BoLS Prime: The Toys That Became D&D
Some of D&D’s most iconic monsters: the owlbear, the rust monster, the umber hulk, and the bulette, began life as plastic toys.
The life of D&D is a strange one indeed. Most people think it starts in 1974, but where does it really begin? Does it begin with the Chainmail miniatures game that came before it? Or perhaps at Gen Con with the Braunstein?
Whatever the origins of Dungeons & Dragons, it wears its influences on its sleeves. D&D tapped into the burgeoning fantasy genre, which was enjoying a boom, right alongside the surge of wargames in North America. And in those heady, early days of D&D, inspiration could come from anywhere.
The first monster manuals – before there was even a Monster Manual – contained creatures from mythology and folklore. You’d find sphinxes and griffins among giants and trolls. But then the early creators pulled from popular stories as well.
You can find creatures from Moorecock’s Melnibone and a riff on Tolkien’s Orcs and Halflings, even Elves and Dwarves. And we have well documented how D&D owes a ton of its DNA to like, three books.
But even in those earliest days, inspiration came from weirder places too. And today we’re looking at a bag of toys that became some of D&D’s most iconic monsters.
A Bag Of Toys
Above you’ll find pictured a bag of toys formerly labeled “Perhistoric Monsters.” Originally these toys might have been anything. But if you look carefully, you’ll see some iconic monsters in these little bits of brightly colored plastic.
You might not know it, but up there is the Umber Hulk, the Rust Monster, the Owlbear, and possibly one of the inspirations for Lizard People.
These toys were sold in bagged and boxed dinosaur sets from Hong Kong in the early 70s-mid 80s. The earlier models are hard plastic. Whereas the softer plastic ones and rubberized ones are usually later models. The actual dinosaurs in the sets were knock-offs of older Marx and MPC plastic dinosaurs.
The story was once recounted by Tim Kask (who was one of the original D&D playtester’s and TSR’s first employee):
“There once was an unknown company in Hong Kong that made a bag of weird animal-things that were then sold in what once were called dime stores or variety stores for like $.99. I know of four other very early monsters based on […] those silly plastic figures. The one that I chose was known in the Greyhawk campaign as “the bullet” (for its shape) but had only amorphous stats and abilities, not being developed. Gary told me to take it home, study it, and decide what it was and what it could do. He wouldn’t tell me what it did in GH. So I took it home, “frenchified” the original name, made it bigger in scale and made up the rest of that stuff.”
And you can see it in the early artwork. Our friend in the first row, right hand side is none other than the Bulette.
It’s easy to see the resemblance. Right down to the weird angle at the back and everything. Also worth noting is the tiny halfling that it’s managed to tree. Back in those days, halflings and horses were a bulette’s favorite meal. Bulettes would go out of their way to dig halflings out of their burrows. Another favorite move was to grab the horses of a party of adventurers and run off.
Which should give you an idea of just how fun early D&D could be.
The Rust Monster
Rust Monsters are another iconic part of D&D. They’ve been around since the very beginning, and you won’t find a table that hasn’t had its story of getting their favorite magic items disintegrated by the questing tendrils of a rust monster. Even at low levels, these monsters are dire threats.
But not to the party’s lives. Those are expendable. No, these monsters hit them where they hurt: their treasure.
Which makes sense, this is a heroic fantasy game that’s descended from a wargame – but things like the Rust Monster take that focus away and add a different challenge.
They change the stakes in a very real way for the players. You need to be able to challenge your players and to threaten them/win without killing them all the time. Too much death and players will just lose any kind of dread from it. Classic “I showed up with five backup characters,” syndrome, which leads to a lack of engagement in the game.
And the early artwork clearly shows this little bundle of plastic right here.
Okay, But Where is the Umber Hulk?
Here we have a look at the proto Umber Hulk. This one might be considered kind of a stretch by many, because it’s hard to see the details from the modern version of the monster.
There’s very little resemblance. In fact, as the theory goes, the original Umber Hulk toy was actually supposed to be a legally distinct version of Gigan.
1973’s Godzilla vs. Megalon
That’s Gigan on the left there. He was one of the antagonist kaiju from Toho’s Godzilla, appearing in quite possibly my favorite Godzilla movie, 1973’s Godzilla vs. Megalon.
In the movie, Godzilla gets into a fight with a monster from an undersea kingdom that has been hidden away for centuries, Seatopia. Seatopia is an opulent undersea civilization that existed for millennia undetected and undisturbed until atomic testing threatens their existence.
They sent Megalon to fight Godzilla, and received assistance from previous antagonists from Nebula M. Luckily a boy and his robot named Jet Jaguar are there to come to Godzilla’s rescue.
But What About The Umber Hulk?!
If you’re confused by any of this, that’s fine. Because the Umber Hulk’s signature move is causing confusion in anything that it came into contact with.
Like many classic behemoths, the Umber Hulk’s first appearance was in the 1975 Greyhawk supplement where he was described as “of shape somewhat similar to [a] human […] 8′ tall, 5′ wide, with heads resembling bushel baskets, and gaping maws flanked by pairs of vicious mandibles.” Even back then the Umber Hulk had all the hallmarks of his trademark style. Two claws that hit for 2d6 and a bite that does 2d4, along with the ability to tunnel through 1′ of solid rock per turn – here you have all the hallmarks of a fighter destined for greatness.
Of course, through the editions things changed. But the reason one of D&D’s most iconic monsters even exists is because someone couldn’t get the license to recreate Gigan.
Wait, Even the Owlbear?
The Owlbear, pictured above, looks a far cry from anything in that bright plastic toy. In fact, you could be forgiven for not knowing they got their start in with the plastic toys. After all, Owlbears feel especially D&D. Right down to their origin: a wizard did it.
“The only good thing about owlbears is that the wizard who created them is probably dead.” – Xarshel Ravenshadow, Gnome Professor of Transmutative Science at Morgrave University.
Even in the earliest days of D&D, they were a mainstay. In fact, of all the monsters featured here, Owlbears existed when Dungeons & Dragons didn’t have its own combat rules, and required Chainmail, the fantasy miniatures game, to play.
Originally appearing in Dungeons and Dragons’ very first supplement, Greyhawk (because releasing supplements is another thing that’s been a staple of D&D since before they codified the rules into the AD&D books we all know and love), Owlbears were originally presented as being a bit like a werebear:
“OWL BEARS: Creatures of horrid visage and disposition. Owl Bears will attack whatever they see and fight to the death. They deliver a “hug” just as a Werebear, for example, as well as great damage from beak, tooth, and claw. A large male will stand 8′ tall, weigh 1,500 pounds, and have claws over 2″ long. Bodies are furry, tending towards feathers over the cranial region, and the skin is very thick.”
There’s something to that simplicity that neatly captures how D&D feels. To be certain, they aren’t the only straightforward monsters out there, but something about their nature makes them perfect for the role of wandering monster.
They don’t have to have a society or a kingdom, you don’t have to worry about a tribe of them banding to attack the town – they’re just a monster that exists in the world (and at the time for seemingly no reason). The literal definition of “random monster.”
Right down to their origins.
Do you see it now?
You’ll find our friend just to the right of the Bulette in the center there. Of course, many things would go on to contribute to the breadth and depth of D&D’s monsters. In fact, for a while, Games Workshop was in the Dungeons & Dragons business, running a magazine that was responsible for many of its earliest monsters.
That’s one of the best things about early D&D. The community was engaged and creative. Concepts like “balanced play” hadn’t really crystallized. And while that meant the occasional monster that could wipe out an entire party made it into a book. It also meant that you could see the creativity of the community on display.
Because even a bag of toys can inspire hours of play in D&D.