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Saturday 10 February 2024

Figures of Fantasy

Mythological Figures & Maleficent Monsters
is an anthology of monsters and figures from myth, fantasy, and history, all presented for use with Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. Published by EN Publishing, it collects the ninety or so entries in the Mythological Figures column written by Mike Myler, which ran from March 2018 to April 2022. Within its pages, the reader will find gods from a variety of pantheons, creatures from numerous folklore traditions, characters from Shakespeare, heroes and villains from history, and figures from fiction and popular culture. Together, they and the format of the book draw on two older sources in roleplaying. One is the Deities & Demigods supplement to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition, which presented a panoply of pantheons, including the gods and heroes of each. So, it is no surprise that James M. Ward, co-author of Deities & Demigods, provides the foreword to Mythological Figures & Maleficent Monsters. The other is Dragon magazine, which during its early years would publish adaptations of heroes and villains from myth, legend, and popular culture. Just Deities & Demigods and the articles in the pages of Dragon magazine, the entries in Mythological Figures & Maleficent Monsters are a mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar, from a range of cultures around the world.

Mythological Figures & Maleficent Monsters divides its entries in to two types—at least mechanically. All of the heroes and villains are designed as if they were Player Characters in Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, including characters with multiple Levels in different Classes. For example, the Pirate Queen, Ching Shih, is a Fifth Level Bard, Seventh Level Rogue, and an Eighth Level Fighter, whilst Hercules is an Eighth Level Barbarian and an Eleventh level Fighter. Where possible, the builds for entries favour Feats that grants the characters greater abilities than a flat increase to an ability score would. For example, Robin Hood has the Superb Aim Feat rather than an increase to his Dexterity which would take it above eighteen. Many of the entries use the Warlord archetype, such as George Washington or the Pirate Queen, Ching Shih. This provides a range of Warlord Tactics and Tactical Manoeuvres with which to build the character. The detail of these and the Warlord archetype are given at the front of the book. The book also makes use of Classes from The Masterclass Codex: Sixteen New Character Classes For Your Fifth Edition Campaign. They include the Gunfighter for Billy the Kid, Fatebender for Harry Houdini, Tinkerer for Nikola Tesla, Savant for Sherlock Holmes, and Geomancer for Zhuang Zhou, but the Dungeon Master does not need access to The Masterclass Codex: Sixteen New Character Classes For Your Fifth Edition Campaign to use these characters in Mythological Figures & Maleficent Monsters.

The other type of entry in Mythological Figures & Maleficent Monsters are its monsters. They are designed as monsters and thus not designed to be playable, and all have their own fantastical abilities. For example, Baba Yaga has Agonising Cackle which racks that hear it with pain, Dracula has Misty Escape enabling him to transform and escape as a cloud of mist, and Dorian Gray has Regeneration, which grants him a massive bonus of thirty Hit Points at the start of his turn! In Dorian Gray’s case, the latter ability is granted by his Life-Catching Portrait that he famously keeps hidden in his attic. Many of the entries have artefacts and magical weapons and devices, and these too, are included in the write-ups, such as Excalibur for Arthur Pendragon, Baba Yaga’s Broom and Baba Yaga’s Chicken Hut for Baba Yaga, the Somnambulatory Brew and Transforming Wand for Circe, the Wings of Icarus for Daedalus, and so on. Some characters detailed in the book are known for being accompanied by their companions, so these too, are also included. Thus, Sancho Panza is included in the entry for Don Quixote and Doctor John Watson alongside Sherlock Holmes.

Most entries in Mythological Figures & Maleficent Monsters are given two pages, but some like Genghis Khan or Thor Odinson warrant four pages. Each includes a decent and description alongside the full stats and mechanical details. There are design notes included as necessary and a Background option.

So what of the individual entries in Mythological Figures & Maleficent Monsters? Well, the most modern historical figure is Harry Houdini, famous escapologist. The most modern monster—and most modern entry in the supplement—is the Mothman, the infamous furry flying cryptid found in West Virginia. Most the entries are of much older figures. Many are drawn from particular pantheons and mythologies. For example, Achilles, Antaeus, Cerberus, Circe, Daedalus, Hercules, Odysseus, and Perseus are all drawn from Greek Myth, whilst Fafnir and Fenrir, Loki, and Thor Odinson come from Greek Myth. Other come from specific stories, such as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza from Miguel de Cervantes’ novel of the same name or Caliban and Prospero from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Others have their own stories which they are drawn from, but together form another story. For example, Allan Quatermain, Dorian Gray, Dracula, The Invisible Man, Jekyll & Hyde, and Nemo all come from works by different authors, but together they lend themselves to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. There is also a lot that will be unfamiliar to readers. They include the aforementioned Pirate Queen, Ching Shih; Droṇa, the Indian warrior and guru who wielded Asi, the sword of Lord Vishnu; Hayreddin Barbarossa, the greatest naval commander of the Ottoman Empire; seventeenth century opera singer and duellist, Julie D’Aubigny; the hero Māui from the Pacific Islands; and Musō Gonnosuke, rival to Miyamoto Musashi, also detailed in the book. Such entries cast light on the unfamiliar and the unknown, entreating the reader to want to find out more.

There are some extras included too, such as the Nautilus for Nemo, the table of Master Alchemist’s Treasures for Jekyll & Hyde and the table of Viking Treasure Hoard for Harald Hardrada, the last Viking! There are also some odd shifts in tone between entries. Thus, the book switches from describing the Easter Bunny to detailing Elizabeth Báthory and from Santa Claus to Sherlock Holmes. This is due to the entries being originally published as columns, so the shift in tone would not have so readily apparent.

So how to use the content of Mythological Figures & Maleficent Monsters? The monsters are there, of course, the Player Characters to fight and confront, and in turn, for them to plot against the Player Characters. The characters are a mix of archetypes and classic roles, which the players can aspire to for their own characters. The characters can also be threats on their own, for example, the book suggesting an encounter with a time-travelling Billy the Kid, but as archetypes, they can be used as replacement Player Characters or NPCs. All the Dungeon Master need do is change the name. For example, need a peasant thief? Then Aladdin is a good choice. Or a folk hero who is good with a bow? Robin Hood is good for that. Of course, the anthology does not collect all of the entries published in the Mythological Figures column, so there may yet be scope for a second volume.

Physically, Mythological Figures & Maleficent Monsters is solidly presented and organised. The artwork varies in quality, most of it decent, but not necessarily great. Some entries feel brief, but in most cases, they serve as an introduction to the figure or monster detailed. Rounding out the book is a good index of its entries including their origins, and of their treasures too.

So what is missing from the pages of Mythological Figures & Maleficent Monsters? What might have been useful is a bibliography, but research is not difficult, so not as much a problem as it could have been. In terms of entries, there are a lot from Greek myth, especially in comparison to Norse myth, so more of the latter would have been welcome. If there is one figure missing from book, it is that of Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis, Professor James Moriarty.

Mythological Figures & Maleficent Monsters is a solid sourcebook of the familiar and the unfamiliar, of heroes and villains, of monsters and magical beings. It picks up and continues a grand tradition of presenting figures out of history, myth, and popular culture in way that they can be brought to the table to be fought, interacted with, learned from, emulated, and more, whilst also leaving the reader wanting to find out more about them.

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