Home > games, Monsters, Myth and Folklore, Uncategorized > My Top Five Monster Books (that I worked on)

My Top Five Monster Books (that I worked on)


In an earlier post, I wrote about my love for monsters and picked out a few of my favorite rpg monster books. A lot of you got back to me with your own favorites, either in the comments section or through Facebook or other means, and now I have quite a few more books to look at – so thanks for that!

This time, I’ll be looking at some monster books that I’ve written or co-written. I’ll explain what I hoped to achieve with each one, and you can judge for yourselves how well I succeeded or failed. As always, I’d love to have your thoughts on each one, especially what you think would have made it better.

There’s more to this request than simple nostalgia, or a need for validation. You see, I’m gearing up for a new project (more than one, in fact: #secretprojects) and I’m studying previous rpg monsters books to figure out what features turn a good one into a great one. I’ll be issuing a formal announcement about the project some time in the next few weeks, but until then, tell me what would make a monster book irresistible to you. What are the must-haves, what are the cut-aboves, and what are the mind-blowing, come-look-at-this, can-you-believe-it features that turn a monster treatment into something that you have to use as soon as you can, and that you will talk about for the rest of your gaming career?

 

Creatures of Freeport

 

Creatures of Freeport

https://greenroninstore.com/products/creatures-of-freeport-pdf

A great attraction of this project was the opportunity to work with my friend Keith Baker. Before Keith created Eberron, Gloom, and the other games that have made him rightly famous, we worked together in a video game studio in Boulder, Colorado. We were both impressed by Green Ronin’s Freeport setting: I mean, D&D with pirates – what’s not to love? I had been thinking of ways to expand and improve the way monsters are covered in tabletop rpgs ever since my Games Workshop days, and Keith was a whiz at the complex process of creating monster stats for the 3.5/d20 system.

We added three sections to the standard treatment. The first set out the kind of information about the creature that might be available on a successful knowledge check, the second covered various magical, alchemical, and other uses for the dead creature’s remains, and the third presented a selection of adventure hooks.

The book got some good reviews, and we were both quite happy with it. But I’m still left with the feeling that it is possible to do better.

 

Atlas of the Walking Dead

 

Atlas of the Walking Dead

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/566/Atlas-of-the-Walking-Dead?affiliate_id=386172

Eden Studios’ zombie survival-horror game All Flesh Must Be Eaten came out just at the start of that heady (brain-y?) period in which zombie horror began to take over the zeitgeist. Since the undead have always been one of my favorite classes of monsters, I jumped at the chance to pitch them a monster book.

I took myth and folklore as my starting point here. Over the years, I had read an enormous amount on the subject, especially on the creatures of folklore around the world. I found that the walking dead – which I defined as all kinds of corporeal undead, not just zombies – broke down into a number of classes, with variants from different parts of the world. For each type, I started with a short piece of atmospheric fiction to set the scene, defined the base creature in terms of the game’s rules, and added a short section on variants. In many cases it was necessary to define new traits (Aspects in the game’s lingo), and as in Creatures of Freeport I finished up with a selection of adventure hooks.

 

GURPS Faerie

 

GURPS Faerie

http://www.sjgames.com/gurps/books/faerie/

Like all the GURPS worldbooks, this was as much a setting as a bestiary. Faeries are found across the world under a range of local names, and like the walking dead they break down into a number of distinct types. In addition to chapters on faerie lands, faerie magic, and faerie nature, I wrote a chapter of templates for the various types with variants on each. Following the format established by previous monster-centric sourcebooks for GURPS, a chapter on campaigns and adventures took the place of adventure seeds per template.

I like this book because faeries are another favorite class of monsters, and because it allowed me to examine their folkloric context in greater depth than a bestiary-style book would have permitted. Faerie is a tone as much as a class of monster, with its own feel and its own tropes, and to neglect this would have been to do the subject matter a grave injustice – and who knows, possibly to suffer spoiled milk and bedbugs for the rest of my life!

 

Werewolves: A Hunter’s Guide

 

Werewolves cover

https://ospreypublishing.com/werewolves-a-hunter-s-guide

Is this an rpg monster book, really? There’s not a rule or a game stat in sight, but I think of all the Dark Osprey line as systemless rpg sourcebooks. I took the example set by line editor (and future designer of the excellent fantasy skirmish game Frostgrave) Joe McCullough in his book Zombies: A Hunter’s Guide, and set my werewolf book in the same alternate reality.

Although I already knew quite a bit about werewolves, the research for this book led me to the conclusion that there are at least five distinct kinds. Each one got a chapter, supported by case studies drawn (mostly) from genuine historical and mythological sources, and I took a couple of chapters to shoot a glance at other shapeshifters (such as Japanese hengeyokai and Indian weretigers) and to invent various organizations that hunt and/or study werewolves. Of course, I covered werewolves at war, from Norse ulfhednar to the ever-popular Nazi werewolves and various Cold War spin-offs from Nazi research in that area.

The viewpoint is from contemporary urban fantasy rather than medieval fantasy, but that made a nice change, and I didn’t think that it lessened the book’s usefulness for rpgs set in any time or place. It is not aimed at any particular rules set, so there is some work for the GM to do, but I still hope that it offers a good source of information and ideas.

 

Colonial Gothic Bestiary

 

Colonial Gothic Bestiary

https://www.rogue-games.net/bestiary

Colonial Gothic is a very nice historical-fantasy game published by Rogue Games. I met Rogue’s head honcho Richard Iorio years ago when we were both working on the Hogshead Publishing booth at GenCon, and when he published Colonial Gothic I got in touch. A solid monster book is an essential part of an rpg’s core, and I aimed to provide one in the Colonial Gothic Bestiary.

As monster books go, it’s fairly unambitious. The aim was to cover a large number of critters go provide the GM with options, rather than to look at a smaller number in detail. What I like most about it is the way that it reflects the setting in its blend of North American wildlife, Native American folklore monsters, fearsome critters from tall tales, and Old World monsters that might believably have come across with the colonists.

 


 

So there you have it – or them. I will look forward to hearing your views, and discussing what features make a monster treatment really shine. And as soon as I can, I’ll be lifting the curtain on my #secretprojects. Bye for now!

  1. a.
    January 26, 2020 at 5:22 am

    Somebody elsewhere mentioned the immersive quality that the best fantasy work has, and that, to me, is the most important quality – something where every imaginative strand has an organic vigour that provokes the same growth in the reader. I’ve been looking at your Monsters of the Philippines, and that’s a good example. It reminded me a little of Katherine Briggs’ ‘a dictionary of fairies’ – normally these ‘dictionaries’, ‘encyclopaedias’ etc, can have a feel that the author(s) got caught in intense tedium with the ‘itemic’ structure of what they were doing, and a monotony sets in. In Briggs’ book she seem to approach each new entry with an enthusiasm as though it were a short monograph on a single creature that had particularly caught her in its spell, and that is maintained from beginning to end. And it is totally unsystematised; the general folklore available to for each entry shapes the entry, rather than applying the same template to each throughout, even if that means some may have more than one lenghty folktale or story of a believed encounter under its heading, while others are dealt with a little more cursorily. Katherine Briggs’ book is one of the few of its kind that I can repeatedly read from beginning to end rather than just skimming for favouite entries.
    I’d love to see a bestiary treated in something of the same way. It serves a different purpose, of course, but I think there’s an overlap.
    Other than that, the more comprehensive the better – though sometimes in some of the lesser bestiary-type books they only achieve this by making some of the creatures existing down the odder taxonomical avenues of the fantastic feel like filler (winged monkey -tick; giant bluebottle -tick…..), but even the oddest creatures of seemingly flippant chimeric happenstance can have a rich imaginative quality to them if you can feel the craftmanship of the author in them. And the odd and the strange is as vital as the almost believable, nor is there any harm in including errors in the beliefs about them, maybe-things sprung up at the map’s edge, or a bit of spoofing in a Mandevillian frame, and having multiple different ‘voices’ or perspectives in the overall frame (the scholar’s view, in the warhammer one, is a great touch).
    And the frame itself is as important as the entries – the perspective of the imagined narrator(s) overlaps with the threshold where the real-world reader is standing. The observational detachment that gained prominence during the Enlightenment signalled the end of the participatory involvement with nature that existed before, and in so far as ‘fantasy’ worlds are mirrors of the real, they seem to be able to encompass any historical period up to that point – the human or humanesque in them can parallel anything from pre-dark ages up to around the seventeenth century, more or less, and the best fantastic bestiaries all seem to reflect this, encompassing mythology, memorates, ‘folk-beliefs’, and ‘real’ encounters, along with elements or flavour from Pliny or Aristotle up to the approach to the natural world of early scientists.
    Sorry this is a bit long, but really looking forward to this.

  2. Andy Leask
    January 26, 2020 at 8:25 am

    Nice! I did not realise you did that All Flesh… book. I really liked that game; I had grand plans to integrate it with Conspiracy X…start out with a ‘zombie’ plague in a small town, gradually reveal a wider conspiracy involving Altantean nanotech gone awry…

  3. Jonathan Keim
    January 27, 2020 at 7:17 am

    I’m a big fan of the Monsternomicon books that Privateer Press published for their Iron Kingdoms RPG line. There were fewer entries (maybe around 50 in the one edition) but they were more in depth, perhaps like Ecology of… lite. They also had a very nice templating/variant system to make minor (or not so minor) tweaks to many of the creatures and many of these were tailored to that specific creature (or class of creatures). It felt very functional as a GM, and really elevated the book beyond “memorize a bunch of stat blocks.” It also helped remind me to think about how a specific creature might fit in where I wanted to use it and gave me many tools to help me do that. Absolutely a top five monster tome for me.

  4. March 7, 2020 at 9:28 am

    Big fan of GURPS Faerie! Been translating some of it to 4e for my Dungeon Fantasy game. Very glad to find your blog.

    • March 7, 2020 at 2:43 pm

      Thanks! If you want a D&D take, the Monsters chapter of HR3 Celts Campaign Sourcebook covers a number of fey and fey-like creatures. It’s 2e rather than 4e, but you might still find it useful if you can track down a copy.

  5. March 8, 2020 at 8:59 am

    D’oh! My eye skipped right over “Dungeon Fantasy.” GURPS 4e is a nice but under-rated rule set.

    • March 8, 2020 at 9:02 am

      And I hadn’t realized until now how astutely WotC had planted their flag in the “[no name]” Xe convention with the terms of their 5e OGL. It makes everyone think of D&D first.

  1. February 5, 2020 at 2:58 pm
  2. February 5, 2020 at 3:01 pm

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