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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!

Just in Time for Christmas

December 14, 2012 2 comments

December has been a busy month, but I can’t talk about any of that. Not yet.

Here’s what I can talk about, though: a lot of things are finally seeing the light of day this month, and that’s very exciting.

New Fiction

I’ve already posted about the Aesop-inspired anthology The Lion and the Aardvark, which includes stories from 70 – count ’em, 70 – of the best writers out there. I have a short-short tale in there called “The Lemmings and the Sea,” and I can’t wait to see what my 69 co-writers have come up with.

The Hobbit Social Games

I should have posted before about The Hobbit: Kingdoms of Middle-earth and The Hobbit: Armies of the Third Age. I’m very proud to have worked on these two social strategy games tied into Peter Jackson’s new movie. By the bye, Apple has just named Kingdoms of Camelot: Battle for the North as the top-grossing free iOS app of 2012. That was my first project for Kabam, and it’s great to see it doing so well.

I’ve also been involved with two tabletop RPG products that are out just in time for Christmas. Although I don’t work much in that medium these days, I’m proud of both of these new releases, for different reasons.

Colonial Gothic

The Colonial Gothic 2nd Edition Rulebook was released on 12/12/12 at 12:12:12, in reference to the 12 Degrees roleplaying system that powers it. It has been a long, hard labor of love for Colonial Gothic creator Richard Iorio. I’ve offered support and feedback, but the work is all his.

You may not have heard of Colonial Gothic, or of Rogue Games. I first met Richard at GenCon more than a decade ago when we were both working the Hogshead Publishing booth, and we kind of stayed in touch. When I first heard about Colonial Gothic in 2009, I was so impressed by the idea that I offered my services. Since then the Colonial Gothic line has swelled to eight books and a number of e-books, and the game has gathered a small but passionate following.

According to Richard, the Colonial Gothic concept started out as “Cthulhu 1776,” but it has come a long way since then. It now covers the whole history of Colonial America and the War of Independence. The work of H. P. Lovecraft still inspires the growing Colonial Gothic mythology (and I wish I could talk about a new development in that direction), but there’s more: scheming Dan-Brown-style Freemasons, Bigfoot and other cryptids, local legends like the Jersey Devil, Native spirits, and much, much more. If you liked Sleepy Hollow (the story or any of its movie versions), National Treasure, The Last of the Mohicans, The Patriot, or The Brotherhood of the Wolf, you’ll enjoy Colonial Gothic.

The second edition rulebook will be vital to the line’s future growth: previous editions were plagued by typos and minor inconsistencies, and Richard has taken the time to go through and fix everything. The rules have been reorganized so that information is easier to find; typos and inconsistencies have been fixed; and Richard has done wonders with the layout. It’s also 100% backward-compatible with the entire Colonial Gothic line. Richard has worked incredibly hard on this and the hard work shows.

The third instalment of the acclaimed Flames of Freedom campaign is planned for 2013, along with a couple of other things that, frustratingly, I can’t talk about yet. Keep an eye on Rogue Dispatches for announcements.

The Enemy Within, Again

Many months ago, Fantasy Flight Games caused an enormous stir when they announced a new campaign for 3rd Edition Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. It was the title that got people excited: The Enemy Within. The new Enemy Within is not an adaptation or an updating of the original, but a whole new campaign that explores the same themes through new adventures. The entry I wrote about it back in March remains the most-viewed entry on this whole blog.

After the frenzy that greeted the announcement, there was a long, long silence. Based at least in part on my feedback when I saw the galleys, The Enemy Within went through a lot of editing and development. Now, at last, it has been released.

When I started writing my part of the campaign, I worried about how I would top the completely unforeseen success of the original Enemy Within. I came to the conclusion that nothing could ever top the fond memories that many people have for the original adventures, memories that are tied up with where they were in their lives when they first played them. It’s impossible to recreate that; I just took my two chapter briefs and wrote the best adventure I could.

Since the new Enemy Within was announced, a few people have asked me about running it with 1st or 2nd edition WFRP, and also about running a mash-up of the old and new campaigns. I think both are possible. Although the three editions of WFRP have different rules, the setting and the cast of monsters are the same: with a little work on the GM’s part, stats can be massaged into the preferred edition. When I was writing, I made a conscious effort to write a good WFRP adventure, rather than focusing on the 3rd edition rules.

A mash-up “Total Enemy Within” campaign is equally possible. The new campaign has a strong structure, and if I were running an Enemy Within mashup I would use that as the main plot. The original adventures, up to and including Power Behind the Throne, can be added as side-plots and complications: Death on the Reik, in particular, could flesh out some of the travel sections, which are somewhat abstract in the new campaign. I can even see ways to add Something Rotten in Kislev and Empire in Flames, but going into any detail would involve spoilers so I’ll refrain for now.

Reaction to WFRP 3rd edition has been mixed. In its own way, the WFRP community is riven by an edition war as savage as anything D&D/d20 has seen. I expect at least a few people will eviscerate me online because the new Enemy Within doesn’t live up to their long-held memories of the original, because it’s 3rd edition, because of any number of things. I hope that a lot of people will like it, or at least find something they like in it. I will say that it looks good, and I will be excited to hold it in my hands.