Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Cryptic Signals - A Book of Beasts, Monsters & Treasure, Volume 2: Monsters &

A Book of Beasts

Review by WFS

This bestiary is a supplement for a supplement. In 2015, Jason Lutes wrote “The Perilous Wilds”, a supplement for overland exploration for the Dungeon World RPG, which is regularly cited as an essential product for that system and a source of inspiration even for those who lack any interest in Dungeon World. “A Book of Beasts” was a stretch goal for the Kickstarter for The Perilous Wilds

The premise for A Book of Beasts is that The Perilous Wilds provides a series of random tables for generating creatures, and that all 56 of the monsters included would be rolled up using those random tables. Just knowing that each monster was born of random prompts has a certain magic akin to learning that classic D&D monsters like the Owlbear or the Rust Monster were inspired by deformed children’s toys. To add to this creative flourish, Jason assigned each creature “to a different artist, giving them very little direction in interpreting [his] written descriptions.” I think the reason that this approach tickles me so much is twofold: Firstly, I love improv and watching someone take a few random prompts and create something cool and cohesive, and, secondly, it is reminiscent of medieval bestiaries, where you had monks describing and drawing strange monsters such as “elephants” or “lions” via an ancient game of telephone, to often hilarious results.

But the wacky process means nothing if the actual monsters are no good. A Book of Beasts, however, fully delivers on being a fun and gameable bestiary. I always like the more obvious creatures that are just two animals combined (such as the White Cat of One Hundred Paws, which is a snow leopard-centipede hybrid, or the Owlbat, which is an owl-bat), but the real mark of a bestiary’s quality is if the really bizarre monsters seem like something you could bring to your table. A Book of Beasts offers plenty of weird monsters that still feel like they have some reason to exist in a fantasy world from the small (e.g., the Prayer Sparrow, a small bird that pecks the eyes out of unrepentant petitioners at religious functions) to the humanoid (e.g., the Wastewalkers, reptilian nomads who can survive without water for weeks on end) to the larger than life (e.g., the Architect Lichen, an intelligent fungus that grows to look like ancient ruins and always expanding). 

But this bestiary is far from perfect, as some entries run toward the generic. For example, the Fenkin is a toad-like humanoid that lives a tribal and territorial existence in the swamp, which is a bit too similar to…basically every swamp-dwelling humanoid proffered by D&D, honestly! Sometimes even a small twist goes a long way. Such as the Hulking Brute, which might have been yet another ogre-alike if not for their fascination with cheese, which causes them to press cheesemakers into servitude to produce poor quality, moldy cheese (their favorite).

I award bonus points to bestiaries that hint at how the creatures interact with each other. It is all well and good to present a list of cool monsters for the player characters to fight (or run from), but adding details about how the monsters interact amongst themselves makes them feel more real and also provide useful guidance on how to place them in the game naturalistically. While A Book of Beasts largely presents stand-alone monstrosities, it shines when there is interaction. For instance, The Snow Creepers are basically D&D Ankhegs for frozen climates, but they are made way more interesting by the inclusion of the Flurry Worm, which are larval creepers that appear like a flurry of snow when a female Snow Creeper’s egg sac bursts open. This clever climatological camouflage is the setup for a horrific payoff–they Flurry Worms burrow into the flesh of their unlucky hosts where they gestate for a month before “[e]merg[ing] in some horrific fashion.” That is terrifying; I love it.

The organization also makes these monsters easy to bring to the table. The bestiary is organized not alphabetically by name, but first by climate (frigid, temperate, torrid) and then within each climate by terrain type (lowland, wetland, woodland, highland, underland). Each climate-terrain combination includes four creatures on a single spread. The result of this organization is that the referee can open to the appropriate climate-terrain combination for where their players are (or the location they are prepping) and pick one of the monsters on that spread. While it includes the obvious index of listing the creatures alphabetically in the back of the book, organizing the monsters based on where they can be found makes this bestiary a handy tome to have with you while running the game and minimizes flipping between pages during play.

Disclaimer: The cover art for A Book of Beasts is by Keny Widjaja, who is an interior artist on my upcoming Barkeep on the Borderlands adventure. The interior illustrations are by Carl Antonowicz, Billage, Jan Burger, Niels Burger, Jonathan Fine, and Josh Rosen. Keny’s inclusion as an artist in this bestiary did not impact my review.

A Book of Beasts was written by Jason Lutes. It can be obtained in PDF format for $5 on DriveThruRPG.

Review by Gus L.

The second “Booklet” of the Original 1974 edition of Dungeons & Dragons (OD&D). This thin half sheet zine is the blueprint for all subsequent monster books.  To find something earlier one has to leave the space of Role Playing games entirely and look to ancient bestiaries. Today Monsters & Treasure remains a functional and near complete list of creatures for the game it supports (or I’d argue almost any simple D&D-like game), in addition to being shockingly economical - with 76 monsters (at least 10 of which are simply alternate names or a vague one line description without stats) on only 20 half-pages (treasure tables and magic item descriptions fill more than half of Monsters & Treasure, which sets the form for subsequent role playing guides).  

I should mention the fact that I generally hate bestiaries. There are exceptions where bestiaries can be useful: densely stated tactical games, or ones that are really sets of lair adventures/hooks/scenarios. Otherwise bestiaries seem indulgent, mostly virtually useless fluff - rarely connected to setting, and almost never offer interesting deviation from the standards. Monsters & Treasure set though standards though, and it still manages to raise questions and offers lessons about the use and construction of beastiarys that should be taken more seriously today if one wants a bestiary that’s more then an excuse to draw a bunch of cool monster illustrations -- which is a perfectly fun project - just not an especially useful one for playing most RPGs.

At first it’s a bit odd to hold up Monsters & Treasure as an example of great bestiary design, there is nothing special about the creatures listed within;  without exception it offers the standard creatures of contemporary fantasy with little more than a name and a stat line. For ogres the entire descriptive text consists of “OGRES: These large and fearsome monsters range from 7 to 10 feet in height” followed by two more lines discussing their special abilities to inflict greater damage and throw rocks.  We don’t know what OD&D’s ogres look like or much about their habits or demeanor, only that they either serve chaos or neutrality and carry sacks of gold around - like giants.

Best Illustration in OD&D

This simplicity isn’t because of a lack of imagination, but rather because Monsters & Treasure is the ur-bestiary, and more than that, it’s one of the pillars of Gygaxian vernacular fantasy’s implied worldbuilding. Most creatures in Monsters & Treasure depend on the general and popular understanding of monsters to provide description and character, because even in 1974 most people knew what an ogre might be from reading Puss in Boots as a kid or some similar fairy tale source.  That’s the power of vernacular fantasy, it functions well with even minimal information and early D&D’s reliance on it rather then copious lore not only allows individual referees and players to understand threats with their creativity and general genre knowledge rather then games mastery but also keeps things easy to use and approachable.  These elements in bestiary design  are less necessary today, largely because Monsters & Treasure also changed our understanding of fantasy creatures. Beyond the basic understanding of monsters are foes to be defeated in RPG combat modeled via die roll (rather than through the ruses and abstractions popular in mythology, fairy tale and fantasy writing), Monsters & Treasure does more, it changes and defines many aspects of fantasy creatures in ways that are general today.

Monsters & Treasure (along with OD&D generally) is the source of our cultural understanding of what fantasy worlds look like, and when some other work of fantasy is considered creative, novel, or weird the baseline it’s being compared to today is the implied setting of OD&D.  This power is why I use the term “Gygaxian Vernacular Fantasy” rather than Vanilla Fantasy or another label - because even as it continues to evolve and change, today’s conception of fantasy worlds owes so much to Gygax and Arneson.  Personally I suspect Monsters & Treasure mostly this is Gygax’s work, though as with all early D&D it’s hard to tell*, the expanded and more descriptive Monster Manual is both writers' work, but the world building encounter tables of AD&D are Gygax's and expand Monsters & Treasure directly.

There might appear to be a contradiction between the generic names and laconic descriptions within Monsters & Treasure and this claim of cultural importance, but taking a look at some of the more in depth descriptions it’s clearer. Look at Dungeons & Dragons’ titular beast, the mighty dragon (or at least the very deadly but fairly fragile dragon in OD&D).  It’s the longest entry in Monsters & Treasure, spending a decadent two pages detailing the six Gygaxian chromatic dragons: white, black, green, blue, red, and golden and the mechanics around their varied breath weapons, age categories, and subdual.  This detail, while minimal, was novel in 1974 - the dragon here is conceived naturalistically, as a group of species (we even learn of their “family groupings”) rather than a singular mythic beast. Monsters and Treasure creates the idea of the fantasy dragon that’s today’s default: a species of intelligent fantasy creature whose color determines habitat and breath weapon.  While several legendary dragons breathe things besides fire (notably the Norse World Serpent, Jormungandr, who breathes noxious fumes - but then one asks if a world encircling serpent really a dragon?), fire is the norm, and it is unrelated to scale color. Monsters & Treasure created, codified, and popularized the colorful coded breath weapon trope. It’s also responsible for several other common and almost universally accepted fantasy versions of monsters such as the gnoll and slimes (borrowed from Dunsany and the movie The Blob) that weren’t a major part of the genre prior to D&D.

Gnolls, or “A cross between Gnomes and Trolls (. . . perhaps, Lord Sunsany (sic) did not really make it all that clear) with +2 morale.” are even more of a D&Dism then dragons, but their presentation in Monsters & Treasure didn’t define the Gnoll as the signature hyena monster that terrorized a million new World of Warcraft players, Gnolls became Hyena-ful in the 1977 Monster Manual. Monsters & Treasure Gnolls (see that illustration for all the detail you will ever need) aren’t hyena people, and they aren’t much like Dunsany’s Gnoles - forest dwelling fairy creatures who delight in gemstones, ropes, and torture.  In Monsters & Treasure they are one of the few illustrated creatures, but like their description they remain “similar to Hobgoblins”. This lack of definition and distinct character is also an aspect of Monsters & Treasure that makes it interesting. Gnolls are an example of what I think of as Monstrous Hierarchies.

I don’t know if it’s a taxonomic obsession specific to Gygax and sprite based computer games, but the most important monsters in OD&D tend to exist as distinct sub categories, for example undead and humanoids. These orders of foe start with the weakest and rise to the most dangerous - roughly in concert with character level. Humanoids begin as kobolds/goblins with less then one hit die and rise to giants who have exceptionally dangerous special abilities (massive boosts to damage dealing) and twelve plus Hit Dice. Gnolls are in the middle, the nastiest of the humanoids are roughly human sized - monstrous soldiers who still appear in large numbers and have 1.5 Hit Dice. After them come ogres. These hierarchies serve a purpose in that they produce an array of similar challenges that follow the same sorts of behavioral scripts, fill the same niches in the Gygaxian pseudo-ecology and gradually introduce more and better special abilities, but also ramp up challenge steadily with player level. One could simply say that goblins, like humans, have class levels and ½ to 3 Hit Dice, corresponding with fighters of the same level and then note they come in various varieties and by various names.  What Monsters & Treasure does instead is define each tier of monster as something unique - still largely undifferentiated, but with a name and specific statistics that allow them to become a known risk the players can gauge.

These hierarchies would simply be a curiosity if the first edition of D&D were a more complex system, but as it is they offer a sort of matrix of stat lines and special abilities that’s easy to adapt. If one wants dangerous hyena people or opium fantasy murder gnomes, the gnoll statline works equally well. The concept of reskinning a monster implies a fair bit of work in complex modern systems, or relatively minimal changes to description, but with Monsters & Treasure the space for reskinning and reimagining monsters is vast. This may disrupt the method that monster hierarchies teach players about monster risk, but reskinning is also enabled by hierarchies, because the whole can be reskinned multiple times: goblins become conscripts, orcs veterans and gnolls elites in an evil human army with almost no stat changes. Alternatively the same humanoid soldier monster hierarchy might represent the different types of goatmen or otherworldly fungus invaders, but monsters and treasure gives a quick reference for soldier type monsters from weaker than an average man at arms to stronger then veteran troops, and then it offers several types of the same sort of foes as giants. There are even a small number of special abilities offered in Monsters & Treasure, and they are also modular. One can snap the dragon’s breath onto a giant and suddenly you have a huge demon.

Monsters & Treasure succeeds because it’s less a bestiary and more a monster building toolkit. It offers a large enough selection of foes and special abilities, then organizes them in hierarchies that flow intuitively and mirror character level. This lesson is reinforced by the random encounter tables and the OD&D rule that dungeon level and character level are roughly equivalent - though of course OD&D’s random encounter tables allow for asymmetrical encounters as they do not seem to seek a balance where every combat is balanced. This bestiary strikes a balance in very few pages by offering sufficient examples and content to allow a new referee to judge how encounters and monsters are designed while creating a minimal implied setting, but it doesn’t stifle creativity, and offers incomplete examples of monsters that the referee can stat and add  as they desire.

As much as it set the standards for how monsters in RPGs appear, Monsters & Treasure One wishes it had done more to set the standards for bestiary design with a systemic approach to stats that is useful for reskinning while still providing sufficient information to play.  This balance is what makes Monsters & Treasure work, because despite some stumbles in layout and offering fewer special abilities than it might have (both perhaps unavoidable for a book written before the concept of the RPG was fully formed), it is a sufficient, even generous bestiary, that encourages referee adaption and expansion.

Reading through Monsters & Treasure is worthwhile simply because it makes one consider - how many monsters does one need? What really are the mechanical distinctions between an orc and a bandit? One doesn’t need every monster to be a bear, but it’s pretty likely that every monster you will need or can imagine will mostly fit into one of a small number of statlines with a novel special ability or two.

*Determining the contributions of Gygax & Arneson in OD&D is an impossible and pointless task. The truth is clouded by years of litigation between and self-aggrandizing myth making by the two. I prefer to think of OD&D as something they wrote happily together, with Gygax codifying and expanding on Blackmoor, and Arneson making tweeks to Chainmail to produce the final product - this of course is also myth making. We can say that Arneson’s Blackmoor supplement also includes monsters, and that the 1980’s settlement to his lawsuit regarding IP rights to AD&D materials included the Monster Manual which was affirmed to some extent in Arneson’s 1985 declaratory judgment regarding royalties on the Monster Manual II- though the issue there is largely settlement interpretation and the conceptual nature of an RPG Bestiary, not specific monster design. 225 U.S.P.Q. (BNA) 1252.

Volume 2: Monsters &

Review by Ramanan

As Gus notes above, the monster manual for OD&D, the first half of the book Monsters & Treasure, is quite modest. OD&D isn’t a complex game, so monsters can be described quite simply, mostly via prose rather than fiddly stat blocks. Gygax rightly assumes you know what a bandit is and doesn’t waste any words explaining the obvious to you. Instead he spends a lot of time explaining the fighting composition of a group of bandits.

Although Bandits are normal men, they will have leaders who are super-normal fighters, magical types or clerical types. For every 30 bandits there will be one 4th-level Fighting-Man; for every 50 bandits there will be in addition one 5th- or 6th-level fighter ...

I’m not sure that’s much better. (I sincerely love the OD&D monster booklet, though! It is charming.)
Into the fruitful void left by Gygax steps the man himself—Luke Gearing. The cheekily named Volume 2: Monsters & is Gearing’s take on an OD&D monster manual. Luke leans even harder into the minimalism of OD&D, giving us a book that is far more flavourful. It’s basically all flavour. His take on the Cockatrice reads like a poem, likely because this is basically a book of poetry:

Featherless Bird 

armoured with iron scale 

and useless wings purloined from bats

stretched wide to embrace the world.

There are stats for each creature, though they are as minimal as those found in OD&D’s book of monsters. A Cockatrice is: HD 5, AC as Plate, damage 1d6, physical contact causes petrifaction. If you need Luke to tell you anything else about a Cockatrice this is probably not the book for you. If you want a picture of a Cockatrice you’ll be doubly disappointed! 

Luke’s bandits are described as follows:

1d6 relatives to grieve,

close enough to know who did it.

But who is in charge! Luke isn’t trying to solve that problem with this bestiary. This is a book about transmitting feeling and mood. 

I believe the best game books fold worldbuilding into everything they do. As terse as this book is, you get a strong sense of the implied world these monsters fit within. The implication throughout the book is that most monsters are men who have twisted themselves in pursuit of power, or have been twisted by men into the monstrous, with some fantastic beasts to round it all out. I like this take on the creatures of OD&D.

If you enjoy this take on the dragon you’ll enjoy this book. If you think this is some total art-house nonsense—and honestly, it kind of is—you will be disappointed: avoid this book, it’ll just piss you off. I for one enjoyed this unusual take. We already have Monsters & Treasure, Monster Manual, The Fiend Folio, etc. No one needs to tell that story again.

That said, Luke should have made a table with all the monster stats, like Monsters and Treasure: that is the best part of that book!

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