The Hydra is a classic monster that long pre-dates our beloved tabletop RPGs. The first records of this mythical beast are from the 5th century B.C as one of Herclues twelve labors. In this tale, a gigantic nine-headed water serpent, named Hydra Lernaia, haunted in the swamps near Lerna. Many had tried to slay the beast, however, when one of her heads was decapitated, two more would grow back in their place. To prevent this regeneration, Herclues, with the help of Lolaus, would use burning brands to cauterize the severed stumps. Like many stories of the mighty Herclues, the tale of the Hydra would be depicted in many artworks around Greece. The imagery of these heroes overcoming the Hydra is iconic, and continues to play a part in modern fantasy.
As a monster in a tabletop RPG, I believe the Hydra has endured from the hobbies conception, as it was introduced in 1st edition D&D, because of this strong imagery, as well as, interesting mechanics. Herclues tangled with a particularly nasty Hydra, however, in the realm of tabletop RPGs, the more common form of these beasts have only five heads. While their heads do grow back, the common Hydra only replaces the lost one. Though, this creates almost a sliding scale of difficulty for the GM to use. Do you need to up the difficulty? Perhaps start the Hydra with six heads, or surprise the players as two heads sprout if the proper actions aren’t taken! Another way to add variety is changing the elements associated with your Hydra. Fire worked for Herclues, but what if your players face off against a Hydra that makes its home near a volcano? Maybe the decapitated stumps need to be frozen with ice spells? Obviously, you want to provide your players with hints to avoid a gruesome death at the jaws of a 20-headed monstrosity the party has now created through their consistent failure. (though, that does sound fun now that I think of it…) Iconic creatures, such as Hydras, always make memorable encounters for players. So, I like to reward the build up before our epic showdown. If a town has been terrorized by a local Hydra, then they must have attempted to fight the beast on their own at first. Were there any survivors? What did they learn? This way you can engage your players in role play, while adding some investigative elements, rewarding knowledge to be used in combat. Believe me, even for a well prepared party, a Hydra is still a tough fight.
Even though the Hydra has appeared in almost every fantasy game in some form, it’s always exciting to see different twists or mechanics. Upon reading the Pathfinder 2nd edition Bestiary (read our review here!), I was happy to see additional abilities for the Hydra to use in combat. Many past editions have simply provided the Hydra with a number of attacks equal to its number of heads, but we also get Focused Assault. Here, the Hydra attacks a single target with all of its heads in an attempt to overwhelm its foe. The Hydra attempts a normal fang attack, but adds an additional 1d6 to the damage for each head. Leaving the opponent with no where to dodge, even on a failed strike, the Hydra deals damage for one fang strike. Many party members will attempt to keep the Hydra at a safe range as they use spells or bows, but in this case, the one melee fighter will certainly pay the price without support. Of course, we also want to share the wealth of deadly snake heads as well. Here we would use the Hydra ability Storm of Jaws. Using just two actions, the Hydra can make a number of attacks up to its number of heads, however, each attack must be made against a different target. So, as soon as the party rushes in to assist our lone fighter, you hit them from all sides with an assault of fangs!
Side Tip: In a lead up to a Hydra battle, perhaps the players must infiltrate a Hydra cult. In order to get access to a hideout, the party must whisper the password “Hail Hydra”. It’s too funny not to use.
Adding complexity to encounters by using the Hydra’s reach and regeneration will make this an epic showdown for your players. This creature has a long history in tabletop RPGs, so I’m always excited to see new twists. Even if you are playing a different system, feel free to add some of these abilities to spice up your encounter. It’s this re-imagining that has kept the Hydra in our cultural zeitgeist, and a GM favorite at the table.
Have you used a Hydra in your games? Tell us now it turned out in the comments below!