

  4. Holmes in his Sample Dungeon had rat tunnels from which the rats could burst through the dirt walls into the crypt. Delta suggested this was inspired by Lovecraft's Rats in the Walls.

  5. As one of the players from the now-infamous rats-and-copper thing, and someone who lives in a rural area, I agree entirely.

    The primary complaint -- which wasn't that big, really, but really got blown out of proportion -- was that the encounter didn't make sense. Nine rats, exactly 2000 copper pieces (plus some incidental rather valuable jewelry... it was horribly evident to usthat James was just rolling randomly and throwing things together.

    What you describe, giant rats an an ongoing thing, opportunists that will pick at you from the crevices when it's advantageous to them, but they generally aren't worth the trouble to hunt down until they annoy you enough... this really, really seems right to me.

    Justin Alexander suggested (in a forum, as I recall, no link handy) inflating the encounter into the weird, where the nine rats are dancing around an idol and the copper coins are more or less neatly heaped in appropriate places for a ceremony, and that would have been pretty good too. Weird, imaginative, and could possibly have gone somewhere (one of the rats breaks away from the 'ceremony' and makes a motion like it's asking for a donation... what do you do?).

    The problem wasn't 'rats and copper', but the lack of imagination demonstrated. Justin had a good idea, but a dungeon full of that sort of thing could seem like an odd place indeed. Your idea of more realistic, and potentially really annoying, behavior really appeals to me.

    My players are going to regret my reading this.


Comments on posts older than two days will not appear until approved.