Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Love Is a Many-Headed Thing, Part IV

What would a one-headed hydra look like? Considering that hydras are always depicted in art as having many heads, the idea of a one-headed hydra may sound silly. Let us not forget, however, that when Heracles first encountered the hydra, it started out with only one head. The appearance of that head will determine how the rest will look.

I searched the Internet for pictures of hydras, and I found various depictions of it with fins, barbels (appendages like the “whiskers” of catfish), horns, beaks, and even greyhound ears. Why would a hydra have one or more such features? To be sure, reptiles have been known to have fins (sea snakes, ichthyosaurs), horns (triceratops, horned lizards), and beaks (turtles), although I have yet to hear of reptiles with barbels or external ears. Nevertheless, there has to be some credible use for any trait. Unless the hydra spends all its time in waters deep enough for its huge body to swim in, it would have no need for fins or barbels. Horns are good defensive weaponry, but, like ears, they can make locomotion for a legless creature difficult. Besides, horns are clearly inferior to poison fangs. Beaks are good for cutting up food to a manageable size, but they are completely unnecessary to a creature that can open its mouth very wide.

As I mentioned in a previous blog post, form follows function. The hydra’s features must serve to help its species survive in its natural habitat. That means they must help the creature eat, keep from being eaten, and reproduce. One cannot simply slap miscellaneous body parts on the hydra just to make it look freaky. Otherwise, one risks having people scoff at the preposterousness of the creature.

Hydra Behavior 101

If I were to give some semblance of verisimilitude to the mythical hydra, I would make it behave like any other venomous serpent. The way I see it, the hydra is a reclusive, non-confrontational creature whose coloration allows it to blend in its swampy environs. When threatened, the hydra raises its heads and splays them out to make itself look bigger. It issues a chorus of threatening hisses and bares its fangs. It weaves its heads about, ready to strike. Unless the creature threatening it is something the hydra will want to eat, the hydra will prefer to conserve its relatively weak venom until it is obvious that the creature won’t leave the hydra alone.

The hydra does not rely on its eyes or hearing to sense other creatures. Vibrations in the water or on the ground serve to alert the hydra to movement. It flicks its forked tongues out to smell the presence of predators, prey, or potential mates. It also uses two heat-detecting pits on each of its faces to lock on to its target. For all intents and purposes, the hydra is immune to blindness and can easily detect hidden or invisible creatures. Spells of etherealness can make one undetectable to the hydra.

In its natural environment, the hydra can hide as if it were a Rogue of a level equivalent to its hit dice. Nevertheless, the hydra suffers penalties to Hiding because of its huge size as well as the difficulty in getting its many heads to coordinate actions. A hydra can lie very still for extended periods of time. In fact, once it picks a spot in which to lie in wait, the hydra is unlikely to move. Without a predator or prey to react to, it is difficult for the hydra to get all its heads to agree on where to go.

The hydra feeds on whatever it can get its maws on – fish, deer, alligators, and teenage lovers who think that swamps are the perfect place to make babies. (No, actually, a hydra isn’t in the habit of eating humans because they have a nasty tendency to form hunting packs and avenge their dead.) The hydra prefers to strike while hidden because it cannot hope to outrun most of its prey. Even without the advantage of surprise, its initial appearance may shock and awe creatures into momentary paralysis if they fail their Will save.

For a hydra, having many heads is both a blessing and a curse. A single bite from a hydra is not particularly lethal to a medium-sized creature, probably because it has to supply so many heads with poison. The combined attacks of all its heads, however, are enough to kill an adult hippo. When it has delivered sufficient venom to make its target too weak to run away or put up a good fight, the hydra withdraws and waits for its prey to die. Only then will the hydra make a grab for its food, initiating a struggle with itself. Like all snakes, the hydra swallows its food whole. Its many heads may wrestle with each other for hours over the privilege to eat. Fortunately, a hydra can go without eating for a year or two. It can certainly afford to wait a few hours more to sate its hunger.

Much has been said about the hydra’s alleged ability to grow two heads when one is cut off. Personal experience from a brave and stalwart adventurer (ahem) belies this claim. Most likely, this is a tall tale spread by villagers to keep their teenage children from trying to make babies in the swamps. What has been verified is that decapitating a single head will not kill the hydra. It will continue to fight for as long as it has heads. While the hydra can eventually heal from the loss of a few heads, they will never grow back. Our brave and stalwart adventurer (ahem) was fortunate in having fought a hydra with only two heads remaining, as well as a number of stumps where other heads used to be. The bodies of fallen adventurers nearby yielded much loot and made the venom sickness that lasted for a few hours worthwhile.

Portrait of a One-Headed Hydra

It is clear from the above write-up that I intend to make a hydra with a fixed number of heads. I’ve already explained in a previous blog post my concerns with the whole spiel about growing new heads. Nevertheless, once I have a one-headed hydra, creating a multi-headed one will be relatively easy.

My write-up also makes it clear that everything a hydra needs to survive in the wilds is already found in venomous snakes such as the pit viper. Anything extra will simply weigh it down. I want to make the hydra approximately as long as an anaconda, although pictures on ancient Greek pottery of Heracles fighting the hydra seem to indicate that the hydra was smaller than that. It certainly won’t be as large as the one in Jason and the Argonauts. (That’s right, Hollywood. It was Heracles who fought the hydra, not Jason.)

Having decided on the hydra’s appearance, I took this opportunity to revisit the snake I built earlier. Looking closely at my reference pictures, I realized that I got the mouth wrong. A snake’s tongue is supposed to retract in a sheath at the bottom of the snake’s mouth. My original mesh had no such sheath. Much as I hated to do it, I had to work on the snake’s mouth all over again. I also decided to retopologize the rest of the head because it had too many triangles instead of quads. I rescaled the body to make it wider in the middle and to make the tail look less like a stabbing weapon. Naturally, all this meant re-doing the UV map, along with the high-poly sculpt in ZBrush. The low and high poly models can be seen below.

It took me over a week to decide on the one-headed hydra’s appearance and to refine its basic shape. Since then, I’ve been trying to find a good way to texture it. For reasons that I will explain in my next blog post, this issue has been especially problematic. Stay tuned.


Lance Botelle (Bard of Althéa) said...

For millenia the creature grew and changed into the horror of what it has become known throughout legend. Many tales have been told of its fierce attributes and deadly venom .... and then Thrud came along and slew it in one hit, and put it on the fire for dinner. :)

That's what happens to monsters with reputations. :)


Chaos Wielder said...

Also, at least with the original legend, it's venom was one of its more defining attributes.

(Though, then again, there is some scholarly debate whether the monster was supposed to be more plant than snake. Think hydra polyps in the ocean, etc. I for one like the idea of snakes better).