OwlBear, and the end of youth.

by on Nov.11, 2009, under Gaming

Look at that bad boy – the OWLBEAR.

Splendid, isn’t he? A towering, squawky mass of furry, feathery weirdness, ready to demolish the party. Wipe that grin off your face halfling, he’ll have you…

This image, an interior illustration from the famed ‘Keep on the Borderlands’ D+D module was pretty much the first ever rpg image I saw. I was immediately hooked at 11 years old. Before then I’d been fascinated with Greek and Norse mythology books, and any Ray Harryhausen films I could catch on BBC 1. The little scene above was something completely new to me – what *was* that thing they were fighting? And where could I get the miniature?…

What got me about the humble Owlbear image is that it was a monster personified. You go look up ‘Monster’ in the dictionary, and there he is. I love image because it screams ‘Owlbear’ but doesn’t particularly look like an owl, or even a bear. Bears don’t have long tapering tails, and Owls don’t have sodding great serrated beaks. In all honesty, this creature is more like a Raven Rat Troll. But I’d never dare class it as such. It is an Owlbear, hear it hoot!

Anyway, whenever someone says ‘Fantasy RPG’ to me, the image conjured in my head is this little number here. Not some grandiose image by the late Keith Parkinson, or Brom. It’s this drawing, by way of Richard Carpenter, and Nik Kershaw’s The Riddle blaring through a speaker fixed to one of the dungeon walls! (Don’t look, it’s hidden behind the corner anyway).

1982, that was the year for me – baby Dave, aged 11 and one quarter. Gaming was a magical thing back then. I’d gorged myself on Fighting Fantasy books, gaze at their covers for hours, copy the interiors with colour pencils, and cheat my way through the books Disgracefully. (Am I Lucky or Unlucky? Then turn to page blah blah. I cheated so bad that I’d back track 5 or 6 pages at time. I had 6 of my fingers bookmarking Deathtrap Dungeon in case I died. Ian Livingston, will you ever forgive me?)

I’ve made my living from roleplay and card games since 1992. Done all the things that as a kid I would have wanted to do ‘as a grown up’. But when it’s all said and done, I miss the bright, clear joy of the days when I first discovered gaming. Things have refined and improved since the eighties, and we all know the hobby better, but I look back on the early days with a sad, sweet fondness. It was smaller back then, but also much bigger.

It’s like being a junkie, always trying to recapture the sensation of that first hit.

We just have to look back at the super-charged cover of the latest monster manual from Wizards and compare it to the somewhat twee early Gygax cover, with the red dragon oddly hovering in the blank blue sky to see how far gaming has come on. And it’s a good thing, we know and understand it with more clarity. We’ve grown, and the game books we own have grown with us. Yet, I still look about to The Littlest Owlbear, munching on the low level adventuring party, and smile warmly. I pat it on its smelly, feathery head (a haircut that strangely reminds me of the Beatles) and sent it back down into the Borderlands, and my quaint little dreams.


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8 Comments for this entry

  • jimbly

    didn’t we all do the deathtrap dungeon finger bookmark.. i did it too

  • dava

    Deathtrap Dungeon was the hardest one, I reckon. I think you had to have a whole bunch of collected gems you had to stick in a door at the end, otherwise you died and had to start all over again!


  • dava

    The Owlbear is the best monster ever!

    Maybe the Beholder comes in as a close second….


  • Sash

    For me it was the art of Liz Danforth in the Tunnels & Trolls books that hooked me. I was failing to learn to read at the time and T&T was the carrot I needed to make want to do it. I wrote to her last year thanking her and she was lovely about it.

  • mgreen02

    Deathtrap Dungeon?! That’s like saying skiing is scary having only been on the trainer slopes. The FF series had some real ‘Black Run’ books: House of Hell was sodding hard, Appointment with F.E.A.R and the Sorcery! quadrilogy (Crown of Kings was the mack daddy of rough gamebooks for years with 400+ entries). The final FF titles, books 50+, got so insanely complex that it contributed to the cancellation of the books.

    Or how about Creature of Havoc where loads of the paragraphs were written in goddamn code so you couldn’t cheat-read them? My copy of that fell apart at the binding before I could finish it.

  • dava

    hee hee! To be honest, I don’t think I got past Scorpion Swamp and Caverns of the Snow Witch, so most of the really later books are a mystery to me.

    Also bear in mind, I was a ‘child gamer’ at the time which meant I tried to kill everything that crossed my path.

    The great Red Dragon stands before you and says :- ‘I will grant you knowledge for the green stone you have found’. Do you :-

    1. Give it the Emerald from your backpack
    2. Refuse politely and back away out of the cave
    3. Draw your sword, and attack it.

    Eh…. 3!

    The Dragon looks at you bewildered, then burns you to a crisp.


    Yeah, a few of the finer points of gaming were lost on me at 11 years old.


  • mgreen02

    I think I stopped buying them sight unseen at #25 and carried on getting the odd one or two unil I was about 14. But I’m a bit younger than you guys. You missed out on some really interesting mechanics in the later books though, stuff like:

    “When you encounter a man wearing a red hat subtract 5 from the reference to continue your quest.”

    “If you have an amulet, a scroll and a wand add the numbers inscribed on them to continue your quest. If that refence makes so sense, your quest ends here.”

    “Note this reference and return here when you meet a wizard with a white robe. Return to reference XYZ if you have not yet met the wizard. If you have met the wizard, which item did he give you: (….)”

    “The old wizened tramp tells you that in future, whenever you subtract 5 from a reference to continue your quest, subtract 15 instead to uncover the true feeling of the person you are talking to.”

    Some of the later FF books are worth reading just to remember that they were marketed at teenagers at a time where there was no 30+ gamer market. Masks of Mayhem was certainly harder to complete than several exam papers I’ve sat.


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