Monday, June 17, 2013

Monster (Book) Monday: S&W Monster Book

Last week, I managed not to post at all, after a week of frenzied writing. For me, it was slightly disappointing, but this morning I realized that I didn't write anything primarily because I spent so much of the last week actually reading stuff. You see, last week, I got a shipment from OneBookShelf and another one from Lulu. Some of the purchases were things I'd been meaning to get for a long time (I finally have a copy of Labyrinth Lord) a few "hey, that looks like a bargain" purchases and at least one spite purchase (see here for more details, yeah, I finally bought Squid Sorcerer). One of the bargain purchases was the appropriately-but-unimaginatively-named Monster Book for Swords & Wizardry, the subject of today's ramblings.

If you haven't noticed yet, I very much dig Swords & Wizardry. Both the original line of stripped-down, super-simple supplements and books, and the slightly more amped-up products of today like Grimmsgate & Monstrosities. An early S&W product that had flown more or less under my radar was the compendium with the no-frills name of Monster Book. Guess what it's about. While it's apparently been replaced by things like the S&W version of Tome of Horrors and the new Monstrosities book, you can still pick up Monster Book for a song on Lulu ($12.75 in paperback as of this writing, $25 in hardcover), and, to be frank, it's more than worth the low price. Obviously a product of the early days of Swords & Wizardry (it was initially published in 2009, so it's got a few years' mileage in), Monster Book (MB) sets about the task of converting old school monsters from 0e through 2e D&D for use in S&W as well as presenting S&W Judges with new and inventive monster options, many of which come from player-contributors of this early era (I'm guessing mostly from the Mythmere Games forums if the byline names are any indication).

Details

I bought this thing in paperback for $12.75, but you can also pick it up in hardcover which, I now realize, I wish I had. It's not that the paperback is shoddy, it's just that I expect to get a lot of use out of this particular volume, and I'm a little worried about how it will hold up over the years of expected use. MB comes in at 140 pages and, if the math on the back cover is to believed, sports 463 unique monster entries (I'm not about to count them all, so I'll trust +Matt Finch and crew here). Most monsters get a substantial paragraph of info on use, tactics, behavior, powers, etc., with a very few who just get a name and a stat line, but these are things like dinosaurs that you should (a) already understand or (b) be able to look up really easily elsewhere. I dig the compact size of the book (not too thick) since I can pick it up with S&W Complete (plus a module or two) and take up very little space, just when I was starting to question the logic of standard letter-sized books (rather than digest-sized) for convenience, I get MB and get reminded that letter size can be convenient, too.

Aesthetics

First, I'd like to think of MB as an 0e-style book, just like the LBBs and supplements. In that case, MB is exceptionally well-designed with little wasted space, a straightforward approach to presentation and sparse but remarkable illustrations (with a frequency not unlike that found in 0e stuff, so, par for the course). The cover is one of Pete Mullen's awesomely moody, "this is what it's like to dungeon crawl"-style paintings. Man, I love that guy's stuff. Honestly, the well-written descriptions of most creatures were so solid that I found myself not needing a ton of illustrations, which was neat. Yeah, not every monster nor every page has an illo, but thankfully, we don't need it.

Comparing MB to my awesomeness rubric, the Fiend Folio, yields a different but interesting result. A lot of the art has the same Brit Old School vibe that the FF does (especially Dave Bezio's stunning illos; I have never thought of a hezrou as a cool demon until I saw Bezio's hezrou), but it's much more sparse than the FF and doesn't use any of the incidental and transitional-style art pieces like the FF does. It's fine for the 0e style, but not very FF.

The design aesthetic, however, is spot on. Finch & Co. seriously hit the mark by presenting a range of classic and new monsters to fill nearly any situation in a dungeon, even the whacked-out ones. The streamlined design of each monster is simple but not simplistic, preserving the usefulness of each entry. Nothing too complicated to use here (no endless strings of spell-like abilities you'll forget about), and at the same time nothing so simple it leaves the reader scratching his head.

Foliosity

I touched on the FF art aesthetic above, so let's talk for a minute about the monsters themselves. Yes, there are a bunch of traditional-style, utility monsters here; that's all well and good as long as the "mileage monsters" don't get in the way of the strange, fun, "set piece monsters." Here, we've got a solid blend of utility and fun, with goblins alongside far, far stranger things. Here, we have no fewer than two species of temporally transcendent beings (!!!), a garden full of monstrous plants (!!!), a crypt full of unique and interesting undead (!!!) and the hits just keep coming. I do not expect that, for my S&W Ur-Hadad games, I will ever need a monster book beyond Monster Book. But is it Folioic? Well, at times. The weird stuff is good and weird, filling specific niches or providing impetus for entire campaign arcs, and there's plenty here, it's just not as high of a percentage of the total content to be a "knocked out of the park" Folioic success. But really, that's not what Finch & Co. were going for here, so it's understandable and not merely forgivable, but I'm glad that the non-Folio approach was taken here, since it's not just the FF for S&W, it's also the MM & MM2.

What I'm Stealing

Is it stealing if you use stats for stuff in the game that the stats were designed for? Hard to say. There are some really good ideas here, though, and stuff that definitely will be showing up in Ur-Hadad games. So many creatures, so little time...

Final Word

I've mentioned a few times that I wish I'd sprung for the hardcover; again, it's not because the softcover is in any way deficient. It's because, quite frankly, I intend to get a ton of use out of the book. Sure, I'll pick up Monstrosities at some point (probably the next SWAp Day or when Frog God puts it on a crazy sale again), but Monster Book feels like all the monster book I'll need until then. Anything that's not in here I'd probably be making up anyway. Good job, Mr +Matt Finch, you done well.