This massive book clocks in at 94 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page Foreward (which is a typo or a pun – I opt for the latter), 1 page alphabetic ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 88 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
Why am I reviewing this? Well, Gavin Norman’s B/X Essentials-line up of new and refined takes on the classic and much beloved B/X-rules made me look for monsters, and this is one of the books I found. As noted in the “foreward”, the mission of this book, and I quote, is “The memories of that original tome inspire this one—a book that is just as fun to peruse as use, a book that strives to challenge and surprise, and a book that attempts to rekindle that “first time” gaming table joy.”
This is, in essence, a blurb that is as generic as it can be; I’ve found variations of exactly this sentiment in a plethora of books – to the point where I skimmed past it, not thinking much more about it. But we shall come back to this sentiment, as it informs the whole of the design paradigm that went into this.
First things first: This supplement, as far as rules are concerned, is a dual-stat book: We get 0e/1e stats for the monsters within, as well as B/X stats – this means HD-ratings and descending AC are standards, fyi.
However, there is something to note that differentiates this supplement from comparable offerings. That would be the fact that it is very much cognizant of an issue in OSR gaming. While the different OSR-rulesets like Labyrinth Lord (LL), OSRIC and Swords & Wizardry (S&W), to name a few of the big ones, are all transparent regarding the structure of their rules at first glance, detailed scrutiny offers some serious differences, and I don’t mean e.g. the wholly different focus of e.g. LotFP (Lamentations of the Flame Princess). In the latter game, Strength modifiers are not added to damage. More commonly known examples include saving throw differences, presence or absence of roll-under checks, ascending and descending AC. Ultimately, when you try to run things by the book, you’ll be surprised at the intricacies and differences of these systems. Just take a look at B/X’s cure spells, to note one example. Level caps, race classes – the list goes on. And yet, there is a celebration of hacking the games, which, while a good thing for the community and for the selection available for the games, also can give rise to frankly sloppy design.
This is most commonly encountered when games like LotFP that have no reliable means of magic nuking hordes of enemies are faced with high-level wizards…or when said games myriad of “I wreck the world”-options are faced with a high density of magic-users. The transparency only goes so far, and requires, more often than not, some deliberation on part of the referee/GM. It does make a difference if you require a specific spell to get rid of things like paralysis, or if that’s another function of a given, commonly used spell. Power-levels also fluctuate between systems…but I digress.
As far as monsters are concerned, an annoying stumbling stone for referees that run monsters and the game by the book, is certainly Treasure Types. Well, guess what? We get an appendix with treasure types by edition, providing rules for 0e, 1e, HB, and B/X. Moreover, we do get an index of customized experience point award for 0e, S&W, B/X/BECMI, LL and OSRIC! For all critters! That is really epic, a ton of work, and it makes the book immediately more compelling and easier to use. So, that’s the formal component here.
Beyond this component, this book contains no less than 200 critters. Yep, that many. Taking a look at the page-count, this makes a couple of things immediately clear: there will be multiple monsters per page, and these monsters won’t have detailed notes on ecology and society/habitat; instead, we’ll get a rough average of two paragraphs of text that will feature, rules language and flavor information, with the ratio of these components depending on the critter in question.
For example, the write-up of the Heikegani, one of my favorite monsters within, devotes two of the three paragraphs devoted to it, dealing with their unique rules – they can see most invisible creatures, have two attack routine (stabby legs and pincers), and are gifted with premonitions. If you have a decent grasp of Japanese, you’ll know that heikegani, or 平家蟹, are a species of crab in Japan that bears a pattern reminiscent of a human face- this has been taken by the pdf and extrapolated into a fantastic context: In the game, they are giant crabs, inhabited by the spirits of warrior that died a dishonorable death. This is a piece of real world lore that is slightly odd, and one-ups it for the context of the game, which is a surprisingly effective example of how inspiring tidbits can inform design without necessarily requiring the paraphrasing of established mythology.
Another example for this pattern would be the Kala, which I assume to be inspired by the Sanskrit term that doubles as “dark” and “fate/death”, also being used as a Yama-reference. These beings of pure disease and decay. They target creatures with higher life expectancy, and they have poison, a coma-inducing paralytic effect, a rotting disease, AND hits, even if your HD fortify you against most of these, still leave festering boils! These are so virulent, so neat an impersonation of decay, they made me smile. They are genuinely creepy. Not all of the critters are as mechanically interesting as these fellows, though – there is, for example a blood-drinking undead somewhere between a vampire and a ghoul, that latches on a target on a 19 or 20, draining blood. Okay, mayhaps using threat range can be considered to be brave in classic contexts, but considering that this is a base component of the rules-chassis of more than one game, these left me somewhat unimpressed. There is a Jersey devil-ish draconic horse, and speaking of Americana, there is also an iteration of the mothman within these pages.
While there are a few instances of monsters based on slightly more obscure components of mythology, like the forest-dwelling Leshii, these tend to be weaker than the interesting monsters within. The take on the redcap is also exceedingly lame, and while I’m at the topic: There are a couple of *insert element name”-walkers – basically lame, humanoid elemental dudes that kinda walk around and sometimes perhaps help adventurers. These have no real identity and are the textbook definition of filler.
Now, an issue in pre-template games is that there are plenty of filler monsters in older games, and frankly, many of them, though by now part of the canon of gaming and thus beloved by virtue of nostalgia, aren’t particularly exciting with the nostalgia goggles taken off. While this book does contain a couple of critters that I’d consider to be palette-swaps/templates by another name, these are few. Some offenders would be stone giants that can phase through walls – which is, however, more interesting than regular stone giants at least. As an aside: Say what you want and grognard-rage about Paizo all you want, but their take on Easter Island-ish looking stone giants and their ties to the ancient Thassilonian empire actually, for the first time, provided a proper cultural identity for these…but I digress. On the positive side of things that would be templates in more complex rule-sets, would be e.g. the Kam Warrior, and here, I really enjoy what this provides: The creature is basically a supernatural warrior that splits, ooze-style, into two upon being slain, with both split creatures having half HD – until you reduce them to 1 HD. This only works relatively smoothly here because of the structure of old-school games basing the attack capabilities on HD, and would be a vastly more complex operation in more rules-heavy systems, but it works here, and I really enjoy this. “Templated” creatures that are less compelling, would for example be canine flesh golems, which really made me think that just establishing some templates for B/X and the like would have made sense. It’s not like that framework would be mathematically hard to design. If the multi-armed gorillas known as girallons (themselves inspired by Appendix N classics) always struck a chord with you, you’ll be happy to note that they do get an iteration herein, including a valid take on the rending mechanics that set them apart in more complex systems. On the less interesting side: There is a forest version of the yeti, the hibagon. No, it’s not interesting in any way.
There are some creatures that live by virtue of the flavor more than by virtue of the generally exceedingly precise rules language – the jelly death, for example: These would be roughly humanoid, paralytic oozes that flow over their victims to absorb them…but they are jealous and attack other jelly deaths for their food! So, if a thief scouting ahead was paralyzed, there actually is a chance, without being merciful/fudging dice, that PCs saving the thief may be warranted! This is a small tidbit, a brief behavioral peculiarity, but it’s one I immensely enjoyed.
On the downside, there are a couple of pretty lame ones: Half human/lower half horse-ish dude with two legs? Okay, not excited. Glowing, drifting things that can detonate? There was this spore cloud thing, right? Now, I don’t object to one-note or “useless” monsters – there is, for example, a statblock for flying skulls herein. Which are exactly what you’d picture them to be….so if you’re planning on using Goodman Games’ “The Emerald Enchanter” with OSR-rules, this will be useful to you. Conceptually less interesting, but mechanically distinct would e.g. be the possessors – beings from the negative energy plane, who move into targets and take them over – and yes, their rules properly frame the pretty complex interactions and ramifications of this. On the conceptual side of things, there is a critter herein that will make many a fan smile: There is a being herin that is basically a squig by another name. Love that!
On the somewhat lame side, we get skinwalkers, a couple of skeleton variants (templated monsters, basically), and stats for a giant two-headed snake. See what I mean with “OSR games would benefit from a template engine for monsters?” – a couple of these frankly don’t necessarily warrant their own statblocks. There are some, that may not seem like it, but that definitely do. White elephants, for example: These beings are magical, you know, and as such, they do grant benefits to their owners if cared for properly – but ONLY when not directly asked for it! And after generations of care, when they die, they may actually grant a wish upon dying…if they’re not asked directly, of course! This has “amazing questline/intrigue” written all over it and really inspired me.
But let me return to one of my initial points, namely that this attempts to recreate the themes of the original monsters, and it brings me to a slight tangent: I have been championing, for quite a bunch of years, a return to the practice of providing actual context for critters. One of the strengths of the 3pp circuit for both PFRPG and 5e would be that, in contrast to official supplements, we now often get some notes on how a critter interacts with its environments…you know, context. This was one part of the reasons I more fondly remember the bestiaries of old. Don’t get me wrong – I disliked filler critters back then as much as I do now, and if I had a dime for every lame “it’s an incorporeal undead that smothers/chokes and/or possesses you” old-school critter in my bestiaries and manuals, I’d have a bunch of money. It’s good that advances in design got mostly rid of these and used rules complexity to further differentiate critters. And this pdf (as well as many more current OSR-offerings) does a good job at providing mechanically distinct effects within a more rules lite framework. However, I have to make a statement here that may prove to be controversial: The advances in design also made us lose one aspect that made these old-school bestiaries so charming in the first place, and this also can be seen in many newer old-school bestiaries. We expect more, cooler, distinct stuff. And we have lost a whole creature type that has, paradoxically, done A LOT to establish the identity of D&D-based games.
I am talking about the misfit monsters. Think about it. The flumph. The owlbear. The wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing. These critters are rites of passage. And they have been made “cool” in some contemporary books. When that’s not necessarily the point. They are, in a way, somewhat goofy, but plausible. This book’s main point of differentiation for me, would be that it can be taken as a love letter to the lost art of making a misfit monster, but with the caveat that the monsters still benefit from the more mechanically advanced expectations we nowadays have, even in the context of our old-school games. Take the skunkbear, who is pretty much self-explanatory in what it does. It’s goofy, but oddly plausible when thinking about the fact that armadillos, platypodes and potoos exist IRL. Add magic and these oddballs make sense. All the design paradigms and smart decisions noted before are employed for these as well.
There is, for example, an otter/dog-ish mammal that has a taste for human flesh. Why? Because. It’s a weird critter; it’s not magical, it’s not mechanically exceptional, but it managed to inspire me. There are magical creatures with a lion’s body and the head of an elephant…and there is a snake that ends in a hand…and that loves stealing stuff! This is WEIRD, not in the way of weird fiction, but in that pre-corporate ID-runs-rampant sense; these critters don’t feel calculated, and when you read about the vulture/bat hybrid, you’ll smile. I know I did. Also: Giant woodpecker. Cactus cat. These sound odd; these should, by all accounts, end with me rambling about how ludicrous they are, how this isn’t design-wise too interesting…but they work. Perhaps it’s the pretty impressive rules-precision of the special tricks; perhaps it’s because the hybrids and misfits are not simply concepts that have been jammed together willy-nilly. There is deliberation here, and an honest love of this odd magical ecology of outrageous things that set our pen and paper games apart from corporate videogame worlds that feature the standard orc/goblin/ogre/dragon-etc. cadre. Did I mention the bugs that, mind-flayer style, want to eat your brain? In short – in spire of my aforementioned criticism of some component critters herein, this book made me smile, time and again.
Editing and formatting are top-notch on a formal and rules-language level, which is rather impressive for a book of this size. It’s also nice to see proper precision in more complex abilities – writing for old-school games is no excuse for sloppy rules, and this pdf represents one of the examples that precision can really elevate a book. Layout adheres to a 2-column b/w-standard, and much to my surprise and shock, every creature herein gets its own artwork. The author Richard J. LeBlanc Jr. has actually also drawn all the b/w-artwork, and frankly, while not all artworks are winners, I can list a ton of offerings and b/w-artworks that look much worse. There are some gems in the artwork here, and while style varies, it’s impressive to note. Less impressive and a huge comfort detriment: the pdf has no bookmarks, which is a huge no-go at this length. Navigation of the pdf is a chore, and I strongly suggest printing this or getting print. I can’t comment on the print version as per the writing of this review, as I don’t have that version available to me.
That being said, there is a factor that does feature herein, and it’s one I usually don’t highlight: The price-point. This massive bestiary, all original artwork, more than 200 new critters…costs a grand total of $3.00. Or at least it did when I got this – right now, this massive tome is available for PWYW!! And you a) really should check this out and b) seriously reward the author for all the love and heart’s blood that obviously went into the creation of this book.
To contextualize the original and already ridiculous original price: You can’t even get a cup a joe for 3 bucks around here. This is insane, and further testament of what this pdf pretty much oozes: Passion. At this point, I have read and reviewed so many roleplaying game supplements, that I have become pretty good at noticing when someone phones in designs. And this, even in the instances where a monster is conceptually or rules-wise not that cool, does have these small flourishes, these tidbits that show that someone cared. The jealousy of the jelly deaths, the giant cat-dragon-thing…and then there would be the amazing magical animals, like birds that only can be seen by some particularly smart folks, like a burrowing mantis shrimpy-cricket thing…and did I mention the yak-men? Well, now I did.
There is charm herein; there is passion – and there is genuine love for a design paradigm, for a slightly tongue-in-cheek innocence I creature design, that I had feared to be lost to the refinements of the market. This book is a charming offering that made me smile with critters I ought to hate or consider to be lame – and instead ended up loving. Believe me – when I first flicked through this, I furrowed my brown at the creature concepts, and it took reading and analyzing this, in spite of my first knee-jerk reaction, to start loving what’s inside. So if my tangents and rambling just made you think “Those sound lame, skipping this” – please reconsider. Have a heart for critters that don’t give a damn for the rule of cool, that don’t try to be cool, or creepy, or gonzo, or over the top. That are just plain, old-school fantastic strangeness and wonder. They are definitely worth checking out. While the lack of bookmarks and the very few monsters that missed the mark herein do prevent me from rating this as highly as some critters would deserve, the superb bang-for-buck ratio does offset some of this book’s minor shortcomings. My final verdict will clock in at 4.5 stars, rounded up for the purpose of this platform.
You can get this cool bestiary here for PWYW!
You can get it in print here on lulu!