Saturday, March 20, 2010

Monsters That Begin With E Are Much Easier To Talk About Than Monsters That Begin With D

Still going monster-by-monster, in order alphabetical. Finally out of the D's...

Eagle, Giant

Let's compare the giant eagle to the roc:

Giant eagles are in the Monster Manual (with their "limited form of telepathy" and their friendship with "certain dwarves and elves") because they appear at key points in J.R.R Tolkien stories and conveniently solve logistical problems that everybody else has been trying to solve for the entire length of the story up until that point.

The roc likely appears in the Monster Manual because of a story in the 1001 Arabian Nights where a guy finds himself at the bottom of a canyon full of gems and suddenly sees the corpse of a skinned goat or cow drop out of the sky onto the pile of coins from above because somebody up at the top of this inaccessible valley thought it'd be a good idea to throw skinned livestock carcasses into the valley so the gems would stick to the carcass because of the blood, and then the roc would swoop down pick up the gold encrusted animal so it could eat it, and the entrepreneurs could then sneak into the the roc's nest and kill it and take all the jewels.

So I ask you: which one of these stories sounds like good D&D to you? Tolkien was an incorrigible railroader.

Ear Seekers

The ear seeker goes into your ear, lays eggs in your brain, and then--90% of the time--kills you. Up there with the cerebral parasite in the I-can't-possibly-imagine-how-this-could-be-fun category, the ear seeker was allegedly designed by Gary to prevent PCs from listening at doors. It's difficult for me to understand how the mind that gave us the beholder and Demorgorgon and the Eye of Vecna couldn't have thought of a million better ways to solve that particular dungeon design problem.


Eels alone are pretty boring, but you can't really match the eel's face for stupid malevolence. I propose the eel as an excellent constituent part for aquatic bad guys. Right now I'm thinking about a marine medusa with eels for hair and a mermaid body.

Mandy tells me her dad's eels used to escape the tank and slither around the basement until someone found them behind the couch or whatever and then dropped them back in the tank or flushed their dead bodies down the toilet. Which somehow seems more disturbing than a snake escaping. What does the eel want?


Top -heavy. The City of Brass is extremely evocative however. A molten-coloured pitiless 1001 Nights/Sinbadish type hell. I'm not sending anybody there until I can think of some better inhabitants for it. I'm not afraid of anything that has air for feet.


The elements aren't scary. Oh no some water! What the elements can actually do: storms, wildfires etc. can be scary but we're so used to looking at-, and using-, water and fire and rocks that they by themselves evoke almost nothing. I much prefer it when elementals are represented as being some sort of creature. The salamander for fire, the water weird--the earth elemental can be cool if you imagine it as being enough like a hunched, brooding version of The Thing.

The air elemental is very tough to do, since air is really unscary. Nowhere near as scary as it should be. This concept is well demonstrated here.

"A tornado can drive a three-inch nail into a tree, alright?"
"So it hammers a nail into a tree, big deal..."
"Well that is a big deal."
"I don't see why it's such a big deal."
"Could you hammer a nail into a tree by just blowing on it?"
"That's what a tornado does. It blows on a nail, and the nail goes into the tree."
"I still don't think it's a big deal."
"What do you mean 'why'?"
"Why is it putting nails in trees? What's the point?
"To mark them."

Maybe a creepy kind of bird of paradise that suffocates you by looking at you.

Oh, I just thought of something--in a museum in Darwin there's a recording--audio only--of a hurricane ripping through the city. It's apparently pretty terrifying. Maybe that's what you want for the air elements--just youtube some shrieks and howling winds.


Elephants by themselves are like whatever but if you're a medieval europerson and you see some people riding up on elephants that must of been some fucked up shit. Like, not only do these people have herds of these giant-skulled hulking grey snake-nosed, tusked monstrosities but they're actually used to them. Wherever they're from must be totally fucked up.


What are elves?

They're aristocratic--they have all the qualities aristocrats are supposed to have--in a good way (high elves) or in a bad way (dark elves)--aside from stupidity. They're also highly attuned to the natural world. Not in a functional first-hand-experience dwarfy way and not in a "I'm cute so even badgers like me" gnomey way or in a "we're just a metaphor for humble farm-folk" halfling way. You get the feeling that a baby elf is born and the birds all add a new note to their songs and the air thickens and the patterns on the leaves change.

The elf suggests that somehow the behaviour of the aristocracy--its obsession with decor, ritual, symbolism, tradition, sophistication, and stratification--is somehow consonant or complementary to nature rather than completely artificial. Like it's somehow natural to be skinny and pale and never work and love shiny things. Elves are people that you can hear and see but not touch or smell. They are the way some people look to other people. But not the way anyone ever feels about themself from inside their own body. Never trust an elf.


It seems to me like that second head doesn't help the ettin much--in terms of figuring shit out, I mean. When it tells you that the ettin has two heads and also that it's stupid that's not surprisng.
Why not? I mean, if the cyclops seems dumb because it has one eye, shouldn't the ettin seem extra smart for having extra eyes? (And why is it that the one eye seems pathetic, but the two heads don't. Like the extra head is not an asset but it's somehow the ettin's own fucking fault, whereas the cyclops' one eye seems like a curse imposed from without.)

There are smart giants. We can imagine the regal wisdom of a cloud giant or a titan. I think it seems to us that anything with two heads inevitably must be confused. And the more heads something has the dumber it seems. Like the three-headed thing in Monty Python is a complete idiot and it's almost impossible to imagine, say, a hundred-headed beast as being anything but a mindless chaos. No wonder people were so scared of democracy.

Eye, Floating

Eyeballs are awesome. An eye is a sensory organ and implies something doing the sensing. But, when disembodied, the intelligence it obviously represents instantly becomes mysterious and creepy. The problem here is Gary's already outdone himself. The floating eye is a pretty cool monster but the beholder is way cooler.

EDIT: Rick Marshall just pointed out that the Floating Eye is a Dave Arneson creation, Thanks--please keep doing that, people, I hate being wrong. Anyway, the question now is which came first--floating eye or beholder?

Eye of the Deep

On the other hand, I submit that the eye of the deep is almost as cool as the beholder. Imagine going through a whole campaign and then finding out at the end that the archvillain all along was a bitter little lobster-handed eye guy dwelling deep beneath the waves murkily crafting your demise. The only problem is you can't use both. You either use the eye of the deep or the beholder and that's that.

...they're like a matched set. A cast off pair of eyes from some much bigger divine being. One fell into the sea, one fell into the earth. Both grew bitter and evil, and now they plot against each other.

It occurs to me, contemplating the disturbingness of the disembodied eye, that the Death Star was maybe an eye and the thing in the middle of a TIE fighter, too, and definitely that mandibled mouth in the center of Unicron in the Transformers thing was also both a mouth and an eye.

Eye of Fear and Flame

Skeletons and skulls are always in danger of getting you into Essential Archetype Overload. The way I deal with it is imagining a sort of organized skeletal hierarchy. When the Triumph of Death comes your garden variety skeleton will be the footsoldier, it will be lead by death knights on horseback, and presided over by a lich. And the eyes of fear and flame will whisper tonguelessly into the dull bone curve where the lich's ear used to be.

Eye Killer

The eye killer is either a batsnake or an owlsnake--depending on who you ask--from Native American mythology, although it's tough to say there's anything wrong with it there's about a billion other snakey monsters I'd be tempted to use before I got to the eye killer.

If I was running a Middle Eastern campaign I might rethink it. It seems like the kind of thing that might be laying coiled in the bottom of a stoppered urn deep beneath the City of Brass.


  1. I love your linking of the Beholder and Eye of the Deep into a pair of eyes. Nicely done.

    The Floating Eye, though, I think is Dave, not Gary. It makes its appearance in Blackmoor along with all Dave's other aquatic nasties.

  2. Great post!

    Honestly I've never heard of the Ear Seeker before. And I have the old school binder based Monster Manual from the 80s. Seriously? To stop eavesdropping? Isn't that what traps are for?

    Maybe to make Water and Air Elementals much scarier without needing to whip up a whirlpool or tornado, they should focus on it's psychological horror aspect. You're trekking somewhere breezy with your party and one of your PCs gets singled out to hear a creepy whisper in it's ear. It teases by flinging bugs in eyes and dancing in carefully arranged stationary. It never outright kills without having sadistic fun. It does things like sit inside your throat or lungs and makes you gasp for breath like an asthmatic. Water Elementals could be the same. Totally invisible in it's environment and doing nasty things like forcing it's way into your body through your orifices including past your eyeball or up your urethra.

    Elves are an interesting bunch. Especially the Tolkien ones. Imagine his elves wearing smart dark uniforms, toting standards with Rome's double-headed eagle and a certain red flag with a certain symbol of the sun on it.
    Elves used to be cool, until I got a little older and a little more cynical and realised I was looking at the RPG incarnation of the Perfect Aryan Race. Pretty, magical, Sailor Moon Nazis.

  3. ear seekers - doesn't everyone have a meshed ear trumpet for listening at doors? shakes head and tuts

  4. Tolkien wasn't interested in D&D.
    As to the elementals - it's no big news that ordinary objects can be really scary in unusual circumstances. A water elemental, able to control the water in living things, like Avatar's waterbenders or the water elemental in Quest for Glory... or just water suddenly becoming alive just as you walk across the shallow pool, grabbing your legs and trying to drown you. Small flames on top of the candles that *always* seem to turn slightly as you move, as if they were watching, little spies that serve something unfriendly. It's pretty easy to fight an elemental if it's just another type of extradimensional creature. Fighting water, though, is more tricky. Or hiding from the fire elementals which are able to - and obviously will - watch you through every candle, every fireplace, waiting for a good moment to attack.

  5. Correction to my earlier comment: evidently Steve Marsh designed all the aquatic monsters in supplement 2, Blackmoor, which would include the floating eye.

  6. No undead is, in my mind, as cool as The Eye of Fear and Flame. Not the vampire (too many weaknesses, too overused), the zombie (wow, its already dead. What else can it do?), the ghoul (very tough zombies with paralysis? eh, take it or leave it)...none.

    Why? Cool name. Very cool name. It has powers over fear and flame...if it can't scare you away it will simply burn you where you stand. This is not a dungeon monster. This my friends is a freakin' supervillain.

  7. Here's another contribution to the Beholder vs. Floating Eye thing --

    In his Preface to the AD&D 1st edition Monster Manual (p. 4), Gary credits Terry Kuntz with the beholder (at least, with the original idea, as I understand it).

    Here's a quote of part of the section:

    "It is necessary to acknowledge the contributions of the following persons: Steve Marsh for devising the creatures for undersea encounters which originally appeared in BLACKMOOR, as I have radically altered them herein; Erol Otus for doing the preliminary work and illustrations of the anhkheg and remorhaz which appeared in The Dragon; Ernie Gygax for the water weird and for his help in solidifying many of the characteristics of the creatures herein; Terry Kuntz, who was never thanked for his prototypical beholder, a revised version of which was included in GREYHAWK...

  8. I get the sense that the Ear Seeker was probably one of a host of monsters, traps and general dangers Gygax invented to fuck with his players, designed by looking for any repeated behaviors.

    Like the monster that looks like a cloak until you put it on? Or the one that looks like a section of ceiling? Or the fucking piercer.

    Gygax's game seems like it was a constant war between ever-increasing caution on the part of his players, and ever-increasing clever sadism on the part of Gary. The MM is just littered with the detritus of that war.

  9. Do a Google image search for "A Wind In the Door". That'd make a pretty cool replacement for an air elemental.

  10. Its funny that D&D doesn't seem to create scary Air Elementals, when the old classic Nethack - the Air Elementals are probably one of the most damaging enemies of the game. You usually encounter them only in the Plane of Air (3 levels before the final level in ascending). They swallow you whole and pummel you with debris, which causes a large amount of damage for being that late in the game.

    Anyway, there are plenty of ways to make air elementals a deadly and scary enemy. Imagine them wrapped around a character, creating a vacuum where no air exists. A PC could die in just a few minutes with no way of escaping himself.

  11. If you wanna make your PCs fear The Elephant, threaten them with this:

  12. "EDIT... Anyway, the question now is which came first--floating eye or beholder?"

    You've got the pieces in prior comments above, but to be explicit about the publishing history: Beholders first appear in OD&D Sup-I Greyhawk. Floating eyes first appear in OD&D Sup-II Blackmoor (along with the rest of the classic D&D aquatic monster list).

  13. This, also, is a fine way to involve elephants in D&D:

  14. The meshed ear trumpet became a standard bit of gear included with thieves' tools around Dragon issue 100 or so. In late 2e, skills and powers era, thieves could opt to purchase the ability to perform an attack of opportunity with times four backstab damage on the brain eggs as they hatched. Those countermeasures and regular brain-nit screenings at the Thieves' Guild Young Footpads Academy practically eliminated Ear Seekers outbreaks by 3e. Ear Seekers are to become a playable race with the upcoming release of the 4e PHB IV, featuring the new power source, Wax.

  15. "It occurs to me, contemplating the disturbingness of the disembodied eye, that the Death Star was maybe an eye and the thing in the middle of a TIE fighter, too..."

    Per the Star Wars novels (especially the Rogue Squadron series by Michael A. Stackpole), Rebel pilots do indeed refer to TIE fighters informally as "eyeballs". TIE interceptors (with the angled-in wings) are "squints."

  16. "Giant eagles are in the Monster Manual...because they appear at key points in J.R.R Tolkien stories and conveniently solve logistical problems that everybody else has been trying to solve for the entire length of the story up until that point."

    They also operate a very successful grocery store chain here in the northeast.

  17. i think elementals can be good in their element:
    earth elementals in the earth the players are walking on, rock elementals in the tunnel walls, water elementals in the water trying to drown them, air elementals in the air as the players try to cross a wobbly bridge over a chasm etc


    I think some of the duplicate cultural monsters can work if you group them regionally like medieval euro version of flying snake in one continent and latin american version in another and then if your campaign starts on an island in the narrow sea in between them like say Sicily in the Med.