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Monsters!: I Of The Beholder

July 13th, 2007

Both then and now, D&D drew on many sources for its bestiary, cribbing creatures from mythology and folklore. (It also stole from stories which had the benefit of copyright protection, but we’ll get to those in a later post.) Yet many of its most memorable denizens were wholly made up. In this installment, I’ll look at a few of my favorites.

The Kobold straddled the fence between “original” and “inspired by.” There were kobolds in folklore, but they’re not the yipping reptiles seen here. Kobolds were typically among the first monsters a budding 1st level adventurer faced. (Unless they visited one of our play group’s dungeons, in which the first creature encountered was probably a dragon.) Kobolds were the ultimate cannon fodder; they were even better than orcs in that they were extremely fragile.

Among that things that could kill a kobold:

  • A rock. A small one would suffice.
  • Running with scissors.
  • Subtle mockery.
  • Kittens.

In more recent years, I came to appreciate kobolds. When my friends and I were being reintroduced to 3rd edition D&D, one of our first major encounters was–to absolutely no one’s surprise–a lair full of them. However, being thirtysomethings with a somewhat more enlightened approach toward sentient creatures, we set aside our rocks and subtle mockery and decided to talk to them instead. We thought, “Hey, they’re evil, but at least they’re lawful evil.” It turned out that all they wanted was a little help in locating and returning their pet baby dragon. To that end, they gave us a guide named Meepo. Meepo became an ongoing non-player character in our campaign, assuming an increasingly prominent status in the game world and even attending my own character’s wedding. He was a good friend, and he never struck me as particularly evil. We never once bunged a rock at him.

The Stirge was another bane to first-time dungeon delvers, a blood-drinking cross between a bird, bat and mosquito. One of them wasn’t much of a problem, but note that the “No. Appearing” was 3-30…
I’ve never been quite sure why the Black Pudding was a pudding and not, for instance, a meringue. It was the largest and deadliest of the classic D&D blobs, which included the Green Slime, Grey Ooze, and Ochre Jelly.

An adventurer who didn’t want to find himself digested by a blob needed to be aware of their various immunities. Puddings were vulnerable to fire, but not cold. Jellies could be hurt by both cold and heat, but oozes were immune to either. Lightning bolts could kill an ooze, but would split a jelly or pudding into two or more creatures.

It also helped to know the color “ochre” when you saw it. We learned a lot of obscure and archaic (real-life) terms back then: caryatid, glaive-guisarme, and of course, bastard sword. Hee, hee.

Old-school D&D monsters were certainly a colorful bunch. The Purple Worm was one of the most fearsome things one was likely to run into underground. Why purple? Why not? If you stuck around to criticize its color scheme, you were likely to be swallowed whole. And unlike Star Wars‘ Sarlacc, there was none of that “slowly digested over a thousand years” crap. Six combat rounds spent inside its stomach, and you were dead. Twelve, and you were worm poop.
To this very day, one of the most terrifying beasts of all D&D-dom is the Beholder. If you saw one, you hoped that it hadn’t seen you first. Except that this was impossible, because if a beholder has anything going for it, it’s visual acuity.

Each of a beholder’s eleven eyeballs had a unique power ranging from telekinesis to an instant death ray. An unlucky party of heroes would find itself put to sleep, turned to stone and disintegrated, yet the beholder was only warming up. Did I mention that its central eye negated its opponents’ magic spells?

As fearsome as beholders were in the game world, they have been found somewhat lacking in spin-off media. While beholders remain immune to subtle mockery, the first Dungeons & Dragons movie demonstrated that they were, in fact, easily distracted by bunging a rock at them. (Disappointingly, this never worked during our game sessions.) And in the D&D animated series, one was destroyed by showing it a pretty flower, because (wait for it) “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

Next: Tentacles! Tentacles! Tentacles!

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