Monster ENCyclopedia: Catoblepas

The catoblepas was first described nearly two thousand years ago by Pliny the Elder, as a buffalo/boar hybrid with a deadly gaze. However, that's the legendary Ethiopian beast version, and not the D&D version. D&D has a much shorter publication history (thankfully, or these posts would be a lot longer), and since this is a series about the monsters of D&D, our catoblepas story starts with a single (uncredited) paragraph in The Strategic Review, Vol. II No. 2.

This is a series of posts about specific monsters from D&D's history. Each entry takes a look at the origin of one D&D creature, and tracks its appearances and evolution across different editions.

This is the third post in this series, and as regular readers may have guessed, we're going to continue our progress through the alphabet and take a look at a creature beginning with C -- the catoblepas.

Origins and development


That initial description doesn't pull any punches when it comes to detailing how vile and despicable the catoblepas is. It is described as a "totally loathsome creature" with "absolutely no redeeming features". It has a "horrid head" perched on the end of a long neck, a "hideous face" and is "uglier than a warthog". It is also gifted with a snake-like tail capable of swift attacks. These characteristics are theorised to be evolutionary changes resulting from its marshy environment, but it isn't clear why a swamp-dweller would need to be so utterly disgusting as a survival mechanism.

Right from the beginning, the catoblepas has its characteristic deadly gaze, which is said to be the equivalent of a death spell with no saving throw. Woe betide any adventurer surprised by the beast, since this results in him or her automatically meeting the creature's gaze. The survival odds leap if the adventurer isn't surprised, since the creature's weak neck means that it has only a 25% chance of raising its head on its first turn. The best strategy for someone encountering a catoblepas in the wild is to run away with quick, erratic movements, as the beast then has only a 10% chance of fixing its gaze on a target.

Supplement III: Eldritch Wizardry contains a single sentence clarification of the catoblepas's gaze attack, noting that it penetrates both the astral and ethereal planes.

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Monster Manual (1977)

By the time we get to the Monster Manual, the poor catoblepas has gained an offensive odour and bloodshot eyes (which are apparently its most horrid aspect). The mechanics of its stunning tail attack are specified in more detail, and there is an expanded explanation of the odds of meeting the creature's deadly gaze. An alternative theory for its hideous appearance is also offered as perhaps being due to some ghastly tinkering with life by a demented godling. The Monster Manual also gives us the first picture of a catoblepas, courtesy of David Trampier.

In Dragon #73, the catoblepas has a dedicated two-page ecology article by Chris Elliott and Richard Edwards, titled The Ecology of the Catoblepas (or, looks can be very deceiving). But before we take a look at what that article has to say about our featured creature, we're going to get slightly distracted by the history of the "Ecology of..." series itself.

Although it is one of the best known running series in the history of Dragon, the "Ecology of..." series didn't start there. The first few ecologies (including the one covering the catoblepas) were written for another magazine, Dragonlords -- Yet Another Fantasy & Sci-Fi Roleplaying Magazine. In Imazine #32, Paul Mason explains that Elliott and Edwards wrote these initial articles as humorous parodies, rather than serious additions to D&D lore. Despite this, Gary Gygax enjoyed them enough to arrange for them to be reprinted in Dragon, and thus the "Ecology of..." series began.

So with that caveat in mind, what does Dragon #73 have to say about the catoblepas? First, it pokes a little bit of fun at the description in the Monster Manual (or as the article refers to it, the "Bestiary of Xygag") by questioning how anyone figured out that the catoblepas has bloodshot eyes, given its deadly gaze. However, it then goes on to explain that it is not, in fact, the creature's gaze that kills, but an invisible cloud of deadly gas belched out by the beast.

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Dragon #73 (1983)

More importantly though, the article declares that the Monster Manual entry only describes the female of the catoblepas species. The male is a much smaller, faster, almost kangaroo-like creature which is not immune to the female's poison gas. These males generally steer clear of their deadly partners, but during mating season, the females exude a scent which (almost) overpowers the males' instinct for self-preservation. A male wishing to mate waits until the female has her head buried in swamp ooze (so she is unable to belch poison gaze), races up to her (dodging her tail) and mates extremely quickly, before fleeing.

The young are born six months later, and because they have been exposed to mild doses of the toxin before birth, are immune to it, at least for their first year of life. These young are also genderless, only differentiating into males and females later in their development, at which point the females become permanently immune to their own poison, while the males undergo a physiological change which removes their resistance to the toxin.

In the Sage Advice column in Dragon #79, the question is raised of whether the "Ecology of..." article or the Monster Manual is correct about the nature of the catoblepas's deadly gaze/gas attack. The Sage notes that the magazine article is "unofficial, offered for the entertainment of (and possible use by) DMs and players alike".

Dragon #93's Ay pronunseeAYshun gyd offers three different ways to say catoblepas: "ka-TAB-le-pus", "k@t-o-BLEPus", or "k@t-o-BLEEPus".

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Monstrous Compendium Volume One (1989)

The AD&D 2nd Edition Monstrous Compendium Volume One ignores the Dragon #73 article entirely, and expands on the original Monster Manual entry with a different life cycle and ecology. The catoblepas is said to eat primarily marsh grasses, but about once a month, during full moon, it leaves its sheltered swampy lair to hunt for a meaty meal. It generally feeds on fish, birds, eels, water rats, large amphibians, snakes and other swamp animals, but will settle for carrion.

Male and female specimens are physically similar, and mate for life. They raise their young together, and a juvenile catoblepas takes nine years to become a young adult. A catoblepas lives for 150-200 years, and has no natural enemies, which isn't surprising, given its deadly gaze. Interestingly, the catoblepas is now less hostile, and will generally not attack unless it is busy with its monthly hunt (which, to be fair, is when adventurers are most likely to encounter it), or if it feels that its mate or offspring are threatened.

Mechanically, its gaze is now specified as a ray, with a 60 foot range. If more than one catoblepas is encountered and they attack, then they will co-operate, attempting to herd their targets into a crossfire.

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Dragon #174 (1991)

Only one catoblepas miniature seems to have been made for D&D, as part of Ral Partha's line of metal miniatures in the early 1990s (product code 11-422). The above picture comes from a review of the miniature in Dragon #174, which gave it four stars out of five, and notes that "as a swamp creature, this figure can't be beat, even though it will need work".

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AD&D Trading Cards (1991)

The first colour picture of the catoblepas appears on card #468 in the 1991 Trading Card set, although "colour picture" is a generous description, since with the exception of its eyes, the catoblepas pictured is a murky grey colour. Compare that to the shaggy reddish-brown coloured creature in the Monstrous Manual, which is a much more intimidating beast. The text description in the Monstrous Manual is lifted directly from the Monstrous Compendium entry, and doesn't add any new information about the catoblepas.

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Monstrous Manual (1993)

The 3rd Edition catoblepas appears in the Monster Manual II, and is remarkably similar to its 1st and 2nd Edition predecessors. Its origins are now said to be the result of a magical experiment gone terribly wrong, but its description ("loathsome", "ugly", "bloated") remains consistent. The range of its death ray gaze has almost trebled to 160 feet, but takes 1d4 rounds to recharge. The ray is now also inexplicably green. The lifecycle, diet, and ecology of the catoblepas is unchanged, but it gains the Scent ability, which allows it to detect and track foes by sense of smell.

View attachment 89923
Monster Manual II (2002)

Also, after two editions of very carefully worded text which managed to entirely avoid ever using the plural of catoblepas, the Monster Manual II finally commits to "catoblepases". However, later books are inconsistent in sticking to this, sometimes using just "catoblepas" for the plural.

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Monster Manual 3 (2010)

The 4th Edition catoblepas, which appears in the Monster Manual 3 is quite a bit different from earlier versions, not only in appearance (see above), but also when it comes to its abilities and background. This catoblepas is a creature of shadow, said to plod between worlds, appearing unexpectedly as a harbinger of doom. It has a strong association with death, and is said to sometimes accompany the Raven Queen's entourage. Which, for the catoblepas, might not be a great plan, since hunting a catoblepas can earn the Raven Queen's blessing. It is even noted that the Wild Hunt often has a catoblepas as a target, since its ability to shift between worlds makes it a challenging quarry. That said, this version of the catoblepas never truly dies, and simply reforms again once slain.

There are two types of catoblepas detailed in the Monster Manual 3. The Catoblepas Harbinger appears out of nowhere, and foretells impending death, famine, plague, or war. It feeds on despair, pride and anguish, and this diet causes it to exhale suffocating, poisonous gases. It still has a gaze attack, but 4th Edition steers clear of save-or-die effects, so this a much watered down attack compared to earlier catoblepases.

The more powerful Catobepas Tragedian lives on the bank of a river of souls which flows through the Shadowfell. It has a humanoid face which represents the accumulation of all of the strife it has witnessed. This creature makes a strange deep humming noise, which calls living creatures towards it, where the creature's poison breath and withering gaze instantly might eventually (this is 4th Edition!) cause death.

In an interview on the Wizards of the Coast web site, Steve Townshend, who developed the 4th Edition catoblepas, notes that one of the reasons for adding a more detailed back story was to give adventurers a reason for encountering a creature that would otherwise only be encountered as a wandering monster. (Thanks to @Quickleaf for pointing out this interview.)

Magic items


Dragon #130 contains an article titled If Looks Could Kill which goes into an almost painful level of detail on the nature of gaze attacks, and how these interact with mirrors. When it comes to the deadly gaze of the catoblepas, a mirror apparently has an unusual effect, splitting the gaze, so that both the target and the catoblepas may be affected by it, albeit with a saving throw because of the weakened magic.

Fortunately, there are a number of magic items capable of blocking the gaze of a catoblepas entirely, including a helm of gazes (Undermountain: Maddgoth's Castle), a helm of darkness, a wand of magical mirrors (both from FR4: The Magister), a rod of orbs (SJR1: Lost Ships), and the artifact known as Johydee's Mask (Book of Artifacts).

According to Volo's Guide to All Things Magical, when dissolved in the tears of a catoblepas, the lynx eye gemstone can form either a base for healing potions, or an alternative ingredient for the making of Keoghtom's ointment.

Forgotten Realms


According to Aurora's Whole Realms Catalogue, there is a cheese known as "Death Cheese" that is made from catoblepas milk. According to Aurora's, blind monks and out of work adventurers are involved in the creation of this cheese. It is described as a soft cheese with a red paraffin rind, and is sold in 1 lb loaves marked with a stylized imprint of a catoblepas. Volo's Guide to Cormyr notes that prudent shoppers can buy the cheese for just 2 gp per pound in the market of Eagle Peak, and goes on to note that there is a delicately herbed Deadeye Butter which is also made from catoblepas milk, and which is even tastier than Death Cheese.

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Aurora's Whole Realms Catalogue (1992)

For some reason, the 3rd Edition version of the catoblepas was published in both the Monster Manual II and in Dragon #299 in exactly the same month. The Dragon article is titled The Horrors of Cormyr, so it has some Realms-specific lore, but the statblock is the same as the one in the Monster Manual II, and the descriptive text is just an edited down version. The article suggests that the catoblepas was created by an arch-wizard of Netheril, and notes that they are rare throughout most of the Realms, with the exception of the Farsea Marshes of Cormyr. There is also an alternative explanation given for the origins of the famous Death Cheese. According to Dragon #299, human Marsh Drovers have learned to domesticate and herd the beasts, and they produce and sell the cheese. (Exactly how they do this safely is not explained.)

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Dragon #299 2002)

Volo's Guide to the Sword Coast notes that the Marsh of Chelimber holds the largest known concentration of catoblepases in the Realms, and this is confirmed in Serpent Kingdoms. The Environs of Waterdeep web enhancement for City of Splendors notes that catoblepases can rarely be encountered in the Rat Hills south of Waterdeep. In H2: The Mines of Bloodstone, there is a lone catoblepas dwelling in the "Muckhole of the Catoblepas" in the Temple of Orcus.

Year 406 DR on the Roll of Years was the Year of the Catoblepas, although there is no record of any significant catoblepas-related event that year.

Mystara


In Mystara, the catoblepas is called a nekrozon. According to Set 4: Master Rules, ancient lore calls the nekrozon a "catoblepas", but the term is not in current use. It is mechanically very similar to the AD&D catoblepas, adapted for D&D rules. However, the illustration makes the nekrozon look much more boar-like than any other picture of the catoblepas.

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Master Rules (1985)

Statistics for the nekrozon were reprinted in CM9: Legacy of Blood and again in the Dungeons & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia. Finally, when Mystara became an AD&D 2nd Edition setting, the Monstrous Compendium Mystara Appendix confirmed that the nekrozon is identical to the catoblepas, and that the name catoblepas is considered an archaic term -- the sort of thing that "one reads in crumbling manuscripts but rarely hears in conversation".

Ravenloft


The adventure Circle of Darkness notes that catoblepases are commonly found in the domain of G'Henna.

Historical reference


To return us to where we started the story of the catoblepas, HR5: The Glory of Rome Campaign Sourcebook makes reference to Pliny the Elder's bestiary, and suggests that the catoblepas could be a good special encounter for a campaign set in this historical period. It notes that it was believed to live at the fountains of Nigris at the source of the Nile, and reminds us that the name catoblepas means "downward-looking", because of the creature's long, weak neck.

References


The Strategic Review Vol. II No.2, p15 (April 1976)
Supplement III: Eldritch Wizardry, p29 (April 1976)
Monster Manual, p13 (December 1977)
Dragon #73, p22, "The Ecology of the Catoblepas (or, looks can be very deceiving)" (May 1983)
Dragon #79, p14, "Sage Advice" (November 1983)
Dragon #93, p24, "Ay pronunseeAYshun gyd" (January 1985)
Set 4: Master Rules, Master DM's Book, p35 (June 1985)
H2: The Mines of Bloodstone, p37 (December 1986)
CM9: Legacy of Blood, p28 (September 1987)
Dragon #130, p76, "If Looks Could Kill" (February 1988)
FR4: The Magister, p44, 52 (May 1988)
Monstrous Compendium Volume One (June 1989)
SJR1: Lost Ships, p81 (March 1990)
1991 Trading Cards Factory Set, card 468/750 (September 1991)
Dragon #174, p118, "Through the Looking Glass" (October 1991)
Dungeons & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia, p196 (October 1991)
Aurora's Whole Realms Catalogue, p122 (June 1992)
Monstrous Manual, p39 (June 1993)
Book of Artifacts, p49 (September 1993)
HR5: The Glory of Rome Campaign Sourcebook, p63-64 (October 1993)
Monstrous Compendium Mystara Appendix, p7 (July 1994)
Volo's Guide to the Sword Coast, p124, p136 (October 1994)
Circle of Darkness, p64 (May 1995)
Volo's Guide to Cormyr, p205 (July 1995)
Undermountain: Maddgoth's Castle, p32 (August 1996)
Volo's Guide to All Things Magical, p43 (September 1996)
Imazine #32, p9 (Spring 1999)
Dragon #299, p53, "The Horrors of Cormyr" (September 2002)
Monster Manual II, p41 (September 2002)
Serpent Kingdoms, p105 (July 2004)
Environs of Waterdeep, p13 (May 2006)
Monster Manual 3, p26-27 (June 2010)
Wizards of the Coast web site, "3 Quick Questions: Catoblepas" (June 2010)

Other ENCyclopedia entries


Visit the Monster ENCyclopedia index for links to other entries in this series.
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Comments

There's a link to the ones that he's done full write-ups on. I'm wondering if there's a master list anywhere available to the rest of us that he's working from.
 

the Jester

Legend
There's a link to the ones that he's done full write-ups on. I'm wondering if there's a master list anywhere available to the rest of us that he's working from.
Based on his comments in the Barghest article, I am under the impression that he's choosing them as he goes, but could be wrong.
 
Superb, as always.

I wonder if "Nekrozon" is a made-up word or if it has real world origins. Google doesn't turn up anything so it would seem to be made up.
 

Echohawk

Shirokinukatsukami fan
There's a link to the ones that he's done full write-ups on. I'm wondering if there's a master list anywhere available to the rest of us that he's working from.
Based on his comments in the Barghest article, I am under the impression that he's choosing them as he goes, but could be wrong.
I do have a list of creatures mapped out for the first past through the alphabet, but it isn't set in stone. If I get to one and discover that it isn't as interesting as I thought it would be, it might change. I will tease that I'm not planning to tackle the zzonga-bush as the "Z" creature, even though that would be the last entry in a hypothetical Utterly Complete Monster Manual.
 

the Jester

Legend
I do have a list of creatures mapped out for the first past through the alphabet, but it isn't set in stone. If I get to one and discover that it isn't as interesting as I thought it would be, it might change. I will tease that I'm not planning to tackle the zzonga-bush as the "Z" creature, even though that would be the last entry in a hypothetical Utterly Complete Monster Manual.
I... I have to admit a lack of familiarity with that one.

What source is it from, if you don't mind my asking?
 

Echohawk

Shirokinukatsukami fan
What source is it from, if you don't mind my asking?
Don't worry, it's really very obscure. It comes from the Dawn of the Emperors boxed set, Book One: The Dungeon Master's Sourcebook, page 58, and has (to the best of my knowledge) never appeared anywhere else.
 

Echohawk

Shirokinukatsukami fan
So any idea what the next one is gonna be? Or would that be a spoiler? ;)
It's a creature beginning with D that isn't a demon, devil, dinosaur or dragon. That might not sound like much of a hint, but it eliminates about half of the Ds. :p
 

Sonny

Explorer
Although the 4th edition monster changes were often hit and miss for me, I always loved the Catoblepas lore they created. That and the 4e artwork moved him from my "never gonna use" list, to "headlining monster" list.
 
It occurs to me that in 30+ years of D&D gaming, I've never encountered or used a catoblepas. Perhaps that should become the theme of the adventure Against the Flumpfs II: Revenge of the Catoblepas.
 

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