Friday, September 14, 2012

Creatures & Treasures II: More RPG Nostalgia

WHEN INSPIRATION RUNS OUT, GO WEIRD
In most fantasy games, once we’ve worked through the classic monsters from legends, myths, and ransacked book series, we get to beasts of…less certain pedigree. In some cases, we get weirdness that works and has a distinct feel to it. When the Fiend Folio came out, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. But the entries had detail and richness to them- the Githyanki and Githzeri for example felt developed right out of the box. Most of those creatures had been drawn from British sensibilities- under the editorial guidance of Games Workshop. Runequest’s Glorantha is another fantasy setting with truly bizarre creatures. Take for example the Gloranthan Bestiary, which contains the appropriately nightmarish illustrations of J. Kevin Ramos. That setting has some of the craziest monsters- from the krashtkids to the waktapus to the morocanth. But somehow it works- there’s a sense of those creatures’ role and place in the ecology. They work in the larger context of the game. You could offer an essay (as Dragon Magazine did for many years) on how they fit into the ecosystem. But often companies run out of those kinds of ideas and they just start mashing things together.

“It’s a part donkey, part baatezu, with claws made of black-star amber forged in Odin’s back pocket and it can’t be seen except by color-blind orphans.”

You know what I’m talking about- the point at which you realize the authors either just had to fill out their page count or were playing in the most over-the-top and bats**t game possible.

Welcome to Creatures & Treasures II.

THE BOOK ITSELF
Creatures & Treasures is a series of supplements for classic Rolemaster. For more on the series generally, you can check my review of the first volume here-Creatures & Treasures: RPG Nostalgia. This second outing follows the general format of the first. The book’s now a perfectbound 96-page softcover, the new standard for ICE books at the time. Steve Hickman’s cover is pretty awesome and I think unique to the book. Some of the later Rolemaster Companions recycled art from fantasy paperbacks. Sadly the interior art’s not up to those standards. I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a fan of James Holloway’s work. I think he hits the right notes for some products, especially Paranoia. But here it looks blocky and weird. Only a few of the images have any power and some (like the constructs) look like something from grade school. That may be a question of the inking or reproduction. I saw the original art for my late friend Barry’s illustrations for GURPS Religion. They looked awesome- but someone at SJ Games inked them in a rush and lost all the detail, making them look like weird Dan Smith knock-offs. So not all art problems can be blamed on the artist. The page layout for the book follows ICE’s standard dense but readable pattern. There’s some overuse of italics in the monster descriptions- making info which ought to be highly legible unclear instead. There’s an abundance of typos. Monte Cook’s listed as the lead designer on the book, which came out the year before his Dark Space campaign setting for RM. Some of the material here preludes those concepts.
CREATURES
The first two-thirds of C&T II cover monsters, beginning with the same eight pages of information covering codes, climates, experience points and so on. Nine sections follow, each with a theme: Animals (9-11); Dragons and Fell Creatures (12-14); Composite Monsters (15-19); Elementals and Artificial Beings (20-24); Entities from Other Planes (25-35); The Undead (36-42); Entities from Deep Space (43-48); Dangerous Plants (49); and Races (50-55). Discussions of poisons and how to create your own monsters round out the material, repeating some of the info from C&T I. Each monster section has a table providing the base combat stats of the monsters, a description text section with special abilities, plus notes on appearance and nature.

The monsters lean heavily to the crazy, weird, and wtf. That’s not to say there aren’t some cool and fun monsters presented, but the other stuff leaves the most lasting impression. My three favorite monsters:

  • Sky Manta: Yes we’ve seen these in other fantasy fiction (perhaps on Thundarr the Barbarian?). But I still love the idea of a silent, gliding pack of these descending on an adventuring party. 
  • Monastic Lich: Because I have a hard time imagining anything funnier than the Lich King suddenly leaping up and putting a boot to the head of the Paladin. Yes, it is a martial artist Lich. 
  • Minotaur Construct: I too saw Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. Golem minotaurs are cool. 
On the other hand, here are some of the things which cause facepalm. Many names throughout are uninspired (Feliss, Solaar, Frzzzzm, Natharl’nacna, Quishad).
  • Trivern: It is a normal-sized bird, but with a third wing. It uses that extra wing on its back to stabilize itself. I…I don’t think birds work like that. I’m also trying to picture throwing that into a game. “You see a bird, but it has a third wing upon its back…” “Is it magic?” “No, just a bird, but you know this place is fantastic because of the third wing!” “It could just be radioactive here…”
  • Tracha: A giant beetle! Yikes! With bat wings! Holy Cow! And a pair of human arms! I’m sorry, what did you say?
  • Ni’hashbin Warrior: It’s a kind of lizardman looking warrior- but with snakes as arms! Which it uses to bear polearms and weapons. Which the snake jaws grip instead of hands.
TREASURES
Running from pages 60-95, the treasure section is what I come to this book for. As with Creatures & Treasures I, you get a miscellany of fantastic and varied ideas, ranging from the mundane to the divine. After some general discussion of how to put together a loot horde, the book sets you loose with nine different treasure tables: Potions, Runes, Weapons, Armor, Shield, Modest Item, Potent Item, Most Potent Item, Artifact. After each table comes a brief description of the item’s effects. Again, the description is brief- just enough to spark items and lay out the essential mechanics. None of these items duplicate C&T I. I love that the GM first rolls 1d10 to see what the item type is- meaning there’s an equal chance of getting a modest item as an artifact. If you roll a 10, the GM picks the table or rolls again twice. I do like the breakdown of items by power- and it is worth noting that armor, weapons and such appear on the ranked item tables.

So what are some of my favorites? These are a few I’ve used in my games, and each one generated amazing stories and scenes (which I’ll spare you).

  • Imbedding Spike: Will imbed itself into any stone or softer material without the need for pounding. 
  • Indestructible Boots: Heavy boots which cannot wear out, be penetrated, and protect the user from heat (like walking on lava). 
  • Gloves of Storing: Will shrink down and conceal any single object the bearer can hold in one had. This can be retrieved with the flick of a wrist. 
  • Hoop Gates: Small metal circles. Anything passed through one will come out the other. 
  • Nemesis Amulet: When put on, it instantly creates a duplicate of the wearer of opposite alignment and temperament, with the desire to eliminate the wearer. 
This last one the players unleashed in the midst of a massive battle. I’d forgotten about the item, but they dropped it on the Grand Thanatologist, Executioner of the Elemental Lords. The two of them went at it, locked in a tomb fighting each other until another group of adventurers stumbled on them two campaigns and ten years later.
OVERALL
Wow, the monsters in this thing are goofy. But the treasure section almost makes up for it. Unlike Creatures & Treasures I, you can buy a pdf of this book for a reasonable price. If you’re looking for a quick list of fun and interesting magic items you can port over to your fantasy campaign, you could do worse.