Varanids in GURPS

The varanids: Goannas, monitors, and leguaans

The varanids are known as goannas, monitor lizards, or leguaans. They are powerful predators, ranging in size from tiny 10 cm long insect eaters such as the short tailed goanna to 3 meter long leopard sized mega-predators, such as the Komodo dragon. Most species are mid sized predators and scavengers, occupying a similar niche to wildcats, foxes, badgers, otters, and martens. Goannas are found in habitats as varied as jungles, open forests, swamps, broken savanna, rocky hills, wastelands, scrub, open plains, bone-dry deserts, rivers, lakes, and sea shores.

The goanna is a striking reptile. Its pebbly skin hangs in loose folds about its neck and body. The body is powerfully built, with massive legs ending in thick, curved claws. A broad, triangular head filled with sharp, flesh tearing teeth is held aloft by a thick but elongated neck. The throat can be greatly distended to bolt huge chunks of meat or warn off adversaries. The eyes are heavily lidded and dark, while a long forked tongue flickers in and out of the powerful jaws when the goanna is on the move, or just interested or excited. The tail is long and muscular, flattened from side to side and flexible almost to the point of prehensileness. The goanna walks with a confident and swaggering gait, holding its massive body well clear of the ground with only the feet and tip of the tail touching the earth when moving.

Goannas are skilled at most means of locomotion. With their powerful bodies and well developed limbs, they can run well for short distances. Goannas are adept swimmers, and can often be found many kilometers from shore, heading toward some unknown destination. They are also agile climbers, and although some species tend to stay out of the trees as adults, all are more than capable of pursuing prey up trees and of scaling sheer cliffs and rock faces. Further, goannas are powerful diggers. With strong forelimbs and large claws, they can rip through hardened dirt and shovel it out of the way. Some goannas even dig through concrete-hard termite nests in order to lay their eggs inside (the termites keep the inside of the nest at an ideal temperature and humidity for developing goanna embryos, and do not bother the eggs).

Goannas have an uncanny sense of smell. It is their primary means of identification. They also use it to track prey, locate prey (even prey buried some distance underground), and keep tabs on the other goannas in their territory. They do not smell by inhaling air through the nostrils like we do, rather they flick their tongues out. This picks up odor chemicals from the air or surface of whatever the tongue touches. When the tongue is withdrawn, the odors are conveyed to a sensitive chemosensory organ on the roof of the mouth. The tongue is forked, by sensing which fork has a stonger concentration of odors, the goanna can follow scent gradients.

Goannas have acute vision, but their ability to recognize objects by sight is limited. Rather, they rely on vision to detect moving prey and to avoid threats. Goanna vision is adapted to work best in daylight, they have poor vision at night. The hearing of goannas is good for a reptile, but nowhere near the mammalian norm. They can hear mid ranged sounds well (such as rustling grass or footsteps) but cannot detect high or low frequency sounds. This is sufficient to alert them to the presence of predators and prey, but not for communication or identification by sound.

Goannas are regarded as among the most intelligent of the reptiles. Certainly, they have complex behavior and will form pair bonds, guard their nests, and recognize and react to each other as individuals. Captive goannas are observed to learn very quickly, and some have been taught simple tricks. This elevated intelligence is tempered by other typical reptilian limitations, however. Goannas have no emotional awareness. They are incapable of understanding the feelings and motivations of others. They will never be able to guess what an owner wants them to do, nor can they understand that something they do may cause another pain. Also, like all reptiles, the ability of goannas to recognize items by sight is quite limited. Although they are better in this regard than most reptiles, capable of recognizing simple objects and even some individuals visually, they mostly rely on odor for identification. Many keepers learn of this limitation the painful way - if a goanna can smell food or otherwise recognizes that food is nearby, and if it is hungry, it will tend to strike at whatever is nearby and moving - including their keeper's hands.

If threatened, a goanna will try to find shelter, either diving into a burrow or under water or by climbing high into a tree. If escape is impossible, the goanna will puff its body up, stand as high as possible, flatten its ribcage to present the maximum area to its antagonist, distend its throat, arch its neck, and cock its tail for use as a club and whip while emitting a deep, loud hiss. It may stand on its hind legs, bracing itself with its tail; or it may turn toward its antagonist with gaping jaws before lunging. Anyone getting too close will likely be subject to blows from the goanna’s tail. If this does not keep an antagonist at a safe distance, a goanna may employ teeth and claws in its defense. If grabbed, the goanna will attempt to bite and deficate on its assailant. The long and flexible neck allows them to twist and bite the hand or wrist unless the neck is restrained. Once picked up off the ground, the goanna will scrabble to get away by placing the hind legs on the arms, hands, or wrists of their captor and pushing off. As long as the captor keeps hold, this will draw the hind claws back through this skin, causing painful but shallow lacerations. Assume that this does half normal claw damage; against bare skin round 1 point of damage up, but if long sleeves and gloves are worn round down. The recommended way to hold a wild goanna of 1.5 meters or smaller is to grip the neck and shoulders with one hand with the other hand restraining the hind legs and the tail tucked under the arm. To safely restrain a goanna of greater size requires several men and possibly lassos and duct tape (for the mouth). The bites of goannas often turn septic - treat this as if infected material (goanna spit) is introduced into the wound for a HT+1 roll to resist infection. They also contain a mild venom. Although of little danger to a healty adult, they inhibit coagulation of the blood and cause a decrease in blood pressure (possibly leading to hypovolumic shock in small or susceptible individuals). Each bite, or each second of biting during a bite to grapple, delivers another dose. Do not apply the damage from multiple doses separately, instead

Goannas are hunters and scavengers. They will take the most putrid of corpses, but will also hunt game much larger than themselves. Opportunists, they devour any food they can find with a ravenous and often messy enthusiasm. Goannas will dig up human corpses to scavenge, raid trap and fish lines, break into caches of stored food and garbage containers, and in general make nuisances of themselves. As youngsters, they hunt insects, worms, and snails. When they get older, they begin to hunt larger game. All goannas are fond of eggs, and will raid the nests of birds and of other reptiles including those of the mighty crocodiles. Goannas will even eat smaller goannas, if they can catch them. Goannas locate much of their food with their acute sense of smell. They will track injured or sick game, find and dig up burrowing animals, buried eggs and corpses, and can smell a rotting carcass from kilometers away. Goannas will often hunt from ambush, bursting from cover to catch their quarry by surprise. They can also be opportunistic and active foragers, ranging widely to locate food to fuel their activity. Large prey is ripped apart messily with teeth, vigorous thrashing, and raking with the claws. Remarkably large chunks will be bolted down. Smaller prey is generally eaten in once piece, either crammed into their gaping maws or thrown down the gullet with a series of backward head tosses. Goannas will gorge themselves until bloated, and then lie in the sun to sleep off their meal.

Goannas spend much of their time either basking in the sun or on warm rocks or foraging for food. At night they sleep in burrows, hollows in trees, crevices between rocks, or between tree roots. In regions that experience a season of cold or drought, goannas will go into a semi-dormant state, alert but not moving in their retreats unless they are disturbed. They emerge in the season of plenty, ravenous from their fast. Goannas have the highest endurance of all the reptiles, reaching nearly mammalian levels of aerobic capacity. With sophisticated lungs, blood chemistry, and a high pressure, four chambered heart they can keep active for long periods of time, allowing them to forage widely and fight long and hard.

Goannas sometimes tolerate the presence of other goannas of the same size, but are not really social. They often gather in large groups around a carcass to feed. In any aggregation, there will be a rough dominance hierarchy based on size, strength, and intimidation. Dominant individuals get first access to food and will often chase and harass less dominant individuals. During the mating season, males will engage in ritual wrestling matches to win females. This is similar in many ways to the human sport of Judo.The combatants will rear up on their hind legs and grapple each other, and each will try to throw the other to the ground.

Females bury their eggs in soil, piles of compost, or termite mounds. They guard their nests for a few days, and will remember the nest location until it hatches. The father may stick around for a while, guarding the female and the nest. However, any other goanna that found the eggs would happily devour the entire clutch. When the young hatch, they disperse and require no parental care. The hatchlings often stay together in the same general area until they mature, occupying the same tree or rock pile, for example.

Game Statistics

choose a species:
Species miniscule
200 g
500 g
1 kg
4 kg
10 kg
25 kg
45 kg
100 kg
200 kg
enter weight
Bengal Monitor

Black Tailed Goanna

Jungle Leguaan

Komodo Dragon

Lace Goanna

Megalania (extinct)

Pacific Monitor


Ridge Tailed Goanna

Rock Leguaan

Salvator Monitor

Sand Goanna

Tree Crocodile Monitor

Water Leguaan

Yellow Spot Goanna

The radio button entries in the table above give realistic sizes of the monitor species of that row. If you want a specimen outside that range, enter the weight in kg manually.

Marking the T? checkbox will give you the stats in template form with all costs listed, otherwise you get a stat sheet as for a character.

Marking the HR? checkbox will print the information using all my house rules. Otherwise, the stats will be as compatable with plain vanilla GURPS as possible (although several custom advantages and disadvantages will be present, see my Traits page).

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