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Thursday, July 30, 2015

Dungeons & Dragons - A Guide to the Beholder

In this article, I am going to attempt to take all of the relevant lore about beholders, and put them in one place for your convenience. This should allow us to have a good base understanding of what a beholder is, and how a beholder should be run.

The 5th edition beholder is in the Monster Manual. You can buy it on amazon here:

Monster Manual (D&D Core Rulebook)

The thing I have noticed while working on this is that beholders are really deadly. It's hard as a DM to figure out how to run them. In the older editions, they just fired off ten deadly eye rays every round. In newer editions, the use of eye rays has become more limited.

The Essential Information

Here's what you need to know about beholders:
  • They are spherical creatures that hover. They have eyestalks that fire off deadly beams that do everything from turn people to stone, to disintegrate them.
  • The beholder has a central eye that emit a cone of anti-magic.
  • Their ability to hover is not a magic effect that can be dispelled.
  • Beholders hate each other and despise variant beholder races.
  • They may be from the Far Realm.
  • They create lairs with their disintegrate beams.
The Real Life Origin of the Beholder

This goes all the way back to the original greyhawk campaign, run by Gary Gygax (which I've written about quite extensively here). Terry, the brother of Rob Kuntz, came up with the idea for the monster. He was quite dismayed when Gary unleashed it on him and his adventuring buddies.

AD&D 1st Edition

Let's see what the 1st edition Monster Manual has to say about beholders:
  • The beholder is also known as an "eye tyrant" or a "sphere of many eyes".
  • It has a globular body with a large mouth full of pointed teeth and floats slowly about as it wills.
  • It has 10 eyestalks and an 11th central eye.
  • Eyestalks that are cut off can grow back in a week.
  • A beholder's hit points are allocated in a weird way. You get to choose where you attack the beholder. You could try to stab an eyestalk, ot the cetral eye, or an eyestalk. Each holds a certain percent of the total hit points. To kill a beholder with 45 hit points, you can do 30 points to the main body, and it will die.
The big thing with beholders is that they shoot beams from their eyes that do different spell effects. Not all of their eyestalks can attack the party at once, unless the party has completely surrounded it. So if a party all stands in a clump to one side, only 1-4 eyestalks can attack.

This is odd considering the old vague rules in 1e about a round being a minute and that a combat includes lots of assumed movement and back-and-forth. I assume the idea here is that if a beholder is easily able to fire off all ten eyestalks every round, then most parties won't stand a chance.

Here's what the eyes do:
  1. Charm person
  2. Charm monster
  3. Sleep
  4. Telekinesis
  5. Flesh to stone
  6. Disintegrate
  7. Fear
  8. Slow
  9. Cause serious wounds
  10. Death ray
  11. Central Eye: Anti-Magic ray
They can fire off Death ray, flesh to stone and disintegrate all in the same round! Unreal.

Dragon Magazine #76 - Ecology of the Beholder

This is by Ed Greenwood and Roger Moore and it is a fantastic piece of work - short, easy to read and packed full of great ideas. Seriously, Ed Greenwood has to be considered as one of, if not the best D&D designer. The only other D&D article writer that I ever enjoyed as much would be James Jacobs.

This is written in short story form, with a sage teaching students about beholders.

Levator Magnus: Beholders have a magical organ called the levator magnus located in the center of its body, surrounded by the brain, that causes the beholder to float in the air. This means that the levitation can't be dispelled. In the appendix to this article, it is noted that beholders can "...levitate themselves without limit, to the height of the breathable atmosphere".

Anti-Magic: The anti-magic field projected from the central eye is a faintly-visible beam of grayish light, extending out up to 10 feet wide in a cone up to 140 feet away. In the monster manual, the range is done in inches (as in, you put your beholder mini on a map and use a tape measure). The beam focuses on one target at a time. 

Laying Eggs: Beholders lay eggs! From their mouths?! Every year, beholder lay 1 to 4 eggs. The beholder deserts them. When an egg hatches, the baby immediately grows (in a year it is full-sized), eats the shell and has full use of its eyestalks.

Strategy: There's some strategy, too. The beholder will hover high in the air, focus the anti-magic on a spellcaster and go to town with the eye rays. This is.. scary. I feel like I've never run a beholder correctly after reading this.

Other fun facts:
  • They eat raw meat in vast quantities. Beholders are at the top of the food chain. 
  • They live for "nine hundred seasons". Sheesh.. so complicated. That's what, 225 years?
  • The article includes a chart to randomly determine where you strike a beholder. You roll a d100, and on a 1-75, you hit the main body (which has an AC 0 - in 1e, a low AC is good). 76-85 is the central eye (AC 7), 86-95 is an eyestalk (AC 2) and 96-100 is a small eye on an eyestalk (AC 7). Any hit on a small eye immediately destroys it. That sounds like a lot of fun.
  • Every beholder's arrangement of eyestalks is different. The DM should pick where they are located on its body prior to running the battle " determine which eyes may fire in which direction since the small eyes cannot point in just any direction."
What a fantastic article. It looks like part of the reason this was written was to clarify how certain things worked, and to stop players from using dispel magic to make the beholders roll around on the ground in what would be a pretty pathetic scene.

AD&D 2nd Edition

The Monstrous Manual has a massive pile of versions of beholders, known as beholder-kin. I will focus on the main ones, and I'll compile a list of the variants at the bottom of this article.
  • It is now official that beholders have different armor classes for different parts of their body.
  • The central eye anti-magic cone now covers a 90 degree arc and extends out 420 feet! No magic, including the effects of the eyestalks, will function inside the cone. Well, that's quite a wrinkle. Further, spells cast in the anti-magic cone, or even ones passing through, cease to function.
  • Beholders are hateful and aggressive. They attack or dominate other races, due to a xenophobic intolerance - they hate all creatures not like themselves.
  • This book claims that beholder reproduction is a mystery - they may lay eggs or they may give live birth. 
I, Tyrant

This is a 96 page supplement all about beholders. I have never looked through this book before. I really don't like the cover art and I guess it scared me away all these years.

Anatomy: We kick the book off by getting a look at beholder anatomy. They can hear, but not well. They have two skull layers. In between the layers is a gas called tiusium that allows them to levitate. They outright threw out the "organ inside the brain" thing from the ecology article. Beholders don't have hearts, and they have one lung.

They have male and female reproductive organs, so they can self-fertilize. They give birth to 3-6 live young out of their mouths, in an "appalling" process.

Beholders love to eat rodents, roast beef and flower petals. They enjoy wine and blood. They hate hard-boiled eggs and eyes.

Diseases: Some beholders suffer from certain diseases:
  • Spasms (Diohurr): As they get older, beholders begin to lose mental coherence and levitate in random directions.
  • Mania (Edorakk): Has violent mood swings, thinks all creatures are beholders.
  • Meat-Rot (Malohurr): This is a type of food poisoning, they gain pustules and blisters on their skin.
History: Beholders worship the Great Mother, whose first spawn was named Kzamnal. Kzamnal gave birth to the mortal ancestors of the beholder race and instructed them to gather knowledge.

Some beholders, known as "the traitors", spawned beholder-kin that did not resemble the Great Mother. This sparked a genocidal was among beholders which continues to this day.

Deities: There are a few beholder gods:
  • The Great Mother: A giant beholder that travels the lower planes. She is devoid of any logic. She devours creatures on her endless journey and lays eggs (spawning beholder variants).
  • Gzemnid: This beholder spies on mortal wizards and steals knowledge from them.
Blindness: There's a note on blindness. Even if blinded, a beholder can still use its eye power with a -1 penalty.

Psychology: Every beholder thinks they are the ideal specimen of their race, and that those who are different from them should be destroyed.

Sometimes beholders will group together, led by a hive-mother. This is known as a "hive". When two or more hives unite, they create a city comprised of a few hundred beholders of different types. Some cities contain thousands of beholders.

There's even a FAQ. We learn all sorts of things:
  • Most beholders have eyelids
  • If you obtain a newborn beholder and try to rise it as a pet, it will see you as flawed and try to kill you no matter how kind you are to it. Their paranoia is present from birth.
  • Their levitation is not magical, so it can't be dispelled.
  • Throwing a blanket on a beholder is a dumb tactic, because it can use telekinesis to remove it or just disintegrate it. I assume this came up in some games back then.
There are a trilogy of adventures about beholders as part of the "Monstrous Arcana" series. Let's take a quick look at each one.

Eye of Pain

This adventure seems like it has a lot of problems. There's a hive of beholders in some caves underground.. A beholder wants to overthrow the hive mother by tricking the heroes into killing her. There's this whole thing where the heroes are supposed to meet a wizard in a town, but the wizard never shows up, and the adventure expects the heroes to do research rather than just go home. The only thing that really stuck out to me as cool in this was a "time bomb" magic item - an hourglass that explodes like a fireball when the sand runs out.

Eye of Doom

A human settlement is on or near a beholder holy site. A beholder uses a thieves' guild to try to take over and destroy the town. The heroes have to infiltrate the guild. There's a marked lack of beholders in this beholder trilogy.

Eye to Eye

The City of Ilth K'hinax
This adventure is 64 pages, and features the heroes finally actually going down to the beholder city and possibly killing the beholder hive mother. Ilth K'hinaxs is a city with over 2,000 beholders in it. The city is loaded with all sorts of weird monsters, like olive slimes, intellect devourers, xorn and mind flayers. Somehow the heroes encounter very few beholders in this beholder city.

If I was writing an adventure about a beholder city, it would be pretty high level and it would be loaded up with beholders and beholder-kin of all types. That's the whole point, right?


This is a spelljammer adventure wherein the heroes fly their magic ship through a massive asteroid complex. It's basically a space dungeon full of beholders. Each "room" of the dungeon is over two miles long.

Each of the ten rooms has an "eye" of the beholder queen in charge of the hive. The "eyes" are gems in the shape of a d10 that are about 150 in diameter. Each eye has become sentient and plays a part in the bigger story.

Here's some of the flavor from the very first room:

"...the light fades, leaving an amber glow that settles all around you. It surrounds you with a glittering aura. It also surrounds a tall, handsome man in white robes lined with gold. You feel that this man is the closest friend you have in your world or any other. He smiles angelically and opens his upper robe, above the belt. Embedded in his pale chest is a huge, red, withered eye."

In the final part of this gigantic adventure, a huge miles-long sentient ship/artifact called The Ravager becomes active. It is in the shape of a beholder and apparently it can destroy worlds. This adventure is insane.

D&D 3rd Edition

  • We continue to get beholders that can only aim a certain amount of tentacles in a given direction. All the rays can shoot every round, but only 3 rays can reach targets in a given 90 degree arc.
  • Beholders naturally levitate and fly at the speed of 20 feet per round. They also have a permanent feather fall effect going. There must have been a real swath of players trying to dispel the beholde levitate ability back then.
  • The antimagic cone is 150 feet long and it still shuts down the beholder's own powers. I guess the beholder does a lot of turning around. I'm not clear on whether it can close its central eye, fire rays, and then re-open the eye in the same round. Seems like it could, right?
In this ENWorld thread, the general consensus is that the eye is either "off" or "on" for the round. You have to pick one. Also, the beholder can't fly up, turn upside-down and launch all ten eye rays on the party at once. Good gawd!

One person notes that the beholder could use telekinesis to cause a hero to hover above it, in full range of the other 9 eyestalks... wow.

Lords of Madness

This book has an entire chapter on beholders.
  • Beholders weigh around 4,500 pounds!
  • They have no sense of taste at all.
  • They detect scents through thousands of tiny holes in their hide, known as "spiracles".
  • A beholder and its organs are buoyant like a balloon.
  • It drools its own waste, which is frothy and pink.
  • It lives about 100 years.
  • It reproduces only once in its life. The womb is below the back of the tongue.
When it gives birth: "The parent observes its young and decides which look most like itself. The others are eaten by the ravenous parent, along with the discarded womb, and the surviving young are forced from the parent’s lair within the hour to fend for themselves."

As if beholders aren't scary enough, we are given some beholder magic items!

  • Lens of Ray Chaining: Allows a ray to bounce to a second target.
  • Lens of Ray Doubling: Splits a ray so it hits two targets.
  • Lens of Ray Widening: Turns a ray into a cone! The saving throw is a bit lower, though.
D&D 4th Edition

There's a few different types of beholder in the Monster Manual of 4e. The 19th level "Beholder Eye Tyrant" seems to be your classic beholder.
  • It has an aura. When an enemy starts its turn within 25 feet of the beholder, the beholder can shoot an eye ray at it. I like that.
  • The beholder's powers are greatly "nerfed" for 4e. It can only shoot two eye rays on its turn, and each ray must target a different creature.
  • The disintegrate ray just does a bit of damage, and the death ray has to hit a bloodied target to have a chance of killing them (they have to fail two consecutive saving throws to actually die).
  • It does have a recharge power where they can fire four eye rays, but only when bloodied.
  • In the Monster Manual 3, it is claimed that beholders come from the Far Realm, and that they have come to the world "...seeking to swallow up everything with their greed and ambition".
D&D 5th Edition
  • The beholder shoots 3 eye rays per round, and the eye rays are determined randomly (!). 
  •  "When a beholder sleeps, it closes its central eye but leaves its smaller eyes open and alert."
  • A beholder's lair is likely to have space for the beholder to hover above the heroes to fire down eye rays on them. It also has lair actions, like causing the walls to sprout stalks, or even an eye that shoots a random eye ray.
Other Notable Products

Beholders appear in a pile of D&D adventures and products. While I can't read them all, I scoured the internet for mentions of cool, official beholder stuff.

The Fell Pass: This is an adventure in Dragon Magazine #32.. It's about a beholder named Xorddanx. It has 8 gargoyles at its beck and call. If a fight breaks out, Xorddanx hovers over a molten pool and abuses the PCs. Here's a quote for you:

"The handling of Xorddanx must be left mainly in the hands of the Dungeon Master, but it is intended that Xorddanx be a very dangerous character, so the referee is encouraged to show no mercy. A low-level party has no business thinking it can take on a menace as obviously great as Xorddanx. High-level parties often need to be taken down a peg. Be strong!"

Labyrinth of Madness: In this super-deadly adventure, there is a room called "Abode of the Eye Tyrants" that contains three beholders. Some of their stalks are snakes. Not only do the snakes shoot eye rays, but they also have a poison bite that kills you. One beholder can actually strap in to a suit of magic plate mail. Insane.

Beholder Dome: The 3rd Edition Book of Challenges has a trap in it called a "Beholder Dome". The floor is wobbly, and a failed DEX check will send a hero careening into a trapped door. Each one has a magic spell trap that emulates one of the eye rays.

The Shackled City: There's a beholder villain that plays a major part in the Shacked City adventure path, but I really don't want to say much about it because it's a pretty major spoiler.

Trial of Eyes: In the 4th edition Dungeon Delve book is a series of short adventures. 30 adventures, in fact! The adventure for level 17 characters is about a beholder who has come through a portal from the far realm and has claimed a magic item off of some dead adventurers.. There's these far realm insanity portals. They're orange and they "seethe with anger". They do psychic damage and they slow you.

The Xanathar

This is perhaps the most well known beholder NPC in D&D lore. He's a crime boss in the Forgotten Realms city of Waterdeep. He runs a thieves guild and only a select few know that Xanathar is actually a beholder.

Xanathar has four humanoid lieutenants who handle different aspects of all the illegal goings-on. Xanathar is into all sorts of stuff, including extortion, smuggling, burglary, and slavery.

There's a really good article on The Xanathar here.

Beholder Variants

Here's a list of all the other types of beholders I came across while working on this:

Death Kiss: This beholder-kin has no mouth, and the eyestalks are actually tentacles with hooks. It feeds by attaching tentacles to a victim and draining its blood.

Eye of the Deep: This water-breather has crab pincers, and it shoots cones of blinding light from its eyes. The eye of the deep has two tentacles which can create illusions and hold people and monsters.

Gauth: This beholder-kin feeds on magic. It can fire off different spells, and it can drain charges from magic items. It actually eats magic items.

Spectator:A spectator is a guardian of places and treasures. The central eye can reflect spells back at the caster! Spectators are summoned from Nirvana and are actually quite friendly.

Undead Beholder (Death Tyrant): These abominations have milky film covering their eyes. They are slow and strike last in every combat round. They are mindless servants of powerful masters.

Hive Mother: The "Ultimate tyrants", they are twice the size of a normal beholder. They can swallow people whole on a critical hit. A Hive Mother has no eyestalks, the eyes are embedded in the creature's hide with hooded covers! They can control other beholders, usually 5-10 normal beholders or up to 20 beholder-kin.

Director: These insectoid beholder-kin breed specialized mounts (?). The mount is usually a centipede/spider type of creature.

Examiner: These are scholars ad clerks who study magic items..

Lensman: This thing actually has a humanoid body. Instead of a head, it has a whip-like tentacle. OK, now we're getting really random.

Overseer: These guys are like fleshy trees with 13 limbs, each of which has an eye.

Watcher: Watchers have large eyes all around their body. They have true sight, ESP, and can teleport.

Beholder Mage: These guys actually blinded their central eyes so that they could cast spells.

Elder Orb: Ancient beholders of god-like intelligence.

Orbus: A pale white beholder with great magical ability.

Gas Spore: These things look like beholders, but they're just full of gas.

Doomsphere: A ghost-beholder created by magical explosions.

Kasharin: An undead beholder that can pass on a rotting disease.

Astereater: A boulder-like beholder without eyes.. ummm..

Gorbel: A clawed beholder, without magic. Explodes if attacked!

Eye of Flame: These beholders serve more powerful beholders. They have fire rays, telekinesis rays and fear rays. When they die they explode in a fire burst.

Beholder Spawn: These are 4th edition minions (they have a single hit point). They fire a single eye ray that does 11 damage of a single type (fire, force, etc).

Eye of Shadow: These beholders spent too much time in the Shadowfell. It has eye rays that blind, do thunder damage, and immobilize. It can also teleport and become invisible. 

Other Links

How much is an eyestalk worth?
4e beholder cartoon
The beholder from the '80's cartoon


Unknown said...

Just checking in to say thanks for writing these! They are great reads and give me a bunch of ideas to work with.

Anonymous said...

Great read and as Mason said, tons of ideas. Thanks for the job.

MPA2000 said...

I was curious if anyone ever asked Gary Cygax why certain monsters only had hit points instead of hit dice? The Beyonder in 1st Ed MM only had hit points. Of course the Arch Devils and Demon Princes also only hit points.

Unknown said...

Yes...Thanks for research and posting this!