originally published March 14, 2012
At my high school, the kids who played Dungeons & Dragons were looked upon as outcasts, rejects from popular society, miscreants who couldn’t or wouldn’t adjust their hobbies to fit in with the mainstream. Of course, back then the mainstream looked like this:
This leads me to believe that the D&D-ers may have been on to something. I tried playing once or twice, but I didn’t have the patience to keep up with it. Also, I think the guys I played with got a little irritated when I kept asking if every creature we encountered had boobies. They didn’t ask me back.
But I remember flipping through the Monster Manual and the Fiend Folio, hard-cover books that were biblically prized by my gaming brethren. Some of the creatures looked menacing. Some looked positively goofy.
Ms. Wiki’s gazillion-sided die landed on a list of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons’ first-edition monsters from its initial Monster Manual. These creatures, released unto the world of geekery in 1977, the same year that Lucas filled our imaginations with the likes of Walrus Man and Hammerhead, include a hodge-podge of Gygaxian weirdness.
For the most part, I have no problem with these creatures. Some of them seem to fit the fantasy genre perfectly, a lot of them are lifted from standard fantasy archetypes, but some of them are completely bizarre, no matter where they originated. I know the D&D founders wanted a huge variety of beasties to pepper their landscapes, but did they really need to use these?
Let’s start with the Nixie. He (it?) is described as resembling somewhat attractive humanoids with green skin and hair and… wait a second. Somewhat attractive humanoids? That guy’s face would look ugly on a troll doll. It’s like someone made a ventriloquist dummy’s head have sex with a Gremlin, then stuck the ensuing abomination atop a decapitated Aquaman action figure.
The Trapper can shape itself like a floor or creep along the ceiling (in which case it’s called a Lurker), then surprise an adventurer by suffocating him or her to death. I would assume the best way to conquer a Trapper is to capture it between two folded pieces of plastic, cramming it into a pocket labeled “Math”, and possibly poking it with a mechanical pencil. Adventurers should always carry a Trapper Keeper, just in case.
Okay, enough with the lightweight creatures, let’s get to something really scary. Surely the minds who found a use for thirty-sided dice also came up with some critters that’d give a guy a nightmare or two.
Here we go. The Roper. It looks like a turd with tentacles. The Roper is apparently rock-like, and it stands perfectly still with its tentacles wrapped around itself as a disguise, so that unwitting adventurers will just assume it’s a run-of-the-mill stalagmite, wrapped in tentacles. It uses its tentacles to grab passers-by and try to shove them into its mouth. I will think long and hard about the Roper next time I wander by a tall skinny mountain or a chubby be-tentacled stalagmite, and I’ll remember how dangerous it can be. I’ll also remember how I didn’t make a single dick joke, despite its obviously phallic appearance. (Though I did use the phrase ‘long and hard’… maybe I should move on.)
This is the Harpy. The Harpy is considered to be a monstrous humanoid, with the torso and head of a woman and the body of a vulture. Originally the body was conceived as an eagle, but I guess a vulture seemed more menacing somehow. The story behind this lovable she-bird is that she will lure people toward her with her song, then torture and devour them. Right. Her song. People are not at all drawn to her (especially 14-year-old boys playing a lengthy game around a table in someone’s basement on a Friday night) for any other reason but her song.
The Shedu, which is clearly a lumberjack’s head atop the body of a Pegasus, travel around and generally help people out. They wear a golden headband, which probably looked great in the mid-70s when they were conceived, but appears a little gaudy, especially in today’s economy. The Shedu are known for their psionic abilities, which means that they can make enemies’ heads explode just by looking at them. They are also known for their ability to replicate the entire guitar solo from “Freebird”, just by waving their wings. They are truly magical.
This lovely fellow is known as the Xorn. I’m thinking some creature designer was out of ideas, end of the day approaching, looking forward to getting off work and cruising his Gremlin down to the roller-disco. He looked down at his hard-boiled egg and thought, “Yeah. I could draw three little eyes here, three arms here, and three legs down here. And a mouth on top. Yeah, that looks scary. And he’ll feed on gems and stuff. That’ll teach that bitch Helen not to hand me back her engagement ring just because she caught me having sex with that watermelon.”
The Thought Eater, which appears to have been inspired by the skeleton of Howard the Duck, is “an unintelligent ether-dweller attracted by psionic-related energy use.” They can absorb such energy, which is probably why they never get invited to Shedu parties. Well, that and it looks like a floating, mentally-stunted duck skeleton. Some of these beasts are clearly phone-ins, trying to pad out the Monster Manual and test their audience’s willingness to buy into anything.
The Peryton is another such creature. I mean come on – they clearly just slapped together various parts of animals and felt that was sufficient. An eagle’s body (the vulture had already been used), a stag’s head, and it casts the shadow of a human. According to the description, it also smells like a human, which, given that the target audience at the time was anti-social male teenagers of questionable hygiene, is not a pleasant concept.
I don’t want to rag on the D&D crowd – geekery has been elevated in our society since 1977, and the act of immersing oneself in a fantasy world, whether it be an online realm or around some guy’s table rolling weird dice, is a lot more commonplace these days. But back then the dice-adventure set was a curious, mostly outcast bunch. And given some of the conceptual weirdness they had thrust upon them, I guess it kind of fits.
Now if you excuse me, I need to be alone with that Harpy sketch.