Thursday, 25 July 2019

D&D Monsters: Minotaurs

Minotaurs are another creature with their origin in Greek myth. In the original, there was, of course, only one Minotaur, trapped in a labyrinth and slain by Theseus. Contemporary Greek illustrations show a male human with the head and tail of a bull, more obviously a hybrid than the D&D version, but at least broadly similar. However, some of the myths were vague as to exactly what the Minotaur was supposed to look like, and in the Middle Ages an alternative with a centaur-like form, albeit often with horns on the human-like head, started showing up in art. The latter form had some popularity (it was the first illustration of it I saw as a child) but has declined in modern depictions.

Given that crawling around in subterranean labyrinths is part of the point of the original D&D, it's unsurprising that the Minotaur would be included in the game. Here, of course, it becomes a race of beings and thereby loses its capital letter. (As an aside, both "mine-otaur" and "minn-otaur" are legitimate pronunciations in UK English, although the latter seems to be preferred in the US. In Ancient Greek, it was apparently "meen-otaur", so, hey...).


Minotaurs in 1E are significantly larger than humans. By how much isn't clear, although they can't head-butt anything shorter than six feet, which may imply a height not much more than that. They have, of course, the head of a bull, but with a full set sharp, carnivore-like teeth and lower canines that form tusks. Unlike most classical depictions, they have a thick pelt of fur over the torso and upper arms, although we don't know the form of the legs, or whether they have a tail.

Minotaurs are as strong as ogres, and even more skilled in combat, although it is slightly easier to land a blow on them, implying a thinner, if still substantial, hide. Unlike the lumbering ogres, they move with human-like speed, and they seem to be even more aggressively violent. They are described as "unintelligent but cunning", a not unusual combination in D&D, and they are also noted to have acute senses of smell and (probably) hearing. 

Like the version from classical myth, they have a craving for human flesh, although, absent cooperative Cretans, one assumes that that can't be in terribly high supply in the underground labyrinths that they inhabit. However, while they're generally antisocial, they aren't entirely solitary, and can often be found in groups of four or five. That they also have their own language implies some degree of culture and traditions among them, although presumably at quite a basic level.


The physical look changes little in 2E, although they seem to have lost the tusks. We can see that their feet are at least generally humanoid, although it's possible that they don't have human-like toes. The only significant change to their abilities is that they now have an unusual affinity for navigating mazes, and are immune to magic that might hamper this ability. This, of course, is the exact opposite of the original myth, where the whole point of the labyrinth was to stop the Minotaur getting out. They also have an ability to see in pitch blackness, which does rather make sense given where they live.

As for society, a simple "clan"-like culture is described, with the oldest and most physically powerful minotaur leading the others. The labyrinths they live in are apparently built for them by evil humans - presumably to use them to guard something else, although the details are vague. Judging from the picture, the evil humans in question also provide well-crafted clothing and weapons for the minotaurs, since they clearly can't make such things for themselves.


There is a radical change in the minotaur's look in this edition. The head is now ape-like, rather than bull-like, aside from a pair of huge sweeping horns. The legs end in large cloven hooves, the tail is relatively large and the creature is much shaggier than before. Finer detail in the base attributes in this edition means that we can now see that minotaurs are marginally weaker than ogres (although still around human maximum), but slightly more agile and not quite as stupid. They retain broadly the same special abilities, tweaked for the new rule set. It also turns out that their hide is the same thickness as that of ogres, but that the latter tend to wear thick leathers as armour.

They do, however, live in smaller groups than before, with no sign of the eight-member "clans" of previous editions, and often being solitary. They now speak the same language as giants, although quite why this should be when they seem to have no obvious connection to the giant races is a bit of a mystery.


With 5E, we return to the idea of a minotaur actually looking part-man part-bull. The key differences from the 2E version are the cloven hooves and the fact that they only have three fingers and a thumb on each hand. Compared with the 3E sort, they have lost a point of intelligence, but so have ogres, so the two remain the same in relation to one another. Unlike ogres, minotaurs retain their tough hide in this edition.

The steady decline of the size of minotaur "communities" continues in this edition, with them now being primarily solitary, perhaps better echoing their mythic roots. Indeed, we're told that they are impossible to keep even as imprisoned slaves, which would suggest that the 2E association with evil overlords just won't work. Their native language has changed again, this time to Abyssal, which makes sense given the origin story we're provided with.

Since they come from Greek mythology, and are relatively straightforward combatants, minotaurs exist in a number of RPG game worlds and systems. In D&D worlds they usually follow the standard pattern laid down in the core rules, although there are a few exceptions where they are better organised. In Golarion, they form tribes, although possibly not very cohesive ones, given that they're chaotic evil. In Krynn, there is even an apparently sophisticated minotaur culture, while those of Exandria don't seem to be exclusively evil and are capable of living in urban environments. Similarly, there is a minotaur-ruled city-state in Mystara.

Undeniably the biggest question about minotaurs, biologically speaking, is where new ones come from. Early editions of D&D are quite clear that all minotaurs are male, something that obviously doesn't make sense given real-world biological norms. The core rulebooks ignore the question in both 1E and 3E, although that's not always true in individual game settings for those editions. But, if we want to answer it, three options present themselves.

One is that minotaurs are the result of some kind of curse. This is the case in the original legend, where the Minotaur is the result of a curse placed on King Minos (by punishing his wife, but that's the Greek gods for you). It's also the standard origin in 5E, where one can become a minotaur through demon-worship and it's at least the historical origin of the race in a number of specific game worlds.

2E officially went for a different, and far less palatable option, whereby minotaurs breed with human women and all the offspring are male. Since it's hard to imagine that many sane human women would be happy about this, it's not hard to see why this suggestion was dropped like a hot potato in later editions...

The third option, of course, is that female minotaurs do, in fact, exist. That was unnecessary in Greek myth, since there was only ever the one, but it's obviously the easiest solution if you want to have a race of the beings. In fact, it's the usual option taken in D&D game worlds, even if pictures of them are rare outside of mildly dodgy "furry" fan art - although not, to be fair, non-existent. Both Mystara and Golarion explicitly have female minotaurs and even the 5E Monster Manual states that minotaurs can breed true if they ever encounter one another, which clearly implies the same thing (and the text is gender-neutral, without a mention of "bulls").

Perhaps the only oddity of D&D minotaurs, compared with those in other fantasy RPGs, is their inherent ability to escape from any maze in which they might be trapped - and even that is implied in, for example, GURPS Banestorm. In that system/setting, they have the Absolute Direction advantage and that, or some sort of special boost to navigation skills, would be the way to go in many others, too. Otherwise, D&D minotaurs have approximately maximum human strength, around the minimum human intelligence, unusually acute senses, considerable combat skill, the ability to gore or charge with their horns and at least an impulsive recklessness, if not outright berserk rage, in battle.

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

D&D Monsters: Wights

The word "wight", as D&D books are always eager to remind us, originally just meant "person". It was common enough in this sense in medieval English, and into at least the seventeenth century (Shakespeare uses it, for one). After that, it becomes somewhat old-fashioned, and it's unlikely that anyone much has used the word in this sense for over a hundred years, at least outside of poetry. In 1869, however, a translator used the term "barrow-wight" (literally "tomb-person") to describe a form of undead from Norse legends. This term, of course, was later borrowed by Tolkien in Lord of the Rings. Gygax abbreviated it back to "wight" again for D&D, while retaining the "undead" meaning.

It's likely Gygax's coinage that influenced George R.R. Martin when he chose the word to describe his own, more zombie-like, beings. However, in his universe, it's the White Walkers that most closely resemble D&D's wights, although there are a number of clear differences, not least in terms of how they are created.

Tolkien's barrow-wight, however, was quite closely based on the undead of Norse myth - named draugr in the original language - and the original D&D version is clearly, in turn, based on that. These mythical "wights" were said to be corpses animated by the souls of their original inhabitants, pulled back from the afterlife, usually to guard their tombs, although they were capable of travelling out at night to take revenge on those who had wronged them, and they often had a range of magical abilities.


The wight in the illustration has unkempt hair and long nails, but is basically just an animated corpse, albeit more intact than the typical zombie. Wights are slightly harder to hit, and can sustain more damage, than ghouls but, like them, don't appear to wear any armour or carry weapons. Much of their resistance, therefore, is, like that of ghouls, probably due to the absence of any blood or vital organs, and perhaps the stronger essence of "negative energy" flowing through them.

Unlike ghouls, wights retain their full human intelligence and their "lawful evil" descriptor implies a greater degree of cooperation. They seem to exist in small communities of up to a dozen or so individuals, haunting ancient tombs, although no details of how they organise themselves are given. They are said to hate sunlight, so even though it doesn't physically harm them, it seems unlikely that they travel between tombs, or are likely to be encountered elsewhere.

This implies that it must be possible to create them spontaneously, but whether this is by an evil spirit possessing a corpse (as in Tolkien's barrow-wights) or an evil departed soul re-animating its original body isn't stated. In fact, the only way that we are told new wights are made is by contagion, with the souls of those they slay becoming weaker wights under the control of their killer. That this generally happens through the use of energy drain, rather than the use of physical weaponry, probably explains why their bodies look so intact. Presumably, dwarven, halfling, etc., wights exist, although the reliance on tombs might rule out less architecturally inclined races such as, say, nomadic orcs.

The 2E version is very similar, but with glowing eyes, and actual claws instead of long fingernails. They - perhaps more plausibly - are solitary, aside from any servitor wights they may have created, and even these are rare.


Compared with some other creatures, wights don't really change much in 3E. In terms of appearance, they are back to having nails instead of claws, and their teeth are now needle-like. The one shown is cadaverous, rather than having the muscular build of the 1E version, but presumably, there has to be variation between individuals, so that may not mean much. They are, once again, more likely to live in packs, apparently being driven by a desire to create more of their kind, although these packs are typically smaller than those in 1E.

Changes in the rule system mean that we now know that wights are slightly stronger and faster than living humans, although this is only by a narrow margin, and they are, in fact, less physically potent than the otherwise easier-to-kill ghouls. They are, however, remarkably quiet when they move (perhaps not breathing helps here, or their movements are steadier) and they also have acute senses.

The Liber Mortis indicates that, while most wights are the former victims of other wights, they do also arise spontaneously from humans, orcs, hobgoblins, and, occasionally, dwarves. The details remain unclear, although the implication is that they are animated by their original soul - unlike Tolkien's barrow-wights.

The wights of Pathfinder are, unsurprisingly, similar to the 3E version, but far more visibly decayed, and with the glowing eyes of 2E.


The 5E version of the wight has undergone much more drastic changes, to the point that it's hard to imagine scholars within the world would consider them truly the same kind of entity. Having said which, some of the changes are relatively minor. For instance, while prior versions of the wight seem to be physically intact, albeit with an extreme bloodless pallor, the one in the illustration appears to suffer from some slight degree of bodily decay, in that's its nose has apparently rotted off... but it's hardly comparable with a zombie. Wights are also now weakened and near-blinded by sunlight, but then, they always avoided it anyway.

Wights in 5E also wear armour and carry weapons, while all previous versions were dressed in funereal clothing and attacked with fists or claws. However, since wights are of fully human intelligence, there was presumably nothing to stop them doing this before, especially if they happened to belong to a culture that buries their dead warriors alongside the tools of their trade, as many real-world peoples have. It's a difference in attitude on the part of the wight, but not a change in their essential nature.

In a more significant change from 3E, wights are now physically stronger than ghouls, as well as more intelligent and strong-willed. There's also a trade-off in terms of their physical resilience - an unarmoured wight is no longer any harder to hit than a regular human, but mundane weapons inflict less damage (in 1E, though, they had both innate armour and complete immunity to mundane weapons...) In addition, it's clear now that they can speak, in whatever language they knew in life; this wasn't explicitly stated before in the core rulebooks, although Liber Mortis mentioned it.

The most dramatic change, however, is how new wights are created. Previously, most wights were the creation of other wights, who were, in fact, psychologically compelled to make more of their own kind - now, they have lost that ability entirely. Instead, all wights are spontaneously created, differing from ghouls in that they make an active choice to enter the ranks of the undead at the point of their physical death. (We're told this doesn't always work, presumably to stop PCs trying it). This means that they are, as in 2E, more likely to be solitary, but that they explicitly serve evil deities rather than being independent operators. They have switched from lawful to neutral evil, which sort of makes sense for a being selfish enough to choose wight-hood over their deity's afterlife.

As wilful corporeal undead, wights face many of the same biological issues as ghouls. The most significant are the two related questions of how their energy drain ability works and how and why people rise again as wights, as opposed to some other kind of undead.

Energy drain is the signature attack of wights, and, in 1E, they are the weakest form of undead to possess this ability. As described in that edition, it is a terrifyingly powerful ability for something with so few hit dice - permanent loss of a level is about the worst thing one can do to a character in D&D without killing them - and it's noteworthy that the effect is progressively tuned down in later editions. It also fades more rapidly, so that, by 5E, the effect, such as it is by that edition, is entirely cured by a good night's sleep.

We're told that the energy drain works because of the strong aura of "negative energy" that animates the wight. However, its effect is so tightly bound with the rules mechanics of D&D that it's hard to explain exactly what it's doing, from the perspective of somebody living in that universe. It doesn't induce lethargy or physical weakness, or obviously cloud the mind, but it does render the victim less effective at fighting, and, in earlier editions, at spellcasting, too. Somehow, it affects skill and experience, without also causing loss of the memories that go along with them.

In 5E, however, perhaps it can be justified as weakening the bonds between the soul and the body, draining away the victim's "will to live" as the darkness rises inside them.

When this ability entirely overwhelms someone, they die (brain death, presumably, with the rest of the body following). In most editions, they then become undead themselves, and some, probably most, wights are created this way. Some versions state that they retain their original soul when this happens, although, given that they always shift alignment to lawful evil, that may not really mean very much. Perhaps it's more like an evil spirit possessing the corpse and being able to access the original's memories.

But, even so, some must arise spontaneously, and only 5E provides an explanation as to how this might happen. That version, however, doesn't seem to fit with what we know of wights from earlier editions, leaving the question open; perhaps a combination of events is required.

Because the signature power of ghouls is so tightly bound to the D&D mechanics, there is often no direct counterpart in other systems that use widely variant rules. The basic concept of moderately intelligent, active undead may certainly exist, but without the energy drain, they are arguably closer to D&D ghouls than to wights. With that proviso, the closest examples would be barrow-wights in directly Tolkien inspired games, or anything based on the draugr of Norse myth from which Tolkien drew his own inspiration.

For the same reason, trying to more directly simulate an original-style D&D wight in a system that doesn't use levels can be tricky. They are typically somewhat stronger and more combat capable than regular humans, and, in the earlier editions are resilient to damage, probably because they don't bleed or have vital organs. But the energy drain is problematic. Each drain reduces the victim's skills by 5% or the nearest system-equivalent, but the nature of any other penalties may be difficult to carry over meaningfully, and, will, in any case, vary a fair bit depending on how the system works. As a result, it's probably best to avoid trying to stick too closely to the original concept.

Fortunately, though, simulating the 5E version of energy drain is not as complicated as that of earlier editions. While it's not what described as happening - that is, not what an observer in the universe would see - game mechanically, a wight's energy drain attack in 5E simply gives the victim a wound that cannot be healed until the effect wears off (which takes a single night, in the standard version). That's easily enough simulated, although, in many systems, it will mean that a wight is significantly more powerful than it's intended to be in 5E, if it normally doesn't take many blows to kill someone...

Thursday, 23 May 2019

D&D Monsters: Harpies

Harpies are one of a number of D&D monsters that owe their origins to Greek myth. However, the story is not quite as simple as that, since they actually combine two different Greek monsters into a single being: the harpies themselves, and sirens. Both were said to be creatures that were part bird, part woman, but beyond that, there is little similarity between the two in the original sources.

Although very early descriptions of mythic harpies portray them as beautiful, the great majority show them as monstrous. As is often the case, there isn't complete consistency in the descriptions of which parts are avian and which parts humanoid, although something at least resembling the D&D form is the most common. Sirens were even more variable, and some early Greek artwork shows male examples as well as females. In essence, though, it is really only the signature attack - the siren call - that copies over to the D&D 'harpy', which in other respects, is more closely based on its namesake.

Saturday, 18 May 2019

D&D Monsters: Ghouls

The term "undead", as used in D&D actually refers to (at least) three different categories of being. First, there are the mindless undead, such as skeletons and zombies, which are effectively automata that happen to be made from corpses, rather than from inanimate matter. Then there are what we might term the "wilful corporeal" undead, where some kind of intelligence animates the physical body of the deceased, and finally the incorporeal undead, which are a different kind of entity altogether. Ghouls belong to the second of these categories, although they are unusual in the degree of physical transformation that they apparently go through.

Ghouls are originally a creature of Arabic folklore, in which they are a kind of demon (as in the name of the comic-book character Ra'as al-Ghul) that lives in the desert and lures people to their doom in order to kill them. In the eighteenth century, this was introduced to Europeans by Antoine Gaillard, who added the additional detail that they live in graveyards and eat the dead buried there.  This has remained the standard version ever since, although with significant variation.

Saturday, 23 March 2019

D&D Monsters: Lycanthropes

In the real world, "lycanthrope" is just another word for "werewolf"; the word literally means "wolf-man" in Ancient Greek. In D&D, and many other RPGs, however, it's meaning has been expanded to refer to a general class of shapeshifters, of which werewolves are merely the most common example. While others have appeared in supplements from time to time, there are four core types other than werewolves. All of these operate in the same general way, in terms of how the moon, silver, and so on, affect them, and how they pass on the condition, so that what I've already said about werewolves typically applies to all of them, too.



Wererats as such appear to be an invention of D&D, although some other legendary creatures (such as vampires) or evil sorcerers have often been said to be able to transform themselves into rats or similar vermin. Non-shapeshifting "rat-men" do predate D&D, but even they are a 20th century invention, appearing in stories by, among others, H.P. Lovecraft and Fritz Leiber. These are most likely the source of Gygax's inspiration.

Wererats are the lowest rung on the stepwise progression of 1E lycanthropes, although they already have the hit dice of a bugbear, the second highest creature in the 'evil humanoid' progression. Unlike the other lycanthropes they can, right from the beginning, transform into both rat and rat-man forms; the latter, unusually, retain human feet and regularly wield weapons. They live in communities of a dozen or so individuals and, according to 2E normally only breed with humans; the condition is passed on to the child only if the mother is the wererat (which makes sense for a bloodborne pathogen). 

In 3E, they lose a hit dice, but are harder to hit because their natural agility now has a rules effect. They live in smaller groups than before, and are no longer said to be marginally more intelligent than regular humans. In 5E, they have no inherent armour at all, but (in line with other creatures) considerably more hit points. They are once again, more intelligent than humans, although it's not enough to have a rule mechanical effect. Like other 5E lycanthropes, their hybrid form lacks a tail.

In the real world there are, of course, many different species of rat, and most of them live only in the countryside. Wererats, however, are inspired by Rattus norvegicus, the brown or "sewer" rat, and their culture is clearly one that exists parasitically within human cities, arguably more of a subculture than anything else. They are consistently described as evil, but are not ravening beasts, and aren't really any worse than most human criminals.



The mid-point in the stepwise progression, wereboars are more powerful than ogres, even ignoring their resistance to regular weaponry. Like wererats, wereboars aren't something particularly common in real-world mythology (and the name, of course, is a neologism) but pigs are part of a broader repertoire of alternate forms for shape-shifters in general; the aswang of the Philippines is one such example.

1E has relatively little to say about them, other than that they are obnoxious, but not actively evil, and they avoid true pigs. The image shows them as having a beast-form that's half-pig half-man, but it may be intended to show a mid-point in the transformation, rather than the end result. 2E, however, clearly identifies this hybrid form as the only alternate. Nonetheless, wereboars apparently eschew using weapons in this form, even though they have functional hands - it may simply be that their tusks are more effective (they do a remarkable amount of damage). It's clear here that wereboars are a distinct race with a clear culture, albeit quite a crude one based on small, xenophobic, family units.

3E makes the same changes as it does to other lycanthropes, but also improves the hide of the creature - now equivalent to plate armour, rather than mail. In terms of base statistics, the primary change on transformation is a dramatic increase in physical strength and raw endurance/resilience. From here on in, they are willing to use weapons such as axes or clubs in hybrid form. The 5E version is similar, but changes to become actively evil, regularly seeking out others to infect. Their raw stamina and determination are once again stressed, in line with the common trope that pigs are stubborn and difficult to kill.

While there are, perhaps, more species of wild pig than many people realise, the wild boar (Sus scrofa), from which the common domestic animal is derived is the most numerous and widespread. It's clearly this that's intended, as is evident from the name (note that the females don't appear to be called "weresows"), although there's no obvious reason why there couldn't be, say, were-warthogs in tropical climes.



Weretigers exist in a number of Asian mythologies, most notably those of India, but also China, Indonesia, and so on. Other kinds of big cat have similar were-forms in other mythologies, with perhaps the best known being the werejaguars of Mesoamerica. While these are typically an actual race or hereditary curse, rather than a simple case of an evil sorcerer or shape-shifting deity, and in that respect resemble the werewolves of European legend, there are few other parallels. In D&D, of course, they share a great many features with werewolves, such as their vulnerability to silver and an often vague connection with the lunar cycle.

1E weretigers apparently transform only into regular tigers but even by 2E they also have a bipedal form. Interestingly, this resembles the 1E "wolf-man" in general form, rather than the beast-headed biped seen in most other lycanthropes. Specifically, while the legs change shape below the knee, and there is a tail and striped body fur, the head remains relatively humanoid. 3E makes no mention of this either way, but by 5E, the hybrid form has the full-on animalistic head.

An oddity of weretigers in the first two editions is that 80% of them are female. This is likely an artefact of naturally born weretigers, since the curse is equally transmissible to either sex through a bite. Presumably, weretiger mothers miscarry male infants, probably at such an early stage they don't even realise they are pregnant, but, of course, it could also be a magical effect that alters an embryo's chromosomes. Either way, it implies that weretigers have to seek out male humans to mate with in order to maintain their population levels. (A male weretiger having multiple sexual partners would also work, but this seems unlikely given their small family groups and wide dispersal).

3E no longer makes any mention of the gender imbalance, but the more detailed rules indicate a massive increase in strength in the animal and hybrid forms - the same as a hill giant, despite being around 25% shorter and considerably lighter and less muscular-looking. This is greatly reduced, to the upper end of the human range, in 5E, although the boosted reflexes do remain.

Weretigers' personalities reflect those of their animal forms, being aloof and aggressive, but not normally evil. Real tigers are solitary in adulthood but, likely because of their human heritage, weretigers are more likely to live in mated pairs. However, this would explain why, despite their obvious affinity for them, weretigers do not often team up with the natural animal - it's more rejection on the part of the tiger than that of the lycanthrope. On the other hand, the quality of the weapons and clothing they are shown to have access to implies a close enough association with regular humanoid society to acquire and (presumably) pay for such goods.



Doubtless because of their great size and strength, bears are often given magical powers in myths and legends, and these can include shape-shifting into humans. Such legends are found, for example, amongst the Germanic, Slavic, and Finnish peoples, and also among some Native American tribes. For the most part, though, these are one-off instances, or, as with typical medieval werewolves, the results of sorcery and the like. A common theme, for example, is warriors putting on bear-skins before battle to take on some of the attributes of the animal. Unlike werewolves, though, shape-shifting bears are less likely to be seen as evil in the legends, and, probably also inspired by Tolkien's Beorn, this is something carried over into the D&D version.

Werebears are the most powerful of the standard lycanthropes, and the only one that's described as essentially benevolent, if wary of human company. In the first two editions they only transform into quadrupedal bears, but, as usual, this has changed by 3E. These early versions also heal faster than normal humans and, while immune to disease themselves, are highly skilled at curing it in others (presumably through knowledge of herbalism, although the details aren't given). Since they tend to avoid humans, they may practice this latter skill on regular bears, or other wild animals, since they are described as guardians of nature.

In 1E, werebears are only ever adults, and apparently never have children. It's unclear what this is intended to mean, but by 2E they have normal human children that don't transform until adolescence and then immediately leave home to live by themselves and/or find a mate. They regularly interact with normal bears and have a magical affinity that allows them to call them from miles away.

In editions from 3E onwards, all these various unusual features are no longer present and the great power of the werebear simply comes from having a similar strength and resilience to an actual bear - combined with all the usual resistances and the intelligence to develop highly effective combat skills.

In the real world, there are eight species of bear, although one of these is the giant panda. It's clear, both from the artwork and from the exact strength they possess in later editions, that the werebear transforms into brown bears (Ursos arctos). This is the species that includes grizzlies, the European and Russian sorts, and the unusually large Kodiak bear from the island of the same name. It's less gregarious than brown bears but noticeably larger, stronger, and more aggressive. Since brown bears can interbreed with polar bears to produce fertile offspring, polar werebears are a logical extrapolation.


Jackalweres are not said to be true lycanthropes. As a result, they do not fall into the neat hierarchy seen in the earlier editions, being weaker than werewolves in some respects, but superior in others. While mythical sorcerers and shapeshifting gods are as capable of turning into jackals as any other animal appropriate to their native culture, the jackalwere of D&D seems to be an original creation, with no mythical or literary antecedents. As described, they are one of those races that you would think would have a significant effect on the world it inhabited, but doesn't because there are so many other intelligent evil beings to compete with.

In 1E, jackalweres are initially described as "jackals that transform into men". The illustrations, however, make it obvious that they also have a hybrid form. This has an essentially humanoid body covered with fur, and a jackal's head - making it visibly distinct from the 1E werewolf.

The existence of the hybrid form is explicitly stated in 2E, although for some reason the illustration shows a creature that's spotted like a hyena rather than being particularly jackal-like. It's also clarified that they are born in jackal form and only shapeshift when they approach adulthood. The condition is not a contagion, however, and acts more like a recessive gene, with only purebred offspring having the trait. (On the other hand, if it really were a recessive gene, some jackals would be "carriers", with matings between carriers occasionally producing jackalwere pups. This may, or may not, actually be the case).

In addition to all this, a couple of other features distinguish jackalweres from true lycanthropes. Firstly, they are immune to silvered weapons, but not to iron ones. 2E specified that this has to be "cold iron" a term that, historically, just means "iron or steel used to make weapons" but that's more often used in modern fantasy to mean something special, such as meteoritic iron. The other feature is that they don't have a specific human form, being able to change their appearance at will.

The jackalwere does not appear in the 3E core books (although it does elsewhere), but it has quite drastically changed by 5E. They're now weaker than wererats, let alone werewolves, and it's now silver weapons that harm them, just as for lycanthropes. They also have a specific human form and hunt in packs - formerly they lived in small nuclear families, much like most (but not all) real jackals. The physical form of the hybrid also looks much more lycanthrope-like, with animalistic legs below the knee. Unlike actual 5E lycanthropes, however, they have a tail.

The signature ability of the jackalwere is the power to send people to sleep by simply staring at them and willing it so. In early editions, they specifically cannot do this in combat, but that also changes in 5E. With fully human intelligence, and perhaps even a little better on average, 1E and 2E jackalweres roam around killing random people for no particular reason other than that's what they do. In 5E they serve lamias, and often take prisoners for their masters.

The term "jackal" in the real world refers to any close relative of the domestic dog that isn't either a wolf or a coyote. There are at least three different species that fit this description, but most of the illustrations seem to favour the uniform pelt of the golden jackal (Canis aureus) which is the kind found in Asia and North Africa. The association with Anubis, the Ancient Egyptian jackal-headed god of the dead, is often apparent in the art and may have been part of Gygax's original inspiration for the race.

Many other game systems also have non-wolf "lycanthropes", with bears perhaps being the most common. Wererats are an obvious urban monster, and weretigers have, among other advantages, the benefit of having a stronger basis in real-world mythology. Glorantha is notable here in having many shapechangers - few, if any, of them "evil" as D&D lycanthropes are, and unable to spread their condition to others. Werebears are the most numerous kind overall, but they live far from the usual centres of game activity, where werewolves are more common. Other common instances in that world include boars, tiger, deer, eagles, and bats. In Yrth, bears, boars, eagles, and snakes are the most common non-wolf forms.

As noted above, jackalweres are the most distinctive of the D&D therianthropic shapeshifters - partly because they aren't supposed to be typical lycanthropes (although the difference declines in 5E). However, it's hard to know how best to translate them to other systems because they have changed so much down the years. Are they vulnerable to silver or iron? What does "iron" even mean in this context? Are they tougher than regular humans, or roughly the same (resistances aside)? Is their sleep-inducing power something hypnotic that only works on unsuspecting and relaxed victims, or a magic attack that can be employed in combat? Do they have just one human form or illusion powers that allow them to take on several?

These questions have no one answer.

Saturday, 23 February 2019

D&D Monsters: Werewolves

Werewolves are a longstanding feature of European folklore, with references to men who can turn into wolves dating back to at least the Ancient Greeks, although the belief does not seem to have become widespread before the Middle Ages. For most of this time, however, werewolves seem to have been thought of as evil sorcerers or (in pre-Christian times) one-off individuals cursed by the gods. This "evil sorcerer" version most closely matches the sort of werewolf seen in the works of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and is quite different from the D&D version.

That instead borrows from horror fiction, most notably the Universal Pictures Wolf Man films of the 1940s. Many of the tropes we associate with werewolves today were made popular by those films, and, in fact, often don't date back much further than the 19th century. In these films, however, as in some more modern examples such as An American Werewolf in London and Harry Potter, werewolves are portrayed as (mostly) tragic individuals, while in Twilight they seem relatively benign. D&D, like many other RPGs, makes them definitively evil although the potential for tragedy is still implicit in their ability to pass on the condition to others.


The connection to the cinematic, rather than folkloric, version of werewolves is particularly obvious in 1E, in which the werewolf is shown as having a form similar to that of the monster in 1941's The Wolf Man. As this indicates, werewolves in D&D transform primarily into a bipedal human-wolf hybrid, a convention of modern films, rather than into powerful, but otherwise broadly normal-looking, wolves as they do in folklore (and Tolkien). We are, however, told that quadrupedal "wolweres" also exist, being born as wolves and only later transforming, and that the two types of being regularly live side-by-side in the same pack.

Wednesday, 23 January 2019

D&D Monsters: Trolls

Unlike the ogre, which seems to have a medieval origin, trolls have a pedigree that stretches back into ancient myth. Specifically, they are Scandinavian, where they are nocturnal humanoids, often living out in the wilds and at least suspicious of, if not outright hostile to, humans. Tolkien used them in the way that D&D later went on to use ogres, but retaining the mythic feature of them turning to stone in sunlight.

Many other fantasy works have used trolls in the "large, strong and stupid" role of D&D ogres, with the stone-based giants of Pratchett's Discworld and the grey-skinned mountain trolls of Harry Potter being particularly original or well-known examples. The troll of D&D, however, has no real resemblance to these, or to the mythic creature; Gygax instead stated that his inspiration was the 1961 novel Three Hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson, which features a regenerating troll, along with a number of other tropes he adopted for the game.


Trolls are initially shown as cadaverous humanoids with a green or grey warty skin, exaggerated facial features, including a long pointed nose, and writhing tendrils in place of hair. The eyes are large black wells beneath a pronounced brow ridge. Trolls possess no visible genitalia, and so presumably do not reproduce in the human fashion, and have only four digits on their hands and feet - even then one of the toes appears vestigial.

Physically, they are powerful creatures, able to deliver a rapid series of blows, each more powerful than a typical sword-strike, and they have a rubbery hide that's thicker and more resilient than rhino-skin. Even without their regenerative powers, they are about halfway between ogres and the smallest of true giants in their ability to soak up damage - although some of this could be due to simple combat prowess, or a lack of truly vital organs. They also have acute senses, particularly smell (which would explain the large nose).