The Stories (and 3 Mysteries) Behind D&D’s Iconic Monsters

Like every other kid who discovered Dungeons & Dragons in the late 70s, the Monster Manual suddenly became my favorite book. I studied the pages, and then turned to books of mythology to learn more about cyclopses, manticores, and harpies. But not all the monsters came from myth. Some started with Gary Gygax and other D&D contributors. Of these original monsters, Wizards of the Coast reserves the most evocative as part of D&D’s product identity:

  • beholder
  • gauth
  • carrion crawler
  • displacer beast
  • githyanki
  • githzerai
  • kuo-toa
  • mind flayer
  • slaad
  • umber hulk
  • yuan-ti
Signed Greyhawk Cover

The Original Beholder

The leap of imagination required for some monsters seems short. When Gary needed “something new” to populate the underworld, he imagined fish men and called them koa-toa. When Dave “Zeb” Cook needed memorable foes for an overgrown, forbidden city in the jungle, he made snake men called yuan-ti. D&D features a long history of frog men, but Charles Stross says a literal fever led him to imagine the extra-planar, chaotic slaad.

The gauth just offers a junior beholder to pit against lower-level adventurers. But where did the beholder come from?

Many of D&D’s classic monsters have better stories behind their inspiration.

Beholder

One of D&D’s original players, Rob Kuntz eventually joined Gary Gygax as co-dungeon master in the Greyhawk campaign. Rob credits his brother Terry with a wild imagination and the idea for the beholder, originally called the eye of doom. Terry provided most of the game stats. Before the creature appeared in the Greyhawk supplement, Gary explained that “All I needed to do was a bit of editing to make it a great addition to the terrible monsters to be found in the D&D game.”

Bugbear

Bugbear, Ghoul and Friends

In the original D&D books, the bugbear sports a pumpkin head. Gary recalls describing the creature as having a fat, oval head like a pumpkin, which led the artist to draw an actual pumpkin head.

Carrion Crawler

In the early days of D&D, Gary hosted games 7 days a week. During weekends, adventuring parties included as many as 20 players with their characters, hirelings, and henchmen. Rob Kuntz ran sessions too. All these expeditions delved the mega-dungeon under Castle Greyhawk. “When the encounter was eliminated I simply drew a line through it, and the place was empty for the foreseeable future. I’d give Rob the details of any session he was not at and vice versa.” Rather than imagining a dungeon piled with rotting corpses of monsters and adventurers, Gary conceived dungeon scavengers like the carrion crawler. “I needed something nasty for the clean-up crew, so I thought this one up.”

Displacer Beast

Cover by Gil Kane

Although Wizards includes the displacer beast in D&D’s product identity, the monster owes its appearance to an alien in the 1939 story “The Black Destroyer” by author A. E. Van Vogt. In the tale, a character describes a thing called a “coeurl” that looks like “a big cat, if you forget those tentacles sticking out from its shoulders, and make allowances for those monster forelegs.” The beast first appeared in the Greyhawk supplement, but the coeurl lacks the displacer beast’s defensive power. That power comes from the Displacer Cloak, which appeared in the original D&D books.

Mystery: The cloak and beast’s displacement power seems like a defense that Gary could have taken from a golden-age science fiction story. Did Gary invent the notion, or did he adopt it?

Drow

The first hint of dark elves comes in D&D’s fourth supplement, Gods, Demi-Gods and Heroes (1976), by James Ward and Rob Kuntz. “These elves dwell beneath the earth, and cause trouble for anyone wandering through their territories. They live and cause evil upon Svartalfheim.” Perhaps inspired by the mention, Gary offered more hints in the first Monster Manual. “The ‘Black Elves,’ or Drow, are only legend. They purportedly dwell deep beneath the surface in a strange subterranean realm. The Drow are said to be as dark as faeries are bright and as evil as the latter are good. Tales picture them as weak fighters but strong magic-users.” The word “drow” comes from Scots dialects and refers to a sort of malevolent being. Gary remembered pulling the name from an old, unabridged dictionary. In Descent into the Depths of the Earth (1978), the drow made their first appearance. Gary gave them powers “to highlight their unique nature and potency.”

Mind Flayer

Inspiration for the land kraken, but not the mind flayer

Gary credits the form of the mind flayer to the cover of the Brian Lumley book, The Borrowers Beneath. “The cover made me think: Now what sort of nasty bastard is that? So without a qualm I made up the Illithid, the dread mind flayer, so as to keep the players on their toes—or to have their PCs turn theirs upwards.”

Mystery: A few year back, this tale led me to search for the The Borrowers Beneath, and I found a cover featuring a humanoid, tentacle-faced creature that closely resembled a mind flayer. Now, the same search just reveals a cover of tentacles erupting from the ground and a few images of Cthulhu. But in another reminiscence, Gary said the cover that inspired him showed a humanoid creature. What cover actually inspired the mind flayer?

Githyanki

Although Wizards claims githyanki as part of D&D’s product identity, Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin has a claim to them too. For D&D, science fiction author Charles Stross took the name githyanki and a bit of backstory from Martin’s SF novel Dying of the Light. “I’ve always felt slightly guilty about that,” Stross said. “Credit should be given where credit’s due.” Martin’s githyanki never develop beyond an unseen threat with limited intelligence. But like the D&D monsters, the originals were living, psychic weapons and former slaves of an alien race. Stross credits another legendary author with additional inspiration. “The Illithid/Githyanki relationship probably slid into my mind as a result of reading Larry Niven’s The World of Ptavvs, which features a psionic master/slave race relationship far in the past that nearly killed all the sapients in the galaxy when it turned hot.”

Bulette

Before D&D, Gary’s Chainmail games required miniatures. Back then, no one sold fantasy figures for gaming, so he improvised. He converted a plastic stegosaurus into a dragon. “I haunted the dime stores looking for potential additions and eventually found figures to represent ogres, elementals, etc.” Some of the improvised figures came from bags of assorted, plastic critters sold in those dime stores. The labels marked the toys as “Prehistoric Animals” but few resembled anything from natural history or even mythology. For pictures of the creatures and their packages, see a post by artist Tony DiTerlizzi.

When Gary’s gaming group switched to D&D, they stopped using miniatures, but the strange creatures remained as inspiration.

Gary and his fellow gamers probably never saw the Ultraman television show produced in Japan in 1966-1967, so they never knew the likely basis of the creatures. Most of the toys were knock offs of Kaiju, giant monsters from Japanese entertainment.

Inspiration for the Bulette toy probably came from the creature Gabora, which appeared in episode 9 of Ultraman, “Operation: Uranium.”

In the Greyhawk dungeons, the beast made a couple of cameo appearances, charging down a hall and bowling over adventurers. The players called it a landshark after its back fin and a current series of Saturday Night Live sketches where a “landshark” knocks on doors to deliver a “candygram.”

When editor Tim Kask needed content to fill a page in the first issue of The Dragon, Gary told Tim to write stats for the landshark. The name puts a French spin on the creature’s bullet shape. As for the monster’s appetite for halflings and their ponies, Tim was showing a bit of spite for players who always played hobbits and favored ponies named Bill.

Umber Hulk

Ultraman episode 7, “The Blue Stone of Vallarge,” featured another burrower named “Antlar.” A knock off toy for this Kaiju probably led Gary to devise the umber hulk. The creature’s crude, insectile eyes inspired the monster’s signature confusing gaze.

Owlbear

Some have tried to find a Kaiju that resembles the owlbear toy, but even the closest match takes blurred vision and a big leap of imagination. The toy’s bowl-shaped hair stands out as its most distinctive feature. As badly as the toy resembles an owl or a bear, it also badly resembles a Kappa from Japanese mythology.

Owlbear Toy and Kappa by Toriyama Sekien

Rust Monster

No creature resembles its dime-store inspiration more than the rust monster. The toy lacks teeth and claws, so when Gary made it a monster, he needed another way to menace adventurers. In the original game, powerful undead drained “life energy levels” when they hit. Life draining terrorized players, and Gary saw the power as a test for clerics, ranged attackers, and players too reckless to run. “I don’t agree with those wimpy whiners who are afraid of a few living dead,” he teased. The toy’s tentacles led Gary to imagine a way to threaten something players prized even more than their levels—their magic weapons and armor.

Mystery: Of all the toys, the rust monster ranks as the oddest. How did a four-legged bug with a propeller tail wind up bagged with kaiju and mythological creatures? Did a Hong Kong designer aim for pure whimsy or imitate some other creature?

This entry was posted in Role-playing game history and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Stories (and 3 Mysteries) Behind D&D’s Iconic Monsters

  1. Fun post – thanks!

    Regarding Ultraman, there’s probably no way to know for sure, but it might have been possible for them to come across it. I grew up in Iowa in the 70s, and one of the first cable tv stations I remember was WGN out of Chicago, and they broadcast English dubs of Ultraman, Johnny Sokko, Space Giants, etc. No idea if the time matches up – my own memories are hazy at best…

    Collin

Leave a Reply