The Burnt Offering
A giant beast from Dungeons & Dragons resembling a T-Rex, but with large spines on its back and somehow, even more teeth.

A Little Lecture on the Biggest Beasts of Tabletop Roleplaying Games

This column is a reprint from Unwinnable Monthly #176. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.


The Burnt Offering is where Stu Horvath thinks too much in public so he can live a quieter life in private.


Several cheap-o rubber toys sold alongside Dungeons and Dragons modules in the 80s.

Slide 01

Tabletop roleplaying games crossed paths with kaiju in utero.

During the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Gary Gygax was developing Chainmail (1971), a wargame with fantasy elements that wound up as an important precursor to the creation, with Dave Arneson, of Dungeon & Dragons (1974) a few years later. Most wargames in 1968 were exercises in historical reenactment, so the market was lacking for metal miniature monsters that matched the little lead soldiers. Gygax turned to toys in order to find creatures that were suitably surprising for his players; one trip to a dime store yielded a bag of plastic “dinosaurs” made in Hong Kong. While most were conventional thunder lizards, some of the plastic “prehistoric animals” represented beings that never existed, at least not in our natural world.

They were what collectors now call “patchisaurs.” The name is derived from the Japanese loanword “patchi,” a dismissive term for an imitation which, delightfully considering the context, is drawn from the English word “patchy.” To put it plainly, these critters are knock-offs meant to appeal to fans of Ultraman and similar Japanese television shows, while also appearing enough like dinosaurs to avoid close questioning by rights holders. There are many varieties, but three took on a larger life thanks to Gygax, first as monsters in private games of Chainmail, then as monsters formally codified for use in Dungeons & Dragons.


Toys and drawings of some of the more mythical beasts (eg. owlbears) found in tabletop gaming.

Slide 02

Gygax was directly responsible for fleshing out two: the owlbear (a magical abomination, as its name implies, that is part owl and part bear) and the rust monster (an insect-like creature whose touch disintegrates most metals), both of which first appeared in print in Supplement I: Greyhawk (1975). Tim Kask filled in the background for the third, the bulette (pronounced boo-lay; a burrowing, horse-eating horror also known as a land shark), for the debut issue of The Dragon magazine (1976).


A deeper cut of illustrations and photos of kaiju-like beasts.

Slide 03

As pointed out in a series of posts on EN World, the bulette has a clear visual similarity to the Ultraman kaiju Gabora while the rust monster has some semblance to Kemular. The owlbear is trickier – though it is perhaps the most kaiju-eque of the toys, it only sorta looks like any of the proposed Ultraman monsters. I’ve long thought the creature’s flat head and beak resembled descriptions of the kappa, a cucumber-loving yokai from Japanese folklore, though the owlbear lacks that creature’s turtle-like shell. It also resembles the gigantic furry beast battling an armored demon on the Ace cover of Fred Saberhagen’s The Black Mountains (1971). Commentor Gr8Kabuki suggests the Totsaurus from Ike! Godman (1972) as the potential source, and it is indeed a good likeness. These last two, though, feel too late to have inspired the toy, though I would not be surprised if they were inspired by it. Thanks to the toy’s lack of production mark or date, its origin will likely remain a mystery.

As for the D&D monsters themselves, it’s worth noting that while they were inspired, indirectly, by giant monsters, they themselves are more modestly proportioned. The owlbear is basically bear-sized, the rust monster dog-like and the bulette about the size of a rhinoceros.


A slight evolution is apparent in the illustrations chosen for this slide, with giant ogres, apes, and robots represented.

Slide 04

Dungeons & Dragons has a lack of truly gigantic monsters that is both surprising, given the human tendency to imagine monsters as gigantic, as well as understandable, in that truly gigantic monsters are essentially unassailable opponents, at least for human-sized player characters. Dragons, giants and dinosaurs that stand three and four stories tall are already problematic in scale. The storm giant, the largest variety, stands 25 feet tall and a typical red dragon about 50 feet long. Even the fairly tiny Showa-era Godzilla is 160 or so feet tall; the 2014 version towers at nearly 500 feet.

There are some larger D&D monsters of note. Clark Ashton Smith’s Colossus of Ylourgne, a 100-foot-tall flesh automaton fashioned from corpses, appears in the adventure module X2: Castle Amber (1981) while CM4: Earthshaker! (1985) features the titular gnomish robot, which stands at a titanic 1,280 feet. Neither of these can be defeated in conventional combat, however. The Colossus is brought down by breathing magical black dust into its face in order to render it inert while Earthshaker’s control room must be seized in order to stop its rampage. There is a giant ape suspiciously similar to King Kong in WG6: Isle of the Ape (1985) who can be fought, but that module was written for characters of level 18 and higher, with access to the most powerful items, magic and abilities in the game. Oonga the ape is a mere 30 feet tall.


Several dinosaurian beasts, one of which has six legs and a lion's head.

Slide 05

Monster Manual II (1983) introduced the tarrasque to D&D. The inspiration here is a French folktale featuring a man-eating, dragon-like monster with poison breath that terrorized the town of Tarascon until it was subdued by St. Martha. The creature, though not to Godzilla’s scale, is certain kaiju-like – six-legged, lion-headed, serpent tailed and housed in a spiked tortoise shell.

The D&D monster, on the other hand, is a true terror of ceaseless hunger. Its claws are so sharp they effortlessly sever limbs. Magic bounces off of it. The very sight of it can paralyze a person. It’s so robust that damaging it to zero hit points doesn’t kill it – it only falls prone at -30 hit points, and even then, a Wish must be used to ensure it stays dead. The tarrasque is 50 feet long.


Factoids about Gargantua provide the backdrop to an illustration of the giant beast, which resembles a cross between a stegosaurus and a gila monster.

Slide 06

Oriental Adventures (1985, ugh) introduced Gargantua, a clear move to emulate kaiju. They come in three varieties – humanoid, insectoid and reptilian – and there are obvious correlations to Toho’s War of the Gargantuas (1966), Mothra (1961) and the many iterations of Godzilla up to that point. Reptilian Gargantua can stand up to 200 feet tall, finally rising to Godzilla’s stature. Their inclusion feels odd, though. Dealing with them is characterized as a national emergency and their presence in the book seems to be more a gesture at completeness than a serious attempt to make them usable in play. Gargantua appear again in the Monstrous Compendium Kara-Tur Appendix (1990) and the Monstrous Manual (1993, 1996) then, at least to my knowledge, vanish from the game.

The website TV Tropes, a joyless place devoted to rendering all forms of media down into their constituent devices and themes, claims on its Notzilla page that “Dragon magazine once had a [sic] editor’s note about their refusal to print Dungeons & Dragons stats for Godzilla, the editor at the time simply stated that, licensing issues aside, they could change his name to ‘Herman’ and most PC’s would be lizard food.” I don’t entirely understand that notation and have been unable to find the supposed quote it refers to. The only thing of note I could find was in Dragon Magazine 187 (November, 1992), where a letter to the editor requested ability scores for a host of film kaiju, including Godzilla and Gamera. Editor Roger E. Moore points the reader to the existing Gargantua entries, and then suggests making their ability scores even tougher than what was printed in the books.


A "classic" looking dragon, with monstrous red wings and sharp spikes lining its spine.

Slide 07

In 2006, Wizards of the Coast released the Colossal Red Dragon “miniature” as part of the Icons line. It sits on a base that takes up the equivalent of 90 square feet on the game’s battle mat and stands about 14 inches high, which would make it about 100 feet tall in the game world. It was the largest Dungeons & Dragons miniature for 15 years, until WizKids released their $400 Tiamat. Despite being the literal five-headed goddess of evil dragons and the fact that she takes up far more space, the single-headed Colossal Red still seems more impressive somehow (worth noting, too, that the Colossal originally retailed for a mere $75). Despite marketing copy insisting both these beasts are for use in actual games, in reality, they’re display pieces. Deploying them in a game signals that, one way or another, the campaign ends that night.


The beasts on this slide turn directly towards Godzilla, with all of them crashing their way through cityscapes, including the tentacle-mouthed Call of Cthulhu god.

Slide 08

The portrayal of kaiju-like monsters in D&D is pretty typical of nearly all RPGs: they’re threats to be defeated. In D&D, because of the distribution of power, that usually means through indirect means. For TSR’s Marvel Super Heroes, the right kind of character can lay a beating on Fin Fang Foom and Galactus and so on. All of this seems to run contrary to the way the original Godzilla (1954), in linking the monster both metaphorically and literally to America’s use of the atomic bomb, set the stage for all kaiju to in some way embody forces beyond human control. Even Cthulhu, that ur-kaiju, is subject to the petty machinations of humanity – in Lovecraft’s original story, its rising is delayed by ramming it in the head with a boat; in the Call of Cthulhu RPG campaign Shadows of Yog-Sothoth (1982), a human sorcerer wakes the god-thing up early and the all-too-human player characters, if they are successful in their mission, put it back to sleep again. When’s the last time several academics asked a typhoon to stop blowing and had it actually listen?


Dark oil paintings typical of the 1980s fantasy scene depict adventurers exploring dank caves and encountering the giant beasts within.

Slide 09

Only one RPG I can think of does the idea of kaiju justice: Belly of the Beast (2016), by Ben Dutter, in which players find themselves eking out an existence in one of the many cities swallowed by the Hungry God. This is a game about relationships and survival, where players explore horrible places that exist on a staggering biological scale in hopes of improving their circumstances. That hope is an illusion, though. The only real improvement requires escaping the Evergut, and that’s impossible, in part because there is no telling there is anywhere left to escape to. The beast is all there is, the indelible substance of reality. No hero can defeat that, any more than they could defeat a raging storm.


Stu Horvath is the publisher of Unwinnable. He reads a lot. Follow him on Twitter @StuHorvath.


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