Sunday, October 7, 2012
Rescuing the Owlbear from mediocrity
The poor pitiful owlbear.
As a chimerical monster, the owlbear doesn't make much sense. Bears are already scary, and there are no owl parts you can add that are going to make it scarier. Given its goofy looks, it's arguably that it's less scary than a regular bear.
I also dislike the "created by an insane wizard" origin because it's pretty fucking lazy. I've never liked chimerical creatures since they always felt a little ridiculous, and I've always felt that the owlbear is simple enough to have a mundane origin.
The Owlbear has unfortunately been stuck with lousy artwork from the beginning, and every new iteration seems to miss the point. The first edition owlbear was arguably the worst; with its fat pudgy body, and feathered toupee it's hard to take it seriously.
Now to be fair, the owlbear was inspired by a Japanese toy that Gary Gygax came across, and if you look at the original picture, it certainly looks like something you'd see in a Godzilla movie. I'm not sure if the original toy was that ugly, or if it was Dave Sutherland's art that failed, but either way, that design has haunted the creature for a long time.
Recently, Wizards of the Coast tried to revamp this creature. There are multiple drawings in the series, but this one is probably closest to the original design (which is not very close at all).
This new design looks pretty cool, but it's clearly an avian semi-biped with no bearish qualities whatsoever. It also misses the point badly. This thing looks like an owl-gorilla not an owl-bear. It was the bearish qualities of the owlbear that made it scary in the first place.
But despite the fact that this thing looks cool, I still want something that has some bearish qualities, and at least a nod to the aesthetics of the original. While I might use this creature, I certainly couldn't bring myself to call it an owlbear (maybe an ogre-bird?).
It seems to me that it would be a very simple thing to have a creature that has a bearish body with a beaked head, which is pretty close to the original design. But what made the original so goofy was the feathers. And that's the one detail that almost all subsequent designs have shared.
So my version of the owlbear has no feathers. Just a big beak and a bearlike body. Instead of the "owl horns" that have become popular in the newer iterations, this creature has a smooth head with it's ears mounted close to the head which gives the head a vaguely birdlike silhouette. It has large golden eyes that have excellent long range vision and good night vision.
It hunts primarily by sight, rather than scent and tends to favor territory that allows it to make the most of it's excellent eyesight, such as hilly plains and rocky badlands. It tends to avoid the forested and mountainous areas that normal bears dwell in.
My owlbear is not a magical creature at all, but simply a large mammal with some birdlike qualities, not unlike the platypus. My campaign also has some other creatures with similar bird/mammal combinations to indicate a separate evolutionary branch of creatures that evolved from birds.
I like to have a lot of non-magical creatures in my game for the simple reason that the really unusual monsters become much more memorable when you've got a backdrop of realistic creatures. Because the owlbear is such a basic "bread and butter" creature, he doesn't need to be magical or particularly special in any way.
Going back to my thoughts on verisimilitude, I believe that a mundane version of the owlbear is easier for players to swallow than a magical Frankenstein-hybrid creature. What I'm aiming for is not strictly realism, but plausibility. A beaked bear-like creature could easily have evolved on this planet, and that doesn't require my players to stretch their belief that far.
This last picture is the closest thing I can find to what my vision of an owlbear looks like. I particularly like the head and the fur on the front claws. I'd prefer it without the feathers, and with a more ass-heavy design like a real bear, but otherwise it's perfect. It's got a definite bearish quality, but the beak and shape of the head also resembles that of a predatory bird. It's the feasrome beast that it always should have been.
I'm not entirely finished with my owlbear rules, it's sort of a work in progress, but I like what I've got so far and I'm interested to see where it goes. Because I'm working on my campaign world at the same time, much of that will probably influence the final owlbear design.