Monday, November 12, 2018

In-Character Monster Manual

On the OSR discord, there was talk at one point of an in-universe monster manual, which PCs could find and consult. I've decided to take a crack at it for my Holy Selmat setting, since I've ended up writing a lot of book summaries anyway.

The best way to take advantage of this concept is to ensure that the author of the book has some implied character, and has a defined (or at least implied) relationship to their scholarship. Are they summarizing other texts? Did they get this information firsthand? How accurate are they? And who are they writing for? In a second draft of this manual, I would probably lean even more into that while expanding entries.

This monster manual was compiled by a thief name Shema and describes the creatures he has encountered in Holy Selmat. It is a professionally-bound journal filled with notes and sketches, mostly intact, with a few blank pages in the back. The handwriting is legible but sloppy in places, and a couple of earlier pages are covered in a thin layer of ash. Entries are in no particular order. Without further ado:

Art by Tom Wänerstrand


This is a practical guide to the destruction and avoidance of monsters by the hunter Shema of Sech. The most important word here is “practical,” followed by “avoidance.” I have studied the books of Tzetzes. I have discovered the horded lore of Skarbor, Birit, and Algol. For the most part, I have found, at best, half-truths and misleading passages generalizing from rumors and lies. Further, I have found many directions that, even when true, are worse than useless. That a ghost is repelled by iron is purely academic, since you will not wield iron in the field. If you, as the seventh edition of the Virsilcholic Text suggests, attempt to convince a ghost that your lead-handled knife is true iron, you will fail and die and the scholars will ignore your valuable example. I have nearly been killed three times and more by the poor advice of books and well-meaning scholars who have done no first-hand research. So you will not think I brag when I say that my Monster Manual is the greatest treatise on the varied abilities, weakness, and tendencies of creatures a monster hunter may find. The most important word here is “tendencies,” since most dangerous creatures are happy to demonstrate their strengths, and all weaknesses are circumstantial— you should never rely on actually getting to take advantage of weaknesses. A monster’s tendencies, it’s patterns and behavior and ecology, show you the way to understand what it will do. Foreknowledge is half of all victory. When your plan fails, if you can understand what the monster is doing you can adapt and escape.

[A figure seems to appear in the negative space between abstract shapes]
The iron spectre is nothing. It looks like nothing— a nothing so obtrusive that its absence stands out. There is nothing to see, but it’s not “invisible.” If that sounds confusing, trust that it would make more sense if you ever see it. The nothing is tall. Nine feet? About the same proportions as a person, in the most basic sense. It reaches out with something that does not have hands and when it touches you, you feel the nothingness run through you. There is no way I know of to kill or hurt this thing. There might only be one of them. Almost all of my research into this thing turned up nothing. Even the name is something I had to come up with on my own. When my party and I found one in a tomb outside Gath, Jashobeam went completely comatose, then found us after. There was something strange, something different about him, and Naomi, who keeps the myriad around us, could not detect a soul in him. Afterward I went back with a company of fighting men, and the creature ignored them completely, trying to send its soul-numbing (?) tentacles around me. This is certainly a guess, but I think this thing takes the soul, leaving the body awake.

[demonic symbol, carefully altered to be inaccurate]
Since everyone is well-acquainted with the traditional weaknesses of the demon manifested, I will not go over them here. If you think you know a secret means of repelling demons, then I suggest that you know a means of repelling one particular demon. Do not take for general a specific tale. Each demon has its own ways and wiles, and what banishes one may not banish another. Most manifested demons are “tutelary”— they are bound to certain place or tribe. This area is pretty wide, so if you plan to flee, then give as wide a berth as you can. Demons are empowered by symbols, and these symbols are unique to the demons, a form of borgian signature. Anything with the symbol of that demon is under its influence. The exception is an idol. Destroying a demon’s idol will weaken it a little, and it will immediately summon the demon to the idol’s location. Do not destroy an idol unless you are ready to fight a manifested demon, which means never destroy an idol. You cannot kill a manifested demon unless you are a prophet or fated champion, and if you are you don’t need this book. Some demons will spare you if you swear fealty to them, which will be terrible and is an evil act, but I suppose you couldn’t be blamed for doing so. Demons can never be bound to tell the truth. If you have a demon for a patron, you should remain on hallowed ground and beg priests who are strong enough to help you.

Giants are one of the most deadly creatures seen in Selmat, but they pose little threat to a clever hunter. If you try to fight a giant, you deserve to be squashed like the bug you are. Giants are so large, that it is simple enough to hide somewhere that one cannot reach. Do not think they are foolish, for giants are attested by sources I consider reliable to live for several centuries, and to have good memories. Good ways to kill a giant include poisoned offerings, waiting until they’re sleeping and blinding them, and hidden traps to injure and piss them off. If you need to talk to a giant, bring gifts. Cattle are a good gift because you can hide among them while you’re talking. Be polite and quick to the point, and bring slower friends. Giants have never had a significant dose of alcohol or drugs, so I bet they would be quick to take you up on the offer. This is conjecture. At any rate, it’s a better idea than the tale of Gulgasoso’s duel of wits with the prophet Tizrah, in which he dies “of a humbled heart, rent and weeping” because she answered his riddles.

[A picture of a goat, eyes narrowed. Smoky tendrils rise off of it.]
STOP MAKING SCAPEGOATS. Fuck scapegoats. They’re somewhat difficult to kill, and one of the only monsters which are completely preventable because they’re made intentionally by humans in a voluntary, communal event. In a ritual I will not put to paper here, scapegoats are created in a ritual where a town sanctifies and sacrifices one goat while heaping its sins onto another, driving them into the savannah. This is supposed to clear the conscience of the people. It is not frequently mentioned that these goats have psionic evil effects, are extremely hostile and fast. The first scapegoat I encountered was gnawing through Acsah’s arm before any of us knew it was there, and now she casts spells with a wooden hand. A scapegoat is not specifically repulsed by holy symbols, but cannot conceive of sacrifice. An oblating dagger scares a scapegoat, and anyone bearing it will not be harmed by it. If you can wrestle it to the ground and actually get to stab it with an oblating dagger, it should deflate into a wet sack of scum. Gloves or wood polish are recommended. Don’t create scapegoats. They make you suffer when you fight them.

The river horse, also known by their antediluvian name “hippopotami,” are red-grey chimeras combining horses and elephants, with a face like a smooth, blubbery bear. They are at home in the water, and very good at killing. While they seem lumbering, they are very fast, and will trample you if you are not astride a swift horse or chariot. They delight of sinking boats and will drown any that pass by. They do not fear crocodiles or lions. Indeed, these creatures fear the water horse. These creatures are territorial, but do not venture into towns or along roads. The sweat of water horses makes good lotion to protect against the sun, but I would only harvest it off a dead one. Every word of this entry is personal experience.

[A detailed sketch of a shifty-looking man with close-cropped hair. Of a higher quality than other art in the book]
Homunculi are alchemical creatures that have alcohol for blood, and are harmed by beer. They hate all gods and seek to distract people from holy days, but are especially fearful of the god of the Tengor. Many scholars have detailed explanations for why this is, but I consider this irrelevant. There are many proposed recipes for creating a homunculus. If you find one, it is fake. These monsters are cunning, and many become alchemists themselves. Even if you outnumber them, it is often a better idea to negotiate a way to leave unmolested. Their alchemical instruments are important to them, and they can be disrupted if you can steal or break them. Don’t expect a blow that would kill a man to dispatch them. Stab the corpse until it smells like a birthing party. They are flammable. If you have the opportunity to take out a sleeping homunculus, always always take it, no matter how much your wizard friend wants to study with them.

[In the margin, a list that reads “Moringa oleifera, Strychnos potatorum and Phaseolus vulgaris”]
Vampyres are undead creatures that feed on blood, are repelled by faith in Rektrine, and harmed by saltwater. A number of powers are ascribed to to them, which for the most part I cannot substantiate. I knew enough to avoid any that I heard of, though I’ve had to fight off some of their thralls and it proved manageable. Any area infested by a vampyre is sure to play host to vermin, wolves, or bats. Thoughtless undead are also common. If you find yourself hunted by one, find hallowed ground and keep from shadows or unsecured buildings. One of my colleagues has claimed success with coagulating drugs, though she mentioned that to do so is especially dangerous to the user. I think any plan that involves letting a vampire bite you is a terrible plan. Vampires are often said to be able to turn into clouds of sulfurous gasses. I wonder if they are flammable? Otherwise, collecting them in a corked vessel could work.

[There is a blank space here where a depiction would normally be.]
False hydrae? They plant themselves in the ground, their necks growing longer and longer until they emerge in some hidden place and eat some poor soul fetching his master’s wine from his cellar. The song of the false hydra removes them from your memory. You can trip over a false hydra, and you’ll only keep walking. They grow many heads, and their song becomes stronger until instead of ignoring it you serve it, and all fall before it. Stopper your ears, but I don’t know if that is enough. I won’t say where, but there is a city, larger than most, older than most, where a false hydra grew to the fulness of its power. I visited this city, the city that should have been known to all Selmat, should have been a normal place. It was a ruin, and heaped around it was the crater where the false king hydra ruled. Jashobeam whispered that it looked uprooted.

[anatomical diagram of a bird’s wing merged into a human torso]
Gross bird women. Capricious bullies that like to drop people off cliffs. If you get picked up by a harpy, you need to get out of its clutches before it gets high enough for you to be unable to risk struggling. They are not actually impressive fliers— closer to the gliding of some birds, only able to get real altitude on a draft of hot air. Harpy clans often excrete in a large pile, so that the vapors rising in the midday sun give them a draft for lift-offs. Scholars say that they are associated with witches and dark magic, but I would guess that they are too stupid and unpleasant for that to be true. I spent several days the captive of a harpy clan, and they reported worshipping a god they call “the Rudimentary Skeleton,” which is too strange a word for them to know for me to think they came up with it on their own. From the pellets of the dead they scavenge weapons, and I think any injury they leave would fester with disease.

If you see an elf, know that it is a long way from home, and it is here for a reason. I’m not sure if they are technically malicious, but they see no specific reason to do something in any human way. They are just as willing to walk around you as cut through you, even if you just finished negotiating with them, even if it makes no sense to betray you. Elves are not beholden to their past word or future interests, for they have no souls and do not know good or evil. Really the best thing to do if you see an elf is to kill it immediately, for while they are dangerous you can kill them when you are prepared. Foreknowledge is half of all victory. They have all sorts of self-destructive items, magics, and cannibalistic gigres. If you loot an elf, you will be rich in a week and hanged in a month. Don’t let them talk to you, for they have beautiful words, and once you consider an elf your friend you will mourn them for the rest of your life. It will be like you killed your life-long friend. I still wake from nightmares, guilty and desperate.

A warlock can bind their soul into a book. Technically anyone can do that, but if you don’t know powerful magic there isn’t a lot of point, and someone can just tear your spine in half. But if you have power, then this is a second lease on life. Horcruxes protect themselves by means related to the spellcaster’s abilities. I’ve encountered two of these. The first book escaped, but I was able to bypass the defences of the second book by blinding it. They tend to offer tutelage in the magic arts, and I suspect they would make good teachers if you could properly threaten them. While they are dangerous, they are fragile, and in principle finished by a single flame. Obviously the creation of these items is very heretical, evil, etc. etc.

Some consider them demons. They are short, rubbery, technicolor, naked creatures with slashing blades. Survivors often find themselves in dark moods, vexed by evil thoughts born in their hearts. One that we kept as a brief captive claimed that their followed a “trash king,” and that they personally served Satan. They smell awful and are terrible conversationalist, preferring to say the most upsetting thing possible.

[simple drawing of an elephant, with a woman holding a holy symbol standing next to it for scale. Her hands look bad.]
Beasts of incredible size, with twin spear-like tusks and a nose that grasps like a fingerless hand. Though they are strong, they are as stupid as any animal, and can be easily maneuvered around. If you get on top of one, there is little it can do to you. They have a great deal of love for each other, and will defend each other when possible. If you want to harvest the tusks for trade, I recommend cutting the flesh back to get at all of the ivory. I have heard that in distant lands elephants are ridden as a horse or a camel. This sounds like foolishness to me, since they are easily scared and difficult to stop.

[A somewhat exaggerated sketch of a hyena. Above it is written “Hey, Shema! Come here!”]
So hyenas are already very intelligent for animals. You can tell in part because they occupy the most pragmatic role of animals. But some are more than mere animals. Some have a magical intelligence, the ability to send their souls into the bodies of men and take some measure of control. This usually requires a ritual that requires a display of aggression and the symbol of a demon. Affected individuals become increasingly harsh and cliquish, partial to fresh meat and… amorous. If an exorcism cannot be performed, the ritual can work in reverse, a display of aggression sending the souls back into the mystical hyenas where they can be slain. I have also seen that an affected person can be discerned through the smoke of gigre.

The threat is ecology. Many novices have underestimated the threat of zombies, because they are slow and stupid. Do not make this mistake. Any undertaking against zombies is cursed because encountering a zombie involves so much implied risk. If you are hunting zombies, that means a necromancer is probably hunting you. If you find you must flee, you are pursued relentlessly, and like the hale hunter who tracks the same quarry for weeks you will walk yourself to exhaustion. Several manuals recommend finding the necromancer who created the zombies, killing them, and then getting around to the undead. Do not make this mistake. Necromancers are dangerous and difficult to fully kill. They are smarter than you and have anticipated that people will try to kill them. If you must, first disrupt their tendencies. If you can rouse a mob or call out a team from the nearest city, if you can force them out of their sanctums, you can remove their access to the lore and cadavers they’ve collected. Zombies moving together are easy to spot, so the necromancer needs to either brace for attack or disperse them to move unseen. The works of priests can damage zombies, and they do not heed obvious dangers. Caltrops are useless against them, because they feel no pain. Fire is better, and they will walk straight through it. Make sure you retreat quickly from blazing foes, because they will burn you with them before them put the fire out.

[Very simple drawing of a snake. Next to it is a diagram showing its fangs unfolding from the roof of its mouth, in a clearer style than other illustrations.]
These are a greater form of the snake. They hide in brush and grass, biting travelers when they approach. The snake bites without warning and requires no provocation. The venom will probably kill you, unless the mamba is black, in which case it will definitely kill you. Mambas make small lairs where they hide during the night and cold weather. If snow is on the ground, their venom is weaker. Writers I generally trust suggest that mambas prefer to lair near unmarked tombs, but I have not been foolish enough to check this.  When you are bitten, you will try to stop bleeding and your heart will halt. Drugs that heighten your energy can delay this, some priests can cure it if you are kept alive past the morning of the next day. I saw a man bitten, who immediately started running back for town and fell halfway. We carried him the rest, dragging him on Jashobeam’s shield. The man’s face grew flush and he complained of dizziness. A travelling magician offered to delay the man’s unease, but the priests chose to wait since they did not want to pay the fee unless it would prove necessary. By midnight, the victim’s unease increased, his blood leaving him in weak drabs, we found the magician drunk in the street, and he proved insufficient to his spell. If you can provide aid against poisons and diseases, do so at the earliest opportunity. Every resource you have is temporary. If you wish to milk the poison of the mamba, I recommend thick leather gloves that go above the elbow and leather boots that go to the knee.

You can’t stab ghosts. Fire has no effect on them. I have never actually met someone with a credible story of putting a ghost to rest by setting right some symbol wrong. Ghosts are affected by magic, especially holy magic, but even that is unreliable. Ghosts are usually tied to a location, so I recommend avoiding that location entirely. They can move through objects and fly, which means that cover is only useful for breaking their line of sight. Ghosts are usually the addled remnant souls of humans, which means they are not as clever as a good hunter. This is your only real advantage, unless you happen to own iron. Even if you do, the revenant is deadly against you. It does not fear its own destruction. I have not as yet found a reliable way to end a ghost, so my recommendation to you is to avoid them.

Difficult to see when they come from the direction of the sun, so they typically come at you from the direction of the sun. They look like wisps of colored smoke, snaking through the air in strange directions. Some have written that the smoke is poison, but I can tell you that it feels like being cut. My larger wounds from a gigre wisp bled. Though they are insubstantial, they are not incorporeal. You can scatter the smoke to kill them. As such, spears and the like are not so useful as a slashing cut or hard swipe, which are themselves not so useful as a large fan. Natural wind does not occur around them, though I do not know if that is an effect of the wisp or if the wisps simply know where to go to avoid wind. Practitioners value their remains.

[A diagram of a skeleton, with several joints circled. The hands look really bad.]
More intelligent than zombies and yet more foolish than men, except for publishers of creature catalogues. They are cruel, even when not malicious, and capable of speech. Skeletons in good repair often make simple traps and can use bows. They coordinate. Despite this, I consider them less dangerous in their totality than zombies, because they are largely undirected and unambitious, and can be fooled by a variety of means. A common tactic of theirs is to pretend to be a normal corpse, only to grab at a traveller by surprise. Some do this in combat, feigning their own destruction. For this reason, I’ve followed the general policy of smashing any corpse I cannot account for, and until then treating it as dangerous. Skeletons are often found in tombs, but those who reside in temples can be exceedingly dangerous. I once encountered a skeleton who claimed to have studied “osteo-martial arts” and “the way of the boneshaking fist” from the skeleton priest Arkarsoch.

[A picture of a bumpy hooded snake emerging from a basket. A mostly-erased previous attempt is still visible.]
Snakes woven from wicker and enchanted with life, usually by merchants to protect against thieves. Though they are not natural creatures, they produce a venom that makes victims clumsy and numb, hampering their escape. Steal from someone else. Fire is a good choice, since they are made of wood, but do not use fire unless you know how many you’re fighting. Swarms of wicker asps aflame would be like a wall of fire wrapping itself around you, the venom slowing you until you fell and burned away.

[A pressing of a black feather]
Some will tell you that the helvid is a myth, that feather men are only a superstition. Even the most credulous scholars will balk, writing of the gullibility of ignorant shepards. But the helvid is real, a gigantic beast like a long-necked crow, attended by its half-bird spawn in reclusion that is difficult to break. Helvids have great potential for magic, but shun the chemic because the smoke is harmful to their feathers. I have not seen it fly, but it bragged of great speeds and heights. Helvids may or may not be clever, but the one I spoke to had the accumulated cunning of centuries, and claimed many things I thought impossible. I have only broken the secret of the helvid once, and was visited by feather men the next day to gently remind me of my agreement. Seek the helvid if you wish, and bargain with it if you can, but if you betray a helvid be ready to be shouted to death by a feathered dragon.

They can smell you. I’m convinced their sense of smell just goes out an indefinite distance until stopped, like mortal sight. Except, unlike vision, it isn’t restricted to straight lines. They are excellent trackers, and leave footprints of embers and ash. Their double rows of teeth cauterize. They have one set of blind eyes and one set of keen eyes. The hounds are yet another creature that scholars say is demonic, and while I’m not sure they do seem to fear holy symbols of the cultic god Occulat. However, this is not a total aversion, and foreign faiths alone won’t protect you. Use their scent against them. Perfumes like persimmon, or a lot of incense. The stink of blood is attractive to them. Mask your own scent in a coating of mud.

When a demon can successfully enter the mind of a mortal, they achieve some measure of power in the world. Some vessels invite demons willingly, but actually most do not. Do not kill or exile a victim to a possession, for the threat of it prevents people from giving warning. Signs of piety can scare them, but some demons master their fear. It is very difficult to get a demon to vacate a vessel, and in many cases you will have to kill them. Some will vacate a vessel that they fear is near death, though others will just strike out with unnatural puissance. Naomi tells me that priests who study at Nidhgon, Ckem-Sudam, and Algol are said to make good exorcists, but she cannot vow to it.

[Four drawings of armor in a couple styles.]
They are not only found at the end of the world, for I have seen these as well. The soldiers wear armor that is new and armor that is old, weapons that are keen and weapons that are dull, smiles that are cruel and frowns that are frustrated. Their capabilities are similar to that of any foreign mercenary, but their behavior is strange. Displays of faith enrage them but do not weaken them. Some will tear at fine clothing before even trying to kill the wearer. Their strategies are stiff but well-executed. Retreat and harry them from a distance. Use choke points where their numbers mean less. Remember that they do not eat or drink, but they do tire.

Thin and pale like the servants of GG and MGG, they favor small, quick blades and to focus their attacks on one enemy at a time. The wounds are grammatic. They attack your name, and after we fought one I lived as Hem for some months until a priest was able to heal me. Ashob considered keeping his new name but was convinced it would be best to break the curse now, in case we fought them again. Research suggests they fear palindromes, and when we found a new pocket of them this bore out. Madam, I’m Adam. Rats live on no evil star. Selfless.


  1. This was a pleasure to read. The entries are all just long enough to get the point across and put me in the right head space to play D&D. I love the inclusion of animals into the document, feels very authentic to the history you're drawing from.

    Do you mind if I share this on G+?

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it! Feel free to share wherever you like!

      Animals have always felt like an ignored resource in games that I've played. Druids and rangers have very specific connections to them, and their inclusion makes an area feel alive. Like, sure this dungeon has spooky monsters in it, but we didn't expect a /shrew/.