Is your party of adventurers having a fun time at the beach? Make it more fun by throwing in a slippery horde of Sahuagin. The Sahuagin’s, pronounced sa-HWA-gin, first print appearance was in the 1975 Dungeons & Dragons supplement, Blackmoor by Dave Arneson. There they have an epic entry, where they are first referred to as “The Devil Men of the Deep.” This name would follow them into future print works and is also much easier to pronounce than Sahuagin.
The description in Blackmoor is just amazing. For those who do not have access to this now ancient supplement, here is the paragraph that would introduce us to these “Devil Men.”
A constant threat to man, beast and fish are the voracious SAHUAGIN 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 Sahuagin have taken and perverted virtually every aspect of civilization to support their sadistic cannibalistic culture
We would also get our first glimpse of the Sahuagin here with art by David Sutherland. A very similar image by Sutherland would be used in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual two years later. The big change being the placement of the trident and the addition of some shoreline to the illustration.
While they might have first appeared in a work by Arneson, according toGary Gygax, they were created by Steve Marsh. Marsh even gets a call out in the Monster Manual preface.
Steve Marsh for devising the creatures for undersea encounters which originally appeared in BLACKMOOR, as I have radically altered them herein.Gary Gygax
According to Marsh, the inspiration for the Sahuagin came from an episode of Super Friends. I went through the original run of the pre-Blackmoor Super Friends, which is just one season that ran from September through December of 1973. I couldn’t find any creatures there that looked or acted like the Sahuagin. So I went back to the original Aquaman Animated series which ran from September 1967 to June 1970.
In the second episode of the series, The Rampaging Reptile-Men, we meet some, well, rampaging Reptile-Men. They don’t look exactly like the Sahuagin we would become familiar with, but they are evil and intelligent water-dwelling creatures. I could easily see Marsh confusing the various DC heroes TV shows, so perhaps these are the creatures that would inspire his “Devil Men of the Deep.”
In the Advanced Dungeons & Dragon Monster Card, the Sahuagin is something very different. A bulging eyed fish monster that is all muscles and frill. This piece by Erol Otus paints a creature in motion, menacingly brandishing a trident in a cotton candy ocean. Otus is amazing at capturing the uncanny and his Sahuagin does that by being familiar yet otherworldly.
The stats on the monster card and in the Monster Manual match up nicely. The card, as usual stresses what is needed to easily manage an encounter with the Sahuagin, but with some nice unnecessary details included to add some flavor. I especially like the addition of their attacking on moonless nights and their hatred of ixitxachitl. It is an odd detail to include in a Monster Card since that evil ray-like creature does not appear at all in the Monster Cards.
A very similar illustration, but with noticeable differences would appear in Polyhedron issue 2 in 1981. It is similar enough that I would think this is also by Otus, but it is unsigned and the magazine does not credit him in this issue.
Whatever the case, this version has notable differences like a wider mouth, the addition of bubbles and a simpler, but equally interesting trident.
This obvious beloved monster would show up in the Second Edition of the game in the Monstrous Compendium and Monstrous Manual. The stats for the Sahuagin are largely unchanged, but the entry for it would come to take up two full pages. The cherry on top of the Second Edition Sahuagin is a brand new interpretation of it by artist Tony DiTerlizzi.
DiTerlizzi’s Sahuagin riffs on the original while giving us something completely new. A compact humanoid body, with a more fish-like head, this creature looks more at home in the water than earlier incarnations. I especially enjoy the strange narrowness of its spear and lower limbs. It hints at a certain economy in their ecology and society that plays well into their lawful evilness.
This Sahuagin as the “Shark-kin” figured into various rule books from the the Basic Edition of Dungeons & Dragons including:
- In the Basic Edition of Dungeons & Dragons the Shark-Kin are mentioned in both the AC9 Creature Catalogue (1986) and DMR2 Creature Catalog (1993). The Creature Catalogue includes a fun illustration of the Shark-Kin that looks more like Otus’ version. It is unclear who did this piece, but art in this book was by Jeff Anderson, Helen Bedfod, Gary Harrod, Tim Sell, Brian Williams, Geoff Wingate, and Pete Young.
- The Shark-kin would get a featured role in the Creature Crucible supplement PC3 The Sea People. This book, with great art by Terry Dykstra introduced the Shark-kin as a playable race. It is chock full of illustrations.
Some of the most famous early adventures had Sahuagin in them. Probably most famously in the U series of modules that centered around the town of Saltmarsh.
- In U2 Danger at Dunwater (1982) by Dave J. Browne with Don Turnbull, the Sahuagin are a gathering threat and it up to a low level party of adventurers to unite various forces to try to stop them. The module has great art by Dave de Leuw, Jim Holloway, Harry Quinn and Tim Truman that includes a full-color cover and a black and white illustration of a very angry Sahuagin.
- In U3 The Final Enemy (1983) by Dave J. Browne with Don Turnbull, the Sahuagin are finally identified as the real enemy and now our brave group of adventurers and their allies need to end them to save the town of Saltmarsh. Sahuagin depictions in this adventure are exceptional with art provided by Dave de Leuw and Keith Parkinson.
- In The Ruins of Undermountain by Ed Greenwood, there is an encounter with a group of Sahuagin that are using a clever illusion and a Net of Ensaring.
Second Edition also gave us some accessories that put the spotlight on Sahuagin.
- In The Sea Devils (1997) by Skip Williams, which is part of the Monstrous Arcana series, we get a deep dive into world of the Sahuagin. At nearly one hundred pages long, this weighty accessory is pretty much the bible for those seeking info on the Sahuagin. It also includes a poster, which is perfect for the bedroom wall of very hardcore Sahuagin fans.
- The Sea Devils borrowed from two other books Monster Mythology (1992) and Of Ships and Sea (1997). In Monster Mythology we get some incite into the worshiping habits of the Sahuagin and in Of Ships and Sea we learn about how to use them in maritime adventures. That latter has an illustration of some Sahuagin using their favorite weapon, the net, to ambush an unsuspecting trio.
People love these finned devils, so it probably doesn’t come as a shock that the Sahuagin made multiple appearances in both Dragon and Dungeon Magazine during their run in the First and Second edition era of AD&D. Unfortunately during this period, neither magazine commissioned illustrations.
- In Dragon #42 (1980), they printed a fascinating article by Tom Moldvay called Giants in the Earth. The piece gives D&D stats and background to lesser-known characters from fantasy literature. In it we learn that the Sahuagin are the enemy of Tauno Kraken’s-Bane from the book The Merman’s Children by Poul Anderson.
- Dragon #48 has some great early undersea content, trying to clear up some of what Blackmoor started. Sahuagin are mentioned in a Bazaar of the Bizarre by Roger E. Moore about under water magic items and in an advice article, Watery words to the wise by Jeff Swycaffer.
- We take a journey to hell in the Dragon #75 (1983) article, The Nine Hells Part 1 by Ed Greenwood. I referenced this article in my piece about the Barbed Devil, it really is a great bit of mythology building by Greenwood and worth checking out, even if you have no interest in Sahugain. In the article we learn about Sekolah, the Great White Shark that the Sahuagin worship. Sekolah is also mentioned in Monster Mythology and the Sea Devils.
- In Dragon #165 (1991), they are mentioned repeatedly in an article about the spells of undersea priests by Randy Maxwell, aptly titled, Undersea Priests. My favorite part of this article is the Sahuagin as an option in the Reincarnation table.
- The Dark Continent by David Howery appeared in Dragon #189 (1993). It is one the rare attempts to give some details on African settings for AD&D campaigns and it includes the Sahuagin.
- In Dragon #230 (1996), Roger E. Moore, wrote an article about powerful magical items called the Orbs of Dragonkind. One such item, The Orb of the Dragonette, has fallen into the hands of a Sahuagin, who is using it to charm dragons to do evils deeds.
- Dragon #250 (1998) has an ocean theme and the Sahuagin are mentioned multiple times, most prominently in Heroes of the Sea by James Wyatt.
- The Letters section of Dungeon #22 (1990) contains a letter from a gamer in Venezuela, who has some questions about the more “exotic” adventures that Dungeon published. In that he references a fantastical Sahuagin with four arms.
Sahuagin are kind of a big deal in Dungeons & Dragons. They appear in both Greyhawk and the Forgotten Realms as Sahuagin and in Blackmoor as the Shark-kin. So whatever pre-made flavor of the game you might play, these monsters are ready for action.
The amount of creative effort dedicated to them gives Dungeon Masters easy access to a fully formed society. Their evil alignment and need for water might limit their usefulness as player characters, but their cunning, combined with their strength and numbers make them a challenge for player characters to face at any level.
Sahuagin Random Encounter
You have been hired to accompany a famous gnomish explorer on a journey to down a dark mysterious jungle river. The river is deep and dark and appears peaceful. On the second day of traveling, the boat comes across the remnants of a mysterious pale humanoid beast. Unfortunately it is too decomposed to easily identify.
The gnome is convinced it the remains of a legendary fish god that is worshipped by local parrot folk. They squawk tales of its fabulous treasure and now that it is deceased, perhaps that treasure might be easier to claim? So the gnome wants to seek it out.
Unfortunately, this was just the badly decomposed remains of a Sahuagin, who live in a half-submerged temple on a tributary of the main river.
Will party join the gnome in his search for the legendary treasure? Will they face off against these river Sahuagin?
If they do, they will find that these evil creatures are currently holding the parrot folks “fish god,” a rare River Mermaid, hostage. Freeing her will make the party a hero to the parrot folk and will also result in some fabulously fishy treasure.