Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Sometimes the Bear Eats You…

Just watched David Mamet’s film The Edge last night, thinking about Bear Week. I’ve long been a fan of Mamet’s work (American Buffalo, Glengary) and The Edge is certainly exceptional, but yesterday was the first time I remember seeing it all the way through. Yes, I’ve caught it a half-dozen times or so on TV but I always seem to come in right around the last half-third of the film (or I miss a big chunk in the middle).

Somehow I seem to have missed the scene where the bear eats the buddy. Wow!

While a blogged about the abomination of monsters eating people before, sometimes one forgets that those cute, cuddly bears we love to protect from extinction do sometimes eat human beings (yes, I HAVE seen the film Grizzly Man; no comment on Mr. Treadwell at this time). To be fair to bears, they eat everything…including each other and their own young!...when they’re hungry enough, and they require quite a bit of sustenance to keep them going. I don’t consider bears to be an “abomination” as I do orcish or goblin cannibals. When all is said and done, bears are still a part of nature and are just doing that “natural thang.”


What’s more interesting (to me) is the idea of the “man-killer” bear…that a bear that has killed (and eaten) a human develops a “taste” for man-flesh. Or (to put it another way) that an animal normally not overly-concerned with human interaction has now redefined its relationship with people as “predator and prey.” I have no idea if this is simply an urban myth or if it the reason why bears who have killed humans (like the grizzly that killed Treadwell) are in turn destroyed by wildlife rangers. After all, I don’t think we’re killing the bear as a form of “punishment” or “capital judgment;” bears know nothing of human laws, only obeying the law of nature. Why then destroy an animal that has done that which “comes naturally?” I can only guess that there IS something to the “man-killer myth”…or at least there is a FEAR that there is something to the man-killer story.

For the purpose of a fantasy RPG like D&D, I say “err on the side of myth.” Duh. When you’re dealing with dragons and harpies and ochre jellies, of course you’re going to take the mythic/Hollywood angle!

According to the Moldvay Basic set (page B24), unintelligent monsters will cease pursuit for dropped ration 50% of the time (a roll of 1-3 on a D6). This is actually a pretty simple, easy-to-use rule and I’m inclined to use it as is, though I’d add +1 to any roll involving a grizzly/polar bear and – 1 to any roll with a black bear. Here’s what the roll can mean for a pursuing bear:

Roll 1-3 (stops for food)

- Bear is hungrier than it is upset/aggravated and will stop to eat food
- Bear only attacking because it’s hungry; food good!
- Bear only defending territory; combo of party’s removal from territory and food (positive) incentive is enough to break off attack

Roll 4-6 (ignores food)

- Form of rations dropped doesn’t appeal to bear
- Bear enraged beyond reason by party presence/encroachment
- Bear is a man-killer and will only stop to eat dead adventurer

And regarding that last one, if a party flees after a member has been “downed” (i.e. killed) it should count as the party dropping rations. That is, the DM should make the same roll as if the party were throwing food to the bear…in a very real way, they ARE. Something as big as an adventurer should be worth a +2 to the food roll (only a bear enraged beyond reason would pass up such a large meal).

However, even should a party evade the pursuit of a man-killing bear they’ve got a bigger problem: the bear may very well decide the party is prey worthy of being stalked.

Even after eating the party’s dead companions, a bear may continue to hunt a party within its territory, though it probably won’t get hungry again for a few hours. A male bear’s range is LARGE, hundreds of square miles, though they won’t travel any faster than a normal unarmored man on foot (probably a maximum of 6 to 12 miles per day through a forested, mountainous region like Alaska). Bears can smell for miles, and will track the scent of food and blood (wounds) looking for a kill to scavenge. Unless, the party can reach civilization (bears will generally avoid large groups of people) or find some horses, chances are a man-killer bear is the only “wandering monster” the party will need to worry about once it’s picked up its trail (with an automatic daily or evening encounter).

Black bears, by the way, are much less aggressive than other types of bears, and will often attempt to climb trees or run from encounters with large groups of humans (unless hungry and food is present and available). In general, I would avoid including “man-killer” black bears…only brown, polar, and cave bears have the temperament to come looking for trouble (brown bears will even hunt the smaller black bears, as well as stealing/scavenging their food). If a black bear is encountered as a wandering monster in the wilderness, it probably shows us during a party’s “meal break.” Use common sense here.

Okay, back to the mean ones…REGARDING PURSUIT, a brown bear has an overland movement speed of 30-35miles per hour at a dash. This means it’s faster than ANY adventurer not using magical speed enhancement. Polar bears are just as fast, though it’s slower (in general) to run over snow…polar bears can also swim around 30km/hr. I have no stats for a cave bear, so I’d probably just use the speed listed in the Basic set.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN? It means that a party that runs from an aggressive bear withOUT leaving food for it WILL be brought down from behind. Find the slowest member of the party, and make your attack rolls on that poor sucker, including the +2 attack bonus from behind and no shield penalty. If in doubt of who’s the slowest, I use the character with the shortest legs (dwarves, usually). Bears generally won’t split their attacks…they are a predator that focuses on bringing down one animal (for the purpose of eating, usually). Once it does manage a kill, it will most likely focus on eating/protecting its meal, unless the party continues to piss it off.

Bears are good climbers and have no problems running down hills or swimming, but a closed door will usually be enough to deter them if they can’t smash it open with a single blow (heavy iron-bound oak with a cross-bar is good for this).

However, if you feed a bear (either by throwing it rations or leaving a dead buddy on the ground), it is LESS likely to leave you alone in the future. Dropping food for a bear is a short-term solution to pursuit…it will continue to come back to the gravy train whenever it gets hungry. Stay in a locked cabin or barricaded cave long enough and it will get bored and wander away (probably to look for other food), but it will continue to come back as long as the adventurers are in its territory (see above) and it thinks it can get some kind of meal out of them.

Regarding crowds: bears will be discouraged from attack by large numbers of VISIBLE people. When a wandering bear surprises a party, or a pursuing bear chases a group into a populated area, a DM should check morale before making any kind of attack if there are a bunch of humans/demihumans milling about:

Black bears: more than two to three people
Brown bears: more than four to five people
Grizzly/Kodiac*: more than six to seven
Polar bears: more than eight to ten
Cave bears: don’t need to check morale to attack

*Any brown bear with 30 or more hit points can be considered to be a North American grizzly; these monsters attack and do damage as a polar bear rather than a standard brown bear; they award XP as if they had 6HD.


  1. Have you read about this incident?

    Personally I think Mamet is usually pretty dire but I'll admit American Buffalo is a fine piece of writing.

  2. @ Pierce: Thanks! I did lose two followers this week, so I know not EVERYone approves.
    ; )