Posted on October 17, 2008 by Flames
Our author begins his book by informing us that table-top RPGs are at a crossroads. They are at a point in time where they must make a choice between a new system, something revolutionary and different, and the power of nostalgia, classic systems and tradition on the other. This is an easy assumption to make, casting your eyes about to the RPG market and seeing the 4E update and change in D&D in what seems, especially to outsiders, as very dramatic ways. It is from this premise our author builds his book. I would claim this is his thesis statement; the foundation of the argument for the book. Unfortunately, it couldn’t be more wrong.
The idea that the game is struggling between the modern and the classic is a by-product of someone brought up through 20+ years of RPGs (as the author admits he has been). It may seem so from his viewpoint, but that is in error. RPGs are ALWAYS a struggle of the modern versus the classic. It is like saying that at some specific point in the last two-hundred years of Japanese history, there was a struggle between the modern and tradition. There has always been that struggle, it is endemic of the culture and it is just as much a part of RPGs. The same argument was made when D&D launched 2nd edition (though without the internet, it was less vociferous). It was lauded when 3.X was launched (EnWorld’s very existence is a testament to that). Now we get to have the same argument again.
We must accept that these two forces will always struggle against each other. If modern gaming is at a cross-road, it is the convergence of the analogue and the digital, table-top and desktop. That is a new frontier and one that companies will be struggling with (As evidenced by DDI, PDF versions of books and online MMOs) for years to come.
In the same introduction, the author claims that monsters that the players are familiar with cause robotic reactions as the players all know their capabilities and attacks. He alleges that these classic monsters are boring. This book is meant to be the cure, with its ability to produce a near infinite number of strange, alien and unpredictable creatures. Once again, this is incorrect in two ways.
First, players do not want their fights to consist of a constant stream of giant, twenty-sided hairy tentacle monsters, followed by a slimy, squid-like, bull-headed monster with claws surrounding its orb-like head. These are the sorts of creatures this book will generate, though in the authors defense, he constantly reminds us of “Rule 0;” if we don’t like it change it. These creatures do not have the same psychological resonance with the players and despite a flavor-filled description, after a while, one weird, foreign, we-don’t-know-what-the-hell-it-does creature blends into another. An endless string of alien creatures does not make players excited. It makes them detached and uninterested. These foreign and unusual creatures are only as such when held against the “norm.” In this case that norm is orcs, goblins, manticores, chimeras, dragons and more, creatures that have been the subject of myth and legend for almost 3,000 years. I doubt we have exhausted them in 30 years of role-playing. If you as the GM uses only a string of the same orcs, then yes, your party may become robotic in their reactions or simply uninterested. Speaking as someone who ran a twenty-level campaign against orcs, I promise you, they can remain interesting with simple twists and a bit of creativity.
The second overwhelming error in this thinking is the belief that these same monsters of tradition are boring to players. This is simply patently untrue. The USAGE of them by a GM may be boring, but the monsters are very exciting. That is why they have traction and have become staples of fantasy literature; they are interesting. Things such as orcs, and gnolls, etc are the sorts of creatures your players have an expectation to meet. If they spend the whole time fighting “mindless eating machines” as the author claims this book will create, and never meet such a race, they will be sorely let down and disappointed. Meeting player expectations is the single most important part of keeping your PCs engaged in a game. When a PC meets an orc, he has an expectation of what that orc can do. He knows this thing is a bestial warrior and now bravely charges into combat. It makes the player feel like a hero and when the orc reacts as he would think it does, he is proud of himself and gains a positive psychological utility from the experience. The second time he meets an orc in that game, he may expect the same thing, but perhaps this orc is a powerful spellcaster, or even stranger, a peaceful farmer. Now we have done something interesting because we have taken what was a known quantity in the PCs mind and stood those expectations on their heads. Doing something “new” and “shocking” only works if the PCs have some expectations to play on.
My largest problem is that throughout the book, we have an underlying theme that the point of these monsters is to kill the PCs. The author makes many references to the PCs horrid death at the monster’s hands. I simply can’t accept that is the role of the GM in an RPG. We are engaged in an effort of collective story-telling. The point of the GM is to tell a good story, to challenge the PCs and for everyone at the table to have fun. Hitting the PCs with a strong of monsters that they have no idea how to fight and killing them multiple times in a campaign is not fun. It is however, a great way to lose players and alienate people.
The art in the book is sparse, as this is not a monster catalogue, but a series of directions on how to create monsters. The pieces that are in the book are classically drawn, reminiscent of the art of the mid-eighties RPG books most veteran players should be familiar with (the original Fiend Folio strongly jumps to mind). The art style is certainly outdated when compared to modern standards produced in most books published today, but as the book is trading heavily in “tradition” and meant to feel like a classic book from that time-period, the art works.
The art does an excellent job of showing you some of the strange, alien and otherworldly creatures you could generate with this book, alien creatures with exposed brains for heads, double-bird-headed dinosaurs and so on. The art captures accurately the capabilities of the book to generate creatures.
I think the quintessence of the book is actually captured in one of the art pieces early in the book. On Page 2 when the author is explaining the theory underpinning the book, we are given a picture of a GM in action. His shirt says Milwaukee 4-Ever. This accurately sums up the point-of-view of our author nicely.
The writing itself is well crafted and delivered succinctly. This book comes in at a mere 34 pages and several of those are throw away fluff introduction or ads. The actual monster creation rules from which the book derives its name are contained within 23 pages (4-27). This brevity is to be appreciated, as anything more would have gotten tedious and long-winded.
As it is, the author almost succeeds at what he sets out to do. He makes a relatively simple system for the GM to use, to create random animal intelligence and often other-worldly looking creatures. The system flows well and it is easy for even a neophyte GM to follow along the random table and create a new monster from scratch. My biggest problem is not the complexity of the system; it is that even as simplified as the author has made it, the process of building new monsters from scratch (especially enough to fill a dungeon or a god-forbid, a campaign) would be exhaustively time consuming.
The author is a skilled writer and has presented the system in the best possible light. The stumbling block is that it is simply too time-consuming, no matter how simplified and universal you make it, to build so many monsters from scratch.
Finally, I disagree with many of the point the author takes in his final chapter when he is recommending how to utilize monsters. He recommends not giving these monsters a name, as their nameless nature will inspire even more terror. This of course, is usually wrong. There is a reason that in the story of Genesis in the Bible, God asks Adam to name all of the birds and beasts. Humans love naming things. Yes, when we categorize things, it does serve to lessen their mystery, but it also helps us organize our mental brain space, X creature goes into category Y and so on. If you had one or two “what the heck was that?” creatures in a campaign that defied classification, this would be acceptable, but to do it with the majority of creatures will simply lose you players, as they can’t remember anything about they have accomplished. Being a Dragonslayer or a Giant-slayer, means something. Being a slayer of some hairy, tentacled unnamed thing just doesn’t resonate as well. I would borrow on the author’s second suggestion. If these monsters are used very sparingly as a play against the standard expectations and given local nicknames – The Beast of Brinsdale, then again, it gives the players something to hang their hat on.
This book is essentially a book of rules. The author gives us direction or how best to apply these rules, but the whole time I was reading it, I couldn’t help but think of that famous quote from Gary Gygax that “The secret we should never let the gamemasters know is that they don’t need any rules.” The author repeatedly instructs you to use his methods as a mere guideline and take things in your own direction as often as you wish. If this is the case and I am just making up monsters off the top of my head, I didn’t really need this book.
The second issue with the rules is that they don’t actually work as intended. These rules would create creatures that you could easily drop into 2nd edition and shoehorn into 3.X (though without any of the unified special rules and systems that was the dynamic shift of 3.X). These monsters simply fail to work for 4E whatsoever. 4E monsters are carefully created under a completely different premise (that non-elite/solo monsters are meant to be 1 to 1 challenges for the PCs) than the 3rd edition design allowed. The real incompatibility is that you are not generating anything close to the way a 4E monster works, you are proceeding to generate a great deal more information that is necessary, using rules the system doesn’t even ustilize anymore and moving against the very trend of streamlined fast and simple fun that 4E is pushing. In the final examination of the rules, this book is good at making 1st and 2nd edition monsters, but not much use beyond that. Most of these new systems (including 3.X and 4E) have much more robust and appropriate monster creation tools in their main rulebooks.
Allows a creation of an infinite amount of creatures for 1st and 2nd edition
Different does not equal better
Animal intelligence alien creatures get just as repetitive as the “traditional” monsters
No real compatibility with modern 3.75 or 4E editions of D&D
Overall: 2 (Unless you are needing a great amount of 1st edition or 2nd edition alien monsters, skip it).
Review by Vincent Venturella