I love monsters. I love the design, the ecology, the origin stories. Monsters are awesome.
It’s unfortunate then that I don’t like horror movies for… everything that’s not the monsters: the gore, the jump scares, the psychological aspect and in modern movies, the gratuitous and constant torture scenes.
Luckily, there are other places for me to get my monster fix. You might have noticed my love of giant monsters (kaiju), and of course fantasy monsters. And when I think ‘fantasy monster’, I think D&D.
Now, based on the title of this blog, you might expect this to be another article making fun of the many, many goofy monsters that have inhabited D&D over its long history. While you would be right, this article isn’t just about mocking dumb monsters, but analyzing them to see why they’re lame while other monsters are awesome. If you want an article purely about dumb monsters, I direct you here.
And let me just say right now, D&D does have some seriously kick-ass monsters. Beyond just the cool monsters lifted from mythology (and forgiving the stupid ones that should have been left there—looking at you, catobelapas), you’ve got gray renders, krenshars, displacer bears, mind flayers, bullettes, and beholders. I was going to include yaunti, but I’m not sure if they’re unique to D&D.
The thing you have to understand though is that D&D is a game born from nerds. If you’re reading this, I can assume you are a nerd, so I’m just going to tell this like it is: you know how we are. We love in-jokes. We love goofy, high concept ideas. We like ludicrous things and if left to our own devices, we will try and slip all of the above into bits and pieces of our daily lives. There is a reason this article exists and why you want to buy at least three items on there (full disclosure: I bought myself some gallium. Yes, that’s where your money for my books goes. Money well spent.).
As you can imagine, when a pair of super-nerds took a look at their already super-nerdy war game hobby and decided to make it about elves and wizards, we went to hyper-nerd—no, I take it back…
I would honestly be more worried if the original game didn’t contain wanton dumbassery like a giant snail that had spiked clubs for a head called a flail snail, or if the prototypical Killer DM, E. Gary Gygax didn’t manage to come up with so many monsters who were ambush predators that looked like mundane things that it was entirely possible to enter a room only to find that the ceiling, floor, walls, treasure chest, door, and cloak you found there were all monsters trying to kill you. It’s just to be expected.
But then there are the monsters that really seem like they were trying and yet completely failed at making a halfway decent monster. There are lessons to be learned here about what even makes a good monster in the first place.
One note before we dive in: I’m writing this without knowing if decent images are available. I’m trying to step away from using dubiously copyrighted or fair-use’d images here (hence my greater reliance on linking Youtube vids), so while I’m hoping to have images here, we might be going without. Just in case, I will be describing the monsters in question. Actually, your brains will be lucky if I don’t get pictures of some of these bastards.
Let’s get started then, shall we?
There is no more straightforward dumb monster. The owlbear is a combination of owl and bear. If you just imagined a badass flying bear as silent as an owl with incredible vision and hooked talons for ensnaring its prey, guess again.
Nope, the owlbear is a bear with an owl’s head, feathers along its upper torso and non-functional wings that end in bear claws in place of their forelegs. Often, the feathers are brown, so it really just looks like a bear with a beak.
Legend has it that Gygax and Arneson came up with a lot of monsters by making up monstrous origins from a bag of plastic ‘Prehistoric Monster’ toys. I believe this, as I have that same set as a kid, complete with an ankylosaur with plastic bits hanging off its tail (the supposed inspiration for the cool-for-story, awful-for-games monster, the rust monster), something that I think was meant to be a protoceratops that looks exactly like a bulltette, and a megatherium.
Assuming that you did not both a) grow up obsessed with dinosaurs and b) do so during a time in which prehistoric mammals were considered dinosaurs, a megatherium is also known as the giant ground sloth. In addition to having freaking chainmail made of bone under their skin, they had longish muzzles that might be confused with a short beak in miniature, and long, thick claws, which on the toy did look like clawed flippers. Assuming Gary and Dave had knocked back a few… yeah, I can see where the owlbear came from.
It’s actually been part of the game through all of its iterations, hanging on even as other dumb monsters faded into obscurity. I have a few guesses why, but the most fun is that it’s a starter dumb monster. If you can’t take the existence of the owlbear, maybe you’re too serious for the over the top antics of D&D, where at level 20, you can fall from orbit and walk away, there are hats that turn you evil, and evil doesn’t just exist, but it can take the form of a shapely lady and have sex with you.
But why is it so famous for being silly? Lion-birds should be just as dopey, but people are generally down with griffins (even if they require some spicing up). In fact, a huge chunk of classic mythology is based around lazy mash-ups of animals. So why not an owlbear?
Well for one, most of those lazy, lazy critters don’t hand a lampshade on how lazy they are. With the exception of the werewolf (literally ‘man wolf’), centaurs aren’t ‘horsieguys’, chimeras aren’t ‘liongoatdragons’, and satyrs aren’t ‘goatperverts’. The name ‘owlbear’ calls attention to the mash-up and the nature of the mash-up is the deeper problem here.
I think people can generally accept owlbears in the context of ‘a wizard did it’, but the inherent joke is that said wizard ‘did it’ poorly. It’s not that an owl isn’t scary—you’ll notice that no one gives the giant owl any bullshit—it’s that none of the things that makes the owl a powerful predator is present in the owlbear. It’s literally just a bear with random birdy bits stuck on that’s not any better at being a threat than a bear is. So even though an owlbear can still kick your ass, it still looks dumb for no apparent reason.
But hey, at least it’s not a…
I hate the grell. If I had to pick, I would say that they’re one of my most hated D&D monsters. The rust monster is at least fun in a narrative sense. The wolf-in-sheeps-clothing is cartoony fun. But the grell? They’re that special kind of stupid that takes itself way, way too seriously.
Allow me to explain. A grell is a floating brain. Well, if it was just a floating brain, everything would be hakuna and this entry would be about neogi.
Presented without comment.
No, the grell are victims of a design philosophy that seems to permeate the development of the aberration creature type: something inexplicable added to something creepy, plus tentacles. In this case, the brain is the creepy thing (and an unsubtle cue that grell are psionic). Meanwhile the tentacles are represented by these long spiked things that hand underneath the brain that resemble vines more than tentacles. And playing the part of the inexplicable is… a beak.
A. Beak. No eyes, no other body parts. It has a beak lodged I its brain and most art for the thing tends to show t as a parrot-like beak with a parrot’s tongue sticking out o it.
Now, because D&D doesn’t have all that much respect for psionics despite incorporating them for thirty years, most psionic monsters tend to be… stupid. Most of them are blatantly ripped off from Lovecraft stories, but forget that the ‘scary’ part of the Lovecraft stories is not in the sliminess or the tentacles, but in the unknowable geometries that are hostile to our world simply by virtue of their existence. None—NONE–of the dumbass psionic monsters D&D has given us over the years are unknowable. They are all assholes who want to enslave everyone just like any other despot. Only they have more slime and slithery bits. Even mindflayers, who are awesome because they’re actually good at being assholes, are really just dudes with squid faces (like a certain priest of the Great Old Ones).
However, most of those monsters aren’t so cartoonish. They’re really weird and nonsensical, yes, but they usually stop short of having a beak with a tongue hanging out jammed into a brain. And I remind you that psionic monsters have an entire genre of brain monsters, from brain golems, to brains with legs, to brains in jars. The aforementioned mindflayers eat brains. It’s a whole brain thing.
What sets the grell apart is that they are taken so seriously and so far. Grell are sapient. Not just sapient—they have a society; a society that include grell philosophers. Oh, and they wear gear. There is an honest to god official picture out there where a grell is decked out in rings, bracers, and if I recall correctly a HAT. When you see a brain parrot with tentacles dressed in pimp bling, you know you’ve crossed over into the twilight zone.
Even more hilarious, if you do an image search for them, you’ll see that a lot of highly talented artist seem to have put a lot of work into trying to make these things look badass. But no matter what they do, it still looks like it’s squawking in indignity.
Speaking of Lovecraftian cast-offs…
The Far Realm
Technically, the Far Realm is a plane and not a monster. My defense of this is that there are no non-stupid things in the Far Realm. People are going to argue with me on this and talk about how cool their Alienist or star pact warlock is, but here’s the thing:
All of those—all–are the result of something from the Far Realm being channeled and shaped by someone else. The few monsters that are actually from the Far Realms (and no, there is nothing to suggest that mindflayers or beholders re from there. The implications of their back stories is that they’re actually from an earlier time of the Prime Material, not that they’re from the Far Realm) are all bizarre mish-mashes of body parts, usually mouths, eyes and tentacles and completely lack motivation or even a basic point.
The prevailing popularity of these things is based on a belief that they’re the D&D version of New Weird or Lovecraft style cosmic horror. My contention is that this is not true and that people are merely conflating the Far Realm with the older-than-time aberrations just because the Far Realm seems to model the non-Euclidean nightmare Lovecraft hinted at that made people insane from viewing it.
However, allow me to quote the official 3e-4e description of the plane:
Features and creatures of the Far Realm are multidimensional and can exist on more than one layer simultaneously. The layers of the Far Realm are like a stack of translucent parchment, and the multilayered creatures are like a single dot marked upon each parchment, seemingly coalescing into a three-dimensional object. The translucent layers seem to fade away on either side and are pierced with free-floating rivers of milk-white liquid that sometimes flow along a layer’s edge for a few feet before plunging into the next. Strange blue globes rain down from unseen heights, bursting when they strike an object and releasing ticks the size of horses that immediately scuttle off in search of blood. Gelatinous worms wriggle from layer to layer through tentacled vegetation encrusted with orange moss, all of which is suspended above an amoebic sea. Vast multilayered shapes drift through the layers, the smallest being the size of a city.
Ticks. The size of horses. It rains giant ticks. That isn’t non-Euclidean horror, that’s a darker and edgier version of Wackyland
Far Realm Dodos have tentacles and are made of worms.
Cosmic horror is all about the atmosphere. It is about invoking and then violating the Uncanny Valley. The idea is to instill paranoia in the audience that something might not be entirely right about the universe in which they live. I understand this even though I’m not a an of the genre.
The Far Realms on the other hand is all about being crrrazy! Oh look, the moss is orange isn’t that just so crrrazy? And the entire plane is a huge layer cake! Crrrazy! And there’s worms because worms are crrrazy! It’s not even really about ‘icky’ like the aberrations (tiresomely) are. It’s just about overtly weird and inexplicably hostile.
In short, the Far Realm is a planar originality trap. The main concern is making something new and weird and not on presenting a usable adventuring setting. If you look online for any amount of time, you will find a virtual cottage industry of people retrofitting the damn place into something halfway cool. If you want to take a look, this one from the Order of the Stick forums is one of my favorites. It makes the Far Realm into an actual threat and gives it real Lovecraftian overtones.
That’ll do for this week, but join me all day today on Twitter (@ParadoxOmni) with hashtag #CreepyValentine for some holiday laughs that will make your skin crawl way more than the Far Realms can.
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“I’m writing this without knowing if decent images are available.”
Aaargh! Big thanks for making me think of indecent images of owlbears!
Oh, there are plenty of those. You want me to email you a zip archive?
I would very much like to avoid that, if at all possible.
But don’t take this the wrong way, I’m not judging your interests or anything. It’s just not my bag, sort of more like a bag left in the subway that makes a faint ticking noise and which nobody will own up to knowing anything about.