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Tome of Horrors Revised Review

Posted on April 16, 2008 by Flames


Available at RPGNow.com

Introduction
Nostalgia is a powerful thing. Sometimes it can suddenly hit. You are eating a meal, and though it may be simple fare, you are reminded of sitting around the table as a child enjoying a meal with your whole family. Nostalgia washes over you and what would otherwise be a mediocre meal and completely forgettable suddenly becomes very enjoyable.

I suspect the writers of this book hoped for the same evocative feeling. The text at the beginning of the book, imagining you the readers apparent sadness as you opened your 3rd edition Monster Manual only to find it was without an aerial servant a boalisk or a cave moray, seems to suggest a near universal sadness over the lack of these creatures. However, if you read those three monsters and said “What?” then this book is not for you.

Overview
The Revised Tome of Horrors is a massive play on nostalgia. A book hoping that you miss the strange, often inexplicable and forgettable monsters from 1st edition. The problem becomes, that if you do not know what the hell these monsters are and you have no attachment to a pech or a tentamort, you will think this is simply a massive collection of strange and unremarkable creatures.

The book is single minded in its approach; proudly presenting you with over 300 monsters from the “good old days” of D&D. It clocks in at a massive 451 pages and is only available in PDF format. The reason for this decision is explained at the opening of the book. Ultimately it boils down to the cost involved with a reprint of a book this size. This decision was wise beyond their own knowledge especially as 4E comes bearing down on us, threatening to make all of this revised content outdated.

For the players, there is not a great deal of material in this book. That should be no surprise being that this is a book of monsters and is meant more to provide “ammunition” as the author puts it, to fight the PCs. I will admit that I comb every new monster supplement looking for strange and alien races to bring to my gaming table. This book provides a few monsters level adjustments and starting PC stats, though it does not go as far as something like Savage Species in completely breaking down monsters for players. It would be inappropriate for the book to do, as its stated purpose is as a DM’s resource.

The Dungeon Master might look upon this book for interesting threats to oppose and befuddle the PCs in their weekly games. There is certainly no short supply within these pages. The 300 monsters are also supported by several templates and large lists of new animals and dire animals. This is exactly where this book fails. In trying to pack in so many monsters and relying so heavily on the nostalgia of using these monsters, it offers no reason to use them. The monster’s descriptions have no ecologies or advice for where they fit into the world. It seems to assume they just exist and the DM will know where to put them. This is fine if you have been DMing since these monsters were originally published in the first Fiend Folio over 25 years ago. For newer DMs, the book reads flat and becomes a droning list of monsters with no evocative flavor text, background or motivations for these creatures to exist. They become a grocery list of monsters and are generally about as interesting.

This book could benefit greatly by cutting 100-150 monsters and beefing up each entry with advancements, ecologies, advice for where the monster belongs in the world(s), tactics and habits. All of this information may not be rules crunch or “ammunition” but they do make the game more compelling and fun, which is the stated purpose of Role-Playing Games.

Artwork
The Artwork for the book is standard for 3rd party publishers. Some of the monsters are particularly simple and even childish, but I wonder if this wasn’t on purpose to try to capture nostalgia. The early books these monsters were drawn from were certainly simple and left a great deal to be desired from art. Perhaps they are trying to replicate that simplicity. I suspect the real problem is the sheer number of monsters. Each monster had to have its own art commissioned and I imagine the overwhelming number of pieces lead to the average quality coming down.

Despite this, there are some great pieces scattered in the book. The apparition and the bloody bones are both very well done and present monsters worthy of the title of horrifying. The issue becomes that after the art grabs me, the text does not live up to the task of keeping my excitement going and I inevitably turn the page.

Writing
The writing is clean and straight-forward. The monster charts are as simple as 3.5 will allow and the book is presented in the older style format of the Monster Manual 3.5 as opposed to the updated stat blocks of Monster Manual III and IV. It is the writing that is not here that causes the problems. In addition to these issues, I would also comment that many of the monsters felt flat and similar. I did not see a large number of new or interesting attacks, spells or abilities that would become a compelling and unexpected twist in the PCs encounter. Instead we are treated to more “it has tentacles = Improved Grab” and there is already plenty of that in the basic offerings of Wizards of the Coast.

I also take issue with one of the opening statements of the book. In the Introduction to the Revised Edition, they state that this book was laid out to be as PDF friendly as possible. This means they attempted to keep to the 1 page to a monster standard. Yet three monsters in (the algoid), they have already broken that format. If 50% of the monsters in the book fell on a single page, I would be surprised. The nature of this book as a PDF supplement means that it is very annoying to shift pages on your laptop screen to see the text or ability you can’t currently read.

Rules
Rules are the highlight of this book. I take the word rules in a D&D supplement to mean crunch; the numbers and abilities that affect the way combat is fought or characters are created. Though this book may have a dearth of flavor, it has an abundance of monsters and their accompanying rules. I saw very few errors in the monster’s descriptions and they have all been brought into 3.5 with care and consideration for their original abilities. I would have like to have seen more original outside-the-box thinking that made these monsters truly unique, but they are certainly on par with the standard affair offered by Wizards in the Manuals.

Although they claim to have worked with Wizards in the introduction to make sure most of these monsters wouldn’t be reprinted, a great number of them actually have been. This is most likely more Wizards of the Coast’s fault. As time progressed and Wizards of the Coast has wanted to bring more of the past favorites back, it’s only natural to see the reprints. The real issue is that the reprints are all the most famous early edition creatures that might actually have a chance of evoking nostalgia. At this point, anyone with the requisite Monster Manuals and a subscription to Dragon has seen most of the old favorites reprinted in official format. This leaves only the lesser known monsters (Bunyip anyone?) as new 3.5 offerings.

Lastly, as with any 3.5 product for D&D, we must spend a moment discussing the upcoming release of 4E. I wish it were out already so I could stop including this caveat. As this book is solely based on monster’s stats and has nothing in the way of their place in the world, it is a complete non-starter when it comes to moving to 4E. Arguably, the most radical change coming in 4E is the way monsters are being redefined and greatly simplified. Monsters are moving away from having the same rules as PCs and onto their own platform. This means the long text boxes and stat blocks are a thing of the past. Unfortunately, so is this book.

Upsides
More than 300 Monsters
Strong sense of nostalgia if you played D&D in the early 80s

Downsides
No flavor or ecologies on the monsters, just stats
No 4E compatibility
Uneven quality of art
Not formatted well for PDF

Score
Style: 2
Substance: 3
Overall: 2.5 (Unless you are not going to 4E and you long for the monsters of 1e, save your money)

Review by Vincent Venturella

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