Posted on April 19, 2006 by Flames
A Quick Note
Epic Role Playing is a fantasy role playing game system published by Dark Matter Studios and presented in three separate volumes (the Rules Manual, Bestiary, and Book of the Arcane, respectively). Additionally, a setting designed for use with the Epic system is also available in the form of the supplementary Atlas of Eslin (Volume 1). This review deals specifically with the Epic Role Playing Besitary, while other reviews discuss other Epic core books, as well as the Atlas of Eslin setting supplement.
What is Epic Role Playing?
Epic Role Playing is, like Dungeons & Dragons, a fantasy system by default. That is, Epic Role Playing isn’t an entire game, but a set of rules that can be used to play games (an entire game, of course, requires the inclusion of a defined setting and premise). As a system, the primary design goal of Epic Role Playing is to present a flexible and open role playing system that fits the needs of gamers while striking a balance between verisimilitude and playability.
Now, I’ve played a lot of games and fooled about with many a system, but I haven’t ever seen a product with this specific design goal before. As I’m sure you are, I’m used to seeing games shoot for one end of the playability/verisimilitude spectrum or the other, not exploring the middle ground. In this regard, Epic Role Playing may not be unique, but it’s certainly uncommon – Epic doesn’t make you choose between playability or verisimilitude, rather, it gives you both in one package.
This isn’t an easy line to tow, and Epic does have a few rough spots, but ultimately the folks at Dark Matter Studios seem to have nailed it, providing a system that captures both entertaining meta-constructs and a great deal of verisimilitude, while remaining flexible enough to apply to a setting of your choice. Epic Role Playing obviously won’t please everybody (no game system does), but for some folks it may well be the Holy Grail that they’ve been searching for.
I’m always somewhat wary of small press production values as they still, even with the advent of print-on-demand fulfillment houses, run the gamut from aesthetically pleasing perfect-bound, soft-cover books to xeroxed, spiral-bound, crap that could have been printed at Kinko’s for all I can tell. I am happy to report that the Epic Role Playing books (including the Book of the Arcane) all fall squarely into the former category.
The Epic Role Playing Bestiary itself is a perfect-bound soft-cover that costs $20 (US) and contains 123 pages of content (including several quick references). The first thing you’ll notice is the cover art. Like the cover art on other Epic books, it is skillfully rendered with a watercolor effect. The cover portrays two adventurers trapped in quicksand at the bottom of a desert canyon, fending off an approaching swarm of giant spiders. It’s obviously subject appropriate, but I like this particular piece because it conveys action that I can easily imagine being culled from an actual game session.
As a big fan of artwork rendered in watercolor, the covers of the Epic Role Playing books really impress me. Not only are they stylish, they are also evocative of that high adventure feeling while simultaneously providing some insight into what you’ll find within the pages of a given Epic volume. Simply put, the Epic Role Playing cover art does everything that good cover art should do. Kudos (again) to Chris Organ for the excellent work here.
The interior layout of the Epic Role Playing Bestiary is well organized, but a bit disappointing where the consistency of aesthetic quality is concerned. Unlike the other three books in the Epic product line, where the artwork is consistently top notch, the artwork in the Bestiary ranges from poor to good in terms of aesthetic appeal. This is specifically disappointing because, of all the books, it is the Bestiary which would be best served by visual representations of the subject matter. Some of the less skillfully rendered pieces do detract from the overall aesthetic appeal of the book and, as such, make the Bestiary the odd man out in the Epic Role Playing product line where presentation is concerned.
Overall, I’ve been very impressed with the physical quality of the Epic Role Playing books. The artwork (with the exception of certain pieces found in the Bestiary) and layout generally rivals that of much larger publishers and far surpasses that of many small press publishers that I am familiar with. If you need a measuring stick, I feel comfortable saying that the Epic Role Playing rule books (with the possible exception of the Bestiary) are approximately of the same quality as Wizards of the Coast’s early soft-cover class supplements.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the real meat of the Epic Role Playing Bestiary comes in the form of beasts. While the back cover boasts that “You will not find stock fantasy beasts within these pages, but original creations to enhance your games”, this is only partially true. The Epic Role Playing Bestiary does, in fact, contain write-ups for numerous stock fantasy creatures (specifically mundane animals such as giant spiders and the like), but it also presents a wide selection of creatures that are unique to Epic (e.g., Kiebunts), as well as some new variants of old favorites (e.g., Lamia).
As was the case with the Epic Role Playing Rules Manual and the Book of the Arcane, the Epic Role Playing Bestiary also cleaves to the design goals of the system where striking a balance between playability and verisimilitude are concerned – even when it comes to something as fantastic as imaginary creatures. Some of the basic concepts in the Bestiary will no doubt look familiar to fans of the most recent Dungeons & Dragons edition, but the simplified presentation of creatures is more reminiscent of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in form. That said, as always, Epic proves that simple can be functional and there’s no loss of utility here.
All creatures in the Epic Bestiary are presented in a standardized, functional, and easy to read format as described below:
Deadliness: Each creature is ranked according to the potential challenge that it poses in combat situations – easy, moderate, hard, formidable, or impossible. While I’m not privy to the exact maths used to determine these ranking, the few playtest combats that I ran bear out the rankings (i.e., those creatures with a Deadliness ranking of “easy” are a pushover in combat, while those ranked with exceedingly higher Deadliness present more of a challenge.
Realm: This entry pertains specifically to the Epic Role Playing house setting of Eslin setting, and tells the reader in which realm of Eslin that a given creature is most commonly encountered.
Habitat: This entry denotes the specific natural environment (i.e., aquatic, forest, grasslands, etc) in which a given creature commonly makes its home.
Prevalence: This entry specifically denotes the frequency with which a given creature is likely to be encounters and ranges from “common” to “unique”.
Diet: This entry pertains to the preferred diet of a given creature, and can included such unusual entries as “geonivore” (i.e., rock eaters) in addition to the more common entries of “herbivore”, “carnivore”, and “omnivore”.
Activity:Creatures in Epic are either diurnal (i.e., active primarily during the day), nocturnal (i.e., active primarily by night), or crepuscular (i.e., active primarily at dusk and dawn). When a creature is most active is, unsurprisingly, listed under this entry.
Additionally, each creature in the Epic Role Playing Bestiary is assigned one of eight primary classification as follow:
Animal: A naturally occurring creature that moves to obtain food from (or in the form of) other creatures.
Construct: A creature that has been elemental parts by humans or another hominid species (i.e., they are not chimeric unions of different species, but beings created from scratch, so to speak).
Erebusi: A creature that hails from the vast subterranean realm of Erebus. Erebusi are often viewed as being demons by surface dwellers and Erebus itself as the underworld.
Extradimensional: A creature that lives outside of the normal, physical, reality of the campaign universe.
Humanoid: Any creature that is both sentient and boasts features that resemble those of humankind.
Monstrosities: A wide classification that bestowed upon unnatural, living, creatures (including chimeric hybrids) and other oddities that do not necessarily share a common ancestry.
Plants & Fungi: I shouldn’t have to explain this classification 😉
Vis Mortua: Also known more commonly as “undead”, a creature of this classification hovers somewhere between the realm of the living and the dead.
Finally, all creatures in the Epic Role Playing Bestiary are defined in terms of the same Vital Attributes that are used to initially define characters in Epic Role Playing, meaning that mechanically, creatures are seamlessly integrated into the pre-existing system. This, naturally, makes setting up creature encounters a very simple affair that requires little (if any) prep work.
Normally, I feel that indexes aren’t worth mentioning in a review unless they’re horribly disorganized or absent, but I make an exception for creature collection as they’re the one RPG book that I can think of where numerous indices are extremely useful. I was pleased to see that the Dark Matter Studios crew is of a like mind where indices (and a glossary) are concerned.
The Epic Role Playing Bestiary makes good use of a thorough alphabetical index and glossary, as well as two additional ‘directories’ (indices without page numbers essentially) that categorize creatures by classification and deadliness, respectively. I’m particularly sold on the latter directory, and wish that all creature collections contained such a thing as it makes extemporaneously introducing encounters into a game very easy.
The Final Verdict
As a supplement for Epic Role Playing, the Bestiary is a valuable resource for those role players who enjoy introducing new creatures into their campaigns on a regular basis. As a product of general interest, the Epic Role Playing Bestiary has less appeal than the Rule Manual or the Book of the Arcane did, but given the similarities between Epic’s system and that of other popular games, converting the unique creatures from Epic to other systems should be fairly easy (I haven’t actually attempted this yet so, presently, it is purely an assumption on my part).
Concerning matters of visual presentation, it’s true that the Epic Bestiary falls short of the standards established in other Epic products, but ultimately this is a minor blemish on an otherwise polished product. In the end, I wholeheartedly recommend the Epic Role Playing Bestiary to current players of Epic Role Playing and feel comfortable recommending it to players of other games with a similar system (D&D 3.0/3.5, Castles & Crusades, etc) as long as they’re willing to do some legwork where conversions are concerned.
Reviewer: James D. Hargrove