The latest D&D Minis set, Lords of Madness, releases this month, and it includes some classic creatures. To help celebrate the release, we present our (highly subjective) Top 10 Lords of Madness monsters, with origins from early editions of the game (this is D&D Alumni, after all!). Many of these monsters and villains have lengthy personal histories mauling adventurers, and we look forward to seeing them hit the table—some as minis for the very first time!
Who are they, and why did we pick ’em? Let’s find out.
#10. Stone Giant
Although the 1st Edition Against the Giants series focused on the hill, frost, and fire giants, these grim fellows (suffering alopecia totalis) still made guest appearances. Stone giants sent representatives to Chief Nosnra’s birthday feast, stayed in Jarl Grugnir’s visitors’ cave, and even worked for King Snurre as engineers. Possible origins for stone giants include The Hobbit, where several of them play atop a mountainside during a storm, pitching rocks at one another.
Quiz: Who wants to be an astral diamond-aire? Quickly arrange the following giants in order of their 1st Edition Armor Class, lowest to highest: fire, frost, hill, stone.
Hill Giant: AC 4 (but the prettiest—or so they tell us)
Frost Giant: AC 4 (but the tallest at 15 feet)
Fire Giant: AC 3 (but the toughest, with the most Hit Dice at 11+)
Who knew that the “will” part is actually their formal name: Will, as in William—a relative, at least etymologically speaking, to Jack-o’-the-lantern. The game provided a home, as well as mechanics, for these figments of folklore and their most cruel intentions. Also known as corpse lights and thought to derive from swamp gas (we know the truth; they’re really the ghosts of fireflies), will-o’-wisps have long haunted swamps, bogs, and fens. In the game you can find them in catacombs, too, where mires, quicksand, pit traps, and the like are plentiful. For creepy dungeon lairs, you might try adding some random will-o’-wisps to help light the place, as well as lure heroes to certain traps, encounters, or even clues.
But why do they wish to lure travelers to their doom? According to the 1st Edition Monster Manual, they do so to feed off a traveler’s fleeing life force.
From folklore, we move on to a creature of myth. Any who remember their Greek mythology (and we’re guessing that’s a major portion of gamers) should recall the seven-headed Lernaean Hydra slain by Hercules—himself a 15th-level ranger/3rd-level bard according to the 1st Edition Deities & Demigods. Cut off one head, and two more would grow back—a mechanic expressed in the 1st Edition Monster Manual’s Lernaean Hydra (and one that is also in use by my lawn). Other versions did not regrow lost heads; or, the heads instead breathed fire or cold.
This particular mini is based on the 4th Edition heroslayer hydra, which did bring back the concept of regenerating heads in Monster Manual 2. Which, it must be said, might work to run as a piecework creature). No news yet on the wand of wonders version, which regrows the head of a different creature each time.
And from myth, we move on to legend (you’ve noticed a theme, no doubt: monster origins). The efreet derive from Arabic legend, most notably—at least to Western audiences—from The Thousand and One Nights (The Arabian Nights, or Alf Layla wa Layla). Efreets hailed from the Elemental Plane of Fire where they ruled their fabulous City of Brass—itself a story from The Thousand and One Nights. This city was governed by an efreet sultan and his beys, amirs, maliks, and six great pashas (an entirely underused title, in my opinion, last assumed by Calimport’s Pasha Pook).
In legend, efreets (and djinn, or genies in general) are best known for granting wishes. The game’s efreet could once grant up to three wishes—which, in certain earlier “gotcha” sensibilities, they would look to subvert in any way possible. Otherwise, they could be forced to serve for a maximum of 1,001 days (or nights, as the case clearly might be).
Wishes themselves were a subject of much consternation in the game. As the 1st Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide stated, “As with any wish, you must be very judicious in how you handle the request. If players are greedy and grasping, be sure to ‘crock’ them. Interpret their wording exactly, twist the wording, or simply rule the request is beyond the power of the magic.”
We’ll have more about wishes in our later picks.
Originally, among Type IV demons, ”Nalfeshnee” was the name of the most dominant individual. It is also noted that not all Type IV demons had formal names. If some people (we’re looking at you, Chris Youngs) consider the merging of an owl and bear downright ridiculous, how do they feel about a demon that combines the worst features of an ape and a boar (in the 1st Edition Monster Manual’s words) along with tiny, vestigial wings? Those people are wise to keep their opinions to themselves. The Nalfeshnee doesn’t take kindly to ridicule (even if he is the closest monster to South Park's ManBearPig).
Here’s a conundrum—what to do when you’ve created such a compelling villain that you hate to see him forever defeated? Try cloning him! This worked as a story vehicle for Emperor Palpatine in the Star Wars: Dark Empire series of comics. Manshoon, a crime lord of the Forgotten Realms, also cloned himself—in fact, he made a generous number of copies.
However, the clone spell back in the 1st Edition Player’s Handbook came with the following user warnings: “. . . the duplicate is the person, so that if the original and a duplicate exist at the same time, each knows of the other’s existence; and the original person and the clone will each desire to do away with the other, for such an alter-ego is unbearable to both. If one cannot destroy the other, one (95%) will go insane (75% likely to be the clone) and destroy itself, or possibly (5%) both will become mad and commit suicide.”
In Manshoon’s case, each clone was in fact intent on destroying all others, in true Highlander there-can-be-only-one style. This led to the Manshoon Wars, and the ultimate survival of a single clone.
But there’s one bigger reason we’re glad to see this villain finally: his beard shirt!
#4. Iron Golem
I’ve written about the game’s appropriation of “golem” for a new monster category, one that’s long since been picked up by the genre at large. The iron golem began as part of the game’s earliest golem line-up, along with stone (living statue), flesh (Frankenstein monster) and clay (Judaic original), its illustration clearly inspired by Ray Harryhausen’s Talos (from his classic film, Jason and the Argonauts).
Oddly, while a wide variety of materials have been used since (including 3rd Edition’s mithral and adamantine), it seems no one has thought to add a little charcoal to the mix and upgrade the iron golem to steel.
Forget about owls and bears, or even apes and winged pigs. The most unholy of matrimonies is clearly between a dragon and a lich. It would be a Herculean task (see hydra, above) to come up with a more intimidating monster—or one more compelling. Dragotha the dracolich appeared on the map to White Plume Mountain (“where fabulous riches and hideous death await”). Since then, dracoliches have featured in Ed Greenwood’s and R.A. Salvatore’s novels, as a villain in the Castle Ravenloft board game, and now even as an ultra-rare Magic the Gathering card (Skithiryx, the Blight Dragon).
The Lords of Madness version represents a fettered dracolich, from the Forgotten Realms' Cult of the Dragon. This villainous group not only creates dracoliches (and other odd draconic combinations) but bows them to their authority, playing the world’s most dangerous game of “keep away” with the dracolich’s phylactery.
So far, we’ve seen creatures of myth, legend, folklore, our own shared worlds, and even from Claymation movie mayhem. Dungeons & Dragons hasn’t shied away from pilfering monsters from world religions either—as we see in our final two picks.
Dispater was originally the Roman god of the underworld (Dis Pater, the “Father of Riches”), before Rome overlaid the Grecian gods over all of their own; Dispater then became Hades. In the game, Dispater the archdevil ruled the appropriately named iron city of Dis (greater than the efreet’s City of Brass, surely—Dis is described as “infernally grand” and is populated by zombies and erinyes).
Dispater is described as being evilly handsome, and one might recognize Dispater by his cloven left foot. Or quite possibly from his horns, tail, stare that could wrack a viewer with fear and cold . . . or from the staff of striking he’d use to club you over your head.
In later versions, Dispater took on even greater affinity to iron beyond his iron city. For starters, he was served by Talos the triple-iron golem (and look, that’s where the iron golem above comes in). Then in the 3rd Edition Book of Vile Darkness, Dispater’s skin became like metal, and his touch could “petrify” a victim, transforming them to iron . . . and follow that up by transforming metal to rust—all incredibly dangerous powers you might consider adding to Dispater, Iron Duke of Hell!
So why is this fiendish fellow our top pick? Although the monsters above have a wide array of origins, Mephistopheles allows me to put my English degree to use. Appearing in the legend of Faust, he was the literal devil one summoned to make a deal; and, as might be expected, things did not turn out so well for Faust in that regard.
But wait, there’s more English lit. Dante—who made famous the notion of Hell’s layers in his Inferno—devoted the eighth layer to fraudsters (including thieves, sorcerers, and alchemists—enough members to form a decent party, actually), ruled by Geryon. The same Geryon defeated by Heracles after he defeated the Lernaean Hydra, in fact.
In the game’s cosmology, Geryon once ruled the 5th layer of Hell. Mephistopheles ruled the 8th layer: Cania, a frozen wasteland controlled from his citadel Mephistar (as with Dispater, archdevils liked homes named after themselves, apparently). There, he retained the power to fulfill another’s wish, though probably with as much straight-dealing as an efreet. Among other details, Mephistopheles’s normal speech was whispering wind, and he carried a three-tined fork +3 (of the military kind, we assume; otherwise, his dinners were in for some serious hurting). Side Note: With the game’s roots in military wargaming, there’s been something of an over-detailed collection of polearms.
Lords of Madness offers new stats for Mephistopheles (as a level 31 solo controller). So the next time your players are in need of a wish to get out of a desperate situation, be careful—this scheming devil might suddenly appear to offer them a “bargain” of some sort!
Bart Carroll has been a part of Wizards of the Coast since 2004, and a D&D player since 1980 (and has fond memories of coloring the illustrations in his 1st Edition Monster Manual). He currently works as producer for the D&D website. You can find him on Twitter (@bart_carroll) and at bartjcarroll.com.