Dragon penis / Shambling mound

Started by Ron Edwards, November 26, 2010, 11:09:33 PM

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Ron Edwards


Back in 2002, someone started an RPG.net thread called "Do dragons have penises?" Much like Superman responding to a cry for help, I swooped to contribute. The thread also led to a second part by me concerning the shambling mound.

I've pulled out my posts for posterity at The latest at the Adept site. The original thread is entertaining as a whole too, and you can check it out through the embedded link if you want.

If anyone wants to pursue the topics here, we can. Seems like it might be fun.

Best, Ron

Ben Lehman

So, in your opinion, what the heck is up with the gas spore? I mean, I know that predators will sometimes imitate their prey, but with a gas spore we've got a freaking mushroom imitating a sentient apex predator. What the heck?


Ron Edwards

Hi Ben!

I think I got this one.

1. Perhaps the best model for the dungeon environment is the very deep ocean, in which the critters living there eat, not so much one another, but whatever drifts downward too far consistently enough. In this model, nearly every species is an "apex predator." This is a minor point at the moment, but stay with me.

2. If you're a creature that a Beholder wants to eat, you are very fucked unless ...

i) You have a hell of a ranged attack, but then again, the Beholder is mighty clever and knows your habits and capacities better than you do, so you're probably still fucked

ii) You breed so copiously that getting eaten doesn't affect your reproductive success much, also known as the "r" life-history strategy; but then again, if you're big enough to be viable Beholder prey, then this isn't an option, so you're probably still fucked

... and then there's the rest of us, without ranged weaponry worth playing chicken with a death-ray with, and without the ability to spawn 100,000 offspring. OK, so my point is, faced with a Beholder, you have a single viable tactic: run up and hit it as hard as you can. Behavioral ecologists call selection for this kind of behavior "the best of a bad job," meaning it works only well enough to be selectively favored over all the other options, i.e., they don't work at all.

3. Spores are reproductive cells, the equivalent of sperm/ova in animals and pollen/sperm in many plants. However, they are not restricted to fungi; there are lots of ancestral-type plants whose gametes are best described as spores. No one uses the term spores for animals or animal-related protists, but in theory and in practice equivalents may be found. Also, it's a very common thing to see sacs of spores sent out to fall upon whatever they may, and explosive or at least highly-dispersive packaging is often involved. 

4. Clearly the gas spore as described in the Monster Manuals is not itself an organism, but rather a spore sac sent out by some kind of creature as a distributive reproductive device. It's quite nifty, considering point #2 - the creature is practicing parasitoidy, getting its offspring to develop in the tissues of a host, by exploiting a common behavior. All of which means that biological mimicry is not the issue at all, but rather merely imitation, a much simpler phenomenon. So cries of "Fuck! A gas spo -- hack, gag, choke," now resound through the corridors.

5. Now for the $64 question: what sort of creature sends out the gas spores? What does mama/papa/whatever look like? Putting aside considerations of metamorphosis for a moment, what do the spores - once combined and gestating - grow up into? (All of these are the same question.) You can probably see the answer coming: no other than the Beholders themselves. Thus neatly converting the only defensive prey tactic against it into a reproductive tactic for itself. Annnnd hence ... no mimicry at all, in the technical sense, merely deception.

I give credit to the awesome D&D with Porn Stars site for its post Rehabilitating the gas spore for the idea that the Beholder is setting up and benefiting from the gas spore, and to the author of the embedded link in that post for remembering reproduction is involved, but the interpretation that the Beholders are reproducing this way is mine. Also, as long as we're linking to fun D&D monster sites, see Dungeons & Dragons: Celebrating thirty years of very stupid monsters and don't miss the Part 2 link at the end.

Minor point: in science-talk, "sentient" is not a word, nor is "sapient." I am forced to upset students about this every year, both philosophically in that human exceptionalism takes it in the nuts yet again, and ideologically in that being an avid science fiction fan does not automatically make one into a more scientifically-minded person.

Best, Ron

Moreno R.

This thread reminds me of the "sexual education" columns in Italian feminist magazine in the '70...  it should be titled "Ask Dr. Ron about monster reproduction" or "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About D&D monsters (But Were Afraid to Ask)"...

What always baffled me was the Gelatinous Cube (maybe because I lost a lot of character to that critter, my old DM loved them...). It's (citing Wikipedia) "a cube that is a perfect ten feet on each side, it is specifically and perfectly adapted to its native environment, the standard, 10-foot (3.0 m) by 10-foot (3.0 m) dungeon corridors which were ubiquitous in the earliest Dungeons & Dragons modules"

So we have:

1) a jelly organism who is a PERFECT cube. No sign of deformation or any effect from his own weight.
2) a perfect adaptation to a PRECISE 10'x10' environment. OK, but... how OLD are these damn dungeons, to have organisms evolved to their exact measures? And how good were the original builders, making HUNDRED OF MILES of perfect 10'x10' tunnels, without any variation or reduction of passage?

And.. how does it perceive his "food"?

(Excuse my errors, English is not my native language. I'm Italian.)

Callan S.

It's kind of like watching a sort inertia of 'this is so and therefore' of real life asserted facts that gets fast enough in it's internal inertia to jump, crusty demon style, a gasp soooo much so that it's as if the gap didn't exist.

I think it'd be fun, if it's on topic, to start explaining the stupidly made up and nonsensical creatures like the platypus or kakapo (video strangely on topic?). No, the actual real life facts may not be used in explaining these dumb ass creatures Gygax made up all those years ago (and drew them badly). In a celebration of 'if it doesn't make sense (to my human mind), it shouldn't exist!'. Also, I like sentient.

Adam Dray

Quote from: Moreno R. on November 27, 2010, 09:03:18 PM
1) a jelly organism who is a PERFECT cube. No sign of deformation or any effect from his own weight.
2) a perfect adaptation to a PRECISE 10'x10' environment. OK, but... how OLD are these damn dungeons, to have organisms evolved to their exact measures? And how good were the original builders, making HUNDRED OF MILES of perfect 10'x10' tunnels, without any variation or reduction of passage?

Moreno, you have it backward! The dungeons weren't carved in perfect 10'x10' tunnels originally. They were carved out that way by the cubes, which scrape and dissolve the material of the walls, floor, and ceiling until it's perfectly smooth.
Adam Dray / adam@legendary.org
Verge -- cyberpunk role-playing on the brink
FoundryMUSH - indie chat and play at foundry.legendary.org 7777

Ron Edwards

Hey Callan,

I can't read your post. The grammar, spelling, and sentence organization are so wacky that it's hardly language. Can you re-write it?

Hi Moreno and Adam!

My first point is to beware of phrases like "perfectly adapted." This is the language of nature shows on TV but not of evolutionary biology. Adaptation, or its better name, selection, results in adequacy, not excellence. Things only get called "perfect" or "optimal" or "beautiful" because they outperform humans in some way, which has nothing to do with any actual process or outcome. Also, although I don't have the books in front of me and am willing to be corrected, I think that phrasing is Wikipedia, not from the books. I'm sticking only to the descriptions in the books themselves. Given that, I don't see any reason to accept that the gelatinous cube is flawlessly cuboidal.

So ...

Can a creature formed of jelly maintain a shape? The answer is, yes it can, even if it's quite big. It's all a matter of the proteins that form the thing's extracellular structure, whether in a generalized matrix or in membranes or both. Given that the G.C. is notorious for absorbing rather big prey, and that internal compartments aren't apparent from simple observation, its structural component is probably the former, a generalized matrix. The tricky thing is how that matrix can support so much weight in so recognizable a shape (even if not perfect) and still be gooshy enough to absorb prey fully into the body, before reducing the prey into dead spongy food. Most things like the G.C. pre-digest what they absorb.

H'mm, that raises a question that Adam's idea also supports - perhaps the cube shape is maintained and supported primarily because it roams tunnels of a particular size? In other words, can the G.C. maintain its shape indefinitely when not in an 10' by 10' space on at least four of six sides? It does seem likely that the G.C.'s prefer these passages, using them for their primary hunting territory when not in water.

It'd be easier to understand if the damned thing were fully aquatic, because water supports body weight much better than air. Is it possible as well that the G.C. is not necessarily fully cuboidal in water? Might it not flatten out and be able to move by flapping? As far as I know, this has not been addressed; most eyewitnesses to gelatinous cube movement and activity in water are not available for comment, or profess to have been too distracted at the time to make such observations in a reliable way, with good field notes.

But back to the cubes-make-tunnels idea. Clearly not all tunnels in dungeons are 10' by 10', but a very great many of them are, and clearly G.C.s are not encountered only in those tunnels, but a great deal of the time, they are. Is it in fact possible that the tunnels were formed by the cubes? Or at least that the basic excavation was cube-driven, and only then did the dwarves come along and install the bricks and drains and groined arches, as well as taking all the credit?

Some circumstantial evidence for this idea arises from the curious pattern observed in the layout of such tunnels. Aside from some fully humanoid-derived instances, the routes and layouts correspond to very little that we can identify as important or desirable from the standpoint of humanoid inhabitants or users. They seem more designed to confuse and befuddle those who enter them.

I wanted to mention as well that the cube's basic biology isn't so crazy as to require magical support. Can a creature be hacked into chunks and either re-combine into its original form or re-form into a lot of smaller versions? Yes, it can. Many protistan organisms are colonial rather than truly "organismal" (although we use the term organism broadly, technically it means something with organ systems), or rather, metazoan. A colonial creature is composed of cooperating cells, but the cells are not locked into their current functions. So if you lightly blend a sponge, it'll disperse into cells, but can then re-form into a sponge again, and a given cell's job in the prior form doesn't have to be where it is or what it's doing in the new one. And any number of ancestral-type animal species can be cut in half, then grow a new half for each half to become two creatures.

Is there evidence that the G.C. actually hunts in terms of long-distance perception? I can't recall any text to that effect, but given that it's squeezed up against dungeon walls a lot of the time, there's reason to hypothesize that it perceives vibrations and can orient toward their source. As far as more specific perception is concerned, maybe it doesn't have to. If you're filling the corridor and simply gooshing along, then whatever you hit and can absorb becomes food.

Best, Ron

Adam Dray

Gelatinous cubes ("gelatinous planar solid" doesn't have the same ring to it) are essentially blind, having no sight organs (hell, probably no organs at all) and living in the darkness most of the time, anyway. Thus, they're forced to scour tunnels and "accidentally" find food. By filling a corridor, they maximize the opportunity of finding organic material to digest. This must also include non-animal (plant, fungal, molds, etc.) that grows on the ceiling and walls. Otherwise, the creatures would be about as efficient by filling just the lower section of the passage (most animals walk on the floor).

I suspect that the cubes expand in two dimensions (up-down and left-right) to fill the passage they are in, and then use contact with all four surfaces to propel themselves along using a shimmering "wave" motion or a push-pull movement like a worm. In a 5'x5' corridor, they'd be more (square) tube-shaped (and 8x5' = 40' long). In a 20' wide by 10' high passage, they'd be only 5' thick.

It may be that the gelatinous cube conforms to passages it finds, perhaps rasping them clean over time. I think this is probably true to some extent, as it is biologically more efficient to use an existing tunnel.

However, I am more convinced that the cube creates the passages. Ron has supplied some evidence for this theory: the passages seem to have been built without principles of engineering that make sense to any bipedal creature. Also, consider this: gelatinous oozes that produced round tunnels might not compete as well with those that produced flat, rectilinear tunnels, which attract and keep bipedal creatures much better. An ooze that sweeps out 10x10 tunnels and even little rooms and alcoves would create a "dungeon" that would lure in orcs, kobolds, and adventurers, decade after decade. Evolved gelatinous oozes would learn to leave one species alone and stay out of its way and attack all the rest, thus making itself of use to the current inhabitants of the dungeon. In lean times, the cube can get by on rats and other parasites of bipedal life. In the leanest times, the cube can pick off one or more of the "host" species, or even all of it.

Killing a cube doesn't do much, as it leaves enough of its cells all over its lair to reproduce eventually. It keeps its own species in check (to prevent overpopulation) by killing its own competition regularly as it sweeps. To truly cleanse a lair of a gelatinous cube, one must take a torch to every surface in a dungeon. I recommend the largest fireballs you have.
Adam Dray / adam@legendary.org
Verge -- cyberpunk role-playing on the brink
FoundryMUSH - indie chat and play at foundry.legendary.org 7777

Marshall Burns

I would pay money for a whole book of this crap.

I've got an AD&D 2nd edition Monstrous Manual (that I got for $2) that has ecological notes on all the monsters, and it's boring. This is a much better use of my time.

Marshall Burns

You know Borges' Book of Imaginary Creatures or whatever it was called? It could be like that, except with more science and more pervasive humor.

(As a side note, I was shocked to discover from Borges' book that a few of the more bizarre D&D creatures -- such as the catoblepas and leucrotta -- actually have origins in myth and legend. Weird.)


So.  Mimics.   Is it really all that helpful to appear to be a treasure chest in terms of survival?   I mean, wouldn't make more sense to appear to be a carcass or something that scavengers would eat, thereby getting more dungeon calories than waiting for humanoids?

Or is it that it needs humanoid brain matter or something?


Moreno R.

What about the most terrible creature, the one feared by adventurers everywhere? The RUST MONSTER?

Seeing that this creature eat rust, how could it find food before the Iron Age? How can it survive eating only iron and oxygen?

And why it has a propeller at the end of its tail?

(Excuse my errors, English is not my native language. I'm Italian.)

Ron Edwards

The mimic isn't too hard, I think, because we have to face the fact that they are engineered organisms, magical biotechnology if you will. A whole bunch of them, including all the things which look like floors, ceilings, walls, clothes, and so on. Maybe even the piercer and the whatever-it-is, the stalagmite equivalent.

Who knows, maybe an "eat the adventurers" dungeon was engineered in the past, and the critters turned out to be annoyingly capable of subsisting and dispersing elsewhere.

Also, as a side point, beware of regarding evolutionary theory without technological meddling as some kind of engineering project. Creatures can only refine existing phenomena via natural selection; they don't "get" something because they "need" it. Remember that "best of a bad job" concept? It actually applies to every feature of every organism. Nothing is successful, either individually or at the species level. The question is whether it (feature or species) has failed yet. So it's not meaningful to speculate that a given subject for imitation would have been a better "choice," because there was no choice involved - if the creature evolved something, it's because whatever it had before that included the variation that could lead to that something.

The rust monster deserves a close look. As a prologue, it doesn't eat rust, it rusts metal.

Point #1
It may interest you to know that oxygen is frankly poisonous: oxidation is horribly destructive to most chemical compounds, and releases a ton of energy when those compounds are disrupted. When conducted in a volume-constricted space, this is also called "burning," or "explosion." The slower form, corrosion, isn't any good either. You don't want oxygen anywhere near your tissues unless it's tightly regulated via binding compounds, buffered solutions, and reactions via a series of enzymes which control the rates.

We and many other creatures breathe oxygen for a single, sole physiological function: to burn stuff called pyruvate. We can run very basic metabolism without it, splitting simple sugar into pyruvate and using the released energy for cellular fuel. But we also have a secondary metabolism which burns the pyruvate and allows even more released energy to be grabbed up for fuel, getting more bang per unit sugar. We use the oxygen to do the burning, and you can bet that the minute that's accomplished, we eject the noxious stuff out of the cells and out of the body as fast as possible (that's carbon dioxide). Many of you may know that this secondary metabolism isn't even actually conducted by us, technically, but by endosymbiotic organisms that we harbor inside our cells, the mitochondria.

The chemistry is called exergonic coupling: you break and/or burn a larger compound, grab that energy, and use it to build something called ATP, which is then the direct fuel for anything you want to do that can imaginably be called living (i.e., cell function & activity). To do anything, you break ATP; to put ATP back together, you have to do the break/burn thing again with new input of the exterior fuel substance.

Anyway, all I'm really saying here is that the rust monster has clearly found a way to turn rust (which is merely oxidation) into the first step of exergonic coupling, in an analogy to the way we break and burn sugar. Arguably, all it really needs is the right enzyme to make the iron + oxygen combination vastly more likely, i.e., faster. The antennae are the site for the seizure of the released energy, and they are for damn sure hyper-acidic to facilitate the process. Oh, and because I haven't mentioned it yet, iron is not a compound, technically, but iron atoms can have their elecrons seized, then "replaced" by bonds with oxygen.) 

Now how about that tail? Metabolism (the shorter name for the specific exergonic coupling that characterizes most cells) has an interesting side effect, because in order for it to work, a lot of the pirated energy must be lost in highly entropic form, i.e., heat (or if compressed greatly, light).* Most creatures lose this heat as fast as they produce it, with no effect on body temperature. Some of us don't lose it fast enough for this, generating (or better, retaining) body heat due to slower rates of loss. It may interest you to know that birds and mammals play a risky game by generating extra heat through excessive metabolism, with several benefits but with certain specific problems like our brains being nigh-cooked all the time (when too hot) and our overall functions being vulnerable to hypothermia (when too cold).

My point here is that the rust monster must be generating terribly dangerous amounts of heat via this enzyme-driven rapid rusting process, and needs either a certain body area to shunt it to, or some increased surface-area to slough it away, or both. The propellor on its tail is a thermoregulatory heat-remover, with the interesting secondary tactic of spinning as a way to convert and lose the heat as kinetic energy and also through increased convection. I'd be interested to know how the heat is shunted from the beast's nose to its tail-tip.

Point #2
As for the issue of how the rust monster can do this as a means of subsistence, I draw your attention to the fact that many creatures have multiple sources of food, and although one of them may be especially interesting to us because it's our stuff or bodies being eaten, that doesn't mean it's the creature's only way of doing things. Also, the rust monster can certainly utilize ferrous ore deposits, which are probably a reliable energy source, and which is probably why we find them roaming the bowels of the earth rather than, say, swarming human foundries and armories as pests. Adventurers' equipment would be the equivalent of a handy, easy, unexpected snack.

Best, Ron

* This is why life, or specifically metabolism, is not and has never been a "reversal of entropy" as idiotically claimed by Isaac Asimov and as more recently parroted by pseudo-intellectual Creationists. Metabolism is quite tightly and consistently yoked to the second law of thermodynamics, arguably hastening the net process of sunlight slowly converting to heat.

Marshall Burns

So, I was thinking... Borges' Book of Imaginary Beings discusses both a leucrotta and a crocrotta, but no mention is made of the latter in the Monster Manual. This has led me to conclude that the crocrotta went extinct. Would you care to speculate why the crocrotta died out while the leucrotta thrived, and perhaps on what role the leucrotta's penchant for devouring shields might have played in the process?

If you're not familiar with Borges' book, I can look up the relevant passage and post it. It's quite short.

Ron Edwards

It amuses me to include Borges as a "contributor," i.e., further creative constraint to this interesting blend of creativity and stupidity I'm messing with here.

Provide the quote!

Best, Ron