Saturday, November 22, 2008

REVIEW: The Random Esoteric Creature Generator (Goodman Games Edition)

It's a strange thing to be in the position to review the same book twice, but that's exactly the position that James Raggi's The Random Esoteric Creature Generator puts me in. I reviewed the original, self-published version of this terrific little product back in May. Since then, Goodman Games has opted to publish its own version of the book, as part of its line of system-neutral products intended for use with an edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Goodman is clearly hedging its bets on the question of supporting 4e with this line and I can't say I blame them. The terms of the GSL as they stand today simply aren't a solid basis for a long-term business plan. And, as I've noted many times in this blog, there is a sizable minority of the buying public for whom 4e was a bridge too far, the final straw that has sent them looking around for alternatives.

Whether that minority will itself prove a sturdier basis for a business plan is likewise in question, which is why I expect Goodman Games, one of the great success stories of the 3e/D20 era. sees system-less offerings like this one as an experiment. If publishing books like The Random Esoteric Creature Generator (henceforth RECG) is a good example of the kinds of experiments in which Goodman Games intends to engage, I am a very happy man. Like the inspired Points of Light before it, the RECG is a terrific example of old school design principles offered up for the consideration of contemporary gamers who probably have no idea to what "Appendix D" refers or why it's important -- nor should they. Much as I love the history of this hobby and its details and much as I consider knowledge of such things important, ultimately, they're immaterial to the health of the hobby in its traditional form. What does matter is that concepts and spirit of the old school continue to animate a new generation of designers and gamers. If the RECG is any indication, we need not worry that the Old Ways have been forgotten.

The text of Goodman's version of this book is virtually identical to that of the self-published version I previously reviewed. There are changes here and there, but they're small and hardly worth discussing. In essentials, everything I wrote back in May applies to this new edition. I still very much like the RECG and believe it to be a superb aid to the referee looking to add spice to his ongoing campaign. Indeed, I have to give a great deal of credit to Goodman Games for putting James Raggi's unique voice before the public eye. Too many gaming products today are written in a bland, technical manual-esque style that makes one question whether they were written by human beings at all. The RECG, especially in its final pages -- entitled "Putting It All Together" -- is a quirky, eccentric work, filled with equal parts whimsy and insight. I don't agree with every iota of its advice, but that's frankly a good thing. Like the best old school products, this one demands that one engage its text by re-considering one's prejudices and presumptions. Even if one decides that Raggi's perspective is somehow flawed on this or that issue, one can't help but be gratified that a gaming product published in 2008 made one think about such matters. Goodman must really be congratulated on this score.

Where the new edition of the RECG differs from its predecessor is in its graphic design and presentation. While the original was a digest-sized 28-page booklet filled with the artwork of a single artist, Goodman's version is a typical 8½ x 11 volume with a softcover and illustrated by several different artists. The differences here are quite striking and I must admit that I find it hard to choose which approach I prefer, because Goodman did an excellent job in finding a new "look" for this product that is appropriate to its content. I've often been critical of Goodman's 3e Dungeon Crawl Classics modules, because I felt they aped the look of the old TSR D&D modules to the point of parody. The RECG, though, gets its own unique appearance, its cover looking a bit like a worn leather notebook in the center of which is a color illustration by Doug Kovacs showing an armored fighter engaged in battle against a wormy creature that's trampling a hapless wizard beneath it. The majority of the interior art -- black and white, of course -- is by Brad McDevitt and is quite well done. McDevitt's pictures showcase a wide variety of bizarre creatures, highlighting the freaks and oddities the RECG is designed to create. Other pieces of artwork were done by David Griffith and William McAusland, the latter particularly standing out for a series of illustrations that recall work by Dave Sutherland from the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide.

All in all, I like the presentation of the RECG, but I will admit that some of the charm of the original self-published version, rough though it was, has been lost. On the other hand, I think the new style is better suited to what contemporary gamers expect out of a gaming product. Given that this new style harkens back to the past without being a slave to it, I cannot complain too much, if at all. More to the point, if the new presentation is effective in attracting those who might otherwise be turned off by the more do-it-yourself look of other old school products, it was worth it to have made the change.

The Goodman Games edition of The Random Esoteric Creature Generator is every bit as good as the original version and benefits slightly from having had an independent editor and developer. The result is a product that is probably more accessible to newcomers, while still retaining the unique voice of the original. I am encouraged by its publication, because it means that the old school revival is being noticed by the mainstream of the hobby and, more importantly, is being presented on its own terms rather than bent and twisted to serve some other agenda. I will definitely be keeping my eye on future releases from Goodman in its system-less line. If future ones are as good as the RECG and Points of Light, I will be pleased. I'll be even more pleased if other publishers take note of what Goodman has done here and follow suit. This could signal the start of something big.

Final Score:
4½ out of 5 polearms


  1. $13 is more than I'm willing to pay for 32 pages. Maybe 1/2 that for a pdf....

  2. I typically agree that glossy RPG products are too pricy. The Random Esoteric Creature Generator is an exception.

    A few days ago I accidentally left my copy (which is the earlier publication self-published by James) at the post office, and I lamented that I would never see it again. Fortunately, it was still there. But I intended on ponying up the $13 to buy a replacement copy. It's that good.

    If you've ever looked at the Fiend Folio and thought, "Man, these monsters aren't weird enough," then the Random Esoteric Creature Generator is for you. It has essentially and infinite number of weird monsters in its pages.

    Also, consider that in 1980 a typical 32-page TSR module cost $6. The $12.99 price tag in today's dollars would be $5.23 in 1980's dollars. :)

  3. Unfortunately I'm not shopping in the 1980's, so I'm comparing it to things like $10 for Savage Worlds:Explorer's Edition at 159 pages, $16 for 133 pages of Labyrinth Lord, or a $2.20 PDF of 56 pages of Judges Guild charts. I certainly don't want to discourage anyone from buying it, just observing that it's pretty far out of the sweet spot for me personally.

  4. I think the idea here is that the content is worth the price. If you're interested in buying 'per page' then you're not really considering what the book provides and its potential in your games. And I personally would rather spend money with an independent publisher like Goodman.

    In any case, James, I bought Paizo's Classic Monsters Revisited based on your review and I was not at all disappointed....

    ....and it was only 63 pages. ;)

  5. I agree that the price is a bit high, given its length, but I'm used to such prices nowadays, particularly for niche products like this one.

  6. In the end, I couldn't resist picking it up, and my verdict is that I like it, with reservations. I even posted my own review of it over at Tales of the Rambling Bumblers.

  7. There has never been a better method for manufacturing the denizens of the lower planes.