Thursday, August 28, 2008
Part of Paizo's Pathfinder Chronicles line of products, Classic Monsters Revisited is, to put it plainly, a peculiar little book. Written by a variety of authors (many of them associated with D&D's Third Edition), this 64-page, softcover book examines ten of "classic" monsters -- bugbears, gnolls, hobgoblins, orcs, lizard men, trolls, ogres, kobolds, minotaurs, and goblins -- and "reimagines" them for the Pathfinder fantasy setting of Golarion. Given how often the term "reimagining" is used nowadays as a synonym for the wholesale gutting of an idea or concept in the interests of marketing an existing IP, I can't say I was keen on picking up this book. But, buoyed by what I saw in the Pathfinder Chronicles Gazetteer, I decided to take a chance and I am glad I did so.
This is not to say this book is flawless; I have a number of nits to pick with it from my own idiosyncratic old school perspective. Overall, though, this book is written with imagination and with more respect for the traditions of D&D than was 4e. It's hard not to have one's heart warmed, at least a little, after reading editor James Jacobs' introduction, where he states plainly that the authors of Classic Monsters Revisited went back to the original Monster Manual for inspiration when writing their reimaginings. More to the point, his words are not just idle. Take a look and you'll see, for example, that orcs have tribal names that are clearly inspired by those in the 1e MM. There are many other little bits of color and detail like that, loving nods to the original source material.
The book itself is well made and sturdy, with glossy full-color pages. I can't say that I'm a fan of this format, not least because I'm sure it pushes the cost of the book up ($17.99 retail) unnecessarily. The art itself is good but very modern, in its obsession with detail and "action." That said, there are a number of pieces I quite liked. Anything with the reimagined goblins is terrific, but then that's because Paizo's version of these monsters as malicious little vermin with a love for twisted battle songs and a fear of dogs is simply inspired. There's also a nice piece showing an unwary adventurer, torch in hand, about to turn a corner in a labyrinth, where a minotaur lays in wait.
The bulk of the book is made up of ten chapters, each of which presents a new monstrous race as it appears in the Pathfinder setting. Each 6-page entry includes an overview, as well as discussions of ecology, habitat and society, campaign role, treasure, variants, and additional details about the place of the creatures in Golarion. Each chapter ends with single-page stat write-up in v.3.5 terms. In most cases, this write-up is identical to that found in the v.3.5 Monster Manual, but there are small alterations in some, small enough that they'd probably escape notice unless you were specifically comparing the two, as I was. I presume the changes were done both to bring them closer to the reimagined versions of the monsters and also to make the game mechanics simpler and easier to use, which seem to be the watchwords of Paizo, as they forge ahead with their own v.3.5-derived Pathfinder RPG.
The reimaginings themselves are almost universally good. I've already noted the goblins, who are far and away the best things in this book. That said, many other reimaginings struck a chord with me; the "bogeyman" bugbears, the Spartan hobgoblins, the cursed minotaurs, and the cannibalistic ogres all stand out. In reading these entries, I was often pleased at how the authors had managed to do something quite remarkable: create a new version of an old favorite that was still somehow continuous with nearly 30 years of D&D tradition. They didn't succeed in every case. I intensely dislike the draconic kobolds that 3e foisted on us and that this book continues to develop, for example. Yet, despite the missteps, there is a solid core here that I felt I could use in my own games.
Although written with v.3.5 in mind, there is in fact very little rules content to it. Aside from the stat block and the occasional item or feat relegated to sidebars, this book is almost pure "fluff." I think an old school gamer will find a lot to enjoy here. Certainly six pages is probably more information than most of us need for these monsters. There is, I can't deny, more than a whiff of new school indulgence in setting for setting's sake in this book. At the same time, I was reminded often of the way that, prior to the advent of the Monster Manual, each referee's interpretation of an orc's appearance was different. And just what the heck was a gnoll anyway? As much as I love my Gygaxian MM, there's a certain sense in which it was the beginning of the end of the imagination and creativity that OD&D demanded. After its appearance, we knew what an orc looked like and that a gnoll was a hyena man, not some magical cross between a gnome and a troll. And while I'm as fond of established D&D tradition as anyone, there's a big part of me that longs for the wild and woolly days when one campaign's orc and another's were not necessarily the same.
Classic Monsters Revisited goes a long way toward making many old favorites new and interesting. After reading this book, I want to use minotaurs again in a way I haven't in, well, probably ever. The same goes for goblins and ogres. That's a pretty remarkable achievement. Even more remarkable is the way that the book made me look at other monsters not described in this book and whom I thought I knew well. Now, I'm not so sure; I think the next time I use, say, a gargoyle I'll present it somewhat differently than the way it's traditional presented, because that's what D&D is all about.
OD&D presented itself as a toolkit for building your own fantasy world and I think that would be the best way to present and market even modern editions of the game. Believe me, I am not arguing that Classic Monsters Revisited is in any way an old school product or completely consonant with my own Quixotic hopes for the hobby. This book is too clearly part of a plan to build and promote a new IP for that, but I am willing to forgive it that sin, because it made me look at things I've "known" for nearly three decades and reconsider them. I can't remember the last D&D product that made me do that, but then that might explain why I'm no longer buying new D&D products. On the other hand, I will certainly continue to buy Pathfinder products, so long as they continue to spur my imagination the way this one did.
Final Score: 4 out of 5 polearms