Archive for January 10th, 2011


Origins of the Displacer Beast and Rust Monster

Courtesy of Jim Ward‘s “Pharoah’s Tomb”, from The Dungeoneer v.1, no.4 (March 1977), our last session of the White Sandbox campaign saw our heroes fighting displacer beasts and rust monsters, as well as encountering the god Anubis from Gods, Demi-Gods and Heroes. This was deeply pleasing to me because:

  • As a kid I owned one of the plastic toys that inspired the rust monster, before I ever played D&D. Like many kids I remember wondering “what the hell is this thing?”. When I later saw it in the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide cartoon, it was a mind-blowing transmedia experience. Here is Gygax on the genesis of the rust monster:

When we were all playing CHAINMAIL Fantasy Supplement Miniatures on the sand table in my basement, finding figurines for monsters was a priority. Of course the fantasy miniatures field was nil then. In my search I came upon the bag of monsters in a dime store, brought them home, and various persons involved suggested what they might be. Eventually we created names and stats for all, and so the resemblance is no coincidence at all :)

In Dragon Magazine Issue #88 (1984) he expanded further:

When I picked up a bag of plastic monsters made in Hong Kong at the local dime store to add to the sand table array … there was the figurine that looked rather like a lobster with a propeller on its tail … nothing very fearsome came to mind … Then inspiration struck me. It was a Rust Monster.

  • I’ve long been interested in the literary origins of D&D monsters, especially since it gives me another reason to re-read the books of Appendix N. I’ve known for a while the common wisdom that the displacer beast is inspired by Couerl from A.E. Van Vogt’s 1939 short story “Black Destroyer”, which later became the first chapter of the novel Voyage of the Space Beagle:

His great forelegs twitched with a shuddering movement that arched every razor-sharp claw. The thick tentacles that grew from his shoulders undulated tautly. He twisted his great cat head from side to side, while the hairlike tendrils that formed each ear vibrated frantically, testing every vagrant breeze, every throb in the ether… Coeurl crouched, an enormous catlike figure silhouetted against the dim, reddish sky line, like a distorted etching of a black tiger in a shadow world.

Trampier’s illustration in the AD&D monster manual is pretty faithful to this description:


Monster Manual, 1977

Previous depictions of Couerl looked less like either Van Vogt’s description or the AD&D displacer beast:

Astounding, 1939

Recently, David Thiel’s excellent blog Thiel-a-vision alerted me to another depiction that’s more like Trampier’s:

Worlds Unknown, 1973

Did Trampier base his drawing on the Van Vogt story or the Marvel comic? Original D&D artist Greg Bell is certainly known to have looked to comic books for his visual sources: the Acaeum notes that the cover of OD&D’s Men and Magic “was “inspired by” (*cough*) artwork by Dan Adkins, originally found in Doc Strange comic #167, Apr 1968, on page 11″:

And over at Dragonsfoot, OculusOrbis notes that the OSR-famous “Fight On!” images come from writer/artist Jim Steranko’s SHIELD story in Strange Tales #167, page 6, panel 1 :

See this Grognardia post for another example.

I’m hoping that one of my fellow Mules will pull a copy of Worlds Unknown #5 from their inexhaustible store of comics lore to resolve this issue. Right now my money is on Tramp having read the original story, as one of Van Vogt’s characters observes of Couerl that:

…the tentacles end in suction cups. Provided the nervous system is complex enough, he could with training operate any machine.

So the things that I always assumed were horny growths on the tentacles (maybe they’re even described that way in the original Monster Manual? certainly 4E says they’re barbs), which are visible in Tramp’s drawing but not in the Marvel comics cover, are actually suction-cup manipulators! I really wish I’d done this research prior to Saturday’s game, and will have to content myself with storing up descriptions of absurd and grisly things you can do with tentacle-suckers that appear to be 3′ away from their real position until next time I get to use them in a game – which, at the current rate of displacer-beast appearances in my campaigns, will likely be 2041.

Past Adventures of the Mule

January 2011

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