This article was first broadcast in Episode One Hundred Sixty Three on 28 April 2021.
Ryu: Ostron, I…oh come on, why do I always fall for this?
ROSTRO: I would posit that the Killer DM implants a post hypnotic suggestion reducing your aversion to interacting with me until such time as you are already in close proximity.
Ryu: KayDee wouldn’t do that to me!
ROSTRO: The alternative is that your capacity for insight is sorely lacking and your memory recall of previous encounters is deficient.
Lennon: What is all the yelling?…oh. Here we are again, I guess.
Ryu: Oh, wait a minute, what happened to “please state the headache I need to talk your ear off about?”
ROSTRO: If you are referring to the standard greeting of “please state the nature of the mathematical enquiry,” I deemed it unnecessary for this particular interaction, owing to the reality that the enquiry has already been identified and resolved. My summons was simply a notification that I will be sharing the results of my research with you.
Ryu: I don’t suppose we could just say no, walk out the door, and do…I don’t know…anything else?
Lennon: We need Ostron for the rest of the show and you know the machine doesn’t acknowledge passive aggressive stuff. The only way out is through, so let’s just push past this.
Ryu: Fine, hit me.
(ROSTRO’s display crystals power up)
When Modrons are mentioned in conversation, most of the time the image conjured up is of some sort of funny little clockwork-type creature with a body that looks like a die and spindly arms and legs, obsessively working on one or two things until it breaks or something breaks it. This isn’t totally wrong and it’s probably the way most people have encountered Modrons in Faerun because wizards who can manage it like having Modrons around as assistants. But the reality behind them is a lot more involved.
Modrons have existed in D&D since 1st edition. At that time in the game, a lot of the other planes were constructed with the idea that they embodied the ideal of one of the alignments. So the nine hells were the embodiment of lawful evil, the abyss was the embodiment of chaotic evil, and so on. The plane of Nirvana, as it was called then, was meant to serve as the ultimate manifestation of lawful neutral. Since 1st edition, the name of the plane was updated to be “The clockwork Nirvana of Mechanus.” In more modern publications it’s usually referred to just as “Mechanus.”
In-lore, the discovery of Mechanus and the Modrons is attributed to one Lady Polaris. She was an archwizard of the Netherese empire and discovered it while exploring the multiverse.
The plane itself is a collection of gears of every size, most of the sizes being very large. The gears tend to be arranged perpendicular to one another, but they all generate their own gravity, so it’s not difficult to get around them by walking and it’s even easier if you can fly, as there’s air between all of the gears. Other than gears, the main thing you find in Mechanus is Modrons.
As befits their nature, the basic information about Modrons has remained largely unaltered since the introduction in first edition. Modron society functions based on a strict hierarchical caste system, consisting of a “base” class and a “hierarch” class.
Modrons of the base class have “drone” as part of their name affixed with a cardinal latin or greek numeral prefix. Thus the lowest base Modron is a monodrone and the highest is a pentadrone. Their bodies are primarily mechanical and are structured as three dimensional projections of geometric shapes based on their designation, thus a monodrone will have a spherical body and a pentadrone’s body will be shaped as an artistic star.
Hierarch Modrons’ classifications use the suffix -ton until the upper echelons and continue to use cardinal numeral prefixes but progress in reverse order; the lowest ranked heirarch is a decaton followed by a nonaton and so on until the top two ranks, designated tertian and secundi. The physical embodiments of the hierarch Modrons are also noticeably different as they take on humanoid shapes with a number of arms that correspond to their numeral prefix. They are also the closest thing D&D comes to cybernetic life forms; some pieces of the hierarch Modrons are actually biological, With the ratio of metallic to organic components increasing as the Modrons’ rank increases.
The ability to immediately recognize Modrons by their shape can actually be helpful because their rank immediately indicates their importance to Modron society and how much information and help they’ll be able to provide. Monodrones are like robot vacuums; they have one job, they do that job, and then that’s it. They have more responsibility and autonomy as their rank increases.
Modrons increase in rank when a higher level Modron dies, at which point there is a sort of automatic consensus on what Modron gets promoted. That isn’t based on any sort of awards or job performance; all Modrons of a particular rank are identical in every way, so whoever gets promoted is literally whatever Modron of the next rank down was closest at the time. At that point…ugh.
Ryu: I just…threw up in my mouth a little.
The Modron’s body literally splits apart and reforms into the correct shape for their new rank. That triggers a domino effect where a Modron below them gets promoted up, splits apart and reforms, and so forth and so on until you get down to the monodrones, who actually reproduce by just splitting in half and reforming as two different monodrones. That process involves drawing energy from what’s called the Energy Pool in the Modron’s largest city, Regulus.
All of the Modrons are sentient, however, and they are capable of defending themselves, but they sometimes won’t because of their…odd outlook on things. The Modrons’ primary purpose in life is to impose order and regularity to everything. It’s all they ever focus on, to the point where they don’t really have concepts of good or evil; they only have the concepts of order and chaos. They also think more like the unhelpful vending machine over here and consider everything from the point of view of ultimate logic. Because so few other beings think from that perspective, some of their decisions can seem baffling and incomprehensible. Also, side note; that logical perspective extends to everything they do. Do not play chess with a Modron.
They maintain that outlook and mission species-wide because they have something akin to a hive mind, though it doesn’t literally function the way most people think of. Almost all Modron to Modron communication is telepathic, so they can transfer ideas very quickly between themselves. Also, the hierarchy is enforced very strictly, to the point where mental blocks are in place. Modrons are literally unable to comprehend of Modrons more than one rank higher than they are, and they obey all orders from the higher ranked modrons without question. That means directives from higher up process through the whole population very quickly. The only exception is Primus, the supreme and unquestioned ruler of the Modrons; all Modrons are aware of their existence, regardless of rank.
The organizational structure mentioned is unfortunately not without flaws. The thought processes of individual Modrons are generally homogenous, however occasionally a mid-level Modron will engage in independent interpretation of the concept of maintaining order. Due to the complete deference of lesser modrons to greater, the introduction of deviant instructions can propgate rapidly through the species. The Modrons that propagate such deviance are labeled as rogue and hunted down with extreme prejudice.
The accepted overall directive of the Modrons comes from Primus, the unquestioned leader of the entire species. There is no name for the being other than Primus; Modrons have no individual identifiers or variety in appearance among each rank level; all the decatons appear identical, as do all the nonatons, et cetera. Primus is merely the highest rank a Modron can achieve. There is also no particular accolade or accomplishment that might promote a Modron to the position; as previously indicated it is mostly a function of convenience and proximity of the next lowest ranked Modron.
Modrons don’t often interact with outsiders; the majority of their population stays in Mechanus. As we said already, the most common way most people in the Forgotten realms will interact with or see a Modron is if they come across a wizard who’s managed to get one to work for them as a servant. That can be arranged legitimately but it’s a bureaucratic nightmare; since each Modron, again, literally doesn’t know higher level Modrons exist beyond the next level up, anyone wanting to hire a Modron has to work their way up from whatever level they started at until someone has the authority to reassign a modron, and you better believe there’s paperwork. Good luck if you start at a Tridrone.
You can of course run into a lot of them if you visit Mechanus itself but that often doesn’t end well. It’s not dangerous like if you tried to visit the nine hells or a Dread Domain it’s just…frustrating. If you’re there to actually accomplish anything you have to again work your way through the Modron bureaucracy up from whatever level you start at, and if you do anything like try to hurry the process along or skip a level you’ll be branded as disorderly and promoting chaos and probably banished from the realm. The last proclamation like that was as follows:
You are hereby exiled from the glory that is Mechanus! If you should ever return, even greater punishments shall be leveled against you, including but not limited to severe fines, imprisonment, hard labor, loss of limbs, loss of sight, geas magic, modron cleaning, modron counting, and legal file alphabetization.
The other primary reason people might encounter Modrons has to do with something called “The Great Modron March.” The march occurs once every 289 years, which corresponds to how long it takes the largest gear on Mechanus to turn once. Thousands of Modrons get together and set out on a walking tour of the outer planes (that includes all the planes except the prime material, the Feywild and Shadowfell, and the four elemental planes. Nobody can figure out why they do this; it could be some kind of a survey, or a scouting mission, or a celebratory parade for all anyone knows. They seem to just march through an area, looking around as they go. They don’t stop for anything, including buildings or other people; there are multiple records of people and creatures being trampled to death because they didn’t get out of the way fast enough.
It’s also horrifically deadly for the Modrons involved. The outer planes, remember, include places like the Nine Hells, and Pandemonium. The inhabitants of some don’t really appreciate the Modrons’ presence and will subject them to attack as they move. Unfortunately the Modrons apply the same orderly, regimented approach to combat as they do to everything else with predictable results. Because of the various issues with simply traipsing through the planes, there are incidents of Modrons getting separated from the main group, falling through portals to other planes, and ending up somewhere they didn’t intend.
Other than the aforementioned desire for a servant, which itself is an arduous undertaking few have the patience for, the other primary reason for seeking out the Modrons, usually the Primus in particular, is for the purposes of arbitration. Being the next best things to manifestations of lawful neutrality, the Modrons are viewed as unparalleled objective third parties in most disputes, to the point where legend suggests Primus was engaged to mediate between agents of Celestia and the chief archdevil Asmodeus when the latter was accused of violating terms of his imprisonment. They have also been engaged for lesser disputes requiring clear neutrality in analysis, though those requests to the Modrons must be filtered through the same process as those searching for servants, so they are usually not undertaken lightly.
The other factor to consider is that most beings do not want extensive association with Modrons because of their single-minded focus on order. The usual behavioral patterns of sapient beings do not conform to the Modron’s idea of order, and it is theorized that if Modrons were afforded more power and capability than they have, they would begin a multiversal conversion of all areas to conform to their idea of order. It is further posited that the major reason this has not yet occurred is that other forces of disorder are preventing their expansion. The primary oppositional force in that case appears to be the Slaad, a species that generally serves and encourages chaos and entropy wherever possible.
Modrons have been included in 5th edition since the initial Monster Manual, but they haven’t yet played a major role in any official publications or adventure modules.
Practically speaking, Modrons are difficult to build any major adventure around because by definition they’re supposed to be more logical than most sapient beings ever bother with, and that’s a mindset it’s difficult to really imagine or make problematic. Also, as we mentioned, unless the party is doing a significant planar excursion it’s unlikely you’ll run into many of them. There are stories in D&D lore where Modron servants of wizards have caused headaches because they try to impose their own interpretations of order on things, like if the wizard asks the Modron to organize their potions and the Modron decides to sort them by color or bottle size. That can potentially cause some sort of knock-on issue that would be worthy of a quest but, again, that doesn’t center on Modrons.
One of the best options for featuring Modrons in an adventure is probably to lean into the angle of them being neutral arbitrators for major disputes. With that premise, you can structure a quest around characters needing to locate and then negotiate to get a Modron to mediate a dispute.
Ryu: …wait, what is this thing at the end?
ROSTRO: A standard Heroes Rise asset requisition request with associated appendices.
Lennon (mumbling): Hang on…extraplanar shipping and transport rider? Partition for a five by five foot storage area? Is this for shipping a Modron to the guild house?
ROSTRO: That is one logical conclusion that could be drawn.
Ryu: No, no! I’m not having clockwork geometry wandering around in here randomly splitting apart and changing into different things because some stupid google-drone accidentally walks off a cliff.
ROSTRO: I believe the request is within normal parameters for residents of the facility.
Ryu: You aren’t a resident! Ostron is! It’s….ghaaa I can’t even go get that hat because she *likes* that thing and would probably help it. No, I’m done. I’m going to the scrying pool and I’m going to cuddle RaeRae’s ferret. Come see me when you’re ready to answer questions.
(Ryu exits, slamming door)
ROSTRO (after a brief pause): Supplemental inquiry: cuddle RaeRae’s ferret.
Lennon: You’re on thin ice already, mate, let’s not push it. Tell you what, I’ll take the request and at least consider it if you get Ostron over to the scrying pool in the next few minutes, okay?