Tuesday, May 20, 2008

REVIEW: The Random Esoteric Creature Generator

This is a review I've been putting off writing, but not because I wasn't looking forward to it -- quite the opposite. The Random Esoteric Creature Generator for Classic Fantasy Role-Playing Games and Their Modern Simulacra (henceforth RECG) is a very good product, far better, in fact, than one might think given its small size and high-grade amateur presentation. No, the reason I've been putting this off is because I felt a professional obligation to include at least one creature created using this product with my review. Compounding the problem was that I created so many new creatures that choosing a single one as somehow "representative" of the output of the REGC was all but impossible and, in many ways, contrary to the compelling and sound philosophy propounded within its pages. Fortunately, James Edward Raggi IV solved this conundrum for me by posting 10 different sample creatures on his blog. I would recommend anyone who's intrigued by the REGC to follow that link, since it ought to offer another dimension to the review I offer here. The rest of James's blog is worth a look as well.

The RECG is a 28-page booklet roughly the same size as the beloved "little brown books" of OD&D (being slightly wider due to the use of A4 paper rather than 8½ x 11). The booklet is staplebound and very sturdy, again reminding me of OD&D. The pages look to have been laser printed, but the are clear and easy to read. The text itself is small -- perhaps 8 points in size -- and quite dense in some places. As one would expect of a product like this, there are also many tables within the RECG's pages. All were presented in a straightforward and easy to use fashion, with a minimum of page-flipping needed to use them.

Despite its small size, the RECG has quite a lot of art. All of that art, with the exception the slightly disturbing photoshopped cover image is black and white line art by Aino Purhonen that is reminiscent of old school D&D art. This is certainly by intention and I think, by and large, the art nicely evokes the sorts of illustrations we'd have seen back between the years 1974 and 1983 -- the Golden Age of D&D. That said, I like some of the illustrations more than others, particularly the back cover art, which shows a party of four adventurers -- complete with a 10' pole and grappling hook! -- huddling in the dark, as the group's magic-user attempts to decipher some cryptic runes and an unknown menace lurks in the background. It's a remarkably evocative piece, one that rather nicely encapsulates not merely the core experience of D&D, but the core experience of old school D&D. The others are more hit or miss with me, but all are well done for what they are and the purpose for which they were created. (James has written two blog posts in which he discusses the art of the RECG and they're worth a read)

The "meat" of this product is the random esoteric creature generator itself, which takes the form of a series of sequential tables to aid the referee in creating new monsters for use in his adventures and campaigns. Though the product doesn't specifically say this, it's clear the generator is meant to be used with any pre-2e version of D&D. The tables, which remind me of Appendix D of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide -- no coincidence since the author offers "special thanks" to the appendix on his credits page -- usually offer a lot of possible results. This is good, as it means that there's likely to be a great variety to the creatures you can generate. Of course, some might see this as a bad thing, since it also means that the creatures will be random both in their abilities and their appearance. (This all assumes that the probabilities of the tables aren't skewed in some way, which I haven't had a chance to test).

I've written before on the joys of randomness and the RECG embraces that philosophy and runs with it. What people often forget about random tables is that, while they may provide "answers" of a sort, those answers are meaningless without context that only you, the user, can provide. What the RECG does is give you the raw materials from which to create an almost-infinite variety of creatures. Whether the creatures you create from those materials are nonsensical or inspired depends entirely on you. It is not a failing of this product that it, simply on the basis of a series of random rolls, you have no immediate idea how the results of those rolls fit together. Put bluntly: it is not a failing of the RECG that it doesn't do your thinking for you. That's because it's clearly meant to be an aid to the referee rather than a replacement for him. And in that respect, it's solidly within the old school tradition that James Raggi clearly loves so well. The booklet ends with the words, "EGG forever," which pretty well sum up his thoughts on the matter.

Of course, we're given more of James's thoughts than just those. The booklet also includes about five pages of text that are in many ways far more interesting than the random generation tables themselves. Taken together, they represent a kind of manifesto, telling us what the author thinks about fantasy RPGs both past and present and also -- and this is the invaluable thing -- the whys and wherefores of the RECG. Although written in a very un-Gygaxian voice, there's no mistaking the content as anything other than the type of exuberant swords and sorcery fantasy that the Dungeon Master would applaud. There's lots of practical, hands-on advice here that ought to be tattooed on the back of every referee's hands if they're at all interested in keeping their fantasies fun, exciting, and fresh. I won't hesitate to say that I was reminded of a few lessons I sometimes forget and I doubt that I'll be alone in this regard.

If I have any qualms about the RECG it is twofold. The first is the more easily dismissed, since it's a matter of taste. I'm rapidly getting the reputation in the old school community as the guy who hates amateurs. I exaggerate, of course, but it is true that I think high production values are vital to the ultimate success of an old school revival in the offing. The RECG is definitely an amateur product, much as Fight On! is and that's no crime. That said, given the quality of the content within, it'd have been nice if the booklet were more professionally produced. On the other hand, there is a definite charm to way the RECG is presented and many old schoolers will see its production as draws rather than drawbacks.

The second qualm I have is more substantial but, again, hardly damning. I'm honestly not certain how accessible it would be to a newcomer, which is to say, someone who's interested in old school games but has limited experience of them or of the philosophy that animates them. The author's commentary and explication are good first steps toward making the book more accessible. As I said, they contain much wisdom. Nevertheless, I'm not sure that someone unfamiliar with the mysteries of the Old Ways could pick and up and use the RECG with ease. A revised edition of the product ought, in my opinion, to strive to be a bit more "user friendly," but then this is a problem that's not unique to this product but to many RPG products, particularly old school ones.

In the final analysis, the Random Esoteric Creature Generator is an excellent product, a diamond in the rough that I think, with some polish, nicely exemplifies exactly the sorts of products I'd like to see spearhead the old school renaissance. I found my imagination fired by it and my creativity engaged -- what more can you ask for?

Final Score: 4½ out of 5 polearms


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