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Displacer Beast

Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves
by yo go re

The most frustrating thing about all these D&D Dicelings turning into the same thing (a 20-sided die) is trying to figure out where you're supposed to start changing them.

It really doesn't help that while all the numbers are molded on the die's faces appropriately, the only paint is on the Ampersand logo. Oh, we should begin on side 13? Well, good luck getting the light to reflect off the toy at just the right angle to let you read what the heck it says. It's fine once you get started, but it's the getting started that's the trick. Going back from the monster mode is fine, though a bit cramped on this one.

This monstrous predator takes its name from its ability to mask itself with illusion, displacing light so that it appears to be somewhere it is not.

Technically it takes its name from the Displacer Cloak, because early D&D supplements were bad about clearly defining their terms; there was no such ability as "displacement" in the game, so you had to go from page 38 of Greyhawk (where the monster first appeared) all the way back to page 140 of the original Dungeon Masters Guide just to figure out what it was talking about.

Rather than a rubber monster toy, the Displacer Beast was based on something a bit more heady: literature. Best described as "a six-legged panther with tentacles," the Displacer Beast was inspired by the Coeurl ["stay in the house, Coeurl!" --ed], an alien from AE van Vogt's 1939 sci-fi story "Black Destroyer," which was a large, black, semi-feline creature with a pair of tendrils growing from its shoulders; when humans landed on its planet, it infiltrated their ship, then began devouring them one by one; and if that premise sounds vaguely familiar to you, then you understand why the producers of Alien settled out of court when van Vogt sued them.

It took until the first Monster Manual for there to be any sort of visual representation of the Displacer Beast, and even that was quite blatantly nothing more than some school mascot cartoon with a few aftermarket additions. You can just imagine David A. Trampier being given the assignment to depict this weird beastie, dipping into his morgue files, and, realizing he didn't know how to render an all-black animal in straight black-and-white print, just copied someone else's work. That's the problem with prominently signing your artwork: it makes it easy to recognize when something isn't your style.

This figure's tentacles are formed from the outer shell of the D20, which honestly leaves them looking more like wings than tentacles, even with the sculpted pads of spikes at the tips: they're bent and blocky, rather than smooth and undulating. It may have worked better if the cat's body - here basically a standalone sculpt curled up inside the die - had been made from the shell, and the tentacles were left as things to unfold, like those few free-hanging eyestalks of the Beholder. It has to be easier to make us "see" a cat body made of triangles than it is to use triangles to fake a rounded tube.

Surprisingly, the cat body we do get has actual articulation. Like, not even major things you might expect such as balljointed hips, but even swivel/​hinges in all the elbows and paws! There have been actual animal figures that don't move as well as this! We even get a hinged jaw, so it can look even more threatening.

One of the coolest things about Honor Among Thieves was that it did not try to be a general fantasy movie, it was unabashedly D&D. Like, yes, you can see a dragon almost anywhere, but how many of them will spew acid instead of flame? We didn't have unicorns, we didn't have goblins, we didn't have any of the stock fantasy creatures... we had things like the Mimic or the Displacer Beast, D&D originals that you can't get anywhere else. While the cat part of this Diceling is good, the choice to make its tentacles this way didn't work as well as it could have.

-- 07/25/23

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