Saturday, April 1, 2023

The Forgotten Fire Bird of Castle Greyhawk

I haven't blogged in awhile, but I've still been spending a lot of my time on D&D-related things. I recently had an experience I simply have to share. I got a hold of some obscure and fascinating records from early TSR, honest-to-goodness RPG buried treasure.

Behold, the Alicanto, AKA Gary Gygax's "Dresden Bird":

Allow me to elaborate.

I recently attended a pretty obscure tabletop gaming convention hosted at my alma mater, SawCon, and signed up to participate in a one shot of Tomb of Horrors. According to word of mouth, it was going to be run by a member of Gary Gygax's original Lake Geneva Group. Of course, I've played the Tomb of Horrors before so it was probably unfair of me, but in my defense: 1) I forgot most of the asinine solutions to all the bullshit in there anyway, 2) there are no unfair advantages in that horrible dungeon, and 3) I couldn't pass up the chance to play with a guy of this status.

Now I have to be clear, I am not an RPG history aficionado. As a fan of the old school tradition, I'm better versed than, say, nearly any 5E player out there. But a lot of what I know either comes from reading the Wikipedia articles on Greyhawk, or the kinds of "urban legend" history that proliferates in comment sections and among grognards sharing their experiences at the gaming table. So while I know a lot of the early personalities like Gygax, Arneson, Don Kaye, and the Kuntzes, I had always heard legend that Gary would routinely host sessions with 20+ players at them. So while I'm not surprised I've never heard of this guy, he definitely seems like the real deal.

Everyone just called this guy "Dinkie," but I later learned that his real name is David Rizzle. But I swear to fucking God, this guy could have just as easily been called "Tom Bombadil." I guess ol' Dinkie is decently well-known in the con circuit and has a rep for running some wild games, and especially for always having at least one drink in hand while he DMs. He really was the striking image of a 70's wargamer, and because we had nine players at this oneshot, he kept order using a homemade "scepter of authority" that he invoked frequently. He made us always roll our dice from a cup or else it didn't count, like we were playing Liar's Dice. He was definitely a rulings-over-rules kind of DM but wasn't as old-school as I expected. He also ran the session almost entirely from an absolutely colossal three-ring binder that was crammed full of loose note paper, and which seemed pretty well-loved over the years.

Having played the module myself, I noticed that he totally changed a bunch of the traps and puzzles in there. Almost every single one had an additional rhyming poem he recited which contained clues, which I can only assume he wrote himself. Sometimes it actually confused us because he also had a habit of bursting out into sing-songy narration that had an identical cadence to his "poem recitation" voice. As I later learned, he definitely had some pretty different ideas about the game from Gary Gygax, and like many of Gygax's gamer friends in those early days, they eventually had a bit of a falling out.

It was a really good time, although we didn't complete the dungeon. Five of us survived to the end and decided to just split early with the small bits of treasure we were able to recover. Dinkie stuck around for a whole hour of post-game chatting and story-sharing, and I took full advantage of the opportunity. Since I was so interested in D&D history, he said he had some old TSR documents still in his possession that I'd find interesting. He reached into the huge binder and pulled out a very old-looking manila folder with some coffee stains and faded pencil. I began flipping through it and saw lots of crinkled letters and scrap paper from early TSR folks working on AD&D. But by far the best thing he had managed to hold onto was a handful of papers that told an incomplete history of a monster that got left on the cutting room floor. I took a couple photos of the relevant papers since I knew I wanted to transcribe them to my blog later.

All of the following findings come from notes taken and collected from about 1978 to 1981, most of them by Mike Carr, early TSR's "Games and Rules Editor." During the writing of the AD&D Monster Manual, he sat in on some of Gary's playtesting sessions, solicited play reports from players when he couldn't be there, and regularly held correspondance with Gary. As is well known, Gary used his original "Castle Greyhawk" megadungeon as his playground for all kinds of playtesting, which he claimed had at least 13 levels and who-knows-how-many side levels. There were always at least a few "under construction" at any given time, and there are known to have been times when he scrapped a floor and replaced it, often from another player's contributions.

Well, one session there were some players who had discovered a secret entrance into a mid-level of the megadungeon, allowing them to skip past the low-level floors. It was a concealed cave in the mountainside that Old Castle Greyhawk was built atop. However, players learned the hard way not to use this secret entrance, and it was eventually either forgotten or overwritten by Gary. The reason?

The Alicanto

Gary had a monster he called the Alicanto. According to the notes on it, it was a sort of flaming, feathered pteranodon that was a huge pain in the ass for the players to deal with. It lives on the overworld but is a strictly nocturnal hunter. It glows like hot flames so it's easily visible, luckily. But its gimmick was that 1) it could sense heat and fire, and 2) it ate treasure. So first it would be drawn to any source of open flame, like a PC's torch. It would absorb all the flame, snuffing it out and leaving everyone in the dark. It then could unleash some of that fire back out as an attack, which worked like a dragon's breath weapon. And it would eat your fucking money!

There were other details from the player feedback that are hilarious. So apparently Gary ruled that this thing would be totally blinding to anyone with infravision, like elves and dwarves. Dinkie recalled that Gary famously disliked demi-humans and only included them as a concession to his players who were Tolkien fans, so that detail definitely tracks.

It also had a taste for small creatures like halflings, which are delicious. Carr had taken note of a halfling player character who got killed when the Alicanto picked him up like a coconut and then dropped him to the earth from over a hundred feet in the air, which apparently started a huge player argument because Gygax didn't allow a saving throw. Even at this point there were already voices in the room who had been frustrated with save-or-die effects to begin with, and this was even more harsh.

It took me a bit to figure out if there were one or two monsters being described, because Gary exclusively referred to it by his own nickname, the "Dresden Bird." Carr had tried expressing to Gary that this name might come off as offensive and they should probably change it. Funnily enough, Carr was already out of the picture by the time full stats and artwork were drafted up, since the Monster Manual hit its deadline and the Alicanto would be delayed for inclusion in the Fiend Folio.

It ultimately never made it in anyway after it grew such a bad reputation among the players. There was a time when a bunch of players expressed frustration about having one too many rests interrupted by the nocturnal bird attacking them. Not to mention, y'know, all the treasure eating. The final session including an Alicanto that seemed to be the nail in the coffin was one where the fight resulted in a forest fire breaking out. The TSR editor actually initially mistook this for an unintended disastrous outcome, but the player they were writing back and forth with clarified that Gary came prepared. When the fire started, Gygax pulled out three different d% tables he rolled on to determine how the forest fire spread, which brought the session to a crawl.

Carr had actually vetoed it from the original MM because he was concerned about the page count and told Gary to draft something shorter. The most frustrating part here is that I only have the stats from the Fiend Folio version, but one of Carr's letters alludes to the existence of four whole pages of random tables that describe color-coded subspecies of the Alicanto, generating a mix-and-match of what elements it could absorb-and-shoot (fire, electricity, acid, etc.) + the coinage type it ate (gold, silver, copper, electrum, platinum, maybe some others??).

Conspiracy Theories

There are two additional facts about the Alicanto that I have personally theorized. Both of them I am very confident about, but I cannot confirm.

The first is that this is another Borges monster. For those who don't know, a very important book that influenced D&D was Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges. This was an early bit of hobbyist fantasy worldbuilding that was really ahead of its time. Borges presented his book like it was a work of folklore research, a modern bestiary of historical monsters. But in reality, he was just making shit up. Borges is actually where we get the peryton from, and his descriptions are the main source of a lot of D&D's weird interpretations of monsters like the catoblepas, basilisk, and chimera. I recommend reading more about it here if you like.

The important clue here came to me when I Googled "Alicanto" to see if Gary got it from anywhere. Sure enough, it's an actual Chilean folklore creature that showed up in Borges's book, which I suspect is where Gygax encountered it. And like lots of other D&D monsters from real-life folklore, it is a totally mangled and bizarre rendition of the source material.

The second is that I am very, very nearly positive that this is a Chinasaur monster. Again, for those who don't know, Gary Gygax owned a set of small plastic "dinosaur" toys from Hong Kong which are semi-famous in tabletop gaming. They have been manufactured for decades and clearly aren't actually dinosaurs. Tony DiTerlizzi once wrote a great history about them, from which I learned that they are believed to be modeled after kaiju from Ultraman. But anyway, it is from the famous "Chinasaurs" that we get the original owlbear, bulette, and rust monster.

Well, when I asked Dinkie if he had any personal experience with encountering an Alicanto, he mentioned that Gary had used a plastic toy as a mini. I immediately thought of the owlbear origin myth and wondered if it could be the same thing. So I showed Dinkie a pic of the Chinasaurs and... well, he says it's possible. He couldn't remember it clearly enough to confirm, but it very well could have been the toy that Gary had used.

The AD&D Stats

Here is my best effort to transcribe the AD&D statblock for the Alicanto. Unfortunately, it was handwritten and I'm not super familiar with AD&D as a system.


MOVE: 18"
% IN LAIR: 10%
DAMAGE/ ATTACK: 1-3/2-8/
SPECIAL ATTACKS: Breath weapon + see below
SIZE: L (30' wing spread)

The special attacks didn't fit onto that page and I couldn't find them anywhere else, but I assume it might be a more detailed description of the fire-absorbing and treasure-eating.



  1. That's really uncanny. I was looking at Skerpals' Monster Overhaul Bestiary and for some reason the Alicanto really stood out to me. I saw the name and didn't recognize it, and was extremely curious as to where it came from. Low and behold a blogpost that answers my exact question!

  2. crap you got me. Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius indeed