Continuing from Part 6, after the party encountered Lizardmen for the first time and dispatched them with the Sleep spell.
After killing the lizardmen in cold blood (ha!), the party, who suddenly consisted of a slightly different group of people, investigated the room the lizardmen had come from. Amidst the rubble of a statue smashed into an unrecognizable pile lay the corpses of several giant centipedes.
Behind the pile, a particular section of wall was carven in an intricate, geometric design. Skubble the Dwarf and Alveric the Thief investigated it, and Alveric found a small seam. Pressing on a part of the design opened a secret door! The party got in formation, and pulled the door open.
Skubble, at the front of the party, looked out into the narrow hallway and saw something floating in the air. A blue gem! And… some coins, and a ball bearing?
Without warning, a massive cube, ten by ten by ten feet, made of almost perfectly transparent jelly, surged through the door, slamming hard into Skubble! A painful shock went through his stocky body, and he collapsed to the floor, immobile but alive. In the ensuing chaos, the unnatural thing tore through the party, absorbing no less than two retainers and two clerics into its mass. The once-transparent cube filled with a cloud of hideous crimson as it broke down the soft tissues of its victims, their vital fluids oozing out into its viscous volume.
Ultimately, the party lured it into the hallway they had come from and then ran around past it, through the secret door. They damaged it heavily in the process, causing it to nearly lose physical cohesion, but they didn’t finish it off.
Miraculously, despite being the first one hit by the monstrosity, Skubble had not been absorbed, and his paralyzed form was dragged along by the party. They shut the secret door behind them.
In the narrow hallway, they looked right, and saw a set of wooden double doors. They looked left, and the hallway continued a ways, stretching into darkness. They turned left, without the luxury of time to mourn their fallen comrades, doomed to a swift digestion.
During my prep, I roll up a few encounters so that when a wandering monster shows up in play I can just deploy whatever is next on the list. I knew this gelatinous cube was going to show up this session, and I couldn’t wait.
There are few monsters that are so weird, so silly, so downright stupid as a gelatinous cube. It encapsulates the gonzo, anything-goes attitude of early D&D. A ten by ten foot cube that paralyzes you and then dissolves your biomass, the only thing keeping it from being totally hilarious is that to a low-level party it can be devastating. It has an increased chance of surprise, catching characters unawares on a 4-in-6 roll instead of the usual 2-in-6.
I found a good way to run a monster this silly is to play up how horrifying it is. Really get into the description of paralyzed adventurers being quickly disassembled. Talk about how the eyes dissolve first, stuff like that. One of my players took notice of my glee as I deployed the monster, and jokingly called me an “adversarial DM.” He didn’t mean it this way but that’s a term that can be super loaded in modern RPG conversations. The DM should never be out to intentionally kill characters, but what a game with solid systems in place, like B/X, lets the DM do is disclaim some of that responsibility. Mostly all I’m doing is marrying the rules of B/X to the environment of Caverns of Thracia, adjudicating the player’s actions, and turning the crank of the game mechanics. It’s hugely freeing in some ways. I didn’t put that cube there on a whim to mess with the players, Jennell Jaquays put it there forty years ago, and the luck of the encounter roll went where it went. Another part of that freedom is that I get to be really excited about nasty monsters without also being the jerk who put them there.
You’re never completely exempt from responsibility as a DM, and when given a choice I usually err on the side of mercy. Skubble the Dwarf lived because I decided that the cube had good enough instincts to attack non-paralyzed enemies first, and not just destroy the first thing in front of it. This might be unrealistic (a laughable word in this situation) behavior for a giant cube-shaped subterranean jellyfish thing, but it both kept a character alive and was legitimately a better strategy for the monster. I like Skubble, he is his player’s first RPG character ever, and his primary character trait is that he loves to eat veggies. Hopefully I don’t lose any old-school street cred for being a softy and only killing two PC’s — and freshly rolled up ones that no one cared about yet at that.
At one point, Alveric’s player tried to lure the cube in another direction by throwing sling stones at a wall, because maybe it’s attracted to sound? The monster description doesn’t say, but I figured it had a good shot at working. I gave the cube a saving throw to see if it fell for the ruse. It passed.
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