Sahuagin: Origins and Inspirations

Author: DHBoggs /

The Sahuagin are perhaps one of the most intriguing entries in Blackmoor Supplement II.  The creature was created by Steve Marsh, but here I want to explore the idea I proposed years ago that the Sahuagin story is more complicated.

Sahuagin is by far the largest entry for a sentient creature in the 1975 booklet.  Many of the others are only a few sentences or a paragraph at most.  A very good average comparison is Marsh's other creature the Ixitxachitl 

"A race of Chaotic Clerical Philosophers, they resemble Manta Rays (i.e. having a flat blanket-like form) with one in ten being a vampire equivalent (affected by any holy or blessed item, not just a cross). They are found in groups of 50–150 creatures with 40–120 being 1st-level philosophers (or clerics) and the rest of 2nd to 11th level (roll 10-sided die and add one). For every 25 such creatures there is a 50% chance of a magic user of the 6th to 11th level (roll 6-sided die and add six). For every vampire they possess one level F treasure, and one class “A” sea treasure for every magic user over 8th level; magic items cannot be used if hands are required (generally that means that only items that can be worn upon the body can be used)."

By comparison the Sahuagin entry is huge.  It looks like a double entry, and I think that is just what it is.

What follows is purely speculative - Let me repeat for clarity PURELY SPECULATIVE - but I think the anomalies found in this entry are best explained as a mash-up created by Supplement II editor Tim Kask of two separate creatures; one created by Steve Marsh and the other created by Dave Arneson.

First take note that the creature has two titles.  The first is "Sahuagin"  (Saw-gwin or Sa ha gwin - see Marsh explain HERE )

The second title follows in parenthesis as "Devil Men of the Deep"

Now, when discussing the origin of the name and creature Marsh explains the name Sahaugin was lifted from that of a Spanish historian cited in the bibliography of a Mormon missionary pamphlet and some of the details of the creature were inspired by a Justice League cartoon and/or comics.  This last is hard to pin down, but it is quite possibly the creature from a an Aquaman adventure in Superboy Vol 1 202 - which has a "half-man and half-fish" villain called the Devil-fish with characteristics quite similar to the Sahuagin. see HERE)


Speculative Marsh version:  

In the eons past there was a great flooding of the land (although history does not agree when this occurred and it may have happened twice) when the ice caps were melted during a great struggle of the gods to control the planet. When the water rose some of these gods took care that representative portions of all life were preserved and returned when the waters fell and the land became fruitful again. Others sought to change the nature of life so it could adapt to the new face of the world and at the same time preserve its intelligence. Much about the Sahuagin is probably myth but even if half of what is said about them is true then they are, indeed, a terrible threat.With a huge leech-like mouth, large reptilian eyes, and huge ear-like growths on the side of their heads they have an almost alien appearance. On the upper body are two arm-like extensions that act as forward fins and end in two pincer-like protrusions (opposed to each other) which are used to grasp tools and weapons. The main body is reptilian in nature, covered with thick hide, and has a rudimentary tail which is used much like an alligator’s tail for steering and propulsion. The two rear legs are located about 2/3 of the way down the body and are long and frog-like, ending in a six-toed webbed foot which provides great stability when standing on soft sea bottoms and great propulsion when swimming. They have an average underwater speed of 18” with maximum speeds of up to 30” about once every hour. Their tough reptilian hide is similar to leather armor while the body can sustain two hit dice in damage. The mouth can be used to attach itself to or to rend the flesh of the victim with its hundreds of razor sharp teeth. The tail can deliver a pile driver-like punch similar to that wielded by a giant (club damage times two). The powerful pincers will crush anything up to or under bony composition they grasp (as daggers). The back feet can tear apart any victim that is grabbed by the forearms or otherwise act like the claws of a powerful animal. This formidable array is aided by the sensitive ears that can pick up underwater noise as slight as a boat’s oars cutting through the water at ranges of ten miles. The compound eyes are sensitive to light but can see through the darkest depths for up to half a mile (80–90”). Their disadvantages are that their eyes generally keep them 100’ or more below the surface, although at night or during storms they will reach the surface. Their ears are easily damaged by loud noises at close range and they cannot pick out the sound of swimming creatures (of any kind). 10–60 will be found in a single group with a 30% chance they will be in a lair with Class “F” and “A” treasure. The lair will be completely water-filled since these creatures cannot breathe air or fresh water at all. 

Now you may think that seems like a fairly complete entry, and it certainly compares well with Marsh's Sea Elves or the Ixichitl entries I quoted above, but there is quite a lot of text left - Enough for a whole other monster.

So now we come to what I'm suggesting originates with Arneson.  Unlike Marsh, we really have no clue from Arneson regarding Sahuagin.  Supposing I'm correct, he may have written about a "creature from the Black Lagoon" type monster, or perhaps an expansion on the lizardman, or, an intriguing possibility I'm going to follow here - a variant of The Sea Devils.

Sea Devils are in fact an amphibious undersea creature of the Dr. Who series, from episodes released in 1972.  Marsh never connected his Sahuagin to Dr. Who, yet the similarities are worth consideration.  Let me quote a description of the creature from the Doctor Who RPG:

"...Sea Devils, are ...2.1 to 2.3 meters tall. They are more turtle-like than are the Silurians, and they do not have a third eye. The five Silurian bone ridges have been replaced by two smaller head crests and by a beak-like nose. In addition to these differences, Sea Devils have adapted to underwater life. Although they are amphibians, Sea Devils can tolerate the extremely high pressures found near the bottom of the sea, and they can easily adapt to rapid pressure changes. Their thick, reptilian skin provides protection against extreme cold.

...Sea Devils are ruthless and relentlessly militaristic, and they have developed a highly advanced machine culture. They enjoy working with metals and wear protective armor at all times. " Doctor Who RPG (FASA)  Fantasy Simulations Associates   1985

It's curious that these undersea creatures are also called "Devils".  It's also curious that the Dr. Who Sea Devils, like what I'm positing is Arneson's contribution to the Sahuagin, has a very hierarchical, cruel and militaristic society.  Here is the remainder of the Sahuagin entry - what I'm calling the Arsoninan bit - with the word Sea Devil replacing Sahuagin:


A constant threat to man, beast and fish are the voracious Sea-Devils whose only friends seem to be the equally voracious and predatory Giant Sharks. Although of an intelligence equal to the elves in many respects, the Sea-Devils have taken and perverted virtually every aspect of civilization to support their sadistic cannibalistic culture.   

It is said that the sea elves and the mermen were created by the Great Gods of Neutrality and Law while the Gods of Chaos bent their will to create the Sea-Devils. In every aspect the Evil ones sought to make the Sea-Devils into the most evil of the evil and many agree that they succeeded in making a race that fit that bill. Many individual horrors both on the land and sea may be in themselves worse than the Sea-Devils but nowhere will there be found a comparable race that as a whole retains the worst possible qualities.

When found in a lair there is a 10% chance that it is actually an underwater community of  100–1,000 creatures. There is then a further 20% chance that this community consists of 1,000–10,000 individuals. The underwater capital city has nearly 100,000 of these creatures residing within its watery limits. These cities will have great fighters and magic users as well asunderwater horrors that live and fight for the Sea-Devils. The ratio of these is as follows: 

per ten Sea-Devils there is a 25% chance of a double value fighter (Hero type)

per sixty there is a 15% chance of a triple value fighter (Superhero)

per one hundred of these individuals there is a 10% chance of a quadruple value fighter.

per five hundred of these individuals there is a 20% chance of a quintuple (5) times normal value fighter (Leader).

per one thousand individuals there is a 50% chance of a six times normal value fighter.

per forty there is a 30% chance of a 2nd-level magic user.

per one hundred there is a 25% chance of a 4th-level magic user.

per two hundred there is a 10% chance of a 6th-level magic user.

per five hundred there is a 25% chance of an 8th-level magic user.

per one thousand there is a 40% chance of a 12th-level magic user.

per group or up to sixty there will be 2–20 accompanying sharks.*

per group of one hundred there will be an additional 10–60 sharks.

per group of five hundred there will be an additional 20–120 sharks.

per group of one thousand there will be 100–400 additional sharks.

*(all totals for sharks are cumulative)

These creatures of evil are usually armed with the trident and the net — the former having a deadly poison on its tip and the latter having hundreds of small hooks set into its fabric. The Sea-Devils have become very adept at the use of both these weapons and these weapons also suit their temperament and regular habits. As an example, the small hooks in the net hinder escape while inflicting great pain on the live victims, and when torn from the flesh have the usual accompanying sharks driven into a frenzy from which they may attack the helplessly snared victims.

The tridents provide the ability to pin and probe the victims while not inflicting any mortal wounds (when the tips are unpoisoned) and allowing the Sea-Devils to remain at a safe distance.

Victims are usually brought to the nearest habitation (although only the ones with over 1,000 in population would have confinement cells for air breathing types) where they are either promptly eaten or penned in with some other predator to provide entertainment. The most common entertainment is to set the sharks on the victim, giving him only a small knife to defend himself. 

There are dozens of variations on the particular theme. Once captured there is very little possibility of escape and the sadistic nature of the captors has often allowed prisoners to think that they escaped only to be set upon by the sharks and guards when freedom (seemingly) is close at hand.

The culture of these creatures allows that there is only one King and he has only nine Princes with lesser positions being held as the situation and population demands. These leaders are always subject to challenge by any other member of the race to their position of leadership. The leaders are usually quite strong and several are reported to be mutations with four arms (this occurs in 1% of the population as a whole) and the fact that the Sea-Devils never cease to grow throughout their lives (much like reptiles) so that the leaders are also usually the older members of the species as well. Unsuccessful challengers are always killed and any cripples that occur in these fights are also disposed of, with especially unpopular types being tortured to death.

The disposal of the victims takes place at an after-the-challenge party where they are eaten by the other members of the group or community. This is also done with sickly members and others thought to be unfit to be a part of the community. The females are expected to bear their share of the fighting and are, visually at least, no different than the other members of the species.

The young are hatched from eggs and at birth, except for a few days right after birth, no different in size, strength, or viciousness than any other tribal member. The birth rate is about 15% a year and the average death rate about 10% a year.


Notice that the original entry has two creation stories.  The first, which I'm pegging as the Arneson version specifically mentions the "Great Gods of Neutrality and Law" and "Gods of Chaos", phrases echoing the "Great Gods" mentioned in the FFC (77:21).

The second creation story involving a flood account I'm attributing to Marsh.  It is more detailed than the first and semi-biblical with certain qualities reminiscent to my ear of Marsh's Mormon faith.  The detailed creature description also fits best with Marsh's other entries and the " Class “F” and “A” treasure" also certainly does.

Whereas things like "100–1,000 creatures. There is then a further 20% chance that this community consists of 1,000–10,000 individuals" and  "per ten Sahuagin there is a 25% chance of a double value fighter (Hero type)" and " a quintuple (5) times normal value fighter (Leader)" are very Arnesonian.

In point of fact, Marsh never ever used phrases like "double value" etc.  but that is a characteristic and exclusive early Arneson thing in D&D published products as we have talked about several times before.  When asked by me about the meaning of this section with its double and triple values, Marsh was unsure what the terms meant.  Granted many years have passed, but I think it quite safe to say Marsh did not write this part of the Sahuagin entry.

Other characteristically Arnesonian features in this part of the entry include the references to captives being eaten and the inclusion of birth rates.  Overall it reads a lot like other Arnesonian monsters over the years.

Are my musings here correct?  Is the Sahuagin a mash-up from two different authors? Probably we will never know - but at the very least looking at the entries this way gives us two monsters for the price of one!


paleologos said...

I think you're definitely on to something, here - do you think it's worth asking 'ole Kask?

DHBoggs said...

I had asked him a good while back, and it was clear he didn't remember exactly what he did in the case of individual monsters. Hardly surprising really.

Unknown said...

Hi Mr. Boggs - My comment will be unrelated to this post but concerning the ZED rules on Lost Dungeons of Tonisborg. I'm sorry, but this was the only way to contact you (at least that I could find)!

Concerning Combat Resolutions, on this edition, you propose the elegant solution by Arneson & Gygax recently found: Where the player adds Lvl + Mods to its d20. Do all classes add Lvl? Or is this formula only a specific example of a Fighter with 15 STR adding his +1/lvl bonus?

Thank you!

DHBoggs said...

Heh, no worries. You caught me on vacation though so I only just noticed your comment. It is a bit obscure, but there is a thread for ZED on ODD74 here:

Anyway, the rule applies to all classes equally. One thing about D&D that is overlooked is that level progression and gaining XP is really all about combat skill, regardless of class.

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