The Gassy Gnoll: A Monster Cloning Conspiracy

During a recent conversation with my gnollish daughters, I was struck with an odd thought. Why are certain creatures or personas from myths and legends cloned when it comes to most roleplaying games? (Told you it was an odd thought!)

Let’s take Medusa for example. In Greek myth, Medusa was one of the three Gorgon sisters who were children of pre-Poseidon marine gods Phorcys and his sister Ceto, two of the children of Gaia, the Earth Mother, and Pontus, the first sea god. Medusa’s sisters were Stheno and Euryale. Apparently Stheno and Euryale were immortal, but Medusa got the short end of the stick and was mortal. Depending on what you read, there are a couple of stories… The trio of Gorgons might have been terrifying female monsters with snakes for hair, fangs, and claws. Or they were beautiful and Medusa said that Athena was jealous of her beauty and the goddess hit her with the ugly stick. Either way, Medusa’s mortality was a bad deal for her, since the Greek hero Perseus removed her head.

So at most, there were three Gorgons (not Medusae). And yet, in every version of Dungeons & Dragons I’ve ever seen, Medusa is a type of monster, not a unique creature. You can read about it here from the d20 SRD online.

The same can be said of the Minotaur. This poor creature was created to punish King Minos of Crete for not killing a special snow-white bull sent from Poseidon. When Minos got the bull, he was supposed to sacrifice it to Poseidon as a show of appreciation for the gift. Of course, pride got in the way and he kept the animal alive. Aphrodite decided to punish Minos by making his wife Pasiphae fall in love with the bull and their child was the monster Minotaur – with the body of a man and the head of a bull. Like Medusa, the Minotaur was eventually killed in the Cretan Labyrinth by the Greek hero Theseus.

rotella (tournament
 shield), Diam. 55 cm (21 ½...

Image via Wikipedia

Unless the Minotaur somehow found love in the Labyrinth and spawned children, there’s little to no chance of a new breed of monsters appearing in a crowd. Again in D&D this has been turned into a type of monster, not a unique individual. You can read the Minotaur stats at the d20 SRD online as well.

I’m sure there’s a reason that these unique creatures from Greek myth were adopted as a new breed of monsters in the first few editions of D&D, but I have no idea what it is. And I’m sure there are others in the role call of classic monsters that have had the same thing happen…

Question: Anybody know the history of why these (and other) classic monsters from D&D were turned into a monster type?

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6 comments to The Gassy Gnoll: A Monster Cloning Conspiracy

  • Phlod

    Well, IMO, because making original monsters that don’t come across as silly, or just plain lame, is hard. Look at the World of Synnibarr, it’s pretty much all original monsters, but it has bears who shoot lasers from their eyes, and clams who gout fire! I dunno if you get more ridiculous than that.

    Myths come with fantasy monsters all ready to go, and no matter how silly they may sound on paper, they have Historical Precedent, so people don’t usually laugh too loud.

    • Fitz

      @Phlod – Don’t get me wrong – I absolutely *LOVE* mythology. It’s a veritable gold mine for stories, plots, characters, monsters – you name it. I understand the need to have monster and other templates for various uses. How else will GMs be able to construct encounters out of pre-existing chunks? I think my point is that uniqueness in a campaign is sometimes squashed by the need for expedient and readily available pieces. There should be unique creatures in any world IMO. There don’t have to be a many of them, but a few can add another dimension to a campaign world and make it seem like more than a randomly-generated set of encounters. 🙂

  • I do recall that 2e had a Thassal monster, which was this huge four-legged tube of teeth that could breed with anything; argument being that wizards would bring things like hydras or chimera to it, then spread its offspring throughout the world.

    That’s something of the reverse of the situation you describe, but it wasn’t the only time I saw proliferating entities pushed forth as a reason for creatures spreading throughout the globe.

    The Gorgons are also a good example of the thought process that probably took place in DnD; you had these two immortal, horrifying creatures and then someone decided to add a third (killable) version to the mix. DnD, in general, represented a sort of distillation and dilution of varied folklore and mythology, so certain monsters may have been good ideas for imitation or creation by certain gods or wizards, even in cases where their source was a single horny dude locked in a confusing basement.

    By which, obviously, I mean a minotaur.

    • Fitz

      @Seth – How could I have missed such a cool idea as the Thassal monster? 🙂 That’s a critter sort of like the alien from Alien, engineered to survive and thrive wherever it is. I love the concept. And you’re probably right on the thought process there, even with the horny dude locked in the basement (asexual reproduction?)… Good food for thought!

  • Charles

    There’s another form to look at these creatures.

    The Minotaur and the Medusa are one example of the gods retribution towards mortals for their folly. And they use unique situations with remarkable characters to portray their wrath and power.

    who says that it was only the Gorgon sister who received this punishment? She could not have been the only beautiful woman to have existed in Greek history. And this is not taken into effect that there is no mentioning of these creatures mating or reproducing. If some part of them was once human, could they not reproduce and make more like them, even if they are less powerful?

    With the Minotaur, its the same thing. Creature created out of God-Like retribution, powerful beyond belief. Even in the myth we find that every seven years the Minotaur was sacrificed seven youth’s and seven virgins, until in the third sacrifice, the hero was sent to slay the bull. Is it so difficult to believe that the virgins were used for other reasons other than food? It would explain why it would kill all who entered, to protect his offspring.

    • Fitz

      @Charles – You know, I honestly hadn’t thought of it in those terms. The idea is sound. Not all stories of the gods affecting mortals could have been written down or handed down generation to generation. However, that still makes these critters one-offs even if there are more than one of them. I doubt that they’d be able to reproduce unless, and this is a possibility, the gods cursed an entire family as opposed to just mutating a single individual. (I see it more as a mutation, which generally doesn’t reproduce and pass the mutated genes along, but that’s just me.)

      I like your perspective however. It would provide a logical answer as to how these critters could reproduce in a particular game world. Thanks for more food for thought!

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