Lair of the Cavern Hydra

03 May

This encounter is intended for five PCs of 6th level

I like 4th Edition a whole lot (As if that weren’t clear) – but I will be the first to admit it has its problems. And like most obsessive nerds, I get really worked up over minor gripes about the obscure things that I love (activate NERD RAYGE!!!!1111)

For one – I never liked how the first Monster Manual resolved the mechanics of fighting a hydra. Now I get it – monster stats should be simple to read and the monster itself easy to run. But a hydra isn’t some random orc or a member of a pack of sneaky shadow hounds. It’s a big monster that should be a big fight (and they are, indeed, solo monsters). But given that in 4th edition encounter balance, a solo monster fills in for around five other monsters – I’m willing to accept an enhanced degree of complication on the part of my solos. Especially in favor of keeping such an iconic monster in tune with the expectations of the players. I mean, even people who have never heard of D&D can probably tell you how they’d go about slaying a hydra – and it doesn’t stack up with the monster as written.

Monster Design Thoughts
Monster Manual II posits a few new variants on the hydra and these hit much closer to the mark – but were still unsatisfying to me. The chosen mechanic in that case was to give the creature an additional bite attack at incremental levels of hit point damage (to represent the players lopping off a head, and having two grow from the stump). That’s much closer – but by abstracting the iconic decapitation elemental inherent in hydra slaying, it takes away from the player’s ability to make a choice and to act on their specific monster knowledge. Not to mention the fact that there’s no provision to prevent the head from growing back/multiplying, which is the whole gimmick with fighting a hydra anyway!

{pant! pant!} Ok, better now. Now I hate to make a lot of new mechanics and design choices (that’s a lie, I love to doit, but I know it isn’t always the best choice for the game) but I think some other monster design elements have inspired me to whip together a more fitting version of the hydra.

The inspiration for this little monster design experiment (and the credit for this great mechanical resolution to my gripe) comes from Dark Sun Creature Catalog (Take a look at the Silt Horror) and similarly to the kraken featured in the D&D Encounters adventure Lost Crown of Neverwinter by Eric Scott de Bie. Both depict a big monster with multiple dangerous appendages, and that’s really how I picture a hydra fight being executed. Think of any film, video game, or book with a similar fight and that’s how it goes – the heroes being grabbed by tentacles or penned in by snapping heads, attacking those primarily and the body after the immediate danger is gone (or negating the danger by attacking those appendages exclusively). That makes for an exciting, lengthy, and epic combat where the heroes can feel heroic. Ideally.

So though there’s many difference between a kraken and a hydra, I think those rules offer a good answer to the game elements of slaying this particular mythological menace. Treating the heads like tentacles – and stating them up as separate minions grants flexibility. Not to mention the fact that I rather like solo fights where a handful of minions help take some of the pressure off the boss itself (case in point).

This one is pretty drag-and-drop. The Cavern Hydra lives in a cave. That cave has some treasure in it. The hydra likes eating adventurers. Couldn’t be simpler.

I’d considered whipping up something elaborate but it isn’t really necessary. The Cavern Hydra would lair in a fairly open space in a cave – likely with a sprinkling of stalagmites or pits. Murky water or muck would be a nice plus. So long as it has room to maneuver the battle should go as intended.

New Monster

x1 Cavern Hydra
x5 Cavern Hydra Heads

The hydra is pretty straightforward, wading into melee quickly to get in as many attacks as it can as soon as possible. Ideally it should be constantly shifting away to force PCs to provoke opportunity attacks from the Threatening Reach that the main head possesses. Don’t be afraid to use those action points immediately – especially if it has combat advantage.

The hydra’s treasure can be whatever you need to suit your campaign, though given that it’s a solo creature, 2 parcels seems a fitting reward.

Handing out experience for this monster fairly might be a little unusual. The hydra’s body is not designed like normal solos because it’s expected to be used in concert with the head minions. As such, only hand out the EXP for the hydra proper. If the combat seemed particularly challenging (ie: if the players had no fire on hand) feel free to grant them an EXP bonus.

This resolves the OTHER problem of “clever” (ie: munchkin) characters attempting to “farm heads” with the expectation of getting more experience for slaying more head minions. Instead all they get is ‘nomed by MORE HEADS! That will teach them for trying to ruin a story-based mechanic with their exploitative math!

Special Considerations
Parties not anticipating a hydra might have a difficult time with this encounter if they lack abilities with the Fire or Acid keywords. You might elect to have them use a torch to ignite a stump. Require an attack roll against Reflex to see if it hits, and if so consider the stump sealed.

The biggest threat to this monster is close burst and blast attacks. The hydra might be highly motivated to go after caster types first.

It should go without saying that while presented as two separate monsters statistically – they are in fact, one creature. They will not function the same if put into a combat devoid of each other (not to mention how weird it is to have a dungeon full of snapping, angry, disembodied snake-beast heads. Actually….hrmmm….)


A hydra inspired by a kraken…Or how about a kraken that is ALSO A HYDRA! They didn’t see THAT one coming!


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One response to “Lair of the Cavern Hydra

  1. costontine

    May 7, 2012 at 7:55 PM

    Many Headed is pure genius and I love the idea of parts of monsters being separate stat blocks. This post has filled my head with so many epic ideas for encounters.


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