One of the biggest draws to Dungeons and Dragons is the side array of monsters and creatures that you can use in the game. Some are adaptations of folklore and mythology, while others were invented entirely for the game itself. One such monster is the bulette – the dreaded landshark.
What is a Bulette?
A bulette, sometimes known as a landshark, is a giant, armored, burrowing creature resembling a cross between an armadillo and a snapping turtle. They tunnel through hilly areas, sensing prey walking above them, and then charging suddenly upwards to devour their unfortunate targets whole. These may be animals, of course, but in the more populated areas of the world it often includes people, armor, and all.
In terms of temperament, they’re big, strong, and stupid. In the toughest of fights, they often raise their ridged and armored backbone, an intimidation tactic which unfortunately reveals a soft weak point beneath all of their armor.
The exact origins of bulettes are unknown, even in the standard D&D settings. Many believe that they are simply animals which evolved in the way that all animals evolve. But some arcanists and wizards also hold the theory that they are in fact a chimera, created by some mad mage combining the aforementioned armadillo and a snapping turtle. This theory is somewhat supported by the fact that no baby bulettes have ever been observed. (It is also supported, meta-narratively, by the fact that they are listed as monstrosities and not animals.)
A Brief History of the Bulette in D&D
Bulettes made their first appearance in the very first edition of Dragon Magazine (a publication which we’ve talked about before here: https://d20collective.com/blogs/divinations-from-the-collective/dragon-magazine-a-brief-history-and-explanation). The magazine’s first ‘Creature Feature’ gave an illustration of the fearsome monster, a small set of rules for running one, and a few paragraphs worth of description about them. It also clarified that, at least originally, the intended pronunciation was ‘boo-lay’ and not ‘boo-let’.
They have made subsequent appearances in almost every edition of the game henceforth, with relatively few changes to their abilities, tactics, or description. They’re included in the SRD for both 3rd and 5th editions, and are frequently recognized as a classic DnD monster on merchandise and in franchise materials like videogames and novels.
Changes to the Bulette
For how long they have been a part of Dungeons and Dragons canon, there have been relatively few changes to bulettes. They maintain their hunting tactics, heavily armored hide, unintelligent disposition, and powerful tremorsense abilities.
They have changed size somewhat through the years. The original article in Dragon Magazine places them from 9–11 feet in height (or length), and in 3e they are sized as Huge. In 5e, however, they are only classed as Large, and their challenge rating goes down from 7 to 5. Which, of course, makes some level of sense. Their armor class also goes down from 22 to 17, and their attack bonuses from +9 to +7.
A lot of those changes can be accounted for in the switch from the d20 to the 5e system. 5e numbers tend to be lower overall, since abilities grant advantage over small modifier bonuses. But the sudden removal of various feats and protections also render it slightly less threatening than it previously has been.
Using Bulettes in Your Campaigns
Bulettes aren’t hard to incorporate into most campaigns.
Since they are entirely animalistic, they don’t require much motivation to be written in. Plus, they can provide all the mystery and tension of characters being hunted down by some unseen predator, leaving only the disturbed earth behind them.
Alternatively, they also made excellent enemies to fight without compunction, testing their skills against a heavy-hitting enemy, and perhaps forcing them to think about their tactics on the battlefield. Since they have next to no intelligence, fighting them is just about the same as fighting off a pack of wolves or lions that wandered in too close to town – they have no real autonomy of their own, and you don’t have to feel bad about putting them down.
A simple plot hook would be to have a village ask the party for help finding several missing citizens. You could throw in a couple of red herrings too – a settlement of drow having been spotted nearby, or a mysterious carnival, that they have begun to suspect is responsible. But in investigating, your party can find that, in fact, those groups have also had a few people go missing, and that something much more dangerous is indeed afoot.
Each missing person may have taken a walk through the hillside or nearby field, harvesting their crops, fetching the day’s hunt from the woods, or running some other strange errand. If you have broader plots going on, you could easily leave clues about them here, with one of the victims’ activities being interrupted. But the party should find spots somewhere in each of these places as though something has been dug. A closer look reveals that something like a tunnel system has been created, although not maintained in the way a sapient creature might build them.
If they haven’t realized that it’s a bulette by now, an NPC can tell them, or they can make some nature and survival checks to see what they know about the creature. From there, they can make whatever plan they like to trap the monster, draw it out and fight it, or perhaps try and harness the beast for their own ends (if they’re a more evil-leaning group).
If you want to make the fight extra interesting, try taking a look at the original Dragon Magazine article about them here: https://annarchive.com/files/Drmg001.pdf. You might incorporate some of their suggestions about weak spots, and give bonuses or advantage to called shots made to the eyes or beneath the bulette’s ridged back! It’ll certainly encourage your party to take closer looks at their opponents, and change the way that they fight accordingly.
Have you or your party ever fought a bulette? Did you enjoy fighting it? Let us know in the comments below!