I began this conversation back in March's In the Works: Dungeons & Dragons is a game rife with monsters collected from all manner of sources. Virtually no stone was left unturned—and whatever critter happened to be lurking underneath a stone was quickly statted up and thrown into the game's arena. In the past, I've talked about how these sources have included myths, legends, folklore, medieval bestiaries, religious demonologies, horror movies, dinosaurs, comic books, and pulp fantasy and science fiction tropes; others have discussed how some of the game's original monsters were based on dime store toys used as stand-ins for miniatures.
I've long felt that rather than generalize D&D as generic fantasy, embracing this mélange of monsters actually helped distinguish the game. The only thing better than having its own set of monsters is D&D having multiple sets of monsters all coexisting in their own strange way.
Which segues into the today's topic: the hybrid. Here, one might also make the case that the only thing better than one monster is two (or more) monsters mashed into a single creature. In today's article, we'll take a look at our favorite hybrids from the game—and ask for your help in creating some new ones!
From the Greeks
I have to say that if anyone loved monsters more than a 7-year old version of this author (proudly coloring in the black-and-white illos in his Monster Manual), it would be the Greeks. In Greek mythology, Echidna was quite literally the mother of monsters. Most people probably have never heard of her, but I'm sure you've heard of her kids: the chimera, hydra, and sphinx among others (and by others, we also mean the dogs Cerberus and Orthrus, Medusa and her sisters, and even the dragon that guarded the Golden Fleece). That's some lineage.
Echidna (you might be little surprised to hear) was herself a monster: half-woman, half-snake (a drakaina, which also included such company as Scylla the sea monster, Lamia the child eater, and—in some accounts—Medusa). Even her children went on to create more monsters: Medusa's spilled blood resulted in Pegasus and Chrysaor, the golden giant; and as we remember from the Ray Harryhausen film, the teeth from the Golden Fleece's guardian dragon, when sown, gave rise to the Spartoi warriors.
For whatever reason, Echidna is now mainly known as a spiny anteater. Which, I suppose, still looks monstrous enough... if you're an ant. So why do we bring her up at all? For starters, she mothered the chimera, which we'll talk about next. And really, she's as good a patron for our next Creature Competition as we're ever likely to meet.
As I said, the Greeks loved their monsters. When it came to their chimeric creatures—mishmashes of humans, animals, and (occasionally) dragons—many of them made their way, in some form or another, into the original Monster Manual. Here be griffons, hippogriffs, and hippocampi (not to mention India's manticore and leucrotta, the Middle Eastern lammasu and shedu, and of course Egypt's sphinx).
Their descriptions might have changed along the way (the chimera becoming a three-headed monster in the game, instead of a monster of three parts), but then again, their exact physiologies and genealogies were fairly malleable in their own mythologies. Of course, D&D went on to create its own chimeras, with the owlbear perhaps foremost among them (and the duck bunny perhaps last).
Oddly enough, there never was an actual labyrinth in Crete. As learned on my tour there (hey, I have to make use of this information somehow), later peoples came across the ruins of the palace and found it so elaborate that they concocted the myth of the labyrinth and the minotaur (and although Theseus solved the labyrinth with a ball of twine, the same method appears foiled in the Player's Handbook by a cunning troll).
The minotaur represents another type of hybrid brought into the game—the luminal being, often referring to a creature specifically part human and part animal. The game has certainly borrowed its fair share from legend and folklore: the minotaur, harpy, centaur, rakshasa, and merfolk. Others were created for the game following the same motif: bird folk became aarakocra, insect folk became thri-kreen, even hippo folk became giff, and (arguable) octopus and squid folk became mind flayers and morkoth. The list, once attempted, goes on . . . and on . . . and on (myconids being fungus-based, saurials being dinosaur-based, dragonborn and draconians both staking claim to being dragon folk, and 2nd Edition vegepygmies listed as being mold-based . . . noting they were derogatorily called moldies for short).
In this category, centaurs and their ilk have also proven a popular hybrid: whether it's the classical part human/part horse, or any of the game's own varieties, including the wemic, scarrow, and 1st Edition's lamia. Oddly (thankfully?) no one has yet attempted something part human/part unicorn.
Of course, Dungeons & Dragons is far from the only venue to concoct its liminal beings. Where would we be without Mickey Mouse, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Jeff Goldblum as The Fly, or China Mieville's anopheli (mosquito people far superior to Mansquito)? It's common culture to anthropomorphize animals and turn them into characters.
The last category we'll mention—before turning things over to you—is one that I'll call transformative hybrids. Another common meme in world folklore involves people who turn into animals (or hybridized versions). Putting 1982's Cat People (and 2004's Catwoman) aside, this meme has resulted in some classic tellings, with the werewolf chief among them. Even now, Red Riding Hood was recently playing in theaters.
In the past, I've claimed that the game created "golem" as a new creature category. I'd say that D&D did much the same with lycanthropes. True, the etymology of the word specifically refers to wolves, but the 1st Edition Monster Manual applied it to a host of animals: bear, boar, rat, tiger, and jackal. Some of these clearly borrowed from folklore (the weretiger from India, and werebears from berserkers), but creating a broad game category proved to be yet another useful classification for a disparate collection of monsters.
And although golems have exploded in variety throughout the editions, I'm rather surprised that lycanthropes haven't (albeit with the occasional foxwoman, seawolf, or cat lord thrown in). Or, for that matter, why most of the game's lycanthropes involve animal form—with some exceptions, such as the barghest and penanggalan involving transformations into monsters.
Now, Your Turn
Clearly, I've rambled on long enough. Now here's the part where you come in. In the coming weeks, we're looking to fill the brackets to our next Creature Competition—and we'll be asking for your nominations.
The theme is hybrids. What new hybrids would you nominate for this competition? A straight-up chimera, like the owlbear, which mixes two or more creatures together? Something part human, part monster or animal, like the minotaur? Something transformative, like the werewolf?
Keep your eye out for the contest when it hits the promotion page, but here’s what we have in mind: You'll send in your hybrid nomination. We’ll select a number of them to populate our Creature Competition bracket tournament. You’ll then vote for the winner—with the person who submitted the ultimate winning hybrid earning a compelling little prize!
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).