've quipped about artists. I've dipped my toe into the dangerous waters of sexism. I've even joked about NPH wizards, but I've never had a conversation that has gotten so many people riled up as when I made a comment about the creature design of the owlbear. Within seconds, battle lines were drawn, and swords were banging against shields . . . and that was just inside the pit of R&D.
I remember the owlbear back in the early years of D&D—those wistful high school years when I would plow through D&D manuals and dream of exotic and mystical worlds. And then there was the owlbear. At least in the early iterations it looked like something interesting. Not really a bear or an owl. Just some crazy beast from hell. Later iterations tried to made him "cooler," but in my mind they just started breaking the poor fella.
Now I don't know where you stand on the owlbear. I've had hundreds of conversations about the owlbear with fans and artists alike. There are a ton of folks who hate the owlbear, and a ton of folks who love the owlbear, and a group in the middle that probably just wishes everyone would get off it.
Myself, I enjoy the idea of the owlbear, but I've never been a huge fan of creature design that just does a cut and paste job between creatures and calls it "something new." Paste an owl head on a bear body? Sounds like something I'd do in kindergarten. I wasn't very creative in kindergarten.
So when we started taking stock of the current state of D&D creatures and characters, I just couldn't help but throw the owlbear into the hat for possible re-visioning. Just the idea of throwing them into the hat caused a bit of an uproar, but Mike Mearls and I decided to give it a swing.
Just to be clear. We didn't start this up with the idea of changing things. It was just an exploration—something fun to see if we could find a way to make the owlbear fit its history better and stop the terrible bird jokes. Because there are such strong feelings focusing on the creature, we decided to go down two tracks.
Track 1—Pull together the "best of" the owlbear images that we have created and tweak the creature design to create a consistent vision. There would be no earth-shattering changes, nothing to create an uproar—just a nudge of the creature design.
Track 2—Toss the visual images we've done in the trash, and go back to the original text and see what we can come to.
Let me derail the conversation for a moment. Whenever I do creature design, I always start by researching the critter. Where do they live, how do they hunt, what do they eat, what's their social structure, and so on. With that ammunition, I start looking at the design of the creature. For the revised owlbear, I wanted to play with the idea that a group of adventurers wanders into the woods late at night, and everyone is slaughtered except for one guy. On his deathbed, he describes what slaughtered the group in a whisper:
It came from the night . . .
Eyes like saucers . . . glowing bright in the night.
Silent as an owl it struck.
Deadly claws ripping through shields and armor like cloth . . .
Strong as a bear . . .
It came from the night . . .
Now that's a nice place to start a creature design.
So where did we end up?
Track 1 is a variant on the owlbear as we have typically depicted him nowadays.
Track 2 is a reconcept from the ground up.
There are a lot of similarities, and some would argue that the differences are kind of subtle. If you remember one of my art philosophies from last week, I mentioned that we shouldn't break something just for change's sake. We go back to our history and look for ways to make the experience better. The owlbear is an instance of that. I didn't need to "break" the mold, just refine it in a way that I felt addresses the history, heritage, and mythology of the D&D owlbear better.
But enough about my thoughts.
What about your thoughts?
Which do you prefer?
And now for the rest of the story.
Are you wondering how we got to where we are on these concepts? We started off by asking the keepers of the story in R&D to put together some briefs based upon the canon of D&D owlbears. Once we had that, Dan Gelon and I pulled together references that support that canon and supplied them to the concept artists. They pulled together some concepts, and the discussions really began.
After we kicked the tires on the concepts for a bit, we made our comments and went into iterative mode—each round trying to ferret out those details that scream owlbear to us. In this case, we had two camps wanting to take the concepts in two different directions. Rather than risk a war, I suggested we do a two-track exploration and have discussions later on. Perhaps we'd even ask for input from the fans. So, here we are: This is how you got the opportunity to see this stuff and comment on it!
Here's your chance to weigh in and have your voice added to the fray. Jump on in and vote above.
And if you're wondering if I spend too much time thinking about this stuff, you might be right!
Jon Schindehette joined Wizards of the Coast in 1997 as the website art director. In the intervening years he has worked as the marketing art director, novels art director, and creative manager. In January of 2009 he moved into the role of senior creative director for D&D. Jon is a long time D&D player (started in 1978), and currently plays in a Tuesday night game and DMs a random pick-up game for younger players. He can be found on Twitter (@ArtOrder) and at theartorder.com.