Monday, March 5, 2012

Crypts & Things - Serpent Men - A Retrospective

Serpent  Men are awesome! They have been around in Howard & Lovecraft's work since the I first started reading them but really how much do you know about them? 

Robert E. Howard was not the first to write about prehistoric serpent people. Another pulp writer, Abraham Merritt, created a similar pre-human serpentine race surviving from the Mesozoic era in his story "The Face in the Abyss" which first appeared in a 1923 issue of Argosy magazine. A sequel, "The Snake Mother," also appeared in Argosy in 1930 and both were collected in a book-length version in 1931. In this story line, the last surviving Serpent-Woman is an ally of the human protagonists.

According to Wiki -
In Robert E. Howard's King Kull stories, the serpent people worship a god known as the Great Serpent. Later writers would identify the Great Serpent with the Great Old One Yig and with the Stygian serpent god Set from Howard's Conan stories.
The Serpent Men were created untold aeons ago by the Great Serpent. At some point the Serpent Men group split, with one group becoming the Man-Serpents- these creatures, unlike their kin and predecessors, have the bodies of giant serpents and the heads of human beings, with smaller snakes for hair like Medusa. A Man-Serpent is the titular being in the Conan story "The God in the Bowl". Man-Serpents have hypnotic gazes and lethally venomous bites, as well as terrible crushing strength.
The seat of the First Empire of the serpent people, during the Paleozoic era, was Valusia. Valusia is a fictional country in the Kull stories of Robert E. Howard and his stories tell, among other things, of Serpent Men trying to conquer the world once again, around 20,000 years ago, where Kull from Atlantis reigned over the Valusia Kingdom, located on the west coast of the main continent of Thuria. The ancient serpent empire was based on sorcery and alchemy, but collapsed with the rise of the dinosaurs about 225 million years ago during the Triassic era. The Serpent Men originally ruled over humans in Valusia but were defeated and almost wiped out in humanity's battle for survival against the "elder things" that predated them. Over time, humans dominated Valusia and the Serpent Men became a legend. The Serpent Men, one of the few surviving "elder things", infiltrated human society and ruled from behind the scenes for a time but were again discovered, defeated and cast out in a secret war. However, they later repeated this tactic but added the front of a Snake Cult religion, which gained power and influence within Valusia while they also used their abilities of disguise to murder and replace each reigning monarch. Their power is eventually broken by King Kull, formerly an Atlantean barbarian who had recently conquered Valusia, and the Pict Brule the Spear-Slayer, whose society was aware of the Serpent Men's infiltration.[1]
After the destruction of Valusia, the serpent men escaped to Yoth, a cavern beneath K'n-yan in North America (ironically, the Pictish Isles of the Kull stories). They built subterranean cities, of which only ruins remain in the modern age. Explorers from K'n-yan visited Yoth frequently to learn more of the serpent men's scientific lore. Their next downfall came when they brought idols of Tsathoggua from N'kai and abandoned their patron deity Yig to worship their new god. As retribution Yig placed his curse upon them, forcing his few remaining worshipers to flee to caverns beneath Mount Voormithadreth[2]

[edit]Appearance and abilities

Serpent Men are humanoids with scaled skin and snake-like heads. They possess magical abilities, the most common of which is the use ofillusion to disguise themselves as a human. In some stories, the ghost of someone killed by a Serpent Man becomes the Serpent Man's slave. Due to the shape of their mouths, Serpent Men cannot utter the phrase "Ka nama kaa lajerama." Howard's character Kull uses the phrase as a shibboleth in the story The Shadow Kingdom.[1]

[edit]Cthulhu Mythos

Lin Carter and Clark Ashton Smith adapted the race for inclusion in the Cthulhu Mythos, inspired by H. P. Lovecraft's short story "The Nameless City", which refers to an Arabian city built by a pre-human reptilian race. Lovecraft's story "The Haunter of the Dark" explicitly mentions the "serpent men of Valusia" as being one-time possessors of the Shining Trapezohedron. However, the Cthulhu Mythos were already connected to the works of Robert E. Howard (a contemporary and correspondent of H. P. Lovecraft as well as a direct contributor to the Mythos itself). In this case, the Serpent Men were created for the very first Kull story, the character of Kull later made an appearance in aBran Mak Morn story, Kings of the Night, while in another such story, Worms of the Earth, Bran Mak Morn explicitly refers to Cthulhu andR'lyeh. Many Conan stories by Howard are also part of the Mythos.
 The above however in my opinion is wrong because if you read the Nameless City this is a wholly separate species. The reptiles of this story are more lizardlike & reptilian rather then snake like..I would put forth that they were simply another repitlian race that shared the Earth with the dinosaurs & beyond 
These Reptilian Priests Of Yore recently appeared in another OSR title The Nameless City 
The Nameless City (Core/Complete Rules)
Could this module be used with Crypts & Things? With a little adjustment I believe it could with little problem.
 The so called 'Dragon Kings' made an appearance in The Thongor comics Here
 Thongor Himself Here
The best overview of the whole Thongor of Lemuria bit can be found in Den Valdron's work Here

They are the projeny of the great Old One Yig who deserves a separate entry all of his own.You can find out more Here Yig was one of those incredible busy gods because I think he's really the one who created the Serpent Men gods of Carcosa but that is mere speculation on my part 
Marvel Comics  & the Serpent Men 

Marvel Comics really got into the serpent men act during the 70s & 80s with a whole host of them appearing during the era when Marvel had the Conan license.
According to wiki - 

 Serpent-Men have also appeared in the Marvel Comics universe.
The original Serpent-Men were a race of reptilian semi-humanoids who were created by thedemon Set and who ruled areas of prehistoric Earth. Due to the efforts of Kull and Conan, the original Serpent-Men became extinct about 8,000 years ago. However, since then, numerous human worshippers of Set and his demonic progeny such as Sligguth have taken on reptilian characteristics to different extents. Some, like the people of Starkesboro,[3] are only partially transformed. Others become hosts for the spirits of long-dead original Serpent-Men, who transform their bodies into duplicates of their own, complete with their power to take the form of any human.
Some modern Serpent-Men encountered Spider-Man in the modern era
  So we switch out Yig for Set. The Marvel Version of Set is a whole other ball game really. He created The Serpent Crown & a whole host of other magic items. Set is one very nasty piece of work really.

Father Set (Marvel Universe).jpg

The very best version of this Elder God is right Here Set is one nasty customer & should only be used with desecration by the Dungeon Master. This is a campaign ending god. 

Everything you ever really wanted to know about serpent men is right here : 

 Which brings us to the offshoot serpent men that no one talks about The Man Serpents ! 

The Man Serpents 

    Type : Serpentine 
Armor Class : 4(15)
Hit Dice : 5 
Attacks :1 bite (1d8)
Saving Throw :13 
Special: Hypnotically Dominating Gaze as Charm Creature Spell 40" range, 24 hour duration 
Move: 12
 Challenge Level & XP :4/120 
3rd Level Wizards 
The living hair of the man serpents can deliver a lethal bite for 1d8 points of damage. The target must make a save versus poison or die. 
 The Man Serpents speak the language of the Serpent Men, & ancient Stygian. 
"... over a heavy gilded screen a Face looked at the Cimmerian. Conan stared in wonder at the cold classic beauty of that countenance, whose like he had never seen among the sons of men. (...) He thought fleetingly of the marble perfection of the body which the screen concealed -- it must be perfect, he thought, since the face was so inhumanly beautiful. But he could see only the god-like face, the finely molded head which swayed curiously from side to side. The full lips opened and spoke a single word in a rich vibrant tone that was like the golden chimes that ring in the jungle-lost temples of Khitai. It was an unknown tongue, forgotten before the kingdoms of man arose, but Conan knew that it meant, 'Come!'" -- Robert E. Howard: "The God in the Bowl"

These are the secondary off shoots of the original serpent men. They are ancient beings who sleep beneath the Earth & have only recently been summoned to ancient Stygia.

The Worms of the Earth 

"Humans they were, of a sort, though I did not consider them so. They were short and stocky, with broad heads too large for their scrawny bodies. Their hair was snaky and stringy, their faces broad and square, with flat noses, hideously slanted eyes, a thin gash for a mouth, and pointed ears. They wore the skins of beasts, as did I, but these hides were but crudely dressed. They bore small bows and flint-tipped arrows, flint knives and cudgels. And they conversed in a speech as hideous as themselves, a hissing, reptilian speech that filled me with dread and loathing."
Type :Serpentine 
Armor Class: 6(13)
Hit Dice :3 
Attacks :2 Claws (1d3), 1bite(1d4)
Saving Throw :16 
Special: Immunity
Challenge Level/XP :3/60 Worms of the Earth, a race of creatures who Bran Mak Morn's pictish ancestors had banished from the earth. They were once men but millennia of living underground caused them to become monstrous and semi-reptilian. They are the final remains of the degeneration of the serpent men. They are featured in both Worms_of_the_Earth  & The_Children_of_the_Night
 They are nasty pieces of work & I've only featured the warriors here. There are much larger & more repentant reptilian hybrid  creatures found within their ranks!

Using Serpent Men In OSR Games 

Serpent Men have appeared in a number of OSR products & other rpgs. They are not orcs, trolls, gnolls, etc. They are the masters & creators of such creatures. If you look at a game like Crypts & Things you get  a sense that these guys are a mid level or high level encounter. 
Carcosa gives you a completely different view of the serpent men priests who at the height of their civilization could create life from nothing & amused themselves by creating the human race.
Marvel comics has gotten hundreds of issues from them. I think that the serpent men should be a favored encounter with any of these games & should be used sparingly. Encountering them should be an 'Oh My God' moment. These guys have millions of years of civilization behind them actually.
These guys are perfect for carving out mega dungeon structures, genetically engineering monsters, & generally creating whole sale weirdness wherever needed.
They don't need human motivations because their not human at all. This is a race that has created sanity blasting technology for millions of years. Who know what they might have in store. 
The serpent men can be used in the future as well. They appear in the Shadow Out of Time as well. Who knows what structures they may have even built in space. Dungeon Masters should use them with trepidation & boldness by turns. They can pop up to be devil the players at every turn. They have absolutely no moral compass to hold them back when it comes to really creating the whole sale evil that we see in the Cthulhu mythos.
 In an alternative Earth like the Warheads setting N'kai & its ilk could be the perfect venue to introduce the serpent men. 

Wiki goes on to say this about N'kai & its connections to the serpent men: 

K'n-yan[1] is a blue-lit cavern beneath Oklahoma. It is inhabited by a human-like race that resemble the Native Americans of the area, though they are actually extraterrestrials who arrived in prehistoric times. They are immortal and have powerful psionic abilities, including telepathyand the ability to dematerialize at will. They are also technologically advanced, using machines that employ principles of atomic energy, though they have largely abandoned their mechanized culture finding it unfulfilling[2].
The most populous city is Tsath, the capital of K'n-yan. It is named for Tsathoggua, a deity once worshiped there, but later deprecated after the inhabitants found out the true nature of the god. Other deities include Shub-NiggurathNug and YebGhatanothoa[3], and the Not-to-Be-Named One (a title sometimes used to identify Hastur). The two most important ones, however, are Tulu (Cthulhu) and Yig. The denizens of K'n-yan often place idols of these deities in near proximity, as in the following passage from "The Mound": "[In] a pair of vast niches, one on each side, [the] monstrous, nitre-encrusted images of Yig and Tulu squatted, glaring at each other across the passage as they had glared since the earliest youth of the human world."[4]
In ancient times, the people of K'n-yan traded with the humans of the surface world. But when geological calamities caused the continents ofAtlantis and Lemuria to sink into the ocean, the people of K'n-yan sequestered themselves below ground, thereafter having no further dealings with the outer world.


When the denizens of K'n-yan rejected their mechanistic lifestyle, they turned to a sort of socialistic aristocracy, controlled by a ruling class made "highly superior through selective breeding and social evolution"[5]. Individual behavior is dictated more by established social normsthan the rule of law. Although K'n-yan attained great advances in art and science, its people have become increasingly hedonistic, decadent, and cruel.


Yoth is a red-lit cavern beneath K'n-yan. It was once inhabited by the Serpent Men who fled here to escape the destruction of Valusia. In Yoth they built great cities, of which only ruins remain. Explorers from K'n-yan visited Yoth frequently to learn more of the serpent people's scientific lore.
The downfall of the serpent people came when they brought up idols of Tsathoggua from N'kai, abandoning their patron deity Yig to worship their new god. As retribution Yig placed his curse upon them, forcing his few remaining worshipers to flee to caverns beneath Mount Voormithadreth[6]


N'kai is a lightless cavern below Yoth (though it may lie beneath Mount Voormithadreth). It is the home of the Great Old One Tsathoggua.
Explorers from K'n-yan met with disaster when they first visited N'kai, encountering the deadly, amorphous spawn of Tsathoggua. Thereafter, entrances to N'kai were sealed off. 
Finally there's this essay by Richard L. Tierney  Here  I've tried to cover quite a bit but there will be more as I move to write  more on these creatures in upcoming articles


  1. Great post! Serpent men have always been an interest of mine. I remember watching Dreamscape as a kid and being rather frightened of the villian of the movie's transformation into a serpent man.

    I've really enjoyed the amount of detail you dedicate to each post. Of course, it is also good to see the Nameless City module mentioned. I had fun doing the art for that one! I haven't recieved my copy of Crypts & Things yet but that should be rectified any day now...

  2. Thanks for the great comment Johnathan Bingham! Welcome aboard! There's more serpent men action to come! Stay tuned!

  3. Did I mention that I love the illustrations in the Nameless City? Well they were fantastic!

  4. Awesome write-up! I'm hoping my copy of C&T will arrive soon. Now I'm gonna have to check out Nameless City.

  5. Can't wait to see what you do with Crypts & Things! Do Check it out! Very cool little module! Thanks for the comment & yadda yadda! There will be more!

  6. Thanks! I'm excited to get to work on pulp action/horror inspired work. Next up, I'm doing a few pieces for an Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea module.

  7. Can't wait to see this! Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea looks very cool! Drop me a line & let me know if there's any where we can view them Johnathan Bingham.


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