Tuesday, April 14, 2015

All the Monster Books Ever Made Are Now Bullshit

Patrick Stuart & Scrap Princess' Fire on the Velvet Horizon and Rafael Chandler & Gennifer Bone's Lusus Naturae have redefined the monster bestiary for role-playing games and have basically made every single other such book boring, backwards, and useless.

The problem with monster bestiaries up until now have been that they fucking suck. Threatening, room-filling, world-building examples designed to make adventure construction and antagonist-presentation easy peasy for the beleaguered game master. "Here are some stats and an ecology, now populate your campaign world and adventures with challenges!"

Nevermind the sins of taking "things man was not meant to know" and giving them stats right there in the rulebook for everyone to read. For fuck sake.

(Also, it's hilarious that people consider adding Cthulhuesque monsters and mindset to a fantasy campaign breaks up the monotony and old-fashionedness of the usual bunch of D&D monsters and their tone... considering that Lovecraft predates Leiber, Vance, Moorcock, and Tolkien. We're so fucked in our brains, collectively, for four decades now. It's amazing that in a lot of ways we're just now breaking out of this shit through books like Velvet Horizon and Lusus Naturae and it's the supposed "stuck-in-the-past reactionary," "not open to new ideas" OSR scene doing it. "it" being adapting ideas explored in 70s and 80s genre cinema and writing, but hey, we're still ahead of you stuck-in-the-20s-through-60s mental dinosaurs, for sure!)

Forgetting the faux-anger and hyperbole for a moment... these things really do piss on every other bestiary I've ever read, from great height, to the point that all these other books are goddamn useless. You'd better be a goddamn fresh-off-the-turnip-truck-never-actually-played-before GM to ever have the idea of a monster in your head already and need to look up the stats in a book. Because if in your mind you already know you want there to be a Protein Polymorph in Room 4b in the dungeon you're making or running RIGHT NOW, you already know why you want it there and what it was supposed to be accomplishing so you don't need the official digits at all because that's always the least-important part of any monster.

... and this truth is laid bare by the fact that Fire on the Velvet Horizon doesn't have any stats. There isn't a game mechanic in it that I've noticed. It's just text about monsters. (Bonus Utility: it's just as much for the game-you-love as the game-you-hate.)

"But how will I know how to balance encounters with the creature for the PCs in my group if there are no stats?" you may ask. My answer to anyone who would ask such a question is, "Please drink bleach. Lots of it. Right now."

So how good is this text about 106 monsters that nobody's ever heard of? Well, my first impressions of Patrick Stuart's writing, and even first dealings with him (another PS & SP book is in production right now for LotFP), is that he resides in an institution somewhere, spending most of his time in a padded cell wearing a straightjacket under heavy medication... from which he somehow escapes every night, spitting out unswallowed pills that were hidden in the flap of skin he'd carved into the top of his mouth with a tooth he'd pushed out with his tongue, to break into the administrator's office to type out his understanding of the world and its denizens onto his Google Drive account (password: OHGODHELPMEPLEASE) and then to its final publication space... where we all then mistakenly interpret it as RPG material.

Or, as I said recently after receiving this book, "For pure evocation and feeling, Patrick Stuart is the best writer in RPGs right now."

To sum up... it's fucked. Which is what monsters are supposed to be, when you strip away math-based engineer-nerd or snooty-ass narrative-seeking lit-crit views of RPGs and their concepts and design, yes?

Mission accomplished.

A word about Scrap's art... now my own tastes in art veer towards the realistic, you-are-there styles. Nightmares made real. But Scrap's style doesn't allow reality to ever get a foot in the door. Reality made nightmare. It complements the text perfectly, taking you out of reality to realms you've never imagined existed rather than being the least bit helpful in making any of these nightmares relatable to you-sitting-there-on-Planet-Earth. This book isn't made for your gaming convenience, it's trying to help your game.

If you want monsters as abrogations of reality and not monsters as comfortable interpretations of shit other people already made up in formats already established decades past, Fire on the Velvet Horizon is your book.

... fuckin' hell, maybe I should have talked about Lusus Naturae first, because that's a hell of a thing to follow.

Because Lusus Naturae is perhaps the opposite of Velvet Horizon. It has stat blocks (for LotFP, yay, but that means also fully and readily compatible with your favorite class-and-level rules variation) and game mechanics, a clean layout, neatly written text, and the art has definite lines and in general you can always tell exactly what the fuck is going on.

It's written by Rafael Chandler, which means all of the things which signal "not family-friendly" content, like nudity (including full frontal, male and female), plenty of gore and other body horror, Satanic imagery, and a grand sense of playfulness with it all -- dead baby humor included.

104 monsters here, and they're all presented in a useful and convenient format: this is what they are, this is what they do, and this is what they want.

You might wonder how Lusus Naturae compares to Chandler's previous "old school"-focused monster book the Teratic Tome, there are the technical differences (LotFP-branded instead of OSRIC, in full color, smaller physical size for ease of handling), and then there are the thematic differences: Teratic Tome offered full-on variations of D&D monsters (Demons, Devils, Giants, various undead, kobolds, slimes, etc.), with encounter tables and the standard setup. Lusus Naturae, while most of its monsters could have individually fit into the Teratic Tome, doesn't have any of those elements. It'll mention a halfling or gnoll here or there (booo! hisss!), but it works within its own mythologies and contains things that just wouldn't fit into your standard old-school bestiaries (the modern-day supervillain that's been time-transported, for one...) and abilities which would just be considered unfair under standard gaming practices such as being able to make daggers rain from the sky in numbers enough to kill thousands of people, widespread weather effects, plagues, magnetism on a regional scale, one monster with hundreds of hit dice that steps on cities, and effects eabled by phrases like "This is effectively carte blanche to toy with the characters."

The difference between this book and Velvet Horizon is that you can get your head around this book's monsters as it relates to actual people and things on this Earth. There are a couple of "chimeras-but-using-different-animal-combinations" which at first seems ordinary, but when you actually see a turtle-shark-eel-mera and read its description it is something new. And a hand-with-fingers-growing-out-of-it is instantly recognizable and far more wrong than that description states. Same with the nose-with-noses-growing-out-of-it monster. Things also get strangers, of course, as there is a monster with a physical form of a "riot of color," and the amalgam creature formed from the combination of cylindrical sci-fi weapons turret and tentacle monster is something you're not likely to have thought of.

But whether more relatable or not, these are monsters here to horrendify and kill, to be disruptive to the lives and activities of player characters and generally make sure that even if they survive the encounter, they are never the same again.

Monsters in concept and practice, and never mere playing pieces in a game.

The concepts of the monsters are a bit more grounded than Velvet Horizon's monsters which, for examples, believe they can read the sky's mind and are so stealthy that they might not exist at all. Also different is the focus of the writing, as Lusus Naturae writes from the perspective of how these monsters' ambitions will bring them into contact and conflict with the game world and the player characters within it, whereas Velvet Horizon just talks about each monster on its own terms, and how their activities might actually impact a game or come into contact with player characters is almost incidental.

Basically, Lusus Naturae is very much more likely to get used in the way people conventionally use monster books than Velvet Horizon, but on the other hand that conventionality means it's not quite as mindblowing.

All I know is that reading these books and seeing how words and art collide is that I'M BEING LAZY IN MY OWN CONCEPTS, and I will correct that and strive to meet the standards these books set. Even if I fail, I will become better as a result of trying. They'll help you fail too.

Buy them, you cheap fuck.

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