I've closed the current Eleven Foot Poll early because I'd accidentally set it to run for an absurdly long period. Luckily we've ended up with a clear winner, with the Beholder pulling ahead of the Gelatinous Cube over last night and claiming a whopping 34% of the vote.
You two guys who voted for the Carrion Crawler, I feel your pain.
The Beholder is a mainstay of Dungeons & Dragons right from its earliest editions. It's been a regular foe of mid-to-high-level adventurers, it's headlined multiple sets of the D&D Miniatures line, and it's been the star villain of its own computer game in Westwood's excellent Eye of the Beholder (and to a lesser extent the two mediocre sequels).
It's hard to get a handle on what makes the Beholder so memorable. Its it merely that it is an abomination, a thing-that-should-not-be? So too are the Galeb Duhr, the Xorn, the Gibbering Mouther and the Otyugh, and none of those creatures have reached the Beholder's level of celebrity.
Possibly some of what makes the Beholder memorable comes from the way we react to faces. We have a natural talent for identifying human faces; we are so naturally inclined to react to our own kind that we can see faces in the grills and headlights of cars, in the gnarls of tree trunks, and in the random scatter of rubbish. What's more, we react strongly to vulnerable faces. The reason we regard large eyes as "cute" is because we are reacting to a perceived newborn; the eyes of a baby are disproportionately large compared to its skull and it is only with growth that the proportions align to adult norms.
The Beholder subverts those expectations; it uses the shape of a human face, complete with "hair", to create something wholly aberrant and unnatural. Its large main eye and plethora of secondary orbs are not its vulnerability but its strength, able to fire beams that bring death or debilitation.
Part of the charm of the Beholder, too, is its versatility. Much like the Dragon, who is able to fly, claw, use breath weapons, spells, and a fear aura, the Beholder is not bound to any single tactic or method of offence. Each eye delivers a different yet potent attack, and an enemy of the "eye tyrant" can never be sure exactly what being hit by a Beholder's beam will do, other than have a surety that it will not be pleasant.
The move to 4th Edition has not left the Beholder unscathed. 4th Edition puts an end to "save vs death" effects. As a result, the Beholder can no longer kill or petrify enemies with a single attack. How does it compensate?
4th Edition offers Beholders in all flavours and level ranges, but the Beholder Eye Tyrant is the most archetypal version on offer. As a level 19 solo, this monstrosity is well suited to act as an endgame adversary for the Paragon Tier of play.
The Eye Tyrant packs 900 hit points, gets a free beam attack on each and every enemy that starts its turn within 5 squares of the monster, and delivers a further two beams on its turn, increasing to four when it gets bloodied.
The Death Ray's still there, but like most death effects it's now a track, with the target needing to fail two saves without passing one in order to actually die, and getting weaker along the way. The Petrification Ray works much the same. There's a Charm Ray that causes characters to make a basic attack against their allies, and a Sleep Ray that sends characters unconscious until they make a save.
The star of the show is the devastating Disintegration Ray, dealing 2d10+9 followed by an ongoing 2d20 untyped damage. Making your save against the ongoing doesn't end the effect - you'll just be dialling it down to 2d6 ongoing, requiring another save to escape completely.
Unfortunately like all 4th Edition solos the Beholder Eye Tyrant is disproportionately affected by debuffs. Despite being theoretically as tough as five equivalent level monsters, it still only takes one successful hit to leave it dazed, stunned, or paralysed. Wise DMs will give the Beholder favourable terrain and an array of minions to make sure it presents an appropriate challenge.
Still, the Beholder retains its charm and flavour in this new edition, and I'm personally looking forward to running my players into one at the first opportunity.