Cave Hermit: Post-Mortem

Context

One of my first professionally published D&D designs, the Cave Hermit is a monster that first saw publication in 2003. It was submitted to an open call for monster designs for Into the Black, the second of a series of environment-focused softcover books that Bastion Press was publishing at that time. The stated aim of the book was to focus on the ecology and environment of perhaps the most iconic D&D location, the subterranean world. Thus, my design was guided by two basic principles:

  1. Be an interesting creature to encounter
  2. Show the broader workings of this subterranean world

I embraced the idea – present in many CRPGs that I was playing – of a merchant who sold equipment to the party when they needed it most, when they were deep in the dungeon, poor on resources, and, perhaps, about to fight a massively dangerous monster.

What Went Right

Conceptually, I think the cave hermit is very strong. The role of a merchant in the wilderness (especially one that is difficult to deal with and gouges its customers) is a fun moment to play through, and though many monsters in D&D have that potentiality, the Cave Hermit is still one of the only monsters I’ve seen in D&D that embraces it as a core part of its fun. It lets the DM play up the “greedy merchant” role in a place that the party might be reluctant to just beat it up and take its stuff, and it gives the party an interesting role-playing challenge, especially if the Cave Hermit holds some important MacGuffin or powerful, useful item. The experience of dealing with someone who is rude, brusque, and has a very important item, gives the player an interesting decision point, where they can show if their character has the pride and power to take what they want, or where they can show patience and diplomacy.

I also think that chatting about the life cycle and mating habits of the creature was appropriate for the product, though it wouldn’t be for every product. I’m happy with how “weird” it is, making the cave hermit really quite alien to many of the heroes that are likely to encounter it. It gives a DM ammunition for fighting against PC’s who try to win the creature over by being friendly. The cave hermit doesn’t really get the concept of “friendly.” It gets the concept of “money.”

One big highlight for me personally was its physical description. The Cave Hermit is an odd-looking creature, and I had to get across its unusual physicality using only the text on the page. The fact that this text was good enough that the publishers comissioned an illustration of the creature by Claudio Pozas that pretty closely matched the vision in my head was a pretty amazing experience.

What Could Have Gone Better

Mechanically, I think the concept could’ve used some better support. I’d actually prefer to rip out many of the “Combat” abilities (which don’t support its core function in a game) and replace them with example items for sale or some Charisma or Wisdom-based skill enhancements (to better support its unpleasant merchant character). Noncombat resolution is always challenging nut to crack in D&D, and I’m not entirely happy with the “Screw You” dissolving burst effect as an enforcer there (though the fact that it makes the characters possibly deal with the Cave Hermit in an even worse position than they started in is kind of amusing). I’d much rather talk about how, perhaps, Cave Hermits can be very loyal to frequent customers, scouring their paths and networks for rare items that it may offer to them (perhaps at significant markup), to give carrots rather than sticks. Were I to do a re-design, I’d probably focus more on that than on Sneak Attacks and Reflex Saves, with the ultimate “punishment” simply being that the Cave Hermit gives misleading information (leading the PC’s to their deaths so it can collect their goods), hires thugs with its considerable wealth and influence, gives away their position or, if they’re weak enough, even waylays them itself.

There’s also a concern about the motivation of the creature. While it’s clear that cave hermits want money, it’s not entirely clear what they do with that gold. Given the product’s intent to focus on ecology and context more, it might’ve been good to talk a bit about cave hermit society as one of status-seeking, of unrestrained capital, of using gold to secure the best mates, or any other motive for them to be so greedy and grasping. Related, it kind of bugs me that its treasure is listed as No Coins. I think the original intent was to make it purely barter-based, but when a creature is as invested in economics as this one is, it should have PLENTY of coins on it! I think this doesn’t come into play in practice much, but still…a little detail that could be better.

The presentation could’ve also stood to be less wordy. While fun to read, it can be hard to pick out the important mechanical bits from the rest. The signposting of the Interesting Bits could be better, to help a DM who was using this at a table call out the big points more simply.