Thursday, March 14, 2013
What's the Matter with Giant Rats?
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.