Hook Horrors are iconic Underdark-dwelling monsters from the worlds of Dungeons & Dragons, which resemble massive, bipedal humanoids with vulture-like heads, beetle-like carapaces, and long, curving bone hooks for arms. They have a long history in D&D, and have undergone quite a lot of changes over the years.
In The Beginning...
Hook Horrors first debuted in White Dwarf #12; they were invented by none other than Ian Livingstone, the magazine's editor and a co-founder of Games Workshop. Here, they were described as large, powerful humanoids with a hard, mottled grey exoskeleton and vulture-like heads. They have sharp, hooked talons on the end of each arm. They have poor vision but acute hearing, which makes them difficult to surprise. They cannot speak, and communicate by making clacking noises with their exoskeleton. The sounds of hook horrors clacking can be an eerie and alarming noise to those exploring the deep underground caverns where they dwell. Found in groups of up to a dozen, they are 5 Hit Dice monsters, with relatively good armour (AC 3). They have two simple talon attacks (1-8 damage each), and low intelligence. They may have silver or electrum coins as treasure.
Three issues later, White Dwarf #15 would run a "top 10 Fiend Factory Monsters" list, and Hook Horrors would make #5 on that list - beating out Githyanki! Naturally, they went on to appear in the Fiend Folio, which made some slight changes to the description. Instead of "humanoids", hook horrors are now just "bipeds". They live in "deep underground corridors and chambers" instead of "deep underground caverns", perhaps hinting of a less natural origin. The statistics block format in the Fiend Folio has more information than the one in White Dwarf, so we learn that hook horrors are rare, spend 20% of their time in their lair, and are 9' tall.
An Ecology of the Hook Horror article would ultimately follow in Dragon Magazine #131. The article is a series of observations made by the scholar Ferba to the Guild of Naturalists of Quardolf City. Ferba bases his analysis on a single dead specimen, said to be in an "excellently preserved state". This particular hook horror is fully grown at 9'2" tall. Around the neck of the hook horror is a crest of red feathers, and where each metallic-grey talon meets its upper limb are two more tufts of distinctive red feathers. We learn that the chitinous protective exoskeleton is strongest over the chest and back, and less so over the limbs. It derives its strength, compared here to dwarven steel, from the buildup of calcium deposits.
We discover more about the hook horror's senses. They have weak eyes and limited vision, and lack the infravision common to many underground beasts. Hook horrors make up for this with olfactory senses that rival those of bloodhounds, excellent hearing, and a limited form of echolocation which allows them to sense the environment within 120' even in total darkness. For some reason the illustration accompanying the article omits the bat-like ears shown in most other depictions. Hook horrors are capable of detecting invisible wizards and silently moving rogues. In the footnotes, the article expands on the Fiend Folio's simplistic "10% chance of surprising a hook horror", by noting that efforts to use magical silence to sneak past also incur a penalty.
Hook horrors are said to be herbivores, primarily fungivores, consuming subterranean mushrooms, lichen and mosses. They have abrasive tongues to assist in stripping foods from rocky surfaces. Despite their large size, hook horrors consume only three quarters of the food mass of an adult human. This is because they spend half of each day in a sloth-like sluggish torpor, moving very little, and conserving energy. Hook horrors tend to migrate to caverns with a fresh supply of food once supplies in one area dwindle. In rare cases, more intelligent specimens cultivate fungi in their lairs, with garden chambers devoted to farming. Presumably, at least some of the fungi ingested by the horrors are high in calcium, which they need to form their exoskeleton.
Amusingly, the Ecology article provides a gastronomic explanation for the hook horror's Treasure Type P entry (silver and electrum coin). These coins serve the same functions as pebbles in the crop of a chicken, grinding up the creature's food to aid digestion. Silver and electrum coins are specifically sought out because unlike other metals, they do not irritate the hook horror's stomach lining. Adventurers collecting treasure from these creatures' lairs might notice the peculiar, sour odour of the coins recovered, but being adventurers, probably won't care where the coins have been previously.
Hook horrors reproduce by laying eggs, with females laying up to four eggs once each year. The eggs are about three inches in diameter, and shaped and coloured to blend in with stones. Hook horrors scatter these eggs around their lairs, and this camouflage is effective. Few eggs are lost to predators, and almost all of them hatch after six months. Newly hatched hook horrors are vulnerable and must be protected. Mortality rates for young are high.
Only a foot in size (and ½ HD) when hatched, a hook horror grows to two feet in three months, and five feet within a year. After this, growth steadies and the juvenile hook horror eventually reaches nine feet tall by its 17th birthday. Because its exoskeleton does not grow with it, a hook horror must moult several times before it reaches adulthood. Old plates begin to flake off like old scabs over the course of two days, to reveal a much softer replacement exoskeleton beneath. The hook horror is vulnerable to physical attack during the few days it takes the new shell to harden.
Hook horrors rarely live past the age of 40, with death usually caused by disease or parasitic infections, to which the creature seems to be particularly vulnerable. It is not clear in the Ecology article exactly how they contract these parasites, just that they usually become infected while young from sources other than fungi. So commonly are hook horrors diseased, that the footnotes suggest a 10% chance of a disease, and a further 10% chance of 2-5 additional diseases.
Hook horrors are happy to dwell in any subterranean surroundings, whether those are natural cavern complexes or worked areas such as abandoned mines. The article speculates that hook horrors must occasionally venture above ground, but notes also that there are no reports of encounters with them outside.
They prefer the company of small groups, no greater than a dozen in size. Young hook horrors become independent at an early age, remaining with their parents for only a year before beginning to set off on excursions during their second year. By their third year, they become entirely independent. When they reach the age of about six, hook horrors search out a mate to complete the cycle.
Only rarely are hook horrors found outside this small tribe structure, with tales of huge herds forming on occasions. Travellers have been known to briefly befriend hook horrors by offering them food. Efforts to domesticate them for guard or sentry duty have proved risky, as their behaviour is animalistic when threatened. For those considering a career in breeding these unusual creatures, a later Dragon article (Treasure of the Wilds in Dragon #137) sets the price of an egg at 300 gp, and that of a young hook horror as 500 gp.
Hook horrors are able to communicate with one another by means of clacking noises made by flexing parts of their exoskeletons. To an outsider, these sounds are mere noise, but there is a pattern in the tone and pitch of the clacks which conveys meaning. A steady high-pitch indicates excitement, while a low-pitched, unsteady sound means anger or alarm. Soft, steady tones signal friendship. The sound of a hook horror conversation is similar in volume to that between humans.
A hook horror tends to behave instinctively under stress, shying away from fire and loud noises. It is not naturally aggressive, but is capable of fighting furiously if confronted. In battle a hook horror relies on the foot-long swordlike talons, which it wields with exceptional strength. It is usually too sluggish to coordinate two simultaneous hook attacks, and suffers a penalty, so only does so in desperation. A hook horror can use its sharp beak to make a weak attack, but since an injured beak frequently renders the creature unable to eat, and is thus eventually fatal, this is something it tries to avoid.
The Ecology article records several alternative names for the hook horror: vulture beak, hacker, cave dweller, and clacker.
Step up to 2nd Edition
The conversion of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st edition monsters to 2nd edition was... erratic. Hook Horrors, as old-school beasties, were assigned the Monstrous Compendium Greyhawk Appendix in 1990, despite not featuring in much actual, you know, Greyhawk product. And then a few months later R.A. Salvatore released his Drizzt Do'Urden backstory novels, which featured the drow fighting Hook Horrors in the Underdark of the Forgotten Realms. Ironically, this could have slipped the Horror into a Realms splatbook instead had the novels come out first.
The description in the Monstrous Compendium entry is largely consistent with 1st Edition. More emphasis is placed on the hooks, with all three toes having small, sharp hooks, and additional hooks protruding from each elbow. There are also short spines depicted on the hook horrors shoulders, but they are not mentioned in the text. For the first time, the eyes of a hook horror are specified as multifaceted, strengthening the link to insects. They have no odour discernible to typical humanoids, but animals detect a dry musty smell. An adult weighs almost 350 pounds.
Some of the remaining information here contradicts the lore from Dragon magazine. Significantly, hook horrors now eat meat in addition to fungus, plants and lichen, and even have a preference for it. This makes them more aggressive in nature, and willing to ambush unsuspecting travellers or underground denizens as potential food. They will not foolishly attack, however, and will retreat from stronger parties. In combat, they are more powerful, hitting with both hooks each round, and gaining a bonus automatic beak attack if both hooks hit. They can also use their hooks to climb, and move at normal speed when climbing most vertical surfaces.
The senses of a hook horror remain basically the same: poor eyesight, acute hearing, and a form of echolocation. However, the rules mechanics for modelling the penalties and bonuses differ from 1st Edition, and as we'll see below, would continue to change in every successive edition. There is a tip-of-the-hat to Don Turnbull's editor's note in the original White Dwarf version of the hook horror here, as the creature is treated as blinded in normal light.
More detail is given on hook horror clans, which are ruled by the eldest female. She does not participate in combat, instead the eldest male -- often her mate -- is considered the war chieftain and is in charge of hunting and battle situations. Conflict between members of a tribe is rare, and usually limited to petty quarrels. Inter-clan conflict is just as rare, and generally only triggered by a dispute over territory. Hook horror clans are not expansionist in nature, and do not seek to rule larger areas than they need, or to rule over other creatures. They usually dwell in underground caves or warrens with an entrance on a vertical rock wall, accessible only by climbing. All of the clans eggs are kept in the most defensible place, but each family unit in the clan inhabits its own small cavern located close to the central area.
Adventurers are cautioned against assuming that hook horrors will understand concepts such as gratitude or indebtedness, as their clacking language has no terms for these. Saving the life of a hook horror in no way means that it will feel obliged to return the favour.
This information would be reprinted in 1993's Monstrous Manual, where the Hook Horror would snag a snazzy new piece of color artwork by Tony Di'Terlizzi.
Late in Show with 3rd Edition
Strangely, the hook horror would not show up in Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition until the relelase of the Monster Manual II; obviously, their star had waned a little by this point. One of the odder things about this development was that it had evolved into a creature with substantially more "hook". Up to 2nd Edition, only the creature's hands were the hooks; in 3rd Edition the entire front section of each arm is the hook. The additional spikes on the exoskeleton which appeared in the 2nd Edition artwork are now confirmed in the text, as the hook horror's beetle-like torso is said to be covered with sharp, bony protuberances. The hook horror is still about 9 feet tall, but it has picked up some weight, now clocking in at 400 pounds.
The beefier physique is matched by improved statistics, with the hook horror now having 10 HD, and three attacks (two claws and a bite). If it hits the same opponent with both hook attacks, the bite attack automatically succeeds and the hook horror also grapples its target. A hook horror can more easily sunder a foe's weapon or shield. In battle they use their hooks to trip foes. Hook horrors can also advance right up to 30 HD individuals, with creatures of 16 HD or above being huge in size. To accompany the update to 3.5, Wizards of the Coast published a D&D v.3.5 Accessory Update. This upgraded the hook horror further, by giving it the Cleave, Improved Trip and Power Attack feats.
The progression from the unaggressive, fungus-eating 1st Edition hook horror to the meat-eating opportunistic ambusher of 2nd Edition continues. The 3rd Edition version is described as a sly hunter that distrusts intruders and fiercely protects its hunting grounds. The hook horror's ability to climb is now taken into account in their combat tactics, with groups of hook horrors typically ambushing foes from above. They cooperate and work together to target the largest and best armed opponents first, and are willing to retreat (usually by climbing) if battle goes poorly.
The hook horror's diet is the same as in 2nd Edition, omnivores with a preference for meat. Their family structure is also the same with the eldest female in charge overall, and the eldest male leading hunts and battles. Larger groups of hook horrors occur now, with solitary, pack (5-20), or clan (21-40) encounters possible. The 3rd Edition version of the hook horror has Blindsight (updated to Blindsense in 3.5) and Light Sensitivity. As well as making clacking sounds, hook horrors are also noted for the constant scraping sounds it makes while climbing. Hook horrors can suddenly speak Undercommon, which seems somewhat incongruous with what we knew previously about their communications with each other.
Pride of Place with 4th Edition
Ironically, the much-maligned Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition was the first edition to feature hook horrors in the original Monster Manual. Despite fairly different underlying rules systems, the 4th Edition hook horror is quite close to its 3rd Edition counterpart. The artwork in the Monster Manual shows a hook horror with a similar build to the Monster Manual II version, but with whiskers and a touch of the more insectoid look from the Monstrous Manual artwork blended in.
Hook horrors are now found in small hunting packs, or in large clans. Clans are ruled over by the strongest egg-laying female (a slight change from the previous eldest female). Hook horrors still defend their territory fiercely. They are omnivores that hunt live prey when necessary. As well as climbing, they are now good at jumping, and in combat they can drag opponents with their hooks and even fling them. Sometimes a hook horror will fling a foe towards its hungry pack mates, but it more typically uses its hooks to toss aside opponents that are too tough to kill outright.
Although hook horrors have echolocation (modelled as blindsight) they don't suffer any penalties in normal light, and can see just fine. The eerie clicking noises they use to communicate continue to alert and alarm adventurers who hear them. This hook horror has forgotten that it could ever speak a language in 3rd Edition.
In 4th Edition, many creatures, including the hook horror, spawned unusual varieties. Demon Queen's Enclave has Rotting Hook Horrors, whose bite does necrotic damage. Dungeon #163 includes an encounter with Shadow Hook Horrors capable of cloaking themselves to become invisible. Underdark provides the most unusual variation; the Hook Horror Darkfiend replaces its hook attacks with a charging pounce, a horrific shriek and the ability to create a zone of magical darkness. The Elder Hook Horror in Dungeon #204 is designed to be a challenge for epic tier play. As well as being beefed up significantly in level and hit points this hook horror also has a reflexive claw attack which it can automatically use against any enemies moving nearby.
The Present Day Horror
The current edition of D&D had a long, public playtest, and a lot of insights into the development process were provided in blog posts and web site articles. We're fortunate that Mike Mearls happened to pick the hook horror as the example for his June 2012 Legends & Lore: Monster Design column, since we have first-hand commentary on what Mearls thinks the essence of a hook horror is.
In his analysis, Mearls starts with the hook horror's story elements. He highlights four main points: their clicking echolocation ability, their rending hook attacks which lead to a follow-up bite, their climbing skills, and their rudimentary tribal social structure and language. That's consistent with what we've discovered so far in this ENCyclopedia entry. But perhaps the more interesting part of the column is Mearls's translation of these points into potential 5th Edition mechanics.
He decides that the echolocation means invisibility doesn't work against hook horrors, and that hiding from one requires a solid object to duck behind. The hook horror's superior hearing means it can't be surprised easily. Mearls gives it two hook attacks, and suggests that a hit target becomes skewered. A skewered victim takes hook damage and bite damage, and must make a Strength check to escape. It also needs a climb speed and a bonus to climb checks.
Based on 5 Hit Dice in 1st Edition and 2nd Edition, a Challenge Rating of 6 in 3rd Edition, and a level of 14 in 4th Edition, Mearls decides that a hook horror should be "a tough match-up for 5th-level characters". He pegs its Strength as comparable to that of an ogre, gives it above average Wisdom and Dexterity, an Intelligence of 6 and below average Charisma.
For the story elements, Mearls sticks with the Monstrous Compendium lore, where hook horrors dwell underground in small groups, prefer meat and hunt it, but without attacking obviously more powerful targets. He suggests that in addition to living in caves, their climbing ability suggests that they might seek out higher perches in caverns to roost. Finally, building on all of this, Mike provides a sample stat block for the hook horror.
There was a 22-month gap between Mearls's column and the release of Dead in Thay in April 2014, but only five months more until the release of Monster Manual in September 2014. Given that, it's no surprise that the version of the hook horror in this D&D Next adventure is closer to the final 5th Edition version. It has changed from being an Aberration to a Monstrosity, and the complicated impaling attack has been dropped. For some reason, the hook horror's hit points dipped dramatically in this iteration of the rules. Both versions of the D&D Next stats are included in the comparative summary at the end of this article.
By the time we reach the 5th Edition Monster Manual, the hook horror has completed its gradual transformation. No longer a mushroom-munching monster that fights only to defend itself, it has instead become a fierce and aggressive predator. Mechanically, this hook horror is a simpler creature than the one first suggested in the Legends & Lore column; it has just two simple hook attacks. It inherits the increased hit points from 3rd Edition, but background lore sticks to the key points from the 2nd Edition Monstrous Manual. For the first time, reference is made to a specific "Hook Horror" language. Communication between hook horrors is still based on clicking sounds rather than speech, but it is satisfying to have this acknowledged as a language in its own right.
Hook horrors also feature in the recent Out of the Abyss adventure, where a mated hook horror pair is being pursued by a band of gnolls hunters. Depending on how the encounter turns out, there is a chance that the adventurers will find a batch of hook horror eggs, and a new hatchling might even imprint on one of them. Delightfully, to address this possibility, the adventure includes a Hook Horror Maturation chart with stats for infants (tiny, up to 1 month), young hook horrors (small, 1-3 months), and juveniles (medium, 3-6 months). Hook horrors become large and adult at six months which is substantially faster than the 17 years it took for them to mature in 1st Edition!
D&D lore consistently paints a picture of hook horrors as creatures that don't have a lot to do with other species, and that seems to be true in a genetic sense too. Their Ecology article states that they are not mammals, but invertebrate arthropods with vaguely humanoid form, and observes that (along with kobolds), hook horrors are one of few egg-laying bipeds. The Monstrous Compendium suggests that they are distantly related to cockroaches and cave crickets.
The little we do know about hook horror relationships with other creature mostly revolves around food. The 1st Edition hook horrors prefer non-mobile fungi, but if food supplies are short, they will prey on zygoms, violet fungi, phycomids and shriekers. The Ecology of the Hook Horror suggests that large fungi are found in half of hook horror lairs, and that some groups will even keep captive fungi as a food supply. Hook horrors apparently have a special gland in their endocrine system which gives them immunity to any rotting or infestation powers that these fungi have.
By the time we get to 3rd Edition, hook horrors are predominantly carnivorous, and the Monster Manual II notes that drow are one of their favourite meals. The 4th Edition Monster Manual responds to this by observing that drow hunt and slay wild hook horrors and take the young and eggs to raise as slaves. The encounter tables in 4th Edition suggest that hook horrors can sometimes be found with balhannoths, grimlocks and beholders, but that's not really consistent with everything else we know about them.
Hook horrors don't have many natural enemies. Not only are they capable of defending themselves aggressively, but at least in 1st Edition their tendencies to accumulate internal parasites means that most carnivores shun them as food. This is no longer the case by 2nd Edition, where natural predators capable of catching a hook horror would eat it. Ogres have been known to use crude suits of armour made from hook horror exoskeleton plates, so perhaps they occasionally hunt them.
Hook horrors parts
According to Dragon #131, the plates of a hook horror's exoskeleton can be made into armour, but it is only suitable for large creatures. The exoskeletons of juvenile hook horrors are too soft to be used to make smaller suits. The process of making a suit of armour takes a month (including one whole day to shell the deceased creature), and gives armour with AC 3, that saves as bone. A smith can typically sell this for 450 gp, so may be willing to pay adventurers 100 gp for the body of a hook horror (or 250 gp if the plates have already been removed). The Monstrous Compendium notes that after a month, the exoskeleton dries out and becomes too brittle to be crafted.
Although attempts have been made to harvest the special gland which protects hook horrors from fungi, these have been unsuccessful, as the gland stops functioning once the hook horror dies.
Hook horrors and spells
At least in its 1st Edition incarnation, the hook horror's senses give it a few special bonuses and penalties against some spells. Balancing a +2 saving throw bonus against spells causing blindness and visual illusions and phantasms is a -2 saving throw penalty against spells targeting the senses of smell and hearing. A hook horror that is blinded by a spell only suffers a one third penalty to speed, and half the normal penalty to attacks (-2 instead of -4). Its vulnerability to disease gives it a -1 saving throw against magical disease attacks (e.g., cause disease). In 3rd Edition, a silence spell negates a hook horror's blindsense.
An ESP spell will give only a basic understanding of a hook horror's thoughts, typically involving food or personal discomfort. The different fundamental mechanisms for language foil the efforts of translation spells such as tongues and comprehend languages to decipher their clacking language.
- https://www.enworld.org/forum/content.php?2989-Monster-ENCyclopedia-Hook-Horror: An complete history of the Hook Horror, complete with art through the ages, edition-comparative statblocks, and references to Hook Horrors in specific D&D campaign settings.