Article Header Image
To Be an Abomination?
Wandering Monsters
By James Wyatt

A fter our discussion of scaly humanoids last week, it seemed natural to move on to the yuan-ti. I’m giving them a column all their own, largely because they’re a complex race with three well-established variations, and I want to talk about each one in turn. But first, let’s talk about them in general.

Yuan-ti were once human, but ancient evil transformed them into scaled monstrosities. They still inhabit their ancient temples deep in the jungles, worshiping their forgotten elder gods. The corruption of their blood has purged them of human emotion, leaving them cold-blooded in the metaphorical as well as the literal sense of the word. They are extremely intelligent, but they think in ways that are alien and horrifying to the human mind. They believe themselves to be totally superior to the warm-blooded races, and this superiority leads them to think that they should rule the world. This arrogance and overconfidence is perhaps their greatest weakness. They are also utterly hidebound in that they are steeped in their ancient traditions and unable or unwilling to adapt or innovate in changing circumstances.

Poison and snakes are deeply important to the yuan-ti. Those with serpent heads have venomous bites, and they all coat their weapons in poison so that their enemies die in excruciating pain. They can command snakes, and they often have giant snakes guarding their temples and inner sanctums. Some yuan-ti can learn to change into a snake form, but this isn’t an inherent ability of the race.

Yuan-ti are cold-blooded and emotionless themselves (for the most part), but they have innate powers that let them manipulate the emotions of others. They can instill fear or despair, make their foes feel safe or complacent, and so on. (Their high Charisma score helps them accomplish this.) Many of these powers are manifested in relation to snakes—enemies suddenly develop an intense fear of snakes or strange fascination with a snake’s shifting coils or alien eyes. In the emotionless minds of the yuan-ti, the warm-blooded races’ susceptibility to emotional manipulation is a sign of their weakness.

It’s common, even expected, to encounter mixed groups of yuan-ti that are made up of two or all three of the different varieties. The weakest yuan-ti lead the charge, with the strongest and most important ones in the rear.

Also, since Jon isn’t going to be talking about the visual depiction of yuan-ti in his column this week, I’m going to trespass on his territory and talk about the appearance of these creatures.

The Top Tier

“It’s good to be bad” might be the motto of the yuan-ti. If you’re an “abomination,” most people would consider that a bad thing, but to the yuan-ti that means that you’re the best and finest example of the race. I can imagine a scene from the first appearance of the yuan-ti, when an untainted priest looks upon a former friend who has become a yuan-ti and gasps, “You’re . . . you’re an abomination!” To which the yuan-ti replies, of course, “Yes, I amnbbmb .”

What does an abomination look like? They have usually been depicted with snake bodies in place of legs, humanlike torsos and arms, and a snake head. The text descriptions of them, though, have consistently (until 4th Edition) said that they vary in appearance: some are “totally snake-like” while the rest have “some human feature (such as a head or arms).”

With 4th Edition, we embraced the art and discarded the text, and I think for good reason. A snake with a human head looks like a naga—or else it just looks ridiculous. With no human features at all, it looks like a snake. In either case, they’re forced to rely on spells in combat (or a bite if they look just like snakes). With a snake head but scaled human arms, we get the look that we commonly associate with abominations, we get a venomous bite, and we get effective weapon use—or at least spellcasting that looks like spellcasting.

Abominations are the most powerful yuan-ti, and their leaders, the masterminds who direct the others in combat, are often the priests of a settlement. These priests perform sacrifices and dark rites in their temples in the unceasing hope of waking their slumbering god.

In addition to a high Intelligence score and high Charisma score, abominations have high Strength scores—they can dish out a lot of damage with their curving blades, or crush enemies in their coils.

The Middle Tier

The middle tier of yuan-ti was originally (in 1st and 2nd Edition AD&D) called halfbreeds. Probably because of that term’s offensive uses, they became halfbloods in 3rd Edition, but that term is almost equally loaded. So for 4th Edition, we came up with malison as an alternative, which suggests (at least, to me) a slightly less horrifying thing than an abomination. For the sake of argument, we’ll talk about malisons here, but please share your thoughts on the name in the poll below.

If you thought the three possible models of abominations were confusing, look at the malison of old. The DM was instructed to “roll once or twice” on a table with six possible options, creating twenty-one possible combinations of human and serpent features. Snake heads, flexible torsos, a snake’s lower body, snakes instead of arms, scales covering the body, or a snake tail with legs are the possibilities listed, but the DM was given permission to “create other results involving snakes and humans.” In 3rd Edition the possibilities were narrowed down to four—most malisons had snake heads and scaly human bodies, but some also had snake arms and human heads, snake tails and human legs, or snake tails instead of human legs.

In 4th Edition the possibilities went down to two: all malisons had snake heads and scaly bodies, but some had legs (and no snake tail) and some did not.

I think a couple of the options presented don’t work particularly well in art and don’t square with the way that D&D players imagine yuan-ti to look. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’ve never seen art showing a malison with a flexible torso, snake arms, or a snake tail as well as human legs. For that matter, I’ve never seen a malison with a human head or a body not covered with scales. That really leaves us with only the two possibilities presented in 4th Edition.

A malison with a snake head and no legs looks just like an abomination, though, so right now the default direction we’re looking at for malisons is basically humanoid bodies (covered with scales) and a snake head. Whew! It took a long time to get there, and I hope I didn’t lose you along the way.

If abominations are the leaders and priests of the yuan-ti, malisons are the rank and file. They use bows or magic to soften up their enemies at range. They are just as smart as the abominations, and each is fully capable of leading a band in the absence of an abomination.

The Lowest Tier

The lowest rank of yuan-ti was always called “purebloods” until 4th Edition. In 4E, it’s not entirely clear whether they still exist (in the form of snaketongue cultists) or not—the snaketongue cultists are a bit like the tainted ones of 3rd Edition, as humans that have recently been granted snakelike features. At any rate, since they’re called purebloods, we have to assume that “pure” is a derogatory term among the yuan-ti. These yuan-ti are weak because their blood is too pure, too human—it leaves them more emotional than other yuan-ti and less like the great serpents the yuan-ti revere.

Purebloods (or snaketongues) are the yuan-ti who most commonly interact with humans, adopting disguises that conceal their serpentine features so they can pass as normal humans. They’re primarily spies and infiltrators, but could also serve as traders if the yuan-ti are in need of some goods that they can’t otherwise acquire. Even without a disguise, some yuan-ti look almost perfectly human, and tales are sometimes told of yuan-ti purebloods who are raised as human by unwitting human parents. (Tim Pratt’s Venom in Her Veins is an excellent example.) Patches of scaly skin, a forked tongue, pupils like vertical slits, or pointed fangs are the most common manifestation of their ancient curse.

As the weakest and least important yuan-ti, snaketongues lead the charge in combat, sacrificing themselves if necessary to protect more powerful yuan-ti. They have only minor magical abilities (except for unusual individuals who have made a study of magic), and they rely primarily on poisoned weapons to fight in melee.

Elder Gods

A couple of times, I’ve mentioned the elder god or gods worshiped by the yuan-ti. Part of what makes these snake-people so alien and horrifying is that they are devoted to one or more gods whose worship predates the rise of mammalian life in the world. They might serve Merrshaulk, Sseth, Set, Zehir, Varae, Dendar the Night Serpent, Yig, Sertrous, or another distant but malign deus otiosus, depending on the world or setting. Given the central importance of the temple in yuan-ti society, their culture is somewhat shaped by the deity they serve.

For example, yuan-ti devoted to slumbering Merrshaulk believe that if they perform enough acts of heinous evil in their god’s name, Merrshaulk will awaken and restore the yuan-ti to their rightful place as rulers of the world. Those who serve Dendar the Night Serpent, on the other hand, seek to feed the Night Serpent with the fear of their victims, so that she will grow large and powerful enough to devour the world. Yuan-ti devoted to Sseth are schemers and masterminds, believing that every cunning and evil plan they concoct is another scale on the body of their god.

What Do You Think?

This article has more questions than usual. Please give us thoughtful feedback in the polls and in the comments!

This Week's Polls

 What should we call the middle tier of yuan-ti?  
Malison. The other terms offend me or make me uncomfortable.
Malison. It’s coolest.
Something else.

 What about the look of the abomination?  
I want abominations that look just like snakes.
I want abominations that look like nagas.
All of the above (I want all three classic forms of abomination).
None of the above (I want only abominations with snake heads and human arms).

 What about the look of the middle tier (halfbreed/halfblood/malison)?  
I want yuan-ti with snake hands.
I want yuan-ti with snake tails and human legs.
I want yuan-ti with flexible torsos.
More than one of the above (I like a broad selection of mid-tier yuan-ti, more like the classic forms).
None of the above (I’m happy with only two forms: snake head and either human legs or snake tail).
They should all have a snake head and human legs.
They should all have a snake head and snake tail.

 And, in general, how well do the yuan-ti we’ve described here match your sense of the iconic D&D yuan-ti?  
1—I don’t know what these are, but they’re not yuan-ti.
2—Well, you got the snake part right.
3—It’s getting there—the three tiers of yuan-ti at least sound right.
4—Yeah, I recognize the description as fitting the yuan-ti.
5—This description almost matches the perfection of the yuan-ti themselves.

Previous Poll Results

How well do the kobolds we’ve described here match your sense of the iconic D&D kobold?
4 -- Yeah, I recognize that as a kobold. 1169 66.2%
5 -- That's more kobold than any past kobold has ever been. 287 16.3%
3 -- I can see kobold from here. 187 10.6%
2 -- It's kobold-adjacent, at least. 96 5.4%
1 -- That's no kobold. Not even close. 27 1.5%
Total 1766 100.0%

How well do the lizardfolk we’ve described here match your sense of the iconic D&D lizardfolk?
4 -- Yeah, I recognize that as a lizardfolk. 1089 64.6%
5 -- That is the ultimate expression of lizardfolk! 280 16.6%
3 -- It's a lizard something -- getting there. 261 15.5%
2 -- Well, you got the lizard part right. 45 2.7%
1 -- If that's a lizardfolk, I'm a lizard. 11 0.7%
Total 1686 100.0%

How well do the troglodytes we’ve described here match your sense of the iconic D&D troglodyte?
4 -- Yeah, I recognize that as a troglodyte. 899 54.9%
3 -- That's starting to smell like a troglodyte. 391 23.9%
5 -- Oh, yeah. That's it. Good enough to eat! 222 13.6%
2 -- Lizard, check. Stench, check. The rest, start over. 91 5.6%
1 -- It smells as bad as a real troglodyte. 34 2.1%
Total 1637 100.0%

What’s the role of aquatic humanoids in the game?
If they were good enough for Gary Gygax, they're good enough for me! Put them in the core game! 616 34.5%
Sahuagin are useful for coastal raids, but locathah and merfolk are useless. 475 26.6%
I use sahuagin, and I use mermaids for luring ships off course, but if I never see a locathah again I won't miss them. 411 23.0%
I have no use for them. They belong in a supplement that focuses on aquatic adventuring. 284 15.9%
Total 1786 100.0%
James Wyatt
James Wyatt is the Creative Manager for Dungeons & Dragons R&D at Wizards of the Coast. He was one of the lead designers for 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons and the primary author of the 4th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. He also contributed to the Eberron Campaign Setting, and is the author of several Dungeons & Dragons novels set in the world of Eberron.
Sort Items By: Newest First Oldest First Top Rated
There are no comments yet for this article (or rating). Be the first!

Create Comment
Follow Us
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