Dungeons & Dragons has evolved over the years from a humble role-playing board game to a cult-classic amongst gamers, not to mention the backbone of some of the biggest pop culture touchstones of our generation, such as Netflix’s Stranger Things.
After a couple of previous attempts, D&D is getting another direct live-action adaptation in Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves. As the franchise has moved into the mainstream, many of us are still breaking down the basic battle strategies, creatures and characters from the five revised editions of the D&D rule book.
Amongst the plethora of game-specific monsters born from the minds of creators Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson to serve as every adult’s nightmare fuel, others have been inspired by creatures closer to home.
Folklore, myths and legends provide a rich array of strange and unexplained entities that have tormented humanity, and are ripe for being turned into grotesque, fictional demons.
As a new generation of anti-heroes are about to land, it’s time to brush up on your D&D knowledge to come face to face with a handful of adversaries that they may face in the upcoming epic beyond the expected dragons that are part of the title.
Thankfully, D&D expert Luke Flood – whose time playing the game goes back three decades – took time out of his Call of the Netherdeep campaign as a Dungeon Master to assist our party when it comes to learning more about these creatures inspired by culture, history and literature through the ages.
Minotaurs are one of the most well-known mythical creatures, deriving from an ancient Greek myth that ended with Theseus slaying the minotaur in his labyrinth.
In D&D, a minotaur means one thing – carnage. Flood explains: “They tend to be evil, barbaric creatures. Just like in mythology they’d often be found in labyrinths or other underground ruins.”
“They fight with all the chaos and lack of strategy of a wild animal, using their strong senses to hunt down any character bold enough to enter their lair. They can also recall any route they have travelled and are incapable of getting lost.”
In the game’s lore, minotaurs are the product of a demonic cult, who turn humans and other beings into minotaurs as part of a ritual to God Baphomet.
A minotaur was born in Greek mythology out of King Minos of Crete’s failure to sacrifice a white bull to Poseidon. His misjudgement led the gods to punish his wife to fall in love with a bull, and give birth to a humanoid that was half-man, half-beast. The King was repulsed by this creation and confined the Minotaur into the labyrinth.
Owlbears are a prominent feature in trailers for Honor Among Thieves, and it might seem to have an obvious origin. But, think again.
Creator Gygax actually based this owl-headed-bear on the Japanese-created fictional monsters known as Kaiju, who typically encompasses all gigantic creatures such as Mothra and Godzilla. This specific concept of a giant monster has transpired into western culture to the point that Guillermo Del Toro called the creatures in Pacific Rim Kaiju. As for the Owlbear, while sifting through a bag of dinosaur toys, Gygax found such a Kaiju collectible and was inspired.
The eye-catching gargantuan reminded him of fictional giants in the animal kingdom such as King Kong. He evolved the concept to include the elements of an owl in the design, to move away from the early reptilian ideas. However, don’t be fooled by their cute fluffy exterior, as this unofficial “mascot” of the game are notoriously cruel.
“They’re massive, vicious and immensely strong, but dumb as a post. Their ferocity defines them, but they’re also fantastic at using sight and smell to track any prey. They typically hunt at night, hence the owl aspect,” Flood notes.
This monstrosity is set to cause chaos on and off-screen as some fans argue that a Wild Shaping turning into an Owlbear (as seen in the trailer) isn’t in the rules of D&D.
Golems come in various forms in D&D, though if you see one the best bet is to run. From flesh golems to stone golems and iron golems (who you should avoid at all costs), these creatures can dissemble your party faster than you can scream a final battle cry.
Clay golems are one of the weaker variants of the species, that are made from inanimate matter such as (you guessed it) clay, which has come to life. They might sound harmless, but Flood insists we should not be deceived.
“When they become weakened, golems can activate an ability called Berserk, which causes them to attack creatures and objects utterly at random,” he explained.
Despite the supernatural aspects to D&D golems, they are derived from Jewish folklore that has existed since the early sixteenth century. In another instance of history and art mirroring, numerous types of golems appear throughout Jewish lore, with one legend seeing a rabbi create a golem for the specific purpose to protect his synagogue against anti-Semitic attacks.
Similar to several D&D monsters, Lamias are linked to an evil religious entity, as the demon lord Graz’zt created lamias to do his bidding in the mortal realm.
They tend to shy away from a fight, as Flood informs us they have other ways of inflicting bodily harm. He explains: “They’re spellcasters, and can use magic to charm players to do their bidding, disguise themselves and create mirror images to confuse any potential enemies.”
The historical influences of this creature are still prevalent, as these curse-wielding creatures with long claws that are half human and half-lions have the same qualities as their Greek counterparts.
In Greek mythology, Lamia was the name of the Queen of Libya, who had an affair with the King of the Gods himself, Zeus. She might not have appeared grotesque or particularly deadly, but Lamia became the symbol of a seductive spirit, who was often depicted as half-human, half-serpent. Similar to D&D, she would lure her prey away from virtue, to corrupt their souls and destory their lives.
An encounter with a wil-o’-wisps will likely be your last in D&D, as these undead spirits will lure you into traps, or simply suck the life right out of you.
“There are many varieties of ghosts, apparitions, vampires and the like in D&D, but none quite so annoying to face in a fight as these guys. They’re essentially ghosts of evil beings that look like little motes of light,” Flood explains.
“They can make themselves invisible, are resistant to just about every weapon attack and most magic, and they can kill unconscious players forcing them to rip up their character sheet and create a new one altogether.”
Prior to their use in D&D, these ethereal lights have historically appeared in old English folk stories, where they would lure people into the depths of marshes, swamps or the sea.
In Greek mythology, one of the most famous gorgons is Medusa – who also appears in D&D (more on her below). However, in the game, gorgons appear in an animalistic form of a huge iron bull with breath that can petrify its victims.
Flood says: “I once nearly killed my entire party with one of these! Gorgons will charge at any enemy and usually do vast amounts of damage in the process.”
Instead of being turned to stone with a single look, as warned in ancient legends, it’s gorgons deadly breath that adventurers have to be wary of.
Flood adds, “If characters get caught in the mist of its breath, they might find themselves turned to stone on the spot, and will need some powerful magic (a spell of Greater Restoration) cast to bring them back.”
If looks could kill, Medusa would win. It’s the one creature never to get into a staring contest with unless you want to spend eternity as a block of stone.
Medusa’s appearance in D&D is the same as her Greek origin, as a human with hair made up of living snakes. The most iconic gorgon in mythology, Medusa shared the same condition as her two sisters, Stheno and Euryale. However, the threats are higher in D&D, as there are multiple Medusas.
“In D&D lore though, a Medusa is a creature who made a bargain with a devil or demon, maybe for beauty or fortune, and is now paying the price as they are transformed into a being of malevolence,” Flood explains.
Alongside their infamous glare, Medusas in D&D will also give you a nasty snake bite and fight you with weapons. An unfortunate triple threat. In every incarnation in fiction, Medusa (or Medusas) shares the same weakness and can be petrified by their own reflection. So perhaps all an adventuring party needs is a mirror?
Fomorians are cursed giants who wield the power of their Evil Eye in order to mangle their enemies into distorted, half-dead beings.
“These are one of many type of Giants within D&D, and they’re one of the toughest to face,” Flood continues. “Fomorians most unique attack is their Evil Eye, a magical ability that forces an enemy to share their curse. When they aren’t trying to share their curse with you, they will probably be found trying to wallop you with a Greatclub the size of a horse.”
Despite the brutally grotesque nature of these beings, fomorians have roots in Irish mythology. It was believed that fomorians were raiders or giants found in the sea from underneath the earth, such as the frost giants in Norse mythology or the Titans in Roman myths.
In all of these legends, the creatures possess dark spirits and the will to harm innocent passers-by. The antagonistic portrayal of the fomorian race only increased as the Vikings began to invade Ireland and became the embodiment of these mythical giant sea attackers.
In the depths of the ocean lay some of the strangest creatures known to existence. Enter D&D’s sea-dwelling destroyer, the aboleth.
“Aboleths are said to be older than the Gods, with a dark and malevolent nature. They like to enslave, to manipulate, and can actually warp the environment around them,” Flood says.
“Almost always found underwater, when an Aboleth hits you with its tentacles, it can cause you to slowly burn to death if you leave the water, and your skin becomes slimy and translucent.”
While there is no single inspiration for this fictional being, its physical appearance seems to be a compilation of elements of an octopus, with a reptilian spine and the mouth of a shark. It is a deadly amalgamation of some of the world’s most extreme predators with superhuman abilities to enslave others through telekinesis.
Sometimes it’s the essence of the threat that remains the same throughout time, as opposed to physical appearance. This is true for Gremlins.
You won’t have seen one of these orc-looking, clawed, demonic animalistic humans in real life, but the cultural identity of them is found in pretty recent history compared to many other D&D creatures, going back to the last century.
The earliest record of Gremlins in literature is in a poem published in the journal Aeorplane in Malta back in 1929. However, it is believed during World War II, British Royal Air Force began telling stories about mischievous little beings who stole items, sabotaged equipment and aircraft and generally caused havoc while they were stationed abroad in Malta and the Middle East.