Tuesday, 26 September 2017

The Evolution of Orcs

Orcs are perhaps the quintessential low-level D&D monster, and one that has been adopted by a range of other RPGs and computer games since. Unlike my earlier ponderings on D&D fantasy creatures, I'm not here going to focus much on what orcs might be like biologically; they're pretty clearly anthropoid beings that, some minor features aside, are broadly similar to humans. Instead, I'm going to look at some different conceptions of them down the years, focussing mainly on D&D itself.

Orcs, in the modern sense, are, of course, the invention of J.R.R. Tolkien. He borrowed the word from Old English, in which it's usually translated as "monster", and is possibly just a less common alternative word for "ogre". But it was Tolkien who introduced the concept of the orc as an evil race of humanoid beings, from which Gygax obviously took his inspiration when writing D&D. Tolkien's orcs are the result of twisted experiments on elves, and are typically described as sallow-skinned and misshapen, although there does seem to be some variation among them. They exist primarily as the foot-soldiers of more powerful evil entities.


Orcs appear in D&D right from the beginning, in which they are an evil, tribal, race of often subterranean humanoids. In 1E (that is, the 1977 "Advanced" edition), they are one of five evil tribal humanoid races, which form a distinct game mechanical hierarchy of increasing physical prowess. Orcs are the third step on this chain, the mid-point against which one could argue that everything else is measured. With no special powers, beyond the ability to see in the dark (which almost everything has) and exactly one hit die, they're pretty much equivalent to starting humans and are about as "default" a monster as one could wish to find.

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Some Thoughts on Ankhegs

Whip scorpions also spray acid
...but out of their other end
Giant insects - and other invertebrates - have been a common feature of fantasy role-playing games since the early days. The majority are based on real-world invertebrates expanded to much larger size. The ankheg, which made its debut in first edition AD&D, is unusual in being entirely fictional. Indeed, it is an original creation of the game, with the name being made up because it sounded good, rather than deriving from some mythological or other pre-existing fictional basis. Thus, it seems a good starting point to examine the question of how giant insects in general might actually work.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Some Thoughts on Gorgons

In Greek mythology, the gorgons were three monstrous sisters whose visage turned people to stone. Detailed descriptions vary, although they typically had snakes for hair. In D&D, however, these beings are known as "medusas", from the name of the specific gorgon slain by Perseus. The creature known as a gorgon in D&D is therefore, something else entirely, an essentially original creation, albeit still with the power of petrifaction, and perhaps partially inspired by the bronze bulls from the story of Jason and the Argonauts.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Some Thoughts on Displacer Beasts

Actually a photoshopped jaguar...
Like their supposed enemies, the blink dogs, displacer beasts have been present in every version of the Dungeon & Dragons game. Apparently based, at least in terms of their physical appearance, on an alien creature featuring in the works of early science fiction writer A.E. van Vogt, their signature power is nonetheless original to the game. They are among the few standard D&D creatures not to be included in the Open Game Licence, so that they are distinct to that game and not to any of its clones/adaptations, such as Pathfinder. But we're not restricted by that here, since we're just providing a review of the thing. So what can we say about them?

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Some Thoughts on Blink Dogs

In Basic Edition, blink dogs were said to resemble dingos
Blink dogs are a relatively well-known creature for the D&D game, being entirely original to it, and having been present in every edition since the very beginning. Compared with some other signature creatures, though, there doesn't seem to be much written about them. So let's see what sort of a take I can make on them.

As always, let's begin by seeing what the primary source material has to say about the creatures, using an admittedly incomplete sampling of various editions:

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Some Thoughts on Owlbears

No, I'm not very good with Photoshop...
Owlbears are arguably the most distinctive of the "mundane" animals of the standard D&D menagerie. Of course, that's taking a very broad definition of "mundane", referring solely to the fact that they possess no magical powers or particularly unusual abilities. To the people of the world they live in, they're presumably no stranger or more to be feared than tigers, alligators, or rhinoceroses are to us.

In our reality, though, they couldn't exist, since they mix and match mammalian and avian features in a way that doesn't happen in natural evolution. Even in the world of D&D they're usually said to be the creation of some long-dead wizard, rather than something natural - although it's worth noting that other hybrid creatures, such as griffons, aren't regarded in the same way. Still, it's at least interesting, for someone like me who writes a lot about real world animals, to consider how such a creature would work if, somehow, it really existed.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Some Thoughts on Dire Wolves

Yesterday, after watching some early episodes of season six of Game of Thrones, my thoughts turned to dire wolves. Clearly the dire wolves in that show are not the same as the animals of the same name portrayed in the classic RPG Dungeons & Dragons.

But this set me to wondering what the dire wolves of D&D would be like if they actually existed. It's an easier question to consider than what, say, a griffon might be like, since we do at least have real wolves to compare them to. A griffon, by contrast, may have radically different interpretations in different games, novels, or even real-world legends.

But even dire wolves, close though they are to real animals, vary noticeably between different interpretations. Those in GoT appear to be larger, slightly more intelligent versions of real wolves,which doesn't quite fit their depiction in D&D, despite the obviously similar source material. So what could we reasonably say about D&D-style dire wolves?

Let's begin by defining the animal we're talking about. I'll look at the versions in three different editions of the Monster Manual, not using other sources that may have expanded on them (of which there are doubtless many, official and otherwise).