07: Dagon, Demon Prince of Shadowsea – Alex Clippinger

The Obyrith were ancient aberrations bridging the gap between the Forgotten Realms and the Cthulhu mythos. DM’s Guild designer Alex Clippinger brought H.P. Lovecraft’s first published monster, Dagon, to 5th edition D&D. We track how monsters become “dungeon and dragons-ed”, and explore how game mechanics imitate the experience and intent of the cosmic horror genre.

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Alex Clippinger: Dagon lives in his own little layer of the Abyss called Shadowsea. I definitely envision it as very Marianas-trench style, dark, crushing pressure, a very oppressive, and so, so strange, the way that, we don’t necessarily understand everything about our own ocean to the point where. It feels very, very alien. When you first encounter Dagon, there are all these different structures and, and, horrible demonic architecture and things that have been constructed, all these, obelisks and pillars, that have been built under water. And at one point you think that there’s just another one of these massive structures in the distance until it shifts and moves. And you realize that , this horrific gargantuan shape, this form coming towards you is the shadow of Dagon himself.

Lucas: Welcome to Making a Monster, the weekly podcast where game designers show us their favorite monster, how it works, why it works, and what it means. I’m Lucas Zellers.

Today for the first time on the show, and, I’m certain, not for the last, our monster comes from the cosmic horror genre, best known for the work of H.P. Lovecraft. This genre fills its universes with creatures and forces so titanic and incomprehensible, the best we can hope for is their apathy.

Ezmerelda's Encyclopedia of Evil Cover

Click to get Dagon on the DM’s Guild!

I interviewed DM’s Guild designer Alex Clippinger about one such creature just before the release of a collaborative monster supplement called “Ezmerelda’s Encyclopedia of Evil.”

Ezmerelda’s Encyclopedia of Evil is available on demand from the DM’s Guild – click the image to support Alex and the show through my affiliate link.

Alex Clippinger: I’m like a “shiny object” person and like the new, the newest thing that I’m working on is always the thing I’m most excited about. it’s Obyrith those are some Good old kids from like third edition that I’ve updated for fifth edition.

I was excited about them because they’re really mean they’re just incredibly mean creatures and it’s fun designing CR 23 creatures with horribly cruel abilities for killing high-level characters. It’s always just a great time.

How to kill epic-tier D&D characters

it’s funny. I can, I will design and sell, high level, player- killing monsters all the time, but I’ve, I’ve killed like one – I’ve killed one PC ever. There are times where I was like, Oh, is this too much? do I need to pull some punches here? And then the longer I was running characters that, tier three or higher, it’s I need to make it harder actually because they’re doing it just too well. what incredibly mean crazy things can I throw at them because I’m just going to sit back and watch them conquer it every time, no matter what, they will always find a way to do it, which is, which is a rewarding experience in itself.

I actually finished this monster design and all this stuff. Probably a good four or five months ago, but I keep just thinking about Dagon, people have probably traditionally heard that name, associated with the cosmic horror entity.

H.P. Lovecraft and Cosmic Horror

Lucas: In fact, Dagon is one of the first cosmic horror entities, appearing in a short story of the same name by H.P. Lovecraft. It was first published in the November 1919 issue of an amateur press magazine called The Vagrant.

What is it about that genre that appeals to you?

Alex Clippinger: I just, I like the approach and the tone a lot of times. One angle for horror is investigative, where we as readers are asked to go along with the protagonist, go along with the storyteller and have, these horrors or these terrible things revealed to us. And we usually do that kind of hand in hand with the voice of the protagonist. They are also experiencing these horrible revelations and things like that. And I think cosmic horror really enjoys leaning into that.

When horror does that sort of flip from what’s going on to, “Oh my God, this is what’s going on I feel like it flips a lot harder with cosmic horror because it’s not just, Oh my gosh, this person is a murderer.” It’s stripping away our very basic understanding of reality and, things beyond time and space and things that are beyond our comprehension beyond description.

So it, it really does that flip in a much more dramatic, fashion than, other horror genres even other horror genre is that engage with the supernatural.

Lucas: Do you know how Dagon got from where he started into Dungeons & Dragons?

Alex Clippinger: It’s actually translated over in Monster Manual II; that’s like first edition Dungeons & Dragons.

There’s a lot of legacy monsters today. I mean, Fomorians and everything are from world mythologies. And I think with each subsequent edition they’ve become more “dungeons and dragons-ed”, where they say, “Okay, okay, we’re going to pull them a little bit further away each time from the myth that they came from or the real word world origin and root them more and more firmly into, yeah, but it might have shared the same name or have the same concept, but like this is a D&D creature.” We want you to feel like it’s not just ripped from the page of some other book or some other mythology.

There are aberrations and cosmic horror entities in D&D, and they exist in the far realm. You would think, if they wanted to firmly keep it as a kind of Lovecraftian creature they would, they would do a Far Realm thing. But I think they made a very conscious decision to pull Dagon out of that context and into something completely different to make it a sort of D&D creature.

Dagon is often presented in art as this long, sinuous, eel-like creature, but it has limbs with clawed, with these massive clawed fingers. It gives a very distinct sense of being an aquatic creature. but not necessarily obeying the laws that we normally associate with it, like having almost humanoid-like limbs that clearly aren’t meant for swimming; these many, bulbous eyes are sort of embedded into the sides of its head; and of course, you have to have the “Jaws” element of the massive gaping maw.

The moment where the light hits. Part of Dagon just right or glimmers off, off of its eyes and this horrible realization of, Oh, that’s, that’s him like that is real, this the kind of moment where it’s – God, I hate to say it – “That’s no moon.” Yeah. But like the very moment where it’s like, Oh no, that’s, that’s real.

How to run a high-tier monster for D&D

Lucas: You may remember from our episode on the Warforged Colossus that most high-tier high-tier monsters in D&D have regional effects impacting the terrain around them, lair actions occuring at intervals during the fight, and special Legendary Actions they can take after a player’s turn.

Alex Clippinger: First I guess the most important one, regional effects: spells and other magical effects that allow a creature to breathe water, do not function within Dagon’s lair unless it allows them to.

So at any point, Dagon’s just like “That – no, you don’t just get to breathe under water.” which is, yeah, that’s a lot. And then its lair actions have things like, a whirlpool surrounds day gun creature spend extra movement while swimming, which is already a thing that if you don’t have something that allows you to swim, it’s already extra movement. So instead of, moving 30 feet, you’re moving essentially you’re moving to 10, which can be incredibly crushing in a fight.

Lair action, shockwave ripples from Dagon throughout the lair, each creature holding its breath must succeed on a DC 23 Constitution saving throw, or have the air force from its lungs. Which is very, very mean and yeah, it’s very mean, and just, Oh yeah.

The Madness Mechanic from Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes

Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes coverLucas: For Dagon, Alex also used the “madness” mechanic found in D&D’s 2018 accessory volume Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes. There, madness is a special condition characters in the presence of the Demon Lord must resist.

Alex Clippinger: Each one was unique to the specific demon Lord it was referring to, and I did the same thing here, and it has a lot to do with, guess what? Drowning, because you’re in an, a plane of the Abyss that is just a horrible, deep dark ocean.

The way the madness tables work is they’re like character statements in the first person, and one of them is “I don’t feel sane unless I’m immersed in water.” Which can have very, very nasty role play meets mechanics, effects, for someone. And none of those things are even things that damage a player, and none of them are even part of the actual stat block.

And then one more fun, little aquatic specific thing. When Dagon is in a body of water and knows the precise location of any creature within 120 feet of it that is in the same body of water. So no, you cannot hide from Dagon. You’re in Dagon’s domain. He is an aquatic, demigod-level creature – he knows where you are. Okay. So, yup. Yup. That’s, this is all the fun mean stuff that I come up with for high-level creatures.

Drowning Rules in D&D

Alex Clippinger: I think the goal that I had once I lit on the idea of, “Oh, I want to play with drowning rules” – nobody really thinks about drowning or suffocation rails and there’s a lot of little corners of the rule set. The people don’t really have to think about or engage with very often, how long a character can hold their breath. Even thinking about swimming, and so I thought, how can I make, how can I specifically make this water-based creature challenge players in a way that asks them to think about rules and challenges completely separate from their hit points. Because if you run out of air in the rules, you hit zero hit points and you, you start rolling death saving throws.

You could have a thousand hit points. It doesn’t matter if you cannot figure out how to solve the problem of how to breathe underwater or like how it’s you outsmart, the sort of effects that otherwise would prevent you from breathing underwater, none of your hit points, none of your stats mean anything.

And I think the solution to that, ideally, in a campaign where Dagon is featured as like either the main villain or just a villain in general, players could ideally ignore half the stuff that I’ve done here because a DM has broadcast these dangers to them.

And like they’ve engaged with the mechanics of researching Dagon, or like, finding out the secret. I think all of the things about, knowing is half the battle, is accentuated with, very, very high-level monsters, more, even more so than, than lower level, creatures. this is a way for DM to say, okay, I’m going to challenge you in a way that you have probably never been challenged before with rules that you never really necessarily thought of before.

And I don’t – you know, the mean way to do this is, “Oh, you, you show up in a watery area, you fight Dagon, you die”, which is not how I want a creature like this to be run – as a creator or as a DM. I want the dangers and the existence of this thing to be broadcast. I think a lot of teams will get a lot of pleasure out of presenting this problem and just sitting back for 30 minutes and crossing your arms and smiling while players are just trying to figure out, how do we deal with this? how do we even engage with this before initiative is even rolled?

Get Dagon in your game

Ezmerelda's Encyclopedia of Evil CoverLucas: My guest is Alex “not as bloodthirsty as you think” Clippinger, who updated D&D renditions of Lovecraftian eldritch horrors for 5th edition. You can find Dagon and 35 other challenging creatures in the collaborative monster book on the DM’s Guild called “Ezmerelda’s Encyclopedia of Evil.”

Find out more online here:

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Ezmerelda’s Encyclopedia of Evil:

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Music in this episode is by Jason Shaw at Audionautix.com

Next Episode: Never Going Home by Wet Ink Games

A cosmic horror game set in World War I uses supernatural aberrations to reflect the human corruption of the time. Never Going Home writer Irvin Jackson, artist Charles Ferguson Avery, and system designer Brandon Aten join me to explore what modern readers might misunderstand about World War I, why the genre Lovecraft created matched the sign of the times, and what to do when the monster is an M1-Abrams tank.

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