OSR: Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom of Blackmoor

This post's quality has been brought to you by Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban.You've been warned. For actual D&D history, see Hidden in the Shadows.
I was thinking about the Life on Earth documentary earlier this week and how it completely changed the visual language of popular culture.

You know this frog?
You might not be able to place it, but this tree frog was everywhere for a while. Posters, books, ads; the influence of Life on Earth is subtle but pervasive.

And it came out in 1979, two years after the AD&D Monster Manual. What would D&D have been like if things were shifted by a year or two? Would the Monster Manual have a different tone?

The Origin of Species

Where do D&D monsters come from? This thread on Dragonsfoot is an excellent place to start, but it only covers "proper" monsters. Sea turtles, camels, etc. aren't covered because it's assumed everyone knows what a camel is.

But do they? When Gygax thought of a camel, did his mental image come from a specific book or film? The Bible? Lawrence of Arabia?

It's one of those questions nobody can answer. Where does your mental image of a camel come from anyway?

The Unknown Monster Manual: Life Magazine (April 23, 1951)

Rudolf Freund was a landscape and wildlife painter. This seems to be, as far as I can find, his only excursion into mythology. But what an excursion!
The game of telephone from the mythology to the article's unnamed author, from the article to the artist, from the artist to Gygax and from Gygax to the artist (David C. Sutherland III, I think?) leads to a very strange creature.

It also explains the mysterious poisonous bovid Gorgon of the Monster Manual. The article's author has somehow mixed up Claudius Aelianus's description of the Catoblepas with the Gorgon.
It's tragic that the terrifying long-necked Salvador Dali manticore didn't make it into D&D. Indeed, the Manticore is barely described in the Monster Manual. Gygax may have assumed all readers were already familiar with the creature.
Side Note: What did Rudolf Freund have against Dali? Perhaps the unveiling of Christ of Saint John of the Cross in 1951 and the ensuing controversy offended his sensibilities? Or did Freund, as a sensible "naturalist" wildlife and landscape painter, intend to mock Dali's distorted figures?

Or am I reading too much into a mustache?

Marine Monsters

In the AD&D Monster manual, Stephen (Steve) Marsh gets credit (in the preface everyone skips) for the aquatic monsters of Blackmoor.
Side Note: these days, Stephen Marsh is a hiking fiend. He's got a blog full of stories and excellent hiking advice. So in theory I could just ask him these questions... but where's the fun in that?
Anyway, Gary Gygax took the monsters in Blackmoor, codified them, added details, and put them in the Monster Manual. Much like the transition from mythology to Su-Monster, the process involved plenty of noise and distortion.

Reading the AD&D Monster Manual and Blackmoor side by side, I think Marsh had a very solid grasp on aquatic life. Gygax... less so. Sea Turtles don't appear in Blackmoor, so Gygax must have invented the Turtle, Sea, Giant for the MM. Clearly, he wasn't familiar with turtles (sea turtles cannot retract their flippers).

Selected Aquatic Monsters of Blackmoor


A "civilized" people. "Spells and special suits are usually used when out of the water (to retain their moisture)..." Special suits eh? Why don't we see more memmen in boiler suits in D&D?

Sahuagin (Devil-Men of the Deep)
Hints of H.P. Lovecraft's Deep Ones, but with some elements of The Creature from the Black Lagoon thrown in for good measure.

Morkoth (aka Morlock)
Seems like it was inspired by Lovecraft (the strange cone-like head, the winding hypnotic labyrinth), but it's a Steve Marsh original, adapted from an  Andre Norton Witch World story.


Very, very lightly sketched in Blackmoor. They're underwater Nomads. 
This nomadic people ride eels and are found along the canyon floors roaming the depths in search of food (Use standard NOMAD Table for composition). For riding eels use a 24" standard movement with a 36" fast move every eight turns. They will be found in their lair only 15% of the time (generally a castle which they maintain as a base camp with its own guards etc.). They are neutral by disposition and otherwise fairly civilized.
But in the AD&D MM, they become another sort of fish-person, despite no hint of it in the original description.


Aquatic Elf (as Elf)
Kopoacinth (as gargoyles)

Koalinth (as hobgoblins)
Lacedons (as ghouls)
Mottled Worm (as a Purple Worm)
Nymph (as a Dryad)
Sea Hag (as a reverse Dryad)

Ordinary Creatures

Its neat how each underwater race gets its own beasts. Aquatic Elves have dolphins, Sahuagin have sharks, Locathah have eels, and Mermen have seahorses... and crabs. He he he.

Giant Crab
Their entry in Blackmoor includes the line "Fortunately, they rarely go inland more than a mile, and usually frequent the same hatching grounds from year to year." showing that Marsh was familliar with crab migrations.

Giant Octopus

Marsh correctly identifies the octopus as a mollusc.
In Blackmoor, Marsh writes "Generally peaceful, they will not attack unless attacked first..."
In the A&D MM, Gygax writes "These creatures are malicious and have a cunning bent."
Hrm. Who writes based on fiction and who writes based on documentaries?

Giant Squid

In Blackmoor, interestingly, this entry has less to do with the actual giant squid or mythological kraken, and seems to be a regular squid scaled up.


Pungi Ray
I thought that tracking down this "unusual reference" could lead me to a documentary, article, or book that might uncover the origins of some of these monsters. Managed a tremendous forehead slap after spending 30 minutes trying to find species notes in various databases. Punji traps. Derp derp derp. Probably based on the stonefish.

Strangle Weed
Weeds that trap limbs; a diver's nightmare.

Floating Eyes
A distorted cuttlefish? Probably not; the hypnotic patterns of a cuttlefish are a relatively new discovery. According to Marsh, the true explanation is even eerier. "
Floating eyes were originally an extension of an extraplaner creature. Just the eyes came through."

Origin story here

Poisonous Coral

A distorted version of an anemone?


A quitisential D&D telephone creature. In Blackmoor, the whole description is "Coral eaters, harmless unless frightened, if so is just like 20 hit dice Purple worm, with treasure." The stats reflect the purple worm note.

In the AD&D MM, Mashers become explictly "worm-like" and gain poison dorsal spines. And from there, they grow stranger and stranger through the editions.

But was the original Masher a worm, or just something that's as tough and dangerous as a Purple Worm? A giant parrotfish? A blend of grouper, parrotfish, and lionfish? Who knows.

Visual Antecedents for The Aquatic Monsters of Blackmoor

Ditch the "canonical" references: Lovecraft and Leiber's "Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser". Books are sensible. In 1975, nobody cites TV shows.

Based on wild guesswork, the series most likely to have inspired some of Marsh's monsters is Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, particularly, the Great Barrier Reef episodes of 1971 and the Isles of Enchantment episodes of 1973. Some episodes are available on youtube and are well worth watching.

Side Note: you need to say "Mutual of Omaha's" before "Wild Kingdom". It's just a rule.
The time periods and broadcast schedules line up. It was a show a high school kid in Idaho could watch without getting into trouble. While Gygax seems to have prefereed books to TV, it doesn't seem like the vivid aquatic ecosystem sketched in Blackmoor could come from fantasy books or old atlases.


  1. Rudolf Freund is directly pulling from Edward Topsell's History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents, which I'm lead to believe is where Gygax got his inspiration from. His own Manticore is less Dali-esque but still has a rather impressive beard and mustache.

    Note how the Gorgon is a cow even in Monsters & Treasure. Incidentally, Topsell's Gorgon is a catoblepus and so that monster is perhaps the first "duplicate from another mythology" monster out there.

    1. Interesting! This is what I get for blundering through D&D history.