Displacer beasts. These feline monstrosities have plagued every generation of Dungeons and Dragons players back to the very first edition. Ferocious, clever, and nearly impossible to hit, they’ve been the death of many a player character over the years.
So what the hell are they?
Take a panther. Add an extra pair of legs. Now stick a pair of tentacles on their shoulder blades—spiky tentacles. Creepy enough? Oh, no, we’re just getting started. Now for the displacer beast’s claim to infamy: these sneaky kitties’ fur can bend light around them to make it look like they’re standing right next to where they actually are.
Yeah. They’re basically invisible, but they’re not even the fair-play kind of invisible where you know you can’t see them. If you’ve never fought a displacer beast before, you would have no reason to suspect that they are anything other than they appear—or anywhere other than they appear.
Oh, and from the 5th edition Monster Manual: “A displacer beast’s eyes glow with an awful malevolence that persists even in death.”
Creepy enough now?
Displacer beasts have been around for forty years now, so clearly they’re doing something right. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate—the displacer beast arrived in a 1975 supplement to first edition Dungeons and Dragons, but a similar creature called the coeurl first appeared 36 years earlier.
A.E. van Vogt, a Golden Age science fiction author, created the coeurl in his 1939 short story “Black Destroyer,” where it appears as a malevolent and intelligent feline with its iconic tentacles. The coeurl later reappears in his novel The Voyage of the Space Beagle. Paizo’s Dragon: Monster Ecologies collection confirms that van Vogt’s coeurl inspired the displacer beast, and Final Fantasy players may recognize the coeurl as a common tentacle-whiskered enemy.
So science fiction readers, tabletop gamers, and video gamers have been wrestling with sinister tentacle-panthers for seventy years now. What was so intriguing about that original monster that it’s stuck around this long?
Displacer beasts and coeurls vary across their many incarnations, but two things have remained consistent: They are smart, and they are evil. Anyone who has ever met a cat can relate.
Hey, hey. Calm down. I say this as an ardent cat lover.
Kidding aside, haven’t we always wondered about animal intelligence? What do they really understand and think about? Do they have a sense of self? So many animals seem able to communicate with us in some capacity, but inevitably we hit a wall where our physical and mental structures just don’t allow any more nuanced communication. Until science uncovers some new way of understanding our animal companions, the full depth of their intelligence will remain unknown.
And we humans love to fear the unknown.
The displacer beast/coeurl plays off of this idea beautifully. What is more frustrating than a creature with human or near-human intelligence that can’t communicate with us? What is more terrifying than a creature that would use that intelligence to hunt us?
What is more terrifying than being hunted by something you can’t see?
Horror has used this idea time and time again, but when it’s done well it still scares the crap out of us. Science fiction and fantasy get the added bonus of being able to make things literally invisible—or in the displacer beast’s case, next to invisible.
In a way, this is worse. It’s tricky. You might know where it is and you might not. That’s more interesting than pure invisibility because it’s more unique. It’s also scary—it’s the perfect set-up for the classic jump scare. And as a player, it’s challenging.
Sure, it can definitely get old after a while, swinging at a monster and missing round after round. We’ve all been there, right? … Riiiight? oh no it’s not just me is it—ahem, I mean, fighting a displacer beast has the potential to drag on. But it’s a different kind of challenge. Anyone who has ever run a long term tabletop game knows how challenging it can be to keep combat fresh. Done well, displacer beasts can offer an interesting tactical challenge.
In the end, displacer beasts are both fascinating and creepy. They represent unknown animal intelligence, which is both intriguing and terrifying in a predator. They are very difficult to escape from. Their cloaking abilities are brilliant. Awesome. Unnerving.
In short? A very successful monster. Two toothy tentacles up.
Prompt: Displacer beasts and coeurls examine the unknowable and threatening animal intelligence of cats. Their predatory and elusive nature fits what we know about actual cats. Now think of another type of animal and the traits we commonly attribute to them, and create a magical creature or alien that exaggerates those traits to make something completely new.
Thoughts on displacer beasts? Does anyone have any idea how you actually pronounce “coeurl”? Or has this post got you feeling… catty? (YEAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH.) Speak up in the comments!