Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Black Destroyer

Earlier in the week, I spoke glowingly about what a great gift to the old school community the D20 SRD is and I mean that. Of course, the SRD's not a perfect document; there are some oddities in its contents. Many classic AD&D monsters, like the mind flayer, the beholder, and the carrion crawler, were omitted and, while that's annoying, it's also understandable, since these are all original to the game.

Also among the monsters the SRD did not include was the displacer beast, pictured to the right in an illustration by Dave Trampier. Though it could be argued that the displacer beast is strongly associated with Dungeons & Dragons, it certainly cannot be argued that it is original to it. As any science fiction fan worthy of the name could tell you, the "displacer beast" is just a rip-off of the coeurl, which first appeared in A.E. van Vogt's 1939 short story "Black Destroyer" and later incorporated into the 1950 fix-up novel, The Voyage of the Space Beagle, which is where I first encountered the creature.

Because the SRD lacks a displacer beast, retro-clone publishers have had to make up their own versions, like Labyrinth Lord's phase tiger, to fill the void. Amusingly (but unsurprisingly), Paizo decided to circumvent the whole problem by going straight to the source and getting permission to include the coeurl itself in Part 4 their Legacy of Fire adventure path. There's a note of thanks to the Ashley Grayson Literary Agency, which represents the Van Vogt Estate, as well as explicit mentions of the stories in which the coeurl appeared, in that volume of Pathfinder.

Even though I have less than zero interest in playing the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, when I hear about stuff like this, it's hard not to admire the guys and gals at Paizo. They not only know but honor the literary heritage of Dungeons & Dragons. Their love for pulp fantasy and science fiction is palpable. Would that it were more widespread.

19 comments:

  1. That is a credit to the Paizo folks!

    Speaking of Displacer Beasts, what about their "natural enemy", the intelligent and lawful good Blink Dog? Presumably a wholly D&D invention, without a literary inspiration, intended as a counterpoint dog to the Displacer Beast's cat, with similar phasing in/out powers.

    I've wondered as to the implied "mythology" of these two opposed creatures. Why do they hate each other so much, what are they fighting over? Might be an interesting thing to base an adventure - or campaign - around, with the PCs somehow getting involved in a Blink Dog vs. Displacer Beast war.

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  2. Agree. The Pathfinder campaign setting oozes "pulpiness" by the ton: LOTS of lost cities, Atlanteans, prehuman aboleth civilizations (and other healthy doses of Lovecraft)... even a stranded spaceship complete with rayguns and robots. Although I don't play in that game world I use lots of the background info for my Greyhawk campaign (after all, the Inner Sea World seems a Greyhawk homage more than any other thing).

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  3. While the mind flayer, beholder, and carrion crawler are not in the SRD "since these are all original to the game" as you say. Why then are other creatures like the Otyugh and Rust Monster in the SRD? I believe they are original to the game as well. I have never been able to figure out how WotC originally decided what monsters went into the SRD and what didn't. There really is no rhyme or reason that I can see. You would think that all original creations to the game would be out and all public domain stuff would be in. Who determined a carrion crawler needed to be protected as IP but not an Otyugh? Why? I have asked Ryan Dnacey this question as well and he had no explanation either. The only thing I can think of is that the original SRD authors and approvers really had no idea what they were doing, which makes the SRD and it's existence even more amazing.

    I really think the "geeks" pulled a fast one on the "suits" with the SRD. I'm no fan of 4E but I understand why they locked everything back up, it's just the safest way to do business. Maybe not the best but certainly the safest.

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  4. Speaking of Displacer Beasts, what about their "natural enemy", the intelligent and lawful good Blink Dog? Presumably a wholly D&D invention, without a literary inspiration, intended as a counterpoint dog to the Displacer Beast's cat, with similar phasing in/out powers.

    I'm not sure of the precise origin of this enmity, but I imagine, as you say, that it was just someone came up with after noticing that there were two monsters -- one a dog and one a cat -- that had similar powers.

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  5. The Pathfinder campaign setting oozes "pulpiness" by the ton

    Golarion is pretty amazing. I lack both the time and the money to keep up with it all, but I do keep half an eye on it when I can and I've never failed to be impressed by it. I'm frankly amazed at how many loving and respectful homages to Appendix N stuff they can throw into the setting without descending into parody.

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  6. While the mind flayer, beholder, and carrion crawler are not in the SRD "since these are all original to the game" as you say. Why then are other creatures like the Otyugh and Rust Monster in the SRD?

    Which monsters WotC retained and why is a great mystery to me as well. There appears to be no rhyme or reason to it, particularly when you consider that the displacer beast is a blatant rip-off of Van Vogt, while the otyugh is definitely original to the game.

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  7. Ryan Dancey from http://paizo.com/paizo/messageboards/community/gaming/4thEdition/mikeMearlsHasOpenGamingBeenASuccess&page=4#168

    -----

    I went through the 3e manuscripts and pulled out anything I thought would

    A: Be of some lasting commercial value outside of the TRPG format

    B: Was, in my opinion, defendable if we had to litigate to enforce our intellectual property rights

    -----

    So, presumably, Dancey was of the opinion that an otyugh did not qualify on A, and he (quite possibly mistakenly) thought the displacer beast qualified on B.

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  8. Loving the old skool Displacer, brings back memories

    http://bytesanddice.wordpress.com/

    Jon

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  9. @Steven:
    I just don't see how that explanation supports why the carrion crawler was out of the SRD but the otyugh and rust monster were in (just as examples). So they felt the carrion crawler had money making potential but the otyugh didn't? I'm not sure how you would even make that decision let alone have a strategy that comes to that conclusion. Especially considering you can IP and monetize the heck out of anything just by making it a unique entity (like Drizzt, an elf).

    The only strategy that makes sense to me is the lack of one. I just don't think they had a plan at the time, which just blows me away. I think the current owners of the game will never make that (from their perspective) mistake again.

    There is definitely a great book waiting to written about the history of D&D.

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  10. So, presumably, Dancey was of the opinion that an otyugh did not qualify on A, and he (quite possibly mistakenly) thought the displacer beast qualified on B.

    I'd love to know the precise logic behind these decisions, assuming there was any. A lot distinctive D&D monsters were allowed to go into the SRD, while the ones retained were a very odd collection.

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  11. The only strategy that makes sense to me is the lack of one.

    That's almost certainly true. I sometimes think we gamers are guilty of assuming plans and forethought where there was none.

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  12. Why do they hate each other so much, what are they fighting over?

    Have you never seen a cartoon? ;)

    That said, try as I might, I have not found evidence of a Phase Mouse.

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  13. The what's-kept-from-the-SRD issue seems like not much of a mystery to me. Default was to release all in the SRD; Dancey probably had one afternoon to flip through and pick out anything keenly important to hold back as "crown jewel" IP.

    Mind flayers and beholders make the cut (lots of TSR adventures & marketing materials feature them), garbage-eaters and those armadillos-we-all-despise-because-they-destroy-our-stuff, not so much. I'd probably have done the same thing with equivalent time available.

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  14. @Delta:

    Well to me the simplest way to have handled it would have been to put anything that is public domain (goblin, dragon, orc, so on) IN the SRD and anything that is not (beholder, otugyh, displacer beast, rust monster, so on) NOT. Done.

    The fact that things were haphazardly included or not is what makes me suspect something odd in the process. I don't know if it was ignorance, chicanery, or strategy though. I would guess chicanery since no monsters (that I am aware of) AFTER the first Monster Manual were EVER put into a revised SRD or even OGL. None. This tells me that, early on, someone felt putting any monsters in the SRD to begin with was a big mistake and decided to never make that mistake again.

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  15. cibet: That would require extensive research, legal advice, and probably more expense than the whole project was worth in the first place. Conspiracy theories are not required.

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  16. @kelvingreen: definitely, where are the phase mice???

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  17. So they felt the carrion crawler had money making potential but the otyugh didn't?

    Your problem here is the use of the plural pronoun. There was no "they" in the monster decisions for the Monster Manual releases. There was Ryan Dancey, who is quite definitely singular.

    Well to me the simplest way to have handled it would have been to put anything that is public domain (goblin, dragon, orc, so on) IN the SRD and anything that is not (beholder, otugyh, displacer beast, rust monster, so on) NOT. Done.

    Which would have held back a lot more than what Dancey wanted to hold back. Therefore that was not what Dancey did.

    I would guess chicanery since no monsters (that I am aware of) AFTER the first Monster Manual were EVER put into a revised SRD

    Actually, the monsters included in both the Epic Level Handbook and (Expanded) Psionics Handbook were released. Including both the epic version of the beholder (the Gibbering Orb) and a psionic monster related to the mind flayer (the Neothelid).

    Resources explain this better than a conspiracy. It took time and effort to take book files and convert them into SRD files, and there wasn't any profit to be made doing it, so WotC only actually bothered to SRD-ize some of the most important stuff (psionics, the epic level stuff, the deity rules) that they had told 3rd party publishers would be released. Other books, including monster books, never made the list of high enough priority to put the effort into releasing (at least before WotC decided to stop releasing things to the SRD at some point after April 2004).

    You are assuming coordinated, carefully-thought-out action. There is no actual evidence of such, and plenty to the contrary. See, for example, the left hand doing one thing while the right did another that happened over what monsters were licensed to the Tome of Horrors project.

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  18. Given that Coeurls have appeared in numerous video games (under that name), as large predatory cats with tentacles (sorry, prehensile whiskers) and various magical powers, I think suing over its use would be tough.

    http://finalfantasy.wikia.com/wiki/Coeurl

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  19. Otyughs are OGL,and that gives me great joy! I've just worked out how they fit into my version of Thunder Rift.

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