Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Cryptic Signals - The Plantiary, Bizarre Monsters, Lusus Naturae

Check out part 1 of our bestiary reviews here.

The Plantiary review by emmy

The Plantiary is a 47 page zine containing descriptions of 19 plants , published by Games Omnivorous. Written by Andre Novoa and brilliantly illustrated by Pipo Kimkiduk. Each plant contains details on its habitat, size, frequency and special ability. It is written in a playful style geared more towards silly interactions between plants and PCs, more than biological accuracy. I imagine them better suited for a gonzo or a science fantasy setting.

The zine itself is of an unusual format 29.5x14cm (11.5x5.5in), making it stand out (literally) from the other zines. Most of the page space is overtaken by flora. Each of the plants has a page of a unique colour, and all the illustrations use bright tones that pop out of the page. Joyful to flip through all in all.

The special abilities have plenty of interactivity to them. Ranging from being a helpful tool to absolutely game-changing to being a setting’s core feature. The descriptions seem to me as only a starting point, since they will need some detailing to fit into your world. Only a few sentences are given per plant, which is not enough to pick up and play for me. More information about the plant's habitat and relationship to its environment would be a great addition. My other gripe is that the zine doesn’t give any aid with rumours or player information about the plants. You will have to come up with how to inform players about the plant’s abilities.

Several of the plants feel really unfair. Their abilities activate when someone “passes nearby” and the danger is not telegraphed. For example there is a plant that gives a player a vision of death, and allows the GM to make that vision true by any means in any situation where it “might be plausible”. I really wish abilities like these were only activated on interaction and didn’t give the GM absolute power.

Overall it is a fun little zine to draw inspiration from and make your setting a little weirder.

Bizarre Monsters Review by Nick LS Whelan

Disclosure: My own most recent publication is a monster book of similar size and style to this one. As this book is 8 years old, no longer in print, and not being actively promoted, I don't believe it meaningfully competes with my own work in a way that would prejudice my review.

Bestiary of Fantastic Creatures Volume 1: Bizarre Monsters (A Rusty Dagger Supplement) is 36 pages and features 15 creatures. Very nearly all the creatures are interesting in at least one respect. They've got some bit of background, or ability that I'd be interested in playing with at my table. Unfortunately, few or none of them represent more than a single interesting idea. The entries are padded out with naturalistic justifications for the creature's one interesting feature, and the rest of the details are filled in by the sort of rote creature design that anyone can do in their sleep. The giants are dumb, the savages are noble, the the eyeless creatures have sensitive hearing.

It was a frustrating book to read because I kept getting excited about finding something good, then losing that enthusiasm as the promise led nowhere. It reads like a book that could have been a strong 4-6 pages, but had to be padded out to hit the assigned word count. Take the cover art creature, the Pohke, for example. "Exploding cattle" is a good prompt for a monster, but a whole paragraph explaining the effects of their explosion (which are exactly what you'd expect) doesn't help me run the monster better. Neither does the entire paragraph that details their domestication and mating habits (challenging), or the paragraph about the general attitude of a herd (not hostile unless there's a bull present). The paragraph explaining the exact process of internal gasses and rubbing anal sacs that cause the explosions to occur definitely wasn't helpful, though it was at least pretty funny.

Even as I go through the Pohke's entry for these examples, I am again frustrated by its highs and lows. All these paragraphs do contain bits of evocative information buried between passages like:"[…] if there is a bull present (average 1 bull per 4 Pohke), there is a 75% chance that the bull will charge if characters come within 60 feet. A charging attack needs a distance of 30 feet, and a bull charging will do 3d8+6 damage. A cow may charge, but…" That sort of hyper-specific instruction buried in the middle of a paragraph, that is itself buried in the middle of a page is self defeating. It's only possible for specific measurements like that (1 per 4, 75% chance, within 60 feet, needs 30 feet, deals 3d8+6 damage) to be useful if they can be referenced quickly during play. But since they're hidden in these blocks of text, they cannot reasonably be referenced at the table, and thus they fill space while contributing nothing.

And the Pohke are only middle-of-the-pack for good ideas. I quite like the eyeless people who wield weapons with large feathers on them that enable them to be exceptionally aware of their environment in the heat of battle. There's also the giants who can create fire with their mind, but aren't smart enough to understand their own agency in creating it; and the bugs that spit out fast-hardening, highly flammable cement. All great starting points for a creature, but none of these live up to their potential. I believe the author is capable of much better writing, but that their style is burdened by expectations that were established by the worst tendencies of older manuals of monsters.

Ideally each of these creatures could have been condensed down to one page, or even half of one page, preventing the good stuff from being diluted by boring stuff and allowing more of them to fit in the booklet. Alternatively, I'd like to have seen the table-reference info put into an abbreviated stat block form. The paragraphs of text could then be used to communicate the sort of information that helps round out a creature in the referee's mind. Snippets of history, culture, and motivation answering why a creature would intrude on the player's adventures, or why the players might be tempted to intrude on the creature's lives. The "Campaign Integration" section at the end of each entry makes some attempt at this, but they read like brief afterthoughts.

I will praise the book for how often local knowledge is referenced throughout. People who live near these creatures don't just have rumor tables. They have tried-and-true survival strategies, and #LifeHacks to share with any traveler smart enough to listen. Most of these creatures are species that live and reproduce the same as people and animals do. There's no way for creatures like that to remain completely mysterious. It's nice to see that second level of thinking about how they interact with the world, and represents one way in which this Rusty Dagger Supplement has a step up other monster manuals.

Overall, this is a book that falls too far short of its potential. Care and creativity clearly went into its production, but its ideas are undeveloped. Like a highly polished first draft.

Bizarre Monsters was written & illustrated by Casey Sorrow, and edited by Whitney Sorrow. As best I can tell it is currently only available in a digital edition from DriveThruRPG for $4.99, Though a print edition was produced at one time.

Lusus Naturae

Review by Ava

Lusus Naturae was a popular book during the mid-OSR G+ era when I first found this corner of our hobby, and I remember it being an influential book for me. It seems distinctly of that era when reading it, an LotFP-adjacent game text that is definitively horror focused, with prose more indulgent than the terse minimalism often found in OSR products currently.

The best of such prose opens the book, with Chandler declaring:

The truth then: monsters love us. They love humans. They need us.

They acknowledge the debt, in the same way that some people kneel beside an animal they have killed while hunting, and murmur words of gratitude; or clasp their hands over a holiday meal and express their thanks to some deity before cutting meat from the bone crushing between their teeth, washing the warm bolus down with wines and gravies.

When we see this perspective properly executed within the book, the work excels. Far from the somewhat gratuitous and entirely misogynistic scenes of body horror and gore that illustrated the core LotFP books, Chandler here understands that what is horrific is not the monster itself but what the monster reflects in is; how the monster recontextualizes humanity. Many monsters here, such as the Auspice, which produces prophecies when it feeds on human flesh, the Kakistocrat, which kills those who are ethical and capable, or Throatworms, which continue to be bred as articles of assassination, are less interesting in and of themselves than they are for the kind of social situation they are likely to engender and what they imply about the world.

Beyond these, there are occasional moments of sublimity, where Chandler so perfectly encapsulates a chilling human foible or eccentricity within a moment of monster description; the Abstruct, for example, who comes from a dimension where killing children and constructing citadels of their flesh is perfectly normal, and refuses to debate the morality of such an action, but is otherwise exceedingly polite, will “display happiness by wrapping its shawl around its body” if it “believes that it has made a friend.” Or the way in which the Rapturous Weaver keeps its gold it uses for sculpting fake prosthetic noses “arranged in neat stacks” and “the other treasures…dumped in a pit near the back.” Such behaviour is so lucid, so telling, so utterly human and banal that it serves as the best function of fantasy, to hold a mirror to the parts of us in something that seems so utterly unlike us. In the Abstruct I see terrifying humanity of the kind person who holds monstrous beliefs; in the Rapturous Weaver the single-minded obsession of the well-intentioned who has lost perspective.

With a collection as large as this there are often more misses than hits, however. Many monsters’ description comprises several pages of backstory that are unlikely to ever be relevant in play, or the interesting avenues of interacting with them can only be learned by incredibly esoteric means. Or, much ink is spilled on sentences which strain themselves to achieve a literary “weirdness” (as in the New Weird) and sufficient horrific effect, but don’t contribute otherwise to the theming of the monster or will be likely to be useful as descriptive fodder for the Referee. This to me seems emblematic of the mid-OSR period, which to me seemed to want to seek to differentiate itself traditional D&D through aesthetic means, emphasizing horror and surrealist fantasy themes, and that developed techniques like “don’t say the monster’s names” in service of such aesthetic goals. One also begins to see similar conventions re-appearing over and over, such as Chandler’s fondness for creatures displaced from their dimension whose mere presence chaotically alters reality, or behemoths who are insensible to the destruction they inadvertently leave in their wake, and the repetition tends to dull the initial novel effect of such creatures.

Another problem that presents itself is that, like Fire on the Velvet Horizon, these monsters all carry with them a heavy bit of worldbuilding. Most of them are unique entities, not something that you’d typically place on a random encounter table, and used as a collection from which the Referee would cherry pick one or two within a campaign, this would be a much stronger text; however, more than half of these monsters have some form of interconnection with a different monster in the text, with several “boss monster” types such as Davinia Marrow, Void’s Memory, and the Ideologue having large groups of subservient monsters with whom they form quasi-“storylines”. The book suggests a world in which every single one of these monsters is extant, but such a world immediately strains credulity by how absurdly horrific it would be; every third monster on this list is a reality warping terror, or at the very least causing widespread destruction to a region. Such unremitting horror quickly becomes bathetic in its monotony, and there are few entries which deviate from this emotional palette to offer something of a reprieve (Dr. Volt, a cartoon supervillain blasted out of their time period into a medieval fantasy world, is a notable exception).

On brass tack levels, almost every monster in this book at least presents a much more interesting potential fight than a simple hacking and slashing of hit points down to 0 (though Chandler relies a bit too much on Save vs Terrible Hallucinations Which Do Damage Also). Many of them fundamentally alter the rules of engagement, and have a strong context which makes it easy for a Referee to situate them within a world and adventure. I also appreciate the omens which tend to foretell each beast (useful for those using Hazard Dice!) and the strong, tactile descriptive language which describes them (along with some absolutely stunning artwork by Gennifer Bone). The Killing Blow mechanic, whereby a character that lands the killing blow gains some boon or effect is, I think, rather ingenious though often wasted on somewhat lacklustre or uninspiring effects. The monster generator contained within is also quite interesting, and given that it contains such concrete elements as what a monster says rather than the vagueries found in other monster entries is likely to provide a more serviceable “standard” monster most of the time than the weaker 50% of monster entries in the book.

Overall, Lusus Naturae remains one of the stronger monster manuals I have read, and a work that is worthy of revisiting. In its rougher edges I see a movement still in its aesthetic growing pains, perhaps too singularly devoted to a particular aesthetic without nuance or consideration for actual play at the table, but there are true moments of aesthetic delight within. Chandler understands horror1, and if you wish your game to bend farther that way, there is much inspiration to be found here, even if some of it may require a little bit of polishing.

[1] I actually think several of these monsters would find themselves a much happier home in a Mothership game than standard D&D.


  1. Damn, when I heard Ava was reviewing Lusus Naturae I was ready to get into a fight with her in the comments, but I can't actually disagree with any of this.

  2. I 100% agree with the remarks about Lusus Naturae. It did remind me of Fire on the Velvet Horizon in terms of being mainly monsters that would be at the center of an adventure or even a campaign. Your point about mid-OSR unique monster fetishization is spot on. It really goes to the question of what we want from a MM. If you're buying a MM you're already buying someone else's published monsters -- so where does that DIY impulse go. FWIW I found Chandler's Terratic Tome to be a more uniform success, although it was less experimental since it was pitched as a reimagining of the MM.


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