Random Thought Encounter: Giants and Rock Catching

One of the stranger monster abilities you’ll see throughout various editions of Dungeons & Dragons is the ability for giants to catch rocks.

Now, giants being able to throw rocks makes perfect sense. Giants are big, rocks are plentiful, and it saves them from having to spend resources on ranged weapons, which are typically disposable and would require more materials to be spent scaling them to giant-size. If there’s only so much steel to go around, do you want to waste it on huge-sized arrowheads or on a sturdy suit of armor?

But catching rocks as a special ability for giants makes a lot less sense to me. At least from a game design standpoint. This simply isn’t something I see coming up at most game tables. PCs tend to be human-sized characters who, when making ranged attacks, resort either to more sophisticated weapons (typically projectiles of some sort, e.g. crossbows) or spells. The only ones likely to be throwing rocks at giants are other giants.

Now, that could still come up in the course of play. A PC magic-user might polymorph into a giant, or the fighter might drink a potion of giant control, or the bard might convince a clan of friendly giants to help them attack a rival clan who’s been attacking human lands. But overall, that’s not much of a case for introducing a specialized ability into giant stat blocks.

For that matter, this particular quirk isn’t universal to giants in D&D. The original Chainmail game (1971) has giants being able to attack as with rocks per catapults, but there’s nothing in there about them catching them. Nor is there in Original Dungeons & Dragons (1974), Holmes Basic (1977), or B/X (1981); giants in the Rules Cyclopedia (1991), which collects the first four sets of the BECMI iteration of D&D, lack this ability as well, as do giants in D&D 4th Edition.

Rock catching, as it turns out, only appears in AD&D 1st Edition, 2nd Edition, D&D 3.X, and 5E…and even 5E only keeps it for stone giants, whereas the earlier versions of the game assign it to most giants in some form or another. (Giants in Pathfinder 1st Edition, I’ll note, also carries this over from 3.X, and Pathfinder 2nd Edition has them retain it.)

So where does this ability come from in the first place? While it apparently started in AD&D 1E, what inspired Gary Gygax to write this particular ability into the monster entries for the giants in the 1977 Monster Manual? After some Googling, the best hypothesis I can find is that he wanted to mechanically represent what happens in this passage:

“Bilbo … saw that across the valley the stone-giants were out, and were hurling rocks at one another for a game, and catching them, and tossing them down into the darkness where they smashed among the trees far below, or splintered into little bits with a bang … they could hear the giants guffawing and shouting all over the mountainsides.”

The Hobbit, Chapter IV: Over Hill and Under Hill

Of course, it’s worth noting that AD&D 1st Edition also introduced a few instances where the players might very well be hurling rocks. For instance, the potion of giant strength on page 126 of the Dungeon Masters Guide (1979) directly references doing so, as does the girdle of giant strength (p. 145). Not to mention the possibility that the PCs might, under certain circumstances, make use of catapults themselves (e.g. defending a settlement against a besieging army of humanoids, among whom giants might be found).

Interestingly, the mechanics behind rock catching also changed across the editions. While 1E and 2E gave giants percentage chances (which varied among giant types) of successfully catching rocks thrown at them, 3.X let them make a Reflex save once per round to do so, with the DC varying depending on the size of the rock. Given that Reflex is a bad save for creatures of the Giant type, and most giants had terrible Dexterity scores, this meant that even on the few occasions that giants in 3.X were called on to catch a rock, they likely wouldn’t be able to pull it off.

5th Edition, it should be noted, was a bit more generous in this regard. Although only stone giants can catch rocks now, as noted previously, they need only make a DC 10 Dexterity save to do so (and be able to use their reaction for the round). Since they have a +5 bonus to Dexterity saves to begin with, that makes them very likely to successfully catch any rock that comes their way, albeit not quite as certain as back in 1E and 2E (where stone giants had a 90% chance of catching a rock).

While I doubt that many players have anecdotes about this particular ability, I can’t help but wonder how this might have come up during play. If you have a tale about giants catching rocks in your game, please feel free to share it in the comments below!

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3 Responses to “Random Thought Encounter: Giants and Rock Catching”

  1. Upper_Krust Says:

    I always had the impression this was a game young giants would play when growing up in the same way kids would throw a baseball or football between one another. Its also a practical life lesson teaching them coordination and self-defense from pesky humans.

    • alzrius Says:

      No doubt, but at least in 3.5 it seemed odd to me. D&D 3.0 had a lot of abilities for monsters that were largely extraneous when it came to combat (albeit mostly in the way of spell-like abilities), which 3.5 cut in the name of making monster abilities more pragmatic. So having an ability which seems like it would rarely, if ever, come up struck me as unusual. It’s very much a legacy ability in that regard.

      • Upper_Krust Says:

        I wonder if certain monsters (giants and dragons in particular) would benefit from a base stat block with vastly expanded options and then each variant is a quick ‘template’ added to the base. When I think of the different options between Warhammer giants (of old) and D&D giants the latter always seem far more boring.

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