This article was first broadcast in Episode Thirty-Three on 25th July 2018.
Mikey: So this is backstage, huh?
Ryu: You’ve never been here before?
Mikey: They don’t let me leave the cave that often… thumbing through papers What’s this?
Lennon: Those are some notes that Ostron was having difficulty compiling.
Mikey: What happened to the research beholders?
Ryu: Well, this is ON beholders, specifically their history, so when he tried to get their help they all just passed in their own life stories and said that’s all he needed to know.
Mikey: Ah, yeah…that makes sense. I mean, it doesn’t but it does when we’re talking about beholders.
Ryu: Let’s see what he has so far…
While dragons are part of the core of D&D, if D&D is said to have a mascot, it is probably the Beholder. One of the first creatures that is wholly a creation of D&D, rather than being a creature borrowed from mythology, nature, or popular fantasy the many-eyed, paranoid, xenophobic monstrosities are so familiar to most players that not metagaming them is almost impossible.
First appearing in the Greyhawk supplement of Original D&D (which is the resource many point to as the genesis of D&D as we know it today), the Beholder had its name from the start, though Spheres of Many Eyes and Eye Tyrants were also recognizable names. Being original D&D, there wasn’t much information about Beholder behavior or patterns, but they were classed as Chaotic and they had their 10 eye stalks and the big eye in the middle, with each eye inflicting a different effect on victims, and the anti-magic beam projecting from the largest, central eye. They carried over into Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, or first edition, but since that edition was more of an effort to collect D&D rules rather than revise them, very little changed.
Most of the lore we know today didn’t appear until Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, 2nd edition. That edition exploded the detail and use of beholders, particularly when the “Ecology of the Beholder” was published in Dragon magazine issue 76. That article first described the Beholders’ magical nature, their place as omnivorous apex predators, and masters of other beings. There was also a picture that portrayed the beholder’s eye stalks on the top of its head, structured more like insect limbs with one joint. That said, they weren’t given much personality; the descriptions of their behavior could easily be interpreted to mean they were barely sentient beasts without complex planning and thought processes.
But if you want to lay the blame for the full range of Beholders we have today, you have to go to 2nd edition Spelljammer, when they turned things up to 11. Apparently they commissioned some new art for the beholder and got multiple different concepts; some with chitin armor, some with prehensile stalks, some thinner, etc. Rather than choose, they just used them all and invented the entire concept of multiple beholder subspecies and the efforts by beholders to purify their race.
Beholders got to be so much of a thing that they received their own book in 2nd edition: I, Tyrant (pause for groaning). That book cemented most of the beholder lore we all know and love today. Almost 100 pages laid out the paranoid, borderline insane beholder behavior patterns (the book includes a day planner of a beholder where harassing and eating lazy minions is scheduled), as well as the rampant xenophobia and desire for racial purity among beholders, with every beholder believing they’re the pinnacle of beholder-hood. The book is also the first and only one to describe and give stats for the beholder god – the Great Mother, a gigantic beholder who they believe spawned all other beholders and holds all the knowledge in the multiverse. Practically speaking she doesn’t share this information, she just wanders around the lower planes being chaotically evil. They also describe Hive Mothers, beholders who can control other beholders in a swarm. Speaking of swarms, according to that reference every 3-500 years hundreds of beholders will get together and pool their knowledge. This pooling is apparently where many of the various beholder subspecies originated, and also was the reason beholders went to space, making them one of the main antagonists in the Spelljammer setting. 2nd edition is also where beholder celebrities like Xanathar and Large Luigi were first introduced.
Reproduction and age of beholders are continually a confusing concept, and it started with 2nd edition. In the Dungeon magazine piece, they were neglectful parents who laid eggs and forgot about them, but lived up to 900 years. By the time of Spelljammer and I, Tyrant, they were dutiful parents who reproduced by live birth but had lifespans comparable to humans.
Third edition and 3.5 did little to shake up the state of beholders, mostly just updating the statistics for all the various types of beholders; there was no Spelljammer supplement for 3rd edition so the Beholders remained simple Aberrant creatures that preferred to lair underground. That said, nothing contradicted the lore established from 2e, so many players familiar with it simply ported over the old info, including the creation of some quasi-approved Spelljammer rules. And continuing with the variability of beholder births, now the beholders gave birth to live young, but said children had to just hide in their parents lairs until they were old enough and hope their parent didn’t kill them.
Even though 4th edition massively overhauled a lot of things considered D&D staples, the beholders were largely left untouched (except for how they’re created, again). The lore descriptions have them described as universally insane, but their behaviors were left largely the same, with some descriptions hinting at previously established lore without explicitly outlining it (for example, describing beholder colonies where beholders oddly didn’t try to kill each other as often, but saying no one is sure why those beholders are communing when others are solitary, hinting at Hive Mothers). The only major change is that the Great Mother was now created when the Far Realm briefly intersected with the Underdark and the fragments of the Great Mother’s egg reformed into eggs and birthed other beholders (this is a continuing process). However, it was never established that the Great Mother was real, and the lore suggested it could have just been the belief of the beholders with no actual entity behind it. The great swarming of beholders that come up with “grand plans” were described as well, although the Hive Mothers’ influence was left out, instead attributing it to unseen, almost instinctive influence from the Great Mother.
So far, 5th edition has actually been the greatest departure from traditional beholder society lore, although the behavior and motivations of the creatures are largely the same. The current lore from Volo’s Guide to Monsters stating beholders are capable of willing things into existence (including other beholders) is wholly unique. There is a bit that suggests how a Beholder might become a Hive-Mother-like creature but no unique stats for that, and so far there’s been no lore referencing the Great Mother or Beholder swarming at all. Of course, with all of the subtle and not so subtle hints about Spelljammer that have been dropped, it’s possible there may be more beholder lore coming our way soon.
Ryu: Well this looks good to me.
Mikey: Yeah, no complaints from me
Lennon: Yeah, I’m starting to think when he said he needed to go to the lakeside cabin to research forest beholders it was just an excuse to go on vacation…
Ryu: Ooooh, sneaky!
Mikey: Yeah, and he didn’t even need a hat!