Archives of Candlekeep: Unbalancing the Scales
This article was first broadcast in Episode One Hundred Seventy Seven on 18 August 2021.
Ryu (obviously vexed): Ostron!
Ryu: I have a lot of things I want to say right now but the first one is “What is wrong with you?”
Ostron: I think you’ll have to be more specific …
Ryu: Do I look like I’m in the mood for jokes? Explain this!
Ostron: Um…”Experimentation Proposal Form?” I…I think I was working on this the other day. It was an idea I had, although I nodded off a little bit after. I didn’t think I’d gotten it done.
Ryu: So you were actually going to submit this!?
Lennon: Hang on, this looks like really neat writing…too neat. Wait, this isn’t written, this is printed … in dot matrix …
Ryu: Ah…okay…So I’ll apologize because I think my anger is misplaced. Slightly.
Ryu (subvocal mumbling): I really hate that machine.
Lennon: (reading the form): Wait…request to have serpentine appendages grafted to shoulder blades for more efficient climbing and suspension. For Ryu!?
Ostron: I didn’t request that!…I mean it’s not a horrible idea, but I didn’t submit the proposal.
Ryu: How is that not a horrible idea? Do I need to get Ricky’s Guide and show you all the pictures of the horrible ways body grafting has gone wrong?
Ostron: Oh that’s amateur fumbling. The Yuan-ti have been doing grafting like that for … well a really long time.
Lennon: Ahhh … so you’re saying instead of the independent, unsupervised crazy evil people from the demiplanes of dread handling the procedure, it’s a better idea to let the organized, human-hating, demon-worshipping evil snake people do it instead?
Ostron: I didn’t say have them do it, I said they’re better at it. Again, they’ve been doing it for a … long time.
Ryu: Why do you keep pausing before you say “long time?”
Ostron: Because the Yuan-ti are a lot older than most people think.
Yuan-ti have never enjoyed the prominence or recognition that some of D&D’s monsters enjoy; they aren’t really recognized outside of D&D gaming circles and even within those they aren’t very often featured. They have a somewhat stereotypical ancient middle-eastern theme to them a lot of the time; they’re usually shown armed with scimitars and wearing clothes or jewelry reminiscent of ancient Egypt, or at least the ancient Egypt popularized in a lot of media. For that same reason they’re regularly used as a default enemy in a lot of desert-themed adventures.
But they are well-known enough that they form the basis of one of the common player races in 5e, the Yuan-ti pureblood. And if you dig into what’s been created around the race, you’ll find a lot more lore and information than you get for a “throwaway” enemy.
To be fair, however, initially the Yuan-ti were sort of throwaway enemies. When D&D came out, the “snake man” was a trope practically required for fantasy thanks to older serials like Kull the Conqueror and later Conan, and D&D was a fantasy game. Yuan-ti have an entry in the first edition Monster manual and were present for every edition after. However, where a lot of creatures like Beholders and Drow got a boost in lore and depth in 2nd edition, Yuan-ti had to wait for 3rd edition and the pens of Eric Boyd, Darrin Drader, and Ed Greenwood to get a full society and origin story. At least one of those names was probably familiar to you.
Serpent Kingdoms was a reference that detailed the structure and society of every sapient race in the Forgotten Realms that had scales rather than skin for an epidermal layer, except for the dragons. Most of the book’s focus was on the Lizardfolk, Nagas, and Yuan-ti, though there was some space given over to smaller groups like troglodytes. 4th edition basically tossed out all of the information from Serpent Kingdoms and the “3” editions and rewrote the behavior and focus of Yuan-ti society. And then for 5th edition everyone pretended that didn’t happen and went back to most of the information from 3rd edition.
Now a lot of the information about ancient Yuan-ti history comes from the Serpent Kingdoms book and hasn’t yet been replicated elsewhere, but we thought it worth including. That history starts with a race of beings called the Sarrukh. The Sarrukh actually resemble some Yuan-ti; they have a snake tail with no legs and only arms for appendages, but their bodies are more lizard-like, with spinal ridges sticking up from their backs and down their tails. The Sarrukh controlled a vast empire in the tropical areas of Toril and were very likely the dominant race on the planet. That happened approximately 37 thousand years ago. For those of you without your calendars handy, that’s almost 35,000 years before the Netherese Empire existed, and it even beats the war between the dragons and the giants by 10,000 years. They’re OLD.
They also spent a lot of time experimenting with magic, particularly as it applied to body modification. Possibly because of their reptilian heritage, the idea of grafting and molding bodies was one they invested a lot of time in. They were also tryants ruling over a lot of territory so of course they needed servants to do their jobs for them. Legend and some actual knowledge holds that the Lizardfolk were created and bred to be the fighting force of the empire, the nagas were created to be researchers and explorers, and the Yuan-ti existed to be direct servants and to manage the other races. Eventually, as these things do, the Sarrukh empire fell, and the Yuan-ti and other slave races helped a bit with that. However, the Yuan-Ti did it more out of a sense that they could run things better, and have been trying to accomplish that ever since.
Now as we mentioned, that info comes out of the Serpent Kingdoms book. All of the monster manual entries from the 3s and even 5th edition suggest the Yuan-ti were simply humans that worshipped snake gods, played with magic, and ended up as snake-people. If you buy into the Sarrukh involvement, you can interpret that as a “retelling” of history according to the Yuan-Ti who don’t want to admit they were a slave race, ever, and it’s not technically incorrect because apparently the Sarrukh made the Yuan-ti by taking these mammals who were running around in loincloths banging rocks together at the time and did some magical experimentation on them. Or you can just toss the ancient other race connection entirely.
Physically Yuan-ti actually have a wide range of body types and abilities, things that only help reinforce the rigid caste system their society is based on. The only common features of all Yuan-ti are an innate ability with psionics, reptilian eyes, basic immunity to poison and/or the ability to produce it themselves, and the ability to shapeshift into the form of a full snake. There are two extremes on the range of Yuan-ti body types: on what the Yuan-ti consider the better end, you have the Yuan-Ti abominations. These are Yuan-ti that are almost full snake, with no legs, and only arms to physically suggest they’re anything other than a large serpent. The other end of the range are the purebloods. Those are Yuan-ti that look almost human, and in fact can pass for human most of the time; someone has to look real closely at their eyes or find the very few patches of skin that have scales to really tell the difference. Note that in older editions the purebloods were still capable of shapeshifting into a serpent, but in 5th edition they have lost that. The reason seems to be purely mechanical; apparently the designers didn’t want to give Pureblood player characters the free ability to shapeshift.
In between you have the Yuan-ti Malisons or half-bloods and they have a lot of variation. Basically they can have any combination of heads, arms, or legs you would find on Abominations or Purebloods as long as it doesn’t put them in either camp. So some are full human bodies with snake heads, others have human arms and heads with snake bodies and tails, and anything else in-between. They also have the added possibility of groups of snakes where their arms would be. Malisons in particular are frequently involved in the grafting Ostron mentioned originally; since having more snake-like features is seen as a positive thing, Malisons will often work toward grafting additional ones onto themselves whenever they can in the hopes it will improve their social status.
Because they have both mammalian and reptilian heritage, their bodies react to things differently depending on what percent is snake. That mostly manifests in their ability to accept grafts and their affinity for warm areas. They never get to be 100% cold-blooded, but Abominations in particular would prefer a nice sunny day in the desert than any amount of time in Icewind Dale.
There are two other varieties of Yuan-ti worth mentioning even though they’re outliers and not as common. The tainted ones are humans who have ingested a potion mixed from a secret mixture of herbs and a distillation of Yuan-ti venom. The effect is to turn the humans into reptilian humanoid creatures that are subservient to all other Yuan-Ti. The tainted ones are often used as scouts, but some are also trained specifically to be guards for the Yuan-ti brood chambers, which they will defend vigorously to the death.
The other variety are called Yuan-ti Anathemas and they’re sort of like the Yuan-ti version of Drow Driders, except the Anathemas are created on purpose. To get one, you take one Yuan-ti Abomination, add in fierce devotion to a Yuan-ti god, the sacrifice of a hundred or so snakes, and a literal pool of blood from the Yuan-ti’s enemies. Soak for some indeterminate amount of time, and on the other side you get a 10-15 foot creature with a snake body, two humanoid arms, six snake heads on top, and a penchant for megalomania and believing they are in fact a god. The fact that they’re immortal tends to help with that last part. This ritual is usually done by one Abomination without help because the rest of Yuan-ti society doesn’t really like the Anathemas; they tend to be rather harsh on their subordinates, and the Anathemas consider everyone to be a subordinate. On the other hand, they are master grafters, so Malisons looking to get ahead are sometimes more supportive of them than not.
Speaking of, if there isn’t an Anathema around to take charge of everything, one of the Abominations is usually running whatever group of Yuan-ti is around. Below them are the Malisons. In a loose sense the more snakey parts a Malison has the more they’re respected, but all of the half-bloods are mostly at the same level as far as caste is concerned. Below them are the purebloods, who are barely better than slaves and are only valued because they’re able to infiltrate most non-Yuan-ti societies a lot easier than the rest of them. Then you have the slaves, who are numerous and preferably human; Yuan-ti like human slaves because they’re intelligent, they work hard, they breed much faster than most of the other non-scaley races, and they taste good.
Compared to most sapient races, Yuan-ti society can seem very alien and cold. Pragmatism is the main focus and sentimentality has no place in the way things are done. Reproduction, for example, is completely separate from emotion with the Yuan-ti. It’s very common for an individual to have a trusted confidante and friend of multiple years around in their household, but then produce offspring with someone who’s a virtual stranger because of a mutual agreement that their strength and attributes are beneficial for mating. Of course there isn’t much of a concern with parentage other than making sure the children stay within the same Yuan-Ti tribe; children are trained by broodguards until old enough to function on their own, and the actual parents are usually barely involved. Tribe affiliation is often easy to distinguish by sight; the more snake-like Yuan-ti can exhibit any coloring or physical features common to any variety of snake, but the traits breed true for the most part, so members of the same tribe will tend to resemble each other in physicality and coloring.
Different Yuan-ti tribes rarely compete openly or violently; as mentioned previously, the whole species has a sense of working to improve their strength and inter-tribal conflict that kills a lot of Yuan-ti usually doesn’t help that. However, there is a tremendous amount of political maneuvering among different Yuan-ti at the individual and group level, so even longstanding allies will often be mistrustful of one another to some degree. That constant competition tends to give them an edge in coming up with plans to infiltrate and suborn the settlements and governments of other races.
The only exception to the normal tribal structure of the Yuan-ti is the so-called Coiled Cabal. This group follows the tradition of magical power building and research supposedly started by the Sarrukh, though they don’t acknowledge that. The Coiled Cabal is often considered outside normal political issues because they supposedly stay focused only on the goals of Yuan-ti society as a whole.
Yuan-ti religion is simple on the face of it but complex if you do more digging. If you buy into the Sarrukh origin, they encouraged the Yuan-ti to worship a god known as the World Serpent. Eventually their devotion to the world-serpent outstripped their devotion to the Sarrukh, leading to the previously mentioned slave rebellion. After that, the Yuan-ti focused their worship on an aspect of the World Serpent known as Merrshaulk. Merrshaulk was generically snake-like and liked living human sacrifices so the Yuan-ti were on board, but eventually he responded less and less to priests and worshippers until he finally just fell asleep. That allowed a different being known as Sseth to present himself to the Yuan-ti as Merrshaulk reborn and encourage worship of him instead. Since the worship basically followed the same pattern as before (do evil, sacrifice humans, snakes rule), this wasn’t a large leap for the snake people. Some of them stubbornly held onto the worship of Merrshaulk, but in modern Yuan-ti society Merrshaulk is considered an aspect of the god Sseth except by a small group that suspects the truth and are hoping to encourage Merrshaulk to awaken and lead the Yuan-ti to glory and domination, since Sseth hasn’t kept up with his campaign promises so far.
There are also some fringe groups. Worship of the primordial Dendar occurs in some groups because Dendar often takes the form of a snake, but the primordial’s apocalyptic goal of eating the whole world doesn’t sit well with many Yuan-ti who would prefer to take over the world rather than destroy it. Anathemas often develop a group of worshipers around them as some believe the Anathemas are avatars of Sseth and should be treated as gods. The Anathemas are perfectly okay with this.
As far as other races go, the Yuan-ti approach is fairly simple; if they haven’t got scales, they are inferior and to be eliminated or enslaved. That dictates relations with a large amount of creatures and civilizations in the world. Usually they will further the elimination by sending purebloods in as spies to gather information, destabilize politics, and outright sabotage defenses. Yuan-ti prefer to be completely subtle and not resort to overt action, so they’d rather bring about the downfall of a settlement or society from within than have to muster their armies and conquer it.
If a species is scaled, considerations are made, mostly because of a bit of a blindspot the Yuan-ti have related to their worship of Sseth and their belief that anything snake-like is somehow under his purview. The foremost rule, however, is that Yuan-ti are the pinnacle, so all other races are inferior by default, even if they are scaled. Dumb beasts with scales are considered “marked” by Sseth to help the Yuan-ti, so they can be used as beasts of burden etc. Nagas are the closest Yuan-ti ever come to considering a species equal, as they respect the Naga’s subtle approach and their command of magic and will consider allying with them temporarily for common goals. Dragons are respected both for being reptilian and because disrespecting dragons tends to cause practical problems regardless of who you are. Lizardfolk are considered useful and when direct confrontation is in the cards Yuan-ti will often try to arrange alliances so they can use the Lizardfolk as front-line fighters. Oddly they will also give a pass to shapeshifting species that can assume the form of something reptilian, assuming they are somehow also blessed by Sseth and are a part of his grand plan.
Yuan-ti can fit into many campaigns in the same niche as Drow and are often used as a “regional substitute” of sorts; since Drow hate the sun so much and the Yuan-ti are much more in favor of it, they can serve in areas where it’s sunny enough or far enough from convenient Underdark locations that it wouldn’t make sense for Drow to be around.
That said, a complete one-for-one substitution wouldn’t be completely true to the lore; Drow are much more about raiding to acquire slaves piecemeal to use them in trades and in slave markets. Yuan-ti are supporting an empire with integrated slavery at multiple levels and prefer acquiring slaves en masse. They more easily fit into a scenario involving intrigue and betrayal. Sudden failures and manipulations destroying a politician or business mogul’s reputation could turn out to be the work of a Yuan-ti pureblood or a network of them. They could also be behind plots to start cults of Sseth, or introduce odd potions or narcotics that turn out to be deadly or lead to people slowly turning into tainted ones. A “secret invasion” where people are disappearing or being replaced over a long period of time is also very much in keeping with Yuan-ti patterns.
That said, if you need a less subtle or involved situation, smaller groups of Yuan-ti do set up brooding sites away from large Yuan-ti settlements. An underground ruin or dungeon could easily feature a large group of Yuan-ti using it as a base or a home and they will certainly work to fight off intruders.
Ryu: Okay, that’s all very nice, I’m glad the Yuan-ti have grafting down cold. I still don’t want it.
Lennon: It’s okay; HR rejected the form anyway.
Lennon: Something about “inability to form body type”.
Ryu: Yes, I’m thrilled it was rejected, but I want to know where the request came from in the first…(thoughtful sigh) Hey, why don’t you guys go to the scrying pool? I’ll catch up with you in a minute.
Lennon: Sounds good.
Ryu (parentally): KayDee?
Killer DM: But Ryu, think of the possibilities.
Ryu: I don’t want to! At all! Especially since you got ROSTRO to make this for you!
Killer DM: Well it looks like the overripe jello mold has ruined my fun again anyway. We’ll figure out some other options later.
Ryu: No! We won’t! KayDee! I swear I’ll lock the hat in the vault myself!