Friday, March 21, 2008

a brief note on monster books

Everybody thought 8 monster books was crazy...Thanks to gameblog reader and Hackmaster superfan Topher I've been able to recently acquire the entire 8-volume 1,600-critter Hacklopedia of Beasts. Thanks again, Topher! I've had a great time flipping around in these books and reading various monster entries.

If you run a first or second edition Advanced game you might want to check these things out. Monster statblock compatibility with those games is very high. I'm not saying that every DM needs to own the entire set, but you could spice up a campaign nicely with just one or two volumes.

Back when I was running 3.x I owned and used fairly few monster books. Sure, several books had a monster section that came in handy. The Epic Level Handbook's critter selection was very useful when my Wild Times campaign started inching its way up and past 20th level. But in terms of pure bestiaries I only owned maybe four total and none of them, besides the Monster Manual, were from Wizards. And upon reading the Hacklopedia I think I finally figured out why ...but how man critter books does Wizards offer nowadays?I never got the new Fiend Folio, or the later Monster Manuals.

Every once in a while I would go into a bookstore or nerd shop and check out the WotC critter books. Sometimes I even had opportunity to pick up one cheap, like the time I found the FF in the discount bin of my favorite local bookstore. The problem has always been that I flip through the book and I never see anything fun. The monsters in WotC monster books might be fun when the dice hit the table, but there's nothing in the book that shows me that upon a casual perusal.

I can open up a random Hacklopedia and see a Map Snatcher running off with some poor party's dungeon map or a qullan sheering some fool's skullcap off with his preternaturally sharp broadsword. I can read about how sirynes get annoyed that men seek them out for their looks rather than their singing. The Hacklopedia has all the loopiness and sheer joy that I get out of original Fiend Folio or the monster sections of the Arduin Grimoire. I get the distinct impression that someone had a heckuva a lot of fun writing up these monsters. With WotC products all I see is grody art and monsters designed mostly by mechanical concerns. "Hmmm, we need an aberration type that is aquatic but suitable for CR 2." That sort of paint-by-numbers thing.

Again, this is only my opinion and only based on surface impressions.


  1. Anonymous11:27 AM

    Your opinion perhaps but you're on to something. My 8 year-old daughter likes to look through my D&D books and by far her favorite is the 1977 original Monster Manual. Never once has she said to me, "You know, Daddy, I think the krenshar is a really cool monster," to cite one example of a latter day creature that owes its existence solely to filling in a hole in some designer's grand schema of monsters.

    Monsters need no reason to exist in D&D except because they're cool and immediately suggest cool ways they can be used to make your player's character's lives hellish. Somewhere along the line this fact has been lost. I'm not sold on monsters by how "balanced" they are or how well they address some common "problem" of play at a certain level. I'm sold on monsters by whether they immediately suggest fun ways that I can use them.

  2. I agree entirely on the gap-filling nature of most of the WotC designs (and sadly, it's a trend I see mimicked in earnest by a lot of the third-party d20 writers, too ...)

    I helped out in the school library at Havelock High School (mainly as a project to help curb my behavioral awesomeness, which the Principal called something else) and one of the things I did while I was there was type up a blank Monster Sheet and mimeo the heck out of it ... I took home like 400 blank (indigo) monster sheets and whenever I had free time I'd just fill them with whatever craziness came to mind, and toss my favorites into the next session.

    Though, the thing of it was, I never really was a big monster guy, when it came down to it, at least compared to what TSR seemed to expect of me. I used and enjoyed monsters regularly, but if you scan over my old DMing notes, most of the opponents I put forth were either humans, humanoids, or undead. I always felt it gave the odder creatures more spotlight when they _did_ show up.

    To ramble on one more related topic: I made a conscious decision sometime in the late 1980s to write RPG material professionally. To this end, I took a very geeky, methodical approach on the first day of my new career: I made a survey of a stack of Dragon magazines (the three previous years' worth), listing all the articles and tagging them by category to see what the editor (probably Kim Mohan at the time) was buying. And I was genuinely shocked (laugh if you must, but I was _genuinely_ shocked) to see that a full 70% of the articles were about monsters, specifically, with all other topics being, at best, a very distant second (I think the next topic was like 9%). Dragon was not a magazine about Dragons, but it sure was about monsters. This actually stunned me so much it delayed my interest in writing gaming material for another couple of years. True (if admittedly silly) story.

  3. Anonymous12:03 PM

    I'm with you 100% on this. My all time favourite Monster book was All the World's Monsters, a softback blue landscape format tome which had contributions from James Hargeaves of Ardiun fame. the monsters made little ecological sense at all, but then, neither does a dungeon. It was a perfect fit.

    Ironically it's monsters from books such as these which are closer in style to the beasts of myths and legends than anything to come out of the sanitised, rules-filled minds of WoTC.

    Closer to home, we use all the Tome of Horrors and the Monsternomicon regularly. They're monster manuals worthy of the title :)

  4. greywulf, if you only have the blue one, that's Volume II unless my memory is failing me (wouldn't be the first time). Track down the others; they're all equally fun.

    And I still want to know what the deal is with the Culverin (not the gun, the monster that would throw Stardust Potatoes at you, if, again, memory serves).

  5. There are a few cool monsters in some of the WotC books, but you're right - they tend to be filled with mechanical blandness.

    I don't think cool is diametrically opposed to balance, though.

    In principle, I don't think cool is opposed to 'filling in gaps' either.

    Hmmm... my challenge to myself: make a cool version of the Krenshar (CR1 magical beast with fear effect).

  6. Maybe not Stardust. Some kind of hostile potato, though (it had its own listing).

  7. szlizard: I agree that cool isn't diametrically opposed to a symmetrical design scheme. Arduin, to return to that example, shows lots of deliberate symmetry and method in its wacked-out design. The symmetry doesn't draw attention to itself because the eye and the heart are drawn to the awesome, instead.

  8. (What I guess I mean is ... the problem with [many of] the WotC designs isn't that they're methodical ... the problem is that, in so many cases the designer apparently feels that that's sufficient, all on its own)

  9. I've the red one (vol 1 ), myself. We used to joke about kicking down the door and encountering three Loki because of his monster entry. Also, it gave me the Air Squid that jumped Jeff back in the old game.

    DriveThru has em for $7.46.

  10. Anonymous4:21 PM

    Agreed on the awesomeness of the Hackmaster monster books. I love that almost any entry can give the DM inspiration for anything from a single encounter to a whole campaign. The lists of economic byproducts of each monster is a hoot, too.

  11. Anonymous11:06 PM

    I agree. The things that really get to me - the golems and "elementals", where people just keep thinking up new substances to make them out of. "Oh, I'll make a slime golem!"

    I also hate how every monster's "favorite food is... [sentient creatures|demihumans|adventurers]. Biology much?

  12. I have a soft spot for the "interpolated" monsters ... I had a running gag in one of my last AD&D campaigns (early 90s), where an NPC wizard would always be conjuring obscure elementals from the hemi-semi-demi-quasi-plane of this or that, and he'd get all huffy and offended if the PCs didn't recognize his latest achievement:

    PCs: Huramax! Nice Earth Elemental!
    Huramax: EARTH elemental? EARTH? I'll have you know, mundane CRETINS, that this is a POTASH elemental, and provides not only fine brute-force combat but also +2 to fertilize!

  13. Anonymous12:49 PM

    mxyzplk's comment regarding rent-a-golem and elementals rang a bell with me. My (albeit limited) experience of Wotc and late TSR monsters seems to consist of their obsession with 5000 varieties of undead (all basically the same as each other) along with dragons of every conceivable flavour. It's the same thing with magic spells, many of which are simply versions of the same spell.

    I have to say though that I don't think that for a monster to be 'fun' it has to be, shall we say, 'whacky' in some way. It should be inventive and interesting to play.

    In the same way that if you use od&d rules you don't have to use them to run the old 50 trolls in a 10' room syndrome. You can if that's your thing but you don't have to.

    Less number crunching and more inventiveness!


  14. I think I find most monsters dull because my ideal fantasy setting has, like, a handful of kinds of monsters at most.

    But then, I tend to run fantasy games where the antagonists are alternatively other humans and the undead. My worlds are no places for throat leeches.