I’m a new DM and I Ran a False Hydra; you should too
First up, if you have read the title of this, are a D&D player and have no idea what a False Hydra is… then great! Stop now, don’t google it and go and ask your DM to run one. If he/ she doesn’t know, then have them look it up; it’s a lot of fun, trust me!
But why the secrecy?
Well, there is a specific mechanic to this home-brew monster that really makes things interesting and allows you to mess with players as well as give them a thoroughly good adventure. It, therefore, is just better if said creature and mechanic are secret so it can have the full effect.
How a False Hydra works.
There are a fair few articles online, with pictures, describing different ways to run a False Hydra (below are two I used as reference) but as long as you know the main traits you can pretty much run with it whatever way you want.
A False Hydra is a Hydra, unsurprisingly, with similar traits. Multiple heads that grow back (unless damaged by fire) multiple attacks depending on how many heads it has and it can be as large or as small as you want. The difference with the False hydra though, is, bar a paler complexion and Humanoid, Skull like heads, it’s kinda invisible; well at least when it sings.
On top of the above, its song alters the reality of the people that are ensnared by its charm. Forgetting others who have been eaten, ignoring the damage it has caused in the town and even, doing its bidding.
The only way to see the hydra, and the damage it has wrought on the said town you are in, is by looking through a mirror or by countering the charm, be this by deafening yourself so you can’t hear the hydra’s song or making enough noise that it counters the charm.
You should note that detect magic and Arcana don’t work, it’s not magic, it’s a charm but there are short windows of time when the hydra eats its victims that the song stops and reality comes back for a short instance.
How your PCs can interact with it.
To run a False Hydra you need to be able to keep your PCs in a certain area or there isn’t really a point. Like cats chasing red dots and shiny things, they will just get distracted, leave the area and all your preparation will be for naught.
You therefore will need to inform them that there may be some slight “guidance” and that this story ark will be more story and investigation driven so just to roll with it.
Once they are aware, and hopefully on board, then you need to provide a plotline that gets them to said specific town/village. If you’re running a campaign then it could literally just be a random town they are making their way to but if it’s a one-shot or your party are looking to go somewhere else then you’ll need to create a reason.
On top of this, you may have to do some pre game prep, depending on how you want to introduce the concept of your PCs forgetting people, even people they have known very well.
How I ran the FH.
If you would like to watch the sessions we had for greater detail, the link is below:
If you don’t have 10 hours then here a briefer description.
In some examples I’ve seen, the DM does a one-shot for a couple of players, gives them a few fights, wherein they find healing potions just in the nick of time or are just more lucky than usual. Then, while in the infected town he/she starts to drop in hints that players are forgetting things.
In my case, as it was a one-shot. I pre genned characters and made them all soldiers who were on patrol in a place called Belmoor, looking for deserters and bandits in the area. They stumble into an ambush and things get a bit hairy for them. Strangely though, bandits are being killed but the PCs aren’t sure why. They have no healer but find healing potions on the bodies they have no one on the top of the hills but yet bandits are falling from them, dead.
They fight their way through and I give them a round or two of combat before talking about a large force of reinforcements who they defeat but only just, I then give them an option to try and stop some bandits running off and to search the camp. Both of which they do. Finding a mirror ( important later ) and a map with the first seed of our story, showing markings for a potential attack on a town called Waterside.
I then flash them forward, stating that the entire battle was, in fact, a flashback and they were in an inn in Waterside, called the Pig & Harp, and talking to each other and the Inn Keepers wife about the battle (a point I had subtly inferred during some exposition before the battle started ) Where in she starts to ask questions about the attack on Waterside and snatches the map from a PC.
She then proceeds to get angry as the markings on the map do not show waterside at all but In fact a town in another area of Belmoor. This is where the first seed of doubt and confusion starts to sprout in the party who believe magic has changed the map.
They apologise to the innkeeper’s wife but she’s too upset and the Inn keep asks that the next day they apologise to his wife and puts their rude behaviour down to being drunk and that he “..expected more from the fortunate 5.”
Now the apology to the wife and calling them the fortunate 5 ( despite being four of them) are more plot seeds. Initially, when I talked to them about their background at the start of the session I say they are called the Fortunate 6, again despite there being 4 of them. When challenged I insist it’s because the Dwarf includes his two throwing axes; who he has named.
This is subtle and so the mention of the fortunate 5, instead of the fortunate 6 may go over some of their heads but in our case, it confused the PCs who thought I’d made a mistake. “ you’ve always been the fortunate 5.”
Ramping the confusion up a bit the group goes to bed( the Dwarf staying downstairs to drink with a Bard called Periwinkle. ) the next morning I make them take perception checks, wherein they notice an unmade bed and a bag in the corner of the room that isn’t theirs. This freaks them out a bit and so they search the bag.
Within they find Orders from a commanding officer, who they know of but a Lieutenant who they don’t, Kasar Tral. It mentions a similar mission to the one they were on and the “Fortunate 6” . On top of this they find a diary from said Lieutenant and the 4 entries mirror the experiences they had. The battle, upsetting the Innkeeper’s wife etc.
The Diary also mentions an NCO, Sgt. Far and how he stumbled across the bandit ambush and killed the sentry, then proceeded to kill more before running off to Waterside in the middle of the night to hunt down a traitor Captain called Byrand; who had killed his brother during the battle of Whispering Shore.
The final entry in the diary states that he ( Lt Tral ) would take the first watch and that he heard a noise so was going to investigate…
The party is suitably on edge and confused now, only to be put more on edge when they go downstairs to apologise to the Inn Keeper’s wife, only to be told by him that he never had a wife and he calls them the Fortunate 4…shit has just gone down.
All kinds of theories come out; magic, parallel universes, are they being manipulated? They start to inspect the mirror and use it to look at the map, but as they are not sure what they are looking for and because the mirror is only facing the Map I just say the Mirror is ornate and nice-looking but you see no changes in the map. Had they looked through the mirror normally and rolled high enough on their perception I may have let them see a crack in their reality ( as occurs later).
In the next few sessions, I provide them with a map of the town and different areas they can go to. Within I have a rough idea of what will happen and the strange goings-on that will help them decipher what has befallen the town. For example, the Militia isn’t being led by anyone and they aren’t sure why despite there being commanding officer documents.
There is mention in the Pig and Harp (after eavesdropping on some punters) that there is a crazy man in the local jail and tails of some bandit activity in the woods. They also ask who is in charge of the town but no one can tell them.
The crazy man they think is one of their missing comrades but it is in fact the renegade Captain Byrand who is deaf and able to see what is happening. This is their first clue that silence will alter their perception. On top of this, randomly I ask them to roll perception and if they roll high enough let them see some cracks. Maybe a glimpse of blood, a destroyed house, a hole in the ceiling or even a look at the head of the hydra. Before disappearing, as if like describing a dream that is slipping away.
The random perception checks are to imply that someone is being eaten by the Hydra, as it can’t sing and eat at the same time. Added to this I play music throughout the game and stop it when the hydra eats; a subtle nuance that some players may pick up on.
As for the Bandit activity, this is a way for them to stumble across a healer I added, a Druid, who was in bear form and couldn’t change back because of the hydras song. It also gave them the opportunity to search the woods and find a tunnel network under the town.
Without a map, they get lost and end up in random parts of the town. Where in they meet people who have strange stories to tell of finding clothes that weren’t theirs in their house or orphan boys running a B&B because that’s how it’s always been.. despite not having parents.
In the tunnels they find evidence of something burrowing but aren’t sure without having a look in the library.
The library will be a big reveal for them as they check different categories for evidence of similar things happening in other towns and what it could be. Within you can start telling them, depending on their rolls, how the False hydra works, what it has done, and how you can see it. You can also start making random PCs make wisdom checks, and if they fail have them start wandering off as if charmed. This means PCs are going to have to stop them or risk being eaten and forgotten.
By this time, they are now aware of the creature in the town, feeding off it and it’s up to them to decide how to deal with this fell beast. In my case I implied, having let them see it through the mirror, that it was a huge 5 headed monstrosity, towering over the town. Unfortunately,PC’s will do what PC’s will do and the Wizard in our group cast fireball straight at it.
This was the biggest test for me as a DM because how I had it in my head was that if the party went against the main Hydra, as was, they would be killed and I didn’t want them dead.. just wouldn’t have been a good stream. So I gave them a chance to tackle the Wizard before he cast it. They succeeded but instead of hitting the hydra they set fire to the Inn and then proceeded to be kicked out of town; forcing them to use the tunnels.
They used the tunnel network to go to the town hall and found a map, they then figured out where the hydra could potentially be based on the tunnels ( though I did add in an additional tunnel that wasn’t on the map and had them roll investigation to find it. )
I threw in some minor minions to kill, in the tunnels, and then let them loose on the Hydra’s secondary heads (which I stated, based on miners first-hand account in the library, defended its heart. ) Unfortunately for me, I didn’t stat it hard enough and they made short work of it. The fire spells prevented the heads growing back and despite me charming some of the PCs who hadn’t covered their ears they were still able to kill it quite easily.
After it’s defeat I described a scene of destruction as they surfaced and how the reality of the situation they had been in started to kick in. All their memories coming back and the emotion that came along with it.
Initially, I was going to end it with them going back to their Bastion, reporting to their commanding officer, only to be told they don’t know who he is. But I ended it with them realising that the Gnome Bard, Periwinkle, they had been drinking with was in fact a part of their order and had some of the characters link in with the Campaign I was running after… Byrand Escapes!
What I would have done differently.
As it was, I felt the One-shot went well, especially as I had to ad-lib a lot but I would have definitely made the Hydra harder, especially knowing that there was a Wizard with spells that stopped its head regeneration. More hit points at-least, to enable it to weather more attacks and do more damage in return.
I may have even stuck with it being unassailably big by the party and so have them make a decision of either destroying the town or not, in a bid to kill the Hydra.
I would have also made the PCs either have their ears blocked up or covered and if not, made them use the mirror to see the Hydra; something I forgot to do at the end of the stream.
Other than that I got the impression everyone involved really enjoyed it and was told that they were very much engaged in the entire story, which, is the main outcome your want really.
Why running False Hydra is a good starting point for a new DM like me as well as a good insert for a seasoned one.
I haven’t played D&D since the 80s, bar a quick one-shot our usual Rogue Trader DM ( Ben) ran for us a few years back and so when I decided that I was not only going to dip my toe in the water but was also going to try and DM, I needed to think of a way to do it that would not only be engaging for new and old players alike but forgiving for myself as a DM… a Falsie Hydra seemed like the perfect plot devise.
I was able to run this Game in 6, 2-hour sessions with 2 new and 2 seasoned players and not only engage all of them but also help myself and the new players get to grips with specific mechanics/rules. It worked so well in fact that I ran it again for another group of complete noobs, to the same effect.
The great thing about this story ark is that most of it is an investigation, with a little combat, mainly as a plot device, and can be ad-libbed quite easily, without needing a huge grasp on all the intricacies of the rules. You have a general starting point, some main filler points, and an end, the rest you just fill in as, and when, the PCs do things. If they are going off track then nudge them back on track, if they aren’t grasping what’s going on, then drop more hints.
Game rules are secondary to the story itself. Of course, you have to adhere to the main principles but for a new DM like me, if you make a mistake then it’s not a huge issue as long as the story moves forward and to be honest, I made a fair few mistakes but even the seasoned players didn’t have an issue because they were captivated by the tale being told.
It’s a generally forgiving plotline that you can mold as you go along, so for a new DM you can alter things to make it slightly easier for you to manage but likewise if you are a season DM you can add in all kinds of extras to really fill out the story and mechanics. The only major issues you may find is if certain PCs try and prematurely attack the hydra or do something majorly stupid. In these instances you have to make a decision, do you let them die or do you throw them a bone? For me streaming it for Geek Pride, I had to throw them a bone so it made better watching but just because I did, didn’t mean I couldn’t make things harder for them, and you should too.
Have them kicked out of town, or make the number of times they are being charmed increase. Something to at-least show a consequence for their actions and make them think harder on how they will deal with the situation.
All in all the False Hydra plotline is something that, if your players aren’t aware of, can be very rewarding, and even, if (like in my group) one knows of it, you can still run it as long as you make sure they role-play their character and not metagame.
Its an investigation, a horror story if you will, with some combat to help you get to where you need to go and, in our case, help teach new players how to do combat. You could, if you wanted, and I’ve seen examples of this, have it where there is no combat whatsoever, and just have PC’s investigate and then make a decision on how to deal with the hydra in a different way. It very much up to you and because it is homebrew and has a lot of different ways that the Hydra interacts with the town and your PC’s you can tailor it to suit your play style and experience.
So don’t be afraid to use it, old or new to the game, it is very much something you can mold and shape how you like. For me the story gave had the added bonus of providing an output to create and write stories, it captivated my creative side and because of it, and the response from the players, I started a campaign, based on the maps and story I had already created; all thanks to the False Hydra.