D&D Monster Spotlight: The Kraken

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This week, we unleash everyone’s favorite monster, and at last, those meddling Argonauts will be dealt with.

It’s time for some titanic clashing, and mythological merrimaking, because this week, we’ve traveled to the briny deeps and called up a beast that has been plaguing ships and seas throughout the ages. With origins of real-world mythology and in the countless imagined mythologies of fantastic worlds, there’s a lot of ground to cover with this one. So let’s not waste too much time introducing this monster, because we’ve got to get Kraken.

That’s right, everyone’s favorite monstrous squid that’s both mythological and real. Giant sea creatures are a fascinating and enduring part of the human psychology, representing the monsters of the unknown. Of the cold, crushing dark that lies beneath the surface of the water. The sea is tantamount to the unknown–the greatest danger of all–which still holds true, the more we learn about the sea, the weirder it gets.

Imagine society’s surprise when evidence of actual massive squids starts showing up–and then it turns out that they’re real. And massive. In the depths of the world, there are monsters.

Naturally the Kraken has a huge part to play in our own mythology as well. The word Kraken is taken from the Norwegian word krake which means a corrupted, twisted animal. This legendary sea monster was said to dwell within the seas off of Norway and Greenland, appearing in myriad media including ancient Icelandic Sagas, works of taxonomy, natural histories, ancient writers orations, and even popular science-fiction and poems.

Below the thunders of the upper deep;
Far far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
About his shadowy sides; above him swell
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;
And far away into the sickly light,
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
Unnumber’d and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
There hath he lain for ages, and will lie
Battening upon huge seaworms in his sleep,
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
Then once by man and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.

For added fun, read that to your players the next time you have them travel out on a boat. Moby Dick, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, even incredibly accurate, painstakingly researched historical dramas feature the Kraken.


Little wonder then, that it should be included in Dungeons and Dragons. Though the Kraken didn’t appear until well into 1st Edition, in the Monster Manual II, along with other D&D Luminaries such as the Zorbo, Modrons, the Tarrasque, and the Land Urchin (coming soon).

Even from its inception, the Kraken was regarded as evil. There are many monsters that preyed on creatures just from instinct, but the Kraken has always been a malevolent force–and a highly intelligent one, boasting a genius Intelligence even back in its first edition days.

Now, in this edition, the Kraken was not just one singular monster (though you’d only ever encounter one at a time), they were a race of amphibious squid-like creatures that dwell in the dark depths of the ocean. Rumored to have originated in coastal waters where they were worshipped by humans who would serve them and bring them sacrifices, the Kraken were forced by Good creatures to retreat to the depth. Where, though their numbers dwindled, their size increased and now, they seek to kill good creatures and devour all small life.

And boy howdy could they do that. This thing is a beast, able to attack with a pair of barb-covered tentacles, 4-6 striking tentacles, and a possible bite attack–these monsters could put a hurting on even the most seasoned of adventurers. Especially with its twenty hit dice. Each tentacle hit for some impressive damage, doing 2d6 with the bard tentacles, 2d4 with the striking ones, and 5d4 with its chomping mouth. But on top of that, Krakens also had a pseudo grapple–if it hit with the striking tentacles, they could constrict a target for 3d4 points of damage (automatically) each round, and they could drag its victims at least 1,000 feet beneath the surface one they accumulated enough of them.

They had rules for attacking ships, and on top of all of that could cast spells including: airy waterfaerie firecontrol temperaturecontrol windsweather summoning, and fish summoning III, all of which add to its massive might.

Kraken are one of the few monsters to get an upgrade between the editions. Usually you’d see them ported over mostly unchanged–or with a few minor tweaks. But the Kraken here gets an upgrade, becoming decidedly deadlier in 2nd Edition.

Now lumped in with Giant Squids, the 2nd Edition Kraken hits, as before, with two massive tentacles and a full 6 striking/grappling ones. The barbed tentacles do 3d6 damage, and pull victims towards a gaping maw capable of biting for 7d4 points of damage, while the grappling tentacles deal 2d6 on a hit and constrict for 3d6 points of damage from each round forward. Now, Kraken do have rules for severing their tentacles–that’s mostly how you defeat them–not by wiping out their hit points, but by severing their tentacles.

Granted it doesn’t automatically retreat if three of its tentacles are severed (as they did in 1st Edition), but they do have a significant chance of doing so, leaving a massive poisonous ink cloud in their wake (the poison is an upgrade for these monsters as well). Their spell-like abilities are unchanged, for the most part, but again–they still have them, and can employ them to do their terrible work. Control temperature, in particular, becomes a constant abiility they have within a 40-yard radius of their massive bulk.

The 3.x Kraken actually looks much more squidlike–the others are stylized representations, this one looks more like a life-drawing. And, like most things that could already kind of sort of grapple in 3.x, Kraken got a lot deadlier because of the solidified grappling rules. Kraken have always been near the top of the food chain, and in 3.x–where size matters–they were some of the rulers of the roost. Keeping their 20 Hit Dice of editions past, and being classified as officially gargantuan, the Kraken gains several powerful abilities that help it put an end to adventuring parties.

For starters, it can see in the dark, and it has the blind-fighting feats to help it deal with adventurers caught up in its ink cloud. Thanks to improved grapple, every attack it makes is a potential grapple with constrict rider for extra bonus fun damage. They can once per round accelerate to 280 feet per round, but must move in a straight line–great for initiating or escaping a fight, especially since they’re encountered underwater. With a grapple bonus of +44, te Kraken could bring its massive 2d8+12 tentacles (and 2d8+12 constriction damage) to bear as much as it wanted and it had the ability to grapple multiple creatures. A rarity in this edition–additionally, they had rules for getting their tentacles severed–though it had to be a Sunder attack, so if you didn’t pick up that feat–good luck escaping these guys.

But that’s not all. In the halcyon days of 3.x, the Kraken saw a lot of attention in Eberron as well. There, they were the emblem of House Lyrandar, the Kraken in this world are venerated by some–they are elder seafaring races who have earned a seat at the powerful beings tables alongside Dragons. And of course one of the most powerful creatures in Eberron (but not the most powerful–that honor still belongs to a tree) is an ancient half-fiendish Kraken known as Zlortharkis, who at CR 15, is quite the mover and shaker.

The 4th Edition Kraken is amazing. Quite possibly my favorite version of the Kraken, this edition really leans into the ancient monsters and alien monstrosities. Just listen to the lore:

In the uncharted darkness, alien monstrosities dream of the destruction of all things. At the beginning of time, the monstrous krakens escaped the Far Realm and made their way across the Astral Sea and the mortal realm, trailing the detritus of broken worlds. Krakens emerge from time to time from their dark demesnes, slaughtering at will and leaving nothing but ruin in their wake.

That is a heavy metal concept album waiting to happen. And the Krakens could back this up–you had the Sea Kraken, which was a solo soldier capable of taking on an entire party of heroic-tier adventurers and triumphing. It came out in Monster Manual 3, when 4th was beginning to show signs of bloat, but still had astoundingly effective design. The Sea Kraken could attack and constrict, could specifically damage vehicles, attack multiple targets–it was meant to attack a party on a ship. They really went all in on creating that iconic feel of getting attacked while at sea.

And yes, the Sea Kraken is only a Level 10 creature, but that’s because by the time you get past that, being on a boat isn’t really all that exciting. If you have spells capable of traversing the planes, or teleporting, then, sure–you might have to be on a boat for a while, but even if you get attacked at sea, you’ve got escape options. Not so at level 10. The Kraken is meant to challenge a party that is trapped on the water. It loses something if you can teleport away (which a level 20 party can do)–in earlier editions, the Kraken would flee after you cut off three of its tentacles. Here, it’s a climactic fight to cap off an entire tier’s worth of adventuring.

And once you’ve moved beyond, there was the Astral Kraken. A beast of stars and madness born. Much like the Kraken before it, this version of the beast is much deadlier. It dwells within the planar depths, so to speak, and has massive reach. It’s capable of grabbing up to eight creatures, and deals psychic damage.

It also has the ability to make characters attack each other at will, it can devour ships, it can stun its foes–this creature feels like a boss monster. Seriously, if you’re interested in what 4th Edition does well, check out the Monster Manual 3. It showcases what the edition wanted to be (before it stopped having too much oversight).

Then of course there’s the 5th Edition Kraken, who gets an overhaul that is a departure from the massive squid of old. Though, with the sharks there for scale, you can see how truly massive this thing is. Massive and deadly. The 5th Edition Kraken clocks in at Challenge 23, making it one of the deadliest creatures out there. And it is a suitably legendary monster–you can see some of the lessons learned from 4th Edition implemented here, starting even with the lore.

Beneath the waves, the kraken sleeps for untold ages, awaiting some fell sign or calling. Land-born mortals who sail the open sea forget the reasons their ancestors dreaded the ocean, even as the race of the deep ignore strange gaps in their histories when their civilizations nearly vanished after the appearance of the tentacled horror.

Again, they’ve narrowed in on how the Kraken represents the fear of the unknown. And swimming up out of that darkness is a beastly encounter that is fun to run. Legendary monsters are a direct lesson from 4th Edition. The whole–one monster needs to have actions interspersed to really challenge a party. And I’d recommend throwing some minions along with this one too for a truly epic encounter.

But the Kraken gets all kinds of things, regional effects, lair actions, legendary actions. As players encounter the Kraken, they might notice:

  • Altered weather
  • Water Elementals bound to the kraken’s service
  • Aquatic creatures become its charmed thralls
  • A kraken’s lair surges with lightning, strong currents, or causes vulnerability to lightning.

And then the Kraken itself is capable of wrecking ships, thanks to its siege monster abilities–on top of that, its tentacle attacks are back (and mostly the same, they deal damage, can grapple and constrict targets). It gains the ability to throw creatures or objects that it has grappled,dealing up to 6d6 damage. It additionally can create massive bolts of lightning. So on a turn, you’re shooting foes with lightning, throwing them at one another, and so on. It is just a blast–if you want to know what a boss fight can/should feel like in 5th Edition, check this one out.


That’s one thing the Kraken has always been good at. It’s a fantastic set-piece encounter. It really showcases what you can make the system do–it’s not super complex, but it takes the simple elements of the editions its in, and it makes them shine. So if you’re looking to either dive deeper on some design, or just want a tough encounter, look no further than the Kraken.

 

  • Aurion Shidhe

    I love big epic fights to cap off campaigns or long adventures. The kraken certainly fits the bill for that. We just completed a mini-campaign in Eberron with an ancient giant that had magicked his way to becoming a titan and controlled an island deep in the Dragonreach, where he had set himself up as a demi-god to the islanders. Maybe I should have used a kraken instead. Next time…

    • Jay Arr

      That sounds like a good campaign ending fight though. Big setpiece battles are one of my favorite things about the game.

      • Aurion Shidhe

        It was pretty fun. The party thought it was going to be a TPK as I had the “demigod” one-shotting everyone he attacked (all red-shirt NPCs and one PC that the player wanted to die in a blaze of glory) while they were all tied up with drow henchmen (descendants of the original drow slaves the giant had brought with him to the island before the Xendrik kingdom collapsed). The party figured out how to “de-deify” the giant right as he was focusing on the PCs, remove the magic that kept the sun from blinding the drow, and then have a stand up fight with a “plain old” storm giant. Only one regular PC went down (but survived) and everyone else was staggered pretty hard, but alive.