Dungeons and Dragons is full of crazy monsters, but the one I still laugh about to this day is the Owlbear. A creature standing 10ft tall and comprised of 50% owl, 50% bear, and 100% vicious murder machine, the Owlbear is responsible for the deaths of many adventures. For me, the real question is; how were Owlbears created? Did an owl and a bear… get together? Why do I picture a cave with feathers and fur littering the floor, as the owl tries to quietly put his pants on so not to wake the now hibernating bear. Why is the owl a sleezy man-whore in my head? These are all valid questions, so upon researching (which is code for “I googled it”), I discovered that the Owlbear was originally created by Gary Gygax specifically for Dungeons and Dragons. The official cannon for how Owlbears came into being… well, they never said. The D&D team totally chicken-bear-ed out, and never gave an answer to my most burning question. So, for now, we will all have to agree that my head cannon is correct.
On a more serious note, I did find the story of Gary Gygax’s invention of the Owlbear to be quite funny, but also a lesson in creativity. I am sure many of you have a creative friend or follow artists on social media, and they are often posed questions like “how do you come up with your ideas?” or “Where do you get inspiration?”, and I find the answers can be boiled down to “Be inspired by the world around you”. That is very much the tale of the Owlbear. Gary was running Chainmail, an early version of what would become D&D, and he was always on the lookout for new creatures to challenge his players. While at a local dollar store, Gary saw a pack of plastic toys labeled Kaiju. Kaiju means “Strange Beast” in Japanese, and became a popular movie genre in Japan after the release of Godzilla in 1954. Many of these toys looked strange as the name implies, and were the inspiration for a few creatures in the first D&D Monster Manual in 1977, including the now infamous; Owlbear. This story strikes a cord, because, both as a DM and player, I have been inspired by pop culture, art, movies, and a variety of other media just like Gary was. His story reminds us that inspiration is all around, but it’s up to us to be open to it.
The Owlbear has been such a fan favorite that it has appeared in every edition of Dungeons and Dragons, including a number of other game systems and franchises. Using the open license for D&D 3.5, Pathfinder and the world of Golarian is another plane of existence terrorized by these monstrosities. One of my favorite appearances of the Owlbear in pop culture has to be the inclusion of “Moonkin” in World of Warcraft. Knowing the Blizzard team’s love of D&D, it is no surprise this weird amalgam makes an appearance in game. It is worth noting that Owlbears ability to dance is exclusive to Warcraft and not something I have ever witnessed in an tabletop RPG setting. Of all the different depictions of the Owlbear, I noticed there are two strong aesthetics that are commonly portrayed. The large monstrous form of the beast that conveys a sense of strength and power, but also a lovable cuteness. It’s almost like fantasy worlds of man were asked to choose the face of their destroyer, and try as they might to keep their minds clear… there it was. It just popped in: part owl and part bear. The stuff of nightmares.
- Owlbears are apex predators with a keen sense of sight and smell. Often this creature will pick up a party’s sent and begin hunting them before they realize. It can be good fun to play up the feeling of being stalked by a large unknown creature.
- When in an encounter with an Owlbear, make sure to play up the ferocity. It rips and tears at the party, foaming from the beak! Also, keep in mind that this beast fights to the death. So, it’s you or it!
- I view Owlbears as territorial, so when the party is in the woods, I like to drop clues. “Upon the trail, you find a large 3ft feather.” You can setup a den or home were the party may encounter a number of these creatures, which will certainly be a difficult challenge.
- Since little is known about the origins of Owlbears, I often wonder if magic is at play? Are they the creation of a mad Druid/Wizard from hundreds of years ago, or connected to the Fey is some way? For higher level groups, or just to add spice, I would give your Owlbear an innate casting ability and a few fey spells. Maybe your party has uncovered a clue to their origin.
Owlbears represent tabletop RPGs in a special way. They are silly, creative, inspired by pop culture, and will eat your face. Simply put, they are the most perfect monster to stalk your nightmares.