Little-known sci-fi fact: How a cheap bag of toys inspired D&D monsters

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Dec 31, 2013, 1:10 PM EST

It really is amazing what a few cheap hunks of plastic from China can inspire. 

Today, the thing we call Dungeons & Dragons is a vast, ever-expanding fantasy universe of monsters, magic and mayhem that you can access with a few (or a few dozen) books, a character sheet and a 20-sided die. Back in the mid-1970s, though, even the most basic elements of D&D were still a work in progress. In addition to developing and testing the game's core rules and concepts, co-creator Gary Gygax was also working on another very important D&D element: monsters for his future adventurers to fight. While the game contains its share of classic monsters like orcs, giants and, of course, dragons, there was also a desire to create some new beasts and work them into the game. For that, Gygax apparently turned to a cheap dime-store bag of plastic "Prehistoric Animals." 


Because these little toys, made in Hong Kong, were not exactly scientifically accurate, they looked more like fantasy creatures than prehistoric life, so Gygax and original D&D playtester (and eventual Dragon magazine editor) Tim Kask used them to create some of the original Dungeons & Dragons monsters, including the legendary Owlbear. 

“There once was an unknown company in Hong Kong that made a bag of weird animal-things that were then sold in what once were called dime stores or variety stores for like $.99. I know of four other very early monsters based on them. Gary and I talked about how hard it was to find monster figures, and how one day he came upon this bag of weird beasts … He nearly ran home, eager as a kid to get home and open his baseball cards," Kask wrote on a D&D forum for collectors in 2007. "Then he proceeded to invent the carrion crawler, umber hulk, rust monster and purple worm, all based on those silly plastic figures. The one that I chose was known in the Greyhawk campaign as 'the bullet' (for it’s shape) but had only amorphous stats and abilities, not being developed. Gary told me to take it home, study it, and decide what it was and what it could do.”

So Kask developed the monster that would become the "Bulette," and Gygax got several other creatures out of that cheap bag of toys as well. The toys themselves are prized among collectors now, both for their D&D connection and their current rarity, but back then they were just a plastic launching pad for a small part of what's become the most famous role-playing game of all time. Check out a few side-by-side comparisons of toys to Monster Manual entries in the gallery below. 

(Via Tony DiTerlizzi)

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