Strange MonstersPosted: February 20, 2011 Filed under: Dungeons and Dragons, history, monsters 5 Comments
I was originally going to call this post ‘Weird Monsters’ but I have become afraid of using the word ‘weird’ in public because I always misspell it. That whole ‘i before e’ thing.
There are D&D monsters that are just fun to speculate on, especially on a Sunday morning when you are hung over. Like the ‘catoblepas‘ (which is apparently based on Pliny the Elder’s misconception of the wildebeest). How does a creature with a ‘gaze that kills or petrifies’ reproduce? I mean, I know that female spiders often eat the males after reproduction (which seems much worse than not returning a phone call), but the female spider waits until AFTER humpage to eat the male (which would probably result in a lot of gay spiders, but I digress). I imagine two catoblepases (catoblepi?) meeting at a watering hole in Ethiopia and one saying, “What is a nice catoblepas like yourself doing in a place like this? Ugh!” The catoblepas says ‘ugh’ because it dies. And the date is over because they gaze into each other’s eyes and kill each other. Does a catoblepas who is ‘ready to mate’ walk around with a bag over his or her head? If so, couldn’t even a tribe of ambitious kobolds wiped out the ‘bagged and desperate’ catoblepas? And where would the catoblepas get the bag, anyway? And since it doesn’t have hands, how would it put the bag on its own head?
And how could poor old ‘Pliny the Elder’ have been so wrong about the wildebeest? I don’t know much about the wildebeest (although, if I were a wildebeest, I would be thanking Pliny for his misconception since hungry readers of Pliny would run away in terror rather than trying to kill and eat me). I mean, he was wrong about just about everything except that the wildebeest/catoblepas had four legs (which is pretty much a given with large mammals that are not humans or monkeys/apes or whales/dolphins anyway, isn’t it?). It’s gaze kills? Where did he get that? If Pliny ever was in Ethiopia, I wonder if some lazy guide/local just fed him some misinformation. Perhaps Pliny sighted some wildebeests from a long way off and wanted to walk through the noonday sun to have a closer look, but a lazy and wily native guide who wanted to remain in the shade said, “We don’t want to do that, chief. If we, uh, get close enough to that animal that it can see us, it’s gaze will kill.”
“Really?” replied the incredulous Pliny. And then he went and wrote that down in his book.
Everyone loves to speculate on the how/when/why of ‘The Owlbear.’ Yet another creature where St. Gygax took the ass of one creature and the head of another and combined them. I can understand being afraid of bears. I once met a bear on a forest path and nearly shit my pants. The thing was the size of a Yugo (which is small for a car, but really big for an animal). Or maybe I was just frightened and it looked bigger. St. Gygax explained the owlbears origin away by saying, “A mad wizard did it.” OK. But it is pretty strange that the wizard, mad or otherwise, would combine an owl (which is smaller than a bread box), with a bear (which is usually about the size of 50 bread boxes). Wouldn’t the owlbear therefore have a (comparatively) tiny head and tiny claws? Maybe the ‘mad wizard’ started with a ‘giant’ owl. Fair enough. There is a giant version of everything in D&D land. And perhaps he didn’t call his creation a ‘giant owlbear’ as opposed to an ‘owlbear’ because he thought that would cause people to confuse his creation with a creature that was 50 stories tall and ate Tokyo every Saturday (speaking of which, I just noticed that I feel ‘an owlbear’ sounds more correct than ‘a owlbear.’ Why is that?). And were there other bird/mammal hybrids in addition to the owlbear? Turkeydogs? Pelicancows? Duckbeavers?
Because it has been discussed to death, I suppose I better give the owlbear a pass. Besides which, my experience in playing D&D is that the noobs always underestimate the owlbear based on it’s name alone. “Owlbear?” they say, chuckling at the silliness of the concept. One initiative roll later they need a new character.
The gelatinous cube has always inspired a lot of speculation. When I first started playing D&D, I don’t think we understood that ‘gelatinous’ meant ‘like jello.’ I don’t know what we thought ‘gelatinous’ meant. Therefore, if we were attacked by a “gelatinous” cube we would hammer a spike into the floor and retreat behind it. The cube (which I guess we supposed was solid, like a big meat brick) would slide up to the spike and, according to our DM, be unable to proceed any further. And we would kill it with arrows. I don’t know how we thought it attacked people. Maybe we thought it had a big-ass mouth on the front.
But most people puzzle over a creature that evolved to exactly fill a 10×10 corridor and just slides around the dungeon, like a big see-through Roomba, sucking up everything and anything in it’s path (does anyone else find it creepy that the company that makes the “roomba” is called “irobot”?). Perhaps the gelatinous cube did not ‘evolve’ to be 10x10x10, but some wizard bred it to be that way… like the way that the Chinese bred their little dogs to have pushed-in looking faces.
Catoblepi reproduce inside a big dark hollow swamp tree, like the one Yoda connived Luke into, except with no artificial light.
If you travel to an area where the locals refer to 'The Catoblepas Humpin Tree' you had best be on the lookout for catoblepi. Or rather, DON'T be on the lookout, if you know what I mean.
I believe in Pliny's account they have poisonous breath. I think it was from eating some kind of stinky weed, but I can't remember. I always thought the D&D Gorgon looked more like Pliny's Catoblepus than that one does.
My theory is that Pliny had promised someone important an account of the wildebeest. In Africa he probably got involved in a little too much fun, and once the ship left back for Rome he still had no idea what kind of creature it was.
The solution was to describe it as dangerous enough that no one would go check his facts. Quite clever, really. “You're not dead, hence you're either lying, or you're speaking of a different beast,” and, “I'm not the first to find this out, I'm the first to find this out and live.”
I always figured the Catoblepus kills with its gaze 'cause its so damn ugly. We take one look at that mug and its curtains from a combination disgust and heart attack.
Another Catoblepus sees the same face and says, “Well hello gorgeous…what are you doing tonight.”
So yeah, they are immune to each others power.
Evan: I know the image you are thinking of — it looks like a cross between a bull and a pig with scales and a mop-top hairdo.