Saturday, May 24, 2008
Monsters of Myth is an important book. Besides being packed with 128 pages of new monsters for use with, as it says on its back cover, "First Edition-compatible games," it is in many ways emblematic of the possibilities and pitfalls that lay before the old school gaming community in general and the retro-clone movement in particular. Produced under the auspices of the First Edition Society, Monsters of Myth is an anthology edited by Stuart Marshall and Matt Finch. Those names are significant, as they are the two principals behind the creation of OSRIC, a restatement of the underlying rules of a certain old school fantasy game from the 1970s and 80s. The involvement of Marshall and Finch thus makes Monsters of Myth as close to an "official" OSRIC product as any currently available and thus gives some insight into exactly how they intended OSRIC to be used.
But let's first look at the book itself. The copy I purchased is the hardcover edition, which cost $27.50. A softcover edition is also available for $14.99. I am quite pleased with the quality of the book's binding and printing; it is sturdy and should hold up to regular use, much like the AD&D books I purchased nearly 30 years ago and that were almost certainly models for the design of Monsters of Myth. There is a very brief foreword by Matt Finch, which explains the history of the project and thanks those who had a hand in its development. Following this is a brief overview of the format used for the monster entries of the book itself. Anyone already familiar with the format from D&D's Monster Manual will have no trouble understanding the format used here, even though it is not identical. My main gripe is that the overview is often unduly terse or else refers the reader to the OSRIC rules or some "other compatible ruleset." It's a small gripe but one that has wider implications that I shall discuss in due course.
The meat of the book is a series of alphabetical entries of monsters, from the antlerins, a race of stag-headed evil fey to the extraplanar undead beings known as the zuul-koar. Besides the game statistics you would expect, each entry also includes a description, typically 2-4 paragraphs, although some entries, particularly of new humanoid species are twice that length or more. Though short, I can honestly say that most of the entries are nonetheless evocative, exemplifying the "less is more" approach that characterizes the best of old school products. Likewise, the sheer variety of creatures on offer in Monsters of Myth is equally impressive and equally representative of old school sensibilities.
This is a truly catholic work, presenting creatures from many possible environments and climes, as well as from a wide number of "ecological" niches. By this I mean that the authors were not fixated on undead or demons or any of the usual hang-ups you expect to see in third party monster books. Instead, we are treated to the whole panoply of monstrous adversaries, from giant animals to nuisances and vermin to clever re-imaginings of mythical creatures to, yes, new examples of undead and demonic beings. I could not help but be favorably reminded of Gary Gygax's Monster Manual II, a particular favorite of mine and, in my opinion, the last Dungeons & Dragons book to have remained almost wholly in line with the game's origins.
Many -- though not all -- of the monster descriptions include black and white illustrations as well. These illustrations vary in quality from the excellent to the amateurish. Those by Peter Mullen and Matt Steward stand out at the excellent end of the spectrum and have done much to push me to re-evaluate my oft-criticized stance toward old school art. My feeling remains that too much "neo-old school" art is effectively a parody rather than an homage to the originals. That's because the original artists, such as Dave Trampier and David Sutherland, never set out to draw "old school art;" they simply drew in their own styles. That's not to say that there isn't such a thing as old school art, but I think the reason why, for example, Peter Mullen's work in Monsters of Myth (such as the shadowcat on page 26, which struck me as a tip of the coif to Wormy) appealed to me is because it was, first and foremost, Mullen's own work rather than a deliberate imitation or aping of another artist's style. One of the things that really distinguishes genuinely old school products is the lack of a "house style." Instead, you get a jumble of different styles that simultaneously complement one another even as they also jar. For me, it's that quality that's most absent from modern RPGs and most self-proclaimed old school products. Monsters of Myth doesn't quite produce the same effect in me, but it comes close -- and I am grateful for it.
Eleven pages near the back of the book are given over to Steve Marsh, a one-time collaborator with Gary Gygax and perhaps best known for his work on 1981 D&D Expert Rules. This section presents many new monsters derived from Mr Marsh's own campaign. They're by and large an eccentric collection of creatures, many of which owe their strange character to an otherworldly "chaos" that plays an important -- and Lovecraftian -- role in that campaign. Also included is a random table for determining which "chaos taints" a creature possesses. This calls to mind similar mechanics in RuneQuest, which is not a bad thing. I've long been a proponent of injecting more Lovecraft into D&D as an antidote to the high fantasy that's infected the game since the release of Dragonlance.
Simply taken as a book of monsters for old school fantasy games, Monsters of Myth is superb, by far and away one of the best I have ever read; it really is that good. The book both exemplifies what "old school" means and serves as a model for how to carry on that lost tradition in the 21st century. Reading through the book, I not only found many of the creature descriptions sparked ideas in my head for adventures and situations, but I was also occasionally transported back to 1979, when I first held the original Monster Manual in my hands and attempted to make sense of the smörgåsbord before me. The authors of Monsters of Myth should be proud of what they have accomplished here and thanked profusely for having given us a solid example of just what the old school community is capable of.
That said, there are a couple of some notes I must mention. Firstly, though released under the Open Game License, Monsters of Myth has adopted a "crippleware" approach to Open Game Content. Thus, "the statistics of all monsters are open game content. The names and descriptions of all monsters are Product Identity." What this means is that, if I were to publish an old school adventure that included the wonderfully villainous jackal-headed Kheph, I could freely use their game stats, but I could not call them Kheph nor could include the description of them from Monsters of Myth at the end of my adventure. Certainly, I could make up my own name and description for them, but, at that point, I might as well make up my own creature.
One of the many virtues of old school gaming is the relative ease with which you can create new game mechanics or statistics. Given that, the real value of books like Monsters of Myth isn't primarily in their game mechanics (though they are valuable) but in their creative descriptions. By closing them off as Product Identity, the First Edition Society has given us a terrific book brimming with great ideas and then encased it in Plexiglas so that no one else might benefit from them. I find this deeply disappointing. A book of this quality ought to have served as an inspiration to others interested in the old school revival. Had the book's contents been fully, or at least more fully, open, other publishers might borrow elements from it in their own products, which would not only have pointed people back to Monsters of Myth itself, but also would have helped spark the organic evolution of old school fantasy games and concepts.
This leads me to two other concerns I have, neither of which negatively impact Monsters of Myth directly, but which do, I fear, make it less successful a volume than it could have been. Firstly, OSRIC remains solely a publishers tool. It is not a commercially available game in its own right. I cannot go into a game store and buy OSRIC. Granted, that's because OSRIC is primarily a restatement of an out-of-print rules system rather than a game in its own right. Unfortunately, this means that retailers will never carry Monsters of Myth and very few gamers, even old school ones, will ever see the book. And many who do will be unclear for what system the book was written.
It's a pity, because, as I hope I've made clear, this is a really good book. This brings me to my third and final concern and it's probably the least of them. The back cover promises "more new releases by the First Edition Society in 2007!" Unless I missed them, Monsters of Myth is the sole release by the First Edition Society and here we are nearly halfway through 2008. Now, I understand well that producing new RPG books can be difficult and time-consuming. Delays are common. Likewise, I also know that old school gaming rightly eschews the supplement treadmill that characterizes modern RPGs. I'm not expecting -- or desiring -- there to be an ever-flowing stream of new books from the First Edition Society. Still, one gets the impression from the back cover text that there were supposed to be more and yet they never materialized. Why?
Perhaps it's an impertinent question. Perhaps it's even an unimportant question. After all, Monsters of Myth can clearly stand on its own considerable merits. I can't shake the feeling, though, that this book is, to use a metaphor, fighting with one hand tied behind its back. It's a metaphor that seems to describe a lot of the old school gaming community. There's no lack of passion, good ideas, and talent. We have all of those things in spades. And it's true that things are better now than they have been in many a year. I keep saying that I feel a change in the air and I still do. There's an old school revival waiting to be born. Products like Monsters of Myth should help get that revival off the ground. They still could, if they could overcome a few difficulties that, in my opinion, stand in the way of reclaiming the patrimony left to us by Gygax and Arneson.
Final Score: 4½ out of 5 polearms