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Posts Tagged ‘Monsters’

My Top Five Monster Books (that I worked on)

January 25, 2020 5 comments

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!

My Top Five RPG Monster Books

January 18, 2020 13 comments

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!

My Complete and Utter Myth and Monsterography

February 27, 2016 2 comments

jason-and-the-argonauts

The skeleton battle from Ray Harryhausen’s movie version of “Jason and the Argonauts.” This was the start of my interest in mythology and monsters.

I was about six or seven, I guess, when I first became aware of mythology – Greek mythology, to be specific – and the wealth of monsters it contained. In rapid succession, I discovered a children’s version of Homer’s Odyssey in my school library, and I saw a Saturday-morning screening of Jason and the Argonauts (dir. Don Chaffey, 1963) on my parents’ black-and-white TV. Ray Harryhausen’s monsters entranced me, especially the skeletal Children of the Hydra’s Teeth.

DnD Blue book

A decade or so later, I discovered Dungeons & Dragons. In my first game I ran two characters, both thieves and both killed by a minotaur in an epic battle. I bought a copy of the Games Workshop “blue book” printing, with John Blanche artwork on the cover and illustrations by Fangorn and others inside. While I appreciated the Tolkienesque elves, dwarves, and so on, it was the creatures from myth that caught and held my imagination. Now it was possible to see whether a mummy could beat a gorgon (a medusa according to the book, “gorgon” being a bull-like creature; that bothered me at the time, and still does).

To me, the monsters have always been the stars of myth, folklore, and fantasy. In  search of new beasts for my D&D games I plundered my collection of mythology books and ransacked the local library for anything on myth and folklore. Along the way, I became especially interested in the undead and in Celtic faerie lore, although I still devour all kinds of monster tales from all over the globe.

Over the years, some of my favorite work has been on monsters. As well as collections for tabletop roleplaying games, I have consulted on monster concepts for historical-fantasy video games and written books and articles on some of the classic creatures from myth, legend, and folklore.

Among other things, I have created:

  • Seven mummy types based on the ancient Egyptian concept of multiple souls;
  • Five classes of werewolf drawn from folklore, movies, and medieval trials;
  • A dozen classes of faerie encompassing creatures from all over the world;
  • Over 60 types of walking dead from A (aptrgangr: Scandinavia) to Z (zmeu: Eastern Europe).

For a recent videogame project (sadly canceled and subject to a non-disclosure agreement) I defined over 400 monsters from Greek mythology, including physical descriptions, broad definition of abilities and attack forms, and notes on affiliations to particular gods, titans, and other powers.

I plan to keep researching monsters in the future, but here is a list of everything myth and monster related so far.

Video Games
Blades of Excalibur (Arcade, Web), Kabam 2014 – Localization Editor
Heroes of Camelot (Card Battle, iOS/Android), Kabam 2013 – Story Designer/Writer Google Play iTunes Store
Dragons of Atlantis: Heirs of the Dragon (Strategy, iOS/Android), Kabam 2013 – Writer Google Play iTunes Store
Kingdoms of Camelot: Battle for the North
(Strategy, iOS), Kabam 2012 – Story Designer/Writer Google Play iTunes Store
Spartan: Total Warrior (Action, Console), SEGA 2005 – Writer
Medieval: Total War – Viking Invasion
(Strategy, PC), Activision 2003 – Writer/Researcher

Books
Werewolves: A Hunter’s Guide, Osprey Publishing (Dark Osprey), 2015.
Theseus and the Minotaur, Osprey Publishing (Myths and Legends), 2014.
Thor: Viking God of Thunder, Osprey Publishing (Myths and Legends), 2013.
More information on my books

Tabletop Games
Of Gods and Mortals: Celts, Ganesha Games, 2016 – co-author. Buy it here
Colonial Gothic Bestiary, Rogue Games,  2013 – co-author. Buy it here
Pathfinder Bestiary 2, Paizo Publishing, 2010 – contributing author. Buy it here
Mythic Vistas: Eternal Rome, Green Ronin Publishing, 2005 – author. Buy it here
Creatures of Freeport,
Green Ronin Publishing, 2004 – co-author. Buy it here
GURPS Faerie, Steve Jackson Games, 2003 – author. Buy it here
Atlas of the Walking Dead, Eden Studios 2003 – author. Buy it here
Slaine: Teeth of the Moon Sow, Mongoose Publishing, 2002 – author Buy it here
Mummy, Second Edition, White Wolf Publishing, 1997 – co-author. Buy it here
GURPS Vikings, Second Edition, Steve Jackson Games, 1991 and 2002 – author. Buy it here
GURPS Middle Ages 1, Second edition, Steve Jackson Games, 1992 and 2002 – author. Buy it here
AD&D Celts Campaign Sourcebook, TSR, Inc., 1992 – author. Buy it here

Articles
“The Viking Dead,” Pyramid #3/92, June 2016. Buy it here
“Indian Ghouls,” Pyramid #3/92, June 2016. Buy it here
“Mummies: A New Approach,” Fenix (Kickstarter special edition), January 2016. Buy it here
“The Tathlum,” (AD&D Celts Campaign Sourcebook outtake), personal blog, December 2015. Download free here
“La Llorona,” personal blog, 2015. GURPS versionColonial Gothic version
“Mummy Amulets.” Pyramid #3/17, March 2010. Buy it here
“Bloodlines,” Adventures Unlimited #6, Summer 1996.
“Black Dogs, Church Grims and Hell Hounds,” Roleplayer #30, Jan 1993. View here
“Norse Trolls,” Roleplayer #24, June 1991. View here
“Fimir,” White Dwarf #102, Jul 1988. More on the Fimir
“Magic & Mayhem: Viking!” Imagine #30, Sep 1985.
“Monsters from the Folklore of the Philippines,” Imagine #25, Apr 1985. Download free here
“Haunters of the Dark,” White Dwarf #67, Aug 1985.
“Magic & Mayhem: Celts,” Imagine #17, Aug 1984. Download free here
“Sobek, God of Marshes and Crocodiles,” Imagine #16, Jul 1984. Download free here
“Sethotep,” Imagine #16, Jul 1984. Download free here
“The Taking of Siandabhair,” Imagine #5, Aug 1983. Download free here

Other Bibliography Posts

My Complete and Utter Warhammer Bibliography (Warhammer, WFRP, HeroQuest, AHQ)

My Complete and Utter Warhammer 40,000 Bibliography (WH40K, Adeptus Titanicus/Epic Scale)

My Complete and Utter Cthulhu Bibliography

My Complete and Utter D&D/AD&D/d20 Bibliography

My Complete and Utter GURPS Bibliography

My Complete and Utter Vampire: the Masquerade and World of Darkness Bibliography

My Complete and Utter Fighting Fantasy and Gamebook Bibliography

My Complete and Utter Colonial Gothic Bibliography

My Complete and Utter Dark Future Bibliography

My Complete and Utter Video Gameography

 

Colonial Gothic: Lovecraft

September 9, 2015 5 comments

Cover small

Preorders opened yesterday for the new Colonial Gothic sourcebook, Lovecraft. It is available in PDF, ePub, and Kindle formats as well as the physical book. It’s also something I’ve been looking forward to for some time, and here’s why: it is the first time in almost 25 years that I got to work with Tony Ackland.

If you are a fan of Games Workshop’s products from the 80’s, you’ll be familiar with Tony’s work. Tony was instrumental in establishing the look and feel of the Warhammer world, and I worked very closely with him on the first edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. We also hung out a lot after work a lot, playing Go and talking about everything from World War II aircraft to the campaigns of Napoleon to fossils to classic horror books and movies. A significant quantity of Bass Ale was involved too, I recall.

It’s hard to pick a favorite out of Tony’s enormous output from those years, but I was especially impressed by his monster illustrations for the hardback 3rd edition Call of Cthulhu rulebook published under license by Games Workshop in 1986. For many British players, it was the first edition they could actually afford: the earlier boxed sets, imported from Chaosium in the States, were ruinously expensive.

When he retired, Tony taught himself to use a drawing tablet by creating pictures of – you guessed it – creatures from the Cthulhu Mythos. Every few days, it seemed, his friends would find another batch of unnamably blasphemous goodness in their email. And that’s when I had an idea.

I had been helping Richard Iorio of Rogue Games with the Colonial Gothic product line for a few years. We had talked about a Lovecraft-themed product often. While set in his own “present day” of the 1920s and 1930s, many of Lovecraft’s stories harked back to Colonial times, and in fact Richard had pitched “Cthulhu 1776” to Chaosium before deciding to launch Colonial Gothic through his own company. Tony’s illustrations were an opportunity too good to miss – and I think these new images hold up very well against the Call of Cthulhu bestiary from almost 30 years ago. I’m delighted to see this book come out, for personal reasons as well as professional.

The book covers the best-known gods and beasts of the Cthulhu Mythos, but there are many things that we couldn’t touch for copyright reasons (click here for more on the complex copyright issues surrounding his work and those of the other Mythos authors). If you should happen to want to use another Mythos creature in a Colonial Gothic adventure of your own, converting the stats from Call of Cthulhu is a fairly simple matter. Here is a rough method based on creatures that are common to both systems: the GM may need to make minor adjustments according to personal taste and preferred play style, but this will provide a reasonable starting-point.

Note: these guidelines are given for personal use only, and are not intended to challenge any copyrights held by Chaosium, Inc, or any other party.

Attributes
Might = CoC STR x 0.6
Nimble = CoC DEX x 0.46
Vigor = CoC CON x 0.44
Reason = CoC INT x 0.57
Resolution has no directly comparable stat in Call of Cthulhu. I recommend picking something suitable, bearing in mind that the human average is 7.

Skills
Start with the governing attribute score and adjust according to the needs of the adventure. For more accurate conversions, Call of Cthulhu uses a percentile skill system, so GMs with good math skills can calculate the odds of 2d12 results and come up with a conversion table if they wish.

Attacks
Colonial Gothic non-weapon attacks are attribute-based, so it is easy to assign attack damage. If the GM doesn’t mind a little work, it is possible to derive a damage score by cross-referencing CoC damage with damage from weapons that are common to both Colonial Gothic and Call of Cthulhu (or another Basic Role Playing game, such as Runequest).

Traits
Most creatures of the Cthulhu Mythos have Fear and Horrific Visage to reflect their effect on an observer’s Sanity. The severity of each of these Traits should be proportional to the creature’s SAN loss rating in Call of Cthulhu. Use the creatures from Colonial Gothic: Lovecraft as a guide. Other Traits are at the GM’s option: the book lists several new Traits for Cthulhu Mythos creatures.