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My Top Five RPG Monster Books


Ever since I saw Ray Harryhausen’s skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts on my parents’ black-and-white TV, I have been obsessed with monsters – especially those from myth and folklore. In my first D&D game, I played two thief characters, both of them killed by a minotaur. In the Games Workshop printing of the basic rulebook, I saw other names I recognized, and I was hooked right away.

I still love monsters, mythology and folklore, and monster books are still among my favorite types of tabletop roleplaying supplement. In this post I will discuss some of my favorites, looking especially at what each one offers the reader beyond the basic description and stat block.

Some of these are old – very old, but then so am I! – and there may very well be newer, even better books out there that I have not yet seen. If that’s the case, let me know! The comments section is right there at the bottom of the page. I’ll look forward to reading your views, and discussing what makes a monster book good, or great, or amazing.

So here they are, in no particular order:

Monster Manual 3.5

 

D&D Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual tabletop roleplaying rpg monsters Wizards of the Coast TSR

The original Monster Manual from 1977 was a landmark product in many ways, and just about every monster supplement published since has been influenced by it. Still, the 3.5 edition is better in my opinion. This is for three main reasons:

First, each monster description includes a ‘Combat’ section which covers the creature’s combat-related abilities and its preferred tactics. This makes it far easier to design encounters and run combats.

Second, the chapters at the back of the book – Improving Monsters, Making Monsters, and Monster Feats – make the book far more than just another collection of creatures. Following their instructions, the DM can customize monsters and create new monsters, providing the sort of endless variety that will keep players on their toes.

Finally, the list of monsters by challenge rating saves a lot of trouble when creating adventures. Page for page, it might even be the most valuable part of the book.

Today, no self-respecting monster book would be without these three features, and that makes the 3.5 Monster Manual something of a milestone.

Buy it at DriveThruRPG.

 

Petersen’s Field Guide to Lovecraftian Horrors

 

Petersen Chaosium, Cthulhu Mythos roleplaying tabletop rpg horrors monsters Lovecraft

There are Cthulhu Mythos monster books aplenty, but Petersen’s Field Guide stands out. It starts with a jokey-looking flowchart titled “Identifying Monsters of the Mythos” which is actually very useful indeed.

Fifty-three full colour spreads describe monsters in detail, including brief notes on their habitat, distribution, life and habits, and distinguishing features. A full-page main image is supplemented by sketches and notes illustrating different life stages and other peculiarities, as well as a human image for scale reference.

The lack of game stats is both a positive and a negative feature. On the one hand, they are something that readers expect in a monster book published by a game company; on the other, their absence makes the book system-independent. There are a lot of Mythos-based games on the market, from Call of Cthulhu to Delta Green to Arkham Horror, and their various rulebooks provide game stats for  pretty much all of the creatures covered here.

The book ends with an extensive bibliography, covering game supplements, fiction, and other sources. The section headed “Bibliography for Other Monsters” winks at the reader, for its contents are entirely fictional. However, it makes a great list of documents for player characters to find in-game.

One very nice touch is the provision of initial letters on the page edge. This makes it very quick and easy to riffle through to the creature you are looking for.

Buy it from Chaosium.com.

 

Old World Bestiary

 

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Old World Bestiary 2nd edition tabletop roleplaying rpg WFRP momnsters

I’m allowed to like this one, because I didn’t work on it. Packed full of grimdark Warhammer atmosphere, it is broken into two parts. The first presents common knowledge about various creatures, consisting of equal parts useful information, rumor, and prejudice, while the second, aimed at the GM, contains the more familiar descriptions, stat blocks, and rules for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay’s second edition rules.

The presentation works well enough, and although it can sometimes be annoying having to flip back and forth to find everything on a particular creature, the atmospheric material is gold for a GM who needs something to tell a player who just made a successful Lore or Research roll. Another nice feature is the appendix of hit location tables for different body plans.

Buy it at DriveThruRPG.

 

GURPS Fantasy Folk

 

GURPS Fantasy Folk Steve Jackson Games Tabletop Roleplaying rpg Monsters

Fantasy Folk differs from a standard monster book (such as GURPS Fantasy Bestiary) in that it looks in depth at 24 races, providing enough detail on each one’s ecology, culture, and politics to create an almost endless variety of NPCs from each– and player characters too, if desired.

Centaurs, great eagles, and other non-humanoid races are covered in addition to the usual elves, dwarves, goblins, and so on. Best of all, each race is provided with a worked example of a character – essentially a detailed NPC, ready to go – and a selection of adventure seeds.

While most GMs will not use every single race in this book, it offers a solid starting-point for developing races for use in a campaign. Better still – and perhaps without meaning to – it provides a template for describing fantasy races of one’s own, which is far better than starting from a blank screen.

Buy it from Steve Jackson Games.

 

Trollpak

 

Trollpak Chaosium RungeQuest Glorantha tabletop roleplaying rpg troll

Chaosium’s Trollpak for RuneQuest was one of the first tabletop roleplaying supplements to describe a single race in detail, and it is still worth reading if you can find a copy. The boxed set consists of three booklets: Uz Lore (“Uz” being the trolls’ name for themselves) covers their nature and history, The Book of Uz presents rules and information on playing troll characters, and Into Uzdom is a selection of adventures. Also included are two more adventures and a 22” x 17” map of the troll heartlands.

Both atmospheric and useful, Trollpak sets a standard that is hard to beat even now, and anyone planning a single-race roleplaying supplement would be well advised to study it. There is much here worth plundering.

Buy it from Chaosium.com.

 

Honorable Mentions

In addition to these five, I have to mention two series of magazine articles that, to my mind, significantly advanced the art and craft of rpg monster descriptions.

The “Ecology of…” series in Dragon magazine established a very good format for looking at monsters in greater details than the Monster Manual allowed. Sections on history (including, where appropriate, a short box on the creature’s origins in myth and folklore), physiology, psychology and society, and lair design offer invaluable information to the DM, and notes on the creature’s presence in various D&D campaign settings are useful to those who set their campaigns there. The sweetest meat, though, is saved for last: options for developing advanced versions of the creature, with at least one worked example. Like GURPS Fantasy Folk, these articles also establish a template which can be used for developing monsters of your own, which can only enhance both the monsters and the campaign setting.

Before the first “Ecology” article appeared in Dragon, though, TSR’s British arm published a short-lived magazine called Imagine. It ran to only thirty issues but contained a lot of innovative material – including the “Brief Encounters” articles. These presented a single new monster using a showcase encounter which was specially written to demonstrate everything that was new and interesting about it. Brief Encounters continued in Imagine’s even shorter-lived successor, the indie magazine GM Publications, and when most of the staff from both magazines joined Games Workshop, there was talk of re-using the format for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. However, the only published fruit of this effort was “Terror in the Darkness” in White Dwarf 108, which introduced a creature from the Warhammer 40,000 Rogue Trader rulebook to the Old World. More about that here.


 

These are my particular favorites, and I’m sure you will have your favorites too. I’m sure I have missed a great many very fine monster books, particularly given the way tabletop rpgs have proliferated in recent years. So don’t be shy – let me know about your favorites in the comments section. I’m always up for discovering a new monster book.

At some time in the future, too, I will set modesty aside and look at some of the monster books that I’ve worked on over the years, explaining what I was trying to achieve with each one and discussing how well I succeeded – or didn’t. (I did. It’s here.)

I’m looking forward to reading your comments and suggestions!

  1. theoaxner
    January 18, 2020 at 3:56 pm

    I still have a soft spot for “Out of the Pit”, the original Fighting Fantasy monster book. http://www.thefatwebsite.com/wp-content/uploads/ootp0011.jpg

    • January 18, 2020 at 4:45 pm

      It was a very good (and very good-looking) book, to be sure, but it didn’t do much beyond the stats and description. Titan, on the other hand, is definitely on my list of setting books to learn from. Perhaps I’ll do that list sometime.

    • theoaxner
      January 20, 2020 at 12:48 am

      Quite. To be honest, I got the two books together in my young formative years and I’ve always thought of them as a unit.

  2. Billiam
    January 19, 2020 at 8:27 am

    Reading this – after a long spell of reconnecting with a lot of this stuff – it popped into my head that a new, in depth fantasy bestiary taking the very best qualities (and maybe nicking some of the best iconic artwork from the period, along with new commissions) of FF, Warhammer (Old World, not the garish new stuff…), D&D, etc, would be a brilliant project.
    Something that could be read as a ‘genuine’ book from the era, like a retrospective forgery, but also workable as non-aligned, multi-system aid for current fantasy roleplay …. or any other world-building activities on the same themes, background for wargame scenarios, even writing, art, modelling , etc.
    Not just a nostalgia-thing, either – creativity in the fantastic arts has never gone away, a lot of the new stuff surpasses some of the old – in some areas. But the real essence of the best of it was present & never surpassed (although added to) in the earlier stuff.
    Definitely a market for it.

    • January 19, 2020 at 8:31 am

      You read my mind. #secretproject

  3. Shaun
    January 19, 2020 at 8:39 am

    I’d recommend FASA’s Paranormal Animals of Europe for Shadowrun 2nd Edition. Not only does it have a great selection of creatures with some interesting takes on them, it also has excellent fictional bulletin board comments for each creature which make for excellent reading.

  4. January 19, 2020 at 9:40 am

    I’d throw in three that I’m fond of:
    GURPS Creatures of the Night
    This has a long list of bizarre horror-related creatures. They’re all pretty unique, and each come with a list of adventure seed to utilize them in play. They are also pretty rules light, so you could probably convert them to other games with little difficulty. I’m only familiar with the 3rd edition book, but it looks like SJG has a series of these for 4th edition as well.
    http://www.sjgames.com/gurps/books/creaturesofthenight/

    Ford’s Faeries
    This was made by a bunch of OSR designers on the old Google+ boards. They took all of the illustrations from an old public domain book of faeries and made an original creature for each.
    You can get it for free on Drivethru
    https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/258394/Fords-Faeries-A-Bestiary-Inspired-by-Henry-Justice-Ford

    Fire on the Velvet Horizon
    This is the weird one. It’s by Patrick Stuart and has a list of about 100 really strange creatures. There aren’t any stats, and it’s deliberately written in an avant-garde, literary style. The art is purposefully messy, as is the typeface. (It is available in a clean plain-text version as well)
    It’s actually closer to literature than a straight-up monster manual, but I’ve always liked it.
    https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/148614/Fire-On-The-Velvet-Horizon
    https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/277699/Fire-On-The-Velvet-Horizon–PLAIN-TEXT-PDF

  5. Reverance Pavane
    January 20, 2020 at 2:40 pm

    I will point out that Trollpack was the beneficiary of the recent RQ2 reprint scheme by Chaosium and is once again available (from their webstore). [Although I’m unsure at the moment if the printed copies are available yet.]

    • January 20, 2020 at 3:04 pm

      Thanks for that, Reverence. I have added links to places where each book can be purchased.

  6. Andrew Greenberg
    January 21, 2020 at 2:17 pm

    heh, time for that Trollpak Renaissance … extra special honorable(?) mention to the first printing of the first Monster Manual, with the Elric, Hyperborean and Lovecraftian mythos …

    • January 22, 2020 at 6:53 pm

      That would be Deities & Demigods you’re thinking of. But yes. Copyright, schmopyright….

  1. February 5, 2020 at 2:58 pm
  2. February 5, 2020 at 2:59 pm

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