Beholders in Dungeons & Dragons and why they are Iconic

Todd Kenreck: Beholders are one of the most iconic monsters in D&D. They have a genius intellect. They look incredibly strange. And also, no one in the D&D multiverse wants to take credit for this seemingly terrible mistake.

Mike Mearls: Beholders are incredibly powerful, right? All those different eye beams, the central eye. They're incredibly powerful and they're incredibly bizarre looking. It came back to back in the 70s, this idea, this sphere with this one big eye and these tentacles with other eyes. It's interesting, you look back at the first edition Monster Manual and you're like, "Why did this monster become so iconic and this other one no one talks about anymore?" But usually the answer is because while this one was like creepy and weird and powerful, and that's what made it memorable, as opposed to like, this one is a rhinoceros the size of a house. That's fine, but it's not like, wow, right? And I think this idea that they're intelligent. They have ... they're not just animals or monsters. They're thinking creatures, and they're smarter than humans. That makes them even more of a threat.

We often think of genius of coming with a lot of eccentricity, and Beholders have that in spades. In some ways, Beholders are ... they're not biological creatures. They're creatures that dream themselves into existence, and in some ways that's why I think the name "Beholders," something that beholds, that looks upon the world ... did the original Beholder, was there a god that created them? They don't really have deities. They don't have clerics. They're too arrogant for that. Each Beholder thinks it's dreaming the world. Maybe they are. Maybe there's some grand, massive Beholder somewhere that's like, dreaming is what is keeping together the entire firmament of the cosmos. Who can say, right? Most people would think that's insane, but who knows? Beholders dream entire ... they dream creatures into being. They dream ... that's how powerful their ability to behold reality is. If they envision it, it can become real.

Which is a lot like the role the gods play in D&D. Gods create things. The gods oversee things. There's a god of nature. Presumably that god had a role in creating natural order. And so you have these creatures that are, in some ways, these very small-scale tactical demigods with incredible power, but not power so overwhelming that adventurers can't defeat them. And they are incredibly solecistic. They think, "I am the center of the universe." If they were to meet a god, they'd think, "I've figured this out. I know what's going on." They wanna understand how things work. They wanna understand the connections, and then they have this sort of unfettered ability to shape reality. Which I find really fascinating. They want to decode how reality works. They wanna understand everything, and then be ready for it, because often they're afraid of it. They're paranoid. They know there's dangers out there. Or at least there's a potential for dangers out there, because they've figured out there's this chance that this thing could happen.

And so in some ways, when you think of them cosmically, there's a lot of interesting potential things there. Think of them as aberrations. I think in some ways they are. They are not ... they weren't meant to be part of this reality as far as the order of Dungeons & Dragons goes and the cosmic order of it, of the outer planes and the inner planes and material plane. The Beholders are separate. They are not part of that process. They're almost like a bug in the system, creating new things out of whole cloth and trying to absolutely decode what actually makes reality function.

So I find that really interesting as a creature and as an enemy, and then the eccentricity that plays out in a specific character like Xanathar and his approach to running this crime organization, things like that. That Beholders are all incredibly individualistic. But yeah, that's kind of how I think of Beholders. They're tactical level demigods.

Todd Kenreck: That's terrifying. That doesn't make them less scary.

Mike Mearls: No, it shouldn't.

The origin of the Beholders, it's one of those things where maybe it's a case where no one wants to take credit for it, because there's no credit; there's only blame. Or it's possible they're just like, this almost divergent ... if you can think of evolution, of mythic creatures, magic creatures, there's just some weird, divergent, foundational element that maybe was never meant to exist, as opposed to other entities, other creatures that were created by gods, or elementals that sort of arose out of the natural processes in the cosmos. As the cosmos form and the elemental planes form, the elemental chaos gives birth to the elemental plane of air, which has order to it, is more segmented, and the elemental planes give rise to the prime material plane, where each element exists in balance with each other, then creates an environment where no single one dominates completely, and then that's the stage on which the gods create their followers. That's where their concepts, that's where they express themselves while being sequestered off in the outer planes.

And then you have Beholders, which have just upended that entire process. You're like, how did they show up? It's almost like when you think of a program that's running and eventually a piece of data gets corrupted and it starts doing crazy things. Our Beholders are a piece of corrupted data that took on this form. Most of it just gets smoothed out by the universe, by the cosmic process, but this time the bug start a life of its own, almost like a computer virus, and now it doesn't really spread so much, but it's still not as like the beholders ... mind flayers are much more benevolent. They want to rule. They feel they should rule. They're the smartest. That's how they measure everything. We're smarter than that, so we should tell them what to do. And always remember the mind flayers, it's not the mind flayers, it's the elder brains. The mind flares are puppets.

And so when you compare a Beholder to an elder brain, it's very similar. It's an intellectual creature, and it exists outside the natural order. What created them, then, if gods didn't create them? Where are they from? And that's where you get the root of the idea the aberration. These are creatures that just don't exist within the natural order. There's no home plane. There's no process that creates them. They're not like ... elementals are a reflection of the structure of the cosmos. A demon is a reflection of the structure of the cosmos. It's chaos and evil personified. So what's a devil? Law and evil personified. What are mind flares and Beholders? They have alignments that reflect their views, but they're not part of that order.



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