As we return to the #Rethinking series, today we are looking at one of the most interesting, iconic, and unfortunately cliché monsters in all of mythology: the hydra. Whether you first heard about this creature through the Herculean Labors, a fantasy medieval roleplay game, or the Marvel franchise, this is one inspiring creature: lots of heads, the ability to regrow them, serpentine necks for long reach - there's a lot to love about these guys! And with access to beautiful miniatures of them from Atlantis Miniatures among others, it's one epic creature for your games.
The unfortunate thing is that it's boring because everyone thinks they know all there is to know about hydras. And that's what we're looking at today.
I. What Is a Hydra?
So what is a hydra? For starters, in mythology there wasn't a monstrous species called a "hydra": there was the Lernean Hydra, one of the offspring of Typhon and Echidna, slain by Hercules as part of one of his labors. So one of the first things you should do in your story or game is determine whether a hydra is unique or part of a full species, as that will change a lot about how you approach the creation of a hydra.
Second, hydras have multiple heads, but here's the thing: the specific number varies based on the source. Sometimes your game system will tell you (D&D's base profile says 5, Pathfinder's base profile varies from 5-12 based on the creature rating), but remember: you can buck those rules and do what you want. You're the game master (or story writer, if you write fiction). So if you want to add more heads or have less heads (Ghidorah from Godzilla, anyone?), you can do that.
Third, hydras can regrow heads from the stalk where a head was cut off, so long as the stump is not cauterized with fire. In the story itself, though, the final head of the hydra was said to be immortal: it could only be cut off using a special golden sword given to Hercules by Athena, and only then could it be sundered and cauterized. So it's not always as simple as, "lop off the head with any old weapon and then push a torch up against the flesh," which is useful for you from a storytelling perspective.
Fourth the hydra is an aquatic creature, with its abode in the myth being in the Lerna River (ergo Lernean Hydra). This means that while yes, fire would cauterize the wound, the creature is surrounded by water. Keep that in mind as you plan the combat encounter, as the presence of water could make the presence of fire difficult.
And finally, the blood and breath of a hydra is poisonous. In the myth Hercules had to wrap a cloth around his face to keep from breathing in the poisonous fumes, and upon killing the creature he dipped his arrows in its blood to poison them (which would come in useful in later labors, but would also ultimately lead to his downfall).
So a lot of good things here - now we just need to present them in a way that is not overdone so that our players have a genuinely terrifying and exciting encounter.
II. Rethinking Hydras
So to get us started, we're going to begin with the knowledge that we may need to make some changes to stat blocks for released monsters in our game, and that's okay. Virtually no game system has all of these elements present in it, and a number have odd ways to break normal mechanics of the game because you are fighting a hydra (you can kill a D&D hydra when it still has 50+ HP left if you do it right, for example). But if we want to make this encounter different some changes are in order so let's be open to that as we go through the ideas.
First, and the least game breaking of them all (and perhaps the most interesting), you can give different heads different personalities. Sure, they are all part of the same creature, and getting one to attack the others won't work because the head would feel the pain of hurting the other head, but it does present a unique encounter with a chance for social rolls where you would expect only a combat encounter against a dumb brute. So if you want to immediately make your game more interesting without any changes to stats, rules, etc., this is far and away the easiest way to do it. And from personal experience it is very memorable and your players will love it.
You can also play around with the nature of hydras or tactics of hydras through the use of color. Much like how in D&D and other roleplay games dragons of various colors have different strengths, abilities, breath attacks, etc., you can do the same thing with your hydras. Maybe blue and green hydras are aquatic, but maybe a red hydra actually lives in lava (a very different "aquatic" take), and maybe a white hydra has wings and lives in clouds, "swimming" through the air. Maybe some don't like swimming at all, preferring land. If you do this, you'll have very different feels for your hydra encounters in your campaign purely because of setting and style.
You can also use a hydra's long necks to attack from different angles: have the hydra be under the platform the party is standing on, and the 6+ heads come up around them from all sides because the creature is just that huge. This makes the party feel like it is fighting several enemies instead of one, as they all attack from different angles and there is virtually no way for your heavily armored brawlers to protect the more soft and tasty casters and archers, adding to the tension of the scene.
Next, on the note of fire damage (and our first real change to the rules): only a strike that does enough damage to cut off a head (final strike that removes a head if you have a hit point counter that determines when a head is removed, or an attack that deals a Dying or higher result if using a scaled damage system like Zurn's) followed by a fire attack should be enough to keep the head from regrowing. Most monster profiles simply say that if the hydra suffered fire damage on a turn, it can't regrow heads that turn. But that makes no sense at all: in the story Hercules and Iolaus didn't just randomly throw fire at it: they struck and then they cauterized the stump.
So make it more tactical: tell players they need to declare which head they want to attack and when a head receives enough damage to sever it, a player that turn must use their fire damage to cauterize that head (dealing no damage to the creature but removing the chance at regrowing a head there). And if you lop off 3 heads in a single round but only one person does a fire attack to cauterize the wound? Sorry mate - better luck next time. More heads coming from the other two stumps.
Does this make it more difficult? Yes. Should keeping a hydra from regrowing its heads be difficult? Yes. Should the encounter push the party to its limits and beg the question at every turn of whether this was a good idea? YES!!! So is it okay for us to make a small but substantial change to the rules here? Yes. Yes we should. Because if you don't make this change, this is perhaps the single easiest way to make your hydra encounter boring, as a wizard in the black with a fire cantrip dealing 2 damage a turn could result in the hydra dying in a round or two because that tiny damage was enough to shut down a rule as written.
Next, the question of regrowing heads should have more discussion. Do the new heads have to come from the stump? Typically yes, and that makes sense, but does it have to be that way every time? Could it suddenly produce fangs and a face from the end of its tail, for example, potentially attacking characters from angles they did not expect (like those that assume that it is safer to attack a hydra from behind instead of from the front, because you know, rules as written you just have to do fire damage to keep it from regenerating, so why not throw fire at its butt to make it not grow heads)?
Think of it this way: each head, based on its age, requires a certain amount of blood, energy, soul power, or whatever your conception of the hydra is, in order for the head to function properly. So if a new head is sprouting where an old head used to be, the new head uses less energy, blood, power, etc. than the old one (which is why two can regrow from where there was only one).
So if that's the case, what's keeping the new head from sprouting somewhere else so long as the biology of your creature allows for it? Why can't a hydra sprout heads from its belly if it's flipped over? Why can't it sprout heads from its tail to ward away attackers from behind? It makes the creature seem that much more foreign, and thus that much more interesting.
Next, why don't games with hydras have poisonous breath or poisonous blood? Zurn incorporates it into its creatures, but the vast majority of games don't do that. This would solve so many issues with hydras (giving them ranged attacks to target flying or far away characters, dealing damage that is not just from fangs, being able to take poisonous blood from it upon killing it, etc.), and it's very easily implemented. So give your hydras a breath attack and make their blood poisonous: it will make the encounter that much more interesting.
There's also the question of what kind of entity it is. Is the hydra a creature of the natural realm, or is it actually a creature from a supernatural realm? Perhaps the hydra is a carrier of souls, and each head is controlled by a different soul, with new souls from its belly taking control as the old heads pass away? Could this change the personality of the hydra entirely? All of this makes the encounter unique because it fundamentally changes the nature of the fight. I'm not just fighting a dumb creature anymore: I'm fighting an aberration that is a collection of souls gathered by a necromancer and twisted into a rotting, voracious, soul-catching monster.
And finally, if you really want a different encounter. Give them a baby hydra. No one sees this coming, but seriously: give them a baby hydra. If they fight it, will they win? Probably (or they'll never live it down). But do they want to win against a baby hydra? Will its dying screams haunt them? Will the local village that was looking for a champion to fend off the local manticore be angry with them for killing the hydra? There are so many things you can do with a hydra egg hatching that takes the whole concept of a hydra encounter and spins it into the next solar system. And that's an exciting place to be as a player.
Hydras are up there with unicorns, dragons, and pegasii as my favorite mythological creatures, and rightly so: they are just so unique and interesting, and I really hope that when they appear in your story or game that they strike your players the same way. It's sad and unfortunate when you come across a creature like this, think you know everything about it, and just lazily go through the motions of defeating it. Make your game more interesting by using hydras in ways that are truly terrifying, making a memory that will last a lifetime.
Until next time,