I’ve been reading a lot more older D&D books for some reason; most of the findings aren’t unexpected: adversarial GMing, emphasis of the dungeon as the primary campaigning grounds, random charts, and other joys of the Old School Revival. There’s been a few gems. Mostly it’s interesting to see how the game developed—I’m probably behind the curve here, since everyone else was doing that back in 2008, when 4e launched and Gygax/Arneson died, but the Next playtest triggered D&D nostalgia in me. Anyways.
Skimming through my 1st Edition AD&D Monster Manual, I find I can lump its contents into three rough groups:
- Mundane creautres: boring crap like mules and giant beavers, dinosaurs, megafauna (e.g., non-dinosaur extinct creatures, like saber-tooth tigers and giant sloths), etc. Regardless of their impressive cultures and tendency to stockpile trade valuables, Dire Lynxes and Giant Beavers are still mundane.
- Traditional fantasy staples: demons, genies, faeries, creatures from ancient myth (medusa, hydra), dragons, etc. Things that were taken directly from mythology,
- FUCKING WEIRD SHIT.
By the latter, I mean the nonsensical creations made especially for D&D. I’ve always liked these more than the others because they’re so out there, and even though you can tell they were made either a.) because it sounded cool or b.) to do something related to the “game” aspect of roleplaying games, that weirder stuff feels the more D&D than the dragons and demons and other basic critters. At the least, they’ve been such a big part of the game’s history because they were made for the game.
Some examples of what I’m thinking of when I say FUCKING WEIRD after the break:
Such as these, the ones found below. There are others. I either don’t like them or forgot they existed. Or, in the cases of Mind Flayers and Aboleths… clearly Lovecraftian, which means they rock out. (A note: I’ve read Head Injury Theater’s take on stupid D&D monsters several times, as well as WTF? D&D, but I didn’t use them as references or anything. I was going for less stupid and more crazy-weird, the ones that have struck me as being particularly iconic or memorable and iconic to D&D.)
Call it a boo-LAY like Gygax tells us, call it a bullet because that’s what it looked like, call it a landshark and make some witty SNL references. This doober is the Bullete, literally a landshark; imagine a cross between an armadillo and a snapping turtle with a wolverine’s personality that “swims” through the earth. They burrow up and eat the surprised morsels they encounter (except elves, who they won’t deign to devour). Why do they exist? A wizard did it. Because it was freaking cool.
Legend has it Gygax bought some cheap Taiwanese “dinosaur” toys and used them as D&D monster inspiration. I had one of those Taiwanese Bullete-inspiring figures for a long time until, not knowing what it was, I was persuaded by my parents to get rid of my unused plastic dinosaur in a garage sale. Dog-chewed as it was, I still wish I had the thing.
Question: What happens when the DM decides the players have too much treasure, probably because he rolled too high on a random table? Answer: they get attacked by a bug with a propeller-beanie tail and two feathery antennae. Another of Gygax’s dinosaur toys. I love and hate the Rust Monster because of its nonsensical ecological role: it’s a construct of the D&D world, without a shred of reality beyond its design as a way to damage the players’ most valuable assets—their stuff. Hit points you can heal; +5 longswords don’t grow on trees. It’s something that can only exist in Gygaxian dungeons, which are themselves entirely artificial constructs. Making it quintessential D&D.
Too many D&D monsters consist of “Animal A + Animal B = Monster Manual entry,” most often making a creature that’s somehow less dangerous than either of its two progenitors. (Many of these follow the Law of Bad Puns, such as the Seawolf and Sealion and Seahorse and all sorts of other awful stupid aquatic entries). The Owlbear is a great example: makes no sense, is less capable/dangerous than its combined parents, yet is LOVING COOL. These things are inane. A feathery bear with a beak and talons. Yet I love them; they’re one of the few nonsensical old-D&D monsters that look more and more badass in each subsequent edition.
Then we have the exceptions, most often bad puns or concepts that take utter banality or sheer inanity and run wild with them. This, friends, Romans, countrymen, is a Flail Snail. See, um, because a flail is a medieval bashing weapon and it rhymes comically with snail, ergo sigh. Not every weird monster was as bad as the flail snail. Some were worse. If I had to pick a truly awful monster, I’d go with flail snails as my favorite, because in a realm of weird-ass D&D monsters that don’t make sense, flail snails don’t make any goddamn sense. They just are. Gliding forth on a film of snotty slime, battering away with their mace-headed… heads… Yeah. You wouldn’t expect to be attacked by something this dumb either, which is why I like them.
Ankhegs. Giant bugs that burst out of the ground to surprise and eat you. Same thing the Bullete does, but instead of an armored bulldog-gator, it’s just a big damn bug. They’re dangerous because they freaking spit acid and can melt you into goo. Why? Why not?
Rot Grubs are a good example at early D&D monster design: they’re simply there for the DM to have pop out and kill you, for whatever perceived slight against the world you were guilty of. After they hit you, burrowing into your skin, you have 1-3 rounds to burn them out of the wound with torches (taking damage from that, by the by) before these things ate their way to your heart and killed you. In short, a dick-move DM monster. To be fair, since the main way to get them was to stick your hands in poop, you probably had it coming. Everyone knows you use your ten-foot pole to probe that poop-pile for scrolls and magic gems.
Since you’ve gotten me onto a poop-based track, you savage, how about another offal-related monster? It’s the Otyugh (pronunciation key costs extra); a big mouth with two spiky tentacles and a third tentacle with three eyes on it. It lives in trash piles and the local landfill, eating trash, seagulls, and the hobos who wander in at night. Oddly, they can communicate telepathically, so you could make an allegiance with the thing—provide it with extra trash (not like there’s plenty of that in a dungeon) in exchange for safe passage or whatever. We’ll leave the mobile dumpster/incinerator be and move on.
And a third poop monster: the Carrion Crawler. A giant grub—its only natural enemy is the dire starling—that lives in dungeons, lurks around sewers and trash pits, and attacks adventurers poking around for loot in the outhouse. (I’m beginning to think D&D adventurers are sword-and-sorcery equivalent of privy diggers. In a world where a +1 longsword is a dime a dozen, finding one in an ancient outhouse makes a certain kind of sense; it’s less dangerous to run the ancient sewer system I guess.) What makes the crawler interesting is that those tentacles can paralyze you, allowing it to go to town on your innards. Why? Really? You’re questioning the logic of a grub fifteen feet long that lives in sewers?
Gygax loved him some pulp fiction. Being a treasure-trove of different giant monsters, he took inspiration from many of its sources—such as A.E. van Vogt’s classic space opera, The Voyage of the Space Beagle. Its adversary was an alien monster, a big purple psychic cat with tentacles, that was smarter than most of the protagonists, capable of phasing through floors and walls and surviving off a creature’s Id (potassium). Gygax gave it extra legs, had it appear several feet away from where it was in reality, got rid of the phasing and potassium stuff, and called it the Displacer Beast. One of my all-time favorite monsters, and still considered part of the brand’s intellectual property.
It’s… a meatball crossed with the cacodemons from DOOM, growing extra eyes like an overripe potato! No, it’s the Beholder, one of the most dangerous monsters in the game. Each of the eyes can shoot out a different magical effect… all of which are pretty damn deadly, either auto-kills or save-or-sucks or other things to disable adventuring parties. It floats several feet off the ground, bobbing towards you like a meatball from hell. It has a central eye that radiates an anti-magical aura, so your spells can’t touch it. That mouth is full of razor-sharp teeth. It’s big and bold and deadly. Later editions went full-bore crazy on Beholder variants, including Beholders that can gain levels in wizard like a player, and the undead spellcasting Beholders. (That’s not getting into the aquatic Beholders, or the stupid ones that look like trees.)
Going back to the rot grubs for a moment. A lot of early D&D monster design followed that dick-move mentality: monsters that attack in ways no sane person should expect coming. Why? Because. Players not on their toes? Need to teach those characters a lesson? Not giving the DM their complete attention, or giving him sass, or did something rewarding of DM punishment? Well then, let’s have the ceilings attack.
Or have the floors put them in their place.
Or how about their treasure chests? That ought to show the greedy little buggers. Teach them to be on their toes next time, so they prod it with their ten-foot pole, or send the hireling to open it.
See what I mean about absolutely inane design that’s more reflective of the game and its meta-elements than a functioning fantasy world? These last three have adapted to live in the most artificial type of terrain known to man, the dungeon, and are horribly artificial (and meta) themselves: NOTHING WOULD EVER EVOLVE TO BE LIKE THAT. Outside of a dungeon environment, of course. All three break down to “you are grabbed by scenery, and must fight for your life before it can smother/digest you.” Not a pretty way to go, let me tell you. (Countless players pontificate on the logistics of how the first two work: does a Lurker turn into a Trapper once it’s fallen down to the floor? Does it have to climb all the way back up to the ceiling to attack again? Does anybody care?)
Similarly, there’s a monster that looks like the Beholder, but isn’t… it’s a giant gas spore balloon thing that—because you stabbed it thinking it was an all-powerful Beholder and wanted to jump that sucker—pops open and disperses toxic gas all over, killing everybody. That’s so meta. And similar to the mimic was the bag of devouring—it looks like a magical bag of holding, a limitless storehouse for your party’s gold and loot and food and stuff, but instead, everything that goes into it gets eaten up and turned into bag poop. Yay! Or how about the Piercer, which looked like a stalactite, until it dropped down and killed/ate you?
The trend has continued with modern editions, too; 3.x had (amongst other things) sentient collectives of clothes that could take over your brain, and one of the early Pathfinder modules had a monster that looked like a dagger… but really, all it did was sit around and spy on you.
Speaking of things that look like other things and exist only to kill unsuspecting players:
I can kind of understand the “evil monster that looks like scenery” part. In the original illustration, the eyes looked like flowers, the “feet” more like roots, etc. BUT. Why does it have a fanged vagina running down its side? (“Hey Bob, stay away from that stump, it’s got a fanged vagina on it.”) I’d actually push for the rabbit part to tip up like a hat to reveal a fanged mouth, and the tentacle-eyes push unsuspecting creatures into the hole where the rabbit used to be, but that might be me trying to get too far away from the nightmare-fuel that would drive hardened D&D adventurers to celibacy.
Umber Hulk. Subterranean? Check. Giant bug? Check. Two animals jammed together? Traditionally “Beetle + Ape,” so check. Strange semi-magical powers? Check, in this case confusion. You can tell a D&D monster from a really weird mythological monster (like, say, chimera or manticores or peryton) because in the hodge-podge that is its description and appearance you’ll find some recurring themes. D&D started as a subterranean game with all the dungeons, so that will recurring theme will prolly always be in there; the giant bugs getting semi-magical powers part just made for interesting opponents.
One more for the road.
Here we have a giant, four-legged brain called the Intellect Devourer. Its mental powers of dominance are so powerful that it can dominate people and ride them around in their head. It subsists on their psychic auras, lives underground (duh!), and is a real pain to kill—if you’re dominated, you’re now its thrall. And you have to go through its existing thralls to get to the Intellect Devourer, so it’s the surprise boss battle after you’ve had a boss battle. It makes for interesting encounters when the dude you thought was a bad guy was just some sap mind-jacked by a being from beyond your reality, enacting its plans by proxy, riding the doof around like a trained monkey. Then the Devourer jumps out, and it’s a high-level wizard… or worse, disciple of the psionic spheres. Surprise! Roll for initiative.