RPG Review: Monsterarium
Monsterarium clocks in at 27 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page introduction, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 21 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
My review is based on the pdf; I don’t have the print version. This review was requested to be moved up in my reviewing queue by my supporters.
Okay, so, the first thing you should know about this booklet would be that, yes, this is a bestiary, but it’s not a book of things designed to be hacked apart as throwaway monsters; this bestiary focuses on what I like calling “narrative monsters”, so creatures that have a more significant impact or that are intended to form the center of a narrative. The second thing would be art: Co-author Nahid Taheri has a truly unique style. Look at that cover. Each of the creatures herein has an illustration done in the same style, which I’d call uncanny and slightly creepy old fairy tale illustration. I like that style; it gives the book a genuinely unique visual identity and helped me retain my memory of these monsters. It’s been a long time since I first read this bestiary, and I still could recall every single critter herein.
Now, on a less impressed level, it should be noted that this book does not actually subscribe to a specific OSR-system. You know what this means: We only get very basic stats, and depending on the old-school system you favor, you’ll need to do some adjusting. It also makes it more difficult, at least for me, to actually decide how hard a critter should hit. If I e.g. run a B/X-Old-School-Essentials critter in a retro game based on AD&D 2e, I know by how much I need to upgrade it; same goes in reverse for running e.g. an AD&D 2e critter is OSE, obviously. These “general” OSR supplements lack this frame. Some of my readers might shrug this off, while some will very much think that this does matter. Anyhow, each creature notes an alignment on the law-chaos axis, a movement (120 seems to be the default value), an ascending AC value, the number of HD, the number of attacks, the damage dealt, and a single save value, which uses a descending value. Each creature has its special attacks and/or weaknesses listed after their flavor text.
Thematically, the creatures herein are partially original creations, and partially drawn from the rich and oftentimes untapped resource of Persian folklore, with which I share a particular fascination. That being said, the book does manage to maintain a sort of consistence in its themes and feeling I enjoyed. An old-school non-Disney fairy tale/folklore-esque angle suffuses the supplement.
Okay, so, the pdf doesn’t start on its best foot with the Al, an invisible roughly female thing that hunts mothers and seeks to kill their newborn and steal their livers; their teeth can cause bleeding wounds, and interestingly, they will be hard to confront: They free sharp objects. This is a great creature, but the prose accompanying it, the description, felt rough. To give you an example: “Al appears as a tall and slender older woman with long and unbound rough black hair. It is naked though covered in very short fur. It has long fangs that reach past its chin. Its teeth act as blades that never dull or chip.” Now, thankfully, this somewhat staccato-like aspect does not extend throughout the pdf, but since it shows up on the first critter, I figured it’d be worth mentioning that the prose gets better.
Cord legs are AWESOME. They appear as a person in need, and ask to be carried on the back; if they are, they wriggle their cord legs around the adventurer, and can quickly and efficiently kill those they are riding. The poor sods being ridden by a cord legs have Charisma 8, or -2 Charisma if less than 8. Okay, what if one has Charisma 8? No penalty? Hmmm.
Carrying them around can permanently enhance your Strength if you get rid of them, which is codified. In spite of my nitpickery, I like these critters: They have the folklore angle, need to be outwitted, and there is something gorgeously grotesque about them.
Ejdohogo is a plot device disguised as a weird dragon, wingless and plumed…and its tail has this classic trick, where, if all present fail to save against it, the next adventuring session will be bizarre and weird, and actually a completely illusory adventure. If the adventurers live through it, they awake dehydrated and starved with 1 hp. Okay. What effect does the tail have if NOT everyone fails the save? No clue, no rules or even suggestions are provided.
Faux sirens are another puzzle boss of sorts: They actually are plants and have an ability that causes one random target to defend them – no save. Yep. Not even a save. I don’t like that, and think it’s essentially GM railroading. Not cool. And they have a siren’s call that lures targets to them, and while it notices that this is enough time to drown in bogs, the ability and generic OSR rules provide no frame of reference regarding whether this operates more akin to a charm or a dominate.
Hair that had a human, on the other hand, is grotesque and amazing in all the right ways: Long locks of floating hair with a human face, the long locks concealing a child’s body. Oh, and they are FAST, can become even faster and if they catch you, it’s save or die! And that save or die? You only get it if you’re adult. Kids are screwed. Need a good folklore-ish horror critter? This one fits the bill and is actually one of the few times where I consider an instant-kill move suitable. Two big thumbs up!
The lich queen…is weird. She has an entourage of zombies and skeletons and style galore, sure, and yes, she has not one, but two abilities that are save or die, but at a paltry 4 HD. I fail to see the appeal, and the two save or suck abilities are horribly lame. The one saving grace of this critter would be her hand-wand dependency: If she loses the wand, she casts “all her spells at half strength.” But she has no real spells. Just zombie/skeleton summoning and two instant-kill abilities sans rhyme or reason. Also, what does “half strength” mean? Do you only die half? This doesn’t work as written.
Loot wyverns are cool: Little winged lizards that eat treasure that are good at surprising targets, and a good bite can consume silver/treasure. Their claws scar over with gold. AWESOME. How much is such a gold scar worth? No clue. This is frustrating, as the treasure-scar mechanic is cool…but it WILL be cheesed and could wreck entire economies, obviously…but it has a lot of potential. Does the scar reduce maximum hp? This BEGS for proper rules.
Night hags take the shape of shadowy ravens in this interpretation, and lie down on the sleeping, stealing their sleep. They sport this intriguing section of text: “They might kill the person if no one is awake around, but they are not always interested in killing. They cannot rest, so often they steal sleep from humans in this manner.” Guess what we get no rules for? Bingo. For stealing sleep. For potentially killing the sleeping. Nothing. A perfect example of a cool, evocative critter tarnished by subpar design.
Peri are little fey-ish creatures with butterfly like snorkels that can sing and duplicate anything they heard, including spells; they drain Constitution and grow, and take additional damage from iron weapons; they come in two castes of sorts, the lesser wingless and the greater winged peri. Keeja, the chief of the peri, is also included in the book’s second section, and can dine on the saving throws of adventurers, and use a dandelion puff that actually is quite lethal. Two thumbs up, though adherence to a system would have made this one work slightly better.
The tremulous troll is the last troll in the world; she takes next to no damage from all attacks, and has 6 types of magic fungi with spell-like effects…but she fears blades, and she fears light even more, for it is the one thing that truly hurts her. An interesting NPC-style creature.
The second part of the book is devoted to the creatures of the wood, and ties in, to a degree, with the aforementioned array: The first critter presented in this section would be the faun that s also depicted on the cover, lord of the peri and the wisps; he can alter memories of those it meets, and it can initiate raves, which may or may not tie in with Meatlandia Chaos DJs. Wisps, just fyi, are sentinet magic focused on a crystal set in a vial, and they increase in power by finding wisp stones, of which 6 are codified; an alternate, the wisp wizard, is also presented – these are pretty deadly, as one can imagine. They also want to get their hands on the torchbearer.
Who is that? Well, this lady was once an adventurer, but had to witness her fellows being slain; now, she is a quasi-mystical being who might show up to those in need and lead them to safety, sate their hunger, or even grant them Wisdom! A really neat mystical ally. Flying goldenfish are also amazing: They, when consumed, can, for 24 hours, grant you significant boosts to your stats (but you can also lose maximum HP)…and you’ll incur the ire of denizens of an extra-dimensional town…and they may well send the AL after you!
Harpy summoners are something rather different: Occupants of the Lajwardian mountains, these women left the realms of men behind to live free from the reign of men, and as such, they have the power to call harpies to defend them. Interesting flip of the traditional harpy mythology. The spate nymph is a creature of beauty; so much so that the apathetic lady causes those that witness her to forevermore lose Charisma…but her flying fish, if beseeched, can grant wishes. Keeja does hate her and wants her dead. And yes, there are more connections between the creatures than I’ve mentioned.
Editing and formatting are…uneven. The supplement oscillates between sufficient precision and aggravating opaqueness, which is only partially due to not subscribing to a specific rules system. This phenomenon also extends to the prose. Layout adheres toa two-column full-color standard, and while the artwork of Nahid Taheri is most assuredly a matter of tastes, I really, really liked all these original full-color artworks. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience, and I can’t comment on the virtues or lack thereof of the print version.
The Mosterarium of Ahimsa Kerp and Nahid Taheri left me torn like very few bestiaries over the years. To make that abundantly clear: Conceptually, I adore this booklet. It has a distinct identity, and not one of the creatures herein is boring or bland; even when the creatures make use of classic folklore tropes, they have an execution distinct from the defaults. In some creatures, this reminded me of how Alana I. Capria’s feminist twists on fairy tales, just in a less grotesque and gratuitous manner, so if you enjoy flips like that, this’ll be intriguing. Similarly, if you enjoy your monsters as creatures informed by folklore, then this has a lot to offer and contains some true gems.
That being said, the decision to not properly adhere to a system hurts this book to a significant degree; in some instances, it breaks the functionality of the creatures and leaves the referee scratching their head of what was actually intended here. Combined with the inconsistent editing, this renders the bestiary a study in contrasts, and not in a good way.
To make that abundantly clear: If you’re after concepts and ideas, then this should be considered to be a 5-star file; if you also want mechanical integrity of the creatures, then this pdf unfortunately loses a lot of its splendor, and does so without any actual need. If find myself wanting to slap my seal of approval on this, but I simply can’t; for that, this is too flawed a gem. Still, I do encourage you to take a look if the above even remotely intrigued you. My final verdict, though, can’t exceed 3.5 stars. And while I will round up, I do so for the concepts. If you want the rules to properly work so you can simply plug and play, then I suggest rounding down instead.