In the first part of this blog series, we discussed the idea that the memories of ancient stories are still embedded in the stories we tell today, whether intentional or otherwise. I also said that I’d show you how you can harness those echoed tales and use them to make your 5th Edition campaign stronger. By choosing to play into or working against your players’ expectations of genre and story structure, you can influence how they react to different elements of your game narrative. In this series we’ll be particularly focusing on monster encounter design.
For this instalment we’ll start by looking at a famous legend from Greek mythology and one of the twelve labors of Hercules; the Hydra. Then, we’ll pick apart the story and see how we can apply elements from it to improve our own 5e combat encounters and make them more dynamic. Let’s get started!
Hercules Versus The Lernaean Hydra
Zeus, king of the gods, was an unfaithful cad, fathering bastard demigods all over ancient Greece. One such bastard was Hercules, who inherited his father’s godly strength and, weirdly, his father’s wife’s name (the Greek name for Hercules is “Heracles,” derived from the name of “Hera” – the queen of the gods and definitely not his mother). Hera was already furious that Hercules even existed, but for him to be named after her really rubbed salt in the wound, so she made it her mission to do everything she could to ruin Hercules’ life.
While Hercules was safe at home one day, surrounded by loved ones, Hera struck him with madness. Hercules slaughtered his family – his sons, his nephews, and wife – believing them to be enemies attacking him. When his sanity was returned to him and he saw what he’d done, he was devastated. He sought the advice of the Oracle at Delphi as to how he might atone for the crime. The only answer was to enter the service of King Eurystheus for the next 12 years and complete whatever labors were set for him.
The labors covered all sorts of seemingly impossible tasks, from requiring Hercules to kill an unkillable lion, to making him clean out literal mountains of cow poo from the stables of Augeias. He completed twelve labors in total, the second of which was to destroy the Hydra; a monstrous creature which terrorized the countryside near Lerna.
The Hydra inhabited an impenetrable swamp and was described as a great multiheaded serpentine beast. It was so venomous that the very air around it could kill, and coming into contact with its blood was even more deadly still. As if this weren’t bad enough, the Lernaean Hydra was also raised by Hera. And Hera hated Hercules. And Hera raised the Hydra to hate Hercules.
Hercules rolled into town with his nephew, Iolaus, to begin tracking the beast down – no mean feat since even its footprints could carry its poison. Finally, the two of them followed the Hydra through the swamp back to a cave where it slept. Hercules lit a volley of flaming arrows and loosed them into the lair, forcing the Hydra to come out and face him. Before it emerged, he sucked in a huge gulp of fresh air, knowing that any breath from here on out could prove fatal.
The battle raged. It seemed for a short time that Hercules would have the upper hand when he managed to decapitate one of the Hydra’s heads. However, things took a turn. From the bleeding stump where one head had been, two new heads quickly grew to replace it. A cleverer hero might have taken this as a sign to stop cutting off Hydra heads, but not our Herc. The demigod just kept on hacking off heads, one after another.
The last straw was when Hera called for the enormous crab, Cancer, to crawl out of the swamp waters and flank Hercules while he was busy. Now, I say “enormous” because that’s how the story goes, but if you happen to look at ancient vase paintings depicting the scene, you’ll notice that it was really just an above average size crab. That’s not quite the titanic combatant one might expect to take on the mighty Hercules. Nevertheless, the crab caused our hero enough distress that he called for his nephew to enter the fray and even out the action economy a little bit.
Iolaus, thinking quickly, set some of the nearby trees alight. Taking up one of the flaming stumps, he used it to sear the flesh wherever Hercules cut off a Hydra head, cauterizing the wound and preventing the replacement heads from growing. With the crab stomped to death (poor above average sized crab) and the Hydra deprived of all its heads, the conflict was over. Hercules carefully dipped his arrows into the Hydra’s blood, coating them in the deadly poison so that any creature hit by one of his arrows would surely die (something that ironically lead to his own death many years later). Then he dropped a huge rock on top of the Hydra to make absolutely certain it wasn’t still alive.
What Parts Of The Myth Are Still Remembered?
Ancient stories are very hardy things, weathering the tides of time over millennia to still impact us today. Though that weathering also means that parts of the story get sanded down until only the most potent elements are retained.
The story of Hercules doing battle against the Lernaean Hydra is a very famous episode from Greek myth. Just about anyone who grew up in the western world would know something about it. Yet is anyone likely to remember the crab distraction? Or that Hercules had his nephew lending a hand? Even the swamp and the use of fire are sometimes left behind. No, what sticks with people most is the idea of a snake headed beast that grows heads back faster than the hero can cut them off.
The elements that are most resistant to change can be the most useful to us when we want to guide an audience’s understanding.
It’s important to mention that, while many 5e players have a good chance of being familiar with the concept of a Hydra, that doesn’t mean they’re familiar with the myth itself. It’s more likely that they’d recognize the basics from something more recent. For example, they might know of the monster from Disney’s animated Hercules or remember the name “Hydra” as being used by the bad guys in the Captain America movies.
We can see how the shadow of the early myth casts certain associations over a modern tale, like that of the MCU. The villainous organization calling itself Hydra gives viewers a subtle shortcut to understanding that they’re toxic, difficult to kill, and have a lot of members (“Cut off one head, and two more shall take its place”). The writers of the Marvel comics and films make use of the most memorable elements of the old story to evoke certain feelings and reactions from their audience. And you and I can do the same sort of thing with our TTRPG campaigns!
Making Combat Encounters More Dynamic
So far, we’ve seen examples of specific elements of the Hydra as a monster applied, either literally (in the case of Disney’s Hercules) or figuratively (in the case of Hydra agents in Captain America), to spark recognition from an audience in a fresh story. But something I think is even more useful to us as we run our TTRPG campaigns is to look at the broader structure of the conflict from the myth.
In the first phase, Hercules and the Hydra fight. The two of them go at it in a pretty straightforward way; the Hydra hurts Hercules, and Hercules hurts the Hydra.
The second phase begins when Hercules has cut off the first Hydra head. It initially seems like Hercules might have the upper hand, dealing a massive blow to the beast… But then two more heads grow from the severed neck and the battle completely changes.
Suddenly Hercules is on the backfoot and needs to find a way to deal with this new development. The third phase comes when Iolaus figures out that cauterizing the wounds will prevent new heads from growing, which also brings the conflict to a close.
The typical enemy stat block for 5e is written in such a way as to make dropping it into any given combat simple and easy to run. An unfortunate side effect of the way they’re presented, however, is the possibility that a combat encounter can begin to feel two-dimensional or static. Particularly if the enemy has a lot of hit points, each round of combat begins to blend together into a homogenous lump. Nothing changes. Just keep hitting it until it falls down.
I firmly believe that any combat encounter can be made more dynamic by learning from the legend of the Hydra and its three-phase conflict structure.
During the first phase of combat, the combat should be business as usual. You want your players to get into the swing of the battle, become accustomed to the concept of whatever it is they’re facing and how it fights. This way it’ll be more impactful when the encounter shifts.
Phase two of combat is where you introduce a change to the status quo that has developed during phase one. Any change! Sure, it can be that your big bad monster has a secret ability like growing extra heads, but introducing anything new that puts pressure on the heroes will be effective.
In your game, maybe the bandit king cheats in a duel of honor and summons reinforcements! Or maybe the airship on which the party is doing combat begins to crash! Or maybe a Bulette crashes up through the floor and swallows a goblin whole, and there’s more rumbling approaching! Something about the scenario just has to give the players a new problem to solve before they were quite finished with the previous problem.
And of course, the third and final phase of the encounter; reward your players for reacting to the new problem.
The beauty of a TTRPG is the freedom of choice and the creativity that the format allows. The party might not come up with the exact solution you thought they would, but that’s okay! For example, in the airship scenario above, maybe you thought some of the players would stop fighting in order to fix the airship while others had to fend off the sky pirates. Instead, the party hijacked the enemy ship and left their own to crash, abandoning the pirates to their fate. As long as they react to the evolving situation at all, the encounter has been effective and the combat more engaging and dynamic than a hit point slog.
This is just one tool that can be applied to your 5e encounters to make combat more enjoyable and the story stronger. By borrowing the structure of an ancient myth that still holds resonance, you tap into narratives that your players have likely been steeped in all their lives. In turn, you encourage them to be more engaged with the encounter because they recognize the narrative patterns and are inspired to creatively play with them.