Game Designer's Notebook: Surprising Vermin Behavior

Michael O. Varhola

Following is a piece I initially wrote a little more than four years ago but which I have updated and expanded in response to our recent "d-Infinity Live!" episode on Vermin, to include recapping some of my comments during the show. 

In my capacity as a resident of Texas in particular and the American Southwest in general, I encounter insects, arachnids, and other vermin of all sorts on a regular basis, both bad and good, dangerous and harmless. Some of the things I have noticed about their behavior are particularly interesting and if extrapolated upon could be put to good use with their larger counterparts in role-playing games (i.e., imagine how horrifying it would be to discover a bloated, rotting drowned centipede as big as a horse in a subterranean pool). Following are some of the things I have personally noticed firsthand over the years. 

* Sometimes centipedes drown themselves! Where I live these monstrosities are frequently up to nine inches in length, aggressive, and about four times more venomous than our native scorpions. For whatever reasons, however, whether from looking for something to drink or trying to cool off, these creatures fall into standing water and drown. As the image above shows, I had a tough time getting a good photo of one that had so expired on my patio and dumped it out to be able to better do so. It had been soaking for about a week, however, and when it hit the flagstones it broke apart and phosphorescent blue-green ichor oozed out of its fragments. It also stank much worse than I would have expected. 

Recently I battled one of these things in the house and mauled it with a nightstick. Even after I had beaten it to pieces, however, I was horrified to see not just that its body and venomous tail continued to thrash — but that its head ran off and tried to escape with just three or four legs still attached to it! It was gone when I came back to clean it up and I found it trying to hide behind a nearby cabinet. 

In another incident, I opened the back door to my house and started to step out onto the covered patio. As I did, a centipede that must have been perched right above the door and been dislodged by its opening, fell onto my wrist and started to wrap around it! Once a centipede does that it will begin to attack with its venomous bite and, tightly encircling its victim's appendage, will continue to do so until one or the other is dead. I instinctively shook my wrist before it finished closing itself around it and honestly felt like I had "rolled a 20 on my reflex saving throw," flinging it onto the concrete where it quickly ran off before I could counterattack and finish it off. 

* Pill millipedes eat the remains of other bugs! More widely known as roly-poly bugs, I was surprised to discover that these innocuous and relatively cute little monsters feed on the remains of scorpions and other insects. It would appear that they either start with or confine their eating to the relatively soft connective tissue between the armored segments of creatures like scorpions, allowing them to quickly dismember them (and, presumably, to thereby get to softer bits inside). This practice can lead to the remains of insects eaten by the millipedes to disappear fairly quickly and point to a possible role as dungeon cleaners amongst giant versions of such creatures. 

Strangely, when I recently to retrieve an empty dish that I had put out on the patio the night before with soft cat food in it, I found the remains of about a dozen of these little creatures in it. It was by do means clear what had killed them but maybe they had eaten too much of the food, which could have been richer and more high in protein than what they were able to handle. 

* Dung beetles can fly! Recently I was working outside and saw what looked like an especially large, black fly buzz past me and settle down on a pile of manure. Several more appeared and, as their wings stopped moving and they began walking around, I realized they were not flies at all but rather dung beetles, cousins of the scarabs of Egypt. I has seen them walking around many time before but never realized that they were actually capable of flight.

I have posted a d20 writeup for a Giant Dung Beetle that takes the ability to fly into account and included several versions of this monster in my Aigyptos: A Gazetteer for 5th Edition, and am actually the only person I know who has ever stat'ed this sort of creature or used them in a game. 

* Scorpions play dead! For whatever reasons, any number of times I have seen apparently dead scorpions on the floor, but the next time I walked past them they were gone. I have tested this theory by poking at these upside-down, extended-tail little monsters, prompting them to spring into action and try to run off. Whether natural indolence, wiliness, or the unwanted attention of cats leads them to play dead remains a mystery.

Scorpions also have a distressing tendency to curl up into a flattened lozenge shape and attach themselves to human possessions; this is pronounced enough to suggest something like them being drawn to the scent of sweat or pheremones. In one episode of this sort, I discovered a scorpion curled up on the strap of my camera bag, where its precise placement actually made it look like some sort of device that had been deliberately attached to the strap. In an even more unpleasant and recent incident, I found one in a similar disposition attached to the inside surface of my towel when I got out of the shower — and was unable to dislodge it by shaking the towel! I had to put the towel on the floor, beat the scorpion to death with a sneaker, and then get myself a fresh towel so that I could dry off. 

For anyone who is intrested, I explore other behavior of scorpions and their monstrous fantasy counterparts in my novel Swords of Kos: Necropolis

* Fire ants are nocturnal! This little tidbit is something I was unhappy to discover while walking on my patio late one night while barefoot; I could first feel the tiny little monsters crawling on me and then they started to bit me painfully, and I sustained at least a half dozen bites on each foot before I was able to slap them all off my feet and pulling a number out from between between my toes. These creatures are venomous, by the way, and can deliver fatal bites to their victims, either by inducing an allergic reaction or administering so many that a person suffers a fatal dose of their poison.