Steve Townshend has designed content for Polyhedron, Dragon Magazine, and the Wizards of the Coast website. His recent design credits include Monster Manual 3 and Demonomicon. Steve completed the heroic tier as an actor and improvisor, but took the fiction writer paragon path. He lives with an elf princess and their familiar in Chicago, a Big City on a Lake.
Steve's design for the catoblepas appear in the Monster Manual 3. At #3 in our list of returning monsters, one version of which we've already revealed, it's time to bounce 3 more questions off the designer.
Wizards of the Coast: What drew you to work on this creature, arguably the ugliest monster in the 1st Edition Monster Manual -- so much so that its very gaze caused death?
Steve Townsend: At the beginning of the MM3 design process, Mike Mearls had a list of monsters he wanted to see covered, and we put in our bids. I was extremely lucky in that I got three of the four creatures I bid on, and at the time the catoblepas was highest on my list.
Like most D&D players of the early '80s, I spent hours pouring over the books, gazing at the art, and dreaming up adventures. The catoblepas was one of the familiar comforts—you saw it every time you looked up the carrion crawler (i.e., every other dungeon adventure!). The weirdness of the creature's look always filled me with wonder, but it was more like interesting fantasy fauna to me than something I was jonesing to fight back then.
Still, there was something about the "buffalo/warthog/hippo" creature that always made me feel like D&D was a larger, wider world beyond the humanoid baddies, the giants, golems, and dragons. I loved the weird stuff.
Wizards of the Coast: Looking at your catoblepas in the MM3, I note a connection to the Raven Queen. How did you re-imagine the backstory of this creature within the game's cosmology (as opposed to, or maybe even taking into consideration, its origins as a creature from medieval bestiaries)?
Steve: That's kind of a long story. But this is how the process went: The very first thing I did when designing the catoblepas was research the historical/mythic roots, and I learned that it's name literally means "downward-gazing" in Greek—this kind of research presents potentially embarrassing mistakes. I found some good information on it, but it seems as though most sources throughout history have regarded the catoblepas pretty much the same way I did as a kid looking at the Monster Manual: as curious fantasy fauna. I also read through all the previous D&D iterations of the monster, but as I recall they were all relatively similar.
The problem with the catoblepas was simply that there was no reason to confront it, or to even place it in an adventure except as a wandering monster. No hook, as it were. They're essentially creatures that entered the mythological canon when a European saw a wildebeest for the first time, thought it was ugly, and described it to a friend back home. They live in swamps and pretty much just mind their own business eating poisonous vegetation unless some resourceful villain can get it to guard something. But even so... If you're playing D&D in the early '80s and you're going to use a death attack, why not a basilisk? Or a medusa? Or a cockatrice? Or a beholder? Et cetera.
So I stewed on this for a while. At the time, I was reading Le Morte D'Arthur, which caused me to reflect on my true favorite AD&D book, Deities and Demigods, and the picture of (assumedly) King Pelinore and the Questing Beast. I liked how Pelinore was bound to pursue the beast, and thought, "If you can't bring the catoblepas to the adventurers, bring the adventurers to the catoblepas." I didn't figure that the catoblepas was going to be running rampant in D&D games any time soon, so maybe it was a special case—a creature adventurers had to pursue.
So why do they have to pursue it? Back to Le Morte D'Arthur—I was thinking of the Questing Beast (a similar gaggle of disparate animal parts) and the way it appeared to Arthur after a dream. I had an image in my head of the catoblepas materializing in the midst of a medieval banquet hall, gazing once at the lord, and disappearing, foretelling the lord's imminent death in a year's time... unless someone hunted the thing to the edge of the world where souls join the Shadowfell, brought back its head, and held it before the one it had gazed upon. The catoblepas isn't restricted to lords, of course—in dire times it walks the land gazing on all things great and small that are doomed to die.
I'd also been researching medieval heraldry for my homebrew game and had seen the catoblepas used as a charge on shields. I thought that if a catoblepas was that frightening, the knight who completed the quest to slay one and thus bore its emblem would command considerable respect.
(I think most of the folks I know who fought a 1st Edition catoblepas did so by working their way through the Monster Manual in alphabetical order. I fought a catoblepas in one of the SSI gold box computer games. Several at once, actually. I should get some catoblepas heraldry for that.)
I liked that story, but I didn't want to stray too far from the catoblepas' base concept. They couldn't be eeeeevil. That would take away their fantasy fauna charm. So I made them agents of fate—quite literally, since the Raven Queen has dominion over death and fate. They go off into the world, fade in here and there, and their presence heralds death and ill omen. They don't do this out of any sense of malice. It's just what they do. After a year, they end their sojourn at the edge of the world and cross back over into the Shadowfell.
I had this totally Frank Frazetta image of the Raven Queen sitting on her throne with two catoblepas at her feet, maybe stroking one's head. And another totally Frazetta image of the Raven Queen riding one—I thought it would be a really unique mount for her. Who rides a catoblepas anyway?
The more I thought about their death imagery, the more the image of a Greek tragedy mask cemented itself in my mind. It disturbed me. It disturbed me thinking that these creatures were ugly, but gradually took on twisted, mask-like versions of the people they had gazed upon. An ugly monster was made more horrific to me by adding a little bit of agonized humanity. Yep, I still think it's creepy. The artist rocked it. I was really curious to see how the "exaggerated wildebeest/Greek tragedy mask" direction would go, and almost felt like a jerk for writing an impossible art order, but wow did it ever come out.
Wizards of the Coast: As with the mimic, how does the catoblepas reflect the 1st Edition version, and what sets it apart as a creature of modern design?
Steve: I think they're the same creatures they always were. They're true to the original mythological beast (long neck, big heavy head, wildebeest-like/ugly, eats poison vegetation, kills with gaze), they fulfill the same role in D&D as before (ugly, head hung low, eats poisonous vegetation, kills with gaze), but now they have some story and I hope to see them around more.
But it really comes down to the death gaze, doesn't it? The catoblepas retains its death gaze, but tweaked just a bit. The final glance power of the catoblepas harbinger essentially means that once you choose to face death, it has you in its grasp. If you try to escape by moving away, you're compelled to look once more upon it and face your own mortality (in the original text, I wrote that the twisted face of the monster looked different depending on who looked at it—people saw their own agonized features in the catoblepas' tragedy face). Once that happens, you're in real trouble. You don't want to fall to 0 hit points around the catoblepas. You can file this monster under 'D' for "Death Spiral." You might say that's frightening and horrible, and you'd be right. Still, I like it better than dying after a single failed save.