Friday, August 7, 2009

In Praise of the Purple Worm

To me, the purple worm is an iconic piece of Dungeons and Dragons. Hell, I don't even associate dragons as closely with D&D as I do the awe-inspiring purple worm.

I have no idea of the fever dream imagination from whence this violet monstrosity sprang. I'd love to know if it's based on some particular fiction. But as far as I know, it has appeared in every edition of Dungeons and Dragons (heck, it was even in the cartoon!), and for the most part it's been unchanged throughout.

[I say, "as far as I know" because I haven't bothered to purchase/read the 4th edition monster manual]

Let's see:

From Dungeons & Dragons, Volume 2 (Monsters & Treasures), 1974:
No. Appearing 1-4(!), AC 6, HD 15

From AD&D Monster Manual, 1977:
No. Appearing 1-2, AC 6, HD 15

From Cook/Marsh Dungeons & Dragons Expert Set, 1981:
No. Appearing 1-2/1-4, AC 6, HD 15

From Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual (Core Rulebook III), 2000:
HD 16, Skills: Climb +24

[really, who gives a rat's ass what a purple worm's climb skill is? Only D20!]

Mentzer's purple worm is exactly the same as the Cook/Marsh version, and I'm pretty sure the 2nd edition Monster Manual is a duplicate of the 1st edition version. The SRD 3.5 uses the same statistics for the purple worm as the 3.0 edition...except that it changes Climb skill for Listen +18 and Swim +20 (have I mentioned how retarded D20 is?); oh, it also adds a bunch of feats.

No matter which edition of D&D you are playing the worm always has two attacks: a monstrous bite with the ability to swallow a target whole, and a poisonous stinging tail.  Pre-2000 these all functioned the exact same: a roll 4 better than the to hit roll needed (or on a natural 20 regardless) always swallowed a target whole (even in OD&D!), and the tail has always been save or die. 

[D20, of course, does away with the save or die, instead sapping Strength, and adds a complicated grappling sub-system for handling the worm's swallow attack]

This is a vicious, vicious monster...which of course makes it one of my all-time favorites. A 15HD monster in B/X hits AC 0 on a 9+. Even if your bad-ass fighter is wearing +3 plate and shield, you're going down the gullet 20% of the time.  And trying to maneuver for a flank attack simply puts you in danger of that save or die stinger...the true bane of the back-stabbing thief is the creature with a rear attack.

Basically the thing is a cross between a Dune sandworm and a giant scorpion...can you imagine harnessing these things (1D4!!!) for your own use! Think about the climax to David Lynch's film version of the Herbert book.  Then make the monsters purple.  

Tremble all you mortal men for behold thy Doom is nigh...

As a kid, I always tried to incorporate a purple worm into any dungeon adventure I created.  They represent the original tactical nightmare monster, as far as I'm concerned.  I'm hard-pressed to remember any parties being victorious against them, but I certainly remember PCs dying. More than once a piercing sting attack would lance through the body of some lightly clad wizard or thief. More than one stout dwarf or stalwart fighter would disappear through the beast's gaping maws to face a rather less than heroic fate in the bowels of the worm. least I never put more than one in the adventure. 1D4?!

Of course, I can't think of a single TSR module from the old days that included purple worms (either singly or in groups). I'm sure I must just be forgetful. Surely they're not so deadly they wouldn't be a featured monster in one of the classic adventures of yesteryear?

X1: The Isle of Dread has a green dragon and several huge dinos, but no purple worm (not even as a random encounter). There isn't one in any of the S modules, I don't remember any in the A modules (which I no longer, possess...long story), and they're too tough for beginner or intermediate modules.

Oh, wait: I5: the Lost Tomb of Martek. How could I forget that one (it's around #12 or 13 on my list of all time favorite modules). Not only does it have purple worms on its random encounter tables, it has a terrific illustration of one on the cover. Purple worms in the desert?  Didn't I mention Dune before?

[as a side note, does anyone know who's the artist for this illo? Part of the problem with these old modules is they don't list enough people in the credits. I don't think Tracy Hickman did all the illustrations and maps himself, but the Q... signature is not one with which I'm familiar]


I love the purple worm. If I was starting this blog today, I'd seriously consider calling it Lair of the Purple Worm or similar...just as I find Blackrazor symbolic of the soul sucking (i.e. time consuming) power of the RPG, the insatiable appetite and dark esophagus of the purple worm can mimic the analogy. If I ever do a Top Ten list of "Favorite D&D Monsters" you can be sure that the purple worm will be included.  If somehow I forget...well, may I hope to have my next PC swallowed alive while writhing from the virulent poison of the violet beasty!

Till later...Prost!


  1. @Jim: Thanks, man! Always good to give credit where credit is due.

  2. i dunno man...purple worm? Freud and all that. ;-)

  3. How very Franch of your mind to wander that direction ZB.

    Actually, I considered mentioning something about the phallic implications of my interest in the purple worm, but after calling Bilbo Baggins a motherf*** yesterday, I figured I'd stick with a straight game post today.
    : )

  4. Wow, 3e/d20 purple worms can climb better than the halfling thief in the 3e tournament I ran back in 2001!

    My first 3e/d20 character was a halfling sorcerer-monk, by the way.

    A purple worm is on the Great Pass wandering encounter table in module X5.

  5. Love the purple worm too, although I've almost only ever used them as a threat, not an actual opponent. The cover of the Lost Tomb of Martek is an awesome one.

    The climb skill mattered in my Desert of the Gods game, as the plucky assassin climbed as high as he could up the rocky outcroppings trying to keep himself from becoming worm-poo. The choice of giving it a swim skill changed the way I looked at them a bit - because of the Dune-like origins, in my mind they couldn't handle water. The addition of a very high swim skill makes them a terror in a beach setting too. Just picture the purple worm errupting out of the water, then going back under with the target creature in it's jaws, and then not just hiding underwater like a black dragon does, but then moving down into the sandy bottom.

    (Yes, I am a d20 fan also. My love of B/X hasn't changed the fact that we played a lot of awesome 3.x games)

  6. Purple Worms are cool...

    I remember one of my first characters ever was a thief named Shadowfax...yes, yes, I know. Anyway, after he had reached a certain level, he was tasked by the head of the guild in CSoIO to collect as virulent a poison as possible, for a "special" client.

    So the poison itself was up to me, and what could be more virulent than Purple Worm poison? So yeah, I spent quite a few sessions tracking one of these monstrosoties down. After a hard fought battle *I had the poison and off I went, back to the guild and glory.

    *In case you're wondering, it wasn't alone that I defeated the was in a party that included a paladin, a cleric, an MU, a ranger and a fighter. And it took all of us to bring the beastie down.

    Oh, and yeah, a Purple Worm with skills? I'm right there w/ you on your opinions of 3.X...phbbbbt!

  7. @GD: No apologies for silly names. I think everyone who’s ever played D&D has had their fair share (I know I have!). And 21st century kids are no better at choosing names than 1980’s players…the PCs of my nephews were named “Master Chief” and “S the Wise” (“S” being the player’s own name).

    I’d be interested to know if any of your party members got killed by the Purple Worm, seeing as how it has two serious “auto-kill” attacks. I know I’VE watched PCs die to damage from the tail sting alone, let alone its poison or bite attack. Ha!

    It’s difficult for me not to smile at the image of some brave warrior transfixed on the end of a yard-long tail spike!
    ; )

  8. Nasty beasty. A monster such as this is bound to claim one or two victims. Which brings me to a curious question, how do you handle character deaths, assuming the PC could not be brought back from death. Create a new 1st level character, or did you let them start higher level?

  9. Since nobody else has answered your question about where the purple worm came from (at least not here), it seems to be the result of a misreading of Chainmail. The entry for Dragons in the Fantasy Supplement (p. 35) describes "the great Red Dragon... as typified in Tolkien's THE HOBBIT." After the rules are laid out, we have a paragraph in historical note: "Other kind of dragons can be introduced into games, if a little imagination is used." White, Black, Blue, and Green dragons are briefly described in recognizable form, then: "Finally, the Purple, or Mottled, Dragon is a rare, flightless worm with a venemous sting in its tail."

    It appears to me that the use of the term "worm" here is an archaic term for dragon - appearing more commonly in today's fantasy literature and games as "wyrm." Tolkien used the term in his description of Smaug, as I recall, and probably in other parts of his Legendarium; I seem to recall Poul Anderson did as well in various stories.

    It is likely that between the publication of Chainmail and that of D&D, someone made use of a 'Purple dragon' as a literal worm due to a simple misreading. The first illustration of a purple worm appears on page 5 of Monsters & Treasure; i suspect that some artist read the Chainmail entry, perhaps out of context, and was inspired to render this image, which may have in turn inspired Gygax to invent the new monster he had inadvertantly named.

    Unfortunately, the question of why a purple dragon would be flightless and have a venomous sting may never be answered. Perhaps the inspiration came from some peculiar illustration or a weird artifact of heraldry. I'm content to consign it with the other dragons as just part of the oddity that is the Rainbow of Scaly Doom.

  10. @ OdRook: Wow...right on! And thanks man! I've mentioned it before (I'm 99% sure) that Chainmail is one of those historic documents I do NOT own. I appreciate the info, and your theory sounds right on the money,

    @ Harv: Depended on the situation. As a DM I was never one to hold players to 1st level characters, especially if the party was in the middle of a high(er) level adventure.

    To me, players should learn how to play the game from the bottom up...that means starting at 1st level and seeing how the game is played. But once you've got some play experience (not just "character experience," i.e. XP) is it necessary to make a person go through the hard work every time their character dies? There are plenty of ways to penalize a player for a "loss" (loss of face, loss of gear, a reduction in overall level, etc.) without starting 'em back at square one.

    That being said, by the time most PCs are fighting purple worms, they have access to magic that brings 'em back from the dead anyway. One of the reasons I never sweated "instant death" from failed saves or whatever...there are magical spells and items that offset all the possible debilitations that can occur in D&D (poison, disease, level drain, aging, death, maiming, etc.). I never understood DMs "fudging" on behalf of their PCs to keep 'em alive. Or perhaps I DO understand it, I just don't agree with I don't agree with giving cell phones and iPods to kids under 15 (or older!).

    But that's just me. ; )