Friday, August 3, 2012

Pity the Gelatinous Cube

The only known photo
of an actual gelatinous cube
(image by Mmarti)
During a recent D&D Next playtest session, we encountered a gelatinous cube, a critter that regularly appears on Stupidest D&D Monsters Ever* lists. But I got to thinking, as we backed away and easily killed the thing. We laugh at the gelatinous cube because we know what it is. The very first time one appeared in a dungeon, the experience would have been entirely different.

Picture it: You're creeping up the corridor, moving cautiously and checking for secret panels, when the thief who's out front listening at doors and checking for traps suddenly starts screaming and ... melting! You can't see anything attacking him, but he's flailing weakly at something and unable to pull away while the flesh on his arm simply dissolves. The ranger looses an arrow that inexplicably stops in midair and begins dissolving, too. You have no idea what this is -- a spell, a force field of some unknown kind, a magical trap? All you know is that it's liquefying the thief and slowly closing in on you. The thief is begging you not to cut and run, but ... what in Hell is happening?

Nowadays everyone knows it's just a giant Jell-O shot that can be killed easily once you know where it is. But if you hadn't read the Monster Manual, I maintain the g-cube could be pretty terrifying.

* I'm sort of proud that one of my creations, moon rats, made #8 on that list. And I don't care what he says, my moon rats could give that author nightmares and leave his character begging for death.


  1. We had a similar experience recently in that some Gricks where troubling us, one at one end of a long corridor and another at the other end. Our Barbarian ran headlong at one, only to have been lured by the Grick into a G Cube. As you say once you know its there, not such an issue, but it was creative use of the creature by the DM/Monsters and really troubling whilst our Barbarian struggled to get free.

  2. A good argument for relying more on custom monsters, and using tools like James Raggi's Random Esoteric Creature Generator. Monsters should be scary and unfamiliar, especially if you like play focusing on player skill (memorizing the Monster Manual is boring and is certainly not rewarded in my game).

  3. This and the "Tucker's Kobolds"* story remind us that one doesn't need uber-powerful monsters to create scary encounters. In both cases a DM/GM/Referee/whatever considers how monsters might naturally use their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. Random creature generation -- or careful design of a creature and its environment -- can get out of the kill-the-monsters-grab-the-loot rut.

    But do we even need monsters most of the time? What about crafty but deranged human killers? The village with a dark secret? The myth of Procrustes? The tales of Poe? Those of us who like horror in our fantasy can borrow from tales of terror set in our world for adventures in which humans are the most dangerous monsters of all. When humans are threatening enough, the occasional hidden monster only heightens the sense of mystery and terror.

    * "Tucker's Kobolds" come from Roger Moore's editorial in Dragon 127. I can't find an online reprint, but essentially a party of player characters regularly loses to stereotypically wimpy monsters when the monsters use traps, terrain, and military tactics.

  4. The Gelatinous Cube is one of my all-time favorite monsters, along with the Carrion Crawler. They seem to me, what would inhibit the deep places in a magical world.

  5. Actually it's your description that should be emphasised here. What you've described is a scarey encounter with a gelatinous cube and is really the way to run this creature. Never once tell the players what they are really up against: let them guess based on what their characters experience. Even a humble zombie can be scary when you do not know what it is, believe me, my last session featured two of them...

  6. even if PCs know what they are you can still have a bit of fun playing with the description, imagine the look on their faces when they open a door and the room appears to be underwater (as they are looking through it)... a beat goes by while they struggle to work out what's keeping it there, then it attacks...

  7. I personally don't like slimes/oozes/puddings in game for the same reason I don't like trolls; once you know how to beat them, they lose all their menace and flavor. Sure you can make them tougher, scale them for higher levels, give them a few extra abilities, or even a some class levels, but the gimmick is killing them, and at this point, everybody knows how to do that. I suspect that you are right about the very first encounter though. That would be Gygaxian levels of terrifying if you didn't know about it.

    Also, I love the Moon-rat, and have used a cabal of them as the unseen antagonist/mastermind of several adventure.

  8. I have always taken serious issue with the "stupidest monsters" lists. Monsters are only as stupid as a DM makes them.

    Plus, anyone who is NOT afraid of Grell has never played X-Com 2: Terror From The Deep. One of the most frightening monsters in that game is the Grell-like Tentaculat.