Kat Kruger

Part owl, part bear, the ferocious predator known as the owlbear can be found in almost any environment. The age-old question “does it roar or hoot?” was recently answered definitively in the movie trailer for Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves. Answer: that beak full of teeth lets out a bear’s roar. This classic D&D monster was bound to make an appearance in the movie. With a body covered in white feathers and claws like talons, the owlbear in the trailer is depicted as more of a snowy owl that has the build of a bear than its more common brown bear illustrations. Truth be told, the core rules reference more owl-like sounds coming from the creature but that’s not the first deviation in the film adaptation of the popular roleplaying game. 

In fact, you could almost hear the record stop sound effect when Doric the druid (played by Sophia Lillis) transformed from horse to owlbear. Needless to say, the transformation brought up some heated debate online because technically speaking a druid can only wild shape into a beast. Since owlbears fall into the monstrosity category of creatures, questions abounded. Does this mean a new druid subclass is in the works from Wizards of the Coast? Does she have a magic item like cloak of the bat that allows her to take on the form of a monstrosity? Co-directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein answered what has been on many minds in an interview they did in January. For many Dungeon Masters, their response was one that likely sounded all-too familiar: the rule of cool. From early peeks at the movie, all signs point to the story being told as though gathered around a table where the rule of cool can be applied. Between the quips during tense moments to banter between characters to epic battle scenes, it’s only fitting that the druid wanted to do something cool and the DM nodded (perhaps without thinking about the consequences of the decision in future games). 

In D&D lore, the origins of the owlbear are also much debated. Some claim the first one was the result of experimentation by a wizard. Meanwhile, elves and fey insist these creatures have existed in the Feywild since time immemorial. The owlbear is among one of the most iconic creatures from D&D lore. Through the different editions, it has been depicted in many ways. First showing up in D&D Greyhawk (1975) as a bear with an owl’s head, it has made an appearance in every edition since. For a period of time, it looked like a weird little kaiju creature — picture an owl wearing a bear kigurumi. It has since been popularized and picked up by other franchises where it has appeared in video games and even been made into cute plushies.

Are you a DM who wants to add an owlbear to your next session? There are plenty of tokens and adventures available in the Roll20 Marketplace to get you started. If you’re looking to drop one in on the fly, here are some things to remember in combat. Owlbears are apex predators who can see in the dark. What they lack in Intelligence, they more than adequately make up for with high Strength and Constitution. Characters are better off trying to outsmart the creature. In open spaces, a heavily wounded owlbear will flee, but if cornered, like any animal, you better believe it’s going to fight to the death. Regardless, an owlbear does not understand the concept of pulling punches. Their ferocity, coupled with their relatively low Intelligence allows characters to trick or trap owlbear.

They make their dens in caves or ruins, littered with bones and other bits of their prey. Though probably rife with treasure from less fortunate travelers, entering an owlbear den is a recipe for death saving throws. Especially if there are baby owlbears (Cubs? Owlets? Cublets?) in the mix.

Remember, owlbears live in many environments whether it be forest, arctic, or desert. You can make use of fun nature facts from the real world to boost your game. Polar bears for example use a still-hunting technique where they motionless beside an opening until their prey emerges. This is a handy tactic in caves or areas where there’s an obstruction from full view. When a character turns the corner — bam! — owlbear welcoming party. These creatures also have keen sight on account of their avian eyes. Owls in particular can rotate their heads more than 270°, which could make for an unsettling sight to behold if characters attempt to sneak up from behind an owlbear.

Of course, if you’re rolling with a party that wants to befriend rather than behead creatures, the answer to their question is yes, with a lot of patience (and healing spells) owlbears can become animal companions. Though impossible to domesticate, an owlbear can be trained as a mount or guardian particularly if done from a young age. A fully grown owlbear would naturally require a longer period to build trust, which goes both ways because there is truly no riskier trust exercise than with a creature known for “hugging” their prey to death.

No matter how an owlbear is presented at the table, it’s often an encounter to remember. Honor Among Thieves certainly captured that element of the game with Doric’s surprising wild shape ability.