This edition of WKoMAY is going to be a tough one for me. See, I really, really don’t like bugs, and today we’re dealing with a great big one: the ankheg, a monstrous, burrowing, acid-spitting insect large enough to snarf down a cow.
In fact, cows (and sheep and other pasture-dwelling animals) make perfect prey for an ankheg; the Monster Manual makes note that these beasts are particularly hated by farmers, because they tend to burrow under fields and snap up livestock. That’s probably the easiest way to introduce an ankheg to your players–have some local farmer complain that his sheep are disappearing. When the party goes to investigate, a massive bug bursts out of the ground and tries to chow down on them!
Of course, when have I ever stopped at the easy option? Rural ankhegs are all well and good, but I see no reason why an enterprising Dungeon Master couldn’t introduce one in an urban setting. One of these burrowing beasties could start snatching folks from local parks, for instance, or their tunneling could cause sinkholes in the streets. Perhaps a city-dwelling ankheg wouldn’t even need to burrow–what if one found its way into a sewage system? Imagine a party of intrepid young adventurers traveling through the dank pipes, stumbling across partially-dissolved bodies, great heaps of molted chitin, and perhaps even a clutch of ankheg eggs–fiercely guarded by their insectoid mother, of course… it’d be like the end of Stephen King’s IT, except with a literal giant bug instead of a metaphysical one!
Intimidating (and yucky) though an ankheg may be, it’s no Pennywise; these guys are a relatively benign CR2. High enough to be a threat to a low-level party, but not a big league villain by any means!
Their stat block is fairly bare-bones, too. They have a low AC (being large-sized does make you an easier target, after all), and aside from a burrow speed and tremorsense, they don’t have much in the way of special abilities. That said, they have a couple of options when it comes to attacks. As one might expect from a giant insect, they’ve got a fierce pair of mandibles, which not only deal additional acid damage on a hit but also grapple foes. On top of that, they’ve got a wicked acid spray that can hit targets in a thirty-foot line. It has to recharge after a single use, which limits its utility, but it could really put the hurt on a party that’s careless with its positioning.
The ankheg was created by Erol Otus, who was a regular contributor in the early days of D&D. It first appeared in the fifth issue of Dragon magazine, before later turning up in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual. It’s managed to appear in every iteration of the game since, making it one of the franchise’s most enduring monsters! It’s not clear what inspired the ankheg; personally, it’s always reminded me of the antlion, an insect with similarly large mandibles that digs pit traps to capture prey (not too different from how an ankheg attacks its foes from underground).
Ankhegs may not be the most iconic D&D creature, but the fact that they’ve been around since AD&D is a testament to their effectiveness as a monster. After all, demons and warlocks and bugbears are all fine and good, but sometimes you just want to throw a big, gross bug at your players and see what happens.