Hasslein Blog: Longbox Legerdemain: A Conflation of Speculative Genres—Coeurl and the Displacer Beast


Hasslein Blog

Monday, August 3, 2015

Longbox Legerdemain: A Conflation of Speculative Genres—Coeurl and the Displacer Beast

By Matthew Sunrich

I enjoy comics, gaming, and speculative fiction, so I couldn't resist the opportunity to write about a situation in which all three came together in an unexpected way.

When Gary Gygax created Dungeons & Dragons, the world's first fantasy roleplaying game, he borrowed from a lot of sources. It has come to light in the last few years, for instance, that famous creatures such as the "owlbear" and "rust monster" were inspired by the contents of a package of rubber dinosaur toys. The game's magic system, in which wizards memorize spells and then forget them after casting, is taken from the Dying Earth novels by Jack Vance. Other aspects of the game are derived from Lord of the Rings, The Once and Future King, and less-specific sources such as the mythologies of the ancient world.

Owing to a variety of factors, Gygax's company, TSR (Tactical Studies Rules), fell into financial ruin in the mid-1990s (it is worth mentioning that Gygax had left due to conflicts with a foolish board of directors in 1985), and the D&D brand was bought up by Wizards of the Coast, the company that had, just a few years earlier, given us the most popular card game in history this side of draw poker: Magic: The Gathering. TSR, due in part to the controversy surrounding the game during the 1980s, had introduced Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd edition in 1989 and had modified the game only slightly prior to the company's demise. Wizards, upon acquiring the property, decided to introduce a new edition of the game and, furthermore, to drop the "Advanced" from the title. (Note that D&D and AD&D were different games, the latter being considerably more complex than the former and skewing toward older players, and both were continuously supported by TSR.) Along with the new version of the game (2000), dubbed 3rd edition, the company also unveiled an initiative designed to foster creativity within the gaming community, the Open Game License.

To make a long story short, the OGL offered the full rulesets of Wizards' games, past and present, to anyone who wanted them for free. The idea was that third-party game designers would create compatible supplements for D&D, et al. By this time, tabletop RPGs were losing a lot of players to their computer-based counterparts (an issue that persists to this day), so Wizards hoped that its initiative would bring players back to pen-and-paper games. (The ultimate result of this was that Paizo's Pathfinder Fantasy Roleplaying Game, which based its rules on the popular 3.5 edition D&D, would outsell the subsequent editions of D&D, leaving Wizards to ruminate on its tactical error and lick its wounds. But that's another story.) The only restriction placed on the OGL was that Wizards would retain exclusive use of certain "product identities," i.e., creatures considered trademarks of the brand.

One of these was the Displacer Beast.

A magical, six-legged puma-like creature with two tentacles protruding from its back, the Displacer Beast was introduced in D&D's 1975 Greyhawk supplement and is one of most famous creatures in the game, having appeared in modules and adventures too numerous to list. Its defining characteristic is the ability to flail the tentacles about, making its exact location hard to pinpoint. (In the game, player-characters wishing to attack it must succeed on an attack roll and then follow that with a roll of 11 or better on a twenty-sided die to make the hit "stick.") In keeping with the "borrowing" theme mentioned earlier, it's based on "Coeurl," a vicious monster in A. E. van Vogt's 1939 story "Black Destroyer," which was subsequently incorporated into the fix-up space-opera novel Voyage of the Space Beagle (later republished as Mission: Interplanetary).

In late 1973, Marvel Comics was, in accordance with the changing landscape of fandom, in an experimental stage, adding more horror, fantasy, and science-fiction to its monthly offerings. In the fifth issue of the short-lived title Worlds Unknown, writer Roy Thomas and artists Dan Adkins and Jim Mooney adapted Vogt's original story in fifteen fantastic pages. It doesn't appear to have made much of a splash in the grand scheme of things, but sometimes the forgotten stories wind up becoming hidden gems for hardcore readers.

According to Don Thompson, one of the pioneers of science-fiction and comic-book fandom, the story is one of instinct vs. high cognition. It's a classic binary, going back all the way to the beginning of time. The Coeurl in Vogt's story operates completely on instinct, but it is a more developed kind than we are accustomed to. It appears to be the last surviving member of its species, and there is no way to know how long it has been alive, although there are suggestions that it has thrived for a long time, inasmuch as it is able to effectively gauge time.

During the span of its existence, it has learned to utilize information gleaned from observations, just as a housecat learns to associate the sound of a can opener with food. Psychologists call this classical conditioning. The difference here is the monster has a more-developed observational sense and is not only able to recognize certain stimuli but is also able to take it to the next level, to use what is has learned for greater purposes, something that would be essentially impossible for "normal" animals (crows notwithstanding).

The story involves an exploratory spacecraft's landing on the Coeurl's planet. It has presumably come from Earth, as the crew is human. Coeurl watches them hungrily, reflecting back on previous humanoids on which it has fed. Rather than consuming blood or flesh, the creature, strangely, subsists on phosphorus. While it makes no attempt to hide as the team emerges from the vessel, it does mask its ferocious nature. It manages to ingratiate itself to the crew members for the most part, and they allow it to enter and explore the ship. When it enters the elevator, they close the door behind it, to gauge its reaction, and it rips the door to shreds with its terrible appendages. Once free, however, it calms down, and the crew blames itself for the outburst.

Back outside the ship, one of the men wanders off on his own, against orders, to take a look around the ruins nearby. Coeurl takes advantage of the situation and attacks him. When his body is discovered, the monster is the prime suspect, but the commander believes there could be another explanation. They decide to take Coeurl back with them as a living specimen, and it allows them to place it in the hold, behind a four-inch steel door. It bides its time, waiting about an hour, and then uses its tentacles to disengage the lock and kills the two men guarding the door. It then makes its way into the sleeping chamber and kills the crew there before returning to the hold and locking itself in.

At this point, everyone except the commander is convinced that the Coeurl is behind the attacks. The ship's chemist attempts to destroy it with protective weapons within the hold, but they have no effect. Without warning, the ship pitches, and regaining their senses and footing, the crew members realize that the monster has cut a hole through the wall and made its way to the ship's control panel. The men try to blast through the door, but Coeurl's peculiar ability to alter the structure of metal renders their guns ineffective. Inside the chamber, the monster has succeeded in constructing a small ship from salvaged components and bursts through the wall of the craft in an attempt to return home.

Coeurl's ultimate undoing results from its inability to comprehend the intricacies of space travel. It thinks it is heading home, but it winds up on a collision course with the very ship it has just escaped. Unable to process how this could have happened, it commits suicide by freeing the phosphorus from its vital organs. The crew, of course, knew how to navigate in space and used this to its advantage. Coeurl, in the words of Thompson, "was fouled up by the motion of the planet, by the time-lag caused by the time it took light from the planet to reach him, and by the visual distortions of faster-than-light travel." Even with its heightened instincts, there is no way it could have understood this.

It is clear that Coeurl and the Displacer Beast, despite their physical similarities, are considerably different creatures. Gygax came up with a way for his monster to use its tentacles to disorient its prey, whereas Vogt's merely uses its as weapons. Gygax also added two legs, effectively differentiating his creation from its inspiration and taking things up a notch, as they say. Tentacles as an aspect of monsters can, like so many things, be attributed to the fiction of H. P. Lovecraft, who considered them one of nature's creepiest concoctions and decided to put them in places where they are not normally found (around the mouth for example, as in the case of Cthulhu).

There is, of course, no way to know whether Gygax was inspired by Vogt's original story or by this adaptation, but the latter doesn't seem impossible, as the comic-book version was far more contemporaneous. I am fond of the idea of his spotting this issue of Worlds Unknown in a grocery store in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and thinking, "I'm going to find a way to use that in my game."

Matt Sunrich, a great fan of the Bronze Age of comic books, maintains two blogs: The Other Other Castle, about Bronze-Age sword and sorcery, and Forging the Dark Knight, concerning Bronze-Age Batman.

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