Obi-Wan Kenobi had some problems. Let's talk about it.
(Spoiler Warning for: Seasons 1 & 2 of The Mandalorian, Season 1 of The Book Of Boba Fett, and Obi-Wan Kenobi)
Disney Has A Problem With Connective Tissue
There is a reason we connected so strongly with The Mandalorian.
We didn't know him. He had no connection to other canon lore in any direct way. We got to learn who he was and how he operates through his actions, words, and interaction with (at the time) The Child. It became a deep space-western of high stakes and interesting characters, most of whom are just regular-ass people, Mando included.
I cannot tell you how refreshing it was to hang out with this regular guy (who is an excellent warrior, mind you) as he gets beat up, thrown around, shot up, and has to think his way in and around his threats. He ain't got no magic floaty crap; this bloke has to figure this stuff out with context clues, connections, and a quickdraw blaster holster.
It took its time like a new age western, settled in to the quiet spaces between planets, and we didn't know where it was headed.
Season 2 did well enough, but I could feel the bloat. The intimate concentration was beginning to rip and tear as we were introduced to other fan favorites like Ahsoka and Boba Fett (I'm coming for you, bounty hunter), both played well by their respective actors...but if you've got Ahsoka and Boba Fett, then the hooks of connection are being pushed into the skin. It's hard, because it can feel good to see them, but they always threaten to overstay their welcome, and make Mando a sidecar in his own show.
I loved the introduction of the Darksaber at the close of Season 1, and the implications it presents. For Mando to claim it at the Season 2 close is epic and intriguing. Even the introduction of The Heiress herself, Bo-Katan, didn't bother me one bit. It expands the setting to other possibilities rooted in Mandalorian lore, and remains unconnected to anything in established canon. ...I knew a Jedi needed to show up to get Grogu. And seeing a Jedi ripping through droids was also awesome.
Did it HAVE to be Luke?
Sure, we KNOW Luke. We know he's a good guy, fans like him, and he's a canonical throwback.
But hear me out here... Did it HAVE TO BE HIM?
We have established through multitudes of extra media that numerous Jedi did indeed survive Order 66. One of my favorites, Plo Koon, a Kel-Dor Jedi, was killed when his ship was shot down in Episode III...but when has that ever stopped anyone? Dude can breathe in space and force-healing is an established power among old force users, plus Bacta Tanks exist. Heck, make him half-droid if you want him scarred in some way (characters have come back from worse). HE would have been an interesting choice.
...Because (and say it with me now) WE DON'T KNOW HIM. There are enough fans out there that know OF him, and that rarity breeds creativity and connection. It also opens the door for new stories to be told.
Luke Skywalker...everyone knows. He's the "safe" option.
Except he isn't safe. If episodes 7-9 are canon, we KNOW what happens to Luke, but Disney's pretty embarrassed about parts of those films, so they won't try to connect things, but then they will, but then they won't. All the while their special effects artists are bending over backwards to bleed money into their deep fake technology to make a Luke Skywalker that's 30 years younger. Yeah, Luke was the SAFE option.
If they went with Plo Koon, or any other B-list Jedi that could have survived Order 66 (and there are a few), or shoe-in Mara Jade for no apparent reason, it would have opened doors to new storytelling possibilities. Instead they closed the loop...only to rip it open later in the only episode of Boba Fett I was actually 100% engaged in (sorry Boba). You know the one I'm talking about - the one that starts with Mando wrecking shop, cutting folks in half with a blade he doesn't know how to use, cuts himself with it, then limps through a casino in one great long take. The one dripping with cinematography, atmosphere, quiet, and excellent performances.
I thought Boba Fett was a hit and a miss. I enjoyed his flashbacks, and waited patiently for him to be a badass...and was disappointed at almost every turn. I enjoyed how he would gather the outsiders into his employ...if only they didn't look so ridiculous given the rest of the city's aesthetic. I enjoyed his relationship with the Tuskens...unfortunately someone murdered them all and he never questioned his information. I was waiting for him to get a few steps ahead of his enemies...it took a long long time, and he still wrecked half the city he was ruling. What a guy. AND I enjoyed the show start to finish. It did some things remarkably well; I wasn't disappointed...I was just waiting for the writers to push the envelope. Boba Fett is honorable, which is awesome, but he doesn't have to be "good." They touched this line, but they didn't walk it. Still playing it more safe, less interesting.
Maybe we don't need to explore pre-existing characters. Maybe what we crave are new stories; new possibilities. Disney has a bad habit of bleeding the same cow dry, then pumping it full of necrotic energy just to get a little more. It can create stories devoid of tension, ideas, and creativity - mountains of missed opportunities in the face of playing it "safe".
Kenobi Starts Strong
Obi-Wan Kenobi (sorry, his name is Ben, he gets mad about it) joins the long string of tired old men no longer at the peak of their combat performance. He's lost most of his connections to the Force, he's buried his lightsaber, he smells bad, and he hides in a cave. He's also lost his moral center, content to watch injustice play out in front of him.
Now, before I harp on the guy too hard, he has good reason. The show sets up our main antagonists immediately - The Inquisitors. A bunch of Sith enforcers under Darth Vader with propeller double lightsabers. First seen in Star Wars Rebels and the Fallen Order video game, they are cruel and sadistic, and their leader speaks to one of the core themes: Jedi hunt themselves through their actions. Jedi cannot stand by and allow injustice to rule; they must act, they must help, they must fight - so they are caught by their actions. As if on cue, they out a young Padawan on the run, but lose him in the crowd. He goes to Obi-Wan for help, but is turned away; our protagonist finds him hanging from a scaffold in the town square later.
Obi-Wan is doing what he needs to stay hidden. He isn't helping; he doesn't fight for the people, he stays out of things. At this moment, he isn't a hero. Which is frustrating for us - but that's the point. His arch is established; we're going to see him RISE.
The Lack Of Stakes
He rises through his relationship with a young Princess Leia, who is kidnapped by The Inquisitors in an attempt to out Obi-Wan Kenobi. The Inquisitors are playing off the idea that Kenobi fought with Senator Organa in the Clone Wars, so he'll help him out by getting his daughter back, but it's an interesting gamble.
Nonetheless he finds her, gets her out, and rekindles some of his connection to the Force by saving her from falling off a building. It's a good string of scenes, but I KNOW that nothing happens to Leia, so any time she is in danger...I'm just waiting for it to end, or someone to save her, because she CAN'T DIE. She literally has plot armor; and hurting kids just wouldn't be cool anyway, so she'll be dandy. Those moments act like puzzles; it isn't IS SHE going to make it out, it is HOW she is going to make it out. Luck, and stupid guards, most of the time.
Kenobi is also equally safe, though he can certainly get beat to hell. In fact, any scene involving Vader (you heard me) and Kenobi, is pretty good, and Vader ain't playing around; he is there to torture his old master. And where Kenobi has been aging and losing connection to the force, Vader's been (presumably) hunting down Jedi and killing them (lore pre-established in some games and I am HERE TO SEE IT please).
Let's talk about Vader for a second here. Dude's powerful, like super powerful. He's been juicin' on Dark Side gains in the off-season and it shows. Guy can sense folks inside ships, force choke through screens, pull ships out of the sky like it was nothing... But conveniently has a hard time sensing his old master when the plot deems it so. When he IS on screen, hoo boy is it cool, but you just feel bad for Kenobi - who's outmatched, outgunned, and only a shadow of who he once was. So instead of two old masters clashing, it's a cat and mouse.
Now, a "cat and mouse" works well to illustrate the depth of threat here, but Disney messed up the delivery. Imagine for a second that Kenobi believes Anakin dead, begins getting pursued by the Inquisitors, closing in, then is forced into a corner, dispatching them one by one and getting messed up in the process...only at the end for Vader to show up...and Kenobi doesn't know who he is! At least not at first; he'll sense him, be confused, and then the shock hits him - Anakin is alive inside this twisted machine of malice and hate, and he's here to kill him.
WHAT A REVEAL THAT WOULD BE. Crushing, terrible, and dangerous. Just barely escaping to regroup. Oh, it would have been beautiful!
What we got? Still menacing, but no gauntlet of Inquisitors. Lots of running and hiding, because dude hasn't swung a lightsaber in years (and it shows). And he knew it was coming - the concept of Anakin alive was fed to him by another Inquisitor. It sets up some cool flashbacks, but they could have come later; there was no imperative reason that pushed those elements to the fore. Which brings me to my other major gripe.
Setup and Payoff
There is a term in film referred to as Chekhov's Gun. It is a dramatic principle coined by one Russian playwright, Anton Chekhov. It states that all significant details introduced into a story should serve a narrative function, and irrelevant elements should be removed. Elements that never come into play act as "false promises" to the audience, eroding their trust and enjoyment.
Now, Kenobi is pretty tight for its runtime, and does a decent job in setting up elements to be used later. A Jedi's entire power set is a framework for Chekhov's Gun. Show them studying a new power? It should show up later in an impactful way. They retrieve their lightsaber? They better pull that sucker out when it matters.
And it works for everything. Want a character to have an impactful, dramatic sacrifice involving a thermal detonator? Show them clipping that detonator to their belt, or talking about it. A character mentions their undercover experience? Time for an infiltration!
These aren't cheap tricks. It's filmmaking 101. A more broad term for this is Setup and Payoff. If you introduce an element, there should be a satisfying payoff for it. Time isn't usually a factor - some elements play the long game, some are a few seconds of sequence. A change of lighting can be its own setup, and the flare of a blade summoned into being is the payoff. Subtle and elegant, loud and obnoxious, it fits all types.
But you have to plan for these things. It requires time, practice, and follow-through. Unfortunately, it seems, Disney built many setups and either haven't paid them off yet, or forgot about them altogether (and considering there's no real reason for a Season 2, my money's on the latter).
Below you'll find a few instances that stung - wonderful setups with either no payoff, or something less than satisfying:
1. In the first episode, we're shown Kenobi slicing meat in an assembly line and walking down the line to get his wages. The poor guy ahead of him notices that the wage is half from the day before, but the boss is aggressive about it, so he just takes it. Kenobi watches, gets his pay, and doesn't cause trouble. My thought: Kenobi's in a dark, repressed place, but he's a good guy; maybe he'll check up on that guy's family later and send them some food that he caught in the wilds, or we'll see him back on the line at the end and he sticks up for the guy, using his Jedi Mind Trick to help out the workers subtly. REALITY: we never see that old gentleman again. Can this still work to illustrate Kenobi's state of mind on the surface? Of course! But it feels like a missed opportunity.
2. Somewhere near the middle of the run, Leia gets captured, threatened, and then strapped to some machine. The Inquisitor gets called away, leaving two Stormtroopers to guard her. Then the lights go out. My thought: we're going to see a lightsaber blur into being just long enough to watch a trooper get cut down, the other's gonna' freak out and fire, either hitting his buddy and then getting a blaster bolt deflected into him or get cut down just as fast. Kenobi's cut through droids and blast doors like butter before, this is going to look so cool! REALITY: a blue lightsaber springs into being and clocks a Stormtrooper, bouncing off of him like a baseball bat (what?), then cuts him down in 3-4 swings. The other guy, apparently too slow to notice or shoot, shouts into the darkness before Kenobi reappears and baps him around a bit before we finally see a streak through his armor. My issue: Lightsabers don't behave like that. They never have. They deflect blaster fire, which isn't stopped by trooper armor. They punch through blast doors feet thick. Those troopers aren't my man Mando in bescar plate; lightsabers cut through them like butter. This fact is compounded by at least three other instances where higher level soldiers are straight up STABBED THROUGH THE CHEST by a lightsaber, and a door is sliced open. Just...why? Stabbing's no big issue, but slicing's bad?
3. Our Inquisitor of spoilers goes by the name Reva. She is ruthless, rageful, and trying hard to get that sweet sweet Grand Inquisitor title. Turns out (SPOILERS) she's actually a youngling who lived through the purge at the Jedi temple. She says she played dead, but it's unclear if Anakin just missed her or didn't deal a killing blow. Reva has joined the Inquisitors and risen through the ranks in order to kill Vader herself; revenge for those he slaughtered during the purge. Kenobi guesses this with previous clues and the two hatch a plan where Kenobi can get some rebels to safety and she can get her revenge. My thought: Vader's coming and he's coming fast; I can't wait to see him wreck shop! I heard that he can pull ships, so maybe he'll grab onto their runaway ship and Kenobi will resist him, which distracts him long enough for Reva to strike. She'll get a few good hits in, Obi-Wan escapes, and then she's done for, but it'll be a poignant duel. REALITY: Vader wrecks shop, ripping a ship from the sky faster than anyone I've seen, and starts tearing it apart like a cat on meth. Then, a SECOND ship that we've never seen before lifts off at blinding speed and zooms into space (looked janky as hell). Dude can sense everything, but couldn't tell that the ship he just turned into tissue paper was empty or that the one 5 feet from it had his old master. So...after Kenobi and company are long gone...Reva finally makes her move. He stops her, toys with her, it's not even a fight. Then he stabs her through the chest and she dies. What did she think was going to happen? Kenobi gave her an opening and she didn't take it.
4. ...Reva doesn't die. Lady gets stabbed literally through the chest by a freaking lightsaber and just...walks it off. My thought: ...okay. Well, maybe she can spin a little redemption and join Obi-Wan in the final battle; maybe she fights off the other Inquisitors so Kenobi can get to Vader! REALITY: (In a move that feels like a quick re-shoot) Reva learns that Vader has a son on Tatooine, gets her broken ass up and over there in record time, BEATS UP UNCLE OWEN AND AUNT VARU, chases little Luke into the desert and makes him slip on some rocks and get knocked out, then draws her lightsaber with the intent to kill him. ...Except she can't do it, she LITERALLY CAN'T. So what stops her is that she sees herself in the boy and returns him to his family. Not sure what they'll tell little Luke about his harrowing experience... What a waste.
The most frustrating thing about these is that if someone just took some time and thought about the whole package, the internal consistency of their own series, took one more sweep in the writer's room...all of this could have been cleaner, stronger, and more satisfying. In the end, it feels so rushed for something that needed to feel thoughtful and genuine.
In a nutshell, episode to episode, the series still delivers on its emotional beats. It does a lot of things VERY well (showing a galaxy actually occupied by troops, Imperial sympathizers, spies, and the beginnings of a rebellion), and our young Princess Leia has Carrie Fisher's tenacity down pat.
Was it truly necessary to include Luke and Leia to this degree?
Luke's inclusion, from a distance, makes sense. Kenobi and Owen are friends, or at least used to be. By the time Episode IV rolls around, Owen wants Luke to have nothing to do with "old Ben", and Luke doesn't have any relationship with the guy. He's supposed to protect from a distance and be a recluse; that makes sense.
Leia on the other hand... If she shared this beautiful friendship (and it is quite wonderfully done, mind you) with Obi-Wan Kenobi...then why does she feel nothing when he dies in Episode IV (it barely registers for her). She knows OF him through her father, Senator Organa, but if this whole adventure happened in the first place, did she just forget all about him? Do they visit, do they talk, do they learn of each other as Leia grows up? (if they're trying so hard to connect relationships, this one hits strangely for me, like we're missing something)
And how does Luke have no knowledge of the force or lightsabers if a literal Sith chased him into the desert. Now, Owen knew she was coming and told Luke that it was a Tusken Raider, and you could argue that perhaps he never saw the lightsaber, but again if THIS happened, other events don't add up.
Now a lot of these gripes and elements are the product of a changing landscape and an expansion of creative content. Not everything can line up perfectly all the time, wrapped up in a nice neat bow. I should be happy we got the show at all. And, considering that what they're connecting is nearly a 50 year span of creative content, including sweeping changes to film and television technology, how we consume and discuss media, and how companies react to those discussions.
WHAT IF YOU JUST DIDN'T INCLUDE THEM?
The show is about the Inquisitors hunting down Jedi and Vader seeking Obi-Wan Kenobi. It's about Kenobi's realization that Anakin is alive, but actually dead, and that the idea of Vader killed what he once was. It's about their clash, and Kenobi's rise from a man in hiding back to a Jedi Master. It's about him subduing threats to himself and the boy quietly in the sand, or across the galaxy in the forests of Alderaan. I am here for THAT story; where he can never find true connection, but must protect while he struggles with his guilt over Anakin.
Sure, Leia did great. Props to her. Excellent performance.
Sure, Leia's new droid will sell a million toys. It's adorable.
Sure, Kenobi and Vader's duel will elevate other Star Wars content because it really was that good.
It just didn't push any boundaries. Everyone acts the way you expect them, lines written that we've heard a million times before, and outcomes that MUST work out...because other content exists. The need for Disney to CONNECT every piece of their Star Wars universe has pushed them into difficult corners. For now, we can shrug and let it go. But how long can they do this before they have drained every last ounce of story from known characters and they must (GASP) head in a new direction? (let's hope they actually plan it this time)
It was good enough.
It was safe.
And not very interesting.
May the Force Be With You.
Star Wars has no business being this good.
With the critical miasma of divisive reviews flooding the airways after The Last Jedi and The Rise Of Skywalker (whatever your personal opinion), this franchise has been in desperate need of a new energy. ...Which is precisely what "Visions" provides. Where the franchise shines is in short vignettes; self-contained stories in a multitude of styles and directions.
The Mandalorian made us love Star Wars again, and reinforced the idea that it was a world we wanted to explore outside of a main cinematic experience. This animated anthology is the next logical step in that exploration.
When the Animatrix came out, Warner Bros. pulled out all the stops. They drew in absolute giants of the anime field; VISIONARY directors and animation studios, truly artful expressions and ideas - some directly linked to sequel bait, others just concentrated, intimate stories - that captured the atmosphere of the setting and respected its potential in storytelling.
Star Wars: Visions is precisely this approach. Acclaimed directors and studios, some of the finest animators in the world, each striking their brush on this titanic canvas. The vignettes and snap-shot stories they produce play with concepts and ideas already expressed inside this universe, and stretch the boundaries of what becomes possible within each frame. In a word, these stories are BEAUTIFUL. Striking, kinetic, magnificent, and driven.
It's worth noting that these tiny stories are considered non-canon, and I think that's freeing to the artists. No one has to worry about tying anything into anything, so creators can explore more deeply the vibrant and weird of their own interpretations. And things certainly get WEIRD.
They also get mega badass. From the first vignette (The Duel), you know you're in for something special. An artistic style thrown back into the realms of the Seven Samurai - black and white cell-shades where the only color is electronics and the glow of a lightsaber; I was ENTHRALLED.
Based on visuals, I actually expected the violence to be a bit more brutal, but it's Disney+, so we ain't getting that here. In fact, if I may, some of our stories DID suffer from their "stream-ability". Each episode is about 24 minutes long, and while some stories filled that time easily, many others carried with them a strange sense of FILLER. It makes me think on Disney's first and second season of Short Cuts - 90-second short films by a menagerie of directors and artists within Disney's animation teams. So much story-driven information had to be conveyed in such a short time and even some of those felt too long, or not long enough. Restriction breeds creativity, yes, but when you have MORE MONEY THAN GOD, maybe you could stretch some of those bindings; give time where it is needed and trim it where it is not.
Lightsabers Work Correctly
Though the nine stories have a dread fascination with Jedi (I mean, seriously, could somebody just NOT be force-sensitive for once?), they definitely understand how a lightsaber is supposed to work. Blades slice through metal and stone, clash against each other, pierce through armor, and cut through droids like paper. Each short sets up its expectations, and stays consistent in the rules of the world (unlike Kenobi, that is - marvel as the old Jedi Master swings a lightsaber like a bat and it BOUNCES OFF stormtrooper armor, but then it deflects blaster fire and THAT pierces trooper armor; not to mention that sabers can easily pierce through blast doors...rant subsided for now).
This anthology plants a highly specific, binding seed of specific knowledge across every vignette: Crystals - the essential component of any lightsaber, each with their own colors and qualities - apparently denote the morality of their wielder. In terms of lore canon, this ALMOST fits.
Each crystal is supposed to have a different color; every game, novel, and comic confirms this. With over 60 to choose from, there are a lot of possibilities, and though each had mechanical benefits, ANY could be used to construct the blade due to the versatility and elegance of a lightsaber's design. However, to my knowledge and research, no mined crystal produces a red beam; red was built from a SYNTHETIC mock-up of a crystal. Something to save on cost and overclock power. In recent lore, it is posited that the energies of the Dark Side corrupt and disfigure a crystal within the hilt, turning it red. Every Sith villain in the canon rocks that red lightsaber, yet we don't see any corruption take place (something I'd LOVE to see, or the inverse of a redeemed Sith); often they just get a new one and it's red.
In Visions, each of the nine stories holds to a purer idea: the Crystal reveals the true nature of its wielder. It is the narrative's lie detector. Somebody's all kind and cool? Oops, their blade is red! This person's kind of a jerk? Except their blade is green, so they must be a double agent! It's a color wheel of morality, and it is utilized in some fun ways.
Not sure if it's a little too "on-the-nose" though, at least moving forward. For Disney, it's a device to clearly illustrate who we're rooting for in a dance of robes and lasers, but for me, an adult, I might be craving a little more nuance. Like I said at the start, THIS IS NOT CANON, so let's go a little crazy. Let's go deeper, ask some bigger questions! Not everything needs to be so black and white, or red and blue/green/yellow/purple/orange/white. (next blog I'm going to don my nerd glasses and go deeper on this whole blade color thing...)
Every story here is DRIPPING with iconic style. The animation studios pulled out all the stops to craft a memorable work of art. So you're not here all day reading about me gushing on this, I'd like to talk briefly about each one:
1. The Duel - set in an alternative timeline reminiscent of feudal Japan, a Ronin comes to the aid of a village ravaged by bandits. "Vintage" black and white cgi where color pops through lasers and electronics, this is a masterclass in shading, light, and taking your time to build tension. Fun fact: this one is so good that it's getting its own graphic novel and full comic series!
2. Tatooine Rhapsody - during the Clone Wars, a Padawan becomes a rock star in a world run by dangerous Hutts. Frenetic and energized animation, injecting some vibrant comedy after that first episode. Not gonna' lie, I wasn't engaged with this one on the first go around; maybe it felt like whiplash from The Duel, or maybe it was little too juvenile for my tastes. A second viewing did better.
3. The Twins - in the remnants of the Empire after The Rise Of Skywalker, two force prodigies battle over the decision to annihilate a planet. This one was WILD. Reminded me a lot shonen anime battles; the over-the-top Naruto fights with huge powers and pregnant pauses. Anyone who has played The Unleashed games will feel right at home with how much power is displayed on screen here - they're fighting IN SPACE, on top of a Star Destroyer. It's pretty nuts. Pay attention to this short's use of color and quick framerate, but be prepared for a substantial suspension of disbelief. Can't explain it? The Force did it!
4. The Village Bride - years after Order 66, a Padawan travels to a distant planet and comes to the aid of a village ravaged by bandits. This one felt powerfully grounded, animation simple and efficient. A coming of age story and another samurai vibe.
5. The Ninth Jedi - many generations after the fall of the Jedi, an old master invites seven Jedi to his temple to receive lightsabers whose design has been lost to time; buy spies are everywhere and not everything is as it seems. ...This one is my favorite; it's clean, powerful, intense, and has a healthy number of twists. Plus, and it's worth noting that the fight choreography has been great so far, but boy did I NOTICE it in this one. I don't want to spoil, but it's real good. If you skip the rest of the series, watch this one at least!
6. T0-B1 - A cybernetic boy, who dreams of being a Jedi, discovers a dangerous truth about his creator. Gotta' be honest, I didn't like this one as much. The art style has that Astroboy vibe, and overall brings some interesting concepts to life (it is quite cute). I suppose after all these serious stories, it's nice to get a little kiddy. Just not my mood (could be yours!).
7. The Elder - A Jedi and his Padawan pursue a dark and powerful presence. Cut and dry Sith hunt; great tension, cool animation, straight-forward (style reminds me a lot of Avatar: The Last Airbender).
8. Lop and Ocho - A family is torn about what to do when the Empire encroaches on their planet. This one features an unnamed race in the character Lop, a bunny-like fursona adopted into a humanoid family. When the Empire colonize the planet and recruit, the two sisters come to an impasse and clash over the independence of their business. Raises some neat questions about the families stuck in the trenches and makes this feel like a military occupation - like a war - and in war, there are consequences.
9. Akakiri - A Jedi returns to his forbidden love to help defend her kingdom from a Sith-like Shogun. Animation style takes some getting used to and it certainly stands out. Feels like a western wrapped up in sushi platter with a dash of True Grit with a twist; shaken, not stirred. It wasn't what I expected, and was definitely memorable.
These stories were made through a love of Star Wars, simple and powerful. They began to push the boundaries of storytelling, and open the setting to fans young and old, which is EXACTLY what Disney needs. To explore droids as Jedi, expanding the racial lexicon of characters, redefining a force-user, and diving deeper into paths of darkness, death, and redemption.
Glad we're getting a Season 2. I'll keep holding out hope for a story about a regular Joe and Jill in this universe.
May The Force Be With You All.
Ankhegs in the fantasy universe are iconic. Massive insectoid monsters with numerous slender limbs, burrowing through the earth and snatching unsuspecting prey from below. Attacks are quick and often deadly to those without plot armor or an Initiative roll, so the only ones who live long enough to tell tale of these critters are those fit enough to fight them or those far enough away. Keeping in mind their superior darkvision, blindsense, and their ability to sense vibrations hundreds of feet away...you're fighting arachnoid versions of the graboids.
The Ankheg has a long history in the realms of Dungeons & Dragons, but they haven't changed much. It's hard to go wrong with "burrowing bug monster." Why fix what isn't broken or problematic?
Let's take a look at the basics.
Ankhegs are born by bursting out of the dead carcass of their father, eggs being implanted inside him by the mother during mating. That's awesome. From there, they grow to Broodling size and take nutrients delivered to them by their mother from the surface. Within a year, they are big enough to leave the nest and burrow on their own, taking some time in their second year to shed their first shell and grow a second - during this time they're pretty killable, so they secrete a foul noxious smell. Unfortunately, this can also make them easier to track. Oops.
A single Ankheg can rule a territory almost entirely unnoticed, snatching local wildlife and soaking up nutrients from the sun and ground as it hibernates. Two or more Ankhegs will grow more aggressive over resources and will attack more frequently, drawing more attention to local towns and cities.
Their habitats can also cause problems to local infrastructure. As little as 40 feet below the surface, with tunnels spanning upwards from 150 feet long, these winding burrows are known to rupture and cave in unsuspecting villages if left unchecked. A single Ankheg's lair is one littered with bones and carcasses, with hollowed domes for hibernation or eating. So imagine what that looks like with multiple bug-brains rooting around in the same territory. They'll dig deeper and longer, and breed more; the cycle can devastate whole regions over a couple decades.
So, you know, always plenty of work for an Adventurer For Hire.
By The Numbers
Decent Armor Class (13-15) and one of the few creatures to actually offer a penalty to AC for being prone, these are still a strong challenge at low level. Hit Points range from 39-66, so they can take some hits, and a Large size category makes them a tough sell for early Advantage. What you have to watch out for is their 60 foot tremorsense and burrowing capability. Their acid spray is no joke either, especially at low levels, and get these bucks in a pack and you might be in trouble (treat it like a breath weapon, and it recharges with a D6 roll). It also grapples one creature at a time if it successfully bites them, and I've run and been at tables where grappled folks have received a face full of acid spray - it totally works. Not nice to be up close for most folks.
Ankhegs At My Tables
After centuries of seasoned adventurers hunting them for their hide, acidic pouches, and resistant carapace, Ankheg broods have been burrowing deeper into the annals of Ionian geology. Only the most chaotic of scholars have glimpsed their extensive underground networks. The information they returned with spells a warning and a challenge to any that dare cross the Sandsea Of Jakt.
BROODLING - descendants of the ancient wyrm, the Broodling is a tempestuous child, often found in birthing sacks (made from the dead husk of a mated male) hung from nooks in winding tunnels of an Ankheg Den. Fresh to life, their carapace is still soft, resembling that of a young prawn. Trappers believe that their hide actually more valuable in this state; as it is pliable and hardens over time, able to be shaped into effective armor. It is this reason that drives trappers and young bounty hunters into the deep cords...and the reason that some do not make it back alive.
Broodlings hang in pods of 6-12 at a time, and must be harvested quickly. For once that pod breaks, all of them wake up. They're fast, frenetic, and feral. Their pouches still growing, they instead use their pincer-like teeth to punch through armor in quick jabs, dealing 1d2+1 damage. They also attack twice in their birthing frenzy, a note of caution to anyone thinking this is an easy kill. Now, yes, their AC is 8, and Hit Points negligible, but all it takes is a few good strikes to fell the party wizard. Still, if you can nab even a couple of these little guys, you should be sitting comfortable for a few months, especially after they shed that first armored coat, and that might just be the price of a level 1 wizard.
SOLDIER - the Soldier Ankheg is the most common iteration of the creature, the textbook example in all its glory. Smarter and stronger than a Broodling, the Soldier Ankheg hunts for itself or its Alpha, consuming, scarring, or capturing prey to be consumed later.
ALPHA - an Alpha Ankheg is a rare sight for most skirmishes. Superior burrowers, the Alpha communicates to its Soldiers through an evolved vibration frequency, pushing and pulling them toward potential prey. Though not every pack will have an Alpha, those that do operate with effective tactics - they lay traps, set ambushes, denote threats, and retreat if overwhelmed.
An Alpha in the field is a frightening visage. Huge in scale, an Alpha is identified by its acidic scarring upon the external carapace in long swathes, resembling streaks of petrified bark. These stripes are strongest part of the Alpha's armor, immune to acid and fire damage. The Alpha's breath is also devastating; due to in-fighting within the pod, an Alpha develops an expanded bile sack, called the Leviathan Pouch, which coupled with their secondary throat produces an acid cone 60 feet long. The Leviathan Pouch also allows extended use of the Alpha's breath, netting it three expulsions before it needs to recharge its bile (Recharge on a D8, 7-8).
Their chitinous plating weathered and tempered, only seasoned warriors dare go toe-to-toe with an Alpha. Resistant armors, healing potions, and blades lined with sharpening oil are their best bets. A friendly cleric couldn't hurt, either.
PRIME - Prime Ankhegs are myths. Said to be Gargantuan in size, those that theorize of their existence point to the ascensions of new Alphas, where a Soldier Ankheg kills a wounded or aging Alpha, and takes their place. The Soldier can only assert this dominance if they too have evolved their chitinous plating, a process of battle and time. They surmise that if a pack of Soldiers without an Alpha lived long enough and fought hard enough, that each could evolve into this "ascended" state. IF such a pack existed and vied for dominance within itself, could it not produce something even more powerful? An Alpha among Alphas.
Beyond this thought, speculations abound. A leviathan of the earth, consuming whole buildings in its wake, its brood a nightmare upon the material world. Perhaps this creature exists beyond the imagination and machinations of the world's scholars, the seed of an ancient phantasm planted; or perhaps they exist already, a mutated corruption growing in realms beyond...
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