Saturday, February 26, 2011

Playing with Monsters - The Gruntok

So I'm toying with the idea of an old-school megadungeon after reading too much about them over the last few weeks and feeling a rush of old-school thrills while doing so. I really liked the Alexandrian's write-up here and it's what really got the ball rolling. The Apprentices are going to be around a while and this is the kind of thing that we could work in and use for years without it taking up a ton of specific preparatory effort once the basics are outlined. Knowing this I decided I wanted to throw in some new stuff, not just for them but for anyone who ends up playing it, and this means that certain well-worn races need a face-lift and some new wrinkles to make them both interesting and unpredictable again.

Yes, those are classic pig-faced orcs up there. Yes, my players have faced so many orcs already in their short careers that I don't want to put them in the megadungeon. Yes, I have played Warhammer and 40K for a ridiculously long time and yes those orcs are very cool but they belong in the warhammer world, not in my D&D dungeon. Plus the guys you see above were never depicted as over-muscled hulks grunting and shouting in cockney accents while wielding improbably huge jagged meat cleavers as weapons and I want to get back to that earlier flavor. Thus the Gruntok

Gruntok are smallish humanoids that top out around 5'. They are not heavily muscled but are quite tough for their size having tremendous healing abilities, better than almost any other race short of Trolls. Hearing is average, and their sense of smell is outstanding, They can see in the dark. Female gruntok are nearly indistinguishable from the males to most outsiders and fight alongside them in combat. Gruntok have achieved perfect sexual equality in that they just don't care about it at all for anything except mating.

Gruntok society is tribal or clan-based, meaning that most bands consist of one or a few family groups. They tend to be somewhat nomadic but once a tribe finds a suitable homestead they will settle in. Once settled the tribe will begin storing food when possible, crafting better weapons, and breeding. As the tribe grows, eventually part of it will split off, forming a new wandering band that begins the cycle all over again.

Gruntok breed very quickly, with the young ("runtlings") nearing maturity in just 1 year. Due to this rapid growth cycle their brains are still developing even after birth and they continue to do so for quite some time.  This means that older Gruntok tend to be smarter than the younger, and the oldest gruntok are dangerously intelligent foes. They also tend to be the leaders of tribes which makes this race even more dangerous than their raw physical traits. Battle seems to spur increased breeding among gruntoks (perhaps a side effect of males and females fighting alongside each other?) so a series of raids against a troublesome gruntok tribe can actually make the problem worse as the numbers swell over the next year and force the tribe into even more raiding with a now stronger force.

Gruntoks have one notable trait in that they are omnivorous in the most brutal sense of the word - they will eat anything, including other sapient races. Oddly enough the one thing they will not eat are other members of their tribe, though gruntoks of other tribes are fair game. They do prefer meat, specifically cooked meat and there is always at least one big cooking pot over a fire in any stable gruntok lair. Grains, berries, paper, cloth - all vegetation is considered a garnish with meat the main course if it is at all available. If it isn't, a hunting party will be formed to go and get some. Underground they might have to make do with rats, worms, and mushrooms but 'toks prefer some variety in their diet and will take risks to acquire new meat.

There is not a lot of deception in the average gruntok. They live in the now and tend to go by what their senses tell them. They are quite up-front with opponents about their likely fate (the aforementioned cooking pot). Honest is one word that could be used, blunt is another one, making them almost naive in a way and a smooth talker may be able to use this to his advantage in desperate circumstances. Leaders tend to have more deception in them but even then it's rarely anything sophisticated. Preparing an ambush along a well-travelled road or dungeon path is about the extent of it.

'Toks spend much of their lives in combat and so make for tough opponents. They favor the heaviest armor they can find and generally the leaders will have the best equipment.  Gruntok led by a canny leader will use ambushes and even will fight in ranks using polearms and formations. Younger gruntok sometimes have trouble grasping these tactics and so formations will be made up of older, smarter, and more experienced members of the tribe while the youth form up in warbands and use the traditional frontal rush assault to disrupt the enemy in advance of the main body. Gruntoks will also use missile weapons, primarily bows, but have been known to construct catapults when the need, materials, and brains were all present. There are rumors of a gruntok empire east of the mountains and 'toks from these areas are said to favor curved swords (scimitars) and round or half-round shields in combat, along with medium to heavy armor. Leaders often wear ornate helmets as a sign of rank and are protected by one or more bodyguards even tougher than normal 'toks.

Gruntoks are not great builders but are very clever enhancers and adaptors, fortifying, tunneling, and shoring up ruins and caves that they find. They are fond of using pits, moats, and other static defenses but do not typically engineer complex mechanical traps like pressure-plate spikes or crossbows. Most Gruntok defenses are obvious and effective.

Grnntoks  do tend to follow the most effective leader. Often this is the smartest one, but tribes will follow a leader from another race if he proves stronger, say by killing the current chief. Ogres, trolls, and Minotaurs have all been reported leading bands of gruntok. Smart chiefs know this can happen of course, and will often swear fealty to a stronger creature rather than die at its hands, biding their time until they can find a way out of the predicament.

'Toks do not know magic and cannot effectively learn to use it. They also do not have a racial god or religion or strong religious beliefs. They are mostly concerned with survival in the here and now and so have no wizards or clerics or shaman or witch doctors among them. They will occasionally take prisoners of these types if they sense a need but this is not common. Individual tribes can also be browbeaten into following a particular god by a stronger creature but it's not a natural state for grontoks.  They do know about magic items and will make great use of them if available.

Game Mechanics:

  • Typically man-sized (topping out about 5'), 1+1 HD, AC 7(grunts) to 3(leaders), Move 90', Alignment LE
  • Normal Gruntoks always have at least 7 hit points - this means they survive at least one hit from a normal man with a 1d6 weapon, giving them their reputation for toughness
  • 'Toks that are not killed outright heal all damage within 24 hours due to their outstanding metabolism. This does not regenerate limbs but can otherwise be treated as a slow form of regeneration. This is somewhat dependent on being able to eat, especially meat, but this isn't an actual rule.
  • Detect Ambush: Outdoors gruntok's sense of smell lets them detect an ambush 4 out of 6 times unless the ambushers have taken steps to conceal their scent. Indoors and underground, where there is less movement of air, this drops to 1 in 6.
  • Grontoks have no spellcasters
  • A Grontok hunting party can be quite stealthy, tracking or pursuing prey for miles with shuffling feet and low grunts for communication interspersed with snuffling sounds followed by numerous high-pitched squeals when their quarry is discovered, possibly signaling other hunting bands of their success.
  • Grontok leaders can speak common (learned form occasional prisoners) but most tok's do not, entering battle with a variety of grunts and squeals and snarls and ignoring words and comments from opponents
  • Grontoks prefer defense over offense in many ways so they never use a two-handed weapon by choice, instead preferring sword & shield and armor of some kind. Polearms are an exception to this for 'toks fighting behind other 'toks,especially in close confines like a dungeon corridor, but even they they carry a sword and shield sheathed and slung for use if needed.
  • Runtlings go through tremendous growth during their first year and as a result have voracious appetites. Invading a gruntok nursery (usually kept locked form the outside) is not a prelude to slaughter but is instead an ambush waiting to happen as a horde of half-pint gruntok swarm the intruders en masse in a feeding frenzy that would make sharks envious. Call them 1/2 hit die creatures, AC8, 1 atk/rd for 1d4 dmg. Runtlings have a knack for surprise as they know the scent and the sounds of their caretakers (whom they cannot eat) so when an unfamiliar party approaches they get very quiet and hunker down to spring on the first edible thing that comes though the door.

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