Tuesday, September 9, 2008

REVIEW: Monsters & Treasures of the Wilderlands I

Monsters & Treasures of the Wilderlands I (M&T henceforth) is a 17-page PDF (one of which is a credits and OGL page) written by James Mishler of Adventure Games Publishing and sells for $4. The product is extremely text-heavy, with three columns of what looked to be 8-point type throughout. The typeface was easy even for my aging eyes to read, but I would not be surprised if others found it less legible, particularly given that there are no illustrations to break up the text. This isn't a criticism so much as a simple acknowledgement that you're getting a lot of words for your $4 -- and very good words at that.

M&T describes 16 new monsters and an equal number of new magical items for use with AGP's "Wilderlands of High Adventure," a variant of the classic Judges Guild campaign setting for use with Troll Lord's Castles & Crusades. Although C&C is derived from the D20 SRD and is, in many ways, a kind of "3e Lite," it's most admirable feature is that enough of the cruft and accretions of 3e have been stripped away so that products written for C&C work well with older editions of D&D and their retro-clones/simulacra without much effort. This ease of conversion works to the advantage of M&T, whose contents would make great additions to many old school games. Despite this, I will note here that I think C&C still retains a little too much of 3e's obsession with mechanical exactitude, which is why many of the otherwise excellent entries in this product are longer than they need to have been. Given the density of the text, this is a small blemish and I can hardly fault Mishler for having stayed true to M&T's native rules set.

The monsters described herein range from low-level foes, such as giant vampire bats, to much mightier ones, such as fallen demigods known as the angrasinamru and everything in between. I appreciated the breadth of the entries, both thematically and mechanically. I also enjoyed the fact that many of them were worthy of the fine Gygaxian tradition of taking the germ of an idea from myth or legend and reworking it into a unique creature for use in one's fantasy campaign. Several monsters contain a "Death" entry indicating the unusual consequences of its being slain, such as the earth and stars mourning the death of the aforementioned angrasinamru or how the gorgosphinx turns into a statue of rock salt capable of petrifying anyone who is so foolish as to consume part of it. It's little touches like these that elevate the monsters in M&T above the usual fare found in monster books. I also note with approval that many of these creatures contain honest-to-goodness save or die effects of the sort that are so out of fashion these days.

The magical treasures described in this product are similarly good, demonstrating a terrific combination of creativity, whimsy, and old school sensibilities. I was particularly taken with the Demon Die of the Mandarin-Lords, an arcane dodecahedron once used by servants of an ancient emperor devoted to Chance and whose rolls determine the justice meted out against those accused of crimes. Naturally, there's a D12 random table that's suitably nasty, since "the Accursed Emperor was fond of chance, but liked to hedge his bets!" Many of the magical treasures exhibit negative qualities in addition to their beneficial ones. There's a price to pay for using them, in keeping with the traditions of pulp fantasy on which D&D was founded. Unsurprisingly, I think very highly of this approach.

If I have a complaint about Monsters & Treasures of the Wilderlands I, it's that there's not yet a volume II. For the price, this is a superb product and I found myself wishing for more monsters and treasures from Mishler's remarkable imagination. I'll admit that I also regret the lack of art, since several of the monsters have bizarre appearances that took me some time to wrap my head around. For some, though, this is a feature, not a bug and I'm sure the lack of art helped keep the price of the product down, so it may be a boon in disguise. I encountered a few small editorial glitches here and there, but nothing worthy of specific note. I wholeheartedly recommend this product and hope to see additional entries in the series before too long.

Final Score: 5 out of 5 polearms

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