Monster Ecologies

A Walk Through the Planes – Part ???: Monster Ecologies



Starting with the second edition of AD&D, I’ve been pretty thorough in covering practically every planar-related article that’s graced the pages of Dragon, Dungeon, and even Polyhedron magazines. Yes, there were a few peripheral pieces I either chose to skip or never noticed, and admittedly my coverage of articles in the 70s and 80s remains far more… spotty (it was a different era, and frankly pre-Planescape planar material tends to be its own weird and wild mess), but there’s only been one particularly massive hole in this coverage: the “Ecology of” series. That being said, it wasn’t until the end of third edition where this was much of an issue, as until then its planar content was weirdly infrequent. However, even when these planar columns started coming fast and hard in 2006 or so, I didn’t want to write individually about all of these monster profiles, so I decided that the best way to cover it would be to remind the world of one of the most obscure publications from Paizo’s third edition era: “Monster Ecologies,” a one-off publication from Paizo that served as an odd experiment in content right before they lost their D&D license. 

Essentially, this was a special issue of Dragon, and as such it was distributed to newsstands (remember those?) that carried the magazine, rather than requiring a special book-style publishing relationship/schedule like their pair of hardback releases did. The advantage of this was that it allowed for a much, much smaller lead time, and as such was able to be distributed before Paizo’s license ended, which is what prevented its Age of Worms and Savage Tide adventure paths from getting the same treatment as The Shackled City. The resulting issue is a sort of middle-ground, not quite a book and also not quite a magazine issue. It’s also one of Paizo’s best works from this period, despite the fact that even more thorough chroniclers tend to forget about it. This is unfortunate, because the book/magazine issue/whatever the hell it is in question is absolutely wonderful, another high point in this particularly fertile period for the company, while also serving as a bit of a historical reference in itself.


“Ecologies” doesn’t just offer revised write-ups of 18 of these columns from the past couple years—sometimes heavily expanded upon, sometimes virtually indistinguishable from the original version in Dragon—it also features numerous game designers and writers telling about their favorite monsters from the game’s entire history. It features artwork (sadly, uncredited) showing how depictions of famous monsters changed through the decades, a history covering the “Ecology of” series and its importance for the game, and a complete index including every “Ecology of” column released through the end of the magazine’s hard copy print run. The “Index of Ecologies” was particularly wonderful before the internet made these things easier to access (the Forgotten Realms wiki has essentially the same information here), and also includes markers for important points such as the first column for second edition, the first for a non-living monster (thereby twisting the use of the word ecology), and the first one “by” Elminster. If you’re interested in the game’s history—and if you’re not, then why are you even here?—then this is a wonderful resource, and a fascinating way of exploring its past. The thorough listing at the end of the index for where to find every one of these monsters in third edition, if they exist, is just icing on the cake, and is typically thorough work from Paizo. Frankly, Wizards itself would’ve never put out something this thoughtful. 

While the shadar-kai used to look a bit mopey, now they look like a bad opening band for Korn in 2003.

Planar entries included in this particular issue are: the inevitable, the night hag, the rakshasa, and the shadar-kai (weirdly not the rust monster, which I’ll discuss more below). That’s not a ton, but it’s also a far from exhaustive list of planar entries. Wait, you want an exhaustive list of planar monsters from this series? Well fine then, who am I to begrudge you; enjoy it below, courtesy of my obsessive compulsive nature and poor time management decisions:

Contained in hard copy issues of Dragon for editions 1-3:

  • 126 – Shade
  • 139 – Spectator
  • 172 – Galeb duhr
  • 271 – Bag of Devouring
  • 308 – Iron Maw 
  • 314 – Salamander
  • 324 – Night Hag
  • 326 – Rakshasa
  • 337 – Shadar-kai
  • 341 – Inevitable
  • 346* – Rust Monster – See below
  • 347 – Elemental Weird
  • 353 – Keeper
  • 355 – Devourer
  • 357 – Titan
  • 358 – Kaorti

Fourth Edition in Dragon Magazine

  • 361 – Fire archon
  • 367 – Genasi
  • 374 – Deva
  • 414 – Modron
  • 417 – Sucubi

Fourth edition in Dungeon:

  • 195 – Banderhobb
  • 206 – Malaugrym

As I said earlier, I’m not going to do a full write-up of every one of these articles. Even I would find that pointless, and they’re short enough that if they’re of interest to you it shouldn’t be hard to find and read them for yourself. However, I will share some notes I made about a few of these creatures, though feel free to quit reading now if you’re not in the mood for some unstructured rambling. 


For starters, the rust monster is a particularly weird case. Its original ecology article (in Dragon #88) is in no way planar, but then Planescape made them an important part of Acheron and tied them to rust dragons. As such, the ecology in Dragon #346 discusses this origin, and even features an apocalyptic bladeling story. It also brings up an alternate theory for their ecology, but even this is planar in nature, such that it brings up Doomguards. But then once they’re back in issue #376, they’re no longer remotely planar at all or even terribly interesting, to the point that they’re not even aberrations, just weird animals from the Prime. Whatever, they’ll always be proto-rust dragons to me. 

Rakshasas running a sex slave ring. Kinda surprised Wizards let this get printed.

Shades receive an odd explanation for their origin:

The process for becoming a shade begins on the Prime Material Plane, where the would-be shade drinks lethal poison and dies. The cleric then uses plane shift to transport himself and the character to the Plane of Shadow. There, the cleric casts neutralize poison on the character, and then imbue with spell ability if the character is not a member of a spell-casting class. The cleric then casts negative plane protection to allow the forces of the Positive and Negative Material Planes to enter the character’s body, thus causing the physical, psychological, and magical changes. At last, the cleric casts raise dead (this spell even works on elves and half-ores due to the interference of the energies from the Positive and Negative Material Planes). The character must make a successful resurrection survival check or die again.

That is, umm, a lot of weird effort to go through for very little, if any, benefit. Cool, I guess, and one of the earlier uses of the Plane of Shadows in the game.


I didn’t actually read through all 153 pre-fourth edition monster ecologies, as even I’m not that insane, but I did browse through all of the ones that interested me, and was surprised to learn about how planar the spectators, i.e. beholderkin who won’t instantly party wipe you, are. Their article explains that not only do they hail from Nirvana/Mechanus, the upper class ones sometimes serve modrons for some reason. And they have a relationship with a deity I’m unfamiliar with named Lendor? And lower class ones are slightly lawful good??? You know what, this is a strange article that doesn’t fit in at all with what I thought before about all the proto-beholder species, and I’m not sure how much of this was ever picked up on by other authors. I like this concept for the spectators, but I rather doubt the Great Mother would agree with much of what it says. 

Even the art for the bag of devouring is hilarious and wonderful.

Up until some time in third edition, the “ecology of” series was actually a very different beast from what it became beneath Paizo. Paizo’s version were essentially extended Monster Manual entries, giving pages of detail about each creature that I tended to wish we’d had in the first place; incidentally, this is much of why I love the “Monster Ecologies” issue so much, as it’s essentially what I always wanted those books to be. Before then, usually these articles came in the form of bad fantasy stories in which characters encountered the creature in question, while details and crunch would only be added through footnotes. Most of these I found rather miserable to read, but my favorite column from this entire series ended up being one of these: the ecology of the bag of devouring. It turns out that this magic item is one of many mouths attached to a strange interplanar creature. The story involves a journey into its stomach and explains how this species propagates itself throughout the multiverse. If you decide to read just one of these older entries, definitely make this the one.

Salamanders, as per this column, are now their own species unrelated to flame brothers, and all of them can now become nobles. This is the type of retcon that feels unnecessary to me, but I suppose you can use whichever version you prefer. Likewise, the article on the shadar-kai does away with some of their past and its relationship with Erebus, so while I for the most part enjoyed the article I’d still return that to their backstory. 

Paizo’s depiction of inevitables makes them look like Jack Kirby characters, which is pretty sweet.

Until their ecology piece, I’d rather disliked the inevitables, but their lore here and its subtle updates to Mechanus make them finally seem like a functional part of that plane. There’s also an order who emulates them that Planescape would’ve described as a sect. Essentially, Wizards of the Coast never seemed to understand what third edition’s Mechanus looked like, but Paizo has put in some thought and it seems more like a logical ecosystem again.


I skipped the Elemental Weirds article a couple weeks ago except to say that it’s good. But not only is it good in the typical manner of these articles during Paizo’s run, it features a lovely map, and spends a lot of time building in some rather obscure planar lore. Tvashtri’s laboratory in the Outlands shows up, as does the Bastion of Broken Souls, the Rod of Seven Parts, Tradegate, and even the infrequently-acknowledged City of Glass. Essentially, it’s like the article was written directly towards me, and makes me want to thank its author, Michael Trice, personally for this amount of fanservice. 

Really, all of these end-of-the-edition planar works are excellent, and I loved getting new information about keepers and titans that makes a lot more sense of these creatures than what we had before. In both cases, it feels like the authors really put in the effort to fit together Planescape lore that never quite worked as it was, and so even when they contradict these earlier sources I end up preferring these depictions. Likewise, there’s finally a real explanation for the Devourer, and unlike with a lot of horror boogey men, it’s not one that makes them makes them any less terrifying. Regardless of what edition you’re playing in, if you plan on running a D&D campaign I suggest taking a look at the index of ecology articles and seeing if any of the monsters you want to use have been covered, as in most cases what’s there is going to be the fullest and most worthwhile information about them available.

Before ending, I suppose I should address the fourth edition “Ecology of” columns, as they certainly do exist. Frankly, diving into these for even a small dose of that edition left me baffled because the cosmology and use of words was so immediately different from what the game had before. Reading through just the first of these entries, the fire archon, made me so irritated that I couldn’t force myself to sit in total through any of the rest. So yes, fourth edition is just over the horizon, but every time it seeps into these articles it just makes me wish to skip past it entirely. Which I’m not going to do, but it’s possible the pace of these slows down as my enthusiasm wanes. Fun times ahead, fun times….

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