The Beholder is one of the games most iconic monsters. It is on the title of the Fifth Edition Monster Manual. It has spawned a whole collection of creatures, including undead Death Tyrants, Gazers, and so on. It is unique and memorable -- a floating sphere with eyestalks that shoot rays of magical effects. But where did that come from? Is there any precedent in literature, and how did that bizarre creature become part of the game?
Terry Kuntz invented the Beholder from scratch
There is no individual literary source or precedent. "Terry" (Theron O.) Kuntz was the younger brother of Rob Kuntz and one of the players in the original playtest campaign in Castle Greyhawk. He invented the creature as an original creation. This is well documented by multiple statements by Gary Gygax:
The beholder was the original conception of Terry Kuntz, Rob's brother, a regular in the early days of my campaign. I developed it a bit, but it's essentially his work [ENWorld Q&A #378]
Terry Kuntz was the primary creator of the Beholder, why I have no idea, except maybe he was a glutton for havng his PC punished. All I did was detail the monster and polish the concept--one that is an excellent one for sure! The pun was unintended by Terry. He just chose the term because of the number of eyes the critter possessed as far as I can ascertain. [ENWorld Q&A #7936]
Where did you get the idea for the Beholder? "That was Rob Kuntz's brother, Terry. He had the basic idea, but I detailed it for publication." [Interview]
Terry joined shortly after the start of the campaign according Gary:
Lastly, when I started the Greyhawk campaign, the initial playtesters were son Ernie (Tenser, Serten, Erac's Cousin) and daughter Elise. In a couple of days time Don Kaye (Murlynd), Rob (Robilar, Otto) and Terry (Terik) Kuntz joined the gang. [ENWorld Q&A #141]
Terry Kuntz came up with the beholder after he had been playing in my campaign for about two months. Where he got the idea I have no idea, but I latched onto it immediately, and with his kind permission made it an integral creature in the D&D roster of ugly customers to encounter [ENWorld Q&A #1523]
This would put the creation of the beholder a couple of days and two months after the original D&D playtesting in the Greyhawk Castle dungeon started (which was sometime between late February and early April, 1973), so at the latest around July, 1973.
The one question that remains is: we know Gary got the beholder from Terry Kuntz, but Gary states he does not know where Terry got the idea from (although he in the other quotes says he believes it was his original idea). Thankfully, Terry Kuntz went on record about this himself.
Terry Kuntz Interview
Terry gave an interview published in Casus Belli #23 in September 2017, in which he details how he came up with the creature (excerpts translated from original French):
CB: Let’s come back to your creature a little, the Beholder, which today still is on the cover of the Monster Manual of the fifth edition of D&D. Where did you get your inspiration for this monster?
TK: I wanted to design a creature that could stand up to high-level characters and be able to defend itself equally well against fighters and magic-users. The basic level should be level 10. The sources of inspiration are multiple: D&D, Empire of the Petal Throne, mythology, Tolkien's novels, objects of mythology.
CB: Objects? A spherical object, for example?
TK: There is not one object in particular. The spherical shape comes from mythology and Sun-Moon relativity. I was looking for something that was different. It’s more of a concept. On the other hand when I think of the eyestalks, the first thing that came to my mind is the Medusa! These multiple eyes should allow it to defend and attack at 360°. The eyestalks can be longer on some beholders and the central eye is always more powerful.
CB: Did you encounter any particular difficulties during its creation?
TK: I actually had some difficulty designing the beholder until we had used it in an adventure. The first difficulty was linked to the choice of the spherical body of the creature which was to bring it some flexibility and good protection. The beholder also had to float above the ground, so I made it so that its levitation is original, natural and easy to control during combat and while traveling. During a playtest, I realized that the beholder was too weak due to the low thickness of his skin, but I knew that his levitation power would give him a better armor class. At a Gary Con outside Lake Geneva, an artist told me that a similar creature endowed with stalked eyes but robotic had been created in the 50s or 60s. I had however never seen these images when I designed the beholder.
CB: Were you the one who chose the powers of the rays?
TK: Yes, I chose the power attributed to each eye, so that the DM could modify them as they wish. The power of eyes is based on the level of the beholder. This monster was initially designed to be unintelligent, but as you know, there are very intelligent ones.
The beholder was first published in the Greyhawk supplement to OD&D
The beholder was not part of the monster roster of the initial published rules for D&D (the "brown box" or later "white box" rules published in early 1974), even though it must already have been played by then in the campaign. It first appeared in Supplement 1 - Greyhawk, published in 1976, where it graced the cover (even if it looked less impressive back then then on today's Monster Manual).
with the following description:
BEHOLDERS: These monsters are also known as Spheres of Many Eyes, or as Eye Tyrants. The body of these creatures is a great globe of about 3’ in diameter. Atop it are ten eye stalks, while in the center of the spherical body is a great eleventh eye. The body can sustain 40 points of damage, each eye stalk 10 points, and the central eye can withstand up to 20 points. The armor class of the body is 0, the eye stalks 2, and the eyes proper 7. Each eye functioning is a different manner: From 1–4 of the small eyes are able to function at one time.
Eye Number Function
- Charm Person Spell
- Charm Monster Spell
- Sleep Spell
- Flesh-Stone Ray
- Disintegrate Ray
- Fear Ray
- Slow Spell
- Serious Wound Spell
- Death Ray
- Anti-Magic Ray
In addition, the Beholders are able to levitate themselves and float slowly about. These monsters are avaricious. They are neutral in nature, although they tend to be chaotic.
And the following Correction published in a later version:
If attacked from above all of the small eyes can function simultaneously, but the large eye cannot if they do so. 25% of all hits are upon eyes; 40% of eye damage is on the central eye.
According to the Monster reference table on p. 33, only a single one is encountered, with AC 4/2, 3" move, Special Hit Dice, 90% in lair, and Treasure Type I (treasure) F (magic).
Tim Kask, in one of his Curmudgeon in the Cellar podcasts confirmed that back then, it was not unusual to modify the Beholder, changing the detailed function of the individual eyes and rays, in line with Terry's statement above of letting the DM modify the eyes as they saw fit.