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Monsters!: Heisted Horrors

July 15th, 2007

Dungeons & Dragons was never exactly shy about “borrowing” material from works of fantasy and science-fiction. One of the most obvious influences was J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, which rode a wave of popularity on college campuses in the decade prior to the rise of D & D. Certainly, the game’s depictions of elves and dwarves had much more in common with Tolkien’s characters than they did traditional folklore. Furthermore, the earliest edition of the game purportedly included “hobbits” until Tolkien’s lawyers forced them to be redubbed “halflings.” (“Orcs,” however, remain “orcs.”)


When Deities & Demigods, a guidebook to mythological pantheons, was published as an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons supplement in 1980, it included gods and monsters drawn from the fiction of Michael Moorcock, H.P. Lovecraft and Fritz Leiber. The publishers got into trouble when they mistakenly assumed that Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos was in the public domain. A rival game company (Chaosium), which had licensed those books for their Call of Cthulhu role-playing game, was not happy about this, but a settlement was reached before the shoggoths were summoned.
Another cribbed creature was the curious Displacer Beast, a black panther with (what else?) tentacles sprouting from its shoulders. According to the original Monster Manual, “the molecular vibrations of the displacer beast are such that it always appears to be 3′ (away from) its actual position.” Even back then, this struck me as an odd inclusion into a Tolkienesque fantasy world.

As it turned out, there was a good reason for that. Monster Ecologies confesses to the true origin of the displacer beast, a short story by A.E. van Vogt called “The Black Destroyer,” seen here in a 1973 Marvel Comics adaptation.

Of course, as displacer beasts were weird, oversized pussycats, it naturally followed that their natural enemies were blink dogs, pack animals with a limited form of teleportation that allowed them to “blink” in and out of existence. (Less successful variations on this theme included the uncertainty trout and the teleportortoise.*)

A trio of equally unlikely critters hailed from, of all places, a bag of Chinese-made toys. I used to have these as a kid; they were cheap, poorly-sculpted “prehistoric monsters.” I’ve seen some of the same sculpts in dollar store toys to this day, though unfortunately not the more fanciful creatures that D & D appropriated to use as tabletop miniatures. Man, I wish that I’d kept mine.

First was the infamous Rust Monster, whose sole purpose in the game was to divest players of their hard-earned loot. It couldn’t care less about eating people, it just wanted their stuff in the form of metal swords, metal shields, metal armor, etc. A touch from its tendrils turned ferrous metals to rust, leaving heroes naked and defenseless in the middle of the dungeon. And didn’t we dungeon masters love them for it!

Another D & D classic born of cheap, Chinese labor was the Owlbear, a beast with the body of the bear and the head of an owl. (A variant with the head of a bear and the body of an owl proved to be too front-heavy.)

The Bulette probably owed as much to Saturday Night Live and The Outer Limits as it did to the thrift store. The latter TV series featured an episode in which alien creatures burrowed beneath the sand, with only the fin atop their head visible. Meanwhile, SNL brought us Chevy Chase in the form of the wily “land shark.” However, if the bulette ever knocked on a peasant’s door pretending to deliver a candygram, history does not record it.



* Possibly not true.

Next: Unnatural Selection!

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