... now with 35% more arrogance!

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Hybrids, Random or Otherwise

Death in the family and related issues have left me little time or desire to write anything lengthy recently, but I have been following blogs and forums, even commenting a bit. There’s been a cross-forum argument – I’m not going to get involved in that – which touched on an issue that might be worth discussing: what makes a chimeric or hybrid monster too random? What makes an old monster like the gryphon or a new monster like the owlbear acceptable, but fanged duck-antelope ridiculous?

I’m going to come out and say that there are only two reasons to mix the parts of two or more creatures together to make a new monster: function and theme. The gryphon can be used to illustrate both: it’s a lion with the foreparts and wings of an eagle, which adds the function of flight to what would otherwise just be predatory quadruped. But, on the other hand, the lion embodies the theme of noble or regal nature, in the medieval mind, so to a certain extant the gryphon is a king of the skies, or king among fantastic beasts, used in the heraldic arms of kings.

You can see it also in the form of many traditional demons: basically human or humanoid, with the head and occassionally other features of a beast to represent the theme of animal nature, plus bat wings. Why a bat, and not a butterfly? Because bats suggest the night and the darkness, where scary things are.

The owlbear works because the bear part adds the function of the bear hug to the owl, which is more exclusively carnivorous than a bear. Presumably, the owl head should also add a function of nocturnal activity and the ability to see in darkness, but I don’t recall this being mentioned, originally.
Where some D&D monsters fall short is that there’s no sense to the combinations: the extra or replacement body part doesn’t provide a distinctive function or theme. That’s what makes such monsters feel random. The same applies to non-nybrid beasts with added powers. A hippo that can shriek to shatter glass makes no sense. In a sense, it’s tied to the idea of player skill vs. character skill: there ought to be visual cues, either body parts, embellishments, or behavior, about any abilities the monster has. The traditional idea that bears can hug/crush their opponents helps players to decide what to do about that owlbear, even if they have never seen an owlbear before. If you see a chicken with the tail of a skunk, players should assume that the new creature has a stench-based attack or defense… if it doesn’t, or if it shoots laser beams from its eyes instead, that’s a let-down and kind of a cheat.


  1. That seems to fit my experience. When I was rolling up a ton of random animal mashups, the majority of them just didn't seem to work but I would have been hard pressed to explain why. The ones I liked best seemed to have the function/theme right, like my skunkbats- both verminous and the bat wings give the skunk cannon a horrible mobility. As an aside, I never found the owl bear a very good match myself, I'd be much more afraid of a regular bear (or giant owl). Good to have you back.

  2. Honestly, I believe that most "classic" mix-and-match fantastic creatures are acceptable in our eyes only because of some kind of "grandfather clause".
    Some, as you said, are thematically coherent like the griffin, others are litterary jokes (like the hippogriff or the peryton), and some seem totally random (the chimera: a lion, a dragon and... a goat? Catopeblas: a gaze-killing buffalo which can't make eye contact?).

    So, you can always use mythological beasts: they "click" in our minds, but mostly because of the venerable polish of centuries of litterary and heraldic tradition.

    The owlbear is a borderline case, like the gelatinous cube: they also enjoy some "grandfather clause", because said grandfather is Gary Gygax himself, but I'm not sure they are so thematically coherent , and newcomers to the game are fast to mock them.

  3. Having just done a compilation of "forgotten" hybrid monsters from heraldry and folklore, I can say there are quite a few which aren't familiar to 99% of the population. Most break down into lion, tiger, or wolf crosses; cattle crosses; or goat/ram/stag crosses. Some are multiple crosses. There's an aspect of familiarity to them - it's really the same 10 or 12 creatures combined in different ways (the chimera, for instance, is goat + lion + snake). And sometimes things work out. A duck-antelope sounds weird, but what about a horse-rooster? It's a "real" thing in greek mythology, the hippalectryon. ttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hippalectryon
    Sounds like a goof, but some of the amateur artwork is actually pretty cool: http://fantasy-faction.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/2013-June-Hippalektryon-by-who-stole-MY-name-e1371038662376-300x217.jpg