D&D inspiration

Being a DM is hard. Players interact with the game world, and you create that world. Without you, there is no game. That’s a lot of pressure!

Prepping for a session can take a lot of out of you creatively, especially if you are already tired from work and life stuff. Sometimes you need a bit of DM inspiration. This article is a series of signposts for where to go when you’re running out of steam.

There is nothing new under the sun, and every story ever written owes something to the ones that came before it. If a story were truly original, it would probably seem wacky and incoherent to us: we would have no frames of reference to make sense of it. So: steal!

Films

Fantasy or not, here are some of my go-to films for inspiration. (Note: the 2000 Dungeons & Dragons film is not included.)

  • J J Abrams (2009) Star Trek
  • Tim Burton (1999) Sleepy Hollow
  • John Carpenter (1982) The Thing
  • Don Chaffey (1963) Jason and the Argonauts
  • Francis Ford Coppola (1992) Bram Stoker’s Dracula
  • Desmond Davis (1981) Clash of the Titans
  • Jim Henson and Frank Oz (1982) The Dark Crystal
  • Gordon Hessler (1973) The Golden Voyage of Sinbad
  • Ron Howard (1988) Willow
  • Peter Jackson (2001–2003) The Lord of the Rings
  • Irvin Kershner (1980) The Empire Strikes Back
  • Akira Kurosawa (1954) Seven Samurai
  • Ang Lee (2000) Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
  • George Miller (2015) Mad Max: Fury Road
  • Stephen Norrington (1998) Blade
  • Kevin Reynolds (1991) Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
  • Ridley Scott (1982) Blade Runner
  • Steven Sommers (1999) The Mummy
  • Steven Spielberg (1981) Raiders of the Lost Ark
  • Gore Verbinski (2003) Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
  • Sam Wanamaker (1977) Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger

TV series

A shorter list for some reason, but all highly recommended:

  • Steve Barron (1998) Merlin
  • Benioff and Weiss (2011–2019) Game of Thrones
  • The Duffer Brothers (2016–) Stranger Things
  • Warren Ellis (2017–) Castlevania
  • Gene Roddenberry (1987–1994) Star Trek: The Next Generation

Video games

For many D&D players, this may be our number one source of inspiration for D&D. So, what would I recommend? (Follow the links for articles by me about using these games in D&D.)

  • Baldur’s Gate (1998)
  • The Borderlands series (2009–)
  • Darkest Dungeon (2016)
  • Diablo II (2000)
  • The Elder Scrolls series, including Morrowind (2002), Oblivion (2006),and Skyrim (2011)
  • Far Cry 3 (2012)
  • Final Fantasy VII (1997)
  • Grim Fandango (1998)
  • Might and Magic VI: The Mandate of Heaven (1998)
  • Neverwinter Nights (2002)
  • Pillars of Eternity (2015)
  • Shadow of the Colossus (2006)
  • Shadow of the Tomb Raider (2018)
  • The Last of Us (2013)
  • The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (2015)

(I’m conscious there are probably lots of gaps here. Feel free to suggest others in the comments!)

Books

Did you know that there is a reading list at the back of the 5th edition Player’s Handbook, and another in the Dungeon Master’s Guide?

Anyway, shameful admission: I don’t read much fantasy. This may be controversial, but a lot of the ‘genre fiction’ I’ve read just wasn’t very good, and some of the fantasy novels I enjoyed in my early teens make me cringe when I reread them now (eg, Terry Brooks, David Eddings).

First, fiction. The list that follows is a fairly eclectic collection of literature which continues to inspire me in my games, even if some of it is not really ‘fantasy’ at all.

  • Beowulf (I love the 1999 Heaney translation)
  • Emily Brontë (1847) Wuthering Heights
  • Raymond Chandler (1939) The Big Sleep
  • Thomas Malory (1485) Le Morte d’Arthur
  • Edgar Allan Poe: ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ (1839), ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ (1843)
  • Terry Pratchett (1983–2015) the Discworld series
  • J K Rowling (1997–2007) the Harry Potter series
  • William Shakespeare: Henry V (1599), Macbeth (1606), The Tempest (1610)
  • Mary Shelley (1818) Frankenstein
  • Bram Stoker (1897) Dracula
  • J R R Tolkien: The Hobbit (1937), The Lord of the Rings (1954–1955), and Tales from the Perilous Realm (1997)
  • H G Wells (1895) The Time Machine
  • John Wyndham (1955) The Chrysalids and (1951) The Day of the Triffids

And a selection of non-fiction. While I’ve only picked out one or two books for each author, everything they write is worth reading.

  • James D’Amato (2019) The Ultimate RPG Gameplay Guide
  • Keith Ammann (2020) Live to Tell the Tale
  • Matt Colville (2018) Strongholds and Followers
  • David M Ewalt (2013) Of Dice and Men
  • Robin D Laws: Hamlet’s Hit Points (2010) and Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering (2002)
  • Sean K Reynolds (2017) Kobold Guide to Gamemastering
  • Sean K Reynolds and Shanna Germain (2019) Consent in Gaming
  • Michael Shea (2018) Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master
  • Blake Snyder (2005) Save the Cat!

Websites

I’m always on the lookout for great new D&D blogs, so if there are any I have missed from here inadvertently, let me know! (Have I mentioned you can also subscribe to Scroll for Initiative here?)

Using these lists

I hope you enjoy going through these lists for your own D&D inspiration. In closing, here’s my guide to stealing:

  1. Steal characters. There’s nothing wrong with lifting a character and adding them to your game somehow! You can always change the gender or ancestry to make them less obvious. (And you would be in good company doing so. Indiana Jones was greatly inspired by James Bond, and Uncharted’s Nathan Drake is clearly modelled on Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft.)
  2. Steal plots. Strip the story back to its bare bones and use it as a skeleton for your own advetures. Again, no shame in this. Star Wars is clearly inspired by The Hidden Fortress, and The Magnificent Seven is a Western retelling of Seven Samurai.
  3. Steal settings. If you love Hogwarts or King’s Landing or Gondor, no one’s going to come running after you if you adapt it into your games.
  4. Mash ups. Star Wars is basically World War II in space with samurai. Borderlands is kind of like a mash-up of Diablo, Halo, and Mad Max. Pick three elements and smash them together to see what happens.

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EXCLUSIVE: New products for 2021

Happy April Fool’s!

D&D fans are always on the lookout for ways to spend their hard-earned cash. Now, in a world exclusive, Scroll for Initiative can reveal that the following D&D products are confirmed for autumn 2021. Merch, merch, merch!

Spelljammer: Adventures in Wild Space

The final frontier. May the Force be with you.
– Elminster

Finally, after years of hints, Spelljammer IS confirmed. The much beloved campaign setting was long overdue for a 5e reboot, and fans of the original sourcebooks will not be disappointed.

We can reveal that the new sourcebook willl contain:

  • Revised rules for ship combat, including heavy weapons, ramming, and hexcrawls between spheres
  • Two new playable races: the giff and the neogi
  • Four new subclasses
  • Stats for at least four new monsters, including comet steeds, radiant dragons, giant space hamsters, and more
  • A short introductory adventure: Lost Mine of Phandelver . . . in Space!
  • A 3D poster map

It is expected that the next few hardback adventures will focus on Wild Space. However, following in the tradition of 5th edition Forgotten Realms adventures, only ten percent of the Wild Space setting will actually appear.

An alternative cover design containing real space dust will be revealed next month on my YouTube channel (I just need to set it up first). Stay tuned!

Curse of Strahd: Kill Strahd Yet Again

Following the success of 2016’s Curse of Strahd and last year’s Curse of Strahd Revamped, fans will be delighted to learn that the next published adventure will be Kill Strahd Yet Again. Plot details are scant at this stage, but it’s rumoured that this $50 adventure will take adventurers back to Barovia to find that Strahd has once again . . . ah, you know the rest.

47th anniversary dragon and dice

To celebrate nearly 50 years since the original Dungeons & Dragons game was published, we can expect to see a new amethyst dice set, expected to retail for just $400. The dice set will come with a custom dice box and dice tray combo and an exclusive sticker set. There are also plans to release an amethyst dragon made of real plastic, which will be snapped up by collectors for the price of just $90!

Lifesize Tiamat model

Fans were delighted to learn this week that an official update of the Tiamat miniature is in the works: the biggest D&D mini yet. It’s expected to retail for under $400. What is yet to be revealed, however, is the lifesize Tiamat model, constructed at 1:1 scale. D&D fans with a spare garage/aircraft hangar will be able to house this magnificent mini biggie for just $24,000.

Player’s Handbook: Neckbeard Edition

D&D is as popular as it has ever been, and there’s no desire for a new edition any time soon. However, for some of the game’s oldest fans, D&D isn’t what it used to be, so a special edition Player’s Handbook is now in the works for December 2021.

If you’re a sexist and a racist uncomfortable with the concept of diversity, you will be pleased to see a return to the male pronoun throughout, and almost all the humans depicted in the artwork will be white men (because D&D IS EUROPEAN MEDIEVAL FANTASY GODDAMNIT!!!!1!). Some women females will be shown, but they will be depicted exclusively in boob plate and chainmail bikinis. Orcs will be back to their always-evil, pig-faced selves.

In terms of rule changes, Armour Class is likely to be replaced by THAC0, fighters will be renamed ‘fighting men’, and the grapple rules of 3rd edition will return with all their tactical crunch (get your flowcharts ready). Female characters will start with lower Strength scores, bards will be a complex multiclass option, and best of all, the rulebook will return to 9-point Futura. We can’t wait.

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Forgotten dragons, part one: chromatics

The 5th edition Monster Manual has ten true dragons: five chromatics and five metallic. True dragons become more powerful as they get older. There are also ‘lesser dragons’, like faerie dragons, pseudodragons, and wyverns, but that’s a whole other topic.

How much do you know about the other true dragons? In this series, I’m going to go back through D&D lore and pull out some forgotten gems. I also provide a recipe for each dragon to show how you might convert them into 5th edition rules. In this part, I will look at the chromatic dragons. In the 5th edition Monster Manual, there are five: red, blue, green, black, and white (from most to least powerful). But in editions past, there have been others!

Brown dragons, also known as sand dragons or great desert dragons, first appeared in 2nd edition AD&D, in 1990’s Old Empires. They are wingless but can dig through sand very quickly. Their preferred tactic is to bury themselves in the dust and ambush their prey with a furious assault. They are usually Neutral Evil.

  • Start with a blue dragon, but give it a Strength and Constitution boost (use the red dragon’s stats for this).
  • Change the damage immunity from lightning to acid.
  • Swap the breath weapon to that of a black dragon, and change the bonus lightning damage on the bite attack to acid damage.
  • Remove the fly speed. Add the brass dragon’s burrow speed to make up for it.
  • Add tremorsense (60 ft) to its senses.
  • For adult brown dragons and older, reskin the wing attack legendary action to be slashing damage (call it ‘rend’, if you like).
  • For lair actions, you could keep the blue dragon’s cloud of sand attack, and you could add in the red dragon’s tremor action or the copper dragon’s ‘ground to mud’ action.
  • For innate spellcasting, you could include spells like haste, minor illusion, nondetection, and wall of sand (from Xanathar’s Guide to Everything) for young dragons, conjure elemental, hallucinatory terrain, stone shape, and seeming for adults, and disintegrate, mirage arcane, and move earth for ancient brown dragons.

Deep dragons, also called purple dragons, first appeared in 1991 in a Forgotten Realms appendix to the Monstrous Compendium Volume One. Deep dragons are slender and serpentine and live in the Underdark as their name suggests. They are consummate shapeshifters. In some editions, their breath weapon is a kind of psychic beam that dazes their opponents or even dominates them; in others, it’s a cone of corrosive gas. There are also references in some editions to their being harmed by direct sunlight. They are Chaotic Evil.

  • Start with a green dragon, but change the poison damage of its bite and breath weapon to acid.
  • Swap poison immunity for cold and fire resistance.
  • Add a 20 ft burrow speed, and reduce the swim speed by 10 ft.
  • Deep dragons have 120 ft truesight. As an option, you could give them sunlight sensitivity, like a drow.
  • Like some of the metallic dragons, deep dragons can change shape, either into a humanoid form or into a snake form, to help it navigate tunnels. In snake form, the deep dragon cannot use its claws, and its fly speed drops to 10 ft, but it can constrict like a constrictor snake of its size.
  • For innate spellcasting, you could include spells like detect magic for young dragons, and freedom of movement, passwall, and stone shape for older dragons.

The energy dragon (which, confusingly, is also called a purple dragon) is sadistically evil and perhaps the most intelligent of all dragons, second only to the red dragon in strength and size. They prefer to fly at night, and often find themselves ruling small kingdoms. Like blue and green dragons, they are Lawful Evil.

  • Start with a red dragon, but give it a green dragon’s Intelligence score.
  • Unlike red dragons, energy dragons have no damage immunities, and their bite attack does not deal extra fire damage.
  • Uniquely, the energy dragon can choose between three breath weapons. Let’s go through them one at a time.
  • The first is a cone of energy, which is the same as the red dragon’s breath weapon but deals force damage like eldritch blast or magic missile.
  • The second is a blinding flash: all creatures within range must succeed on a Constitution save (same DC) or be blinded until the end of the dragon’s next turn. (Use the length of the red dragon’s cone and halve it to get the range of this effect.)
  • Finally, the energy dragon can create a laser-like blade of energy. Use the blue dragon’s lightning breath for this, but change the damage type to force.
  • The energy dragon has advantage on Stealth checks when flying at night.
  • For innate spellcasting, you could include spells like gust of wind, heat metal, pyrotechnics (from Xanathar’s), and suggestion for young energy dragons, fire shield and wall of force for adults, and perhaps mass suggestion and prismatic spray for ancient dragons.
  • As for lair actions, use the black dragon’s magical darkness effect or the blue dragon’s lightning arcs.

Fang dragons, also called grey dragons,* first appeared in 1989 in Monstrous Compendium Volume One. Every part of the body is sharp or spiky. They are poor flyers and have no breath weapon, but they make up for it with ferocious melee combat abilities. Their alignment is Chaotic Neutral.

* In some editions, grey dragons are a specific type of fang dragon that has been blessed with a breath weapon by Tiamat. The rules below presume a dragon with no breath weapon.

  • Start with a white dragon, but halve the fly speed and take away the swim and burrow speeds.
  • Swap the mental ability scores for those of a black dragon of the same age.
  • Swap the immunity to cold damage for resistance to bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage from nonmagical attacks.
  • Instead of a breath weapon, give the fang dragon a Life Drain attack like that of a wight or wraith: the target must succeed on a Constitution save (use the same DC as the white dragon’s breath weapon) or its hit point maximum is reduced by an amount equal to the damage taken. (This reduction lasts until the target finishes a long rest, and the target dies if this effect reduces its hit point maximum to 0.)
  • For added ferocity, increase the damage of all melee attacks by one damage die (1d6 to 1d8, 1d8 to 1d10, etc).
  • Reskin the ‘wing attack’ legendary action as a trip attack (with no speed boost), and swap the ‘tail attack’ legendary action for a bite attack.
  • For lair actions, steal the copper dragon’s spike growth action or the red dragon’s tremor shake.
  • For innate spellcasting, you could include spells like counterspell, dispel magic, and shield for young fang dragons, or globe of invulnerability, regenerate and telekinesis for ancients.

Orange dragons, sometimes called sodium dragons, are a crossbreed of red and yellow dragons. (Yellow dragons, you say? Keep reading.) Orange dragons first appeared in an issue of Dragon magazine in 1982. They live in tropical swamps and rainforests and walk low to the ground like an alligator. Their breath weapon is a sticky stream of saliva which then explodes like napalm or white phosphorous. They are Neutral Evil.

  • Start with a black dragon.
  • Change the damage immunity from acid to poison. Orange dragons are also immune to the poisoned condition.
  • The biggest change is the breath weapon. Each creature caught in the line must make a Dexterity saving throw or be covered in the dragon’s saliva (creatures who succeed are unaffected). The saliva explodes two rounds later in a 15ft radius burst, dealing fire damage. Other creatures in the burst area must make a Dexterity saving throw, taking the full damage on a failed save, or half as much damage on a successful one.
  • For innate spellcasting, you could include spells like heat metal, pass without trace, or suggestion for young orange dragons, control water or hallucinatory terrain for adults, or mass suggestion for ancient orange dragons.
  • For lair actions, swap the black dragon’s darkness ability for the green dragon’s grasping roots and vines, or the copper dragon’s mud effect.

The pink dragon was introduced as a bit of a joke in Dragon 156 (1989). I’m almost tempted not to bother with rules for this one . . .

Its breath weapon is (checks notes) a cloud of soapy bubbles.

Sigh.

Look, this is basically the My Little Pony of dragons. April Fool’s is coming up, so go nuts with it.

With its delicate pink colouration and its slightly dopey appearance, the pink dragon is utterly unintimidating, and even ancient pink dragons have no frightful presence action. Despite this, they are carnivorous, and while not evil (their alignment is Chaotic Neutral) they will still gobble up happle adventurers if they intrude upon a pink dragon’s lair.

  • Start with a white dragon.
  • Remove the burrow and swim speeds and the icewalk ability.
  • The breath weapon no longer deals damage, but creatures who fail their Constitution save are blinded for one minute. Creatures can repeat their Constitution save at the end of their turn.
  • Pink dragons have no frightful presence ability.
  • Innate spellcasting? How about this: detect thoughts, invisibility, sleep, and Tasha‘s hideous laughter for young pink dragons, confusion, hypnotic pattern, and polymorph for adult pink dragons, and Otto’s irresistible dance and prismatic spray for ancient pink dragons.
  • Do you really want lair actions? Fine. Reskin the copper dragon’s mud action as some kind of sticky bubblegum effect, and reskin the green dragon’s magical fog as some kind of sparkle effect.

Lastly, yellow dragons, also called salt dragons. Like orange dragons, these first appeared in 1982. These serpentine dragons live by the coast, and their breath weapon is a cone of salt. Despite being wingless, they have links to the element of air, making them superb fliers.

  • Start with a white dragon. Remove the cold immunity and the bonus cold damage that comes with its bite.
  • Remove the ice walk ability, but increase their fly speed by 70 ft.
  • Yellow dragons have no wings, so cannot make wing attacks as a legendary action. You could add the option of bite or claw attacks as legendary actions instead.
  • I would treat the corrosive breath weapon as acid damage. The saving throw becomes Dexterity instead of Constitution. Perhaps there is no damage on a success but failure applies the Restrained (or Blinded) condition for one round?
  • For innate spellcasting, you could include spells like gaesous form, gust of wind, pass without trace, and wind wall for young yellow dragons, control water or hallucinatory terrain for adults, and wind walk for ancient yellow dragons.
  • For lair actions, use the brass dragon’s wind attack and perhaps the bronze dragon’s fog attack.

That’s it for part one. If you enjoyed this article, let me know! In future articles, I hope to look at gemstone dragons, metallic dragons, and planar dragons, among others. If you end up using my reskin, let me know how you got on.

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1st-level adventures

Most D&D campaigns begin at 1st level. Because of this, it can be hard to create an adventure that feels fresh and original. It is also the deadliest level of D&D, and a relatively ordinary enemy can kill an adventurer in a single blow.

In this article, I look at how to plan a 1st-level adventure that is fun, exciting, original, and not too challenging.

Embrace the fantastical

Low-level characters can seem a little underwhelming if you are used to playing at higher levels. But don’t forget how extraordinary even a D&D character can be, even at 1st level. A wizard can hurl bolts of fire over distances of 120 feet. A cleric can heal grievous injuries in seconds. A fighter can go toe-to-toe with multiple enemies and emerge unscathed. This is cool stuff! Lean into it.

Think about enemies, too. Sure, a giant rat is not an ancient red dragon. But a rat the size of a small dog is a horrifying thing. Mephits are fascinating, imp-like creatures of raw elemental energy. Stirges are hideous flying bloodsuckers. Twig blights are plants that have become animate, awakened by a great evil. Embrace the lore. If you as a DM treat goblins like boring low-level fodder, then your players will, too.

Lastly, think about locations. Even at 1st level, there are cool places for the players to explore. A forgotten crypt. An ancient watchtower. A secret wing of an old house, only recently unsealed. A good tip from Sly Flourish: if in doubt, make it big, old, or both. Even at 1st level, this is totally achievable.

Keep it simple

Kosmic Dungeon

1st-level is almost like a tutorial mode in a video game. You want it to be over fairly quickly. By default, a character hits 2nd level after 300 XP, and that’s actually more XP than you’d think: 24 goblins or twice as many kobolds. As a minimum, that’s eight ‘hard’ encounters. I would ditchXP and instead level up the party after your first session, even if it’s only two hours.

To that end, aim for something manageable and short. A five-room dungeon is perfect here. An adventure hook, one or two easy encounters, a puzzle of some kind, and a more challenging battle to finish on: you don’t need much more than this.

To avoid railroading, consider this: jot down three ideas for an adventures, pull out a servicable map for each one, and plan loosely from there. If in doubt, think about a few monsters you want to use, and go from there. Some examples:

  • a dark crypt, corrupted by evil (skeletons, swarm of bats)
  • rainy marshes (bullywugs, stirges)
  • a sea cave shrine to Blibdoolpoolp (kuo-toa)
  • a secret grove (pixies, sprites)
  • shadowy forests (needle blights, twig blights)

Similarly, you don’t need a world map or a whole adventure path lined up. Invent a village or a small town and go from there.

Encounter building

Mike Shea (Sly Flourish) has a brilliant post on building 1st-level encounters. Here are some of the key conclusions:

  • Include fewer monsters than characters.
  • Don’t go above CR ¼.
  • Keep average monster damage to 5 or less.
  • Cast aid on the party.
  • Level up quickly.

I agree with all of this advice. 1st level can be brutal. Lost Mine of Phandelver famously starts with a goblin encounter that is potentially lethal. Don’t kill the characters just as they’re getting started.

If it seems limiting, bear in mind that there are more than 60 monsters in the Monster Manual alone which are between CR ¼ and CR ⅛, and another 20 or so if you add Volo’s Guide to Monsters or Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes. And these creatures are still challenging: Kobold Fight Club tells me that four creatures of CR ⅛ will be a medium encounter for four 1st-level adventurers, and four CR ¼ creatures is deadly.

Start somewhere

Don’t overthink your first adventure. So long as the players get to fight something, find some treasure, and have a fun NPC to interact with, they will have a great time. Plotting a whole campaign at this stage is probably a bad idea. A story will emerge overtime. Be a fan of the players, and let it happen.

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Size in D&D

How big is an ancient dragon? How tall is a cloud giant? What is the wingspan of a roc?

Having painted a few dragon minis over the last year, it got me thinking about monster scale in D&D.

In 3rd edition – the edition I started with – there were eight size categories: fine, diminutive, tiny, small, medium, large, huge, gargantuan, and colossal. But this was something of an anomaly for D&D. 2nd edition AD&D only went down to ‘tiny’, as did 4th edition, and 5th edition has followed in this tradition. 1st edition had nothing smaller than ‘small’ and nothing larger than ‘large’. No edition except 3rd has had a size category above gargantuan. Tiny is roughly the size of a house cat. Small: a child. Medium: an adult human. Large: a horse. Huge: an elephant. Gargantuan – defined in 5e as ‘anything larger than 20 feet [6 metres]’ – a whale.

I would argue that ‘anything larger than 20 ft‘ is a pretty vague category. A telegraph pole in the UK is about 30 ft (9m) tall. The iconic Routemaster buses in London are about 37 ft long (11m). Big Ben is 310 ft tall (95m). And the Shard, at one point the tallest building in the EU, is over 1,000 ft tall (310m). All of these things are technically ‘gargantuan’ in D&D terms. (By the way, Big Ben is technically the bell. The famous tower is actually called Elizabeth Tower.)

I thought it would be fun to have a closer look at some of D&D’s largest monsters to give a sense of their scale. I am also going to think about the scale which is usually used for D&D minis (1:60, or 5 ft to 1 inch) to see whether the models on market match up.

Real-life titans

brontosaurus | Size, Habitat, & Facts | Britannica

Maybe we should start with the only gargantuan D&D monsters to have existed in real life: whales and dinosaurs.

The brontosaurus appears in Volo’s Guide to Monsters, where it is described simply as ‘massive’. Adult brontosauruses are estimated to have weighed up to 15 tonnes (17 short tons) and measured up to 72 ft (22m) long. A size-accurate D&D mini of a brontosaurus would need to be 14 inches (36 cm) long.

The sperm whale features in Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden. These are described (slightly inaccurately) as growing up to 70 ft long. In real life, a sperm whale is closer to 52 ft or 16m, so a ten-inch-long mini (26 cm).

There are no stats for blue whales in D&D, but I include them here as a comparison for fantasy creatures, since these animals are believed to be the biggest animals to have existed. Blue whales can reach a maximum length of nearly 100 ft (or 30m). A size-accurate D&D mini – biggie? – would need to be about 20 inches (half a metre) long.

Giants

Creature Size in D&D 5e - Size Matters! - Dungeon Solvers

Dungeon Solvers

None of the giants in the Monster Manual are gargantuan. But how do they compare in size?

Fortunately, there is a diagram on page 153! Hill giants are 16 ft tall, just under 5m, while storm giants are 26 ft tall (closer to 8m). For a real-life comparison, a giraffe is about 14 to 18 ft tall, and Michelangelo’s David is about 17 feet, minus the plinth. A hill giant mini would be just over 3 inches tall (8 cm); a storm giant’s, just over 5 inches tall (13 cm).

What about titans, or empyreans as they are now known in 5th edition? No height is given in the 5th edition Monster Manual, but in 3rd edition they are described as being about 25 feet tall (7.6m). Hang on: isn’t that smaller than a storm giant? Well spotted. Yes, there has been some inflation in giant sizes in the last 20 years of D&D, and in 3rd edition, most giants were five or six feet shorter than their 5e counterparts.

Ancient dragons

All will be explained . . .

Sadly, 5th edition is rather light on detail when it comes to the size of these creatures. But previous editions were more specific. The wonderful 3rd edition Dragonomicon gives precise measurements for chromatic and metallic dragons of every age range.

The smallest dragons are white dragons. Fully grown, they are about 85 ft (26m) long from nose to tail, with a wingspan of 40–72 ft (12–22m). That’s about as long as an Olympic swimming pool, and as wide as a shipping container. Most the other ancient dragons are about as long as ancient white dragons but have a bigger wingspan. Brass dragons are a little narrower, but again, like their gold cousins, that’s down to the shape of their wings.

The red dragon is the largest of the evil dragons, with a wingspan of 60–150 ft (18–46m) and an overall body length of 120 ft (37m). That’s about as wide as the Arc de Triomphe and as long as a runway stripe. Silver and gold dragons are of a similar size, although gold dragons have a slightly narrower wingspan, more because of their mantalike wings than anything else. For an ancient dragon of this size, a D&D mini would need to be two feet (60cm) long with a wingspan of twelve to 30 inches (30–76 cm). That’s about the size of the awesome T’Raukzul mini from Reaper (see below).

Reaper's T'raukzul as a 5e Red Dragon - Album on Imgur

Imgur

The tarrasque

OC] Tarrasque "mini" painted Lord of the Print : DnD

Lord_of_the_Print

The 5th edition Monster Manual is very specific about the tarrasque’s dimensions. It is 50 ft (15m) tall and 70 ft (21m) long. That’s about as high as a five-story office building and as long as a cricket pitch. A tarrasque mini would need to be ten inches high (25 cm) and 14 inches (35 cm) long to be the right scale for other D&D minis, and that’s roughly between A4 and A3 in paper sizes. It’s also about the length and height of my toaster!

Krakens

OC] The Kraken miniature was just released and it's terrifying : DnD

James_the_Third on Reddit

No dimensions are listed for the kraken in 5th edition. In 3rd edition, though, a kraken is described as being between 60 and 90 ft in length (18–27m). So a kraken mini would be huge: somewhere where between one and one and a half feet.

Rocs

The 5th edition Monster Manual states that the roc has a wingspan of 200 feet – or more. That’s 60 metres plus: nearly double the length of a blue whale. The wingspan of a Boeing 747 is 64 metres. Build to scale, roc mini should be about 40 inches (1 metre) wide, wings fully extended. That’s half the length of a standard-sized bed, or about the width of a standard door. In other words, Grimtalon from Reaper Bones – by no means a small miniature – is about one-third of a roc’s true size.

How many squares?

The table on page 6 of the Monster Manual shows how much space a creature of a particular size controls in combat. What many people miss is the fact that the size for a gargantuan creature – 20 ft by 20 ft – is only a minimum. In other words, assuming a combat grid of 5-ft squares, some of the monsters above could be taking up much more space than that.

If you know a creature’s length in feet – or can take an educated guess – round it to the nearest multiple of five. That’s the space it takes up! Why not? If you want your ancient red dragon to be 24 squares on a side, go for it. If you want your roc to be 40 squares wide, mark it out and watch your players’ jaws drop. These creatures are BIG. They should be impressive.

If you don’t have a mini big enough (and hey, you probably won’t), you could also mark out a piece of coloured paper or card and stick the mini in the middle. If you’re using a virtual tabletop, the tokens are virtual, so scale ’em up! (Note that this works better for creatures that are longer than they are tall. A storm giant, for example, is 26 feet tall, yet they are technically huge, not gargantuan. To make up for it, they have reach. You could do something similar for other ‘titanic’ creatures.)

Alternatively, of course, switch to theatre of the mind. Your description can be better than any SFX team. Try to get the players to appreciate the sheer immensity of the foe before them. Players love demolishing stuff. And you know what they say: the bigger they are, the harder they fall. Give the players a chance to feel epic.

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Getting started with mini painting

In this post, I want to show complete beginners how to get started with mini painting.

Painting and collecting minis is a whole hobby in its own right, and I’m relatively new to it. I never collected Warhammer or other minis growing up, and most of my D&D minis were pre-painted. Lockdown last year gave me a chance to dip my toes in the hobby.

As such, I will start with my usual disclaimer, but this time more emphatically than ever: I am not an expert! In fact, quite the opposite, but that’s very much the point. I want to show you that you can learn to paint minis to a decent tabletop standard with only a few key techniques. I am still learning, and there are still techniques I haven’t tried yet or want to get better at. I welcome your feedback and corrections in the comments.

Secondly, as with my holiday gift guide, this is an independent blog with no affiliate links or paid promotion. Heck, I haven’t even monetized this thing yet. If I recommend a particular product, it is because I have used it myself. If I have missed something out, then please comment below.

Finally, if possible, please support your friendy local game store and indepedent art stores when you can. I have avoided links to the warehouse of Belzebezos, and I encourage you to use them only as a last resort.

Tools of the trade

It’s worth saying from the outset that good gear will not make you a good painter. Similarly, there are great painters out there who paint with cheap synthetic brushes and mix their own paints. Paints, brushes etc can also be a matter of personal taste. Some people use nothing but Citadel paints from Games Workshop; others hate them. With all that said, good gear can certainly make your life easier, so I thought I would make a few recommendations.

Let’s start with brushes.

Brushes

The brush I use the most is a Winsor and Newton Series 7 (size 2). It forms a crisp, sharp point and is just as useful for detail work as it is for basecoating. It might seem a bit expensive if you are just starting out, so perhaps you should see this as an upgrade once you know mini painting is for you. One good brush is better than three crappy ones, though.

I would also recommend the following: a drybrush (more on this later), a large brush (for basecoating giants, dragons and so on), and a detail brush (eg, a Winsor and Newton size 0) for those hard-to-reach places. With human-sized minis, though, I generally only need a size 2, even when I’m picking out details like belt buckles and eyes. (Another advantage of a larger brush, like a size 2, is you can load up more paint on the bristles, which means fewer return trips to your palette, which means faster painting.)

Winsor and Newton are widely considered to be some of the best, but many painters swear by the Da Vinci Maestro series and the Raphael 8404s. I haven’t used Raphael brushes, but I’ve heard good things, and my next replacement brush will probably be a Raphael 8404. I also own a Da Vinci detail brush, and it’s not bad at all. Worth mentioning: brush sizes are not standardized, and they can vary quite significantly in length and thickness.

You may notice that all three brands use natural sable hair in their brushes. Synthetic brushes don’t tend to keep such a sharp point, but they can be much cheaper, which makes them a good place for beginners to start, potentially.

3 Must-Know Brush Care Tips for Miniature Painters | Geek and Sundry

Geek and Sundry

Since we’re on the topic of brushes and how expensive they are, here are just a few tips for looking after them:

  • Don’t load up the whole brush with paint. Aim for the top half of the bristles. The place where the bristles join the brush is called the ferrule, and you want to avoid getting paint in there because it will break down the glue and cause the bristles to splay outwards. This might be extreme, but I sometimes flip my brush round and use the tip of the handle to mix paints and water them down, just to make sure I’m not clogging up the ferrule!
  • Rinse your brush regularly, at least once every two to three minutes (and if the water is getting a bit murky, or you’ve been using metallic paints and the water is getting shiny, change the water). Don’t leave your brushes resting in a water pot for too long.
  • Store your brushes flat, not upright, and if you have one, use a brush cap (the little plastic tube that goes over the bristles).
  • Wash your brushes with brush soap. It cleans out dried paint and helps condition the brush back into a point. The go-to product here is ‘The Masters’ brush cleaner and preserver. A 1-oz pot will last years.
  • ‘Drag’ the brush. Never ‘push’ it.

If you follow these steps, you should be able to paint pretty often, maybe even every day, and only need to replace your brushes once a year. There are more major steps you can take to restore a worn-out brush, but you probably don’t need to look into that just yet.

Paints

I need a new storage solution . . .

I’m a big fan of the Vallejo game colour range. I’ve tried Citadel paints, and while I like the washes, I prefer Vallejo overall, not least because dropper bottles just make so much more sense to me than Citadel paint pots.

Now, if you’re just getting into mini painting, you have three options here. Option one: get a starter set. Option two: buy the paints you need, as and when you need them. Option three: splurge and buy a whole range.

Am I telling you to buy a whole range of paints straight off the bat? Of course not. However: I went with option two, and I now have a collection of – checks – over 100 mini paints. They probably cost me £2 to £3 each ($3 to $4). With hindsight, it might have been cheaper to buy a load of minis at once, instead of picking them off one by one.

Vallejo have recently collaborated with WizKids to launch a couple of cool paint cases: a ‘basic starter case’ and an ‘intermediate case’. You get 40 paints in each case, and I’ve seen them retailing in the UK for around £60. That’s a great deal, not least because you get a convenient carry case for all your paints! The starter case has a really nice range, although I would maybe quibble with some of the choices – green wash, red wash, and squid pink, for example, should have been replaced with the much more useful tan, silver, and heavy blue grey – but that’s splitting hairs. I wish this product had been available when I started painting.

In my tutorial below, I’ve tried to use a small range of very versatile colours. If you want somewhere to start, you could do worse than picking up those paints.

Minis

With so many excellent models to choose from, where do you start?

If you’re a complete beginner, I highly recommend WizKids unpainted minis. Because they are licenced by Wizards of the Coast, the models will have a close resemblance to the images you see in the Monster Manual and other D&D products. I like the fact that they come pre-primed (although the primer can be a bit too heavy) and require very little assembly. I also think they are reasonably priced.

If you want to pick up a lot of D&D minis quite cheaply, the D&D board games are supposed to be quite good. These minis will need to be primed, but they are otherwise very similar to the WizKids unpainted line. There have been four of these board games so far: Wrath of Ashardalon, Castle Ravenloft, Legend of Drizzt, and Tomb of Annihilation. Each box comes to around £50 ($70), and you get about 40 minis in the box. In terms of price per mini, that’s not bad at all.

Then there are other options: too many to go over in detail, frankly. Reaper Bones do some excellent minis, although they are on a slightly different scale compared to WizKids, and they don’t have the licence to copy D&D designs (so a beholder might be called an ‘eye beast’, for example). They will require priming, and the sculpts aren’t always as detailed as the WizKids line. The range is huge, though, and their kickstarters are fantastic value. I am interested in trying some of the models from Mantic Games at some point, and particularly their Kings of War line. I have heard their undead are excellent.

Lastly, if you want to go bespoke, Hero Forge are just amazing. You can design your mini to look exactly how you imagine them. I bought myself five of their minis as a birthday present to myself a couple of years ago, and they’re wonderful (see below). If you are in the UK, be aware that shipping costs can make these very expensive. I recommend the premium plastic material.

Putting aside the question of which brand to go with, what are the most useful minis to get? Start with the player characters. These will be the minis you will see on the table more than any others, so try to find some figures that match the party. After that, it depends on your campaign! Perhaps you like giants, or fiends, or elementals. Maybe you just want to collect all the dragons (guilty). In terms of sheer versatility, though, humanoid figures are king: orcs, goblins, undead, warriors, and so forth.

Other stuff

Other than paints and brushes, you don’t need much more to get started. Paper towel is essential, but cheap. An old mug can service as a water pot. Plastic party plates make a good paint palette, and some people even use a piece of tile covered with packing tape, or the packing material that the miniature came with. At some point you will probably want Gorilla Glue and spray-on varnish for assembling and finishing your models, but these can wait until you have a few painted minis under your belt. You also need good lighting and perhaps a tablecloth to protect your furniture.

Putting it all together: techniques and a tutorial

For today’s post, I delved into my box of shame and pulled out a dwarf warrior from WizKids that has been hanging around for a while. Here’s what he looked like straight out the box.

The first stage is to basecoat. Thin your paints with water to the consistency of melted ice cream and apply them to the mini with a size 2 brush. (In fact, I did almost all of this model with a size 2.) Don’t worry too much if you obscure details at this stage, as you can always go back and correct your mistakes.

Here are the paints I used for this model, in this order: heavy skintone for the face and hands; heavy sienna for the wood and leather areas; gunmetal for metal parts; heavy red for hair, and the trim around the bottom of the armour; bonewhite for the fur; and charred brown for the base. These are all from the Vallejo game colour line; if you prefer Citadel paints, or another manufacturer, this conversion document provides equivalents.

I try to work ‘from the outside in’, as it can be difficult to go back in to get hard-to-reach spots later. I also try to move around the mini to avoid painting areas that are next to each other, where the paint might run together.

Allow the basecoats to dry, then apply a few washes to add depth and shadow. Washes are sometimes known as ‘liquid talent’ because they are so easy to use and make such a difference to the model. I used flesh wash on the hands and face, umber wash on the hair and base, sepia wash on the fur, and black wash on everything else. In hindsight, this was possibly a bit overkill. Most of the time I get by with black and sepia washes only.

Try not to let your washes pool. If you find this happening, quickly go in with a dry paintbrush and use it like a sponge to dab off the excess. Again, allow the paints to dry. Washes usually dry a bit quicker than basecoats.

The next stages were the hardest to photograph but make a huge difference when you look at the mini in person: layering, highlighting, and drybrushing. These are technically different techniques, but fulfil a similar purpose.

Layering is where you apply thin coats of paint to build up to a change in colour. I used cadmium skin as a layer paint on the face and hands, trying to avoid the recesses where the shadow was. Looking back, I went in a bit heavy here, but it’s not the end of the world. You will make mistakes when mini-painting, and that’s part of getting better!

Highlighting (sometimes called edge highlighting) is where you look for the highest points on the mini – the points that get the most light – and pick them out lighter or brighter colours. A lamp can be really useful here: point the light straight down and see where it falls. These are the areas you want to catch with your highlights.

I used chainmail silver on the metal areas, parasite brown on the leather, and bonewhite on the fur. (There’s nothing wrong with going back to a basecoat once you’ve given it a wash.) For the hair, I used blood red first, and then hot orange for the final highlight, but the area is so small that you could make do with just the orange, or even a repaint of heavy red.

Finally, drybrushing. This is one of my favourite techniques, particularly on larger models with lots of texture, like dragons. You put a bit of paint on an old brush and, paradoxically, wipe most of it off (use kitchen towel) until barely any is coming off. Then, you lightly brush against the grain over textured surfaces so that the bristles deposit a ‘dusting’ of paint onto the highest surfaces. I used leather brown to drybrush the base, followed by bonewhite.

Here is the finished mini:

Overall, I’m pretty pleased this one. I managed to pick out the studs in the armour and the buckle on the belt, and I was pleased with the layering and highlighting on most of the model. The face could have been better. I actually think it looked better before I went in with cadmium skin. The base is fine for tabletop gaming, but basing is something I plan to get better at this year. Just as a good painting deserves a good frame, a good mini deserves a good base!

If you’re new to painting, I hope you found this post useful and it’s inspired you to go out and start painting. If you’re an old hand, where did I go wrong?

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Humour in D&D

This post was difficult to write, for a number of reasons.

  1. It’s ironic, but writing about comedy can be distinctly unfunny. Is there anything more humourless than picking apart a joke to explain how it works?
  2. Comedy is a matter of personal taste. Take my comedy touchstones, for example: films like Monty Python, Airplane!, Anchorman, Four Lions, and In Bruges. Great films: but universally loved? No.
  3. Roleplaying games are collaborative and unpredictable: in D&D, comedy just happens. You don’t need to force it. So write about it?
  4. I have really bad RSI thanks to working from home, and I want to be able to sleep tonight without clutching my arm in pain. (If you think that was a contrived attempt at a joke, it wasn’t.)

So, with all this considered, why write about humour in D&D? Because it’s a fundamental part of the game. Having written a few posts recently that are rather academic or serious (eg, this one), I want to take a break and embrace something fun.

This post is meant to spark inspiration and give a few tips about using humour in your games. If I’ve missed something, comment at the end!

Serious fun: why humour matters

To the uninitiated, the D&D rulebooks can seem pretty heavy going or even intimidating. You’ve got acronyms and appendices, tables and diagrams, columns of 9.5-point text, and all that before you get to the polyhedral dice (‘what the heck is a d100?’). The content itself can get pretty dark, too. There’s violence (lots of it), death, evil, horror: often all four. ‘All this for a game?’

Drama teachers often refer to drama as serious fun, and I think this is a useful term for roleplaying games as well. D&D is serious, but it is also fun. The seriousness enables the fun, and the fun offsets the seriousness. In fact, the more serious the game becomes, the more you need humour to dial things back.

Wizards of the Coast have clearly embraced this in 5th edition. Look at this table, for example, from page 104 of the Player’s Handbook:

Wild Magic Table in 2021 | Dungeon master's guide, Magic table, Dungeons  and dragons homebrew

This is hilarious!

Look at the monsters, too: 5th edition has brought back classics like the flumph, the modron, the flail snail, the almiraj, and the froghemoth, and featured them prominently in published adventures.

Speaking of which, the published adventures are stuffed with comedy. In fact, generally speaking, the darker the theme, the more humour you will find. Thus, Curse of Strahd has Blinksy toys and the crypts of Castle Ravenloft, Tomb of Annihilation has Yellyark and mad monkey fruit, and Descent into Avernus has Lulu the hollyphant and abyssal chickens. Sometimes, D&D needs comedy.

Going too far

And the man in the back said everyone attack… | Dragon Heist

As I said in starting, comedy is a matter of personal taste. Few things in life are universally funny, and many things are almost universally unfunny. So, as any successful comedian will tell you: know your audience, and read the room.

It’s important to have a few safety tools in place for when a joke goes south and someone gets hurt. Again: D&D is serious fun. Monte Cook’s Consent in Gaming is an excellent (and free) PDF, and the Pathfinder baseline is a great starting point for mature content, too.

There’s another way in which humour can go ‘too far’. What if the comedy starts to derail the campaign? What if playing D&D becomes secondary to piss-takes and wisecracks?

For some people, piss-takes and wisecracks what D&D is all about! A session is an opportunity to hang out and make jokes. But if you feel it’s going too far, then talk to your players. If they want something light-hearted, then perhaps you’re fighting a losing battle by trying to make the campaign more serious. But at the same time, you are meant to be having fun as a DM, too, and your wishes matter just as much as anyone else’s. So if you feel that the game is becoming irrevocably silly, see if there’s a compromise to be had. Ultimately, though, if the rest of the group wants something very different to you, then maybe it’s better to step back for a while. No D&D is better than bad D&D.

Funny business

For the most part, D&D will be funny without you even trying. Players come up with madcap schemes all the time, and every failed dice roll is an opportunity for bathos. If you feel things are getting a bit serious, though, here are some suggestions for ways to inject a little levity in your game.

Absurd/surreal comedy. This is already a big part of D&D, as, thanks to dice rolls, much of the humour is so unpredictable. Subvert your players’ expectations now and then with something bizarre or incongruous. Descent into Avernus, for example, features a subplot where a night hag asks the players to watch her den while she goes off to visit a spa.

Anachronism. Deliberate historical inconsistency can be great fun. The Monkey Island series does this brilliantly, with vending machines, T-shirts, and fast-talking, arm-waving used car ship salesmen. Anachronism can also be hilarious in D&D. After all, it’s not like it’s particularly medieval to start with.

Jany on Twitter: "Just finished Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge as well.  As an adult, I gotta say, I can now truly appreciate Stan's epic  salesmanship 😄 Time to dive into the

Callbacks. If your campaign has been running for a while, throw in an allusion to something that happened ages ago. It’s a nice reminder of how far the players have come.

Caricature. Characters in D&D don’t need to be three-dimensional and psychologically real. NPCs are often little more than cartoons. Embrace this.

Catchphrases. Curse of Strahd has ‘Is No Fun, Is No Blinksy’. I enjoyed throwing this in at unexpected moments.

Gadof Blinsky | Curse of Strahd | Obsidian Portal

Lean into failure. By default, D&D only offers three outcomes: success, failure, and critical hits. Many players use ‘fumbles’ (critical misses) to add a bit of humour to combat.

Music. If you have background music in your games, this can be a great source of comedy. For example, ‘Yackety Sax’ (better known as the Benny Hill theme) is fanastic for chase sequences.

Parody and pastiche. Not quite the same thing: parody is generally mocking, whereas pastiche is more celebratory. Both are fun. Try imitating the style of a film, TV series, or video game, and see if the players notice, or model an NPC on a real-life celebrity or historical figure, subtly or more obviously.

D&D 5E - Check Out WizKids' Infernal War Machine Mini | EN World | Dungeons  & Dragons | Tabletop Roleplaying Games

Definitely not a Mad Max reference

Randomness. There are lots of funny random tables in 5th edition D&D, like the sorcerer’s wild magic table and the deck of many things. Randomness is great!

Ribaldry. Also known as blue comedy, this includes anything that’s off-colour, risqué, or bawdy, like innuendo. Another one that needs to be used in moderation. Use safety tools to check whether this is something your group is (occasionally) OK with.

Roasting. Insults are funny! Perhaps best between NPCs: insults between players can become personal unintentionally (or, I suppose, intentionally).

Toilet humour. Really? Weeing, pooping, farting? Well, if they’re good enough for Chaucer and Shakespeare, they’re good enough for you. Once again, though, use this sparingly, and know your audience.

Trick monsters and cursed items. Part of D&D from the very beginning, you don’t want to overuse these, but, deployed sparingly, they’re great. Mimics can be particularly fun.

Art] Modern day mimic. : DnD

Look! Trap monsters AND anachronism! Credit: u/not_that_guy_at_work

Voice acting. What are the funniest voices you can do? You don’t have to be Matt Mercer for this, and it’s a great way of making a memorable NPC. A nice trick is to have a voice that is somewhat unexpected. For example, your death knight could speaks with a high-pitched squeak, and your ancient red dragon could have a tickly cough.

Wordplay. In the catacombs beneath Castle Ravenloft, there is a crypt for Sir Klutz Tripalotsky, who ‘fell on his own sword.’ Puns are great. So are spoonerisms, malapropisms, alliteration, and so on.

Why so serious?  

I thought I would end with six rules of good comedy (or at least, comedy where D&D is concerned).

  1. Safety first. Yes, comedy can be cruel, but this is meant to be a fun game. Never lose sight of that.
  2. Know your audience. Comedy is subjective, and not everyone has the same tastes as you. If in doubt, imagine the game is rated PG.
  3. Timing is everything. Whether you’re a player or the DM, think about the ‘beats’ of the game and read the room. Don’t ruin a powerful moment with a bad joke, and try not to smother a potentially funny situation with unnecessary seriousness.
  4. Keep it natural. The motto of the Cambridge Footlights is ars est celare artem: ‘the art is to conceal the art’. Comedy shouldn’t be forced, and some of the best comedy is grounded and natural.
  5. Start with character. This comes from Brent Forrester, the head writer for The Office (US version). It’s good advice.
  6. Be warm. Before he wrote the hit sitcom Gavin & Stacey with Ruth Jones, James Corden turned to the great British playwright Alan Bennett for advice. His one tip: ‘be warm’.

Life is short and full of meanness. Cynicism is cheap. Joy is hard. Be warm. Bring a bit of humour to your game.

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Gods in D&D

Do you have deities in your campaign? How many? What are they called? What are their portfolios? Are they active in the world or mysterious and withdrawn?

For some DMs, deities are one of the most enjoyable aspects of world-building: a fun way to define their setting. For others, gods and demigods are just a headache, a chore, and something they wish the game could do without. In this article, I’m going to look at the history of deities within the game and some suggestions for how to introduce divinity into your game in perhaps more imaginative ways.

A (selective) history

Do clerics need a deity? Many players assume the answer is ‘yes’ and has always been the case. The reality is perhaps a little more nuanced.

Image result for 1974 basic set D&D

I wasn’t able to consult the 1974 boxed set (‘original D&D’), but from what I could find online, there is no list of deities, and clerics are more or less a half-way house between ‘magic-users’ and ‘fighting-men’. I’m not even sure there are any references to ‘gods’ or ‘deities’ in the original Men & Magic booklet. What’s more, from what I’ve read of Gygax and home campaign, he didn’t bother much with specific deities in the earlier years either. Since his players’ characters were generally low level, he assumed they were unlikely to interact directly with the gods, so he glossed over them. Some of his players ended up taking matters into their own hands and started to call on deities from Greek and Norse mythology and even Howard’s Conan stories. When his players evenntually asked Gygax to give them a deity of his own creation – something less vague than just ‘the gods’ – he jokingly invented Saint Cuthbert. In-game stats were eventually presented for Thor, Zeus, and so on in the fourth D&D supplement, Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes, in 1976.

Image result for D&D red box basic set

The 1977 ‘Basic Rules’ (as opposed to ‘Advanced D&D’) describes clerics as ‘humans who have dedicated themselves to one or more of the gods.’ Are these gods listed? No. The ‘red box’ of 1983 goes one step further, saying that the cleric is ‘dedicated to serving a great and worthy cause [. . .] usually the cleric’s Alignment; for example, a cleric may be dedicated to spreading law and order.’ Strikingly, it goes on to say this: ‘In D&D games, as in real life, people have ethical and theological beliefs. This game does not deal with those beliefs.’ Correspondingly, no gods or deities are listed.

From what I can see, the 1st edition AD&D Player’s Handbook (1978) also doesn’t have much to say on the subject of gods. It states that ‘a cleric is dedicated to a deity, or deities’ (italics mine), and that their spells are ‘bestowed upon them by a deity for correct and diligent prayers and deeds’, but again, no list of deities is provided or referred to.

Image result for dieties and demigods

This all changed in 1980 with the publication of Deities & Demigods, a 144-page hardcover supplement which provided background details and in-game stats for 17 different pantheons: some from fiction (eg, Cthulhu), some for nonhumans (eg, Moradin and Gruumsh), and the rest from real-life sources (eg, Egyptian, Norse, and Celtic). Deities & Demigods also addressed questions like how clerics of these religions should behave and how they are affected by the afterlife. The book was later repackaged as Legends & Lore to avoid potential conflicts with fundamentalist Christians, but the content remained more or less the same.

Like the first edition, the 2nd edition of AD&D (1989) does not provide a list of deities. Again, the Player’s Handbook refers to the cleric (now a type of ‘priest’) as ‘a believer and advocate of a god from a particular mythos,’ but goes on to say this, which is interesting: ‘In the simplest version of the AD&D game, clerics serve religions that can be generally described as “good” or “evil.” Nothing more needs to be said about it; the game will play perfectly well at this level.’ The game continued to assume that clerics were servants of a divine power, however, and a second edition of Legends & Lore was published using much of the original text.

An interesting change came in 2000 with the advent of 3rd edition. Here, as with the red box, the Player’s Handbook explicitly states that ‘some clerics devote themselves not to a god but to cause or source of divine power.’ The gods of the Player’s Handbook were borrowed from Greyhawk. Deities and Demigods returned to D&D in April 2002 and discussed different models of religion, from the traditional ‘loose’ pantheon of D&D, to monotheism, dualism, and animism. 4th edition in 2008 arguably tightened things up again, stating that a cleric ‘must choose a deity compatible with [their] alignment’.

And now 5e. Here again, as in fourth edition, it is assumed that clerics are ‘divine agents’. Indeed, the Player’s Handbook even states that ‘the most important question to eonsider is whieh deity to serve and what principies you want your character to embody.’ An appendix, ‘Gods of the Multiverse,’ provides a summary of various fictional and historical pantheons, but with none of the detail of Deities and Demigods.

Your world, your rules

Image result for shar selune

Todd Lockwood

Many D&D players assume that a D&D world has to have gods. Not just gods, but a pantheon of gods: something for every alignment, every domain. This is certainly an option, but there are others.

Monotheism. Perhaps the people of your world worship an overdeity or creator god. The different domains could be different aspects of the same deity. Perhaps the deity is worshipped by different names in different churches. Is the god neutral, at the centre of all things? Good: a force for hope? Or evil: an inescapable darkness that haunts every corner of the world?

Dualism. Instead of a pantheon, you could have just two deities in opposition with one another. What do they represent? Sun and moon? Law and chaos? Life and death? In the same way that the world of The Dark Crystal is ruled by the mystical urRu and the hideous skeksis, your world could be defined by two primal forces. Perhaps, like the urRu and the skeksis, your deities started as a single god that split somehow into two.

Pantheons. The default for many D&D worlds: perhaps you want lots and lots of gods. If so, consider the various cleric domains, the nine alignments, the twelve core classes. Is there someone for everyone to worship? You need to decide if it is a ‘tight’ pantheon where all the gods belong to one religion (eg, the gods of Asgard or Mount Olympus) or a ‘loose’ pantheon like hte gods of Greyhawk and Faerûn. Are there different deities for different ancestries: gnomes, dwarves, elves, and so on?

Animism. This is the idea that spirits inhabit every part of the natural world: animals, plants, stones, fire, wind. In Legend of the Five Rings, for instance, shugenja cast their spells by calling on spirits called the kami to aid them.

Cheats. Do you want to steal the deities from another campaign setting, or skip over the lore completely? Don’t feel bad about it! You can always introduce new elements later, and if it’s good enough for Gygax, it’s good enough for you. Even if you use the gods of Asgard and Olypmus in your world, they will still be defined by your fiction, not the myths and legends of our world. (I would, however, avoid real-life religions: apart from running the risk of offending someone, it’s also jarring, and potentially breaks the immersion in a fantasy setting.)

Whatever model of divinity you go with, you should probably think about your answers to some of the questions below.

  • Are the gods all powerful, or are there limits to their divinity?
  • What do they know that mortals do not?
  • How did they become gods? Is it possible to ascend to godhood or give it up? Can divinity be stolen or earned?
  • Do they need worshippers? Why do mortals worship them? Out of love? Fear? Gratitude?
  • Are the gods benevolent, hostile, or indifferent? Are they active or distant?
  • Where do they reside? Why do they live there? Can mortals reach them?
  • Can they die? If so, how?

In my current campaign, which started as a dark fantasy one-shot, the gods are almost forgotten: they slumber in distant worlds beyond the prime material, and the churches and cults that do exist are both corrupt and corrupting. Yet there are occasional glimpses of divine power: an answered prayer, perhaps, or an ancient artifact. It’s a story thread I plan to take further.

And no religion, too

Finally: there’s nothing wrong with a godless campaign setting.

‘Blasphemy!’ Really? Let’s take an example of how it might work.

Image result for aeris gainsborough

Meet Aerith Gainsborough (originally transliterated as ‘Aeris’). If that name sounds familiar, it’s probably because you played Final Fantasy VII. Aeris is never given a class in the game, but she is clearly part of the white mage tradition within the Final Fantasy franchise. She has high magic stats, fights with rods and staves, and her special abilities (‘limit breaks’) heal the party. In D&D, she would probably be a healing-domain cleric. She even grows flowers in a church. Yet there is no organized religion in the world of Final Fantasy VII. Neither are there deities, only ‘the Planet’ and a mysterious, ethereal substance called ‘Lifestream’.

To me, Final Fantasy VII is a really neat example of how you can have divine magic without deities. Don’t feel beholden to what has gone before: make your gods unique.

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How Medieval is D&D?

In my previous post, I examined the origins of the 5th edition Monster Manual and concluded that D&D was much less ‘European’ than might be supposed. Of the 215 monsters I looked at, around half, maybe more, originated elsewhere, and many, perhaps a third, were an invention of the game itself.

I see this claim online fairly frequently: that D&D is at its heart a medieval European fantasy. So, having looked at what we might call the geographic origins of the game, I thought I would have a closer look at its historical sources. Is it as medieval as people think?

As with last week, a few provisos. It bears repeating: this is a blog post, not scholarship. It is not going to be exhaustive. It is not going to be rigorously scientific. Please unclench before you take me to task. In terms of my own academic background, I have a reasonably good degree in Old and Middle English literature from a reasonably good university, but I do not claim to be an expert and would be more than happy to take on board constructive criticism. For my own sanity, I will be focusing again on the core rulebooks of 5th edition D&D, specifically the Player’s Handbook. For what it’s worth, though, I don’t think the edition matters that much: the mechanics may be different, but when it comes to the fundamentals, there’s a huge degree of crossover. But hey, if you disagree, I’ll read your blog on it.

The term ‘medieval’ is fraught with problems. It is often erroneously depicted almost as a kind of ‘dark age’ between classical civilization and the Renaissance – a ‘Middle Age’ – and this is horribly unfair. And what a huge generalization, too: this is a period of almost 1,000 years! Focusing on a ‘middle period’ between the fall of Rome and the (European) Renaissance also encourages us to adopt an unhelpfully eurocentric lens. There was a medieval world outside Europe, and Europe engaged with it.

For the purposes of this article, I am looking at the time period from around the end of the 5th century to the end of the 15th century. But even this is arbitrary. People didn’t go to bed one night in the Middle Ages and wake up in the Renaissance.

I’m going to focus on three main chapters: races, classes (which, by extension, considers spell lists to some extent), and equipment.

Races

I excluded Player’s Handbook races from my post last week on the basis that none of the peoples therein are featured in the 5th edition Monster Manual. Some commenters on Reddit pointed out that dwarves and elves (and so half-elves, too) are European in origin, which is quite true. Both are found in Old and Middle English, in medieval German, and in Old Norse, and are therefore perfectly medieval. Tieflings, too, are more medieval than you might think. The name itself is an invention for D&D, constructed from German tief and -ling (‘deep’ and ‘offspring’), but the concept of humans with demonic ancestry is found in medieval stories. Merlin, in some stories, is considered a cambion. I would give this one a pass.

Halflings, however, are more dubious. They are clearly based primarily on Tolkien’s hobbits, and hobbits were more or less a creation of Tolkien himself. The same goes for orcs (and therefore half-orcs). While they are mentioned in Beowulf, the word used there, orcneas, probably meant something closer to ‘evil spirits’. Tolkien himself said that he revived the word ‘only because of its phonetic suitability’: his orcs, and therefore the orcs of D&D, are not particularly medieval at all.

What about gnomes? Sorry: not medieval at all. The original Latin term term, gnomus, originates in Paracelsus in the 16th century, and the word is first attested in English in the early 18th century. Renaissance at best. Their characterization as cunning inventors is probably Victorian.

Overall, then, the ancestries of D&D are pretty medieval in origin, and always have been. Of course, once you go beyond the core rulebooks, this breaks down considerably (viz leonin, tortles, and aarakocra, among many, many others).

Character classes

Let’s get one thing out the way. None of the D&D classes are realistic. Not one. Not the barbarian, not the fighter, not the rogue. They are a product of fantasy. All of them. By 20th level, they are essentially superheroes. Trying to compare them to real-life medieval figures is a dead end.

However: we can examine the extent to which they resemble medieval fiction. Are wizards much like the ‘magicians’ of medieval romance, for example? Or was Merlin more of a druid or a warlock? How much are bards like the Pied Piper of Hamelin? Those sorts of questions.

  • The concept of an uncivilized or primitive warrior can be found the world and throughout history, but the D&D barbarian is clearly based primarily on Conan the Barbarian and pulp. That said, the barbarian’s rage feature evokes the berserkr of Old Norse sagas and poetry.
  • The bard is pretty medieval, taking inspiration from characters such as the Pied Piper of Hamelin, Will Scarlet, and Taliesin, as well as the Viking skalds. The spell list doesn’t really fit with the way magic is conceptualized in medieval stories, though, and it would probably be pretty limited and rather boring if it did.
  • It’s hard to say where clerics come from exactly. OD&D was pretty brief, saying in essence that they were a mix of ‘fighting-men and magic-users’. While they bear some resemblance to medieval crusaders like the Knights Templar, their ability to turn undead is more reminiscent of B-movie vampire-hunters like Van Helsing.
  • Real-life druids were religious leaders in ancient Celtic cultures. While they appear as sorcerers in some medieval Irish and Welsh stories (most notably the Táin Bó Cúailnge), they were essentially extinct by the time Christianization was complete. Still, their signature wild shape feature recalls the shapeshifting abilities of Merlin, so in some ways they fit the mould of a medieval magician rather well. They wouldn’t have wielded scimitars or worshipped trees, though.
  • Fighters get a pass for being medieval, but only because they are so completely generic. Warriors are more or less universal.
  • The monk class was probably created either by Dave Arneson, one of the co-creators of D&D, or Brian Blume, one of the early game designers and a huge fan of kung fu. Gary Gygax also claimed that the class was inspired by The Destroyer (the Remo Williams series). Shaolin monks certainly practised martial arts in the Sui and Tang dynasties, but from the 8th century to the 15th – ie, most of the European Middle Ages – there is no evidence of Shaolin monks participating in combat.
  • The paladin class is largely based on the character of Holger Carlson in Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions, which in itself is drawn on the twelve legendary knights of Charlemagne. The knight-errant is very much a figure of medieval romance: historically accurate, no, but culturally of its time? Very much so.
  • The ranger is based on Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings. Like fighters, though, hunters and woodsmen are fairly universal. Artemis and Orion would fit the bill, as would Robin Hood and Jack the Giant Killer, two medieval legends. The spellcasting, though: that’s D&D through and through.
  • Regarding the rogue (then ‘thief’), Gygax stressed the influence of Jack Vance’s Cugel the Clever and Roger Zelazny’s Shadowjack. The 2nd edition AD&D Player’s Handbook gave examples of thieves such as Reynard the Fox, Puck, and Ali Baba. And thieves, like warriors, are essentially universal.
  • The sorcerer was new to 3rd edition D&D, where it was essentially a variant wizard (previously called ‘mages’ or just ‘magic-users’). It was felt that the latest fantasy fiction made Vancian magic seem outdated. Regardless, neither wizards nor sorcerers have much in common with the magicians of medieval romance. Merlin’s powers revolve primarily around shapeshifting and prophecy, for example, not fireballs and magic missiles. Medieval in name only.
  • Finally, what about the newest of the core classes, the warlock? The pact of the fey is in some ways closer to the medieval concept of magic than either the sorcerer or the wizard. Infernal pacts, too, are thematically appropriate, as witches and warlocks were feared for their deals with the devil, and as I mentioned above, Merlin himself was depicted as a cambion in some stories. Eldritch blast, though, is again rather flashy for medieval magic, and the Great Old One stuff is clearly Lovecraftian in flavour.    

How medieval is this, on average? I would argue ‘somewhat medieval’ at best. Sure, you could construct a fairly ‘medieval’ party with a fighter, a rogue, and a paladin, with maybe a druid or a ranger thrown in, but that’s being selective. You could just as easily create a party consisting of a monk, a wizard or a sorcerer, and a bard or a cleric, and it wouldn’t be particularly medieval at all.

I’m going to skip Chapter 4 (Personality and Background) and move onto Equipment.

Arms, Armour, and Equipment

Am I going to dissect every item in the Player’s Handbook to evaluate how medieval it is? Hell no, because that would be about as interesting for me as it would be for you. Generally speaking, the D&D equipment list is pretty medieval. However, a few highlights:

  • Studded leather is not a historical term. Gygax was presumably thinking of brigandine or jack of plate. Chainmail, too, is something of a neologism, and this armour would have been called a hauberk, a byrnie, or simply ‘mail’.
  • Full plate arrived pretty late in the medieval period and was really more of a Renaissance armour. Its association with ‘knights in shining armour’ is largely the result of 16th-century jousting armour.
  • Overall, the weapons table is reasonably medieval. Like plate armour, though, the greatsword (which, confusingly, was probably referred to as a longsword) was really more of a Renaissance thing, the rapier even more so. The trident, conversely, was really a pre-medieval weapon, famously used in the hands of Roman gladiators. The hand crossbow is mostly a creation of fantasy.
  • The biggest issue with the weapons table is not so much what is included but what is missing. One word: guns! This is a long-standing and enduring convention of ‘medieval’ fantasy, but it is still rather bizarre. Europeans had knowledge of gunpowder from as early as the 1200s, and handheld firearms were starting to be used from the 1300s, yet they are usually presented in D&D as an optional rule in the DMG. If you really want to be authentically medieval, then add guns.
  • What about adventuring gear? This is a long old list, and much of it is fine, even for a purist. The biggest exception is probably the spyglass, as telescopes were not invented until the 17th century. The word backpack is anachronistic (20th century), but there would have been shoulderbags in the medieval period that fulfilled the same purpose.
  • And musical instruments? Again, a pretty medieval list. The viol was maybe a bit late, more Renaissance, but that’s splitting hairs.

Overall, D&D’s approach to equipment is pretty medieval, if you overlook a few specific items and don’t ask too many questions about where the guns are.

From a medieval point of view, though, there’s one massively fundamental problem with the D&D approach to equipment, and it’s this: D&D is capitalist! Or at the very least, it is a cash-based economy where feudalism and manorialism are conspicuously absent. There is a great post on this at Blog of Holding. As Paul Hughes put it, D&D is in essence ‘a swords-and-sorcery world, empty of government, where anyone can pick up a sword, become a hero, and live the American dream.’

Conclusions

Image result for D&D 5e

The big question, then: is D&D medieval? My view: eh, not really. Sure, it has many, many medieval elements. But it is hardly purist, and some of the most iconic D&D elements like wizards, clerics, full plate, and greatswords, are not especially medieval at all. The game draws on pulp, classical mythology, Renaissance swashbuckling, and of course, modern fantasy fiction. Many of the monsters of D&D, as I wrote about last week, are not particularly medieval either.

Obsessing over D&D’s medievalism is a creative dead-end. It probably won’t lead to better fiction or better gameplay. It’s not particularly imaginative. In fact, it’s rather limiting. D&D is fantasy, not history, and this has always been the case. Even if the game’s roots lie in historical wargaming, the game we play now is something completely different.

Image result for combat wheelchair ruined D&D

Finally, it is interesting (and worrying) to reflect on where this call for medievalism comes from. There are gatekeepers on Reddit and Twitter who proclaim that monks have no place in D&D because they are not ‘medieval European’. I don’t see them calling to get rid of wizards, though, or the creatures from Greek mythology, or mummies, or zombies, or the hundreds of monsters that D&D has invented for the game. Why is that? Could it be that there is another, more troubling reason for singling out the only ‘Asian’ character class for criticism? And there are D&D players on Twitter who defend the use of racism and slavery in their games – ‘because it’s medieval’ – or get upset about the combat wheelchair, for the opposite reason. I don’t see them calling for the inclusion of firearms in the core rules. Neither are they proposing that we should adopt a feudal, manorial economy in our games instead of a free market based on gold pieces. Not with the same vociferousness, anyway. And they don’t have any problems with a knight in full plate mowing down orcs with a greatsword, even though it’s not much more medieval than a hobbit parachuting into battle while firing flintlock pistols.

As a hill to die on, it all looks a bit silly, not least because these calls for medieval realism are often founded on totally inaccurate assumptions about the realities of the medieval world. But one has to wonder whether it was ever really about ‘medievalism’ in the first place, or whether this has always been a figleaf for something much more problematic.

Medieval fantasy is inherently romanticized and backward-looking: it harks back to a mythical age of knights, castles, dragons and what have you. But it’s fantasy first. And if ‘medieval’ for you is a byword for a world which is white, male, ableist, and so on – if that’s important to you, if that defines your ‘fantasy’ – then you should maybe stop using medievalism as an excuse for your own prejudices. The game moves on. Maybe you should, too.

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Where Do D&D Monsters Come From?

There are some quite contentious claims out there about the origins of D&D’s creature catalogue. Was D&D inspired primarily by Tolkien and European folklore, for example, or was it more international? How many monsters did Gary Gygax invent, and how many are based on real-life mythologies?

I decided to do some research. For the sake of brevity (and my own sanity), I have restricted myself to the monsters listed in the 5th edition Monster Manual. I ignored the generic NPCs in Appendix B and the real-life fauna of Appendix A (including dinosaurs and prehistoric creatures like the sabre-toothed tiger). I also chose to ignore:

  • giant versions of real-life fauna (unless they have a specific literary origin somewhere);
  • swarms (unless they refer to creatures without stats elsewhere, like rotgrubs);
  • animated versions of real-life things (like flying swords and awakened shrubs);
  • ‘demicreatures’ like half-ogres and half-dragons;
  • juvenile or mature versions of the same creature (eg, the young remorhaz);
  • and, in general, subtypes of the same creature (eg, abominable yetis, grick alphas, different types of zombie, and so on).

Doing so gave me a list of 215 creatures to research.

A couple of disclaimers. Number one: this is a blog post, not scholarship. I may have made some mistakes here. In fact, I almost certainly have. By all means let me know in the comments! Number two: it is impossible to be completely scientific with such an exercise. Some monsters have very specific origins, like the couatl and the yeti. For others, pinning down an exact source is liking trying to decide who invented hummus. For example, many of the monsters that came to D&D via Tolkien were themselves based on other mythologies. [Update: I would also add a third disclaimer: this post is not exhaustive! I would go mad trying to write about every single one of the 215 creatures, so please accept my apologies for not doing so.]

I referred to a number of sources in making this but was particularly indebted to u/phdemented on Reddit. Do check out their posts for more detail!

Without further ado . . .

French (2)

There might not be many French creatures in the Monster Manual, but at least they can claim to have given D&D its most fearsome foe. The tarrasque (one ‘r’ in the original) is a Provençal legend about a fearsome dragon-like hybrid. The D&D tarrasque, however, is actually much closer to a Godzilla-esque kaiju. The word ogre is also French, and has other cognates in D&D like ‘Orcus’ and ‘orc’.

Update: there is some debate as to where gargoyles (‘gargouilles’) belong here. I include them further down, since the architectural feature pre-dates the mythological creature, but it’s a fair claim!

Roman (2)

Lemures (devil fodder in D&D) were restless, malignant spirits in Roman mythology. Manes (demon fodder) were also di inferi or ‘those who dwell below’, but according to St Augustine, where Lemures were generally bad souls, it was uncertain whether Manes ‘deserve well or ill’.

German/Central Europe (3)

Given the cultural influence of the Brothers Grimm, I was surprised how few D&D creatures could truly be traced back to German origins. I could only pin down three: the kobold (which is related to the colour cobalt), the imp, and the mephit (which was essentially just another form of imp, originally). Doppelgangers are not dissimilar to the changelings of Nordic and Germanic stories, but similar changelings appear in other cultures.

Unique origins (3)

The couatl is the only creature I could find with a Mesoamerican origin. The clay golem originated in Jewish folklore. Zombies come from the traditions of Haiti, which may in turn have roots in west or central Africa.

Egyptian (3 4)

Although mummified corpses have been found on every continent, the D&D mummy is clearly based on those of ancient Egypt. The jackalwere and the the androsphinx are also Egyptian in origin. (Curiously, the sphinx also existed in ancient Greece, but there it was usually a woman, not a man.) Update: while griffons appear in ancient Greek texts, their origins lie in Egypt and Iran.

East Asian (5)

The dragon turtle (Lóngguī) is a legendary Chinese creature that combines two of the four celestial animals of Chinese mythology. The gold dragon was also based on Chinese dragons. Kenku and oni, meanwhile, have their origins in Japanese mythology.

One curiosity here is the arcanaloth. @DeerServas on Twitter suggested that this may have come from The Book of Imaginary Beings where it is listed as ‘the Chinese Fox’. This may in turn have come from the Japanese stories of kitsune. [Update: another possible origin is the French stories of Reynard the Fox. We might not be able to find a true source for this one!]

Arabic, Islamic, and Persian (6)

The djinni, efreeti, ghoul, manticore, marid, and roc all come from one or more of these sources. (The term ‘efreeti’ is actually a mistake, as Keith Ammann helpfully points out, and we should probably call them ‘efreets’.) Curiously, the last of the four genie, the dao or earth genie, is an invention for D&D. Presumably the original game designers wanted one genie for each of the four elements. Update: the griffon probably belongs here or in the Egypt category, too.

Indian and South Asian (6)

Devas, nagas, and rakshasas appear in both Hindu and Buddhist mythologies. Mariliths, though an invention of D&D, bear a strong resemblance to Hindu and Buddhist demons, and in a similar vein, weretigers closely resemble rakshasas. Finally, yetis are a cryptid from the Himalayas.

Toys (6)

Bulettes.jpg

Seriously? Yes! Six of the most iconic D&D monsters – the bulette, carrion crawler, owlbear, purple worm, rust monster, and umber hulk – were invented by Gary Gygax based on a bag of cheap plastic toys.

English (6)

Several, including bugbears, duergar, and will-o’-wisps. Hobgoblins can be found in English and Scottish stories. Cloud giants were inspired by the story of Jack and the Beanstalk. The basilisk and the cockatrice have a shared origin (and indeed, the terms were almost interchangeable).

Occultism (6)

Several ‘outsiders’ like the azer, barbed devil, barlgura, bearded devil, planetar, and solar have their origins in occult texts like the Ars Goetia (17th century) and Lewis Spence’s An Encyclopedia of Occultism (1920).

Real world (6)

As I wrote at the outset, I tried to rule out real-world monsters from this research, but a few special cases are worth mentioning. The axe beak (Phorusrhacidae) and the dire wolf (Aenocyon dirus) both have prehistoric analogues. The quipper is essentially a piranha. The salamander of legend is rooted in the exaggerated stories about the amphibian of the same name. Gargoyles and scarecrows are both objects in real life.

Norse/Nordic/Scandinavian (6 7)

I was surprised by how few of the monsters in the Monster Manual were drawn directly from Norse mythology. From what I could find, only the drow, ettin, fire giant, frost giant, and kraken are truly Scandinavian in origin. [Update: the wights of Tolkien are inspired by draugr, which also feature in the video game Skyrim.] Despite the name, D&D trolls are really not much like the trolls of Norse mythology at all: along with the paladin class and the D&D aligment system, they are mainly indebted to Poul Anderson’s novel, Three Hearts and Three Lions.

Scottish, Irish, and Celtic folklore (7)

The banshee and the fomorian are Irish in origin (the name ‘Balor’ was in fact the name of a fomorian originally), while behirs and green hags (also called shellycoats) are Scottish. Merrow are Scottish and Irish. Pixies are Celtic and sprites are Cornish.

European folklore (7 8)

A fair few here: the goblin, the night hag, the nightmare, the revenant, and the werewolf (which goes back to ancient Greece and Rome). The cambion, too, is a European creation. Shakespeare’s Caliban was a cambion.

Update: although dragons are fairly universal and found it many, many cultures worldwide, D&D’s dragons are clearly modelled after European types (the gold dragon being an exception). Curiously, though, and this is something Tolkien himself points out in Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, dragons are actually rare in European literature, and there are only a few that are significant.

Tolkien (9 8)

For many years, Gary Gygax downplayed how much D&D borrowed from Tolkien’s work. Possibly for legal reasons: the threat of copyright action from the Tolkien estate prompted D&D to stop using terms like ‘balrog’, ‘ent’, and ‘hobbit’. Nevertheless, Tolkien was clearly a huge influence on the early game, and it’s primarily from The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit that we get creatures like balors, giant eagles, orcs, treants, wights, worgs, and wraiths. [Correction: wights are based on draugr from Norse mythology, so I have moved them there.] While I wouldn’t go so far as to put them in this category, the werebear is reminiscent of Beorn from The Hobbit, and red dragons closely resemble Smaug. Goblins and stone giants are also extremely Tolkienesque, despite appearing in other cultures and traditions.

Universal/multi-origin (13 12)

Many of the creatures in the Monster Manual have no single origin and appear around the world in various forms. These include: dragons, ghosts, hell hounds, hill giants, iron golems, lizardfolk, lycanthropes, merfolk, skeletons, stone golems, unicorns, vampires, and wyverns. They are, in essence, ‘citizens of the world’. Claims can be made for some of them – unicorns may have originated in the Indus Valley Civilization, possibly as a representation of aurochs – but they are not uncontentious, and there are often conflicting claims elsewhere. Vampires, for example, can be found in almost all cultures in some form or another, including Asia, Africa, the Americas, and ancient Mesopotamia.

Works of fiction beside Tolkien (14)

A long list! Horned devils come from Dante (the lazy Malebranche of the Divine Comedy); elementals, in their D&D form, seem to be inspired by the work of Michael Moorcock; flesh golems are clearly modelled on the Monster in Frankenstein; grimlocks are essentially the morlocks of The Time Machine.

And there are more: the demilich and the wererat resemble creatures in Fritz Leiber’s work; perytons seems to come from Jorge Luis Borges; the name gnoll may have come from Lord Dunsany’s The Book of Wonder: How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art upon the Gnoles Update: Gary Gygax himself attested that the gnoll was a mash-up of a gnome and a troll (!); and the grell seems to be based on the medusae of Jack Williamson’s Three from the Legion (1980) [Update: user on Reddit pointed out that grells appear to pre-date this source. Thank you, kinarism!]. Thri-kreen may have been modelled on the four-armed green martians in John Carter of Mars (1917), while liches can be found in the work of several 20th-century writers, including Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Howard, and Ambrose Bierce. Finally, displacer beasts, despite being considered the intellectual property of Wizards of the Coast, have an uncanny resemblance to the Coeurls of A E van Vogt.

Greek myth (18 17)

Here was perhaps my most interesting find. Once you exclude real-life fauna and creatures invented by the game itself, Greek mythology is the single biggest origin of 5e monsters.

The list is huge: centaurs, chimeras, cyclopes, dryads, empyreans (essentially titans), erinyes (the Furies), griffons, gynosphinxes, harpies, hydras, lamias, medusas, minotaurs, pegasi, and satyrs are all clearly taken from Greek myth. I would also add two more: the storm giant (which closely resemble Zeus) and the wereboar (which reminds us of Circe and the swine in the Odyssey). The hell hound and the iron golem, too, while not exact copies of any creatures in Greek mythology, do nonetheless bear a resemblance to Cerberus and Talos respectively.

One creature I excluded from this category, though, was the gorgon. Despite the name, they are not based on Greek myth! They have some similarities to the bulls of Colchis or Khalkotauroi, but their true origins seem to be Edward Topsell’s 1607 bestiary The Historie of Foure-Footed Beasts. In Greek mythology, the gorgons are the three snake-haired sisters: Stheno, Euryale, and Medusa.

Update (1 Feb): another creature I excluded from this list was the skeleton. ‘But Jason and the Argonauts!’ I hear you cry. Turns out, the Spartoi of Greek myth are simply warriors, and never described as skeletons. You can blame Harryhausen and his wonderful special effects for that one.

D&D (at least 20)

Another huge list: so many of the monsters of D&D seem to be an invention of the game itself. Many of the demons – for example, the glabrezu, hezrou, nalfeshnee, and quasit – came from the imagination of Gary Gygax: so, too, did blink dogs, various oozes, troglodytes, and the xorn. Other D&D creations include ankhegs, githyanki (a name which came from George R R Martin), mind flayers, modrons, twig blights, and the iconic beholder, although these did not necessarily come from Gygax. Flumphs and quaggoths were player created. These creatures may have never existed if it were not for D&D.

The winner: unknown! (at least 50)

And then there’s the rest! About a quarter of the monsters I looked at had unclear origins, and we might never know who created them. Like the list above, they may very well be a product of the game itself. Examples include dracoliches, driders, ettercaps, flumphs, gricks, mimics, myconids, otyughs, quaggoths, ropers, shambling mounds, and vrocks. Some may have real-life origins (the original ochre jelly art resembled a giant amoeba), and others may be nods to particular cultural references (ultroloths recall the stereotypical grey alien), but others are just a bit of a mystery.

Honourable mentions

Although none of the monsters in D&D are taken from Lovecraft directly, several are ‘Lovecraftian’ in form. These include aboleths, chuuls, ghasts, ghouls, gibbering mouthers, kuo-toa, mind flayers, and slaadi. Likewise, a number of creatures from the Monster Manual can be seen in similar forms in 20th-century pulp fiction. These include aarakocra (Flash Gordon), black puddings (The Blob), and the gelatinous cube.

Conclusions

I learned a lot from doing this. I was suprised by the extent to which it borrowed from Greek myth, for example, and how few creatures, comparatively, were Norse in origin. My research does seem to bear out the suggestion that D&D’s origins are heavily weighed towards Europe, however: the number of monsters from Asia, Africa, and the Americas is really quite small, with none that I could think of from Australia and Oceania. What struck me most of all, though, was the sheer plurality and inventiveness of the game’s sources, emphasizing, once again, that there is a place for all storytellers in the world of D&D.

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