Article Header Image
Modrons' March
D&D Alumni
Bart Carroll

"To look at one modron is to look at all of them."

Here in the Pacific Northwest, "Nirvana" has a fairly specific connotation that involves stage-diving into drum kits, the image of a baby swimming after a dollar bill, and true rock-'n'-roll endings (in other words, not happy ones). Within the context of Dungeons & Dragons, however, Nirvana instead referenced Eastern philosophy: a state of mind, but adapted to the game's cosmology as one of the planes of existence. Originally, Nirvana was a plane of balance and absolute order. It was equally hot and cold, was equally light and dark, and was made of equal parts solid and liquid (wait, that's sounding a lot like the Pacific Northwest after all).

The chief inhabitants of this plane were the modrons -- and they lived in a rigid caste system under the absolute rule of Primus (and look, another rock-'n'-roll connection).

This month sees the return of modrons to the online pages of Dungeon magazine. For those of you not familiar with this peculiar race, we wanted to take a brief look back at these multifaceted beings (and folks, that's about as bad of a pun as I can muster).

Why Modrons?

At Gen Con 2010, Greg Bilsland led a monster design seminar, walking the audience through the creation of a monster by using an old-school monster as a template. Greg offered the following candidates for the audience's voting pleasure (roll over for information on each). The modrons won in a landslide, offering a platform that called for classifying all beings, regulating all laws, and delineating all procedures; to the modrons, obedience to the law is immediate and unquestioned -- so prepare to obey your new modron overlords! (Don't blame me -- I voted for Kodos.)

Origins and First Appearance

It's hard to think of modrons without considering Edwin Abbott's (Edwin Abbott Abbott's, to be precise) novel, Flatland. Most readers were assigned this text in college math or philosophy seminars, which concerns the character of a square exploring different planes of existence. For a mathematical text written, in part, as a commentary on Victorian society (in Flatland, different shapes occupy different social classes; the more sides a shape has, the higher his class), it remains a wonderful thought experiment. The square meets a sphere from the higher dimension of Spaceland, prompting him to ask what further dimensions there might be (of which creatures from Spaceland would be entirely ignorant). You can see this briefly animated (including concepts up to the tenth dimension) here.

From Jeff Grubb: The modrons first appeared in Monster Manual II, of which I was the "design consultant." This meant I took all the monsters, made sure they made sense and were formatted, and filled in all the missing bits. I created only a few of them: some of the daemons (charon, charonaloths, arcanaloths) and the modrons.

The modrons were a partial turnover. The monodrone (the sphere guy) was completely statted out and described. The duodrone was mostly statted out and described. The tridrone was described but not statted out. The quadrone and up were just names. I can't remember if the hierarchs had names or not, but I do know that the modron god, Primus, was my creation.

I liked the modrons because before they came along, the Lawful Neutral plane, Nirvana, was pretty durn empty. I turned it into the big clockwork universe when we got to Manual of the Planes.

So the concept of the modrons (based on Platonic shapes), the fact they lived in Nirvana, and were Lawful Neutral were pretty much set when I got there. I am the one to blame for the more warped-looking higher level ones.

Appearing in the 1st Edition Monster Manual II, Flatland's residents essentially became the modrons. Base modrons were organized from 1-sided (single-function monodrone spheres) to 5 (stilt-legged pentadrone starfish that could, for whatever reason, emit paralysis gas and levitate). Ruling the base modrons were hierarch modrons, which conversely started from decatons (based on the fact that there were 100, or 10x10 of them) on down to Primus (The One and the Prime). Apparently no modrons were based on negative or imaginary numbers, which would have made for interesting wars between them (or perhaps could explain rogue modrons).

Recalling the hierarchy of the Lower Planes (and the rebirthing tanks of Battlestar Galactica), slain modrons returned to the energy pool of Nirvana, where they reformed as new modrons. Failure to meet Primus's standards (who also happened to occupy this energy pool) also meant a return from the pool as a monodrone. But serve well, and individual modrons could be promoted into higher versions.

Assuming that players would attempt to do exactly this, the Monster Manual II even explained that should Primus ever be slain, his second-in-commands would immediately vie for his position. This ultimate promotion would be sought by their efforts to slay as many chaotic creatures as possible…and they'd immediately judge Primus's slayers as both irredeemably chaotic and more highly valued than any other quarry.

Of course, the death of Primus would set a later event into motion….

The Great Modron Migration

When it came to modron rebirths, the most dramatic one of them all came between the editions. By 2nd Edition, Nirvana itself had been renamed Mechanus—but it was here that modrons found their true fame, featuring significantly in the Planescape setting (with Mechanus further illustrated in the Planes of Law supplement). In fact, all the modrons were further illustrated, quite literally, with a new look from artist Tony DiTerlizzi, who also created new visual styles in this edition for demons and devils—excuse me, tanar'ri and baatezu—and even illustrated a number of Magic: The Gathering cards (particularly goblins).

Within Planescape, the Great March was discussed: an event that took place every 17 years, and which saw the vast mobilization of modrons tour throughout the cosmos -- for unknown reasons and with great loss of numbers. If players wished to have their characters join in the magical mystery tour of the cosmos, they need only see 2nd Edition's The Great Modron March, which allowed them to do just that. In this adventure, the modrons set out on their great planar migration, yet they have started it inexplicably early. Such a cosmic anomaly demands an investigation; and for parties that followed through, they would discover that this untimely march started with the death of Primus. The true secret of the Modron March (and Primus's killer), however, wouldn't be revealed until later.

The Missing Modrons

By 3rd Edition, the modrons had been (almost) replaced. Somewhere between the editions, the antlike formians invaded the Clockwork Nirvana of Mechanus. Plus, the living constructs now mainly in residence were not the modrons, but the inevitables.

So what had happened to our poor modrons?

With the cosmos reset, Dave Noonan came up with the inevitables (a concept starting with the maruts, which Jeff Grubb created for 1st Edition's Manual of the Planes). As he detailed in Dragon #341, the inevitables fit the role of upholding cosmic law better. Instead of quirky little coglike modrons, monstrous inevitables would hunt down those who broke the laws of justice, didn’t uphold agreements, and tried to escape the inevitability of their own mortal demise.

Although diminished, modrons were not forgotten. (Far from!) Along with a brief mention in the 3E Manual of the Planes, a web enhancement for the book had Mark Jindra updating their statistics -- and reinstalling Primus back in his energy pool, right hand still swathed in bright rainbow hues, left still cloaked in inky, swirling clouds.

Later attention would come in the modrons' ecology in Dragon #354. Written by Ken Marable, the article explained their sad exile from Mechanus, starting with the formian invasion. It also looked back at the death of Primus, revealing (from the 2nd Edition adventure, Dead Gods) that it had been the work of Orcus all along -- thought slain, but at the time in the guise of Tenebrous.

And the Great Modron March? Orcus's attempt to scour the planes for his missing wand! And with that, we look forward to the modrons' reappearance in Dungeon. We also invite you to listen again to the seminar so that you can hear the discussion on how to create modrons for the current game!

Bart Carroll
Bart Carroll has been a part of Wizards of the Coast since 2004, and a D&D player since 1980 (and has fond memories of coloring the illustrations in his 1st Edition Monster Manual). He currently works as producer for the D&D website. You can find him on Twitter (@bart_carroll) and at bartjcarroll.com.
Follow Us
RSS
Find a place to get together with friends or gear up for adventure at a store near you
Please enter a city or zip code