Monday 3 May 2010

Ele*meh*ntals, Amirite?

"Agreed, f**k Heart. Let's just kill all the puny fleshies."

Elemental as written in classic D&D (B/X and A-) are, sad to say, a bit *meh*. They are mechanically pretty dull; their descriptions and artwork have none of the allegorical/mythic resonance of their inspirational material; nor do they convey a sense of the power and fury of nature at its most violent. Even their minis are a bit pedestrian and phoned in. How to make them a little less yawnsome?

Well, there are several options:
  1. first and easiest: change the fluff,
  2. allow for composite elementals, and
  3. change their mechanics a bit (the obvious thing is a random table of some kind).

Changing the Fluff

The default assumption (reinforced by decades of path-of-least-resistance models) is that elementals just look like big humanoid lumps of... stuff. Which is depressingly limited, especially given how many other element-themed monsters share a similar conceptual space.

Fortunately refluffing is quick and easy in classic D&D, where 'canon' is generally synonymous with "whatever the DM decided last week". Lo! Instead of being simply big rocky dudes who are almost indistinguishable from badly eroded stone golems, the latest earth elemental to burst forth instead looks like a (d6):
  1. giant Easter Island stone head that grinds about the place looking down its long nose at people.
  2. stone rhino (“...the sinews of his stones are wrapped together. His bones are as strong pieces of brass; his bones are like bars of iron.” - Job 40:17-18)
  3. single massive limb that erupts from the earth and blindly strikes as the summoner directs.
  4. gloomy stone dude who just sits there in the lotus position and hums sonorously.
  5. menhir, elaborately engraved and orbited by jewels.
  6. stone toad squatting in a geode.
You can do this easily enough for all the classic quartet. So I will:

Fire elementals next:

 "Erm, no."

Instead of being yet a-bloody-nother ambulatory bonfire with beady eyes and mediocre artwork, they're (d6):
  1. greasy little axolotls (complete with external gills and that characteristic sh*t-eating grin) that make everything around them burst into flame.
  2. odd multi-armed Hindu-looking divinities juggling flames and dancing about in coronas of fire.
  3. red-and-yellow peacocks/birds of paradise.
  4. burning dwarves, who simply don't understand why you don't want to shake hands (Azer, Dorf Fortress, blah).
  5. iron and brass braziers; self-mobile and happy to throw all you lucky, lucky people the unsolicited gift of a burning coal or two.
  6. amorphous flying clouds of burning embers. No glowing eyes or perceptible face, and especially no big sad eyes or Billy Crystal-sounding voice. Just a cloud of mucky burning stuff.
Undines. Either you can have something that makes Hosukai wonder why he ever bothered in the first place, or you can describe them as (d6):
  1. Fanservicey Renaissance bints in damp gauze surfing around on sea-shells
  2. The dorsal ridge and flukes of some massive shark, whale or similar half-seen leviathan of the deeps
  3. Abyss-style living water that mimics the face of anyone who looks at it
  4. Shoal of fish that form a composite face (Nemo/Matrix fashion).
  5. Elaborate abstract formation of ice crystals, falling water and mist.
  6. ZOMG sea serpents! (and suchlike Freudian imagery)
Slyphs are already in the Monster Manual as the airborne wing of the hypnotic/blinding magical hot chick army (dryads, nymphs, sirenes, etc). And the various minor air elementals (aerial servants, invisible stalkers and wind walkers) have already stolen their invisible, malignant air current shtick. So we'll have to do something other than have them being whirlwinds with eye spots (d6):
  1. Boreal face-in-a-cloud huffing away (complete with puffed cheeks. The puffed cheeks are an essential thematic element)
  2. Thunderbird/storm crow/bluebird of tempests.
  3. Whirling vortex of blue and white sparkles.
  4. Swirly oriental dragony thing looping around mid-air to the accompaniment of discordant cymbals. 
  5. Rapidly spinning triskel which periodically whirrs, sparks and throws off clumps of shredded feathers.
  6. Skinny windblown dude in flowing robes.
Stats for all the above are as normal, just with an FX modification. Hopefully enough to add a little bit of "woah!" back to the primal spirits of the world.

As for elemental politics. Well, the Princes of Elemental Evil (FF) are simply cooler than almost any other quartet of elemental gods you care to name, either in pulp fantasy or gaming fluff. The idea that the earth/air itself is plotting against you is just... right (and we all know that the sea and fire are just biding their time). None of that Princes of Elemental Good nonsense though. The natural world is uncaring and merciless at best.

Composite Elementals

By this I don't mean the wackiness of the various Para- and Quasi-Elemental types (that way lies the madness of reified every-bloody-thing elementals. "Time Elemental, I'm looking at you!"). And no, Ice, Wood, Void, Magnesium and the like aren't /proper/ elements. Those are just...stuff. You'd be laughed out of the Academy for even suggesting they’re fundamental elements of creation.

Nor do I mean mimicking the noxious failure of creative ability that was the 4E elementals. How dead to the cultural heritage of the gaming world do you have to be to think that "Rockfire Dreadnought", "Earthwind Ravager" and "Thunderfire Cyclone" are worthy replacements for the rich trains of association and resonance trailed by names like Slyph, Salamander and Undine? (Not Gnome though, that name has been ruined by association with David and his fuzzy-faced, badger-fondling, bad joke ilk)

Despite what the Product Identity-mentals of 4E, and the various Para-, Quasi-, Pseudo- and Spurio-Elementals of late period TSR D&D did to the idea, combining elements is not necessarily a bad thing. Just allow two of the non-inimical classical quartet to borrow aspects of one another’s flavour and you've suddenly got whole new looks for the previously boring "I'm a self-mobile cloud/puddle/furnace/rockery" quartet.

Earth + fire = magma elementals, and who doesn't like lava?
Air + water = storm elementals.
Air + fire = burning, choking ash cloud elementals.
Earth + water = erm... mud? How about water-eroded rock? Silt? Clay? (jeez, there's always one joker has to ruin it for everyone!)

Again, no mechanical fiddling required.

Changing the Mechanics

A lot of what Classic D&D elementals do is fine. Their collective immunity to non-magical weapons makes sense. Beating on the landscape, or on a jet of fire erupting from a furnace, isn't going to do anything except give you some nasty burns and ruin the temper of your sword. Similarly there are proverbs in many cultural traditions about the futility of fighting the sea or the wind. So, yep. Immunity to mundane stuff is good.

Likewise the "maintain control, or it'll turn on you" thing that's a commonality of elemental summoning in both Basic and Advanced D&D is fun, flavourful and in keeping with pulp precedent. The rule allows the wizard player to don a big battlesuit every once in a while, but also ensures that his mates have to keep an eye on his happily drooling self while he goes kaiju on Team Monster.

The different HD from different summoning sources (stave = 8HD, wand/magic item = 12HD, spell = 16HD) probably has logical Chainmail/OD&D precedent; but from AD&D and B/X onwards it's merely another unexplained mystery of the Gygaxian universe. As for the 80 Hit Die walking disasters of BECMI...

The ‘unique abilities’ of the elementals though, those suck a fat one. The power and majesty of elementals is really undercut when it’s possible to adopt a SOP against their terrifying innate powers.

"He's summoning a [air/earth/fire/water] elemental."
"We're fine so long as we [avoid the whirlwind/cast levitate/cast resist fire/don't get in any boats] then. Oh, and by the way, dispel evil."

Surely creatures of 16 HD (that's more than any non-unique dragon, giant, or demon/devil in classic D&D) should have something a little more impressive than one bog-standard ability available to their entire type? Baz Blatt's non-canonical Tekumel demons (presented for our delectation in Fight On! #3) were pretty hardcore, and they only had 1 HD apiece.

The genies (Djinn, Efreet, etc) and minor elemental beings steal the peculiar quirks that rightfully belongs to the true elementals. So here are a few quick-and-lazy ideas to redress the balance:

Standard Elemental type ability
They get this for free, it's the calling card of their type.

EarthMeld with Earth
FireMake stuff to go *whumpf*
WaterMake water do tricks (run uphill, form arches, dancing fountains antics, etc.)

Then, dump the standard ability of the elemental (this is likely a bit of extra damage in B/X-LL, and the customary Whirl[wind/pool], or some extra damage in AD&D) and instead roll d10 on the table below:

1. Steal Breath - save or die from hilarious blue-faced asphyxiation
2. Whirlwind – as the standard ability
3. Blade Barrier – as cleric spell
4. Cloudkill – as wizard spell
5. Lightning Bolts / Call Lightning – as the spells
6. Thunderous Bellow – as the breath weapon of a Dragonne or Androsphinx
7. Invisibility – innate ability, cannot be dispelled
8. Rapid Transit (as wind walk or the special ability of the Aerial Servant)
9. Buffet (like a giant air cannon) - duplicates one or more of the famous 'hand' spell series
10. Windwall as protection from normal missiles

1. Immobility (self or other) - as hold person spell
2. Fossilising Blow - save vs petrifaction or be a decorative feature
3. Immurement (as imprisonment spell)
4. Gravity Control (slow, reverse gravity, etc)
5. Magnetism - as attraction/repulsion spell
6. Rusting Aura - as rust monster
7. Warp Terrain
8. Earthquake - as spell
9. Rock to Mud - as spell
10. Wall of Stone - as spell

1. Pyrotechnics - self-destruct as a Type 6 demon
2. Wall of Fire / Fireball - as the spells
3. Hypnotic Movement - as fascinate or fire charm
4. Immaterial Form - physical damage? Immune suckers!
5. Prophetic Ability - as foresight, or DM fiat.
6. Destroy Weapon - directed disintegrate, but with fire FX.
7. Fire Shield - as the spell
8. Heat Metal - as the spell
9. Cause Spontaneous Combustion - save or die
10. Move like Wildfire - as blink
11. Firestorm - attraction effect + AoE fire damage

1. Drown - save or die, or water spews from every orifice
2. Erode / Rot - warp wood, disintegrate, etc.
3. Waters of Lethe - memory loss
4. Airy Water - as the spell
5. Dessication - save or petrify, or you're Lot's wife now
6. Freezing Touch (water is a great coolant)
7. Wall of Ice - as spell
8. Maelstrom - as the standard whirlpool ability
9. Part Water - as spell
10. Annoying immunity - the water elemental just sits there, takes it, and goes *bloop* (like the Shao-Lin conditioning exercise where you have to slap water for an hour, to show the essential futility of worldly action)

Your elemental can use this ability once per round in the place of his normal attack.

Hopefully this'll make elementals a little less a bunch of palette swap monsters.

Thoughts? Opinions? Demands that I stop playing with the fundamental building blocks of the physical realm.


  1. You managed to make the Elemental Princes interesting to me in one sentence. Thanks! And made me think of this: Martin Amis, writing about some people who'd narrowly escaped engine failure on an airplane:

    "They were getting nearer to their own thing, the ground, the earth. Not scored and seared by another thing, the fire, not covered and swallowed by another thing, the water, not plucked apart by another thing, the air."

  2. This is good. It addresses a problem I've been worrying with myself.

  3. Very nice thinking, and some very creative and scary powers.

    By coincidence, I recently released some minor elementals on the world (see "elemental nuisances" in here) that scratch the surface of some of these powers, with a few differences (rust power goes to water...)

    I won't deny that part of my inspiration was Runequest elementals, who always seemed to do more with less than their D&D counterparts.

  4. I love it. I've always had a nostalgic fondness for the elemental "universes" presented in Mentzer's Companion, but these are gamechangers (in a good way).

    A possible earth/water composite: Quicksand.

  5. As often happens when I'm really excited by something, I raced thru without reading this with the attention it deserves. However, I can say it looks like fantastic work and almost exactly the approach I was going to take (you fiend!).

    I really think elementals deserve to be accorded the same kind of obsessive imaginitive attention to detail accorded to demons. Neutral extraplanar entities are interesting too and should not be bland by default.

    Thank you.

  6. *Copy*





  7. *cackles* Welcome to the fold ;3

  8. I was re-populating the upper levels of the Caverns of Thracia on the fly the other day and I decided that an elementalist had moved into a recently depopulated zone. I made the off-hand decision that he would have some lesser elementals tooling around the place.

    And then, when the PCs kicked down the door, I found myself saying, "... sheets of malevolent flame dancing around hearts of molten magma." When the elementals died, they left behind smoldering, blackened pyrites. If they were struck with cold-based spells, their magma hearts had a percentile chance of exploding from the sudden contraction (killing the elementals but peppering the room with shrapnel).

    So that was a little bit of found coolness that your post inspired me to share.

  9. Excellent post, though I like how you've reupholstered the dodgy old things a bit. There was a time when elementals were scary...

  10. Awesomeness abounds in this post. Oh so very glad I found this. Excellent work.


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