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Friday, 15 November 2019

Friday Fantasy: Monsters & Creatures

There is no denying the continued and growing popularity of Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, with it having appeared on the television series Stranger Things and it no longer being seen as a hobby solely the preserve of typically male, nerdy teenagers and young adults. Yet as acceptable a hobby as roleplaying and in particular, playing Dungeons & Dragons has become, getting into the hobby is still a daunting prospect. Imagine if you will, being faced with making your first character for your first game of Dungeons & Dragons? Then what monsters will face? What adventures will you have? For nearly all of us, answering these questions are not all that far from being a challenge, for all started somewhere and we all had to make that first step—making our first character, entering our first dungeon, and encountering our first monster. As well written as both Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set and the Player’s Handbook are, both still present the prospective reader and player with a lot of choices, but without really answering these questions in an easy to read and reference fashion.

Step forward the ‘Dungeons & Dragons Young Adventurer’s Guides Series’ published by Ten Speed Press. This is a series of introductory guides to Dungeons & Dragons, designed as primers to various aspects of the world’s leading roleplaying game. Each in the series is profusely illustrated, no page consisting entirely of text. The artwork is all drawn from and matches the style of Dungeon & Dragons, Fifth Edition, so as much as it provides an introduction to the different aspects of the roleplaying game covered in each book in the series, it provides an introduction to the look of the roleplaying game, so providing continuity between the other books in the ‘Dungeons & Dragons Young Adventurer’s Guides Series’ and the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set and the core rulebooks. This use of art and the digest size of the book means that from the start, every entry in the ‘Dungeons & Dragons Young Adventurer’s Guides Series’ is an attractive little package.

The first in the series, Warriors & Weapons provided an introduction to the various Races of Dungeons & Dragons, the martial character Classes, and the equipment they use. Second is not Wizards & Spells, the companion to Warriors & Weapons which covers Clerics, Sorcerers, and Wizards, or indeed any of the other spellcasting character types in Dungeons & Dragons. Instead the second book in the series is Monsters & Creatures. As the title suggests, this presents an introduction to the monsters, creatures, and animals that the prospective player may well have his character encounter on his adventures, many of them—like the Beholder, the Mind Flayer, the Owl Bear, and more—iconic to Dungeons & Dragons.

The thirty or so entries in Monsters & Creatures are divided according to their environment. So under Caverns & Dark Places there are entries for the Beholder, the Carrion Crawler, and the Myconid and under Forests, Mountains & Other Terrain, there are entries for the Centaur, the Sprite, and the Treant, as well as six types of Giants. Banshee, Skeletons, and Vampires can be found in Moors, Bogs, & Boneyards, whilst the Aboleth, the Dragon Turtle, and the Merrow are found in Oceans, Lakes, & Waterways. Lastly, the Griffon and the Pegasus are sighted Mountain Peaks & Open Sky along with Dragons of all colours… Every entry is given a double page spread, the left hand page showing an illustration of the creature or monster, a listing of its special powers, a description of its size, and an indication of its Danger Level, from ‘0’ or harmless to ‘5’ for really nasty. On the right hand page there is a description of the monster or creature and its lair, accompanied by a list of things to do or not do when dealing with it.

So for the iconic Beholder, the given Danger Level is ‘4’ and its Special Powers, from Telekinesis and Enervation to Disintegration and Petrification, are described eye stalk by eye stalk. The description is fairly broad, as much hints as straight facts, since after all, this Monsters & Creatures is not the Monster Manual. Their lairs are given as remote caves or abandoned ruins, their floors often covered in the equipment and treasure of adventurers who faced the Beholder and were killed. The advice when facing a Beholder is that the adventurers should fight magic with magic, distract the Beholder, and get in close inside the range of their eyestalks, but never ignore the feeling of being watched and never stay put!

Monsters & Creatures includes a little extra beyond just the thirty or so entries. After a select few, an entry is given for a legendary threat, one of the famous beings from Dungeons & Dragons cannon. So for the Dragons, this is Tiamat, The Queen of Evil Dragons, so Monsters & Creatures also serves as an introduction to the campaign, Hoard of the Dragon Queen, and for the Vampires, it is Count Strahd von Zarovich, so this book also works as an introduction to the campaign, Curse of Strahd. These legendary creatures are foes that the adventurers are unlikely to face for a very long time, but they are ones to be whispered about in hushed tones… Then there the encounter descriptions after every section, such as Half-Orc Barbarian’s encounter in a Myconid Colony who can sense an action she took in another colony years past. This short piece of fiction sets up a question or situation which the reader can answer or deal with by referring back to the entries earlier in the tome. These are a nice break from the somewhat comparatively dry monster descriptions, posing the reader with a situation that his adventurer might face in the future.

Just as in Warriors & Weapons, the last words in Monsters & Creatures are some last words about building a hero, that the reader is on his first steps to composing his adventurer’s story. It opens up a little to ask the player to wonder about the other heroes his character will adventure alongside, what and where his adventures take place, and of course, why? It explains a bit more about the play of Dungeons & Dragons, so serving as a light primer before the player gets to the table.

There are just two issues with Monsters & Creatures—one minor, one not so minor. The minor issue is the inclusion of the Flumph as an entry. It is just a little too obscure, a bit too odd to sit alongside the other entries. The not so minor issue is that the fact that the book includes an anachronism or two when it comes to describing the size of the monsters and creatures in the book. A Treant is described as being taller than a logging truck, whilst the Storm Giant is described as being taller than a London bus. The inclusion of such modernisms breaks the verisimilitude of the book, making very much a reference work out of the game when it could have been a reference work both out of the game and in the game.

Physically, Monsters & Creatures is an attractive little hardback. It is bright, it is breezy, and it shows a prospective player what his character might face, both in the art and the writing. Further, the art shows lots of adventuring scenes which can only spur the prospective player’s imagination.

Now obviously, Monsters & Creatures is designed to showcase Dungeons & Dragons and introduce the prospective player to what his character might encounter. Now because some of the entries in the volume are particular to Dungeon & Dragons, it means that not all of the content of Monsters & Creatures is quite so useful in other roleplaying games, but nevertheless, it would an introduction to Dungeons & Dragons-style retroclones, though in its look, it is brighter and breezier than the style and tone of the typical fantasy roleplaying game from the Old School Renaissance.

Warriors & Weapons did a decent job of introducing players to the martial Classes. Likewise, Monsters & Creatures does a good job of introducing the prospective player to just a tiny, but often iconic, few of the monsters and creatures in Dungeons & Dragons. It is though, more of a general reference work, perhaps more useful than Warriors & Weapons, since its contents pertain to the play of Dungeons & Dragons rather than the creation of characters in readiness for that play. This makes it an even better book to have at the table during play, since its contents can serve as the legends and the folklore that a player character in a fantasy world might have learned about said monsters and creatures as he was growing up. Even if not that, then the readers for whom Monsters & Creatures is written for, are at least going to wowed by its contents and perhaps be fascinated by them to want to know more about Dungeons & Dragons

Again, Monsters & Creatures is a bright and easy read, the next part of what should serve as a light introduction to Dungeons & Dragons. One that nicely works as a gift as much as it does a useful reference work.

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