This article was first broadcast in Episode Two Hundred and Forty Five on 16th August, 2023.
Note: This article was adapted from an episode script, and so there may be parts that don’t flow well when read, because they were initially designed for broadcast.
Owlbears are what could be called a B-level celebrity in D&D. They don’t get much recognition outside of players and fans of the game, but to anyone familiar with D&D, the owlbear is an instantly recognizable name and creature.
The Owlbear also has the distinction of being one of the oldest monsters in D&D. It didn’t quite get in on the ground floor with the original edition, but it was in place for the Greyhawk supplement for original D&D in 1975. Since then, it’s become a staple monster of the brand. The first book published for an edition that focused on monsters, whether it’s called the “monster manual” or “monstrous compendium”, has had the Owlbear in there. Other than the artwork, it also hasn’t changed very much from its original incarnation.
The origin story for the owlbear is kind of cute and relatable to D&D hobbyists, so we’re going to spend a moment on it. The owlbear doesn’t come from any mythology or fantasy story; it was a wholly original creation of Gary Gygax. And according to 70s D&D playtester Tim Kask, it came from a toy.
See, unlike modern plastic figures where sculpts can pick out the individual barbs on feathers, in the 1970s plastic figures tended to be very amorphous, particularly the cheap ones. According to Mr. Kask, a Hong Kong company put out cheap plastic figures it just labeled “weird beasts” and sold for $0.99. None of them resembled real creatures, so of course Mr. Gygax bought the set, took it home, and turned almost every one of them into a D&D monster. One was a figure with an obvious beak, rearing up on its hind legs, and covered with poorly painted texture that could be fur or feathers. We’ll have a picture of it in our show notes. Apparently when Gygax looked at it, “owlbear” was what his brain came up with. And we’re lucky Mr. Kask remembeared owl those details!
Owlbears are non-sapient and their lore hasn’t really changed since the beginning, just expanded upon. That said, because they have been around for so long and because of how popular they are, there’s quite a bit of detail.
Do not attempt to cuddle the owlbear. Apart from the other reasons we’ll get to in a moment, the adults weigh 1,300 to 1,500 pounds (590 to 680 kilograms), so one incautious roll and it’s all over. Their heads are where most of the owl heritage comes in to play, with wide, round eyes, a beak, and the ability to rotate much farther than normal animals should. The head is also where most of the feathers are, though there is a bit of a crest on the upper part of the neck and back, and some feathers on the underside of the arms. Everything else is fur, and the body resembles a bear’s. That is except for the claws, where razor-sharp, raptor style talons substitute for the more mammalian claws regular bears have to be-…make do with.
Owlbears are solitary predators, and they take “solitary” and “predatory” very seriously. They only eat meat, and the common assumption is that unless an owlbear has recently gorged itself or is asleep, it will surge forward and attack any creature it detects larger than a mouse. And because another part of it that’s all owl are its senses, it can detect a lot. It has the owl’s keen eyesight, letting it see for long distances. It also has no trouble with darkness. On top of that it can hear as well as the bird too, so sneaking past or around the creature is extraordinarily difficult. Catching it sleeping is also a pain because they have no problem adapting their hunting times to accommodate whatever prey happens to be in the area. If the good eating is nocturnal, the owlbear hunts at night.
Once it detects a creature, it goes full berserker. It has no finesse or tactics; it simply charges forward at the creature, swiping with its claws. In addition to simply clawing it to death, Owlbears apparently think they’re great cuddlers too; they’ve been known to wrap prey up in their arms and peck and rip at them with its beak.
Note that when wesays full berserker, that’s not an exaggeration. The way Owlbears attack enemies would make a barbarian stop and go “hang on now…”
There are documented cases of owlbears charging creatures larger than them, obviously more powerful, or both. Being wounded doesn’t seem to matter either, except in that case the owlbear will also be letting out ear-splitting screeches when it attacks. The only way to stop an owlbear attack is to put it down, unless you can fly.
It’s not known if there are dominance or territory disputes with other owlbears but they do manage to breed. Despite everything below the neck seeming to be mammal, owlbear females lay eggs. The resulting chicks or cubs have owl faces, cute little bodies with fluffy feathers, adorably large eyes, and will absolutely gut you and eat your flesh as soon as they get the chance. Their parents will probably take care of that for them, though, because they hang around for about two years until the cubs are able to hunt on their own.
And for any of you thinking that you just have to get a hold of one of the eggs, let the little chick imprint on you, and then train it up right and give it a good home, please consider something easier and safer, like juggling running chainsaws. Owlbears cannot be domesticated in any fashion, and even magical spells designed to make the creatures obedient or docile have no effect once the spell wears off. The only way an owlbear can be trained at all is by repeated beatings, and even then they aren’t really trained so much as “biding their time until you let your guard down.” A few suicidally stupid people have tried to use owlbears as mounts. That works fine as long as you want no control over your steed in combat and are okay with it throwing you off and ripping you apart as soon as you get wounded.
That said, some people do use owlbears for guard purposes. Note, again, they aren’t really trained in any way, the people just managed to corral some owlbears into an area they don’t want anyone (including themselves) walking through and surviving the experience.
The origins of the owlbear are unknown. A common assumption is that some wizard like Thessalar was doing very unapproved experiments and managed to spit out the beasts, who bred true ever since then. In fact, at one point Thessalar claimed responsibility for the owlbear’s creation, but he claimed responsibility for a lot of things he didn’t actually do.
His claim was officially refuted by the elves, who say that owlbears have been running around for millennia, so that rules out human origin. At that point in the discussion, everyone usually looks over at their anthropomorphic goat and the half human/half horse friends from the feywild and demand an explanation. However, if the owlbears are fey in origin they seem to have lost all traces of it; there is nothing innately magical or fey about their essence currently, if there ever was.
Owlbears are meant to be some of the easiest creatures to work into a campaign. They’re a common apex predator-style creature that inhabits the landscape of a D&D setting, something normal to the world but odd as compared to real life nature. They show up quite often in wilderness random encounter tables, particularly ones in forests or hilly areas. Also any shep- or goat-herd, cattle rancher, or alpaca farmer could easily be losing livestock to owlbear attacks in any remote village you care to name. They also, as mentioned, frequently feature as guard creatures, most often used by wizards.
Another common use for owlbears is risky cargo. Because they’re known guard creatures, they are considered quite valuable; eggs or cubs have been sold for thousands of gold to the right collectors, and are a fixture in zoos and menageries. It’s not a stretch for a caravan or ship with cargo to be transporting a live owlbear, which can have obvious ramifications if something goes wrong. We should note that despite the hype about its danger and aggression, owlbears are CR 3. That might actually be accurate, but it’s a rating you want to make note of when putting one in an encounter. An owlbear has +7 to hit with all its attacks and it’s average damage if it hits with all 3 is 34. Unless a character is level 4 or higher, that much damage stands a good chance of dropping them immediately, and the owlbear has a decent pool of hit points to work through before it stops rampaging. Putting a five person group up against one is going to hurt a bit until they all shut it down, and if they’re all at level 3 the creature can seem like a pushover. But if you start putting two or three of them in the party’s way you can end up with some accidentally dead characters if you aren’t careful.