Friday, 16 March 2018

D&D Monsters: Gnolls

Continuing my look at some of the standard monsters of D&D, and continuing with the theme of the "evil tribal" races, it's time to turn to the gnolls - something that's particularly appropriate right now, given that they've recently been used as antagonists on Critical Role.

Although it has also been borrowed by other works, such as Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels, the term "gnoll" is not one that's native to folklore or legend. Gygax borrowed the word from a short fantasy story by Lord Dunsany, in which it is used to describe sinister woodland beings. Although Dunsany never described what his "gnoles" looked like, Gygax has stated that he took the word to mean that they were supposed to resemble a cross between a gnome and a troll, which is as plausible an etymology as any.

By the time of the 1E Monster Manual, however, he had already switched to the "hyena man" look that they have kept ever since. This appears to be original to D&D.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

D&D Monsters: Hobgoblins

Last time, I looked at the history of goblins in D&D; now it's time to look at their larger cousins, the hobgoblins. Of the five standard "evil tribal humanoids", hobgoblins stand out in that they appear, from the earliest illustrations, to be rather more civilised than the others. In my experience, a number of campaign worlds, home-brews included, have therefore included relatively sophisticated hobgoblin nations, rather than leaving them solely as barbarian hordes, as is more commonly done with orcs.

The term "hobgoblin" is a part of traditional British folklore, referring to a particular sort of goblin that's usually seen as less malevolent than the normal sort - albeit capricious, and often dangerous pranksters. Puck, in A Midsummer Night's Dream, is a hobgoblin of this sort, showing that Shakespeare, at least, thought of these beings as mischievous, but not actively evil. The original meaning of "hob" is unclear, although there's nothing to suggest that it originally meant "larger".

Tolkien is the first to use "hobgoblin" in that sense, using it, briefly, to refer to larger orcs in The Hobbit, in distinction to the regular "goblins". Gygax presumably borrowed this for D&D, and seems also to have been influenced by the uruk-hai of The Lord of the Rings, which share a number of traits with 1E hobgoblins.

Monday, 1 January 2018

D&D Monsters: Goblins

Following on from my earlier ponderings on the development of orcs in Dungeons and Dragons and related franchises, I am now going to focus on a very similar creature: the goblin. Goblins have, perhaps, changed less than orcs over the years since their first introduction into the game, but change they have, and they are a very common low-level opponent, one that's generally intended to be marginally weaker than a starting player character, and thus a threat in large numbers without being a complete walk-over when encountered in smaller groups.

The term "goblin" is, of course, an ancient one in English, referring to a (usually) malevolent magical being that is typically small and misshapen; a sort of evil fairy. As with orcs, the more modern conception of goblins comes from J.R.R. Tolkien. Indeed, Tolkien uses the word as simply another word for "orc", mainly as the term that hobbits use for that race. The fact that the word therefore ends up being used more frequently in The Hobbit, in which these particular antagonists seem less of a serious threat than their counterparts in Lord of the Rings do, likely combines with the original folklore meaning of the word to produce the "like orcs, only weaker" idea first used in D&D.


Goblins appear in the very earliest editions of D&D, at first without much in the way of description. By the time of the "Advanced" edition, they are part of a distinct hierarchy of five evil tribal humanoid races, forming the second step on the chain, one slot below the orcs. Statistically speaking, they are extremely similar to orcs, but just marginally weaker: they are slower, have one less hit point, a 5% lower chance of landing a blow on an opponent, and inflict, on average, one less point of damage when they do so. In practical terms, this doesn't make a huge difference, but it could be just enough to turn the tide in an otherwise close battle (as is likely at low level).

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?