Archives of Candlekeep: Pack It Up, Folks!
This article was first broadcast in Episode One Hundred Forty on 5th November 2020.
Ostron: I didn’t just hear that.
Ostron: No, okay, I did hear that. We’re Omega Black people, this is not a drill!
Libby (panicked): Book!
RaeRae: Getting the cover on the scrying pool.
Gath: Securing potions.
Lennon: Why didn’t we set up an alarm for this kind of thing?
RaeRae: Did you not hear that? It is the alarm! Where’s Ryu?
Killer DM (amused): Oh my. What is going on here?
RaeRae: That figures.
Gath (sighing): Let me go find my diamonds.
Ostron: I suppose you’re the cause of all this?
Killer DM: Well all this panicking and running around, no, although it is amusing. But if you mean the Tarrasque, then yes. I mean, I’ve never seen one before, so I was curious.
Lennon: You’re alive, of course you’ve never seen one before.
Killer DM: I don’t see what the fuss is about. It’s just…okay well it is rather large.
Lennon: You don’t say? Tell you what, I’ll go over it with you after we’re nowhere near it.
Mikey (via intercom): Teleport amplification runes in the audio cave are go.
Gath: Main room runes are a go.
RaeRae: “GTFO” carvings are good in the pool room.
Lennon: Booth runes are nominal.
Ostron: What about the annex?
Ostron: I’ll take that as a yes. Initiating area teleportation.
Killer DM: Awww, I wanted to see more! I mean, what do they actually do, anyway?
Lennon: Ha! What do they do, she asks. Okay, fine, let’s break this down. The tarrasque is right up there with Illithids, ancient chromatic dragons, and strange women in santa hats on the list of things you do not want to encounter while adventuring.
Killer DM: Excuse me!
Lennon: Whatever, talk to the hand.
If a tarrasque shows up it usually means the campaign is over. Not necessarily because everyone dies, though that’s usually the reason, but it is sometimes possible for high-level adventurers to put up a fight and have a chance of actually defeating a tarrasque. It’s really hard to find a more final, final boss so either way if the DM pulls out one of these, you’re probably done with the current adventure.
Interestingly enough, the tarrasque is not wholly a unique creation for D&D. There is a legend surrounding the Catholic Saint Martha from southern France that refers to a creature called the tarasque (that’s with 1 “R” instead of 2). In the legend, it lurked in the Rhone river and made a habit of eating men and wrecking boats until Saint Martha used holy water and her faith to basically charm the beast, whereupon she led it back to down and kept it docile while the townspeople killed it.
The Latin legend describes the mythological beast as “a huge dragon, half animal, half fish, fatter than a bull, longer than a horse, it had the face and head of a lion, teeth sharp as swords, the mane of a horse, a back that was hatchet-sharp with bristly scales keen as augers, six feet with bear-like claws, and the tail of a serpent, a double shield/carapace, like a tortoise’s, on each side.
Based on the D&D incarnations of this beastie, there was a certain amount borrowed from the myth, at least in the design of the creature’s body. The dungeons and dragons tarrasque gained an extra ‘r’ in its name and a bit more size. Most sources have agreed the tarrasque measures 50 feet tall upright and 70 feet from head to the tip of its tail (or 15 and 21 meters, respectively, for you foreign types) putting it firmly in kaiju territory, as Ryu would say. It has a turtle-like shell on its back, though most turtles do not have house-sized spikes on their shells. Most of the body is draconic or at least lizard-like, including full-size arms with articulated fingers and thumbs, though the number of fingers vary. Basically what isn’t armor, teeth, or claws is spikes.
As far as behavior, the creature is refreshingly uncomplicated. It shows up, and things die, and that is its only purpose. It’s just basically hungry and literally anything alive will work for food; creatures, plants, sentient beings, semi-sentient goo, whatever. Obviously I wouldn’t have an issue with it but lots of other things seem to.
No, I think it would even give you pause.
Whenever the Tarrasque is given statistics, they’re basically designed to make the creature the toughest thing in the game to defeat in any way. In 5th edition it’s challenge rating 30, and when the edition debuted it was the only creature with that distinction for a while. It usually has a frankly ridiculous pool of hit points and an armor class that makes it impossible to non-critically hit for lower-level creatures and characters (in 5th edition it’s AC is 25). But then even if you do hit with something it just may not care. Attacking it with any non-magical attacks is a waste of time, and the damage types it isn’t resistant to it’s often immune to. Trying to manipulate it’s mind in any way is equally pointless as it’s immune to being charmed or confused or sleeping. For editions where separate psionics were a thing, it was usually immune to those effects as well. None of that applies going the other way, by the way; the tarrasque’s attacks usually would ignore any resistances targets had and often came with a caveat that the damage couldn’t be reduced either. So that raging barbarian? Yeah, say goodbye to them.
And all of that assumes the attackers aren’t just too scared to do anything. In most editions the creature has an aura of fear that can make characters frightened if they fail the save against it or even just completely paralyze them.
Finally, it can’t die.
KillerDM: Wait, if it eats everything alive and is unkillable, why have I never seen it before? Why isn’t it just constantly rampaging across the world, for that matter?
Ostron: Well, that last note needs a bit of explanation.
In all incarnations of the tarrasque up to 5th edition, reducing the creature to 0 hit points doesn’t do anything permanent. The tarrasque is treated like a combination of a force of nature and a hibernating beast, so it spends a good amount of time burrowed underground, asleep. In the collected lore, there are two different cycles the tarrasque works on: in the first, the tarrasque is active for a period of days to a week, then it goes to sleep for several months to a few years. In the second, it wakes up for multiple months and then enters a period of sleep that lasts for a decade or two. No one has been able to figure out why there are two different cycles or what causes one to occur rather than the other.
Either way, eliminating the tarrasque’s hit points usually just sends it back to sleep before it would have gone anyway. Whether it’s possible to kill depends on the edition in question. When it first appeared in the first edition of D&D, the only way to kill it was to bring it well into negative hit points and then use a wish spell. In most editions there was a specific note that reducing the creature to 0 does not kill it, although the 5th edition monster entry doesn’t have that caveat.
So, once people discover that there is basically an unkillable engine of destruction around, the next logical question people have, assuming it isn’t anywhere near them at the time, is why does it exist at all? Unfortunately as with many creatures that have been around through as many incarnations as the tarrasque, there are some conflicting reports on its origin.
No, that’s being nice. The reality is that nobody has a clue about it. First of all, nobody can agree on how many there are, largely because if it hi has any identifying marks any idiot who gets close enough to see them doesn’t live long enough to pass on their notes. And the Tarrasque’s primary mode of travel is underground, way farther underground than the Drow or duregar, or any other “d” species that sunburn too easily bother with. So when the tarrasque shows up on one continent then crops up on another one a few years later, nobody can verify if it’s the same one. To be fair, I imagine that’s not high on anyone’s list of things to do at that point.
The origin story that favors there being only one tarrasque says that it was put together by the elemental princes out of spite when the gods ruined their day and created an actual functioning world. They either messed it up or used so much energy doing it that they could only make one, and everyone is happy about that.
The other theory is that it’s not from around here. In second edition the tarrasque was referenced as part of Spelllljammmerrrr.
Why are you saying it like that?
Because it’s just so delicious watching Ostron’s reaction.
Anyway, some Spelllljammmerrrr resources mentioned a planet called Falx [fawlks] where apparently several hundred tarrasques or tarrasque-like creatures live. Whether someone used a Spelllljammmerrrr and brought one from that planet to Faerun or if evolution decided to create the same type of creature in two different places is unclear.
In Faerunian history there have been several mentions of a tarrasque. One of the few examples of truly ancient history mentions a tarrasque called “The Sleeper” that was worshipped by a tribe of Tabaxi about 36,000 years before the current timeline. They willingly fed it sacrifices and attributed its waking periods to The Sleeper wanting vengeance against other groups. Somehow the tribe itself avoided being part of these rampages. Eventually one of their sacrifices got wise, enchanted themselves as much as possible and supposedly killed the tarrasque. That happened in -2809, or about 4300 years ago, so you know, that tarrasque had a good run.
In more recent history, there was a mention of a tarrasque about 2000 years prior at the time of the end of the Netheril empire, which is that empire mentioned in some parts of the Rime of the Frostmaiden adventure. Supposedly a tribe of barbarians had identified and were guarding a location where the tarrasque was sleeping, but an archmage named Karsus wanted the beast’s pituitary gland as a spell component. He hired some adventurers who were apparently either ignorant, brave, or very, very dumb and a gold dragon provided a liquid that would supposedly keep the tarrasque from waking up. Official history says that Karsus got the component and cast his spell and then that ended up literally crashing most of the Netheril empire, but I mean, an angry tarrasque waking up would probably do that too, wouldn’t it?
Unfortunately there are people interested in actually attracting or at least finding a tarrasque for a number of reasons, aside from “I haven’t seen one before.”
Aside from using various organs as spell components, rumor is that the tarrasque functions as sort of the ultimate gelatinous cube; it devours whole areas but it doesn’t take the time to pick the edible bits out of whatever it eats. There aren’t any records of tarrasque dung, so whatever treasure and magic items it happens to have eaten in its rampages are theoretically still sitting in its stomach.
We’re also talking about a creature with a nearly indestructible hide and natural weapons that bypass resistances so of course people want to get their hands on it and turn pieces of the beast into armor and weapons. How successful that is again varies by source. Some dwarves have claimed they can make armor out of tarrasque hide by mixing it with adamantine, for example, but no one’s specified how they get their hands on it.
Killer DM: Well, obviously you do what I did and just summon one, then take it out and gather up all the goodies. Who’s with me?
Ostron: Literally no one. How did you end up summoning it anyway? Please tell me you didn’t use ROSTRO.
Killer DM: No, though that’s an idea I’ll have to keep in mind for later. There was just a scroll sitting in the vault next to the hat.
Mikey (via intercom): Okay, I know this isn’t my department, but the number of cuts I have from shattered crystal balls down here compels me to ask: why did we even have that scroll?
Lennon: I may have brought it back after my last skiing holiday at the Ten Towns.
RaeRae: And you thought putting into the vault, next to the hat, was a good idea!?
Killer DM: I certainly do.
RaeRae: Right, you – get that hat off. You – meet her in the scrying pool and deal with all those messages. You – stand there while I go get my stick for beating people who don’t use their brains.
Lennon: Um, a little help?
Mikey (via intercom): Sorry, can’t hear you that well. Broken crystals and all.
Gath: Hey, the KDM showed up and I have just as many diamonds as I did when this started, so I’m happy with how this turned out. Good luck, man.