Many of you may have seen the recent film Venom: Let There Be Carnage and thought to yourself, ‘Boy, I wish I had an evil alien goo-monster bonded with my flesh.’ I can’t help you with that specifically, sorry. But what I can do is talk about how one might achieve the next best thing: simulating the experience in Dungeons & Dragons!
There are quite a few ways to go about this sort of thing in the most recent editions of D&D, so I’ll be discussing them in order of complexity with the two broad categories of Flavoring and Homebrew.
Like a good dash of basil in pasta sauce, flavoring the look and feel of your character in Dungeons & Dragons can make all the difference in terms of making it memorable. In this instance, what I mean by flavoring is changing the cosmetic appearance of an ability or spell without altering what they do mechanically in the game. A more recent mainline D&D book, Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, sums it up best on page 116:
"Just as every performer lends their art a personal flair and every warrior asserts their fighting styles through the lens of their own training, so too can a spellcaster use magic to express their individuality. Regardless of what type of spellcaster you’re playing, you can customize the cosmetic effects of your character’s spells. Perhaps you wish the effects of your caster’s spells to appear in their favorite color, to suggest the training they received from a celestial mentor, or to exhibit their connection to a season of the year. The possibilities for how you might cosmetically customize your character’s spells are endless. However, such alterations can’t change the effects of a spell. They also can’t make one spell seem like another—you can’t, for example, make a magic missile look like a fireball.
When customizing your spellcaster’s magic, consider developing a theme—often, the broader and more versatile the better. You may describe your caster’s magic whenever you wish, particularly when it makes an interesting addition to a story. You may also use it to reinforce other choices you’ve made for your character, like making a bard’s spells tied more closely to their favored art form or a cleric’s spells themed around their deity.
For example, the fireball of a wizard with a fondness for storms might erupt to look like burning clouds or a burst of red lightning (without affecting the spell’s damage type), while the same wizard’s haste spell might limn the target in faint thunderheads.
Alternatively, a cleric who serves a moon god might radiate faint moonlight around their hands when they cast cure wounds, or their shield of faith might surround the target with glimmering crescent moons.
Further still, a druid could choose a cherry blossom theme for their magic, causing delicate branches and pink leaves to grow when they cast entangle or shillelagh, and their faerie fire spell could appear more like wind-tossed petals than flames.”
In our case, we’re talking about making your spells and abilities look and feel like they are coming from an evil(ish) alien goo-monster. Spells like Thorn Whip or Entangle can easily be described in a fashion where they take on a more tentacular aspect. Druids can especially benefit from this sort of liberal application of reinterpretation. The Wild Shape ability is oftentimes glossed over or, at most, treated like the cover of one of the Animorphs books in terms of what it actually looks like as it happens. Giving it a little bit of extra nasty by describing the slimy ooze which reshapes itself over your body is a great way of channeling your inner Eddy Brock without changing the core of the character.
Certain subclasses definitely lend themselves more to this sort of thing than others. When creating a character that you want to have a symbiotic flare, consider the nature of their abilities and how they might derive from another entity. Below I’ve listed the subclasses I think are best suited for re-flavoring to fit your alien goo-monster fantasies!
Armorer Artificer – This one is a gimme. The Armorer on its surface is a clear homage to another Marvel character, Iron Man, with its customized heavy armor qualities and literal laser blasts. It can just as easily be alive though. We’ve seen symbiotes in both Venom movies launch projectiles from their malleable bodies, so it’s an easy thing to present the Armorer’s traits in exactly this way.
Path of the Beast Barbarian – There is probably an argument to be made that any subclass of Barbarian could be suitably “venom-ized”, with their Rage ability acting as a stand-in for symbiotic activation. I think the Path of the Beast subclass might edge out the others though due to its shape shifting nature. The Form of the Beast ability, which allows the Barbarian to grow claws or fangs while raging, is an obvious step in the right direction and while the Tail option of that ability might be less true to form, I see very little reason it could not be recast in a more tentacular light. Later levels also give the Path of the Beast Barbarian the ability to climb up walls while raging, making this a very easy pick.
Circle of Spores Druid – This is another obvious pick when the subclass has an ability that is literally called Symbiotic Entity. With a body-encompassing fungus being a core part of the subclass to begin with, it is almost harder not to flavor it like Venom. Druids in particular have access to a great many number of spells and abilities (some of which I mentioned above) that can mesh very well with your gooey predilections.
Warlocks – I did not specify a particular subclass here because honestly it was difficult to pick just one. Warlocks in Dungeons & Dragons are the class that comes burdened right up front with narrative baggage that needs to be unpacked. They have inherently made a deal (unwitting or not) with some sort of patron which grants them incredible powers and if that ain’t a symbiotes M.O. I don’t know what is. The Fathomless patron seems like an obvious pick, with its excessive use of moisture and tentacles that can very easily have an ooze-like quality. Alternately, The Undead patron also offers great possibilities of changing one’s form into a more ghoulish appearance, ridiculous tongue and all. And any Warlock subclass offers a shapeshifting weapon that you can summon and dismiss at will if you’ve taken the Pact of the Blade feature; easy enough to flavor it as a literal extension of your body.
The second and far more complex option available to players is Homebrewing a brand new subclass or, for the daring, a totally new class altogether. While there is obviously a plethora of options available to the canny D&D player to make themselves the symbiotic entity of their dreams with what is already on paper, perhaps it doesn’t quite get there for you.
What we’re talking about when it comes to homebrew is taking the strictures and guidelines that exist in the game of Dungeons & Dragons, then creating something new that works within that framework. It can be challenging, to say the least, to balance brand new spells and abilities in a way that keeps in line with existing options. But it can be done! As I spoke about last week there are plenty of third party publishers who regularly add their own unique spices to the game, so why can’t you?
A brand new class that relies on a symbiote of one kind or another sounds like a huge endeavor but when you break it down into its component parts, it becomes less daunting. Next week I want to go whole-hog on this topic and discuss the ins and outs of homebrewing in Dungeons & Dragons.