Friday, September 21, 2012

Creatures & Treasures III: The Limits of RPG Nostalgia

THE TRILOGY CONCLUDES 
 I’ve mentioned how useful I’ve found the Creatures & Treasures books over the years (my review of C&T I, C&T II). Maybe not for monsters, but definitely for magic items. I like the rapid fire approach the books take- brief ideas with just enough of  concept that I can run with it. OOH, sometimes minimal can be too minimal. For example, I’ve  disliked the way Rolemaster and other games have described traps in purely mechanical terms: Poison Needle, Lv, RR, etc without any color. On the other hand, there’s the opposite extreme of Grimtooth’s Traps, which actually loses for me because the lethality. But faced with cool concept without elaboration vs. thick description, I’ll lean toward the former.

Which is what makes me so frustrated with Creatures & Treasures III, and the new direction it takes.

PRESENTATION
Creatures & Treasures III is the longest of the C&T books, coming in at 142 pages, as opposed to the 96 of the first two volumes. Part of that comes from the slightly looser text design. More of it comes from the increased word count for any individual item or monster. Some might call it padding. The bulk of that comes from the comprehensive tables- random generation tables and indexes covering all of the monsters and magic items which have appeared in previous C&T volumes as well as those from the Companion series. That takes up the last third of the book. The art’s a mixed bag, ranging from bad to mediocre. The writing varies- some of the descriptions are decent, concise, and interesting. More often they feel like filler- with irritating and unnecessary color text.

CREATURES
After an editor’s introduction in which they explain that Creatures & Treasures III assumes buyers own one of the previous C&T volumes, it then provides the same set of six pages of explanatory text and codes as found in both of those books. The book breaks the monsters on offer into several groups: Animals (10-15); Dragons & Fell Creatures (16-19); Composite Monsters (20-30); Elementals & Artificial Beings (31-36); Entities from Other Plans (36-39); Undead (40-54!); and Races (55-59). Previous volumes started each section with a quick reference table, offering the stats for the creatures in one place. Then descriptions and other notes followed.

C&T III forgoes that. Stats appear in a block with each creature, in a move that looks like a means of filling out space. I preferred the table as it made it easy to check what was in the section and judge the relative strength of foes quickly. The descriptions for the monsters here have been significantly enlarged from previous volumes- with a great deal more color text. The new ‘Combat’ notes are useful- but generally I preferred the earlier approach. There are few illustrations here, so you get a wall of text and lots of material about uninteresting beasts. Give me more ideas, with sketched details and let me fill things in. That was the strength of the earlier books.

C&T III also comes out after the crazily overpowered Elemental Companion. A number of the beasts here use those concepts. New elemental Dragon types show up; including the “Clay Drake.” I’m still not sure why it is called that- it is made of mud? The description doesn’t suggest that. Elemental Golems for all of the different new elements in the EC appear - each with their own entry rather than a collected/composite approach. The vast majority of the Undead section comes from detailing undead “Spirit Elementals” one for each of the twenty-four types. Somehow each of those merits about half a page.

What do I like? Well at first I was taken with the idea of a giant flying Man-o-War, thinking about how that would be an interesting challenge to fight. Then I read the text description which said they reach a radius of 400 feet and can be 900 tall, with 500 feet of tentacles.

Really? That’s what you want to dial up to eleven? Why not a more modest and less Godzilla approach? (For the record, the 1991 Godzilla is 100m tall). PLUS this insanely massive beast is only level 15 in Rolemaster, relatively modest in a system which has spells up to level 50.

TREASURES
The usual RM section on herbs follows- with each herb meriting a quarter page. In the past we’ve gotten crazy healing herbs grown from demons blood. This time we get cardamom, elderberry, and dandelions. Six pages of fennel and the like. Seriously. Then there’s one page of “Artisan Constructs”- magic items with a sales pitch. Why are these here and not in the magic items section which follows? One of the items presented is: a clock. Well, clocks in general. Two paragraphs to say that.

The actual magic item section which follows, my favorite part from the previous volumes, takes the same approach as the monster section. No quick reference table, overly wordy descriptions for the items. Fewer items but more stats, rules, and stories about the items. These come in the usual classes Potions; Weapons; Armor; Shields; Modest Items; Potent Items; Most Potent Items; and Artifacts. The new addition is Rune Stones. These are token stones with modest powers- Barber, Clean, and Groom stones for example. Each one could have been described in just a sentence or two, as the earlier books did. Instead each gets a paragraph or more. That pattern follows all the way through this section- items which could have been done in a couple of lines get multiple paragraphs. There’s frequent game fiction to illustrate an item. In contrast to the open-ended minimalism of the earlier volumes this book wants to dwell on the ideas and give you all the details. It isn’t that there aren’t cool things here- but you have to work harder to get through the text to find those. That’s a disservice to the players and GM- assuming they need all of those details.

On the other hand, if you disliked the minimalism of C&T I and II, then this may be up your alley.

TABLES
The last third of the book is taken up with tables and charts. Pages 101 through 106 offer consolidated random treasure tables for everything from all of the Companions and C&T series. That’s tied to the end index (136-142) which lists the book and page the items actual appears in. Even more extensive are the composite random encounter tables broken down by environment type and covered all the creatures across all of the books. These run from page 106 to 128. Next there’s two pages of the creature stats tables- just for those from this book. So instead of putting them close to their section, they put them all here. Finally there’s also a comprehensive index of Rolemaster monsters from 131 to 135.

Hey, if you didn’t like tables you wouldn’t be playing RM, amirite?

OVERALL
This book makes many design choices I don’t like. There’s some cool stuff here- more than a few inspired magic items, but I rarely go to Creatures & Treasures III because of the high fluff to idea ratio. I check out the first two volumes and reluctantly come here if nothing catches my eye. The comprehensive tables at the end, a full third of the book, feel like a waste of space for me. I don’t use those when I run, and it reminds me how far I am away from that style of game. Not that there’s anything bad with it- but even for those who do run those randomized or hexcrawl campaigns, it seems like overkill. Especially because the monsters on those charts aren't divided by level or threat. Hey, first session, you're walking along the beach and *BOOM* a level 15, 900-foot-tall flying Man-o-War attacks.

So, yeah, that's fun.