Weird World: Bugs


I once had a good friend who used to tease me about my role-playing habit. It was in the late eighties, and many people were still convinced the devil himself created D&D. My friend and I had many things in common; we were both into football, AC/DC, and blondes, but he simply refused to enter my world of magic. Finally he had enough of me and told me, quite frankly, that there was no need for fantasy when the world was weird enough. He had a good point.

I once had a good friend who used to tease me about my role-playing habit. It was in the late eighties, and many people were still convinced the devil himself created D&D. My friend and I had many things in common; we were both into football, AC/DC, and blondes, but he simply refused to enter my world of magic. Finally he had enough of me and told me, quite frankly, that there was no need for fantasy when the world was weird enough. He had a good point.

Combine the fascinating world we live in with role-playing bliss, and you have an adventure worthy of legend. From the ancient dungeons of Turkey, to the mysterious voodoo in New Orleans, this world is saturated with gaming ideas. After all, even fantasy games are based on ancient beliefs: essentially, the reality of our forefathers. Let's start by picking up the Earth and see what crawls out.

Spiders, beetles, and worms. They are found in cave drawings, literature and media all over the planet. Is it the tough exoskeleton and amazing strength, or maybe the advanced sensory abilities and clever instincts? Whatever the reason, mankind will always express a child-like curiosity for these little creatures. In a fantasy world, these chitin-clad monsters can have many brilliant roles.

Spell Components and Alchemy

Spells and alchemy have always been a great part of gaming. I used to love going through the magic book, envisioning incredible flashes of magical energy woven in to potent charms and enchantments. While most games have great ideas for magic, they often lack interesting ingredients. This is where bugs can play a significant role.

Insects can do almost anything. They can glow, jump, poison, pinch, stink, sing, meta-morph, spin silk, fly, swim and make paper. With so many natural abilities, I am confident to say there is a perfect bug for every magic idea. The fun part comes when wizards are forced to keep live bugs in their packs or alchemists hire characters to harvest army ants. Getting to know these remarkable insects and their abilities stoke the embers of creativity. Here are a few bugs that made me think "outside the book":

The dandy jumper spider taps on spider webs pretending to be a courting male. It continuously tries different greetings to lure the female down. Once it finds a successful pattern, it is intelligent enough to memorize the pattern for use in the future whenever it finds a similar type of web.

When threatened, the bloody-nosed beetle breaks thin membranes in its mouth and spits up its own blood. Chemicals in the blood can make predators very sick.

The bird dung spider looks like a piece of bird crap in the day. But at night it releases a chemical that attract moths for dinner.

Parasitic wasps lay eggs on live insects. When the eggs hatch they borrow into the insect, eating it alive.

Each of these bugs could easily be a component for a spell, or ingredient for a potion. Try to find similarities between the purpose of the spell and the characteristics of the insect. A viceroy butterfly mimics the appearance of the monarch butterfly, but only the monarch butterfly is poisonous. This bug demonstrated a mimic ability, which could be used in an illusion spell. While bugs and magic complement one another, each of these bugs could also be the heart of an epic adventure.

Bug Adventures

There are many ways to make a bug adventure. The first step is to find a really cool bug. The Vampire Moth from Asia, for example, has a dagger-like proboscis (snout) that it uses to suck blood (even human). With that, three adventure ideas come to mind: A moth transmitted disease where the group has to find the antidote, before livestock and people start to die. A political adventure where the group has to find out what the enemy's secret weapon is. As it turns out, it is a foreign moth with no natural enemies in the area, capable of driving out inhabitants with their great numbers. And finally, another adventure could involve a faction or cult that wants the rare moth enough to kill for it, leading to a Sherlock Holmes style mystery.

Often, the easiest way to include a bug in an adventure is to start small. Changing the bag of gold reward into a jade scarab is a start. You can carry this further by making the people the group is trying to help, bug worshippers. Instead of saving a princess, the group can save a prized dung beetle. This may seem silly to risk character lives for a beetle, but the bug worshippers don't think so. Perhaps the group has to save a few fools that zealously went into the haunted ruins to save the bug themselves. This is just one way to modify an existing adventure to have an insect theme.

Bugs have diets, defences, and enemies. But picking an appropriate bug for an adventure can be quite daunting at times. To help chose the perfect insect; I personally keep a couple bug books handy. Science books, children fact books, even nature magazines can be a source of great inspiration. I have even found newspaper articles that have become adventures when they show elements of conflict, drama, and intrigue. There is bound to be a perfect bug for the perfect adventure.

The possibilities are endless as bug collectors, wizards, scientists, fanatics, and eco-terrorists all seek exotic insects. The hot chemical spray of a bombardier beetle could be the world's next great discovery or most devastating weapon. The world is full of great bug ideas. Who can forget the 1990 movie Arachnophobia, with Jeff Daniels and John Goodman? Guaranteed inspiration. The fact that bugs exist, and that we know so little about them, makes the adventure even more unpredictable. The plot takes a nasty twist when the assassin the players have been looking for turns out to be an innocent spider. What was the effect of the assassin rumors on the relationships of the people involved? Perhaps the real adventure explores how fear drives people to desperate action. Insects can be used to reveal the curious, fearful, and mysterious sides of our nature. . .making them a powerful tool.

Motivation and Instinct

Most bugs reproduce very quickly, and adapt even quicker. This can make them a very worthy adversary to the most seasoned player. Understanding the basic motivation and instincts behind the insect can add to the realism of the game. All bugs do not act the same way. Bugs can be aggressive or shy, and they can chase, ambush, run or fight. Just because the group's tent was just knocked over by a giant spider, doesn't mean the spider is going to attack the group. The spider could be more interested in catching prey in its web (like its instincts tell it to), then to fight it out with a group of people. Adding motivation and instinct to the equation is the finishing touch of a great bug story.

So the world is weird enough after all. Bugs can increase realism, add interest, or make the entire adventure. Whether it's mosquitoes nipping at camping elves, or the King's prize singing cricket, insects will always have a place in games. In fact, I think the next time my good friend comes over, I'll feed his 12th level paladin to a giant trapdoor spider.

This question should lead to some fun.

In my last 8 years of GMing, I've had a hard time conveying the absolute horror and confusion of a swarm. You refer to 'Arachnaphobia' in the column and that is the feeling that I always shoot for, but seldom meet. My gamers go on as if there was nothing that much unusual about the encounter besides 'more bugs.' I want to change that. At least for one great memorable session. I've tried locations (morgues, bathrooms, tunnels). I've tried situations (bathing, breakfast, combat). I've even tried people (wizards, beasts, grandma). NOTHING! This year I really want to get to them. Any suggestions? Come on. Sumfin' real good!

The scene in Indiana Jones & The Temple of Doom, with the room full of crawling bugs STILL gives me the heebie-jeebies (which is normally hard to do).

Shark, have you tried something similar to the Temple of Doom scene I mentioned - but with a twist? Insect tend to lay a LOT of eggs (guess it comes from being a food source for many creatures). Have your party stumble across what just seems to be your "standard" cat-size insects...have them stumble across empty nests/cocoons/whatever...then have them "meet the parents." Have the walls undulate with skittering, shiny insect bodies...(think of the scarab beetles coming out of the ground in The Mummy).
Roaches the size of couches, moths as big as your car....we could go on. :-D

First, try not just making a swarm a "lot," try making it functionally infinite. As in, the party has to deal with the swarm by either fleeing, or somehow walling up the bugs lair, or some other creative method. If there's few enough buts that the party can solve it by whacking them with swords, they probably won't feel any terror. Also, what about having the swarm force them about? If all the insects are charging from the same direction, the party might be forced away from that direction. Towards, say, a cliff? Then there would be the added tension of the party having to either figure out how to get out of that situation, or to deal with being backed against a cliff by an infinite amount of insects. Or, if none of these options are available, try adding a second objective to the party besides just surviving and defeating the bugs. For example, defeat the swarm before it overruns the local village. That way, you can set it up so that even if the party is facing only, say, 20 bugs, they know that over the horizon in other parts of the world there are thousands upon thousands of insects doing very bad things, which must be stopped very fast.

I don't know if these will give the party a feeling of terror, but at the least it will give the party a feeling of tension.

Shark, I think you can mentally picture the true terror of the swarm, now you need to communicate that sense of fear to the players. Break down what makes them truly horrific, and play each concept separately. Here are a few suggestions:

Show the devastation of numbers vs. individuals. Right off the bat, have one of the players get bit by one single bug, they will laugh it off, but it will serve as a reminder that these things will attack the players. Later, as the other suggestions come to play, they can look back and second-guess their original perceptions.

History. This may not be the first time. A village elder can stir up some spooky vibes when he tells of another killer that came to the village. He can recall all sorts of terrible thing (some based on a old man’s fading memory). This gives the player the feeling that the evil is an ancient, powerful being. Adding to the mystery.
Develop the mystery. The swarm can do a lot of strange things out of instinct, but toss a bit of politics in and the characters will think there is intent behind the destruction. Characters will often try to figure out the villain’s motive, to try to predict its next move. Lead the group to many red herring and save the truth till the end.

Shift the tone. You mentioned a bathroom, here is a nasty spin: one of the characters has to use the washroom, but the old man inside is taking forever. The characters start to wonder if the old guy may have “dropped his last log”. The mood is a bit light as the characters kick down the door and see a steaming pile of bones and tendons. How quickly the tone changes and they stare in horror as a single bug crawls out of an eye socket and into the sewer. This tone transition is an important to manipulating the emotions of the players. Gamers seem immune to the shock factor of a red dragon, but the character that has to use the washroom, may not need to anymore.

Parallelism. Sometimes it is a good idea to create a sub-plot or even a silly story to illustrate the power of a horde. The local inn could be having problems with termites. If a load-bearing wall suddenly came crashing down on the players, covering them with dust, splinters and little white termites, this can work as both parallelism and foreshadowing. Perhaps the same old family powder used by the innkeeper to kill the termites is the key to killing the swarm.

Setting. Go where the bugs are. If the adventure is in the middle of civilization, the swarm needs a place to live. The sewers or a nearby bog can make a great home. Now, have your characters visit the bog in search for their killer. This is where the bugs have the upper hand, prove this point by making the setting very inhospitable (quicksand, slippery cliffs, sharp inclines, and the list goes on). This adds to the feeling of helplessness.

Helplessness. With thousands of bugs swarming all over you, it is impossible to kill them all. You can introduce this helplessness simply by having mosquitoes invade the player’s sleep. They can try netting, but the miserable buggers keep getting in. This can play as an irritation all throughout the adventure.

I think that will get some of the creative juices flowing. Rent the classic movies like Mimic, or even Aliens to provide inspiration.

Hope that helps, Shark.

A little nitpicking here: for a long time people assumed that viceroys were not nausea-inducing like monarchs, but in fact once someone actually did an experiment, they are. There are other insects that are Batesian mimics, though: some harmless insects and spiders look and walk like stinging ants, and droneflies look like honey bees. One kind of insect that's pretty cool is a tephritid fly. It has wing markings that look like a jumping spider's legs, and jumping spiders wave their legs around during territorial disputes, so it does the same thing to keep jumping spider from eating it. Maybe you could use the Viceroy example in a game by having a player *think* that the last piece of chocolate that he cast the "viceroy" spell on only looked poisonous, but then when he eats it...
Actually, that sounds like a really lame threat. But anyway...

another idea that may be of varying use is to put some sort of force behind the insects. In sr2 nothing put the fear in me like finding myself in the middle of an insect shamans hive. this could easily be transformed into some sort of decay demon in dnd. the idea is rather flexible.

You can use many of the ideas presented here. In addition, try using descriptions such as 'The swarm of bugs seems to stretch on until it is out of sight, crawling all over your body, some licking your flesh to try the taste. In the corner of the room you recognize the deadly Brown Recluse spider, known to be poisonous enough to have irreversably poisoned a human in under 10 seconds.'

On this subject, does a giant centipede get dexterity feats for it's multiple hands or can it just fairly much bite, kick, and punch?

some players simply won't respond to the most colourfull descriptions unless they are backed up with an actual threat to their charachters lives. I'm not talking about what kind of threat the charachters perceive... yes, I'm talking about metagaming. I'n 3E D&D most charachters (even many 1st LvL charachters) simply have nothing to fear from very low CR creatures, no matter how many there are. Here are a few ways to make a swarm more than just a collection of insects (or whatever it is composed of):

1: treat the entirety of the swarm (or specific sections of it) as one creature. There are some exmples of this in the MM2, and you can probably think of your own.

2: The book of vile darkness has rules for magical hive-minds which can also become a challenging, though different, encounter.

3: barring these two, a swarm can become vastly powerfull with only a little bit of powergaming. The Masters of the Wild included two new tricks that can be taught to pets: aid attack and aid defence, these two are basically more specific versions of the aid other action, they add +2 to attack and AC respectivly. now those 10 wasps (+0 to hit each) can hit the AC 30 rogue that thought he had nothing to fear. diverging from the topic a little, this works just fine for a charachter too (the ring of animal freindship is giving me +32 to my AC... untill the first burning hands is cast on me anyway)

of course... all this is completely useless unless it is described properly, so pay close attention to the posts above before you impliment mine. The rules are just a tool for making shure players listen to the GM's story, and a storyteller withought a good story is well... all mimsy.... like the borogoves...yeah I'm done.

This has got to be the funnest column going! Have you ever read something in private that made you grin? A grin with an evil glint in the eye?

Besides Jabberwocky's obvious mastery in this subject (good Lord, that's some good stuff... funnier than a monkey in a beer factory too), I have been really suprised by how inspiring and FUN these posts have been. Everyone has written something useful that I will be adding into future sessions.

Bugs... hehehe...

We've hinted at motives (reproduction, food, space). Now, can someone give me a real banger for a swarm plot-purpose.? One where the gamers drop their dice and stare at each other in disbelief. You know, the one where ALL assumptions are just blown to hell, and the gamers finally realize what's been going on. Yeah, there's bugs. But why? What really nasty why?

You guys have been great so far... Anymore?

Something giant is rotting, and the bugs are feeding on/laying eggs in it? Like, say, the carcass of a dragon? That clearly been killed by having its neck brutally snapped, by.... what?

As for the multipe aid anothers... do circumstance bonuses stack like that?

As for the multipe aid anothers... do circumstance bonuses stack like that?

short answer: yes, long answer: i'ts a GM ruling. the DMG says:
"a bonus or penaltybased on situational factors, which may apply either to a check or the DC for that check. circumstance modifiers stack with each other, unless they arise from essentially the same circumstances."

as for swarm plot-purpouses, a sentient hive mind (either as presented in the book of vile darkness or of your own creation) can make an interesting long-term villan. the swarm dosn't even need to overtly attack: you can introduce it as an environmental effect, an omnipresent buzzing sound, erratic movement in the air, and bite marks that annoy more than hurt haunt the party day and night (if it's cthulu their nerves could frey and their minds could start to crack). They don't sleep well. They could go about their buisness, have an adventure, but things always seem to go wrong? Those Goblins didn't look too tough, so why did they take so long to take down? I swear I killed that one three times. And isn't this the third time one of the saddle-straps broke...

This is evil. This is really evil. I like it!!

The insects are posessed and warped by the spirit of a departed mage. He wishes to be freed from whence his soul is imprisoned and used the insects to test your PC's "heart's resolve". Now that they have fought enough to be worthy, they must find and break the real enemy.......

Just another thought....

When they find the Queen, make her arise loudly and burts into tears. Let the queen of the bugs plead them for help. Then make her ask to kill her. Her big ugly larva-like butt blows sky high and out pops a semi- human-looking wooman with insect armor. She then pleads for them to find the alpha male and stop him from using their army to destroy the entire world/village/kingdom/ecosystem/universe/multiverse/whatever. I doubt they'll see it coming!

Good luck! happy scheming!

One of my favorite bug plots has always been centered around the sentient swarm. But, i like expanding that to have the bug-mind gain power and knowledge by what (whom) it consumes.

They are magically created insects (it was an experiment, like africanized honey-bees, but it went wrong, like africanized honey-bees...). Now they are loose, they start out as an early threat in the game, a minor menace (of course the party can't destroy them all!). But as the party travels, going about their normal course of adventuring, they uncover info about people being devoured by bugs. It starts with kids and small animals. Then old-people (the knowledge boost there is a subtle change in the bugs behavior), then strong adults->fighters->thieves->WIZARDS!!!->Magical Beasts! (keep them away from the displacer beasts for gods sakes!! you'll destroy us all!!).

As the plot evolves the bugs become the mastermid of a newly hatched(hahahahah hatched!! its too much! i can't stand it. hahah. . . ahem) plot for total species subjugation. Hmmmm...if the party can not stop Senor CreepyPants, perhaps it attempts to attain deification, it makes buggy clerics!! I gotta do this!! I need more coffee!! Beware the buzzing in your ear. For whom does the Monksquito buzz? It buzzes for YOU!!! Bwahahahhahahahahahah . . . whoa. I totally need more sleep.

anyhoo, don't forget that a swarm of buggies darkens the sky, and blots out the sun, a thick enough swarm should cause blindness and deafness penalties. Bugs also bite, burrow into flesh (to lay eggs, it happened to grandpa during WWII, really. that is soo nasty.), and crawl into orifices. there used to be a swarm of locusts near the size of the state of Nevada. Try not to be scared of that flying past you.

Oh, for atmosphere i have the perfect thing. there is an insect called the Sand Wasp. they do not sting humans, really, i promise. They dig holes in sandy areas (near lakes and rivers usually) and when threatened (when people make all those loud walking noises) they all fly out of the nests and buzz at the intruder. It is extremely freaky if you don't know you will not be harmed. Anyway, drag your gamers out there (ok so everyone can't do this, don't mean it's not a good idea) and start describing the setting until you lead them to the patch of ground where the nests are. Make them play out the combat there. (bring wet naps and some extra pants, just incase someone loses baldder control). Hmmm, perhaps that's too evil . . ..


Big, psycho-colored snails the size of a small apartment.

Big, psycho-colored snails the size of a small apartment with proptionally-sized radulae.

A radula is, in humanoidesque terms, tongues with teeth used for scraping food off of things. Most mollusks that aren't bi-valves use these to eat. Now, if you hold a normal garden snail in your hand, you may feel a tiny but painful "biting" sensation. That's because it's "licking" you with its radula.

Imagine how painful (and potentially deadly) a giant snail "licking" your adveturer would be. It could leave huge gashes, that are likely to get infected.

For those of your wondering:

psycho-colored: adj. Exhibiting a combonation of colors (such as purple, teal, green, red, and magenta, for example) that forces characters to question their own sanity, or at least the sanity/colorvision/fashion sense or lack thereof of whatever fell god created such a horrendous thing.


I'm not a rare flower
Nor am I a shiny treasure box
I'm just your average gamer girl
Who has a bit of power

I GM for the boys
I write up a set of rules
To make sure they keep a reign
On all their spiffy toys