Thursday, August 28, 2008

REVIEW: Classic Monsters Revisited


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

22 comments:

  1. I've been mystified by your championing of Pathfinder.

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  2. I've been mystified by your championing of Pathfinder.

    In what way?

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  3. In what way?

    Well, I understand your respect for Paizo because they are essentially taking up the reins of the 3.5 OGL. But it seems to me that Pathfinder is just a continuation of all that is not "old school."

    When I got back into D&D after almost two decades, I eventually came to the conclusion that 3.5 was weighted down with rules, favored power gaming, and institutionalized the "adventure path" mode of gaming that essentially turned the GM from a referee into an entertainer. For the last year, I've been re-examining what gaming is all about. (Hence my interest in your blog and the inspiration to start my own.) And I simply have no interest in attempting to master 3.5e any longer. That's why I've been very interested in 4e.

    But I'm not here to convince you that 4e is all that great. I'm not completely convinced myself. Suffice to say that I'm attempting to use 4e in order to play in a 0e style.

    But I digress from the topic of your article. The book sounds interesting. "Fluff" books are always helpful with the fleshing out of campaigns. As a matter of fact, today I picked up a copy of The Slayer's Guide to Medusas by Mongoose Publishing.

    Oh, and BTW, I got my copies of issue #1 & 2 of Fight On! in the mail yesterday. Along with my long-awaited copy of Castle Zagyg: The Upper Works.

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  4. The Pathfinder RPG itself is of minimal interest to me and the Pathfinder adventure paths are very far removed from what I want out of a gaming product. That's why you won't see me review those here (unless I had good reason to do so). I do think, though, that many of Paizo's ancillary products are excellent examples of someone attempting to "square the circle" and bring old school sensibilities into the modern hobby. I'm far from convinced they've succeeded, but I have a longstanding interest in seeing someone try to do just that, so I will always make a point of reviewing products that try to bridge the gap.

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  5. I do think, though, that many of Paizo's ancillary products are excellent examples of someone attempting to "square the circle" and bring old school sensibilities into the modern hobby.

    Intriguing. I'll have to give their line of products a second look.

    Incidentally, I knew exactly what you mean about the issue of the names of orc tribes. In my potentially insane attempt to transmogrify 4e into 0e, I've been putting together my own house rule "Monster Manual" using 4e rules but expanding the descriptions to include information from all the previous editions. Not all the monsters at once, mind you. Just the ones I plan to use in my next sessions. For example, I miss the light-sensitive orcs of previous editions. I want my orcs to cower from God's flashlight! So my 4e orcs suffer a -1 penalty on sunny days. Now I'm curious to read Piazo's spin on these monsters.

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  6. Forgive me, but I'm fairly sure that Kobolds being draconic dates significantly further back than 3e. Wikipedia seems to support me, saying they've been reptilian since at least AD&D 1e. The one in the 2e Monstrous Manual looks like it could be more rodent-y, but he's still sorta reptilian.

    But I'm not here to convince you that 4e is all that great. I'm not completely convinced myself. Suffice to say that I'm attempting to use 4e in order to play in a 0e style.
    *snerk* Good luck on that.

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  7. First, yes, 4e can be played in a 0e style. Not literally the same, but it does provide rules for only the important things, like combat, and leaves the rest open to interpretation. I know because I'm running it.

    I'm also mystified by the championing of Pathfinder and Paizo, as I have only ever seen "3E" mentality screaming loud and clear when looking at their products. I don't get where the idea that they are somehow being true to old school gaming comes from, unless you're one of those 3E players who believe that particular version was "the last true D&D edition" before 4e changed everything. Me, I'd say 3e is the *least* D&D-like edition, and Paizo stuff fits right in with that. Perfectly.

    Draconic kobolds. The 1E art in my books depicts them with scales... so, I guess I'm puzzled here. Is it ok for them to be reptilian but not draconic? I also find it funny that this blog entry was championing a product that makes the reader look at old creatures in ways never before imagined, and yet here we are picking on draconic kobolds for being different than some preconceived idea.

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  8. Pre-3e kobolds were vaguely reptilian dog-men, but were not related to dragons in any way. If you remember Keep on the Borderlands, the rumors table for the Caves of Chaos states that "big dog men" (gnolls) live in one section, while "little dog men" (kobolds) live in another.

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  9. I don't get where the idea that they are somehow being true to old school gaming comes from, unless you're one of those 3E players who believe that particular version was "the last true D&D edition" before 4e changed everything. Me, I'd say 3e is the *least* D&D-like edition, and Paizo stuff fits right in with that. Perfectly.

    I champion the cause of OD&D, so I'm not a 3e partisan as such. Indeed, I tend to see 3e as the last edition to retain any connection to the Golden Age (in the form of Skip Williams), but I also see it as a precursor of 4e, so it's rather a wash overall. I don't care much for the Pathfinder RPG or the adventure paths, both of which I see as far too complex and new school for my tastes, but I do like a lot of the fluff Paizo has created, because it's consonant with the traditions of the past, including the pulp fantasy on which OD&D was built.

    I also find it funny that this blog entry was championing a product that makes the reader look at old creatures in ways never before imagined, and yet here we are picking on draconic kobolds for being different than some preconceived idea.

    Perhaps my point was unclear then. What made this product so impressive to me was that it used classic D&D in ways that were simultaneously original and in keeping with the way they'd been portrayed in the past. They weren't whole cloth reimaginings so much as "tweaking" of longstanding images of these monsters. They showed how it's in fact possible to remain true to the past while still doing clever things with that past.

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  10. The kobolds in my campaign speak with a German accent. ;)

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  11. The kobolds in my campaign speak with a German accent. ;)

    As is only right.

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  12. Right, kobolds were lizard-men with doglike traits back to the 1e Monster Manual, but not draconic until some time after the 3e MM came out. (Yeah, they spoke Draconic in the 3e MM, but so did lizard men and troglodytes. 3e kobolds favored sorcery, and sorcery was linked with dragon blood, but the high-dragon-ness didn't show up until later.)

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  13. James, good article.

    I have the book and, generally speaking, I like it. The art is both good and bad. I love the goblin art, but absolutely hate the bugbear art (what's up with the tiny head?). The hobgoblin art is just missing something - they look too much like blue humaniods (not quite what I was picturing in my mind) I agree with you that the goblins are the best part of the book!

    As for kobolds, I actually like the draconic feel to them. Its a bit different than the original, but it strikes well with me, as I feel it gives them more character. They are not just wimps sulking around, they might have a big brother close by! While not a huge fan of the WotC fluff books, I actually enjoyed their article on kobolds in Races of the Dragon. I am also good with the German accent ;)

    One last comment on minotaurs. I absolutely hate the idea of good guy minotaurs. Where did this come from??? I must have missed the part about Theseus and the bull going out for beers after the labyrinth contest. It is not keep with the classic mythology, and it just rubs me the wrong way. I really like what GW has done with their minotaurs and doom bulls. This is exactly how I picture them in my mind. I do appreciate what Paizo is trying to do with their minotaurs, as it feels a bit closer to the orginal flavor of these beasts.

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  14. I absolutely hate the idea of good guy minotaurs. Where did this come from???

    As with so many things, blame Dragonlance.

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  15. 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.

    If you're interested in the "Spartan Hobgoblin" image, Kenzer & Co. did a brilliant job with it in their book Strength and Honor if you can find it for sale anymore (out of print and not legal to put back in print). Their whole premise is that Hobgoblins are semi-civilized and form a militiristic, almost Klingon type of society. There's very little in the way of games mechanics in the book, and you can readily ignore it for the reams of flavor.

    A very excellent book.

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  16. I absolutely hate the idea of good guy minotaurs. Where did this come from???

    Maybe Borges, or a number of other treatments of the Theseus setup that use the minotaur as a sympathetic but doomed figure, rather like Frankenstein's monster. I remember reading something, somewhere, in my mis-spent fantasy lit days, where a minotaur-type monster was propitiated by human sacrifices of captured virgins. Rather than raping and killing them, which was what the propitiators had in mind, the minotaur operated a kind of virgin underground railroad, getting them away from their oppressive parents. I'm still tempted to run something like this one day.

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  17. Kenzer & Co. did a brilliant job with it in their book Strength and Honor if you can find it for sale any more (out of print and not legal to put back in print). Their whole premise is that Hobgoblins are semi-civilized and form a militaristic, almost Klingon type of society

    Hobs = Klingons is actually a pretty old-school meme. I recall letters to Dragon's "Forum" back in the late '80s which talked in almost exactly those terms. I can't help thinking the 1983 1E Monster Manual (with the samurai-style Hobgoblin art) was an influence on that...

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  18. Rather than raping and killing them, which was what the propitiators had in mind, the minotaur operated a kind of virgin underground railroad, getting them away from their oppressive parents.

    That's about as far from pulp fantasy as almost anything I can imagine. It's abominable.

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  19. I can't help thinking the 1983 1E Monster Manual (with the samurai-style Hobgoblin art) was an influence on that...

    That same art appears in the 1977 edition.

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  20. it's abominable
    Why, though? Is it because the monster is revealed to be an unexpected ally? Does that mean Gilgamesh can't befriend Enkidu, (or Arthur can't befriend Lancelot), whom he fights at first? I can see that there's the potential here to destabilise the whole hero/monster dynamic, but of course, you wouldn't pull a switch like this without clues that all is not what it seems. Or is it because the language I used is too hippie/sexual revolution/women's lib? What if I rephrase it like this: initially the players think they're in a standard monster/damsel setup, but a series of clues makes them question the motives of the concerned parents and town elders (maybe the current sacrifice's father or boyfriend fills in the gaps, maybe they catch the town's minister lying; maybe the elders want the heroes out of the way, because they're afraid they'll upset their plans). Eventually it becomes clear that the elders are the real monsters: they've been using the beast in the cave to cover up their nefarious doings, or to threaten/control the townsmen or whatever (so it's more Hunchback of Notre Dame than Frankenstein). Maybe the players can find out the real deal from the minotaur himself, or from the sacrifice, who's far from happy about her violent rescue. Are there more minotaurs held in the minister's dungeons/temple? Why are the town elders so keen on sacrifice anyway?
    FWIW this seems more or less in idiom to me: it partly overturns genre conventions in order to reveal a second plot that has a fairly traditional structure (the monster is friendly, but the town elders have their own secret dungeon) - or is there something basic I'm missing? Is the problem specific to minotaurs?

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  21. Or is it because the language I used is too hippie/sexual revolution/women's lib?

    That's certainly part of it. The other part of it is that it's, frankly, a very subversive reading of pulp fantasy and I prefer mine fairly straight. Sure, pulp fantasy often -- "Rogues in the House" comes immediately to mind -- asks the question of whether men can be as monstrous as real monsters, but it rarely asks whether monsters are really monsters, a question that I think undermines a lot of the foundation on which the genre is built.

    Now, if that's your thing, more power to you. But, for me, I like my pulp fantasy unironic and the notion of a good minotaur that helps its supposed victims to find freedom is simply a bridge too far for me.

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  22. Theseus — "Would you believe it, Ariadne? The Minotaur scarcely defended himself."

    Jorge Luis Borges, "The House of Asterion".

    Borge's minotaur (also non-evil)wasn't running the the minotaur operated "virgin underground railroad", but i'm also sure that i've read about THAT minotaur somewhere.

    I highly suggest you to read "The Aleph" James (the short story collection, not just the short story by that name), I think you'll find it very inspiring.

    Just check out "The two kings and the Two Labyrinths" wiki page to see if you think it would be an interesting read:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Two_Kings_and_the_Two_Labyrinths

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