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Big Beasts
Wandering Monsters
By James Wyatt

During the holiday season, we're looking back at some of the most popular articles this year, within each column. Today's Wandering Monsters originally ran back on June 25.

We look forward to seeing you again in the new year!


I talked last week about oversized arthropods, so let’s move now to discuss giant reptiles, birds, and mammals, shall we?

Dinosaurs

Dinosaurs have been part of the D&D game almost since the beginning. They evoke the feel of the “Lost World” sorts of adventures common in the pulp tradition, but there’s a sort of conceptual weirdness to their inclusion. In a world where dragons exist, what makes dinosaurs special? Can we even assume that a mass extinction in any of the D&D worlds got rid of most of these creatures? If so, then how did any of them survive? If not, then what makes these giant reptiles any different from dragons, hydras, and plain old giant lizards?

Furthermore, what do they have in common? In scientific usage, dinosaurs are specifically terrestrial reptiles of a certain era, excluding earlier reptiles such as dimetrodons as well as aquatic and flying ones. In common English usage, though, the term “dinosaur” encompasses all these creatures—basically any reptile that lived prior to the end of the Mesozoic era. D&D has followed the common English usage, including the elasmosaurus, the pteranodon, and sometimes even the archelon (giant turtle) under the heading of dinosaur.

The other weirdness about using dinosaurs in D&D is their names. In the real world, they’re among the rare creatures that we commonly refer to using their scientific, taxonomic names (specifically, their genus). Imagine if we (in the U.S.) referred to the American robin as the turdus, using its genus name? That’s linguistically equivalent to talking about stegosaurus.

You might have figured out by now that this is all sort of a pet peeve of mine. And that’s why the Eberron campaign setting doesn’t use the word dinosaur. There are several different families of giant reptiles in the Eberron setting, where they are all part of the normal, natural world.

  • There’s the upright, two-legged, carnivorous dinosaurs we call theropods, including the “bladetooth” (allosaurus), “great carver” (megaraptor), “carver” (deinonychus), “spineback” (spinosaurus), “swordtooth titan” (tyrannosaurus), and “clawfoot” (velociraptor).

  • There’s the huge, four-legged, long-necked herbivores we call sauropods, including the “thunderherder” (seismosaurus)—a name I unfortunately borrowed from a sandworm-like creature in the original Monster Manual II.

  • There’s the slightly less huge, four-legged, armored herbivores, including the “hammertail” (ankylosaurus) and the “threehorn” (triceratops).

  • Then there’s a giant turtle—the “giant snapper” (archelon)—and the giant swimming reptiles such as “fintails” (cryptoclidus, elasmosaurus, and plesiosaur), “maultooths” (ichthyosaur), and “sea renders” (mosasaur).

  • The flying reptiles are “glidewings” (pteranodon) and “soarwings” (quetzalcoatlus).

  • And I dug deep into my son’s dinosaur books to find the “fastieth” (Leaellynasaura, named for a paleontologist couple’s daughter), which is a fast, bipedal herbivore suitable for riding by halflings.

  • I never named other bipedal herbivores, such as the family of hadrosaurs (including parasaurolophus and lambeosaurus).

Does D&D need all these dinosaurs (and other giant reptiles)? We made them a significant part of the Eberron setting because one of the goals of that setting was to find a place for everything in D&D, and dinosaurs were in D&D. Now you could argue that the game needs them because Eberron needs them. Ultimately, I think they belong in the game—but maybe not smack dab in the core of the game. Think differently? Let me know in the polls.

Giant Birds of Prey

Giant eagles and giant owls have also been part of the game from the beginning. They’re not just big animals—they’re intelligent creatures, and they’re magical beasts in 3rd Edition terms. The giant eagles owe an obvious debt to Gwaihir and his kin, the intelligent eagles who appear in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. They’re sometimes friendly to elves and dwarves, but always hostile to creatures that show up in their lairs. They sometimes serve as guards to high elf lairs, according to the original Monster Manual. Their Intelligence score (about 10) sets them apart from rocs, and they’re considerably smaller as well (only a 20-foot wingspan, compared to 60 feet to 80 feet for the roc).

Giant owls are similar to their eagle kin. They’re smaller (size Medium) but smarter, and they are friendly with wood elves. Like mundane owls, they fly nearly silently and have excellent night vision.

In a way, I think both of these creatures are more interesting in their relationship with elves than they are by themselves. It makes me think of elaborate elven castles on rocky crags where giant eagles would lair, and wood elf bands moving silently through the deep forest at night with their owl companions. The presence of these big birds adds texture to our picture of these elf races.

Rats!

The giant (Sumatran) rat appeared in the original Monster Manual as a Small-sized creature plaguing crypts and dungeons. That parenthetical reference to an Indonesian island confused a young James (I pronounced it to rhyme with Megatron), and it appears to be a reference to a passing mention in Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire.” It turns out that the island of Sumatra does have some very large rat species, including the mountain giant Sunda rat, which is 19 to 25 inches long.

In other words, there’s nothing particularly fantastical about a giant rat. These are real-world creatures, with pretty realistic statistics—they’re found in large numbers, they have a painful but not deadly bite, and they can transmit disease through the bite.

In 3rd Edition, this became the dire rat. It is statistically almost identical, but it borrowed the “dire” moniker from the dire wolf. That’s a 3rd-Editionism that persisted into 4th Edition, with dire rats getting more alien along the way. (They absorbed the horrid rat from Eberron, which we created to make dire animals less mundane.)

It’s probably not surprising to you that I would just as soon consider the giant rat as a creature in its own right without lumping it into an artificial category of “dire animals.” I’ll talk more about that category in a bit.

Carnivorous Apes

Like giant rats, carnivorous apes showed up in the original Monster Manual as a Large, strong, moderately intelligent (Intelligence 7) ape with a taste for human flesh. There’s a clear debt here to Thak the ape of Robert E. Howard’s “Rogues in the House.” Thak is smart enough to mimic the man who raised and trained it. Similar ape-creatures appear in other Conan stories and elsewhere in pulp and other fantasy. The other stream of ape tradition in fantasy, of course, is the giant ape—like King Kong. A giant ape featured prominently in the 1995 adventure Isle of the Ape.

As we saw with rats, the carnivorous ape of earlier editions became the dire ape in 3rd Edition, lumped together with other dire animals in a single entry. Its Intelligence also went down, from 7 to 1. By the time a miniature of a dire ape appeared, it had acquired the same bony spikes and ridges as the dire bear illustrated in the 3rd Edition Monster Manual, making it less like the dangerous apes of classic fantasy. I’d just as soon call it a carnivorous ape (or perhaps a Conanesque “gray ape”), give it back its intelligence, and let it stand on its own as a monster.

Da Bears

Have you noticed a trend yet? What was called a cave bear—a real-world animal of the Pleistocene era—appeared in 3rd Edition as the dire bear. And while the illustration shows an enormous, roaring bear with spiky ridges towering over a wild elf, the text gave us this gem: “The omnivorous dire bear usually does not bother creatures that try to avoid it, but will aggressively defend a kill or other source of food.” What? I thought dire animals were “tougher, meaner versions of ordinary animals”?

Anyway, the “very aggressive” cave bear of 1st Edition seems perfectly sufficient for a monstrous bear in D&D, rather than—once again—lumping these beasts in the same category as 2-foot-long rats and so on. They’re favored pets and guards of stone giants. Unfortunately, 4th Edition includes a smaller “cave bear” that’s only Medium in size, but commonly found underground. If we need that, it could be a “deep bear” (not to be confused with the quaggoth).

Dire Wolf

Here’s the one that started the trend. Like the cave bear, the dire wolf is an animal of the real world, a relative of the gray wolf that flourished during the Pleistocene epoch. It also appeared in the original Monster Manual, alongside the common wolf and the winter wolf. A worg, according to that book, is just a dire wolf with an extra Hit Die, more intelligence, and evil alignment. And the dire wolf, in turn, is just a larger wolf.

There’s certainly value in having wolves come in different sizes, and the evil, intelligent worg is a staple in D&D as a mount for goblins. Dire wolves are often found as pets for hill giants.

Other Pleistocene Mammals

The Pleistocene epoch gives us plenty of real animals that can stand in just fine for the proliferation of dire animals in 3rd Edition, all of which have been part of the game since 1st Edition:

  • Spotted lion (commonly a pet for cloud giants)
  • Saber-toothed tiger
  • Entelodon (giant boar)
  • Mammoth and mastodon
  • Hyaenadon (almost revered by gnolls)
  • Irish deer (dire elk!)
  • Wooly rhinoceros

Along similar lines, animals like crocodiles and sharks grew a lot larger in prehistoric times than they do today without really changing significantly, so we can present the megalodon and deinosuchus as simply oversized varieties of these other animals.

I think these animals are more interesting—visually and conceptually—than the “dire X” approach that got worse and worse as 3rd Edition went on. Do we need a dire hippopotamus? I don’t think so.

James Wyatt
James Wyatt is the Creative Manager for Dungeons & Dragons R&D at Wizards of the Coast. He was one of the lead designers for 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons and the primary author of the 4th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. He also contributed to the Eberron Campaign Setting, and is the author of several Dungeons & Dragons novels set in the world of Eberron.