Whatever Happened to D&D's Sea Serpent?

Sea serpents are a staple of fantasy monsters so it's curious that they are not more prominent in Dungeons & Dragons. Research reveals the sea monster has always been in D&D, but it's taken a curious path that diverges significantly from the serpentine creature we associate with the name.

seadrake.jpg

Thangorodrim
To discover the origins of the sea serpent and why its origin has been so muddled in D&D, we have to go back in time to when co-creator Gary Gygax outlined a series of GRAYTE WORMES in the postal "Diplomacy" fanzine Thangorodrim, published by the International Federation of Wargamers, Thangorodrim vol 1, no 9 (Aug, 1970), where the mottled dragon first appears:
Of doubtful species, the Mottled or Purple Worm must be included in any study despite the possibility that it is not a true dragon. The creature has no wings and no internal form or weapon unlike other dragons. Yet, its body shape conforms otherwise to the kind as does its general behavior. The Purple Dragon has a venomous sting in the tip of its tail, one drop of which is enough to fell an elephant. It is sly and treacherous. The species is found only on the Islands Umbar.
This series of dragons would become the chromatic monsters of D&D lore. Of note is that this description describes the purple worm as a dragon and that it lives on islands. That's the first hint that its origins will wildly diverge from its original conception.

Chainmail
Chainmail
reiterates that dragons come in different colors, but also mentions the purple or mottled dragon, which is still flightless and has a venomous sting:
Other kinds of Dragons can be introduced into games, if a little imagination is used. White Dragons live in cold climates and breathe frost. Black Dragons are tropical and split caustic acid. The Blue variety discharges a bolt of electricity. Green Dragons waft poisonous vapors — chlorine — at their opponents. Finally, the Purple, or Mottled, Dragon is a rare, flightless worm with a venomous sting in its tail.
It's not until Original Dungeons & Dragons that the purple worm and mottled worm diverge.

Original Dungeons & Dragons
OD&D's Monsters & Treasure
booklet transforms the purple worm transforms from a dragon to...well, a worm. To be fair, there is nothing in the description to indicate it is an actual worm -- it may well have been a result of artist interpretation -- but the picture makes it clear that it is an actual worm:
PURPLE WORMS: These huge and hungry monsters lurk nearly everywhere just beneath the surface of the land. Some reach a length of 50 feet and a girth of nearly 10 feet diameter. There is a poisonous sting at its tail, but its mouth is the more fearsome weapon, for it is so large as to be able to swallow up to ogre-sized opponents in one gulp. Any hit which scores over 20% of the minimum total required to hit, or 100% in any case, indicates the Purple Worm has swallowed its victim. In six turns the swallowed creature will be dead. In twelve turns it will be totally digested and irrecoverable. Purple Worms never check morale and will always attack.
Of note is the first appearance of a sea monster in the entry immediately after. That entry also makes a parallel in size and function of the sea monster to a purple worm:
SEA MONSTERS: As a general rule these creatures are more for show than anything else. However, they could guard treasure. The typical Sea Monster of mythology is equal in size to a Purple Worm, and they work upwards from there to double or treble that size. The best guide is a book on prehistoric life forms, from which the referee can pick a number of suitable forms for his Sea Monster. Typically, hits from a Sea Monster would inflict 3 or 4 dice of damage.
For one edition, sea monsters had their own entry. It wouldn't last.

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons
By the time Advanced Dungeons & Dragons debuted, two aspects were formalized that would remove the sea monster from D&D parlance. The purple worm was now undeniably a worm with no legs or anything else that could mistake it for a dragon. The sea monster was nowhere to be found, but an addendum at the end of the purple worm description provides a clue:
Mottled Worm: The mottled worm is an aquatic variety of the purple worm. It inhabits shallow bottom muck but will surface for prey. It otherwise conforms to the characteristics of the purple variety.
It seems the sea serpent, like its purple dragon cousin, was gradually changed into a mottled shadow of its original self -- from terror of the high seas to a muck-dwelling predator.

UPDATE: Updated: Pemeteron pointed out that the Cook/Marsh Expert set featured a Lesser Sea Serpent, AC9: Creature Catalogue features the Lesser and Greater versions as per Azzy, and Ralif Redhammer found a version under "Snake, Giant, Sea" in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual. The sea serpent wouldn't reappear until the D&D 3.0 Fiend Folio as a Sea Drake.
 
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Michael Tresca

Comments

pemerton

Legend
I think Cook/Marsh Expert has a Sea Serpent in its monster chapter. I'm off to check <goes to bookshelf in other room and returns with Expert rulebook> and yep, there it is on page X39:

Sea Serpent (Lesser)
AC 5, HD 6, Move 150 (50), attack with 1 bite for 2d6 damage or squeeze the hull of a ship for 1d10 points of hull damage per round, ML 8, no treasure.

It is 20 to 30 feet long with many fins, and there's a picture at the bottom of the page.

Nothing is said about a greater sea serpent, but the same page also has a Sea Dragon entry, which I'd forgotten about. These can swim or fly/glide ("like 'flying fish'") on their fin-like wings. Their breath weapon is a 20' d globe of poison that is deadly if a save vs Dragon Breath is not made. They are only 8 HD, but have AC 1 and their bits do 3d8 damage, so they might well count as greater sea serpents.
 

akr71

Adventurer
I am unsure why it was omitted, but you could re-skin a Dragon Turtle into a Sea Serpent with little effort.
 

Ringtail

World Traveller
Huh, I can't say I ever noticed this glaring omission, but it does make sense to me.

Aside from campaigns that are specifically nautical, like a Pirate game or the Saltmarsh Collection, purely aquatic monsters are unlikely to be encountered and even less so ones that only live at sea. In 5-6 years of D&D I've only been in a position to deploy anything like this once and that was Storm King's Thunder. Still the Kraken made it into the MM and I don't see why a standard Sea Serpent couldn't either. At the very least you could stick it in the back of the book with the more generic monsters like Phase Spiders and the like.

It isn't D&D but both Pathfinder 1e/2e feature a Sea Serpent in their first Bestiary.
 
Thanks for this. In the spirit of Echohawk's monster research compilations - which I hope to see more of!

Was there a sea serpent in BECMI D&D? Maybe in AC9: Creature Catalogue?
 

talien

Community Supporter
1e's Monster Manual had a "Snake, Giant, Sea:"

View attachment 117422

I do wonder if the change from the wyrmy purple worm to the wormy purple worm wasn't an artistic mistake, like the pumpkin-headed bugbear (admittedly a cool image, that).
Excellent catch! Didn't occur to me to look up "snake" instead of "serpent."

To your point, I think the purple worm change was absolutely uh..."artistic inertia" -- artist interprets and that changes everyone's perception of what the monster is. It's the difference between "wyrm" and "worm" for sure.
 
I've never understood this omission. There's a ton of aquatic monsters as far back as the 1E Monster Manual -- did anyone really need dragon turtles, giant gar, ixitxachitl, locath, merfolk, morkoths, sahuagin, sea elves, and tritons? -- but somehow, an actual sea serpent was too much effort to include.

That's a whole lot of monsters that are hard to interact with unless the players get in the water -- stuff like water nymphs are coastal and more likely to be used, IMO -- and ever more aquatic monsters got added in subsequent editions. But other than a brief sighting in the Expert era, no sea serpents, despite the fact that they were referenced in other monster entries, suggesting they existed in the monstrous ecology.

I was disappointed they didn't make it in to Ghosts of Saltmarsh, which would have been a natural spot to drop them in, even if they didn't show up as anything more than wandering monsters for naval expeditions (which is probably their most natural place in the game).
 
1e's Monster Manual had a "Snake, Giant, Sea:"

View attachment 117422

I do wonder if the change from the wyrmy purple worm to the wormy purple worm wasn't an artistic mistake, like the pumpkin-headed bugbear (admittedly a cool image, that).
Thank you, that image leapt into my mind when they said "no sea serpent in AD&D," and I was wondering if I was remembering a different book again. Nope, '77's MM it was.

The whole thrust of the article seemed off as there were a lot of aquatic monsters in the 1e PH, and a significant set of rules for underwater adventuring/combat in the 1e DMG, and spells & magic items to enable the same (this was the 70s, and Jacque Cousteau was very popular, remember).

Snake = Serpent, not a stretch!
 
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Azzy

Cyclone Ranger
I think Cook/Marsh Expert has a Sea Serpent in its monster chapter. I'm off to check <goes to bookshelf in other room and returns with Expert rulebook> and yep, there it is on page X39:

Sea Serpent (Lesser)
AC 5, HD 6, Move 150 (50), attack with 1 bite for 2d6 damage or squeeze the hull of a ship for 1d10 points of hull damage per round, ML 8, no treasure.

It is 20 to 30 feet long with many fins, and there's a picture at the bottom of the page.

Nothing is said about a greater sea serpent, but the same page also has a Sea Dragon entry, which I'd forgotten about. These can swim or fly/glide ("like 'flying fish'") on their fin-like wings. Their breath weapon is a 20' d globe of poison that is deadly if a save vs Dragon Breath is not made. They are only 8 HD, but have AC 1 and their bits do 3d8 damage, so they might well count as greater sea serpents.
AC9: Creature Catalogue features both of these and the greater sea serpent.
 
AC9: Creature Catalogue features both of these and the greater sea serpent.
Which just raises the question again of why they didn't appear in future publications. Why does the morkoth, of all things, have more traction than the sea serpent? Has anyone ever actually used a morkoth?
 

Stormonu

Hero
With the new depiction (and mini), I have rotten plans to use a morkoth in my campaign.

But it’s weird sea serpents have been so neglected, considering how prominent they are in myths.
 

crystorix

Explorer
The linnorms were all pretty serpent-like, though some of them retained small legs. [More on that below]

I actually have been keeping track of monsters as a personal project. In addition to the ones already mentioned, there was the Sea Glutton from the Red Steel Monstrous Compendium online addition, reprinted in the Monstrous Compendium Annual 4. Birthright had the Unnskrajir, found in the Player's Secrets of Hogunmark. For 3rd Edition, in addition to the Sea Drake, there are a Sea Serpent dracoform template in Dragon 260, several types of Sea Serpents in Dragon 345, and the warm-blooded Shadow Sea Serpent in Anauroch: Empire of Shade. The Leviathan in Elder Evils is described as an impossibly large sea serpent.

As mentioned above the linnorms from Vikings were serpentine, and had a swim speed, but could be found either at land or sea. And the individual races of linnorm introduced in Dragon 182 (reappearing in the Monstrous Compendium Annual 1 and Dragon 356) included the Sea Linnorm. The art in the Annual does depict them with fins, which makes it look a bit like a mosasaur.

Basic D&D also had a Sea Dragon in the Expert Set and both versions of the Creature Catalog(ue), which looked like Sea Serpents with fin-like wings.
 

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