Stop me if you've heard this one…
Q: When is a door not a door?
A: When it's a mimic.
All the worse for adventuring parties, many of the game's creatures have managed to disguise themselves as part of the adventurers' natural habitat -- the dungeon. After all, what's more dangerous -- a chest with a poison-needle trap, or a chest with teeth and claws? Today, we take a find look back at D&D's 'mimics' (beyond just the stock treasure chest variety), and how they've evolved -- or become extinct -- through the game's editions.
The 1st edition Monster Manual introduced a number of creatures disguised as otherwise standard dungeon features. Walk into any random cavern, and ropers assuredly lay in wait disguised as stalagmites. When it came to stalactites, piercers more commonly filled this niche -- "…when a living creature passes beneath their position above, they will drop upon it in order to kill and devour it." Of course, while piercers made for effective traps, the ones that fell and missed their prey were all too easily avoided.
And what cavern would be complete without its overgrown mushroom patch? These have become so entrenched in D&D settings that they're now standard features on D&D Minis maps. Yet even before mushroom tiles required double movement, their 1st edition counterparts included shriekers -- otherwise innocuous mushrooms that would emit shrieking cries set off by passing light or movement, making them perfect burglar alarms (that is, adventurer alarms) for any cavern dweller.
1st Edition: Mimics and Trappers
Beyond natural features, it may be argued that two creatures defined dungeon mimicry better than all others. We refer, of course, to the mimic (naturally!) and the trapper.
The mimic's 1st edition illustration never better resembled its most famous disguise: an enticing treasure chest, raising its pseudopod against the thief trying to pick its lock. Although shown in the guise of a chest (and appearing as such in module A3: Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords), the original description stated -- "Mimics pose as stonework, doors, chests, or any other item or substance they can imitate." So mimics were never restricted to wooden objects: "They are able to perfectly mimic stone or wood."
Even better stone camouflage, however, was practiced by the trapper, a creature with the exact shape and consistency as the stone floor of dungeons, complete with flagstone texture and "nearly impossible to detect (95%) by any normal means." Although these normal means were not exactly identified, one can assume they included probing ahead with 10-foot poles, standard equipment of the day. Further explained in Dungeon Magazine #84's "Ecology of the Trapper" (written by none other than Ed Greenwood), "Characters who are very familiar with stone… can usually tell immediately that something is not right when they test the surface -- by chipping or striking it, but not merely walking upon it." Those failing to detect trappers found themselves closed within its grasp, crushed and smothered in a mere six melee rounds.
In 2nd Edition, piercers and ropers continued disguising themselves as stalagmites and stalactites the world over, including the storoper, or stone-roper, "a roper with a more stony, less flexible exterior; it resembles the statue of a roper." Shriekers also returned, classified within the fungus subcategory along with phycomids, ascomoids, gas spores (themselves disguised as beholders, releasing deadly gas spores if struck for even 1 point of damage), and violet fungus (also reappearing from 1st edition), which resembled -- what else -- shriekers, except ones that extended flesh-rotting branches.
Trappers were now classified in the lurker family. While the trappers resembled dungeon floors, lurkers above did not resemble dungeon ceilings so much as aerial manta rays, floating in the air in similar fashion to grells and the famously maligned flumph (for those who missed the April Fool's admission, a flumph mini is, sadly, not actually in the works). In fact, lurkers' floating gases were used in the preparation of potions of levitation. In this edition, trappers had ventured outside of dungeons, where forest trappers (aka miners) lay in wait beneath paths and roads, extending poisonous twig-like barbs up through the ground to capture prey.
Mimics returned as well, now with the expressed preference that "they usually appear in the form of treasure chests." However, mimics' disguise abilities were expanded even beyond wood or stone, so that they could "alter their pigmentation to resemble varieties of stone (such as marble), wood grain, and various metals (gold, silver, copper)." So not only could they resemble a treasure chest but also hint of the treasure inside. A 2nd Edition supplement even introduced the house hunter, a mimic variety so large as to resemble -- you guessed it -- a house. And while the 1st edition mimic used glue to hold fast any creature touching it, 2nd Edition at least revealed that strong alcohol or the death of the mimic could finally dissolve it.
When the 3.0 Monster Manual released in 2000 (updated to 3.5 in 2003), not every creature survived this evolutionary round. Ropers remained (recently appearing, rather gorgeously, in D&D Minis Underdark). As for piercers, as hinted by R&D's Jesse Decker, their evolutionary line melded with lurkers above to become darkmantles -- holding onto dungeon ceilings in the guise of stalactites with camouflaging powers to match the surrounding stone. Now able to fly, a fallen darkmantle is far from helpless, as opposed to their piercer ancestors. A subtle mention of this appears in the description: "Scholars believe the darkmantle has recently evolved from a similar but far less capable subterranean predator."
Of course, the iconic mimics remain part of the game. Still shown in the guise of the grasping treasure chest, the two former varieties, common and killer, simply became 'mimic'. It also lost its own language, now speaking Common to negotiate with adventurers grown wise to its ruse.
As with many parts of the game, version 3.0/3.5 codified ambiguous rules, including the mimic's disguise. Mimics can now be detected by a Spot check (versus the mimic's Disguise check), where adventurers were previously reduced to countless rounds of careful prodding and experimentation... and the knowledge that earlier edition mimics could not stand sunlight (thus watching to see if that chest in the corner winced upon the casting of a daylight spell).
The Monster Manual IV introduced a few more creatures in disguise, one above the party, one below. Filling the role of the lurker above, the balhannoth blends in with the ceiling: "It moves on six long tentacles instead of legs, and from between its shoulders protrudes a slavering mouth full of jagged, ripping teeth." The defacer (no less than an undead doppelganger) has the earth glide special ability, allowing it to move through stone, dirt, and other earth as easily as a fish through water, and it can rise from the floor in order to assault adventurers.
Continuing to Evolve
So long as adventures prowl dungeons, there will be creatures waiting in disguise to thwart them. D&D has long celebrated these creatures, populating its dungeons with all manner of mimics and masters of camouflage. The traditional dungeon crawl, however, need not become a literal crawl in terms of pace, with players forever double-checking every 5-foot square for possible ambush.
That said, the occasional surprise, when played well, can lend a suitable sense of danger to those places that adventurers dare enter. As such, you might consider these options for your next adventure.
- As Dave Noonan explained in his Design & Development article, Let's Get Small: Adventure Design, reactive traps -- those that spring randomly on players -- more often provide a sense of frustration than enjoyment, even when they're avoided. The same can be said for creatures in disguise. It might be great fun to tell the player listening at the door that it's really a mimic and his ear is now firmly glued in place, but this can restrict a player's perceived choice of actions by inflicting surprise punishments.
That said, providing some advance warning -- say, having the PCs hear rumors that a mad mage has created or purchased a mimic to guard his trove -- means they'll go into the encounter better prepared (or at least forewarned).
- But how to hide said mimic? While they've been illustrated each edition as treasure chests, they've been described with far wider powers of disguise -- as beds, doorframes, or any object that can fill 150 cubic feet. Perhaps yours again take on the appearance of stone or metal objects. A mimic in the shape of a stone door frame could be a nasty surprise.
- Smaller versions might resemble innocuous tools picked up along the way (or sold by insidious dealers). That 10-foot pole might reveal itself to be a mimic at the most inopportune time (at least from the player's perspective). An Eberron mimic might disguise itself as a fallen warforged, making examination of the corpse all the more dangerous.
- In their most famous guise, remember that mimics can actually be treasure chests, guarding valuable items inside. They might even be empowered to use those items when endangered. A mimic drinking a potion of acid breath or wielding a +1 dancing longsword becomes that much harder to face.
- And then there's the trapper. Although not present in version 3.5, that doesn't mean you can't create your own. A mimic lends itself well to this role, in the guise of wooden or stone flooring. The 1st edition trapper even stated that it often created a protuberance at its center resembling a chest or a box. This might be an advanced part of the mimic's disguise, or may be the only thing more dangerous than one mimic -- two mimics, working in conjunction.
3.5 also introduced the animated object, a template that could easily be applied to a section of floor, providing it with such additional options as constriction, trample, and the defensive benefits of the hardness of stone.
Have you employed creatures in disguise? Made creative uses of mimics? We'd love to hear your tale or suggestion for the game, either on the message boards or sent directly in to us at: firstname.lastname@example.org.