Critics of role-playing games have devoted many words to denouncing or praising the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D) Fiend Folio: Tome of Monsters Malevolent and Benign.1 Most agree, nonetheless, that it was something different. The monster book series, “Monster Manual … Fiend Folio …” was not continued with a fresh alliteration (“Creature Compilation”?) Instead, the third book was named “Monster Manual II”2 as if to erase the interloper and restore dynastic continuity. The Fiend Folio was also the only existing AD&D book not reprinted in the 1983 “orange spine” series, excluding it from the core canon and reducing its physical supply relative to the others. Curiously, the “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” trademark doesn’t appear on the Fiend Folio’s title page, as it does in the other monster books.Nevertheless, there are often-ignored continuities between the Monster Manual3 (henceforth MM) and Fiend Folio (henceforth FF). If we separate innovative creations from the well-known natural animals and Western fantasy creatures that populate the MM, the FF’s monster selection and the MM’s more original creations are surprisingly similar in tone. Their functions in the game are quite the same, with new mechanical themes in the FF being very much in the line of the MM. And the FF’s science-fantasy elements, much remarked upon, follow science-fantasy trends running through Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) and AD&D which were already strongly present in the MM.
Why Is There a Received Wisdom of Discontinuity?
The MM is credited to Gary Gygax, co-designer of the original version of D&D, who in his Foreword acknowledges various other authors for four named entries plus many of the underwater monsters. The FF had many more contributors. Although it includes nine monsters by Gygax, mostly from existing adventure modules, FF editor Don Turnbull selected the rest from fan submissions to the British gaming magazine White Dwarf. Among these, no individual is credited with more than 15 entries.4
Surely, then, its multi-authored origin from a divergent gaming culture sets the FF apart? Surprisingly, contemporaneous critics didn’t seem to see it that way. In Dragon magazine, Ed Greenwood’s main substantive criticism of the FF compared to the MM was that it lacked development of the monsters’ backgrounds and ecologies.5 Alan Zumwalt’s review in the same issue complained that some monsters were mere variations on MM creatures, with other minor quibbles.6
Twenty-first century old-school revivalists, however, take it as given that the FF was different in kind from the MM. One nostalgic 2018 review described the FF as “a Monster Manual filtered through a very strange and alien set of in-game expectations.”7 James Maliszewski of the Grognardia blog gave a less charitable retrospective: “Compared to the Monster Manual, most of the creatures in this book are, at best, weird and strangely specific and, at worst, downright silly.”8 The FF has its fans and detractors, some imagining hypothetical campaigns stocked only with FF monsters,910 others calling out its “silliest monsters” as “based on puns, odd amalgamations of other creatures, and living traps with no semblance of an ecology. I suppose that’s what happens when a bestiary is assembled mostly from White Dwarf readers’ submissions.”11
But if the MM did seem more coherent in retrospect, it had an unfair advantage. As the first collection of monsters for AD&D, it was able to pick low-hanging fruit from the earlier D&D game. This category includes adaptations from European and Middle Eastern lore recycled through multiple sources of fantasy fiction, such as ghouls, trolls, and centaurs. It also includes animals well-known from natural history, both normal and giant-sized. This core monster canon is echoed in early fantasy role-playing games from Runequest to Dragonquest. By a rough count, natural and well-known legendary monsters take up about 60% of the MM’s table of contents entries. Only about 40% can be classed as “originals,” including folklore creatures such as the rakshasa that would be less familiar to Western fantasy fans, as well original designs of generic types such as demons and dragons.
Tastes are hard to argue, but for me, the MM originals include a number of bland or ill-conceived creations — the thought eater, the masher, the morkoth, the su-monster, the gas spore — that are hard to distinguish from those FF monsters that are commonly singled out for mockery. It is easy for the MM to look more essential on the strength of its standard creatures. Meanwhile, its successor, the FF, had to dig for folkloric and natural beings that, being less familiar to readers, would never resonate as strongly as the classics (e.g., giant hornets and bats, when MM had already scooped giant wasps and rats). The first-pick advantage can explain but also demystify comparisons between the two bestiaries. Concretely, the FF’s most useful and evocative 40% of creatures might not look much out of place if substituted for the 40% of “originals” in the MM.
Continuities in Function
In game function, many FF monsters follow in the footsteps of the MM. As with the MM’s lizard-men and hyena-like gnolls, there are beast-folk based on birds, crabs, cats, and frogs. We also see more high-level foes with multiple magic abilities in the vein of demon lords and vampires, such as the Elemental Princes of Evil and the death knight. The FF’s deceptive “gotcha” monsters, too, continue a characteristic D&D theme from the MM. The stunjelly is a wall version of the floor-mimicking trapper and the ceiling-mimicking lurker-above. The throat leech threatens a different orifice than the ear seeker; and if the MM’s mimic can be a treasure chest that attacks you, the FF’s poisonous goldbug masquerades as its contents.
Another theme in the MM is the monster as a vehicle for special attacks and defences: poison, paralyzation, petrification, level drain, charm, armour and weapon corrosion, swallowing, crushing, blood drain, weapon immunity, and regeneration, among other baneful effects. Many FF monsters copy these effects, while others follow their spirit. If the MM’s rust monster is there to rot the adventurers’ precious plate mail, the disenchanter (and elder jermlaine) appear in the FF to undo their magic items.
But FF monsters also sport a variety of original combat features. No fewer than five of them fatally inject eggs or larvae: the assassin bug, gryph, tiger fly, xill, and the functionally similar Son of Kyuss, a mummy from which green worms hop to make more such mummies. Most FF entries would have been submitted before the release of Ridley Scott’s Alien in late June 1979,12 famous for just such an implanting and hatching monster. However, hostile egg injection is also found in many natural species, and in A. E. Van Vogt’s classic SF story “Discord in Scarlet,”13 more than enough inspiration for the theme.
The egg motif on a psychological level combines the shudders of pulp body-horror with a more specific fear of monstrous birth. Game-wise, it lays down an adventure challenge, a race against time to diagnose and cure the victim. The other novel combat features in the FF also tend to veer between the horror side and the challenge side. So, among the horrors, the tentamort liquefies organs, the enveloper assimilates and imitates its victims, the pernicon threatens death by dehydration. As for novel tactical challenges, we find the sticky adherer, the nine lives of the guardian familiar, the stacking copies of the nonafel, and the nilbog’s damage/healing reversal, among many more, including no fewer than five creature types that explode when killed.
The contrived nature of some of these effects is a legitimate criticism, but one that can also be levelled against MM creatures like the rust monster and the beholder-mimicking gas spore. At times the FF’s encouragement for Dungeon Masters to dole out capricious punishments approaches old-school self-parody. Thus, we have the aleax, who appears out of nowhere to challenge characters who act against their stated moral alignment, but also the eye of fear and flame, who punishes good characters who don’t act against their alignment.
One other functional theme in the FF can be summarized as “tiny people who mess with your stuff.” Far from being a British folklore intrusion, the longest such entry comes from Gygax himself, a treatise on the jermlaine copied from an earlier module.14 There are also booka, dark creepers, killmoulis, mites, and snyads, all likewise using small size and stealth to play tricks and steal and sabotage items. These tiny pests add underground flavour to the trickery of the MM’s leprechaun, declaring guerrilla war on dungeoneers’ magic items, equipment, and treasure.
However, the FF’s new themes have the same goals as those in the MM. They still lead to tactical challenges, special attacks to be countered, special defences to be overcome, frightful demises, and a streak of adversarial refereeing encouraging the Dungeon Master to fool players and snatch back their loot. Even the FF’s horror subtheme of monsters who persecute one character in a detailed sequence of events – meenlock, penaggolan, revenant, and berbalang – finds precedent in the single-character haunting that takes up much of the MM’s description of the night hag.
Continuities in Genre
Is the FF different because it is somehow “British”, even though Turnbull’s Introduction points out that contributions came from “many parts of the world”?15 Taken literally, there is not a huge role for Anglo-Celtic folklore in the volume, counting the brownie-like killmoulis and booka, the hound of ill omen, and the revenant. The FF’s kelpie shares a name with a water-horse of Scottish legend, but is presented more literally as a seductive humanoid formed of seaweed, imported from an American creator’s module.16 These few examples are on a par with the brownies, pixies, leprechauns, and banshees in the MM. Far more beings of this type are found in the American-produced Monster Manual II: over a dozen different kinds of faerie folk and fey hounds.
More plausibly, the FF has been characterized as embodying a “foreign” (to North American gamers) sensibility typical of British roleplaying and wargaming.1718 This style would look more to the social structures of the feudal past than of the Western frontier, more mindful of lurking horrors than of enrichment and expansion.19 It is epitomized in the warts-and-all medievalism of early Games Workshop fantasy products, with an accompanying gallows humour not far from the tone of the British 2000 AD comic.
But in game mechanics, both the FF and MM enable plenty of cruel and capricious deaths for player characters. Rather, the granular, stippled, and hatched surfaces characteristic of the FF’s two most frequently represented interior artists, Russ Nicholson and Alan Hunter, combine with figurations veering close to caricature to give the volume a distinctive visual feel. That art style likely has contributed to the FF’s reputation as both darker and sillier, and hence more “British,” than the MM, whose illustrations were dominated by Dave Trampier’s dramatic linework and David C. Sutherland’s straightforward drafting.
Critics and fans have also tagged the FF’s monster designs as having a distinctly weird or science-fiction sensibility.2021 First, we should acknowledge that SF themes were already present from the earliest days of D&D. I have argued elsewhere that Appendix N in the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide credits more science-fiction and science-fantasy inspirations than pure fantasy.22 In early D&D writing, crashed spaceships and high-tech intrusions are frequent, as in Arneson’s Blackmoor,23 Gygax’s Expedition to the Barrier Peaks,24 the Arduin Grimoire’s “techno” character class,25 and the Judges Guild module Glory Hole Dwarven Mine with its stashes of industrial-era artifacts.26 The civilian setting and character types might be medieval fantasy, but the challenges players faced, especially monsters, were often science-fictional.
But what specifically might make a creature description fit more within the genres of SF or fantasy? Critical attempts to define the science-fiction (henceforth, SF) versus the fantasy genre are varied and contradictory. As one example, Zgorzelski maintained that SF, unlike fantasy, is written “not with a view to evoking the feelings of Wonder and of the Unknown, but rather as an aim in itself or simply as a model of the world per se,”27 while in the same year Suvin influentially proposed SF to be a literature of cognitive estrangement that mingles the irreal with the real.28
Still, the FF and MM are not literary works, but listings of creatures whose explanations are often elided (as Greenwood complained). Their genre fit depends on more superficial similarities. Given that the genres often mingle, it seems sensible to adopt fuzzy rather than strict definitions of them. Thus, an element is more science-fictional the more it typifies the present or future rather than the pre-scientific past; the more it explains phenomena scientifically, rather than through magic, the divine, or not at all;29 the more it draws on space, technology, and SF literature rather than on myth, religion, and fantasy literature.
Let’s first look at the top of the monster listing, the name. Greenwood remarks on the FF’s overly scientific nomenclature in his review:
Some of the monsters’ names grate on the mind’s ear; one cannot envision sweating adventurers fleeing a cavern with one saying, “Warily, now! That Protein Polymorph almost slew us, friends!” Try inserting “Caryatid Column” or “Symbiotic Jelly” into that sentence, and the result is the same. One would expect adventurers, and not 20th-century North American scientists, to have named such beasts. (I suspect this is the root of my disaffection with the “Adherer.“)30
Many other such names occur in the FF: functional descriptions such as “shocker,” “enveloper,” and “disenchanter,” which recall the “Predators,” “graboids,” and “face-huggers” of SF film; scientific terminology (“magnesium spirit,” “volt,” “vortex”); futuristic Greco-Latinate constructions (“algoid”, “imorph,” “denzelian”); and in one blatant case, an acronym (the CIFAL, or “colonial insect-formed artificial life”). To see the difference a name can make, think how much more “fantasy” the shapechanging protein polymorph would sound, if rebranded in honour of the amoeboid chaos lord found elsewhere in the FF as a “Spawn of Ygorl.” Another telling case arises when comparing the FF’s two water-weed monsters, the “kelpie” and the “algoid.” The first name points in the direction of legend, the second in the direction of science, and the difference is evident.
All the same, science-fictional names can be found in the MM too. While there is nothing as blatant as “CIFAL” or “protein polymorph,” we have plenty of functional, space-explorer names: the piercer, trapper, lurker above, roper, shrieker, mimic, thought eater, beholder, ear seeker, gas spore, and the cerebral parasite (perhaps the most SF-coded of them all). Many of these are also “gotcha” monsters designed to surprise players. Implied, perhaps, is the mock-scientific conceit that dungeon creatures have evolved deceptive appearances, as angler fish have, the better to feed upon unwary visitors.
Another reason to believe the FF to be uniquely science-fictional is the profusion of uncredited adaptations of creatures from SF works. A brief list follows:
- The gorbel resembles the two-footed orange globe that tormented the crew in John Carpenter’s grim 1974 space comedy Dark Star.31
- The grimlock adapts H. G. Wells’ Morlocks from The Time Machine.32
- The xill is similar to A. E. van Vogt’s red, four-armed, dimensionally phasing menace, the Ixtl, from the original egg-injection story Discord in Scarlet.33
- The babbler adapts the baragoon, a large yellow swamp-dwelling mutant from Michael Moorcock’s 1967 science-fantasy novel The Jewel in the Skull,34 down to the shared nickname “marsh-gibberer.”
- The osquip exactly copies the ulsio, a six-legged rodent from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars novels.35
- The githyanki were submitted by SF writer Charles Stross as a teenager. In a 2014 interview36 he traces the name to an alien species in George R. R. Martin’s SF novel Dying of the Light.37 Martin’s githyanki are also described as having been enslaved and possessing psychic powers. Another interview purporting to be with Stross38 further traces the githyanki’s concept, as an alien species rebelling against psychic domination, to Larry Niven’s novel World of Ptavvs.39
- The denzelian, a peaceful rock-eating blob, resembles the Horta from the 1967 Star Trek episode “The Devil in the Dark.”40
- The SF author Jack Williamson, credited as an inspiration in Appendix N, describes a floating sac-monster with dangling tentacles, the Medusa, in The Legion of Space, possibly inspiring the grell.41 A paperback edition, released on April 1, 1980, shows the Medusa on the cover with features specific to Russ Nicholson’s grell illustration – a lumpy brain-like texture to its sac and a frontal beak not described in the novel. But as that illustration appeared in White Dwarf issue 12 a full year earlier, the resemblance is either coincidence or reverse copying.
However, the MM also contains its share of science-fiction adaptations. Many of these might not register today as SF because they have been quietly incorporated into the canon of fantasy monsters via exposure to Dungeons and Dragons.
- Another monster from Van Vogt’s stories, the Coeurl, furnished the form of the displacer beast, although its ability is closer to the Cloak of Displacement magic item than to the Coeurl’s destructive mind powers.42
- The Green Slime resembles another monster from Williamson’s Legion of Space.
- The wider range of protoplasmic blob monsters (grey ooze, ochre jelly, black pudding) is distinctively science-fictional, prefigured by Williamson’s slime creature, Lovecraft’s shoggoths,43 and 1950’s SF horror films such as X the Unknown44 and The Blob.45
- The shambling mound greatly resembles early versions of the Marvel Comics science-fantasy plant creature, Man-Thing.46
- Three monsters – the owlbear, rust monster, and bulette – can be traced to plastic toy monsters used in Gary Gygax’s D&D games,47 which have been interpreted48 as knock-offs of creatures from the Japanese SF television show Ultraman.49
- The mimic and doppleganger come from a science-fiction tradition of polymorphous shape-shifters, such as the creature in John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?”50 Particularly notable in the MM is David C. Sutherland’s illustration of the doppleganger’s alien-like base form.51
- Although giant spiders and snakes share mythological and fantasy sources, there is also a science-fiction tradition of giant-sized animal menaces created by phenomena such as post-nuclear mutation or H. G. Wells’ Food of the Gods.52 For example, radioactive giant ants, larger than the MM kind, appear in the 1954 SF horror film Them!53 Giant mutant beasts of several kinds, including the MM’s oddly specific giant snapping turtle, also appear in Sterling Lanier’s 1973 post-apocalyptic novel Hiero’s Journey,54 acknowledged in AD&D’s Appendix N.
- The science of palaeontology has enabled the accurate reconstruction of dinosaurs. These and other real-world prehistoric creatures, familiar through speculative exploration narratives such as King Kong55 and Conan Doyle’s The Lost World,56 belong more to the SF genre than to fantasy.
- Finally, two of the suite of psionic monsters that the MM inherited from the Eldritch Wizardry supplement have plausible SF origins.57 While the Mind Flayer’s origin is murky, it stands at the junction of several science-fiction and science-horror streams including Lovecraft’s Cthulhu, other Cthulhu Mythos tentacle monsters and brain-eaters, and Larry Niven’s psychic slaving race the Thrintun.58 And “cerebral parasites” correspond to the titular “mind parasites” in the 1967 Lovecraft-inspired novel.59
For monsters without a direct fictional forebear, some traits intrinsically push design toward fantasy or science fiction. For example, the fantasy tradition of Greek mythology and medieval bestiaries tends to assemble human-animal hybrids from different parts – so, a satyr has a human head, horns, and the legs of a goat. In contrast, a scientific approach would treat such creatures as products of genetic engineering or parallel evolution from Earth-like animal types on other planets. A science-fictional goat-person would be more thoroughly genetically blended than a fantasy satyr. By this token, the MM shows more fantasy-style hybrids in its obvious mythological creatures, but its original hybrids (troglodytes, gnolls, lizard folk) adopt the SF look, just as the FF hybrids almost uniformly do.
Fantasy also tends to generate monsters by mixing and matching or slightly altering humans, mammals, reptiles, and birds. Lovecraft, however, signalled his turn to science-fiction with a flood of alien horrors based on invertebrates – the crab-like Mi-Go, the sea-cucumber aliens from “At The Mountains of Madness,” and octopus-faced Cthulhu himself. It seems plausible that evolution on a distant planet would produce beings far from the chordate phylum, rather than the lion-people, white apes, and so forth that figure in early 20th century sword-and-planet romances. Likewise, European fantasy monsters typically alter only one bodily feature – giants with one eye, or two heads; horses with wings, or one horn – while SF is signalled by more bizarre arrangements of bodily parts.
By these standards, many creatures in the FF do sport a science-fictional look. Weird invertebrates abound, both chitinous (assassin bug, garbug, tiger fly) and soft-bodied (denzelian, flail snail, imorph, protein polymorph, tentamort). Assemblage monsters that have made the FF infamous for weirdness include the flumph, a benign flying-saucer creature with a mouth, eyestalks, and spikes; and the tirapheg, a humanoid with three heads, arms, and legs, only two eyes, and a mouth in its belly. Other FF monsters that evoke SF xenobiology more than antique legend include energy-creatures (trilloch, astral searcher, magnesium spirit); stone-dwellers (khargra, thoqqua); and the plant-based algoid.
Yet the “originals” of the MM also include invertebrates aplenty: the hard-shelled anhkheg and umber hulk, soft-shelled carrion crawler, and the indescribable morkoth and slithering tracker. Other MM originals show weird bodily construction, like the xorn (a barrel-like creature of tri-radial symmetry), the intellect devourer (a brain on four legs), the beholder and its cousin the eye of the deep, and the tentacled roper, otyugh, and neo-otyugh. Further MM creatures with a science-fictional bent include the gelatinous cube, whose dungeon-cleaning function suggests genetic engineering, and the fungoid shrieker with a similar function as an alarm.
Perhaps the clearest sign of AD&D’s SF theme is its continuation of the psionics rules from Eldritch Wizardry.60 The in-game use of the term “psionics,” coined in literature by the influential Jack Williamson, hints at a specifically science-flavoured explanation for the kind of mental powers that pervade the SF genre.61 Besides the already-mentioned mind flayer and cerebral parasites, the MM includes three more of Eldritch Wizardry’s original vehicles for psionic powers: the brain mole, thought eater, and intellect devourer. In a nod to science-fantasy, powerful extraplanar creatures such as demons, devils, and shedu also are granted psionics.
But in the FF, only three monsters that are not extraplanar have psionic abilities: the algoid, githyanki, and the rival githzerai. Indeed, psionics is one science-fiction element that seems very much in decline in the later book. Many players judged the AD&D psionics rules as overly complicated.62 They were seldom mentioned in contemporary accounts of play, and eventually relegated to supplements in the game’s second edition. This bottom-up abandonment may explain why so few of the FF’s fan-created monsters were designed around psionic powers.
Science-fantasy roots distinguish D&D from other fantasy games even today. Consider the list of monsters that its most recent Open Game License enshrines with special intellectual property status as “Product Identity” uniquely characteristic of D&D:63 beholder, gauth (a beholder subtype), carrion crawler, tanar’ri, baatezu, displacer beast, githyanki, githzerai, mind flayer, illithid (synonym for mind flayer), umber hulk, and yuan-ti. Of these, only tanar’ri and baatezu (category names euphemizing demons and devils, introduced in reaction to the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980’s) are clearly all-fantasy; the psionic, hybrid yuan-ti snake people are debatably science-fantasy due to their resonance with early 20th century pulp narratives of genetically degenerate lost races. Most of the others have already been mentioned in our survey of science-fictional monsters. Of these, five come from the MM, and only two from the FF.
I have tried to show that the FF is best interpreted in continuity with the other AD&D game books, and with the MM in particular. Apparent differences in monster design are not due to the sudden incursion of Old World values or science-fiction obsessions, but to the FF’s necessary omission of large categories of familiar mythological and natural creatures. This led to a higher concentration of SF-styled monsters including a few salient examples. Also aiding the narrative of difference are the FF’s very different illustration style, and the possibility that the MM’s science-fictional monsters have been retroactively categorized as fantasy through long association with the game itself.
What happened stylistically to AD&D later in the 1980’s also works to disguise the science-fantasy roots of the early game. After Gygax left TSR, the company focused on more uniformly medieval-themed worlds of play. Top sellers later in the 80’s included the epic fantasy narratives of Hickman and Weis’ Dragonlance series64 and the historically and economically detailed pure fantasy setting of Greenwood’s Forgotten Realms.65 Meanwhile, TSR followed suit with settings that drew from non-European history and legend through an exoticized, exploitative lens66 (such as Oriental Adventures67 and Al-Qadim68), and with historical reference books for players who wanted to recreate specific times and places in the European legendary past.69
However, in my analysis, AD&D before the FF was already strongly imbued with science-fantasy. Indeed, it has thrown SF challenges at fantasy characters from day one, although they may not be recognized as such. And even while history and mythology dominated the later days of AD&D, there were settings that played with SF: Spelljammer explored the reverse conceit of fantasy characters piloting magic sailing ships through space,70 while Dark Sun71 drew heavily on desert-planet and post-apocalyptic aesthetics. To take a closing motto from Jeff Noon: “Pure is poor.”72
Featured image “Revengeful Monsters” 1780 by John Hamilton Mortimer. Image from The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Open Access Program.
Roger SG Sorolla writes on the theory and practice of imaginative games as an avocation, starting with his 1996 online essay on text adventures, “Crimes Against Mimesis”, and continued since 2010 through his blog, Roles, Rules and Rolls. Through this blog he has released a graphic presentation of his fantasy heartbreaker roleplaying ruleset, The 52 Pages, and has returned to his teenage activity of Dungeon Mastering throughout the past ten years. From 2006 to 2015 he was a playtester, designer, and rules editor for Alderac Entertainment Group. He is also a regular entrant and multiple prize-winner in the annual One Page Dungeon Contest, and has also contributed to such collaborative creative enterprises as Secret Santicore, the Petty Gods compilation and the Henry Justice Ford Monster Manual. Hailing from suburban Connecticut in the northeastern United States, Sorolla currently lives in Canterbury, England, where his more lucrative career as a professor of psychology has taken him.