This week’s monster is clearly a rectangular prism.
It’s time to wander through the stone corridors of a low-level dungeon and wonder why the GM keeps mentioning how clean it is. Sure it’s cool that, despite being a suspected hideout for a band of goblin raiders, there’s no sign of detritus, nor scraps of food or even the mold and slime the party fought at the last goblin hideout. And the fact that there’s no dust or loose stones, save for the occasional dagger in the middle of the floor is kind of cool, but it doesn’t really have anything to do with–what do you mean the whole party is paralyzed and being digested? Well how was anyone supposed to know there was a Gelatinous Cube here. Well while everyone’s getting slowly digested, it’s time to bring the Gelatinous Cube out into the spotlight.
The Gelatinous Cube is a sort of rite of passage–it’s an encounter that’s inhabited low-level dungeons that signifies you’re ready for the trickier side of the game. They’re one of the first encounters where the mechanics can, if you’re not prepared give one character a bad time–if not wipe the party. I mean they’re hard to see, they’re large enough to engulf someone, they can stun people, and deal decent damage with their pseudopods. But the stunning effect is the critical part in the mix here. A bad saving throw and you’re out of the fight for a while (depending on edition), and that can take a tough encounter and make it deadly.
But odds are good that you’ll emerge victorious over the cube, and having confronted the deadliness of it, taken your first steps into a larger world. So it has been since the days of D&D’s White Box. The Gelatinous Cube is a monster that has been cleaning up dungeons since 1974 in the White Box, and has appeared in each iteration of D&D since, making it one of the original oozes. One of the reasons it’s so endearing and has endured so famously throughout the editions, is because of tis place in the game.
Looks like two of them just engulfed Kinshasa, and there’s another giant one in Khartoum…
The Gelatinous Cube is a monster that the players are there to fight, sure, but it’s “purpose” is to be a part of the world. It explains the ecosystem of a dungeon. See, in early D&D the ruleset was there to simulate a world. That’s why you’d get so many tables about young/noncombat versions of monsters included in the monster manual entries. You were encountering a whole world, so raiding a kobold village you’d fight the 50 or so kobold warriors, but then there’d be another 100-400 lurking in the shadows, not able to fight, but definitely able to bear a grudge.
And the Gelatinous Cub is a monster that exists because dungeons are a thing in the world. I love that so much. So–in a world where maniacal wizards create lairs of underground complexes and where monsters mill around in rooms that are organized according to their power level and height, how does all of it stay neat and tidy? That’s where the gelatinous cube comes in. They’re scavengers who keep the place clean–they float around corners, taking what they can from the floor and dissolving away anything else. They’re just sort of a natural part of the world–early entries even mention the equilibrium certain dungeon inhabitants would reach with these hungry cubes, where they stay out of each other’s way nd achieve a sort of dungeon-based symbiosis.
The 1st Edition Gelatinous Cube was a simple creature. You’d run into 1 at a time, they had 4 hit dice, and were clearly laid out as the cleaning monster. Their only special tactics were being hard to see (surprising on a 1-3 on a roll of a d6), but as they go, they collect all kinds of non-digestible treasure. So they’re literally sacks of treasure that slink through the halls and can engulf most opponents. Their paralyzation was by and large the most dangerous feature about them.
If the cube managed to hit an opponent, and their opponent failed their paralysis save, they were anesthetized for 5d4 rounds while the cube engulfed them and began digesting to them, causing 2d4 points of damage per round. And that’s all to a creature who is inside, helpless, unable to breathe (naturally). So if the acid doesn’t kill you, the drowning almost certainly will. Especially since Gelatinous Cubes had a few unique defenses, like the ability to take reduced damage from cold (though they were slowed by 50%), and immunity to electricity, fear, holds, paralyzation, polymorph, and sleep.
The 2nd Edition Gelatinous Cube was a lot like its predecessor. As in 1st edition, a cube who touched an opponent would paralyze them for 5d4 rounds and begin dissolving them in its digestive juices. They got a little less detail in this edition than in previous ones, because gelatinous cubes were grouped together with all the other oozes–including gray oozes, green slime, and ochre jelly. Still, though, this edition has some of the best art for it. When you hear “gelatinous cube” this is exactly what you’d expect. The added details of a sword, helmet, and shield floating in the middle are the only details you’d need–but on top of that, it had a slightly melted ice cube aesthetic that really worked well.
The 3rd Edition Gelatinous Cube got a little more complicated. Though its lore and function in the world were unchanged, it received a significant overhaul between the editions. Now, being an ooze meant it had ooze traits, as well as immunity to poison, sleep. paralysis, polymorph, and stunning effects, as well as critical hits and flanking. On top of this, they were given a slam attack which dealt physical and acid damage (as well as subjecting creatures to the paralysis effect detailed below), and the Engulf action, which let them completely engulf one or more opponents with a single move. Those failing a reflex save (DC 13, so you had to try), were engulfed, and had to make a much harder (DC 20) Fortitude save or be paralyzed for 3d6 rounds and take acid damage every round.
The fact that the Fortitude save DC was so high–especially given that these were CR 3 creatures meant that they could wipe out an unprepared party if either the players or the gm weren’t being careful. That said, this one is not nearly as cubic as its 2nd edition counterpart–and it’s so much easier to see as well. Hardly transparent.
The 4th Edition Gelatinous Cube looked like it was blue raspberry flavored–though it does have the amazing detail of a flesh-covered arm hanging out of it, while the skeletal remains of some poor adventurer are inside it. These Cubes were elite brutes, which meant they had a higher than normal pool of hp (152), as well as fairly high defenses. An evolution of the 3rd edition cube, 4th edition cubes had the slam and engulf attacks of the previous edition, though they were restricted to only two targets with their engulf attacks (and could only target medium or smaller creatures–so gone were the days of an ogre trapped in a cube), and could only be seen when it attacked or if you made a DC 25 Perception check.
Now we’re talking. That’s a cube. And a full cube at that–I think this may be my favorite rendition of the cube (and possibly my favorite piece of 5th Edition art). It’s perfect. So symmetrical and square and full of treasure and reminders of both mortality and hubris. It really does everything you could possibly want.
The 5th Edition Cube is perhaps one of the better iterations of the “modern” cube. As per the 3rd Edition baseline, it has aslam attack with a pseudopod that deals acid damage, and 3d6 no less (even if the slam attack lacks the paralysis of previous editions). And its Engulf is a straightforward return to form. Creatures that fail a save are engulef by the creature, taking 3d6 acid damage, where they are restrained, unable to breathe, and take 6d6 points of acid damage at the start of each of the cube’s turns.
Interestingly enough–this is the first edition to outline rules for trying to pull someone OUT of the cube as well (DC 12 strength check–too easy if you ask me–but you’re subjected to 3d6 points of damage just for making the attempt). Beautiful and deadly, these cuboid creatures are a worthy addition to any dungeon.
Well, seeing as how the rest of the staff around here is getting slowly dissolved, I guess I’d better go try and do something. But in the meantime–remember, a gelatinous cube is a rite of passage–and you can always tell, because they right the passage.
What’s your favorite ooze? And do you agree, cubish monsters are the best, hands down?