Polyphores, Chimeras, and Hydras

Sooner or later, most wizards will try their hand at creating life. The artificer makes golems of stone, of bronze, of steel. The bibliothurge writes people and even nations in such detail that they acquire a substance of their own. The illusionist attempts a fakery so total, so complete, that it is indistinguishable from a normal mind. The necromancer produces assemblages of many corpses and tries their withered hand at lichdom. It is, perhaps, the hallmark of wizardry: the desire to be a Creator.

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Coyote knows what wizards are all about.

Most wizards produce life of the sort that is clad in flesh. Even the Orthodox wizard, who may be as far removed as any from the grotesqueries of biomancy, can do it, though it will take work and time and cleverness in equal measure.

Polyphores and Chimeras

Those who would create life must start somewhere small. The simplest changes have to do with hue and temperament, and it is difficult to say whether such organisms are not simply cursed or enchanted, even if it breeds true through the generations. For those who care, the “serious” work begins with the creation of a polyphore, a creature with more of something than it ought to have. Most often, that something is “heads.”

It probably comes as no surprise that “A Wizard Did It” is the origin for the majority of the world’s many-headed menagerie: cerberoi and cerbeselacheans, corsels, doubleagles, ettins, hecatopodia (cephalopods with far too many limbs), and multi-bears. In Sovznak, the three-headed “triple griffin” was a sign of the country’s ruling dynasty, right up until the Revolution came and the last triple griffins of the royal aviary were put to the sword magic missile.

Chimeras are harder to pull off: they require the fusion of two or more distinct kinds of life into a functional whole. Notable examples include (or are said to include) flying fish, griffins, owlbears, platypi, sphinxes, and, of course, chimeras, who are not well-regarded, seeing as they’re only a single step beyond “take an animal and put some extra heads on it.” Even when the process is complicated, it still looks amateurish.

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Pictured: a mediocre baby.

Hydra

Nobody intends to create a hydra. They’re ornery, they’re dangerous, they’re unpredictable, and even a talented wizard can be caught off-guard by a newborn hydra. But sometimes they happen anyway, when a wizard reaches too far or makes a careless mistake, or is just dealt a bad hand by the fates.

Hydras can easily be two to three times bigger than the source creature (smaller source creatures tend to display more extreme growth), and may be larger still if they have an exceptional number of heads.  Some have toxic blood or poisonous breath, but there is great diversity among them. For every three heads that the hydra has, roll once on the d20 table below. If the same number is rolled multiple times, either apply the result again or re-roll.

  1. Armor plates. +2 Defense, cumulative.
  2. Breath weapon. The hydra deals 1d10 damage (Save vs Breath for half). Roll 1d6—1 acid (1/2 damage but reduce armor’s effectiveness by -1), 2 cold (1/2 Move for next round), 3 fire, 4 light (damage rolled = number of rounds target is blinded), 5 poison (x1.5 damage but applied at a rate of 1 per round), 6 thorns.
  3. Cancerous. When a head is severed, three heads are grown instead of two, but, instead of healing HP, the hydra loses 1 more HP. Cumulative, with each additional result adding +1 head and -1 HP to the effect.
  4. Extremely long tongue. Rather than make a bite attack, the hydra may grapple anyone within 10 ft. It may switch out bites for grapples as often as it likes.
  5. Independent heads. The hydra’s heads continue to act on their own after decapitation. Severed heads have HP equal to the HP lost by the main body when the head was cut off, and will finish growing a body after a number of weeks equal to the hydra’s HD. This is how most hydras reproduce.
  6. Legs regenerate twice over when removed. The hydra gets +1 Move for every 10 HP lost or whenever a leg is targeted.
  7. More mouths than heads. For every three heads, the hydra has +1 bite attack (minimum of +1).
  8. Perfect mimic. The hydra may imitate any sound it hears.
  9. Pheromones. The hydra is followed by 1d6 non-hydra creatures of its original species (or 1d6 swarms if they are tiny). Cumulative, by upgrading the die.
  10. Prehensile limb. One of the hydra’s limbs is dexterous enough to hold and operate tools, even swords and bows. Whether it is intelligent or big enough to do so is a different story. Cumulative (and if this effect is rolled often enough, you are free to give the hydra additional limbs). As long as the hydra has two prehensile limbs, you may want to give it a climb speed as well.
  11. Polymorphic. Whenever the hydra eats another creature, if it loses a head within 24 hours then one of the heads that regrows will look like that creature. The head’s intelligence is normally that of the creature’s, but it has the creature’s memories and, if the creature was smarter than that head, then there is a 10% chance of increased intelligence rather than a 5% chance (as described below). If this head is decapitated then two copies of it, rather than the original head, are grown. If multiple creatures have been eaten then the smarter creature takes precedence.
  12. Quills. Creatures who make melee attacks without a “reach” quality take 1 damage (cumulative if rolled multiple times).
  13. Sticky slime. After any successful melee attack against the hydra, you must make a lawful Strength roll in order to yank your weapon out of the slime. If the first roll is failed, then subsequent rolls may be made by spending an action.
  14. There is a mouth inside each of the hydra’s mouths. It has advantage on bite attacks.
  15. Too many eyes. The hydra cannot be backstabbed, surprised, etc.
  16. Unusual blood. Whenever the hydra is wounded, this effect is applied to everyone adjacent to the hydra. Roll 1d6—1 acid (1 damage + reduce armor’s effectiveness by -1), 2 anti-magic (all magical effects end), 3 fire (take 1d6 damage, Save for half), 4 glue (roll STR to retrieve melee weapon, only if that weapon dealt damage), 5 liquid hate (Save or attack someone other than the hydra on next turn), 6 smoke (hydra gets cumulative +1 to Defense until its next turn, applies to everyone who uses sight to aim).
  17. Unusually large. Double the hydra’s size. If this is rolled multiple times, then triple (or quadruple, etc.) then the hydra’s size relative to its original size.
  18. Vicious horns. Upgrade the damage die rolled for bite attacks.
  19. Wings. Each pair of wings gives it a flight speed equal to 1/4 its primary speed (if the hydra primarily moves by flight then its flight speed simply increases by one-quarter of its original value each time). Roll 1d6—1 feathered wings, 2 furred wings, 3 insect wings, 4 leathery wings, 5 scaly wings, 6 soft and slimy wings.
  20. Wizard hydra. Pick or roll a random wizard school and then roll up a random spell for the hydra to have. The hydras MD are equal to its HD. If this result is rolled twice, you probably shouldn’t give it a second school, just another spell from the same school, but you do you. There is a 5% chance of recovering all spent MD and rolling up another spell whenever the hydra re/grows heads.

You may also want to check out some of these weird hydra heads from Arnold K.

The typical hydra does not start out as any more intelligent than the source creature, but whenever two new heads are grown, there is a 5% chance that one of them will be a little more intelligent than its predecessor, and over time this can build up. Some hydra heads are as smart as people. A rare but terrifying few are smarter.

Opinions differ on how to refer to hydra, beyond a tentative agreement that the noun is both singular and plural. Some say that hydra ought to be distinguished by the collective noun of their source creature, so that one derived from a hyena would be “a cackle of hydra,”  and one derived from an elephant would be “a memory of hydra,” but this can be understandably confusing. Others, desiring more precision, might say “hydral hyena” or “hydraic elephant” (the declension is still being argued over), or even a portmanteau (e.g. hyedra, hydralephant).

Here’s another random table, since any animal can become a hydra:

  1. Alligator (or crocodile)
  2. Bear
  3. Bison (or ox)
  4. Boar
  5. Chameleon
  6. Deer (or elk)
  7. Elephant (or mammoth)
  8. Goat
  9. Hippo
  10. Horse
  11. Hyena
  12. Jaguar (or puma)
  13. Llama (or alpaka)
  14. ‘Possum
  15. Shark
  16. Snake (constricting or venomous)
  17. Terror bird
  18. Turtle (or tortoise)
  19. Wolf (or dog)
  20. Wolverine

Credit

Arnold K. has previously written on hydras, here (which also has a barnyard chimera) and here. You might also like his post on false hydras.

On the OSR discord, AMBZ reminded me of corsels and was the first to raise the idea of hydra wizards / wizard hydras.

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