On the origin of D&D species

It is no secret that the classic character races in Dungeons & Dragons, consisting of human, elf, dwarf, and halfling, are taken from The Lord of the Rings, as well as the standard enemies of orcs and goblins. However, a huge number of other creatures from the many Monster Manuals are neither original creations, nor taken from various mythologies as well. A great number of monsters and critters has been lifted directly from literature, a method that was at least continued until 2000 with the first Monster Manual for the 3rd Edition. Which is a completely legitimate thing to do, and there are countless of appearances in videogames of creatures that are very clearly beholders, which are one of the most famous original creations of D&D.

However, as I’ve been reading some older fantasy stories this year, I had a number of “Hey, I know that thing!” moments, and I think it would be interesting to share those.

  • The “Prehistoric Animals” Toys: These are probably the best known group by now. I don’t know who exactly is responsible for their creation, but the rust monster, bullete, and owlbear are all based on cheap plastic toy monsters from Hong Kong. Toni DiTerlizzi wrote a very good article about them last year. The carrion crawler is also based on a similar plastic monster from a different source.
  • Grimlocks: I was actually quite surprised to learn that apparently grimlocks appear only in very few cases outside of D&D. I had been kind of asuming that they were based on some local legend somewhere in Europe, but apparently they are simply a slightly altered version of the morlocks from the 1895 novel “The Time Machine” by H.G. Wells.
  • Thri-kreen: These are one of the iconic creatures of the Dark Sun setting, but actually they are based very closely on the tharks from the novel “A Princess of Mars” by Edgar Burroughs, which was released in 1917. They are tall, green, have two legs and four arms, a pair of big tusks, big eyes, can jump very high and far, and are a nomadic people of the desert. The only major change in Dark Sun was to make them insectoid, while the tharks of Mars seem to be more reptilian, if anything.
  • Girallon: These monsters first appeared in the Monster Manual for the 3rd Edition and are both relative newcomers and not particularly popular in D&D. However, they are also taken stright from “A Princess of Mars” as well, where they are simply called White Apes. Giant gorillas with white fur and four arms. There is really no room for ambiguity there.
  • Purple Worm: Giant subterranean worms like these appear in H.P. Lovecrafts story “The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath” from 1929, where they are called dholes. A similar concept appears in the sand worms of Frank Herberts 1965 novel “Dune”.
  • Yuan-ti: The resamblance of Yuan-ti to the naga of Southeast-Asia is easy to see, but the specific details of these creatures are very close matches to the Serpent Men, who appear in several stories by Robert Howard. They first seem to have appeared in the 1929 story “The Shadow Kingdom”, where they are a race of humanoids with snake heads, who have the ability to disguise themselves as humans and many magical powers, and worship the gods Set and the Great Serpent. The 1932 story “Worms of the Earth” also has what would be a yuan-ti pureblood.
  • Elder Brain: The Elder Brains of the ilithids, though not the ilithids themselves, appear first in the 1930 novel “Last and First Men” by Olaf Stapledon. In the book, they are the Fourth Men and control the Fifth Men, which are very much unlike mind flayers.
  • Kuo-toa: While many of the specific abilites of the kuo-toa are unique to the creature from D&D, these creatures are very closely based on the Deep Ones, that first appeared in the story “The Shadow over Innsmouth”, which was written by H.P. Lovecraft in 1931.
  • Gibbering Mouther: The creature that appears in D&D as the gibbering mouther is a severely downgraded version of the Shoggoth, another famous monster from Lovecrafts stories, which had its first appearance in “At the Mountains of Madness” from 1931.
  • Grell: A creature looking pretty much identical to a grell except for the color appears on one edition of the “Legion of Space” by Jack Williamson, which was written in 1934. In the story, the creatures are called medusae.
  • Worg: The creature, as it appears in D&D, is basically identical to the wargs from Tolkiens “The Hobbit”, which was published in 1937.
  • Displacer Beast: These creatures are based on the ceurl from the 1950 sci-fi novel “The Voyage of the Space Beagle”. They also appear in many Final Fantasy games under their original name.
  • Xill: The xill is a rather obscure monster in D&D, even though they have been around since the original Fiend Folio and reappeared both in Planescape and the 3rd edition Monster Manual. Like the displacer beast, they are taken from “The Voyage of the Space Beagle”, where their name is ixtl.
  • Frost Worm: The frost worm first appeared under the name remora in the 1969 story “The Lair of the Ice Worm” by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter. It’s practically identical in every aspect.
  • Spider Eater: This monster is strongly based on the sith from the Barsoom novel “The Warlord of Mars”.
  • Lich: The classic undead wizard is not an original creation by any specific author, but is indeed a figure from slavic legend. Koshei the Deathless is a powerful sorcerer so ancient that his body has decayed to almost nothing but a starved skeleton, and who has gained immortality by hiding away his soul in a magical box which is safely secured in a secret place.

Ancient Lands: Cleaning out the Bestiary

The bestiary for the Ancient Lands is taking shape nicely. Selecting the wildlife and monsters for a setting is a part of worldbuilding I find particularly interesting, but doesn’t seem to be given much attention most of the time. There seems to be a common tendency to throw in pretty much every beast and critter the creators find interesting, but personally I think that’s something that doesn’t really work well. I’ve been reading through the old AD&D monster manuals again some time ago, and those who always surprise me the most are the Forgotten Realms appendices. Those are meant to cover creatures specifc to the setting that are not covered by the regular monster books. However most of them ended up completely forgotten and never mentioned again in other books, box sets, and 3rd edition. It’s not enough to simply write up a creature, it also needs to be woven into the rest of the setting and become part of it.

Take for example Dark Sun, which has the kang, mekillot, and inix, which barely resemble any animals found on earth and have no special abilities. But they are memorable because they have a very important role. They are the horses and camels of the setting, which are used by everyone who is sane enough to not try crossing the desert on foot. Eberron has such unique creatures as the quori and the warforged, which could easily be dismissed as silly ideas, but are among the best known features of the setting because they play an important role in the world. Dinosaurs are implied to be existing in some remote regions in almost all D&D settings, but only in Eberron is their presence really acknowledged. By having a race of deinonychus riding halfling barbarians!

Quality goes over quantity, and I vastly prefer the approach of not adding anything to a setting unless it is relevant in some way.

Continue reading “Ancient Lands: Cleaning out the Bestiary”

Note to self: Take better notes

I was just updating my monster manual for the Ancient Lands and found a note that I still need to write stats for the Sand Bision.

I have no idea what a sand bison is.

The next item on the list is a Riding Goat, so it’s probably some kind of actual bovine, but I havn’t the slightest clue what I could have meant with the name. There aren’t even any deserts in the Ancient Lands!

Update: I believe I simply meant an upsized version of the regular old musk ox.

musk-ox-vegan

Fantastic Bestiary and Locations

I’ve been running a gallery for collecting pictures of exotic and interesting looking fantasy creatures for some time, and now added another one for unusual and evocative landscapes. With most of the images I have not the slightest ideas how I would use them for my campaign, but I’d really like to do so one day.

You can check them out here:

tumblr_mzkgx1CoqQ1r426wco1_1280Fantastic Bestiary

tumblr_n374rxTjKW1tx4l4ho1_1280Fantastic Locations

Fantasy Safari: Fiend Folio (AD&D 1st Edition), Part 1

This time I am starting with Fiend Folio for AD&D 1st Edition by TSR, 1981; 89 pages of monsters.

FiendFolioCoverProbably the most famous and most highly regarded monster book there is. Even I, who never had huge praise for AD&D and consider lots of old D&D monsters to be just rediculous and dumb to a degree that it isn’t even funny, have to admit that this book is really quite amazing. I am a huge fan of monster books of any game and any edition, and I have to kind of admit that in the last 32 years, there hasn’t really been any book that has surpassed this classic in the amount of brilliant new creatures it contains.

Continue reading “Fantasy Safari: Fiend Folio (AD&D 1st Edition), Part 1”

That’s no ordinary rabbit!

I got this idea watching a video about Machine for Pigs a few days ago, in which the primary enemies are pigmen. For some reason it got me thining about werwolves, probably because a half-man-half-pig is similar to a half-man-half-wolf. However, one is a person afflicted by a disease that makes him turn under the light of the full moon and invulnerable to anything but silver, while the other is an alchemically warped hybrid of two creatures that doesn’t have any of these special traits.

With a werwolf, you know exactly what you are dealing with. You know what caused it, what triggered it, how the creature behaves, and how to kill it. But while a pigman might also stalk the night an brutally tear its victims to pieces, you don’t know anything about its behavior patterns and how it can be killed. And that’s the key to making horror monsters. Fear is essentially a response to not knowing how to respond to a dangrous situation. When you understand the danger, you can deal with it in a safe way, or at least get yourself out of harms way. You are in control of the situation, so there is no reason to fear.

So when it comes to creating or using horror creatures, it’s vital that the players do not know what they are dealing with. And I think it might be even more effective if the players think they know what they are dealing with and that they are in control of the situation, only to have them realize that the weapons and protective items they brought don’t do anything against the creature. Right now, I really want to make a short adventure in which an unseen creature attacks people during nights of the full moon, leaves behind mangled corpses, and is only seen as a shaggy bipedal shape that jumps in great leaps over roofs and walls. But then it keeps attacking even after the full moon has passed and its entirely unaffected by silver and wolfsbane. Which the players will only realize once they sprung their trap and have the beast cornered.

Fantasy Safari: Bestiary of the Hyborian Age, Part 2

Starved Ones are basically zombies or ghouls who are constantly decaying at a relative rapid rate, losing 10% of their hit points every day. They regain their full strength and can regenerate decayed or lost body parts by eating the matching parts and organs of a dead creature. However, the newly regrowing organ will have the appearance of the organ that was consumed, not the form of the originally lost parts.
There’s some potential here, but I think how scary they will actually be depends a lot on the GMs imagination for what kinds of corpses the starved ones are feeding.

Tentacle Spawn are rather weak demons but tend to appear in large numbers. They are not actually individual creatures but rather just the ends of tentacles of much more massive and horrible beings from beyond this world, which often come grasping through portals much to small to allow the passage of the abominations entire body. I think they are making a great addition to encounters with evil sorcerers and the like and are more part of a dangerous environment than actual enemies themselves. Still, treating them as individual creatures would probably make a good job to make them appear as real threats.
The Black Spawn of Jullah (see part 1) serve as conduits to the realms of otherworldly horrors and can let tentacle spawn burst from their bodies.

Continue reading “Fantasy Safari: Bestiary of the Hyborian Age, Part 2”

Fantasy Safari: Bestiary of the Hyborian Age, Part 1

I love monster books. To me they are clearly the greatest thing about RPGs. Most of the books I have are monster books, many even for games I don’t play. But when I flip through them, I often just look at the illustration and read the first few lines of text before I get bored with a creature that seems completely uninspired and overdone, and continue to the next one. But occasionally, there are creatures that are actually quite interesting and unique if you really give them a chance. And sometimes their greatness is immediately visible from the first second.

Over the next weeks, I want to return to many of the old monster books that I’ve pretty much forgotten about, and maybe occasionally pick up some new ones, to go hunting for rare and exotic creatures that you rarely get to see.

Conan - Bestiary of the Hyborian Age
Conan – Bestiary of the Hyborian Age

Today, I am starting with Conan d20 – Bestiary of the Hyborian Age by Mongoose Publishing, 2008.

The Black Fiend is the first creature in the book which actually is somewhat interesting. A black fiend is a roughly human-shaped demon that can pass for a human at a distance and in the dark, but has horns, claws, fangs, and pointed ears, that clearly mark it as a monster. They prefer to stay in darkness and often wear dark cloaks and hoods to hide their demonic nature from casual observers. They are not particularly powerful, but very stealthy, which makes them good assassins, and also have a great talent for sorcery, and many are spellcasters who can be summoned to learn rare and exotic spells from them. I think it’s the combination of being both an assassin and spellcasters, that makes the black fiend a bit more than just another demonic looking man.

On the first look, the Black Spawn of Jullah are just another type of large demon that look like large black apes with fur that seems to be permanently soaked in blood. As servants of the ape god, they can produce a roar that will summon large numbers of actual apes from the surrounding jungles to attack their enemies. An even weirder trait is their ability to use their own bodies as a kind of portal to hell, allowing tentacles and tendrils of some hellish abominations to burst through their bloody fur and grasp and bash at their enemies.
The black spawn looks like a generic evil ape, but I think figting one of these will actually get quite frightening to players when they suddenly find themselves swarmed by large apes from all directions and the tentacles burst from the beasts bodie. I think I want to use these ones in my campaign.

A Bodiless Slimer is a demon made of almost insubstential slime that is also entirely invisible. They are very hard to detect and to injure and can also use a breath of flames in addition to their normal attack of grappling and choking their victims. Before a fight, they use a kind of subconscious telepathy to demoralize their enemies. These could make for interesting encouters, but the creature itself is rather bland. Continue reading “Fantasy Safari: Bestiary of the Hyborian Age, Part 1”