Friday, September 7, 2012

Creatures & Treasures: RPG Nostalgia

BATTERED GAMER SYNDROME
I gave some of the best years of my gaming life over to Rolemaster. There was something sexy, compelling, and multi-page-character-sheet enticing about the system. Some said I loved it for the critical charts, but it went deeper than that. Individual charts for each weapon and weapon variation, more spells described purely as a mechanical effect than any other game, exploding skill lists, and bizarre and unbalanced character classes. What wasn’t to love? I even stuck with Rolemaster when it went through its mid-life crisis, growing bored with endless Companion volumes and instead decided on a whole lifestyle makeover. I thought, maybe, just maybe this would be when the system would settle down, and become a more coherent and consistent gaming partner. But within month it returned to old habits, churning out add-ons with rising powers levels and no balancing.

I knew I had enough. I wrapped my last RM campaign and I packed all of the books, print outs, double-copies, and sundry bits into several boxes. Some would be given away, others lost. But I couldn’t quit Rolemaster completely. I kept back one set of little gems- reference books which have remained something I go back to again and again in a crunch: the Creatures & Treasures series.

I have to qualify that statement, though. The C&T series, written for original Rolemaster, covers two things: on the one hand a bestiary and on the other a treasure sourcebook. I rarely look at the former, instead reserving my attention for the latter. Creatures & Treasures arrived in in 1985, one of the first expansions which brought the line together. In the beginning, Rolemaster had been presented more as a set of add-on options for existing fantasy systems- by which they meant AD&D. As more products came out, they started to pull things together as a fully-fledged and complete system. Character Law & Campaign Law cemented that and established a set of standard core imagery and layout. Several years later ICE would further refined that by standardizing the covers. So in some ways, C&T represented more of a core product than something like the Rolemaster Companion. GM’s really needed a copy of this.

PRESENTATION
The book itself is a 96-page, saddle-stapled softcover. The cover art’s nice, but the interior art’s variable. ICE had several habits regarding artwork. First, filling in space lots of tiny bits like swords and heraldry. Second, reusing artwork between books constantly. Third, mixing clip art and commissioned art without rhyme or reason. This book in particular suffers from the 'Dover Art' problem, lots of etchings of real world animals. The dozen+ new images are pretty nice- usually a group shot to illustrate fantastical beasts. These are done by Stephan Peregrine, an ICE regular and one of my favorite fantasy rpg artists. The writing’s decent and clear- but mostly compact. C&T packs in a lot of detail into a small space. In places the tiny font makes it difficult to read.

CREATURES
The bestiary section takes up about 2/3rds of the book- running up through page 63. It begins with several pages detailing the system for presenting beasts and foes. These are given RM stats- with details making it easy to convert these concepts over to other games. The stat line for a monster isn’t particularly long, but that’s because of a large number of abbreviations and symbols. Included are codes for things like environment and temperament. The first section, pages 7-21 covers common beasts and animals: wolves, otters, bees, etc. These are broken down sub-sections by environment. Each sub-section has a master chart and then a brief discussion of the animals. These range from short (three sentences on Koala’s which “…are marsupials which spend most of their time in the trees.”) to several paragraphs long (as in the discussion of the differences between camels, llamas, and alpacas). There's an exhaustive range of animals covered here.

Next Creatures & Treasures surveys the standard monsters, broken down by types (Water Beasts & Serpents; Dragons & Other Fell; Composites; Elementals & Artificials; Entities from Other Planes; The Undead; Flying Monsters; Shapechangers; Prehistoric). These are classic- if you’d commonly expect a particular non-proprietary monster, it's probably here. Some of them are new and interesting like the types of Zephyr Hounds, elemental infused persons known as Shards, Elf-Demons, and some new Undead. After the monsters the book briefly presents “races”- meaning monster types with sub-species and some intelligence/civilization. These includes giants, trolls, underground, fairy, and so on. The bestiary section wraps up with a couple of pages on creating your own monsters, with special attention to poisons. This is one of my favorite “Rolemaster Hang Ups” just about every RM book has detailed rules or an extensive list of poisons and/or herbs. So here you get two full pages on something that’s a limited aspect of some creatures. There’s also a glossary of other mythological creatures not presented in the book, done in what has to be 4pt. type.

TREASURES
We all love the shiny bits. I love treasures- but I also hate tracking money and wealth (per my post here). But when I played RM, I loved it. I loved the micro-managing and the loot. C&T helped sate those desires. It beings with a quick run-down of the treasure types, followed by eight pages of random tables for generating the treasure. But the most interesting and useful material comes in the actual descriptions. They’re like the materials from the old DMG, but even more lightly sketched out. For example we get eighteen different kinds of potions, most of them the old classics, like Potion of Strength. But the actual mechanical effects are pretty much one line or two of the crunch details. This allows them to get more material into place. Everything’s done tightly, just enough to say what the item does and move on.

I like this approach- it’s a smorgasbord and efficient at the same time. As a GM I can use the random table to quickly get treasure or there. Or more often, I skim through until something catches my eye. I’ve then throw that into the game. There are three tables for magic weapons (melee, ranged, and magic swords). Two tables for magic armor, one for spell devices, and one of misc magic items. There are descriptions with follow. Finally there’s also five bags of a grab-bag list of items not on the tables, broken down into modest, potent, most potent, and artifact level for power.

So what do I love about these things? Stuff like...

  • The Blanket of Warming: Yup, jut a blanket that keeps the user warm. 
  • The Crossbow Wand: a wand which gives a spell bonus, but also launches crossbow bolts. 
  • The Glove of Make-Way: Allows the user to gently push aside a crowd as they move through it. 
  • Torch of Maze-Solving: Handle gets warm when in a tunnel or hall which dead-ends within 100’. 
  • And most importantly, The Seal of Silence- which when nailed into a piece of wood, create a zone of silence around that location. The party that got this one ended up attaching a wooden block to the back-pack of the character most like to create a faux pas. Then another PC would wait behind them when they entered into negotiations or discussions, gently applying the seal as necessary.
I love goofy stuff and I love the volume of goofy stuff presented here. I don’t need a history of an item, I don’t need a short story, and I don’t need rules covering every instance of the item’s use. A name and a clever power is enough. As a GM if I can think of something fun to do with an item, then I know my players- collectively ten times smarter than I am- will find many more. Sometimes I throw stuff to them because I can’t immediately think of how you would use something. Invariably, I’m surprised when they do.

OVERALL
I remember in the heyday of d20 picking up a hardcover supplement on magic weapons. It had two pages of flavor text and/or story for each item. In the back of the book you could find the stats for the item which often reduced to “+2 Sword, +4 vs. Ogres.” I really dislike that kind of misplaced attention. I don’t need complex rules or details- throw me a power or a quick description and we’ll run with that. In the past I often bought books with too high a fluff/crunch to utility ratio (GURPS Magic Items, for example). Today it's not hard to find good and reasonably priced material. You can purchase cheap pdfs with 100’s of items- with the hope of finding some gems. Online you can find many more magic item resources, often written generically, including pages which present an item (Sea of Stars' Tuesday Magic Item) . Yet I still find myself going back to C&T because it is fast and easy. Some of that’s comfort and nostalgia, but has a density of cool ideas.

I was going to recommend GM's consider picking up a copy in pdf or cheaply if they spot it on a shelf. The latter holds true- if you spot one in a used bin, grab it. However ICE and Guild Companion Publications has released a new version of Creatures & Treasures…with 227 pages as opposed to the original 96. But looking through: it is pretty much the same as the 96-page book. There are many more pages of rules explanation and expansions, and it has been laid out to expand the page count. But the substance is the same. However, the price for the electronic version of that is $18(!), crazy unless you’re a die-hard RM Classic devotee. Even then, I’m skeptical. Creatures & Treasures II and III are available for much more reasonable prices electronically (though they are a mixed bag). In short, for non-RM fantasy GMs, this is a useful book primarily for the magic items, if you can find a cheap copy.