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Friday 24 November 2023

Friday Fantasy: A Folklore Bestiary

In the time that they have been with the hobby—that is, right from the start—monsters have kept us busy. We faced them as obstacles to be overcome and guardians of treasure to be plundered, and then when we grew all too familiar them, our player knowledge gave us insights into how they could be killed or defeated, but mostly killed. In which case, the Dungeon Master would first surprise, then confound us with a new monster, one of her own creation or variation upon an existing monster or drawn from the pages of some supplement or magazine. Monsters scared us—and we even became the monsters to scare others—and they could be interesting and different enough to help enforce the feel of a whole new world. They became a means a create stories too, and again and again, new bestiaries of monsters have appeared to do one, two, or more of these things. In the case of A Folklore Bestiary, it will do all these things and more. The not quite forty monsters in this volume can serve as obstacles to be overcome and guardians of treasure to be plundered, but is the least of their usefulness. they are definitely going to surprise player, Player Character, and Game Master alike, let alone confound both player and Player Character. They will scare them too, but most of all, they will create stories, because these creatures and things come with locations, lairs, treasures, scenarios, and most all, legends. This is because they are all drawn from folklore.

A Folklore Bestiary is bestiary for use with Necrotic Gnome’s Old School Essentials. It is published by The Merry Mushmen—best known for the Old School Renaissance magazine Knock and the scenario, Nightmare Over Ragged Hollow—following a successful Kickstarter campaign. From the start though, it does not look like a bestiary, because inside the front cover and the back, are the stats for six Player Characters and it asks, “Want to play now?” In that case, the Game Master hands out the Player Characters, turns to page eighty-eight, and have them start playing the dungeon she finds detailed there. There is no denying that this is a little disconcerting, but turn the page and it is obvious that A Folklore Bestiary is a bestiary. And what a bestiary it is! All thirty-eight entries are drawn from local folklore from around the world. There are entries for creatures and monsters from the Basque Country, Serbia, Belgium, the Channel Islands, Ukraine, France, England, Brazil, California, Germany, Estonia, China, and Ireland. There are some entries which will be familiar, but there are a great many that are not. The entries range in Hit Dice from ½ to sixty, with the majority being under ten Hit Dice and a fifth being of five Hit Dice.

The collection opens with the Basajaun from the Basque Country, rustic giants known as Wild Lords, who sometimes like a joke and a play with intruders into their domains, but also fiercely, wildly protective of them. Their hair can be woven into strong ropes and bowstrings, though if they discover that the hair has not been freely given, they become enraged, and they have a love of games and riddles. The Kabouter is a gnome from Flanders with a love of good abbey beer or liquor that they will happily take in return for helping someone, whilst the Perelesnyk from Ukraine, a fiery serpent with a human face who takes the form of someone whom the viewer has loved and wronged, feeding on regrets and broken dreams. The Lou Carcohl is a snail as big as a house with eight tentacles secretly kept prisoner under the village of Hastingues in Gascony, France, lest it escape and slither rampant at snail’s pace! The Tartaro is another creature from the Basque Country, a one-eyed ogre shepherd named after a number (no-one knows why), ever hungry (especially for human flesh), that lures in victims with gold coins and somewhere to rest, whilst the Cucu is from Brazil, an old crone or crocodile woman, whose restorative potions require the purchaser to murder children for the ingredients required.

In every case, the creatures are accompanied by the legends and lore related to it, as well as the stats, hooks, and more. For example, the Basajaun includes details of names, suggested use of their hair, and a new character Class, the Hachkos, the offspring of the Basajaun and a human woman, known for their skill with a quarterstaff and surviving in the wilderness. The Lou Carcohl is not just a snail as big as a house, but a dungeon that the Player Characters can explore. The Scucca, also known as Old Shuck, is a supernatural hound from reputed to straight from hell, but in Cambridgeshire, it haunts the county’s fens, its description including a mini-hexcrawl. The write-up of the Cuca includes tables of both what she wants and what concoctions she can mix, as well as a map of her lair. For the Lou Pétassou, a raggedy spirit which embodies shame and hatred, there is even a complete adventure, ‘Hard Times in Homburg’, set in a village whose inhabitants have fallen into fierce squabbling to the point the adventure actually includes the ‘Cattlesystem™, Peasant-Level Mass Combat Rules’! An old woman believes that if a Lou Pétassou can be found, it will save the village. Not every entry goes to such lengths to support the folkloric monster it describes, but a great many do. There is so much in this book beyond the mere description and stats.

Physically, A Folklore Bestiary is very well presented. It needs a slight edit in places, but the book is well written, the cartography is good, but the artwork is excellent.

A Folklore Bestiary is a bestiary unlike any other. Other bestiaries have drawn on folkore, but not like this. A Folklore Bestiary takes its source material and not only includes that, but develops it to present some incredibly playable content, making the supplement far more than just a simple monster book. A Folklore Bestiary is full of weird and wonderful monsters and a whole lot more. This really is a fun book and a good read to boot.

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