Monday, September 9, 2013

Monster (Book) Monday: All The Worlds' Monsters, Vol. I

Way back in the way back of my early days of gaming, I got my grubby mitts on a few game books in a less-than-above-the-boards manner. See, a friend's dad's friend found out that that friend of mine had started playing D&D (well, actually AD&D 2e) and give the kid a bunch of books. In that lot was a green covered B3, some novels written by a dude with the improbable name of Gary Gygax (some of the Gord the Rogue books... which are goddamn awful), the greatest monster book ever written (the Fiend Folio) and two odd softcover books of monsters published by a company called "the Chaosium," each titled "All The Worlds' Monsters," volumes 1 and 2. That friend promptly gave all that stuff to me and when the father's friend finally asked the friend about that stuff, he said he gave it away (just like the father's friend had in the first place) and that didn't seem like a satisfactory answer, and I think there was some trouble or another that I don't quite remember. The facts of the matter are that (a) I never got in trouble for taking possession of these books, (b) I still have them all (somewhere), and (c) I'm pretty sure it was all a side bar to a drug deal anyway, so none of it fucking matters to anyone but me. Because I have these books and they're damn awesome.

History

Folks who've spent some time talking to me about RPGs (and probably folks who poke around the old blog here) probably have picked up that I'm something of an RPG history buff. I am, and it drives my wife crazy. She hates hearing about all the different versions of different rules and different editions and the differential history of how one game stopped being itself and started being something new. To me, that shit is fascinating. To her, she wishes I'd just shut up so we could get back to some DCC where she could just roll some dice, kill some monsters and die before the corruption steals her soul. But you, dear citizen of Kickassistan, I know you're different, you're like me, you love pouring over the minutiae of gaming history. Or, at least, I'll presume you are and you do, because that's what I want to talk about right now. This is my jam, man!

Actually not my copy
Picking up All The Worlds' Monsters v1 (hereafter ATWM1) as an adult, and after having learned what I've learned about the history of RPGs, I've come to realize that it's a seminal work in many ways. First, insofar as I can tell, it's the first goddamn monster book for D&D ever. The first book entirely devoted to nothing but monsters, predating the Monster Manual. Second, it was written by such early D&D luminaries as Steve Perrin (of RuneQuest fame), Dave Hargrave (the Arduin guy) and Paul Jacquays (of the Dungeoneer & Judges Guild). According to the forward (written by Perrin), ATWM1 was to originally include lots of monsters that had already been published elsewhere, but sheer page count meant that the number needed to be pared back and those beasts being republished saved for volume 2. Third, and perhaps most interestingly, the monsters were written up in a way compatible with the so-called Perrin Conventions, a set of home brew rules from the pen of Steve Perrin designed to de-mystify and reorganize the combat sequence into a logical flow. It was from here that we get the notion of Dexterity being a measure for Initiative, as Dr. Holmes later codifies in his edition of Basic. To me, the fact that the very first monster book was published in a format inconsistent with the LBBs+3 of OD&D is fascinating and it demonstrates how firmly the urge to houserule and modify the D&D game has been from moment one.

I'm unsure of what the fallout of the ATWM series was. Published by the Chaosium, I wonder if these volumes were the beginning of the rocky competition between the Chaosium and TSR that would lead to things like the removal of the Melnibonean and Cthulhu mythoi from Deities & Demigods. I can imagine that, as TSR became more of a for-profit business (the oft-lamented "T$R") and less of a cabal of game-loving hobbyists, TSR might have tried to make it very difficult for the Chaosium to publish more D&D material (you know, with threats of lawsuits and the like); at the same time, Chaosium might have just stopped supporting D&D in favor of its own RuneQuest. Since the Acaeum doesn't cover Chaosium products (despite the very early and, as far as I can tell, historic implications of ATWM) and I'm a very lazy historian, I may never know. Maybe it's in Playing At The World and maybe I'll get around to reading that book some day.

Bored yet? Let's talk jive turkey.

Details

Vance Dragons from White Dwarf #6
You can occasionally find ATWM1 on the eBay and Amazon (there are actually 4 copies of it up on Amazon as I type this), you can get a clean, OCR'd, nice-looking pdf from RPGnow. That's the copy that I'll be referring to for this near-review. All The Worlds' Monsters comes in at a slight 112 softcover perfect bound pages, but is packed with 265 monsters, all of them from DMs of the early game and many of them statted up versions of stuff from classic swords & sorcery novels like the Vance Dragons (which were also featured about the same time in a White Dwarf article). Each monster's author is credited early in the nascent statblock, and if it's based on a beast from fiction, the original author is cited in the flavor text at the end, which is really cool and serves not merely as a "this is what folks playing D&D in the 70's were reading" sort of Appendix N, but also as an early gold standard for transparency and giving credit where it's due in an RPG product, something that the RPG industry tends to have a hard time with (from my perspective). One neat feature of the text is that it's printed in landscape, which is surprisingly cool for a book being used at the gaming table (landscape printed books take up less depth on the gaming table, leaving more space for maps and minis and other cool stuff like that).

Aesthetics

Exhibit 1: Awesome type
Exhibit 2: Amazing line art
Exhibit 3: FUCKING AIR SQUID!
There is something that strikes me as remarkably charming at the "typed on a 70's word processor" text of this book. "Labor of love," yes, entirely. Also, so much of the art, like the seminal Air Squid on page 1, is that simple sort of b&w line art that made the LBBs visually appealing in a simple but striking style that stays with us today as being iconic of the early days of gaming. Yes, the illustrations are sparse, which was par for the course back in editor Perrin's day, but the fact that they were produced by amateurs shouldn't be held against it, but rather as a mark in the "in favor of" column for sheer enthusiasm alone. Plus, goddamn air squd. Look at that thing. It's a thing of beauty. My wife is now seriously contemplating an air squid tattoo.

As far as design aesthetics go, though, this thing is kind of hit or miss. Some of the stats reflect poorly-considered power creep or were designed to act as foils for the overpowered victims of the Monty Haul-style gaming that seemed to be very widespread even back then. So, you'll end up with stuff that have far too many hit points, an impossibly low AC or some other combination of monster stats that make them less of a monster and more of a GOTCHA! My guess is that the groups that these monsters were designed for are the same groups who used Deities & Demigods as a monster book.

There are some design choices that I really enjoy, however. The first is a creative re-interpretation of the concept of Alignment perpetrated by folks like Dave Hargrave who decided that "Hungry" was a perfectly suitable Alignment. While I may not agree, I really dig the idea of providing extra brief descriptors to help guide a monster's behavior. Furthermore, the classification of monsters by type here is remarkably insightful not because it contains a preponderance of well-organized and finely-delineated monster categories, but because the ones that are given are particularly useful and you can easily see, for example, what the dungeon purpose behind Clean-Up Crew is. I do wish they'd classified the "gotcha" monsters as being one type, but them's the breaks.

Foliosity

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Air Squid! But seriously, ATWM1 might not be a perfectly Folioic text, but it very much comes from the same tradition of "shit some dudes made up back in the 70s to make their D&D games more interesting back before anyone was telling anyone else how to make their game awesome" that drove White Dwarf's early days and the Fiend Factory column. ATWM1, though, is a little more on the gonzo side if you can believe that. I mean, Dave Hargrave, right? The core of Foliosity as I see it is a hyper-specific application of a monster to a particular environment or role, like the sussurus in the Lichway, that leaps off the page. What surprised me the most about ATWM1 is that while there are plenty of Folioic monsters in ATWM1, most of them seem to come from the source literature adaptations, which, when you think about it, makes an awful lot of sense out of my concept of Foliosity. In short, ATWM1 is less Folioic than I'd like it to be, but it provides an essential link in the chain that can help us figure out where the hell Foliosity came from in the first place.

What I'm Stealing

Little of this, little of that. Actually, I'd love to run a "kitchen sink OD&D" hexcrawl game including everything and anything from Arduin, the ATWM series and really anything else that the players wanted thrown in. It just sounds like a fun idea. All of the monsters would need to be ATWM fiends (nope, I'd even avoid LBB monsters) of course. Then again a DCC sandbox that ends up equally weird might be even more fun, so maybe that with ATWM monsters. Maybe treasures via Empire of the Petal Throne. I figure that would smush it up enough to turn crazy into crazy awesome.

Final Word

Even when I was a kid of fourteen, I had an idea of how cool the gems I had appropriated were. I remember looking through ATWM1 & 2 for monsters I could add to my Dark Sun campaign and finding a surprising amount of useful material. Today, the campaigns are different, but I have the exact reaction. Every time I open one of the ATWM volumes, I'm shocked by how useful each volume is, despite my predilection to hyper-specificity (or perhaps because of it). I see a monster like the behinder and just think it belongs. The gatherer above makes perfect sense to me. The fear stalker, a giant humanoid reptile with a plurality of eyes is smarter than men, so of course they are its favorite food. Why the fuck not?

In short ATWM1 is a collection of gonzo weirdness built only the way the oldest of schools could do it, back before Uncle Gary showed the world how it was "supposed" to be done and DMs stopped doing all the imagining for themselves. It's a product of the raw force of creativity that is the fertile mind of the DM right when those forces were being tapped for the first time. The ultimate hipster monster book, it was a monster book back before monster books were cool.