Hello, and welcome to this exciting (well, I guess I would say that) new blog series: The Creature Chronicles!
I’m your host, Dylan Wilby – Steamforged Games’ Copywriter – and every month I’m gonna be talking about a different roleplaying monster, diving into its journey through history in folklore, myth, literature, and popular culture.
(And I’m the blog’s Editor, Rich August – Steamforged Games’ Lead Writer – you'll find out a bit more about me later in the blog but I'll be dropping in thoughts and behind-the-scenes info throughout the series.)
The idea for this blog series came when I, a self-confessed RPG noob, was Googling the various creatures appearing in our fantastic roleplaying sets, Epic Encounters. (Ahem, mandatory salesman moment: make sure you check them out here!)
Practically every monster I looked up was based on a creature passed down through the centuries in myth, legend, or elsewhere in history. The more I looked, the more I found: kobolds, goblins, dragon turtles, hydras, frost giants… The list goes on. All bear some resemblance to an imaginary creature from older sources.
‘How did they come to be adopted into the RPG world?’, I wondered. Well, after a chat with Rae, our wonderful Epic Encounters Brand Manager, The Creature Chronicles was born!
A Different Bestiary
Before we get into things, here’s a side note that I found interesting: the term ‘bestiary, now most commonly used to refer to books of monster stats and lore for RPGs, comes from the Latin phrase ‘bestiarum vocabulum’, meaning compendium of beasts.
These books weren’t just a list of creatures and their attributes, they also included parables. In their stories of various creatures and their exploits, Mediaeval writers inserted Christian moral lessons.
Oddly, these records aren’t limited to real animals, they include stories of mythical beasts, such as unicorns, dragons, and others. Historians aren’t certain whether they believed in these creatures back in the Middle Ages, or whether they found them useful for allegorical purposes. Perhaps the dragon was also known in those times for its greed, or the unicorn for its purity.
(They're also drawing on classical authors who almost certainly did believe they were real. Cf: The manticore, for example. ~ Rich A)
Before bestiaries made the transition to what we know from video and tabletop gaming, the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges and Argentine dancer Margarita Guerrero ‘modernised’ the bestiary with Manual de Zoología Fantástica (or, in English, the Book of Imaginary Beings).
This book is closer to what you might find in RPGs, with a series of entries exploring mythical creatures. It studies fairly standard ‘fantasy’ creatures like fairies, elves, and golems, but also looks at more obscure and specific figures like the Cheshire Cat.
Sidenote to a sidenote – the Cheshire Cat wasn’t actually invented by Lewis Carrol! Its earliest record is in Francis Grose's A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue from 1788, where the phrase “grins like a Cheshire cat” is recorded. Sadly, no one, to my knowledge, has made a Cheshire Cat roleplaying monster, so we can’t go into that one any further.
(I will now write this monster. ~ Rich A)
Anyway, sorry to get side-tracked! The boss boxes from Epic Encounters will be our springboard for this series, starting with Swamp of the Hydra.
So, let’s explore the history of the hydra, and how it came to be a popular roleplaying monster!
The Lernaean Hydra
It’ll come as no surprise to learn the hydra comes from Ancient Greek (and Roman – but they nicked everything off the Greeks anyway) mythology. Although this is well-known, the journey taken by the hydra to RPG bestiaries around the world is pretty interesting!
You’re probably familiar with the 12 Labours of Heracles / Herakles (or Hercules to the Romans). But if you’re not, they were a series of epic tasks assigned to the demigod Heracles, son of Zeus, as penance for killing his wife and child. To be fair, he wasn’t entirely to blame – Hera sent him temporarily mad because she was jealous of Zeus fathering Heracles with another lover. (This may all sound bizarre and toxic, but was pretty standard practice for the incredibly dysfunctional Greek pantheon!)
Anyway, Heracles set about completing these Labours with aplomb – he was nothing if not a hard worker. After slaying the Nemean Lion with his bare hands, he ventured forth to complete his 2nd Labour (sporting a delightful new lion-skin cloak).
That’s where our hydra makes its first appearance. And I mean first! This is the earliest recorded mention of a hydra, detailed in Hesiod's Theogony, an ancient genealogy of the Greek gods. Hesiod composed this tome somewhere in the region of 730–700 BC.
The Lernaean Hydra is remarkably similar to the hydra of popular culture: a vicious, water-dwelling serpent with multiple heads that can be regrown if severed. Further meat to the bone of this tale was added by the Bibliotheca of Pseudo-Apollodorus, a chronicle of myths and legends that wasn’t written by Apollodorus (hence the ‘pseudo’ part of the title).
Anyway, the Hydra’s monstrousness didn’t faze Heracles – nothing did – and he killed it with the help of his nephew Iolaus. When Heracles cut off a head, Iolaus cauterised the stumps to stop them regrowing. Teamwork! Then Heracles removed the immortal head with a sword given to him by Athena.
Some stories make reference to a giant crab sent by Hera that Heracles squashes with his almighty foot! Impressive stuff, honestly. (Aaaand that’s probably the closest we’re gonna get to the Crab-kin monsters from Island of the Crab Archon, since they came almost entirely from the mind of Rich August.)
The Hydra in RPGs
Now, the hydra’s cropped up in various places in pop culture over the years – there’s the shadowy terrorist organisation in Marvel comics, a character in Transformers, various bands, and lots more…
It’s even found its way into popular parlance! According to Merriam Webster, ‘hydra’ can be used to describe: “a multifarious evil not to be overcome by a single effort”.
But there’s nothing that really brings it closer to the hydra we know and love in the RPG world.
And in fact, it turns out you could almost say that the hydra is RPG royalty! The hydra appeared with the very first Dungeons & Dragons “white box” set, and has reared its ugly heads in practically every major Dungeons & Dragons release since.
(In the original Monster Manual (1978?), there's a version that breathes ice, I think. ~ Rich A)
As I mentioned above, the RPG hydra is almost identical to its classical counterpart: a many-headed serpentine creature that you wouldn’t want to meet down a dark alley at night.
Behind the Epic Encounters Hydra
Rich A: I’m a classics nerd, as anyone who knows me will readily attest. I have far too many books about ancient Rome and Greece lying about for me to pretend otherwise. So, I knew a fair bit about the mythological Hydra—one of the many children of Typhon and Echidna…seriously, those two conceived most of the monsters of Greek mythology. In fact, they not only conceived the Hydra, but also Cerberus. Meaning your favourite three-headed hound has a many-headed draconic sibling.
As you can see, my brain is filled with useless information about monsters. Most of the process of designing and writing Epic Encounters is working out what parts of the agglomerated lore around a monster are cool, and make for an interesting fight, and which can be dispensed with. Then you build the encounter around what you’ve got left. You take the essential elements of the creature (or creatures) and either subvert them or rebuild them.
You don’t need to do anything to make the Hydra’s multiple heads cool, or frightening to encounter. They do that part for you already. As a designer, all you need to do with something the players already know about, and already fear, is make it more fearsome. Heads working together to rip a character in half? That should work. All that’s happening here is a little bit of rebuilding, to render the best known feature of the Hydra suddenly scary again. Players get jaded, and, when writing a mythological creature who everyone has fought in God of War or seen killed in a Ray Harryhausen film, rebuilding is often the best approach. GMs pick Hydras because of their classical associations—don’t mess with those too much. Tweaks to accentuate a classic feature or trope is more than enough. As Charles Dickens almost said: ‘the wisdom of our ancestors is in the Hydra, and my unhallowed hand shall not touch it or the country’s done for.’
In the next blog, I’ll talk more about subverting expectations, but I hope this is an interesting insight into some of the work that goes into Epic Encounters!
So, there you have it: the hydra’s 2,700 year old journey from classical texts to bestiaries! I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.
Tune in next time as I explore the roleplaying roots of a different creature. Cheers!
Ready to get your hands on the Hydra?
About the Author
|Hey, I’m Dylan, Copywriter for Steamforged Games. I’ve always been enthralled by words and language, and am a huge gamer (both board and video), so writing about games for a living is pretty much the dream! I’m also big into music, folklore, politics, and have written bits and pieces for TechRaptor and When The Horn Blows over the years. Favourite board game: Catan. Favourite video game: DARK SOULS.