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Sunday 3 November 2019

Symbaroum's Challenge

After a supplement, four scenario anthologies, and three parts of a campaign, let alone a core rulebook, it is surprising that the one thing that Symbaroum does not have and that is a monster book or bestiary. That changes with the publication of the Monster Codex. Published by Swedish publisher, Free League following a successful Kickstarter campaign—and distributed in English by Modiphius Entertainment—it presents thirty new threats, numerous old threats in an easy to reference section, new categories of flora and fauna, guidelines for creating new creatures and balanced combat challenges, and more for the near-Dark Ages fantasy roleplaying game. The Monster Codex is not just a monster book, but a book about making monsters, hunting monsters, and more.

To use the Monster Codex, the Game Master will need access to the Symbaroum core rulebook and the Advanced Player Guide. The book itself is divided into three sections. More than half of the bestiary is taken up by the first section, ‘Hordes of Eternal Night’. Named for work of the same title by the famous monster scholar and black cloak, Father Almagast, it describes just twenty-seven of the creatures described in that tome, but all with certain degree of verisimilitude. To that end, each entry draws from a letter, note, report, transcript of an interrogation, and the like to provide an in-world description, followed by information about the creature’s place in Symbaroum, and an adventure set-up, essentially a plot hook. The monster’s stats are almost an afterthought. For example, the Death Prince are undead warriors and would-be sovereigns who jealously crave power and possession of what was theirs when they were alive. Each was once a Death Lord, a dead body raised to life once again in a ritual which blackens and burns its flesh and bones into a suit of armour and binds them to a sorcerer. Once a Death Lord’s master dies, the now Death Prince is free to pursue his own ambitions. The entry’s story describes how a notary to Queen Korinthia encountered a loquacious bard and his mistress, a noble knight who remained silent and in her rune-engraved armour despite the heat and later fearsome blows in combat with bandits. The notary goes on to describe realising that this was slightly odd, only have it confirmed that the bard was discovered to be a sorcerer and that the knight was known to have died years before, and that since, the knight was acting on her after the death of her master, who had been posing as the bard. The entry lists known Death Princes and includes False Life, a ritual which makes the undead appear as they did in life the following day, whilst the adventure set-up sees the player characters come to a castle or estate as a Death Prince attempts to take it from within from the current owners who betrayed her family. 

Each of the entries is typically four pages in length and as well as the in-game piece of background or ephemera, comes with an excellent illustration—but then you would expect nothing less from a supplement for Symbaroum. They include the small, like the Ettermites, which swarm and bite, but which reside in pillars of a precious gemstone-like building material known as Ettercopal, which attracts treasure hunters. Ettermites can be temporarily put to sleep with a rare elixir known as Etter Sleep, giving treasure hunters just enough to harvest the Ettercopal before the creatures awaken and form a deadly, clattering swarm. They include the huge, like the Colossi, the legendary mounts of the Witches that are massive carnivores that appear to be wood as much as flesh. Many come with elements beyond their just being a threat. So the shapeshifting Bestiaals can actually be taken as a challenging player character Race, as can the Illgoblins, former Goblins who have entered pacts in order to live beyond their short lives; King Toads are amphibians which grow large enough to swallow small boats, but whose legs are a delicacy amongst the Ambrian elite; and Glimmers are undead spirits which appear from the gleam of light on metal, but when killed their souls can trapped in blood red amulet whose glimmering rays of light can distract opponents in combat when worn. There is a good range of threats here for the Game Master to use against her players’ characters, many of them quite nasty and sure to provide memorable encounters. The adventure set-ups do feel a little similar in places, but there are some interesting ideas amongst the mix.

The second section, ‘Monsters & Adversaries’ is much more straightforward and has a more immediately obvious use. It consists of some eighty or so entries, each a standard NPC, monster, or creature, either belonging to a particular organisation or found in a terrain or location type. These range from Champions of Prios, like Experienced Templars and Liturgs, and Artifact Crafters and Panzer Alchemists of the Ordo Magica to mountain’s Snow Wraith and Stone boar and the Pale Crawlers and Rakals of the Underworld. Each consists of a set of stats and a thumbnail description, all quick and easy to use, ready for the Game Master to add character wherever the player characters happen to be.

The last and smallest section of the Monster Codex is ‘Rules & Guidelines’. This covers a variety of different aspects of the rules as they relate to monsters and creatures. To Abominations, Beast, Cultural Beings, and Undead it adds Flora and Phenomena to increase the number of monster categories from one to six, whilst adding thirty-seven new Monstrous traits such as Bloodlust and Wrecker, listing them alongside those given in the Symbaroum core rulebook. Alongside the Infectious and Infestation Traits, it also adds rules for handling diseases in Symbaroum. These are workable enough, but although a few diseases are named, their individual symptoms are not, so the Game Master will have to be creative here. As well as guidelines for creating monsters, the section also expands upon the core rules by providing a more detailed guide to creating balanced combat encounters by scaling both their competence and their scope to the player characters. So limited adventures for beginning player characters, local adventures for experienced characters, regional adventures for veterans, and so on. This is a really useful section for the Game Master, and comes with a list of quick-pick preset of encounters built from the Symbaroum core rulebook and the Monster Codex

The penultimate article in the Monster Codex is a discussion of the campaign possibilities that it suggests—the Monster Chronicle, that is, monster hunting. What lies underneath the canopy of the Davokar forest, and of course underneath that, has long been a source of fascination for the monster and treasure hunters and scholars of the kingdom of Ambria, as well as the things that come out of them. This fascination means that there is money to be made from monster hunting, whether that is as trophy hunters, monster explorers—for the advancement of knowledge and science, or simply as pest control, dealing with monstrous threats to towns and outposts. Monsters are also wanted for the arena in Thistlehold, nobles want certain delicacies from the particular creatures, and parts are also in demand by alchemists, physicians, artificiers, and so on. Taking the Game Master through the four phases of monster hunting—preparations, tracking, the confrontation, and the journey back—this is an excellent companion to the monster entries earlier in the book, in some cases working with some of the adventure set-ups also.

Rounding out the Monster Codex is a semi-serious new player character race, the Andrik. These are the descendants of ducks deformed by dark powers into caricatures of cultural beings and consequently, there is a stigma attached to the Andrik. Thus they have the Pariah trait! They also have Paws and poor dexterity, but they have a knack for provoking others. The Andrik are playable, but they are slightly silly and yes, of course, they are an April Fools joke, but a knowing one to the appearance of Ducks in the late Greg Stafford’s Glorantha. They are optional though.

Physically, this being a book from Free League and for Symbaroum, there can be no doubt that the Monster Codex is going to be a fine-looking book—and it is. The layout for the most part clean and tidy, but the first section with the new monsters is perhaps a little cluttered with the letters and notes and so on, which does make its content not quite as easy to read or reference. Nevertheless,  the artwork is fantastic. 

The Monster Codex could have just been two hundred pages of monsters and that would have given the Game Master some fifty or so new creatures to bring to her campaign. Which would have been fine, but perhaps not as interesting, for the Monster Codex does more than just provide a list of monsters and creatures. Instead, by focusing on fewer monsters, it gives room for the authors to tell the Game Master more about them and to place them in setting of Symbaroum. It also does not overwhelm the Game Master with having too many monsters to choose from. Then it provides a ready selection of NPCs and other threats, useful rather than interesting. Lastly, with the advice and new rules, it brings everything else in the book together, helping the Game Master use the rest of the content—and use it in a particular way. That is to create and build challenges for her players and their characters, whether that is on the new monster hunting campaign set-up. As much a challenge reference book as a monster sourcebook, the Monster Codex adds more to a Symbaroum campaign than a simple bestiary would.

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