As one of D&D’s very few Celestial monsters, Varadrel is an agent of divine justice best compared to the personified disasters of Japanese kaiju.
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Comes the dawn . . . and our doom
Cassandra MacDonald: Several hours pass in the night and the village stirs with fear. Many have already packed their things. Entire flocks of livestock have been taken into the hills. Every citizen across the town seems unsettled, terrified. Houses stand empty, doors lay open as though people abandoned everything. Something distant, a shadow in the Moonlight, And then a brilliant white radiance over the hillside, a figure human-esque but wrong. Six arms extending from its shoulders and waist. A ring wrapped around it. Six wings as it soars over its lower half is but a sword. Beneath it run a flock of unicorns.
Jackson Lewis: As it soars towards the city, you step out to get a little better, look at this creature and the hairs on the back of your neck, stand straight up, you feel your breath catch in your chest. Whatever this thing is, you know, it’s here for one thing. You’ve seen demons. You’ve seen the most vile, cruel pit fiends rip apart humans with their bare hands, and laugh about it. But this thing is different because the aura it radiates is irrevocably, cosmically good. But it still begs the question, “Why does this thing terrify you? Why does this thing trigger every single fight or flight response in your entire body?”
And as it raises its hand and a spectral image of a holy sword appears, and it flings it at one of the buildings utterly obliterating it, reducing it to ash, you realize why. It’s not here to protect you. It’s here to kill something around you.
Lucas: Hello, and welcome back to Making a Monster, the bite-sized podcast where game designers encounter their favorite monster and we break down its mechanics and message to discover the meaning written into it. I’m Lucas Zellers. I’m on vacation in rural America, so you’re welcome for the restful background ambience.
Sourcebooks for D&D fifth edition have officially released something like 730 monsters. And of those only eight are classified as Celestials, representatives of the divine. This despite 63 Undead and 75 Fiends already in this edition. These eight Celestials are described as creatures from the Upper Planes, parts of the game setting which represent various cultural interpretations of the domains of gods or of the paradise to come. These might be the Seven Heavens of Mount Celestia for Greek myths or the Heroic domains of Ysgard for Norse myths.
Among these eight Celestial creatures are unicorns, pegasi, deva (which is a term borrowed from Hinduism) and planetars, D&D’s name for winged angels who execute divine justice.
There are a lot of good reasons a game designer might be reluctant to write about creatures from religious traditions, especially creatures who carry divine authority. For one thing, it means writing creatures that inspire fear in the biblical sense: “yare”, the Hebrew word used in Exodus 14 for fear, awe and honor after the parting of the Red Sea and the drowning of the Egyptian army. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when a designer had to rely on a monster metaphor to communicate this fear and awe, even if that metaphor is rooted in Japanese film and television.
Jackson Lewis: my name is Jackson Lewis. , they, them, I have been doing, D and D stuff for two years now, almost as long as I’m playing D and D.
Cassandra MacDonald: And I am Cassandra, the only Cassandra, she, her
Lucas: Cassandra, you may remember as the designer of the blue hag from my double feature on monsters from Rime of the Frostmaiden back in November 2020. It’s episode 11, if you want to go check it out.
Lucas: Jackson, I have to tell you, when I first started doing interviews for this project, it was back in June of last year, and, uh, Steve Fidler was one of the first guys I interviewed He told me
Steve Fidler: I think that you would get a kick out of talking to Jackson Lewis. He did a Kaiju book. I think it’s called Titans of the Ancient World. And it’s all CR 30 creatures.
Jackson Lewis: uh, that makes me feel very, very good. That’s Steve Fidler would recommend me.
Designing Kaiju for Dungeons & Dragons
Lucas: Jackson has carved out a niche for himself designing kaiju for Dungeons & Dragons. Kaiju is a Japanese genre of film and TV featuring giant monsters, of which nuclear behemoth Godzilla was the first, and the word can also refer to the monsters themselves. Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim is also a great example.
Jackson Lewis: We are talking about a monster from my upcoming book, Titans of Faerun, the stealth sequel to Titans of the Ancient World. It is a book of seven kaiju set in the Forgotten Realms. Varadrel is the monster. Varadrel, the Reverie of Saints, a CR 30 celestial that is less a cognizant sapient being and more of a solidified wavelength of celestial intent.
Lucas: Yeah. Uh, okay. Uh, jeez, this is gonna take some doing, uh,
Cassandra MacDonald: Look, you didn’t bring Jackson and I on because you wanted something simple and straight forward.
Lucas: No, I’m here for the funky stuff, always have been.
Jackson Lewis: I’ve always grown up loving Godzilla, Ultra Man, Power Rangers, stuff like that. So I’ve always been in love with like giant monsters. So I decided, Hey, D&D has exactly one kaiju in it, called the Tarrasque, and you need way, way more to be cool. And I want D&D to be cool. So I made this book of Titans of the Ancient World. So in approaching kaiju design, I approached it a lot different than a monster. A kaiju is rather a force of nature rather than like an, individual monster.
It translates directly into “strange beast.” It literally just means like a monster of titanic size and power. It does not interact with the environment in a way that a normal monster does. Godzilla, when he walks through a environment and when he goes towards like, whatever his goal is, he disturbs the environment around him.
Things are left almost irrevocably changed in his wake, whether it be the radiation he gives off or the destruction as he like carves a path through like a city or something. Additionally, you can’t really reason with Godzilla. You can’t like go up to him and be like, let’s enter a dialogue about the ramifications of your actions. These things are rather like forces of nature. You wouldn’t try to debate a tidal wave or an earthquake or hurricane, and you wouldn’t try to debate a kaiju.
Pure mechanical crunch, a kaiju has much, much, much more health points than a monster does of the same CR because it is such a massive and, titanic set piece almost that you need that extra health points to, put on a show essentially for the player so they don’t just like burst it down very quickly.
Cassandra MacDonald: Challenge rating is generally just a rough estimation in D and D of how dangerous or scary a creature is. Runs one to 30 in 5E. Historically challenge rating meant, a party of four players of this level would be an even challenge for this creature.
So a CR five creature is an even challenge for four fifth-level characters. You can safely assume that if a creature’s challenge rating is above 25, as all of these creatures in the book are, it’s end of campaign stuff, and very much end of character stuff,
Jackson Lewis: In designing a kaiju encounter, you should never put a kaiju with the sole, goal of being like, just kill it because that’s almost never what a kg is employed against. There’s always some secondary goal. You gotta stop Godzilla from making it to like the nuclear reactor. You gotta stop the Cloverfield monster from eating the nuke or whatever. There’s always a secondary goal, in addition to like actually fighting the kaiju.
Cassandra MacDonald: You don’t want to drop a monster like this into an encounter, and just have like 200 soldiers shoot arrows at it until it’s suffered enough paper cuts that it falls over. Cause that’s all that always falls flat dramatically. And I think it takes away from it. So I really do appreciate the way that Jackson goes about these creatures.
Jackson Lewis: It is very much designed to be more like a, , oh, crap, a monster rather than a monster who you’re like, oh, this is going to be a fair fight for my players.
Kaiju as Walking Natural Disasters
Lucas: If all Kaiju are disaster personified, then Varadrel in Jackson’s writing embodies a magical cataclysm called the Spellplague that canonically struck D&D’s primary setting of Faerun just before the game’s fourth edition in 2008. The Spellplague rendered the Forgotten Realms, nearly unrecognizable.
Jackson Lewis: After that, the kind of gods of Faerun, they were like, Hey, you know what? It’s not probably not a good thing that we are messing around with the material world a lot. So what they did was they created Varadrel.
And I’d like to read a little bit from Cassandra’s flavor text she wrote, ” For many problems, this was sufficient. Some problems, however, are entirely nail shaped and simply require a hammer. Varadrel was that hammer, Varadrel is constructed from the shards of divine relics, anointed with the blood of fallen gods. It is a being of intent and totality rather than something you could walk up and just have a normal conversation with.
“Be not afraid” – Biblically accurate angels in D&D
Lucas: Is it at all possible to describe Varadrel’s physical form?
Jackson Lewis: Oh, absolutely. It is approximately 64 feet tall, from the tip of its holy symbol that is welded to the bottom half of his body to the top of its head.
It has six arms, green skin. Every set of its arms is in another state of divine prayer. Two of its arms are in the state of what you would typically see in like a pagan Baphomet statue. His left arm is raised two fingers out, thumb extended, one at his chest. The other is hands clasped together his waist in prayer. That’s a, what you would say would be like a typical Christian form of prayer. And then his third set of arms is extended outwards, palms upwards at the heavens. That would be like a Judeo, form of prayer. All of his poses are, are meant to evoke the sense of like religious wonder and religious fear.
It has eyes everywhere on its body and it’s held aloft by six feathery wings. It also has a halo of gold, both surrounding its body and surrounding its head. It also has no face, no facial features
Lucas: Okay. Yeah, this one’s going to be difficult for an auditory medium, but I think that’s in keeping with what you’re going for.
Jackson Lewis: definitely.
Cassandra MacDonald: It’s, uh, “be not afraid.”
Lucas: well, yeah. That’s where I want to kick it off because, if you read “Celestial” and replace it with the word “angel,” which is an easy thing to do for D&D fifth edition, why this incomprehensible flying barbed wire sword covered in eyes?
Jackson Lewis: Simply put because it’s job isn’t to make the denizens of Faerun comfortable. Its job is to absolutely annihilate any threat to the material realm or to the heavens. Although, it emits this aura of like ease and reverence when it’s not like doing this job, it’s just like hovering there.
But when it is directed to move, it moves with purpose and it drives everything that should not be there out so it can do its job. Essentially, if you would ask Varadrel, Hey, why do you look so freaky? He would be like, it’s not my job to make you comfortable. It’s my job to protect you.
Angels are not here to comfort you
Lucas: Okay, so believe it or not, angels comforting in appearance are a relatively recent development. Depicting angels as serene white robed figures may have begun with Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus using an idea from Origen of Alexandria’s Homily on Luke, where angels are a sort of “Jiminy Cricket” moral conscience on your right shoulder, opposed by the devil on your left.
Angels as chubby baby boys were first seen in Raphael’s 1512 painting of the Sistine Madonna, which borrows from depictions of the Greek God Cupid, and is probably what you think of when you hear the word “cherubic.”
These are a violent departure from the visions of heaven recorded in Ezekiel 10 and Revelation 4, where the cherubim attending God’s throne are described as having four faces: that of a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle.
“They four had one likeness, as if a wheel had been in the midst of a wheel. And their whole body, and their backs, and their hands, and their wings, and the wheels, were full of eyes round about, even the wheels that they four had.”
No wonder in almost every instance of an angel’s appearance to a person in the Bible, the angel begins with “Do not be afraid.”
Jackson Lewis: I felt that, in designing Varadrel, in keeping with the same theme of solars and deva and planetars, who have these angelic weapons that innately deal like bonus damage, like radiant damage. Varadrel is like the pinnacle, the totality of that, , design philosophy. So he has the ability to conjure up spectral angelic weapons and use them as, as if they were like an angelic weapon themselves.
He has an ability called holy echo, he will cry out with, a holy word, like a word in celestial. And it deals radiant damage to people. or he can actually cause it to just hit you with the sound of the voice, because it’s such a powerful and such a, upper echelon of language.
Mythic Encounters in D&D
Lucas: Varadrel is another example of a mythic encounter like the Warforged Colossus or Itzigratz the Mind Flayer lich, where reducing the creature to zero health points or hit points unlocks a new pool of hit points and addtional traits, changing the encounter entirely.
Jackson Lewis: In addition to his mythic trait, shards of the divine, where if you damage Varadrel enough, shards of him will fall off and he regains hit points. And then four Deva are formed out of their shards that fall off. His mythic actions revolve around empowering the deva, moving them around to reposition them to better fight or even fusing two deva together to form a planetar.
I feel that Varadrel is in being a, creature that’s born of angelic authority and pure lawfulness, he is, uniquely equipped to be a tactician and a leader. The same way, like a supercomputer is a tactician and a leader, as in, I’m going to calculate exactly what it takes to win. And then I’m going to do exactly that and tell you to do exactly that. He’s not really a friend to his men. He’s really more of a computer playing a game of chess rather than an actual, like tactician
Lucas: So obviously you designed this monster to do a thing, to make your players feel a certain way, to evoke a certain feeling or create a certain set peace. What do you think makes it effective in achieving that goal?
Jackson Lewis: I think the, seeing the artwork of Varadrel and then, it’s the flavor of its abilities are effective and if it’s sent against the players, then they have that, uh, that it’s more like the feeling of a nuclear bomb going off of that drop in your stomach. The, uh, the feeling of like dread and the, oh, we’ve, we’ve messed up. We’ve really messed up. Um, or if they have to like mitigate Varadrel’s damage, as it deals with some other, like greater evil, it’s a, oh God, we’ve got to do something to stop it from destroying everything.
Cassandra MacDonald: Yeah, that was kind of the, uh, perspective that I wrote Varadrel from. I figured that if you’re at a point in your game where the players are in conflict with Varadrel, uh, you’re running a very strange game of D and D. So the flavor I worked around was the idea of how are you going to deal with this thing that is going to get the job done one way or another?
Jackson Lewis: And that’s reflected in the, uh, his health points and his resistances as well. Varadrel cannot be harmed by any weapon unless it’s first dipped in the blood of a deity. Although it can be effected by like spells and other esoteric abilities, like if you try to hit it with a sword, he’s just gonna flick you away. Like you’re a flea.
Cassandra MacDonald: And this goes back to like not wanting kaiju to be dropped by a whole bunch of paper cuts.
Jackson Lewis: Exactly. Yeah.
Lucas: What do you have to do with, or for your players before you put their address in the game?
Jackson Lewis: I think you would have to signal like signposts to your players this is not a dragon. This is not a, giant, this is a literal, solidified wave form of celestial wrath and vengeance coming against either you or something near you.
If you try to fight this, there is a very slim chance you will win. And there’s a huge chance you’ll die horribly.
Cassandra MacDonald: I signal that in one of the adventure hooks that I put down for Varadrel. Essentially, Varadrel has been seen in the countryside by groups of travelers, caravaners, or adventures. But no matter how many people are in these groups, there’s always conflicting stories, even though it’s something so massive in theory that no one could miss it.
There’s only ever two or three people from a given group who seem to believe it was there. And this is the consequence of the aura, the calming aura that it puts out also causes the weak-willed to forget that it was ever there. So it really gives the sense of like, this is something the mind was not meant to comprehend.
Cassandra MacDonald: One of the things I include under Varadrel’s minions is, as I mentioned, oftentimes unicorns will gather around it and they’re not there to help it fight. They’re there because they know it’s going to leave a wake of dead who will need aid.
Jackson Lewis: Exactly.
Cassandra MacDonald: I try to ease the horror by presenting that as like, yes, there is good intention here. This is a good thing, but its purpose has collateral damage and other Celestials have come to recognize that and are operating to try and mitigate it. But it is still this driven embodiment of deific rage.
Jackson Lewis: Exactly.
Meet my Guests: Jackson Lewis and Cassandra MacDonald
Lucas: Titans of Faerun released on the DM’s Guild in early February and has already sold enough copies to earn it a Copper medal.
Jackson Lewis: If you like giant monsters, pina coladas and mythic actions, then pick up Titans of favor.
Lucas: All right.
To find a link to Titans of Faerun and see the full-color, “be not afraid” illustration of Varadrel, visit the show’s website at scintilla dot studio slash monster, that’s S-C-I-N-T-I-L-L-A dot studio slash monster. Here’s how to get in touch with my guests.
Jackson Lewis: The best place to follow me, it would be twitter.com. And my handle is at Honeybadger 3, 4, 9, 5. It’s where I talk about kaiju and also, letting my followers speculate on whether, whether or not I could beat a adult male red kangaroo in hand-to-hand combat.
Cassandra MacDonald: The answer is no.
Jackson Lewis: Yeah.
Lucas: Any conclusive evidence so far?
Cassandra MacDonald: Nope.
I am also best found on Twitter. My handle is the ice queer, all one word. I mostly talk about goth stuff, and a whole lot of D and D and how to make D and D do weird things it wasn’t supposed to.
Support the Show
Lucas: Thanks for listening to Making a Monster. If you want to know more about the monsters in games and what they say about religion, art history, and Japanese culture from the 1950’s forward, you can support the show on Patreon at Patreon dot com slash scintilla studio. There you’ll find exclusive behind the scenes content, including the extended premiere of my episode on Eberron’s shattered Kalashtar, featuring the House Sivis Echoer Station, and bonus bits from other episodes in the season. Plus, there’s stickers!
If supporting the show monetarily isn’t an option for you, you can also help the show grow and continue by sharing with the people who play games with you. Your recommendation lets people know the show will be worth the investment of their time and attention, and it’s a real gift to me and the creators I feature.
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Leading unsuspecting adventurers to the Feywild with a gentlemanly hand, the tamlin combines the Scottish folk tale with the literary trope of the white rabbit for a planes-hopping, swashbuckling good time. DM’s Guild designer Joe Gaylord walks us through the process of remixing white rabbit tropes for Dungeons & Dragons.