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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!

On the Economics of Tabletop RPGs

January 28, 2012 30 comments

Almost 30 years ago, I wrote an article for TSR UK’s Imagine magazine on the subject of converting characters and adventures between different roleplaying game systems. I remember taking an unscientific poll at the time, and based on the content and advertising in the various RPG magazines I had to hand, there were around 50 tabletop RPGs on the market. Today, a quick look through DriveThruRPG.com turns up 97 game lines, and I’m sure there are many more that don’t sell through that site.

The year after my article was published, GenCon attracted 5,000 attendees in its first year in Milwaukee. Last year, a reported 36,733 people went to Indianapolis for GenCon, to say nothing of those who attended the various smaller GenCons around the world.

All this might lead the casual observer to believe that the tabletop roleplaying hobby has never been stronger or more popular – but I’m not so sure. Here’s why:

The FLGS Under Threat

In the 80s and early 90s, I was usually aware of 2-3 Friendly Local Game Stores (FLGSs to us game geeks) within a 30-minute drive of wherever I happened to be living at the time. They were places where gamers could go and browse, maybe play a demo or two, pick up new releases for whatever games they played, and discover new games.

Now, the FLGS is almost an endangered species. The major games – D&D, Pathfinder, and maybe one or two others – can now be found in big-box bookstores, but they don’t carry anything like the range of stock found in an FLGS, and small to mid-range titles are absent altogether. The online retailers carry a much broader range, but browsing takes serious determination. I suspect that game conventions are now the main way that gamers discover new games.

Follow the Money

When I quit Games Workshop in 1990 to set out on the uncertain seas of freelance game writing, I was paid between 2 and 5 cents per word. Twenty-two years later, that’s what most of the tabletop RPG industry still pays. A handful of the larger publishers pay 6 cents per word.

According to DollarTimes.com, a 2012 dollar is worth only 58 cents from 1990. So in real terms, payment rates have declined by more than one-third over the last 22 years. Many old-school tabletop RPG writers, myself included, now make their living in the better-paying electronic games industry. Many of the people I know in the industry – even those who own and operate RPG publishing companies – list a “day job” on their LinkedIn profiles, which is a sign that they can’t make a living from game publishing alone.

So what’s happening? Why do we see growth in the range of tabletop RPG titles and increasing attendance at game conventions alongside clear evidence of a drop in profitability? I can think of a couple of reasons.

Lowering the Bar

In the 80s and 90s, getting a tabletop RPG to market was a serious undertaking. Layout was still done with scissors and paste. The first desktop publishing programs were so expensive that only professional publishers could afford them. A print run of at least 5,000 copies was needed to break even, and publishers had to pay for printing and shipping before a single cent rolled in from sales. Nowadays, e-books and PDFs have slashed production costs and money tied up in unsold stock. Word can be used to turn out respectable-looking pages. Gamers who would have started typewritten fanzines in the 80s now run blogs and sell PDFs online.

I’ve always said that if you scratch a roleplayer, you’ll find a would-be game designer underneath. Today, the bar to entry is so low that anyone with a computer and an internet connection can start their own publishing house – and many have. For most, it’s just a hobby. For a few, it’s an attempt to make a living – or at least a little cash – from the hobby that they love. But almost no one outside a handful of the largest publishers is making any kind of a living at it.

So What About GenCon?

It’s easy to see how DTP, PDFs, POD, and various other acronyms have led to a growth in the number of tabletop RPG publishers. But surely the numbers from GenCon prove that the market is growing in proportion, right?

Yes, more people are attending GenCon than ever. However, if the market for tabletop RPGs is growing at all, I’m fairly sure it’s growing far more slowly than GenCon attendance. I would love to see how the age breakdown of GenCon attendees has changed over the last 20 years or so, but I haven’t been able to find any statistics on the subject. I suspect that a major factor in the rise in attendance is the increase in tabletop roleplayers’ disposable income as they get older. Couple this with the decline in the brick-and-mortar game stores, and for many people conventions have become the only place to mix with other gamers, play demos, and discover new titles.

But Don’t Panic!

Does this mean the tabletop RPG industry is dying? Far from it. It’s just not booming. It will never be what people hoped it would become in the late 80s, when TSR released a long-box edition of D&D aimed to fit alongside Monopoly and Clue on toystore shelves. For some, it’s a hobby that maybe brings in a little cash. For a very few, it’s a living doing something they love. There’s a lot to like about the fact that you can start your own publishing house from your basement or garage. As long as everyone realizes that the odds of striking it rich are vanishingly small, no one will get hurt.