Sunday, June 24, 2018

What Makes A Good Monster Book?

I'm sure many (if not most or all) of us share one of two different first experiences with a monster book... OD&D's Monster & Treasure book, or AD&D's Monster Manual. My first experiences with monster stats were those ubiquitous red and blue saddle-stitched paperbacks of classic D&D. But those are simply not monster books. As I define it here, I'm talking specifically about those books which were (and are) filled cover to cover with monster stats, preferably with pictures.

While I doubt many of us rarely stop to critically examine monster books as I'm suggesting here, I'm sure that many of us know by osmosis if we like a monster book or not. We may not be able to objectively state that the Monster Manual or the Fiend Folio are far superior to Monster Manual II, but we know it... we know it.

So what happens when we start to look critically at monster books? Well, I can't speak for all of you (though the comments below will give everyone plenty of chance to chime in), I can tell you what does or doesn't stand out to me about various books noted below.

OD&D Monsters & Treasure
There's no doubt this is the great-grandaddy of all monster books. Though it be very skimpy compared to later monster descriptions, there's something very important happening here that I think is crucial to a good monster book... IDEAS! I'm not just talking about ideas on the part of the writers. I'm talking about the kinds of monsters that give DMs ideas, particularly those kinds of ideas that act as fuel for dungeon designing and adventure building. It's a given that the classic monsters of myth and literature are here (gargoyles, dragons, orcs, etc.), but there are also some interesting inventions here: the purple worms, gray ooze, yellow mold, and gelatinous cube. How many of you didn't fall in love at first sight with the idea of the gelatinous cube? And springing it on those unsuspecting friends of ours that had never heard of such a thing (because they didn't own the book)?

AD&D Monster Manual
If M&T is the great-grandaddy, the Monster Manual is the grandaddy. Hands down. For somebody that was introduced to D&D by red/blue (as noted above), the Monster Manual stat blocks were a revelation. To this day, the one stat in that block that continues to stand out to me is the monster's intelligence. 13-year old me had no concept of monsters that spoke, or bargained. They were simply dangerous things that needed to be killed so you could take their treasure and/or earn experience points. The more important thing about the MM that stood out to me was that close-to-every monster entry had an accompanying picture. To me, this is a critical componentn of a good monster book. I can't be the only idiot who looked at the caecilia image on page X28 in the Cook/Marsh Expert Rulebook for the first time and thinking it was supposed to go with the blink dog entry above it. Sure, after you read the entries you know with which entry it's supposed to go, but to this day those caecilia eyes keep staring at me, without blinking, mocking me for thinking it was a blink dog. So apart from things like Intelligence stats and pics for each entry, how does the Monster Manual do on the idea front? Admittedly pretty well. Granted, many of the classics came from Monsters & Treasure, or had already appeared in Dragon Magazine, but given that I didn't pick up my first copy of Dragon until issue #68, this was the first time I saw many of those creatures. And there are more of those ideas there. However, what the MM really does is say, "Okay... here are all of the ubiquitous classics you're going to need, and a few cool new fun things that you'll want."

AD&D Fiend Folio
I have to admit that I love the AD&D Fiend Folio mostly for the illustrations. While I know that Russ Nicholson has influenced many an old-school artist, I'm an Alan Hunter man all the way. Granted, I love Russ's work, but Hunter's style is one of the biggest influences on me. Too this day, the hook horror and crab men illustrations are among my favorite old school RPG illustrations. But I think the FF art is reflective of the "slant" of the things inside — there is very little in the way of ubiquitous classic (formorians, e.g.), and much more in the way of interesting takes on classic archetypes (e.g., the blindheim or the carbuncle). Why is this? Is it because these things were created by Brits? Was it because they appeared first in White Dwarf Magazine, which means you're not creating creatures to serve an adventure, but rather to grasp the reader? Neither? Both? Who cares? It's fun and funky and it works! (BTW, I've heard many comment that my Creature Compendium reminds them of the Fiend Folio. That is one of the best compliments a guy like me could ask for.)

Monster Manual II
To me, this is an example of what not to do with a monster book. It feels like filler, gathered from the back pages of modules and the innards of Dragon. Why does the Fiend Folio (which has similar beginnings) seem to work, while the MM2 seems to fall short? My take here is that there are two issues which lead to the shortcomings of this book: 1) it's much too "specific" in some places, and 2) in other places it's trying WAY too hard. What do I mean by specific? Well, let's just say, unless you're traveling the planes, those 5 pages dedicated to modrons isn't going to do you much good. And past a certain point, aren't dinosaurs just dinosaurs? Don't get me wrong. I think there is some good stuff in Monster Manual II. It just doesn't give me enough of that "smile in the mind" feeling as I'd like in a monster book. As I'm writing this, I'm starting to figure out what it is about this book. Take for example the vegepygmies. In the context of a monster book, they're not much more than "vegetable-men." However, in the context of a good adventure (in this case, Expedition to Barrier Peaks they come alive. I think maybe that's what it is about this book — if you've got a good adventure, then there's stuff here that's going to work for you. But, on the whole, these monsters don't give me ideas for adventures.

Creature Compendiums
So with the Creature Compendium, I tried to create monsters that, even without to much ecological information scripted out, DMs would have ideas for how to use such creatures in their adventures and encounters. And that's what I'm trying to do as I continue (albeit slowly) to flesh out Creature Compendium II.


  1. I like 'monsters' that come off as more than just something to beat to death with a club... that are somewhat unique and seem to have a story/mystery to them.
    Like the difference between a generic no-name vampire in a cave vs. Count Dracula.
    Also, I always think, "Would this creature be just as well served by a human or mundane animal?"
    Fire On The Velvet Horizon is my idea of a pretty great book of monsters that inspire whole adventures rather than just being sword fodder.

  2. What makes a good monster book? It has monsters you're gonna use. There's something to be said for the more modern tendency to have a core book (MM) and themed books for the supplemental monsters.