Of all the bizarre creatures that haunt the caves and crevasses of the subterranean world, the flail snail is one of the strangest. As slow for its size as its diminutive cousins, the flail snail fears little from underground predators, thanks to its nigh-impermeable armor and the powerful, mace-like pseudopods that give it its name. Yet the most curious trait of this docile denizen lies is in the singular properties of its shell, which not only defends the creature against magic, but is capable of warping spells and flinging them back at their caster.
Slow and easily avoidable due to their telltale slime trails, flail snails tend to be peaceful unless actively threatened or approached too closely. At these times, the sedately waving tentacles on the creature’s head become an intricately woven blur, the horn-like growths at their tips whistling as they’re flung with terrific force by long strands of muscle. Each swipe of these biological flails is capable of staving in a man’s chest, and though most creatures have plenty of time to retreat, those who press their luck or run afoul of the flail snail’s mucilaginous secretions come out the other side as a red smear on the cavern floor.
The average flail snail stands 8 feet high at the top of its shell and 12 feet long, though the highly elastic nature of its flesh allows it to stretch out much farther. When threatened by an opponent not easily dispatched by its whirling tentacles, the flail snail can retract its entire body into its massive spiral shell, plugging the opening with its four rock-hard flails. These shells are frequently streaked with bright colors in patterns that differ between individuals; older snails tend to have larger shells with more elaborate markings, some of which may appear to resemble runes or symbols. Adult flail snails can weigh several thousand pounds, yet thanks to their slime they still manage to cling perfectly to the stone floors, walls, and even ceilings where they graze, feeding their prodigious bulk on fields of fungus, mold, and vermin. Though they have occasionally been known to consume carrion and the corpses of creatures they kill, this is generally believed to be due to lack of discrimination rather than malice, with the snail simply eating whatever it passes over out of habit.
Physically, flail snails differ from their lesser kindred only in their size, magical shells, and powerful antennae. Movement is achieved via a single enormous foot that takes up most of the underside of the snail’s body and pulls it along by expanding and contracting in muscular ripples aided by slimy secretions. Most of the snail’s day is spent eating with the help of a radula, a long ribbon of tongue studded with thousands of tiny tooth-like structures that act like a rasp, scraping organic matter from the stone and shredding it into pieces for digestion. The constant need to eat leads the snails to migrate frequently, either alone or in slow-moving colonies called routs, and any cavern or dungeon with sufficient organic matter growing on the walls is prime real estate to a flail snail, regardless of what any other inhabitants might think.
Like other slugs and snails, the tentacle-like protrusions on the flail snail’s head are its primary sensory organs, with the top pair sensing light and the lower providing the sense of smell and handling most tactile and fine manipulation duties. Both pairs can be retracted up to the horny growths at the end, and regrow in a month if lost. Even without these sensors, the snail can still move about reasonably well, as its suction with the ground allows it to sense its surroundings via tremors in the rock. This is especially useful since striking out with its powerful flails leads to them being easily damaged in combat.
Though the flail snail’s shell gets the most attention from adventurers and scholars, its slime trail is even more important to its defense and daily life. Like many other gastropods, the flail snail’s slime comes in two types: thin and slippery or thick and sticky. Both are effective at stopping those seeking to invade the snails’ territory, and allow the snails enough suction to climb walls and ceilings without faltering. Mixing the two even allows the snails to create a sticky rope capable of suspending them in the air, lowering themselves or climbing back up with astonishing ease.
Flail snails are born from clutches of up to 30 eggs stuck to cavern walls or buried beneath interesting objects (such as altars or lost treasure hordes). Fully hermaphroditic, flail snails begin their courtship ritual by extruding long, chitinous spears that they stab into each other’s flesh, injecting hormones signaling their intent. They then climb as a pair to the highest point available and begin copulating, lowering their entwined bodies on a massive rope of slime and hanging there for hours or days until mating is finished, at which point they may be forced to gnaw off their own reproductive organs in order to separate. Both individuals then lay egg clutches, and the hatchlings—which start out already shelled, the size of a human’s hand—are raised by the community, with no concept of lineage or heredity. Any flail snail sensing a hatchling in danger instantly rushes to its defense, regardless of personal peril. Matings happen sporadically and may be tied to available food sources, though the fact that flail snails appear to be able to live for hundreds or thousands of years makes reproduction a relatively rare occurrence. Under duress, flail snails have even been observed to retract into their shells and go into long periods of hibernation, making it possible that some of the snails currently active are far older than anyone realizes.
Of course, no discussion of the flail snail’s ecology would be complete without mention of its shell. A magnificent spiral construction several inches thick, the flail snail’s shell grows slowly over time, generated by an organ on the snail’s back known as its mantle, which in turn is fed by metals and minerals scraped in tiny amounts from the stone and ingested as part of the snail’s diet. The wide array of substances used to produce the shell appears to be at least partially responsible for the whorls of color and strange patterns that cover it, though the fact that these often glow after being targeted by magic suggests other factors as well.
Exactly how the shell manages to reflect magic has long baffled scholars, who have put forth numerous theories. Some suggest that it’s due to the ingestion and combination of various magically reactive metals used in the shell’s construction. Others posit that the shell is a focus for the snail’s own magical energies, and that by the whim of gods or evolution the snail has been restricted to using its powers in a retributive manner, an example of perfect natural balance. Still others maintain that the snail’s shell resonates with magic like a bell, acting as a sort of magical tuning fork whose vibration scatters the waves of energy. Perhaps the most compelling argument is that it’s not the shell’s composition that is key, but rather its shape. This theory holds that the flail snail shell has evolved in a perfect golden spiral, a shape long significant to arcanists and engineers, and that this shape manages to draw magic down into its center and then expel it again in a new direction, like a whirlpool or tornado.
Habitat & Society
With their slow, ponderous movement, flail snails are often written off as dumb beasts by faster-moving races, afforded the same cautious respect as a bull in a pasture but otherwise ignored. This casual disregard is a mistake, however, for behind the flail snail’s slug-like exterior lies an alien intelligence and thousands of years of racial history. Flail snail intelligence is not humanoid intelligence.
Most civilized humanoids tend to value speed and inference in their decision-making, traits born of an evolution as soft, delicate things in a world of powerful predators. As a creature of ultimate defense and slow movement, the flail snail has none of the same needs. Instead, its own unique brand of consciousness is correspondingly slow and placid, prone to the absorption of vast amounts of information rather than any need to process or leap to conclusions.
A typical human who managed to communicate with a flail snail might well find the conversation dull, with the snail viewing every thought and detail as separate and unrelated from the others. Yet those monks or other scholars used to such things might recognize in the snail’s koan-like observations a certain Zen poetry hinting at deeper revelations—and indeed, if enlightenment is judged by perfect calm and inherent peace of mind, then the meditative flail snail may yet have the advantage over humanity. Certainly their lives are more pastoral, free from war and the other “advances” of civilization.
Though they have no spoken language, flail snails communicate using two different means, both completely silent. The first, an elaborate sign language of waving tentacles, is primarily used for communicating immediate needs, warnings, and other messages that are quickly picked up and passed through the rout. The second and more in-depth form of communication is a complex chemical writing system encoded within the snail’s slime.
Every flail snail has its own unique chemical signature that makes its slime trail immediately recognizable to other snails. Within its trail, each snail records a running dialogue of its thoughts, observations, and memories in a complex interaction of scents that can linger on the stone long after the slime has dried to dust. Other snails can read this dense stream of information and edit it with their own trails, creating a vast, interwoven cultural narrative that at once contains the snails’ greatest art and the sum of their collective history. Together, the slime trails of two dozen snails weave epic tales worthy of any philosopher-poet.
Flail snails do not build structures or cities—perhaps because of their lack of fine manipulators, or merely because they’ve transcended such impulses—and instead roam the Darklands singly or in vast troupes, eating their fill, sleeping a few hours a day, and recording their endless songs in the glistening slicks of their passing.
Flail snails are perfect monsters to shake up subterranean adventures, especially for parties heavy on spellcasters. With their magic-warping shells, the snails add an element of randomness that can be fun and surprising for both GM and players, and force parties into new strategies. Because of their slow speed and ability to make vast swaths of ground almost impassable, flail snails make better guardians than active predators. Perhaps someone has hidden a powerful magic item or spellbook in the center of flail snail territory, knowing that those most likely to hunt for it—spellcasters—will have the hardest time breaking through the flail snails’ lines. And even those parties without a strong magical component are likely to balk at adhesive mucus and 2,000-pound snails dropping toward them from a great height on ropes of slime.
Flail snails are intelligent, and hence cannot be used as animal companions, but they can make great allies for other subterranean creatures. Mites, with their love of vermin, might relish riding slowly into combat on the armored back of a flail snail, and kobolds used to riding slurks might appreciate the snails’ ability to travel across floors and ceilings with equal ease, helping to set up traps and ambushes. Nor is the use of flail snails restricted to evil races—having little concept of good or evil themselves, the snails are equally likely to ally with svirfneblin or other deep-dwelling races. If a PC has the patience for it, a snail might even make a fun and unusual PC mount, though it should be noted that the snail’s shell does little to protect its rider, and anyone hoping to cling to the snail while upside down on the ceiling had better fashion some sort of harness, or else secure herself with snail slime.
Flail snails see little need for treasure, or even personal possessions, as their homes, weapons, and armor are all directly attached to their bodies. At most, a flail snail’s territory might contain items dropped by slain trespassers, and more artistic individuals occasionally affix colored gems to their shells with their sticky slime (though the majority consider this a desecration of the shell’s natural beauty). More than any physical object, flail snails value knowledge, history, and poetry, all gained and shared through their ascetic meanderings, and creatures capable of deciphering either of their means of communication might learn a great deal from the slow philosophers.
Yet when people speak of treasure and the flail snail, they inevitably speak of the shell. The armored spirals are a fundamental part of the snail’s exoskeleton, removable only after death, and many adventurers seek them out to harvest their magic-warping wonders—a practice which gives some snails a justifiably low opinion of humanoids. Removing a shell from a deceased snail is messy work, after which the looter must still find a way to carry several hundred pounds of shell out of the snail’s subterranean home. As the center of the shell seems to be the focus of the magic, it’s possible for a character with heavy tools or weapons to break the shell down to only the 50 pounds necessary for crafting armor and other magical pursuits, but doing so carries a 50% chance of destroying the shell’s powers completely. A functional flail snail shell can sell to a master smith or item crafter for up to 800 gp, though the flail snail’s intelligence makes hunting its kind a morally dubious act.
Despite its outward similarities to creatures like the giant slug or giant leech, the flail snail represents a divergent branch of evolution; neither of those distant relatives possesses the intelligence or magic-warping abilities that make the flail snail so unique. Already exceptionally rare, the flail snail’s only known variants are almost identical versions that roam the surface world individually or in pairs, or those water-breathing aquatic versions that live deep under the sea or along rocky, turbulent coastlines.
Additional Ecology Section 15: Pathfinder Campaign Setting: Misfit Monsters Redeemed. Copyright 2010, Paizo Publishing, LLC; Authors: Adam Daigle, Crystal Frasier, Colin McComb, Rob McCreary, Jason Nelson, and James L. Sutter.