Friday, October 19, 2012

Maelstrom (Monster/Effect/Portal-Type)

Image by Harry Clarke from the 1919 edition of E. A. Poe's 'Tales of Mystery and Imagination.'
You can also download a copy of this image to use via Wikimedia Commons, as it is in the Public Domain.

Halloween is fast approaching and this is my favorite time of the year to revisit and re-read a bit of Mr. Poe's gruesome, decadent tales and poetry. Or listen to that album by Alan Parsons...while re-reading some of Mr. Poe's lurid prose. And a piece of fresh-baked pumpkin pie or a really good pumpkin stout...yeah.


"The ways of God in Nature, as in Providence, are not as our ways; nor are the models that we frame any way commensurate to the vastness, profundity, and unsearchableness of His works, which have a depth in them greater than the well of Democritus."
Joseph Glanville (Note: Poe substantially revised the original quote...)

In Poe's tale 'A Descent Into the Maelstrom,' he presents a survivor's account of having nearly been swallowed-up by a massive whirlpool. The old sailor recounts his terrifying experience in the course of a mountain-climbing trip in Norway. He tells his companions of his shipwreck during a hurricane, getting caught in the swirling, churning grasp of the watery vortex and his eventual rescue, after witnessing the horrific descent of his brother into madness and oblivion while he survived because he made good use of his powers of observation and reasoning. The sad, lone survivor of this encounter with the Maelstrom was wizened, weakened and aged terribly by his ordeal.

Much feared as hazards to navigation, even as monsters unto themselves, whirlpools such as those off the coast of Norway such as Mokstraumen, one of the most notorious such vortexes known since even before medieval times, have featured prominently in old sailor's tales and in folklore as rivals to sea serpents, leviathans, and krakens. Whirlpools were regarded with awe and a healthy respect, as they could break-up or sink a good ship, and there was little that could be done about it, save to avoid the things in the first place.

But are they best represented as Monsters or Environmental Effects/Events?

Here's a Monster write-up for Labyrinth Lord to consider:
No. Enc.: 1
Alignment: Chaotic (Evil)
Movement: n/a
Armor Class: n/a
Hit Dice: 8
Attacks: 1
Damage: see below
Save: n/a
Morale: n/a
Hoard Class: Detritus & Debris

Special: On the outer periphery the Maelstrom inflicts 1d6 damage to anyone/anything coming within reach of its swirling, churning turbulence. A Save must be made or the victim (be it ship, sailor or shark) becomes trapped in the vortex. Those so captured either suffer a progressive 1d6 in damage (either roll to Hit or use a Save), or they are drained of 1 point of CON or WIS (player's choice). This process repeats itself for 1d6 turns, after which the victim either is sucked down to the bottom of the sea, or they are rescued by someone operating outside the perimeter of the vortex. Those lost to the vortex are non-recoverable and never seen again. Anyone surviving such an encounter is aged severely (becoming Elderly or Venerable, using the Ability Adjustments Due to Age Table on p.23 of Advanced Edition Companion, or something similar.)
As a Monster, such a vortex might be some sort of Elemental Being. Or it could be the effect produced by a gargantuan fishy-thing deep below the surface of the water, such as Charybdis, some folk's re-interpretation of the Welsh Afanc or the afore-mentioned Leviathan, but that tends to get Biblical, enviously demonic or Moby-Dickish...even Hobbesian. But all that could just be so many odd-ball tangents to waste spend a few hours following the links down the rabbit-hole. If a Maelstrom is some sort of specialized Elemental, the special attack of a demented demonically-possessed albino whale, or some dreadful crowned prince of the Infernal Regions who somehow got lost at sea (possibly there is some evil artifact down there, beneath the waves, stirring up all this turmoil and terror? Could be. (We really need to write-up a Charybdaiad now though...)


But what if the Maelstrom were a more natural sort of thing, a large, and dangerous Environmental Effect, and not just another monster in some scribe's exaggerated bestiary? (or it could be both, really...)

That sounds like a job for a Random Table...

Maelstrom as Hazard to Navigation Table

  1. The turgid, foamy waters subside within the next fifteen minutes; you just missed it. Ship or swimmers take 2d4 damage and make a Save at +2 to avoid getting dragged under by the last dregs of the whirlpool. It will be back in another 1d6 hours.
  2. Everything seemed peaceful, serene and reasonably calm...then the waters became agitated, choppy, increasingly chaotic as a huge roaring, spiraling cataract formed in seconds, smashing everything caught within it for 4d6 damage and threatening to capsize or split asunder any vessel unlucky enough to get snared in the treacherous currents.
  3. It started slowly, at first. A weak swirliness in the waters just off the point. So many tiny ripples. Easy to overlook or ignore as just some minor churning brought on by the weather, the passage of some whale, or whatever. Then it got worse. More intense. Every minute the waters grew more and more agitated. Then it was too late. A whirlpool churned and turned, making the channel a death trap for any ship caught within its watery grasp. (Save or Sink. Extends for a substantial circumference, perhaps up to half a mile...)
  4. "All of a sudden, it's got you..." Everything went blue. Deep, vivid blue. You've gotten snared by the vortex produced by a hitherto unknown Blue Hole. It strikes by surprise, from below, forcing a Save at -2 to avoid getting swept away in the powerful currents.
  5. The tides shift even as the winds pick up from the south. Menacing clouds boil across the darkening sky as heavy weather moves in fast. There's a hurricane blowing in and this stretch of water is now riddled with 2d6 whirlpools of random size and strength. Good luck.
  6. The whirlpool was clearly marked in the Carta Marina and other such charts. But your captain insisted on risking the passage. Now whatever demons might have been haunting him, driving him on so recklessly have done for you all--the Maelstrom is raging and roaring and spinning at full force and the ship is crumbling to pieces beneath you...

Whether or not there's anyone out there to rescue those who run afoul of such a whirlpool...well...that's best left up to the DM.


But what if such vortexes and whirlpools were not just monstrous things or environmental quirks? What if they also somehow provided a highly dangerous means of crossing-over to some Adjacent World, Parallel Realm, or some other plane of existence? Could such a whirlpool connect to some alien ocean or weird elemental realm of some sort?

Why not? Maybe that whirlpool you've just discovered is some sort of fluctuating gateway to some other place, some distant region of existence where things aren't quite the same as here. Maybe it is some sort of Weak Point, or the ongoing effect of some malfunctioning Transition Mechanism trapped deep beneath the waves. It could be a gateway to all kinds of adventures. Maybe such a thing might make for another entry in Porky's ongoing Community Project 'The Ends,' which you can find here.


  1. Nice to see the public domain feature return. Your reconceptualization of these is always great.

    1. Hi Trey,
      Glad you liked the Maelstrom. We love the Public Domain stuff and there's a bunch more coming along...just have a lot of artwork, geomorphs, maps and stuff to get completed first. We had planned on this being a recurring feature at the blog when we re-launched back in August, but things are only now working out so that we can really give this some serious attention like it deserves.

  2. Lots of options there. The idea of it being a living thing adds a certain malevolence, and it does seem natural to see a maelstrom as a gateway to another place - it seems to go somewhere, but where? I love the image of it emerging into strange oceans, maybe even onto dry land as a kind of 'white hole', even a desert as when Dorothy returns to the cinematic Oz. It could also lead to some kind of underwater realm, or transform the traveller into a water baby or similar.

    1. We like options. We also didn't want to restrict things to just one option--this way it could be an event, an area effect, a monster or the means to something else entirely, possibly all at once. We'll be coming back to this post down the road, as we get a few more things caught-up. You really hit the nail on the head with the Oz/Dorothy connection--a Maelstrom is a lot like an inverted tornado, only in the water, not the if a whirlwind can carry off a young girl and her dog to some far-off might a whirlpool carry-off someone else to another strange, exotic locale...


Thanks for your comment. We value your feedback and appreciate your support of our efforts.