Wednesday, September 7, 2022

A Pinch of Salt: The Drain


The Drain

Author: Ian Yusem
Reviewer: Dan D.
System: Mothership
$4.99 pdf 
Run as Referee
General Disclaimer: I share a couple discord servers with Ian and we've chatted on occasion.

Part 0: The Introduction

I return to this post three quarters of a year after I first drafted it. I had hoped to get a second session of it played, but it was never to be. Say la vee.

Part 1: The Module

The Drain is a 16 page 0-level funnel for Mothership, where the players take the role of prisoners in a Bible-school reform prison tasked with recovering a relic from a collapsing colony habitat in exchange for clearing their remaining sentences. The habitat is presented as a pointcrawl on an inverted cone, which handily makes for a very nice looking map.

Pregen characters, blank sheets, and some mp3 files of creepy radio chatter are provided (alas, I wasn't able to use this last one). Character sheets have art by Evlyn Moreau, module art is Sean McCoy's instantly-recognizable scribble art, and map by Andrew Walter - it's all excellent.

The Vibes are strong here. Prisoners wearing tinsel halos. Horrible fucked-up meat monsters. The feeling of unease when you're driving a country road in mid summer and seeing signs about Jesus opposite houses that you can't ever imagine being new or whole or unrotten.

The writing is what you hope for in a Mothership module - tables, bullet points, bolded key terms.

Part 2: In Play

The opening of the module - unarmed prisoners disgorged from boarding craft into an open battlefield - is effective imagery but it works less well in practice. You're instructed to roll for two gas clouds per stretch of no man's land (three stretches in total), but it's unclear as to whether or not they were to be simultaneous, sequential, or choose 1. I had to fudge the first roll of the session because one of my players would have lost all four of their characters instantly to nerve gas.

I feel the influence of the first stage of Deep Carbon Observatory, but here it's just "You're in a trench, now you're making saves against gas, now you're in another trench, now you're making saves again". One cycle was more than sufficient, and by the third and final I was getting bored with the repetition. Not a good place to be for an opening.

Moving past the battlefield, the players reached an abandoned farmstead, where they found  a remote capable of shaping the nanite-infused soil of the station. Single sentence description, no mechanical interaction.

It swiftly became the highlight of the entire session. In the next encounter (an open field with a sniper up on a billboard) they were building earthworks for cover and raised a tower with a ramp to reach the abandoned VTOL hovering above the field. It was some fantastic tool-based problem solving, the sort of ideal RPG scenario.

The session ended with the players squeezing the surviving prisoners onto the VTOL, and which would allow them to cross the river into the ring. Unfortunately, due to scheduling issues among the players, I was never able to gather folks for the second half (and this post laid fallow nor nine months).

Had I played further, I would likely have started throwing in consequences for the time-cost of using the remote, but even then not too much - folks were having a great time.

As random encounters only occur when moving to a new area, I pre-rolled them and any supply caches earlier in the day, which made things nice and smooth (and was an entertaining enough way of wasting time at work)

Part 3: In Summary

In the time since I've played, The Drain has been expanded to a trilogy (alongside Inferno and Wrath of God). I have not looked into the other two parts (there is so much Mothership stuff out there), but I feel like I would check them out if the mood takes me.

Would I run it again? I would with a revision of the opening sequence - possibly adding some variable or choice for the players. Do you run for the shelled structure, or to the treeline? Something of that nature. But the rest of it was fun, I'd give it a thumbs-up.

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Spectral Interrogatories V - Dwarrowdeep

Dwarrowdeep has Good Art
I don’t know Greg Gillespie, I don’t have any intense feeling for his work or his design history, as while I have looked at some of previous adventures they haven’t made much impression on me. I suspect he was on G+ and I may have spoken to him there, but I don’t remember anything specific from those long ago days. I purchased the Dwarrowdeep PDF (which costs as much as a good bottle of booze or nice steak - but cost isn’t a criteria I use to judge adventures) specifically to read it for this review and because of my overall interest in megadungeon design. I have not played it and don’t intend to. As always I will take a look at it for what it offers as a playable product and from my perspective as someone interested in dungeon and megadungeon design. I feel somewhat guilty about this review and don’t expect Mr. Gillespie will appreciate it much, but after spending a week reading Dwarrowdeep - time I could have used for paying work or on my own hobby projects - I can't play nice for the sake of comity, even if I'm not trying to be cruel. Darrowdeep is an abject failure, but in that offers a useful example of how not to design a megadungeon and asks questions about the limits of dungeon design.

Dwarrowdeep is the new (May 2022) 336 page megadungeon by Greg Gillespie, known as the writer of Barrowmaze and a few other big dungeons. This has made Gillespie a notable figure and dungeon designer from the early and middle years of the OSR. What Dwarrowdeep offers is a brand new megadungeon that I had hopes would highlighting the state of design in 2022 and the evolution of the form since the early days of the OSR or at least the 2010’s when Gillespie published Barrowmaze ... if it does, it only shows a loss of basic knowledge and the decline of OSR design and imagination over the past decade.

In light of its recent publication and Gillespie’s long career as a megadungeon designer I was hopeful that Dwarrowdeep would be something special, offering new ideas, or better utility - in short I was hopeful that it might have something to teach about megadungeon design. I was gravely disappointed. When I write reviews I try to be charitable and understand the author's goals rather than focus only on the work's failings, but Dwarrowdeep’s positive aspects are largely limited to the excellent art within, an audacious scope, and occasional moments when a decent idea shines through the mediocrity.

Dwarrowdeep fails as a megadungeon in three interrelated and key ways: variety, interactivity, and usability. I suspect this is the result of both ambitiously excessive scope and the poisonous idea that nostalgia alone is sufficient to produce good work. What I mean is that Dwarrowdeep doesn’t just try to provide a nostalgic aesthetic or feel, it goes deeper, with nostalgic layout choices, nostalgic key design, and nostalgic approach to setting (generally emulating the early 1980’s BECMI era TSR adventures). This fails, partially on its own merits, but partially because it’s so insistent on cleverly aping a particular, possibly imaginary, past that it ignore the work of other designers, both since the early 80’s and before. Dwarrowdeep drowns because it chooses to submerge itself in the nostalgia for a design that wasn't optimal even for the 30-page BECMI modules where it first appeared.

Monday, August 1, 2022

Dim Illuminations - The Desiccated Temple of Locha

Similar to my Hold in the Oak review, I again will be using Arnold K’s dungeon checklist. I have not played this adventure, but it grabbed my attention.

THE BAIT: This 6 in x 10 level 1 adventure from Andrew Duvall published by Exalted Funeral and was an upgrade from the similar adventure published in KNOCK Vol. 2. This “long” format is novel in the RPG universe, but its proponents are correct. It is easy to place on the table especially if you have a DM screen or computer as well.

So what drew me to this adventure? The first thing was the phrase “desiccated temple”. How interesting–”all water removed/dried up” or maybe “preserved”. And “temple” of course brings in a religious and/or ritualistic aspect. I thought that was novel because often in fantasy adventure games we get “cursed”, “haunted”, “ruined”, “abandoned”, “forgotten” or “lost”. If you grab your copy of the Tome of Adventure Design (I did), you are not going to find “desiccated” in there.

The second thing was the interesting stock photo used– a close up of a dried fish, teeth bared, with a hint of frozen lunge toward prey. Nice. While manipulated stock photos are a staple of DIY/indie RPGs, again, they rarely feature sea life (at least in the fantasy wing, CoC is a different story). Sea life is inherently uncanny, more so when it's dried. In total the cover is hinting at something interesting- undead fish-people. But maybe not true undead, but desiccated.

HOOKED ON UN-LIFE FISH-PEOPLE: So what else is there to reel you in? The next interesting thing is the Tension Dice mechanic. It's sorta a variation on the encounter die where 1d6 is added to a pool every time PCs make a loud noise or one exploration turn elapses. The DM can roll at any time but must roll when the pool contains 6 dice. Count up the number of “1s” rolled and the total is what you use for the associated encounter table of typical dungeon vermin. Also is a table for aquatic tomes (treasure) and hallucinogenic spores (traps).

The center of the book is occupied by an isometric dungeon in two parts both keyed in a one-page dungeon fashion. Easy to reference, but demonstrates how simple this dungeon is: entrance, central room, 3-room east wing, 3-room west wing, “north” double doors leading to two large rooms; altar and the primary treasure and guardian. The next page contains a blank map of the whole area in one page along with fuller item descriptions. And a copy of the keyed one-page dungeon as it appeared in KNOCK Vol. 2. Inside the back cover is also a small delight: paper miniature cutouts which I think are a nice touch.

CATCH & RELEASE(?): Let’s take a quick run-through using the list and discuss some shortcomings that, if adjusted, I believe would make this adventure stronger. The list:

  • To steal: The Bell of Locha is an interesting item because its primary ability is to draw any being to the ringer within 100 ft. That is very gameable. But since BX D&D doesn’t reward XP for magic items, it would be more useful for PCs at 1st & 2nd level to have it be something like a giant viridian pearl worth 1,000 GP. Even the solid gold idol lacks a GP value (which should be high) but does have 1d4 gems of 1d6 X 200 GP value– which is too much rolling– just write the average value: 1200 GP

  • Be killed: While there are things to kill, most of the main thematic monsters, the priests of Locha, only attack if made wet. But there are a few specific instances where this would happen. And there is no way the tension dice activate them either. Might be better to have the priests be the “6” on the wandering monster table implying that the mere presence of the PCs and their sweat and expiration is enough to wet them.

  • Kill the PCs: There is a giant guardian fish that might attack if wet.  It is set up as a sorta boss fight, in a rapidly flooding room providing a classic time element, but requires stealing the Bell which I feel is too specific a trigger. Especially in the backdrop of the tension die.

  • Choose between: A large negative here is there is honestly nothing to choose between meaningfully. This area is less a “dungeon” and more a “lair”, so players don’t have much to explore. And therefore choices to be made.

  • Talk to: Nothing. This is a shame because often the most powerful thing the players have at their disposal at low levels is talking.

  • Experiment with: The central chamber has four locked-doors that lead to the east and west wings. They can only be unlocked by pouring water into a fish bowl where a desiccated fish will then come alive and jump into the fountain. This is also worrisome because it means the east and west wings are inaccessible therefore the dungeon at a base level is reduced to 3 rooms: central room, alter room, final room.

  • Something PCs won’t find: Again no. Unfortunately, it's more likely the PCs are forced to find everything.

“DARLING IT'S BETTER DOWN WHERE IT'S WETTER!”: I believe there are some easy adjustments that could be made to this material that would make it stronger. The goal, to me, of a low-level adventure design is to provide the PCs with XP to level and resources to survive subsequent adventures, while giving the players a strong sense of fantastical adventure – even if it is small in scope.

To that end, let’s first adjust the final treasure to be a big mythical green pearl worth 1000 GP (and therefore XP) which does more for a 1st and 2nd level PC than a magic item. And let’s remove the random tomb tables and just combine them with the scrolls found in the adventure (i.e. Nektonic Serpents Codex as Hydroblast scroll) – just cut to the chase. It's doubtful people will reuse that specific water-themed tomb table. Anything else that is an item, like the alchemy set (heavy and bulky), gives a GP value too as well.. Also, I would not gate most of the dungeon behind the fish-bowl puzzle, instead I would just gate the big treasure and the final guardian behind the fish-bowl puzzle. With this rearrangement you would have a small score, the gold idol (500 GP), in the open, but the larger score, The Bell of Locha-turned-Pearl of Locha behind the puzzle. Now players can explore 75% of the dungeon, but really only get ~50% of the value. And it would act as an enticement if you players are initially too wary of it as a trap. Rumors in the inn of a large pearl or a fresco to that effect on a wall in the library can clue players in.

Next, reskin monsters. While I understand this is supposed to be a dry tomb, hence terrestrial creatures, players won’t care and instead are more likely to delight in facing a thalassic-themed wandering monster table. Simple reskins can do a lot of work. So 1. Giant centipede, 2. Driver ant, 3. Insect swarm, 4. Giant rats, 5. Gelatinous cube, 6. Rot grubs instead become: 1. Giant sand-striker worm, 2. Mantis shrimp, 3. Sand-flea swarm, 4. Bilge rats, 5. Cubic Man-o-war, 6. Rot Barnacles. But I would actually remove the rob grubs and replace them with “Awaken nearest Priest of Locha: 50% will ignore PCs and awaken another priest”. Let’s get this quiet temple hoppin’! Same treatment for giant spiders, let’s make them giant spider crabs.

Finally, is this a dungeon of fish-people or people imitating fish? It's not noticeable at first glance, but for habitable areas built by aquatic people it has a lot of terrestrial trappings. Why are there beds with sheets? Instead of a bed “carved to look like live coral”-- make it live coral! Why not giant sponges or maybe anemones that the fish-folk can sleep in like a clown-fish. Why are their chests? Why not giant clams that don’t have locks but you have to tickle them or something? And why tables? If you come from an aquatic environment, wouldn’t it be more nets or something? Too much of the scenery is not aquatic enough. Would you even have stairs if you mainly used fins? If the temple was in water, wouldn't buoyancy be taken into consideration? True this might be more 20-30ft shafts but that is what thieves/acrobats, 50’ft ropes, Feather Fall, and hammer & spikes are for. Let the players figure it out.

Basically this place should look like a drained fish tank or pond (e.g. Deep Carbon Observatory), not a fantasy Panama City Fuddruckers.

And if you really wanted to turn the “wyrd” up a notch, how about this is a temple of people imitating fish instead of fish-people. Injured or wronged pirates or sailors who’ve turned to the only mother they know, the sea, to bestow salvation but come with disturbing boons like deep-sea fish teeth or forehead angler lights. Maybe each desiccated priest has a flounder grafted to their chest as a set of artificial sea lungs– go sorta fantasy Bioshock with it. Or think how a sea-deity might bestow gifts if constrained by only things from the ocean.

FINAL: In its initial one-page dungeon form Desiccated Temple of Locha was a solid adventure. But like most OPD, when expanded a little more consideration needed to be taken of how adding extra pages would benefit the adventure itself, a GM running it, and the players playing it.

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.

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!

Folie à Trois: Trophy Gold

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