Monstrous Dramaturgy: Five Hooks for the Hodag

You! You look like a fine GM, a man or woman of cultivated tastes who runs only the choicest role-playing games in the horror, supernatural, or related genre. This means, naturally, that you are always on the lookout for interesting and compelling monsters for your game. In that vein, I have one question for you:

Hast thou considered the hodag?

e8d688d8-16a6-11df-be33-001cc4c002e0.image

No? Well, then I invite you to read on, and take a gander at the five options laid out below for using this cryptozoological critter in your next game of supernatural horror.

The hodag is associated with the forested and rural stretches of northern Wisconsin and the upper peninsula of Michigan, a fine remote location where nobody will be nearby when your players succumb to a Total Party Kill. Most of the region is a dead zone for cell phones (if you’re playing in the modern era), and night time gets dark (in any era). If you’ve ever had the feeling of a forest closing in on top of you as the sun sets, or experienced the cold, pale light and treacherous footing of a snow-covered walk across 40 acres in winter, you know that the area lends itself to horror storytelling.

This region has a history of farming and lumber mills, the latter of which gave rise to the legend of the hodag.

Hodag: the Folklore and the Hoax

The hodag was a creature of lumberjack tales, a terrible beast that lurked in the northwoods of Wisconsin in the late 1800s. Its origins, as later retold in Paul Bunyan tales, were the restless spirits of cremated oxen who died while serving as beasts of burden for lumberjacks. If the oxen’s remains were profane, a hodag might rise from the ashes of the dead beast.

In 1893, a prankster from Rhinelander, Wisconsin, decided to have some fun with this legend. Eugene Shepard told the local papers that he and a few stout men tracked down an killed a hodag, though it took a bit of luck and some dynamite. Shepard took a picture with the charred beast, which had “the head of a frog, the grinning face of a giant elephant, thick short legs set off by huge claws, the back of a dinosaur, and a long tail with spears at the end.”

Aw, look at that cute little… I mean, terrifying beast.

But Shepard wasn’t done. Three years later, he claimed to have captured a live hodag, with the help of a few bear wrestlers and some chloroform. The “live” specimen became a local curio, scaring fair-goers or visitors to Shepard’s house. As the story gathered steam, and was reported beyond state lines, the Smithsonian took interest in Shepard’s hodag. At this point, the prankster from Rhinelander had to come clean, finally admitting that it was all a hoax.

Despite the admission — or perhaps because of it — the hodag became synonymous with the city of Rhinelander. It’s still the totem of this small Wisconsin town, and a tourist attraction with a PT-Barnum-esque history.

Better, kind of… Much bigger and spikier, but still too cute.

But you’re GMing games of horror and the supernatural, so how do we turn this cute monster into something that will inspire sanity checks and panicked decisions? Here are five options, organized loosely on the level of agency the hodag might possess.

Level 1: The Side Effect

Our hooks start with the hodag as little more than an unfortunate accident. This option focuses less on the Shepard hoax, shining instead a light on the lumberjack lore. Here the hodag is an unintended side effect of a human cabal conducting despoiled rituals, and cremating the profaned bodies afterwards.

Somewhere in the forested wilderness of northern Wisconsin, a cult has sprung up on the endless acres of farmland and hunting grounds. Tailor the cult to your game of choice and your campaign, but the primary method of gathering power for them is through ritual sacrifice of local fauna. Thing is, they really don’t see themselves as a “cult.” The antagonists are just regular folks who’ve discovered that if they add some black magic to their usual hunting practices, they get a better annual yield from their crops. Or maybe they’re able to live a little longer, or keep the government off their lands, or keep the region “safe” from the encroachment of cities and contemporary life. Give them a mundane reason for why they do what they do; horrible acts committed for seemingly small stakes make for a great horror narrative.

At some point, the antagonists started escalating the type of animal they sacrifice. They noticed that bigger game produced bigger results. If deer and cattle worked better than raccoons, then bears would work better than deer, right? And what about people? Would sacrificing them boost results? It was a slow slide into murder, but illegal game and homicide meant that the cult needed to burn some of the evidence. Know what happens when you burn profane animal (or human) remains in the Northwoods? You guessed it: you create a hodag.

5446_49450_979_hodag_4_RPM

Uh, hey there. Nice doggy… (image by Robb Mommaerts)

Ideally, the hodag is a side effect that leads the player-characters to the cult. It’s a monster that should bloody the PCs, but ultimately be defeatable — a kind of cross between a rhinoceros, a bear, and a saber-toothed tiger, but with more spikes. Start with your preferred system’s stat blocks for those creatures, but make them a bit nastier. If players kill the hodag, have another one spring up; obviously these things are coming from somewhere. The trick is to use the legend and the run-ins with the hodag(s) to get the PCs on the trail of the antagonists.

You can do this in a couple ways. This crypto-creature is still an animal, so it’s going to have a “home,” so to speak. It’ll patrol a limited range around a central point, and that central point should give the players a direction. Perhaps the hodag’s range centers around the empty homestead of one of the victim that created it? Or, once the players define an MO for the hodag attacks, perhaps they discover that the attacks cluster around the antagonists’ hunting shack? Either way, the attacks don’t stop until the cult is defeated.

Level 2: The Dangerous Pet

Here we move the hodag from accidental side effect to malevolent hunter. Its existence is still the result of a human cultist or sorcerer, who has summoned a demon / beast / Mythos creature to function as his or her “attack dog.” This is the perfect opportunity to re-skin a monster from your game’s bestiary if your players have become inured to certain creatures.

For the hodag, my preferred re-skin starts with the byakhee from Cthulhu games. To customize it, I make this hodag a unique creature from Carcosa — bigger than a byakhee, a savvy hunter, but still a predator on a leash. One of the hodag’s victims catches the PCs’ attention when a morgue pathologist writes an honest autopsy.  What kind of animal leaves a victim with claw marks like a bear, puncture wounds like a sabre-tooth cat, and the disemboweling incisions of a hunter field-dressing a fresh kill? Give the PCs the chance to dig through old autopsies to discover how many other doctors just shrugged and chalked up similar confusing deaths as run-of-the-mill animal mailings. As the scope of their opposition’s actions build, keep the hodag on the periphery of the scenario; it should be a beast that the PCs don’t take on without preparation.

cheshire_cat_by_touchko-d4zd5ab

Just checking up on you. (image via touchko at DeviantArt)

Before the climactic encounter, however, the hodag should menace the hell out of the players. If the PCs are driving late at night, make them roll to avoid running into a deer crossing the road. Perceptive PCs will notice that it wasn’t a deer… and may the dice be kind to them if they fail to avoid crashing into a monstrous hodag. If the players give chase, let them get close before they hear a lilting and unearthly whistle. Allow them to catch up to it just as the body seems to burn out from reality, the hodag’s toothy grin taunting the PCs like some sort of Cheshire hodag.

Taunt the players with the hodag; it follows them, watching them investigate its master. It mauls an important NPC. It crashes through the dark woods when they might be getting close. If they’re clever, maybe players will find a way to destroy it. Since this is a creature of Carcosa, it’ll merely come back when called, and laugh at them. No, the only way to rid themselves of their tormentor is for the PCs to rid the world of the hodag’s master. Does this mean that they have to journey to Carcosa to find a bone from which to carve a whistle, to counteract the master’s summon/bind spell? Maybe. Was the journal the players found accurate in how the bone whistle will work on the hodag? They hope so. What happens to the hodag if the PCs kill or knock out its master? That’s a good question.

(If you want a good example of how to shape a scenario using a re-skinned Mythos creature with this kind of tether to a human master, Dennis Detwiller’s “A Victim of the Art” is not a bad place to start. It can be found in Delta Green: Countdown.)

Level 3: The Big Bad

What if you want hodag as more than a mere plaything for your game? You want to flip the script; humans serve the monster. You want a supernatural beast that might take a dedicated campaign to overcome. If the players can overcome it. For such a discerning GM, allow me to humbly suggest making the hodag a type of lloigor.

The lloigor are a Mythos creature, an alien race of sentient energy, vortices of vibration that have been known to take forms reminiscent of (but more terrible than) dinosaurs or dragons. If you’re plotting a campaign around a hodag-lloigor, you’re keeping it behind the scenes as long as possible. In the early stages of the campaign, the PCs might be responding to a rash of never-before-seen cancer diagnoses being reported by the Marshfield Clinic. Reasons are not easy to find, even in the modern era — fracking occurs too far southwest to have an effect, acid rain is a thing of the past, and water contamination doesn’t seem linked to the outbreak.

The truth is that this outbreak is a side effect of the hodag-lloigor. It uses humans like passive radiator antennae, increasing the power and direction of the lloigor’s vibrations. The more a human mind knows about the hodag legend, and identifies with it, the better an antenna that mind becomes. Unfortunately for such human antennae, our bodies don’t respond well to alien vibrations, resulting in debilitating mutations and cancers. To defeat the hodag-lloigor, PCs will need to weaken its power until it becomes desperate — at which point it might take physical form (the infamous “dragon form”), which players might be able to affect enough to defeat the monster. Maybe. (For an extensive look at how to use the lloigor, check out Kenneth Hite’s recent “Hideous Creatures” spotlight on these vibrational alien bastards.)

Sketches of the lloigor figure from the Fantasy Flight Games miniature. Scaly, spikes, claws, long fangs… not too much of a stretch for a hodag.

Sketches of the lloigor miniature from Fantasy Flight Games. This version of hodag is decidedly anti-cute.

The difficulty of this opponent, and the length of the campaign, will be greatly affected by the era when you set your games. At the turn of the century, the hodag-lloigor is just starting to gather its power. It’s still a lloigor, so it’s more than a match for any group of PCs, but it could be worse. Post-WWI is that “worse.” The traditional pulp horror game setting will see the hodag-lloigor starting to solidify its power. The legend of the hodag in this era is a point of pride in Rhinelander and surrounding areas, and anyone who celebrates it makes themselves a potential antenna for the hodag-lloigor.

If you’re gaming any time after WWII… I have the greatest sympathy for your PCs. The hodag is everywhere — it’s not only a central and integral part of Northwoods identity, it’s even made its way into the fringes of mainstream pop culture. The hodag-lloigor has had over a century to infuse itself into the mental landscape of the region, and as the PCs realize this, they should start to realize the seeming futility of trying to hack away at the monster’s power base. This will definitely take a long, protracted, thankless campaign for the players to degrade the hodag-lloigor (and its cult) enough to get it to reveal its “vulnerable” dragon (hodag) form. Enjoy!

Level 0: The Omen

Maybe you want the grand scale of a lloigor, but prefer to have the players fight against a power even more all-encompassing than the abstractness of alien vibrations. In that case, try moving the hodag away from the monstrous and more towards the monstrum. This Latin word refers to a portent, a distressing forewarning, or an unnatural occurrence that does not bode well for the observer. The PCs aren’t up against some alien monstrosity in this campaign — they’re up against no less than the implacable march of the Fates.

This take on the hodag changes the creature’s concept from antagonist to omen. The beast isn’t here to scare or attack the player-characters. It’s here to witness the horrible tragedy that will befall the world; if the players aren’t clever, they’ll also end up as helpless co-witnesses to the cataclysm. Worse yet, they may accidentally cause it — it’s up to you, GM. Is the hodag is a mere observer of misery, or is it an agent of the Fates that sets the PCs on the path to causing said misery (like the Wyrd Sisters in Macbeth, for example). Feel free to pull from Greek tragedy or Doctor Who to enhance the concept of fighting against time and pre-determination, depending the timbre of your games.

The “hodag as omen” setup has a line of research for the players to discover its purpose in the mundane world: in 1893, when Gene Shepard started his hoax, he based it off lumberjack tales of fire and unnatural creatures. What nobody realized is that the hodag legends started nearly 25 years earlier in the forested regions between Lake Michigan and Lake Superior. Lumberjacks would see spectral images manifest from great fires, some of them related to cremation. The men working the forests and mills would turn these images into tales of supernatural creatures, unaware that the hodag was following the things that would lead to the deadliest conflagration in U.S. history.

Peshtigo Fire I: Refuge in a Field, by Mel Kishner (1968)

“Peshtigo Fire I: Refuge in a Field,” by Mel Kishner (1968)

On October 8, 1871, the hodag watched from the forests just outside Peshtigo, Wisconsin, when the upper Midwest erupted in flame. Most people recognize that date; it’s the day that the Great Chicago Fire erupted at the southern end of Lake Michigan. It’s also the day that massive fires burnt swaths of land in Michigan’s lower peninsula. The Great Lakes were ringed by fire that day, but none was more devastating than the Peshtigo Fire. A cyclonic firestorm of paradigmatic proportions erupted, fed by dry seasons, unlucky weather patterns, and the prevalence of the area’s lumber industry. Smoke was reportedly visible as far away as Baltimore. By the time it cleared, as many as 2,500 people were dead, and an area nearly the size of Delaware had been obliterated by flame.

This was the last time the “real” hodag was seen by human eyes. Until now. And only the players can stop the incoming cataclysm.

(Note: though the Peshtigo Fire history is true, the hodag’s connection to it is completely made up.)

Level Z: The Patchwork Monster

With all the previous suggestions, the folklore behind the hodag had some basis in truth. This final option, though, goes to the other end of the spectrum: the legend of the hodag is bunk. It’s all superstition. But when Eugene Shepard used it to create a hoax, nobody realized that he had a much grander plan. We know about the “dead” specimen he captured with dynamite and many stout men. We know about about the “live” specimen that he had family members work like a puppet to startle local fair attendees. That’s all we know, because Shepard had to give up the game once the Smithsonian wanted to see his “specimens.”

But Shepard didn’t give up the hoax because it was easily-proven fakery. It’s because he was actually attempting to create artificial life from bits and pieces of creatures. He started with amateur taxidermy, but the goal was to create a pet monster and then see where its creation took him. Nosy academics weren’t going to expose his hoax, they were potentially going to discover his attempt at playing god in the backwoods of Wisconsin.

05_hodag_RPM

I thought it only ate white bulldogs… (image by Robb Mommaerts)

Now, someone has continued where Eugene Shepard has left off, and created a Franken-hodag. Tailor your monster (and its creator) to your game’s era: if it’s turn of the century, someone lifted the notes from Shepard — if he isn’t the one trying it himself. If it’s pre-WWII, someone got a hold of Dr. West’s notes and/or formula, and figured animals would be missed far less than the recently-deceased. If it’s post-WWII, your options are nearly limitless: any number of corporations, government agencies, or unethical scientists could set up shop in the remote forests of northern Wisconsin to conduct unethical reanimation experiments with patchwork monsters.

If you want to give this monster hunt a little extra personal horror, run it between other scenarios and campaigns. Whoever the hodag’s creator is, he or she decided to use human organs in its construction, including the brain. Naturally. Bring back a presumed-deceased PC, or an NPC your players really liked, or an important dead person from a PC’s background. Let the PCs discover that the beloved character’s brain is what inhabits the hodag’s stitched-together meat. The human inside the monster can’t fully control what the hodag does, but the human doesn’t want to go back to the oblivion of death. Make the players ultimately choose what happens, if they survive.

Final Thoughts

Five options, and still we’ve barely scraped the surface of what the hodag can add to your games. It offers that nice balance of folklore, cryptozoology, hoaxing, and weirdness that is tied so intrinsically to its rural home. Though it has become a harmless symbol of regional pride, the monster was once a tale told to scare men gathered around a campfire — and you can reclaim that original fright for your games.

Now that you have considered the hodag, make your players glad there are none like it on the earth.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *