Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, July 2, 2024

D&D's Monstrous Makeovers...

As we entertain D&D's 50th anniversary, we should consider that while mechanics evolve over time, it's content, an implied fantasy world, that makes our pastime about living another, arguably more interesting, life. Otherwise, it's all math. And a big part of this are the many monstrous adversaries awaiting a party. Some are mythological, perhaps accounting for the vagueness of their early in-game descriptions. Others were original creations, and these baddies underwent substantial changes through decades of gameplay...

Bugbears (from Greyhawk) are described as great hairy goblin-giants, which is probably more than enough to do the trick. But the rulebook's one illustration depicts a literally pumpkin-headed monster, which invites many questions. Can you smash their soft melon heads or make tasty holiday pies from their brains? Sensing a need to reconcile this to something less (for want of a word) weird, later depictions made them the round-headed goblins we know. It never mentioned heads, so this derived from the artwork.

Another is the gnoll (Monsters & Treasure), a gnome/troll hybrid minus regeneration in a gentle nod to Dunsany. The illustration is certainly interesting, and it might have made fascinating alternate history had it remained so. But by AD&D, it became explicitly clear, per the Monster Manual, that these most closely resembled hyenas. And this wasn't a gentle slope either, nor an attempt to reconcile the earlier artwork. It was a radical transformation, becoming big where once small, and without a trace of trollish ancestry...

There are others, of course. Half a century of gaming leaves its mark on a ruleset; but content, especially monsters (and especially the originals not tied to any recognized mythology) may undergo radical transformations. Rules are important; but it's content that makes a game more than mere math. And you can see within its pages where OD&D's assorted authors leaned heavily on established mythology and where they fashioned new and exciting creations to be shaped by generations of artists and clever players.


  1. Gygax remarks on these points here:

  2. Very interesting. I have read about the pumpkin-headed bugbears before but never really thought about it too much. I think I am going to tackle a Risus version of the old fashioned bugbear!