The story so far: every so often, I write these articles that don’t fit into the category of teaching people how to build and run games or modifying the rules of the game. Mostly, they are just me thinking “out loud” as it were. And I call those articles “Random Bulls$&%” because they defy any other classification and because that is basically what they are. Just me bulls$&%ing about a topic with no real end in mind. Politely, you might say I just let my mind wander and bring you along for the ride. Less politely, it’s basically just mental masturbation.
Now, there are a bunch of folks that I Seriously Don’t Hate, folks that I call Frienemies, and folks that are potential gaming Victims of mine. Those folks have earned that designation by giving me money. Not just randomly tossing cash at me. They support this website and my other endeavors via Patreon. And one of the rewards those folks earn is an invite to my Discord chat server. And, honestly, it’s a great place. There are a lot of lively discussions that go on in that little slice of mostly game-related chaos. It’s a ton of fun.
A couple months ago, I decided to let my Discord server members pick one topic a month for me to bulls$&% about. They throw out a few ideas, then vote via insipid emojis, and whatever they choose, I write about. It’s fun. And I call it Fanservice BS. BS because they are just Random Bulls$&% articles. And Fanservice because I’m shamelessly performing for the people most invested in what I write. Try not to connect that idea with the earlier masturbation analogy, by the way.
It went pretty well for the first few months. Some nice, interesting discussions came out of it. And now, for this month’s topic, we have…
… mimics. Write about mimics.
Seriously? THAT’S what you guys chose? Mimics? Just mimics? Yeah. Apparently, that’s it. “Have you written about mimics,” it says, “because I’d like to read that.” Das ist alles. Mimics.
This may be the final installment of Fanservice BS.
After that suggestion got dropped – and it was the most upvoted suggestion – only two bits of what I can only barely call clarification arose. The first was the qualification “… and other trap monsters.” The second was someone ranting about GMs misuse the False Appearance trait in D&D 5E and a weird rambling rant about stealth and surprise and screw jobs.
I really don’t want to get into a whole bit of rules minutia here. So I am not going to address the second thing for very long. I will say this: False Appearance is not the most clearly worded ability, but it exists solely to tell the GM that “this thing will automatically get the drop on the players.” Until the mimic glues itself to the rogue and starts beating it to death, there is NO WAY to distinguish it from a normal bit of furniture. That means Perception won’t do it. Investigation won’t do it. Indistinguishable means “cannot by any means be differentiated from something else.” And there’s a reason the designers chose that wording instead of saying “automatically succeeds on a Stealth check” or “can make Stealth checks without concealment” or anything else. They didn’t use those phrases because that’s not what they meant.
Now that that’s out of the way, I’m left with the vague directive to “write about mimics and other trap monsters.” And, after thinking about this for days, I’m still really not sure what to write. I have no plan. But I promised I would do it. And technically, I’m being paid to do it. So here I am. All I can do at this point is just start typing out my thoughts and hope something interesting happens. Just get in the car, start driving, and see where I end up in a few thousand miles. Words. Whatever.
Mimics. Trap monsters.
The most interesting thing to me in this is not the thing about mimics. Or even the fact that the mimic is just the most enduring and iconic example of a particular screw job that was once very popular in D&D. Trap monsters used to be a lot more of a thing. Once upon a time, in D&D, you could create an entire furnished room in which the floors, walls, ceilings, chest of drawers, bedsheets, and cloak were all actually monsters that would spring to life and kill your players. And you would laugh you’re a$& off. Because whatever you might think about fairness and the non-adversarial relationship between impartial GM and player, that s$&% is funny.
The thing is, trap monsters were a part of a sort of arms race that existed in early D&D. Nowadays, modern gamer pussies who can’t handle a single goddamned penalty under any circumstances ever, they look back on that arms race and see it as the product of a cruel mindset. The killer GM. But it really wasn’t. Okay, sometimes it was. But really, it was the product of a constant problem that has plagued all interactive game design forever. Your job is to present a challenge to the players so they will be satisfied with their victories. That’s part of the fun. What do you do when the players get so good at the game – or their avatars get so powerful – that the challenges aren’t challenging. And what do you when the players start to break the game to undermine the challenge. And, in D&D, one answer is the mimic.
Mimics were a great response to an overly cautious party because they confounded the party in two ways. First, they weren’t monsters. There was no way to hear them by listening at the door. No way to see them by peering through a keyhole or using a clairvoyance spell to scan a room before you want in. You couldn’t spot one by sending a scout ahead. That meant that the party couldn’t get the jump on the monster and mash it into a paste in the surprise round. Or cast a spell at a distance and shut the encounter down. And in those days, shutting encounters down was actually better than killing the monsters. Yeah. The game used to be about the avoidance of combat.
Second, they weren’t traps either. Parties obsessed with checking every goddamned door and treasure chest and bit of furniture for traps had literally no chance to detect the damned things. Magical means of detecting traps didn’t work. Heck, you couldn’t even get close enough to search for traps because the carnivorous variety of mimic would attack once you got close enough, it would sprout a tentacle and beat you death. And, by the way, there was also a friendly variety of mimic. Seriously. Open the AD&D 1E Monster Manual. Check it out. There was a friendly, intelligent, helpful variety of mimic that would be nice to you if you offered it food. And that was a screw job in itself. If you went around whacking every chest with a sword to determine if it was a mimic before you got close enough, you might just stab a friendly, helpful monster and end up in a fight you didn’t have to fight. And lose out on important information. Because friendly monsters in dungeons would ALWAYS tell you useful stuff. Of course, anyone who ran around whacking every treasure chest with a weapon would also quickly discover that mimics are covered with fast-dry, super-strength Krazy Glue. And that’s precisely why. If you used a sword as a mimic detector, when you found a mimic with it, now the mimic had a sword. Ho, ho, ho.
Now, we can argue about whether the evolution of the mimic was a completely valid response to the players’ growing skills, power levels, and paranoia and a way to maintain a sense of challenge or whether it was purely about figuring out the best, funniest way to kill PCs but still make it look fair. Frankly, the answer is likely: “both.” After all, the only way to create a challenge is to figure out what will kill the characters and then dial it back a hair. So both attitudes will generally lead you to the same place. I will say this: mimics work better in video games. Because mimics rely on the fact that you only have a limited number of ways to interact with an object in a video game. In D&D, once the players learn about the possibility of mimic, they will wrack their brains trying to find some way to detect them. And since that basically undermines the very purpose of the mimic, the game designers are then stuck trying to build rules that specifically make the mimic as undetectable as possible under the broadest number of conditions.
And that is how we get the rule in 5E that basically says “it’s impossible to identify a mimic as a mimic in any way.” Huh. I didn’t think I’d get back to that. The magic of just typing to see where you go, eh?
The thing is, I don’t find any of this discussion particularly useful or interesting. It’s all just academic. Some GMs like mimics. Others hate them. Some players can handle sudden surprises with grace and good humor and just deal with the game as it comes. Others have very bright lines beyond which lies the domain of “killer GMs” and “screw jobs” and “f$&% this s$&%, table flip!” Different strokes for different folks, right?
What I find really interesting is this designation of trap monster and all that it implies. Yeah. That’s the bit that really got me thinking.
As I noted, the mimic owes its existence in the game to the fact that it is neither a trap nor a monster and therefore confounds the traditional ways of dealing with both. It evolved – for want of a better word – in a mechanical system that treats traps and monsters as two entirely different things. Well, duh, you’re probably saying. Traps and monsters ARE entirely different things. Why is that even worth noting? Well, here’s where things get really complicated and abstract. Come down the rabbit hole with me. Take the red pill and enjoy a post-modernist deconstruction of role-playing games. Don’t worry, though, it won’t be a load of empty, semantic nonsense. And, in the end, unlike most post-modernist know-it-alls, we’re going to remember that the point of deconstructing something is so that we can put it back together a little better than before. Not just to rip it apart.
To make sense of all of this, you have to understand that nothing in D&D is anything. This is the red pill, Matrix part. There is no spoon. There are just rules. And an overlay of description on those rules. Take a simple monster. Take a snake. In purely mechanical terms, a snake is a game construct that gets a turn in combat. On that turn, it is allowed to move and take a single action. One such action is to designate an adjacent game construct, roll a certain die roll, roll another die roll, and remove a certain number of points from that adjacent game construct. A second die roll is then rolled. And the target game construct might lose more points.
There’s no snake in there. It’s just rules for resolving probabilities and deducting numbers from things. The snake comes from the descriptions applied while these rules are being resolved. The GM describes the thing as a snake. The action is called a bite. The extra damage is described as poison. Of course, some of those descriptions have mechanical elements attached. Poison interacts with rules for poison saving throws and the poison condition and s$&% like that. But you could literally replace it with a random name and change nothing in terms of the mechanics. Just search for every instance of “poison” in the rules and replace each with the word “descriptor-p.” The mechanics work the same, but the name loses all descriptive power. And it’s this fact that makes reskinning possible, right? I could change the “poison” to “fire” and now I have a salamander. The mythical flaming lizard, not the actual non-flaming lizard.
Of course, a well-designed monster has abilities and traits and all that other crap that align with the description of the thing. In fact, if the monster in question is either a normal animal from the real world or else a very well known mythical creature, it should be possible to make a reasonable guess as to what the monster is based on the stat block without seeing the name. A small-sized beast that is nimble, of only animal intelligence, that can crawl and swim and has a single, poisonous bite based on its dexterity? If you guessed, say, three normal animals that thing could be, I’m pretty sure snake would be on the list.
And that, by the way, is why I hate reskinning. Frankly, I feel that the description of the creature and its mechanical representation should be very hard to separate. That way snakes feel like snakes and like nothing else. But that’s an aside.
I hesitate to bring this up again, but I once used a snake to illustrate a completely different point. I described a creature that I had called the “two-headed, two-tailed, bifurcated snake.” It was a snake with two heads, two tails, and two completely separate, independently acting bodies. The joke was, of course, that the creature was two snakes. And I only explain the joke here because that example actually broke a lot of people’s brains who couldn’t grasp what I was illustrating and chose to simply scream “BUT HOW IS THAT NOT JUST TWO SNAKES” at me until I ran away. Yes. It was two snakes. But, in the end, I modeled them as one monster. It was a monster that occupied two different positions on the battlefield, had two different turns, and had two pools of hit points. When one pool of hit points was depleted, it lost one of its two turns and also could only occupy one position. And from that, I built the idea of “multi-stage monsters.” Boss creatures that were basically shells that had two or more monsters in them. You can go back and read those articles if you want. But I bring up the two-headed, two-tailed, bifurcated snake to make an important point: in D&D, from a purely mechanical standpoint, you can model anything – even two completely separate creatures – as a single monster. You just have to get the mechanics right.
I could perform a few parlor tricks here to prove it. I could, for example, show that you could model fire – normal fire – as a monster. It’s immune to all damage except cold and its immune to all conditions. On its turn, it attacks anyone sharing its space or adjacent to it with fire damage. And it can also move 5 feet on its turn as long as it enters a space that contains something flammable. And whenever it moves, it leaves behind another fire. Now, you have a nice rule for a fire that breaks out during combat and spreads on each initiative count. And since each instance of the fire is its own creature, it doubles the number of instances of itself every time it spreads.
I’ve basically used that trick to run combats in burning buildings. Oh, I didn’t ACTUALLY stat up the damned thing as a creature. I mean, there’s a lot of extra information that fire doesn’t NEED. It’s useless to talk about the “charisma” or “wisdom” of fire. But you get the point I’m making. Or do you? I’m not even sure I do. Yet.
From a purely mechanical standpoint, we have to understand what makes a monster and what makes a trap a trap. And it all comes down to inheritance. That’s a computer programming term. And yes, we’re going all over the place today. Inheritance starts with the idea that you can define a certain type of thing with certain properties. For example, “monster” or “trap.” You can then take that thing and define more specific sub-types of that thing. For example “goblin” or “pit trap.” The goblin INHERITS all of the properties that make a monster a monster. And then it has a bunch of other properties unique to goblins. And, it might also have certain properties that change or remove the properties it has inherited. It just has to spell them out. I’ll give you a good example from D&D 3.5.
In D&D 3.5, one of the properties common to all creatures was that they got a turn in combat and could take one standard action and one move action OR could take one full-round action on their turn. That was the basic action economy. That’s a part of the “monster” type, right? Skipping over types of monsters, you had a specific instance of a monster called “zombie.” Zombies were monsters with a number of specific traits that were unique to them. They also had a trait that said they could only take a single standard action OR a single move action on their turn. Never both. And never full-round actions. That’s an example of a trait modifying or removing an inherited trait.
Inheritance is useful because it lets you define a bunch of properties and rules and mechanics and things once. In D&D 5E, monsters have one turn in combat and they occupy a space and the have ability scores and armor class and hit points and they have a stat block that follows a specific format and all of that other crap. You don’t have to spell that out for every monster. And every stat block looks basically the same. Now, that does mean you have to know the basic properties of all monsters to run any specific monster because they aren’t going to be spelled out every time. But if you keep that list of properties short and use good formatting to present your data, that isn’t a huge problem.
And if you understand the basic properties of a monster and can figure out how to word an exception, you can create monsters that don’t quite match up with all other monsters. For example, a single monster that is actually two completely separate snakes. Or basically anything else you can think. The only caveat is that if you’re changing too many properties of the basic type of thing, it’s usually more efficient to just create a different thing altogether. That is, if you wanted to create a creature that had no ability scores and had very limited action choices and didn’t have an armor class or hit points and was immune to almost all types of damage and so on – like, say, fire – you’d be doing a lot less work just to create a new type of thing altogether than to try and cram that into a creature.
It’s also important, however, to note that the things that make a thing a thing – the things that make a creature a creature – are entirely mechanical. This is the part that hangs people up. When you hear the word “monster” or “creature,” you think in terms of something is a free-willed living thing in the game world. But that isn’t always the case. Many NPCs – free-willed living things in the fictional world – don’t have stat blocks. They don’t have skills or ability scores. They don’t need them. Because, mechanically, the innkeeper is just a bit of talking flavor text and the guard is just there to be the thing at the center of a social interaction challenge with fixed DCs. Getting away from the mindset that “monster” means anything except “has a stat block, gets a turn in combat, and can take any action allowed by its ability scores, skills, and stat block, and so on” is quite empowering. You can model things like “two snakes” as a monster. Or fire. If you want to. You only have to understand all of the properties that come along with the monster stat block. You can model a potted plant, for example, as a monster. But you have to note that its speed is zero and that it can’t take any actions at all. You can model a magical, automatic crossbow turret as a monster, but you have to remember to note that it is only allowed to attack. It can’t take the “dash” action or “aid another” or use its Charisma to influence a creature.
And that last bit gets us back to the idea of traps and monsters and trap monsters. In theory, a trap could be modeled as a monster. They just need some very specific exceptions to the normal rules. But, unlike modeling fire as a monster, there’s a lot of potential in allowing monsters of type “trap” as it were. First, it would be a lot easier to incorporate traps into combat and to build extended encounters around traps instead of “one-and-done” style traps. Second, it would make it easier to factor traps into encounter, XP, and challenge math. Of course, you really couldn’t do that easily in 5E. There are a few too many things that all monsters have that traps don’t have. But if the original class of “monster” had been built to accommodate more possibilities, it would be easier. Hell, with a good enough definition of “monster,” all sorts of traps and hazards and obstacles could be modeled using the same basic format and rules. There’d be a sort of “master” stat block format. Creatures would add certain bits. Traps would have other bits. Hazards would have other bits. And so on. Hell, you even distinguish between “creature” and “adversary.” Creatures would have just a limited number of mechanics that would describe innkeepers and guards and combat foes, but adversaries would add the mechanics necessary for combat. If you build the whole game around this framework, you could probably do some really amazing things.
But here’s where D&D 5E really drops the ball. It isn’t just that they went a little too heavy on the mechanics of creatures such that it’s pointless to model anything that isn’t a creature as a creature. It’s that there are really only three types of things in D&D 5E. There are Player-Characters, there are Monsters, and there is Everything Else. If you look, for example, at the traps section of the DMG, very little effort was given to defining the properties of traps as a whole and then building a nice, streamlined way to record the details of specific traps. Each trap is three paragraphs of prose with numbers buried inside of them. The information isn’t even presented in the same order for every trap. And that makes traps muddy and confusing and difficult to invent and customize. Xanathar’s Guide to Everything actually makes up for that deficiency by defining traps more rigorously. And that just further supports my theory that the DMG was a rushed, haphazard mess, that was three months late because no one figured out what the hell to do with that book and then they had to slap something together. Magic items too. They are just paragraphs of prose. At least the prose is much shorter.
If it sounds like I’m saying that I want stat blocks for everything, I guess I am. Sort of. But that doesn’t have to mean what it means. Monster stat blocks are very open-ended. They have the mechanical data part that presents numbers and traits in specific categories, heavily abbreviated for ease of reference, and then they have sections of prose descriptions for more complex abilities. And those are broken down into Traits, Actions, Reactions, and so on. But I don’t really care so much about the stat block. I care about what it represents. A stat block represents a thought process. It says “okay, this is a class of thing that exists in the game world. Before we start inventing things, we have to figure out what it is that makes all of these things the things that they are and define the rules for that. Then we have to figure out a way to present the details and exceptions in a clear, usable way.” I want that thought process on everything in the game. Traps. Magic items. Monsters. Vehicles. Gods. Planes of existence. Everything. And I’m not convinced the designers put that thought process into everything. After PC and Spell, they did Monster and stopped there. Everything else is just walls of text.
And that doesn’t quite bring me back around to mimics. But I’m well aware that I’ve now written a lot of words and I need to wrap up and I’m not likely to get back around to mimics unless I slam on the brakes, hang a U-turn, and floor the pedal. So mimics. Classifying a mimic in 5E as a trap monster is actually a gross misstatement. It comes from only a surface understanding of things. Mimics have all the properties of any other monster, sure. But the fact that they are completely undetectable until they attack and that they cannot be disarmed or bypassed in any way means they have none of the few properties that make traps traps. They only behave like traps in the DESCRIPTIVE sense. They don’t behave like traps in the MECHANICAL sense. They are just monsters. Pure and simple. Monsters that always have the element of surprise.
But what if they WERE trap monsters? That is, what if we were thinking in terms of classifications and inheritance? Would that change the mimic? Almost certainly it would. At least, if I were designing the mimic as a trap monster, it would. I would have to explicitly state that a mimic cannot be disarmed or sabotaged by the usual means. But until the mimic is “sprung,” it would be detectable. A very careful inspection – one that would certainly put a rogue in harm’s way – would certainly reveal a mimic’s true nature. And it might even possible to spot the clues that something is amiss at a distance. Just like a rogue might spot the signs of danger and then have to get close and carefully examine the thing to learn more.
Of course, the mimic is likely to attack the rogue the moment it gets close, so it would still lead to hilarity. It’s just the sort of hilarity that isn’t based entirely on “there’s no way to see this coming and now you’re glued to a violent treasure chest and it’s eating your face; and maybe next time you’ll remember the ten bucks you owe me for pizza last week, Dave.”