Sunday, June 8, 2014

Wherefore Art Thou, Owlbear?

Prompted by Steve Long's personal encounter with Owlbear Fever, I am obliged to chime in with my love for this, perhaps D&D's most cherished oddball monster.

Few things say D&D better than the Owlbear, and one of the things that makes it so distinctive -- that makes it a creature that would not, could not, exist in any other universe -- is the ridiculousness of its nature, which we can allow Varsuvius to sum up for us: Why would anyone crossbreed a perfectly serviceable bear with an owl?

If you think I am going to let that question stand unchallenged, well my friends, you do not know me well at all.


#1: You Want A Nocturnal Predator

Bears are omnivores and they sleep half the year. They'll kill a man, sure, but they'd just as soon break into his tent and eat his garbage. Owls are hunters. They eat meat, have famously good night vision, and specialize in the ambush. They are masters of the hit-and-run. They don't hibernate, so they work year round. You don't have to be Stephen Colbert to know bears are scary; now imagine a bear who stalks you by night, can see by starlight from miles away, and who doesn't stick around to fight your well-armored pals but instead grabs you so hard and fast he snaps your neck, then runs off faster than they can follow, climbs a distant tree, and eats you.

#2: The Mythical Associations of Owls

For pretty much as long as mankind has looked up into the trees and seen enormous eyes peering down on them, we have associated the owl with the supernatural, with darkness, and with death. They are banshees: whoever hears their voice is going to die, and Dido, Queen of Carthage is only their most famous victim. They are the companions of Mictlantecuhitl, the Aztec god of death; Mayans considered them messengers from the underworld; Lakshmi rides an owl. But in western culture, the owl is associated with intelligence and wisdom, and if you were a wizard who wanted to breed a more lethal monster to stand in the path of greedy adventurers, breeding your bear with an owl can have only one certain result: that thing is going to be smart. And if it ends up with a save-or-die death spell linked to its hoot? That's just gravy, man.

#3: You Need It To Be An Owl

Imagine for a minute you're the chief cleric of the Temple of Athena. Thieves are constantly trying to break in, and you need some guardian monsters for this dungeon. Well, what are you going to use? Athena's signature animal is the owl. But owls are small and they fly. You could use Giant Owls, but now they need even more room if they're going to be effective. And what about the halls and rooms inside the temple? You can't park a Giant Owl in a 20 x 20 room and expect it to have a fighting chance. But dude, what if your owl was also strong as a bear! It's still part owl. It's got big old owl eyes and it's covered in feathers. Athena is not going to hate it. In fact, she may even be flattered. Now you've got a monster that can TPK four 1st level adventurers without offending the Goddess.

If you put all these things together, you'll see the real question isn't, "Why are there Owlbears?" The real question is, "Why aren't they higher level?"

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