Monsters just don’t seem as monstrous as they used to, in RPGs. While there are a lot of plausible explanations for why this is (or rather, why it feels that way) I think the main reason is that a byproduct of the growing success of role-playing games – as well as general information tools – has quantified monsters to the point where they’re all just obstacles rather than creatures now. Admittedly, there are a lot of monster books out there, but the ones used most often are also the ones the players are most likely familiar with. When players know exactly what they’re up against, they just evaluate the challenges as little more than a cost-benefit analysis of how their characters will do in a fight. In other words, familiar enemies aren’t ones that cause fear, or excitement. This is the problem that the Random Esoteric Creature Generator for Classic Fantasy Role-Playing Games and their Modern Simulacra aims to fix (along with going for the award for Longest Name in an RPG Supplement).
Before we go into the belly of this beast, let’s go over its particulars. This book is just under three dozen pages long, including the covers. Full bookmarks are present, allowing easy navigation around the PDF. Somewhat surprisingly, there’s actually quite a bit of artistic presentation here. All of the pages are grey, rather than white, and there are quite a few interior illustrations. While I usually don’t mention the artwork that much, I really have to sing the praises of the illustrators here, they (Brad McDevitt in particular) drew a number of black and white pictures that excellently portray some of truly hideous, twisted freaks of nature that can be created with the tables found in this book.
Before going further, it’s important to understand that this book is clearly aimed at being used with D&D. In fact, it’s forthright about this, saying so right in the introduction (though it does the usual tap-dance around using proper names). While this book could easily be used for any game system in particular, it drops references to things such as Hit Dice or AC that are clear indications of where this will be best put to use. On that note, however, the book really is edition-neutral. There’s never enough specificity here to clearly say that it’s meant more for one edition than another.
After the author’s introduction, he walks us through some of the basics regarding creating monsters. That is, he presents some basic aspects of a creature (e.g. Alignment, Experience, Morale, etc.) and tells us what general guidelines we should use when determining these, after rolling on the appropriate tables, for whatever version of D&D we play. It’s after this that we get the actual tables for building a creature. A grand total of ten tables are present, varying wildly in what they present (a few results have sub-tables, but these are rare). Some table results have mechanical effects, others don’t, but the possibilities here are as imaginative as they are diverse. While I suppose one could multiply all the possible table results to determine exactly how many possibilities there are here, it’s reasonable to say that you’ll always make monsters that are incredibly different every time you use these tables. Even non-physical factors have tables for them, such as the creature’s combat strategy and motivation.
Unexpectedly, the book doesn’t end when the tables do. There’s a five-page section after this called Putting it All Together which is, hands down, some of the best advice a Game Master will ever get regarding how to use monsters in the game. Breaking it down into sub-sections, the author presents wisdom and tips that may not be new, but are still incredibly valuable to read and remember. From little things like not telling the players the name of the creature they’re facing, to major epiphanies like using any given monster only once over the course of an entire campaign, all of the advice here is solid gold that any good Game Master should read before starting a game. Combined with the diverse tables and the advice for filling in the blanks beforehand, this book might be the best supplement a GM ever reads, no matter which edition of D&D he plays.
The greatest strength of the Random Esoteric Creature Generator is that it makes monster creation be an exercise in design philosophy, rather than balancing mechanics. By providing just enough mechanical and narrative framework so that the generated results form a clear picture of what monster you’re making, without getting tied down in the minutia of making things exhaustively detailed and “balanced,” this book makes creating monsters an exercise of imagination – in other words, making new creatures is both easy and fun to do! It’s because of that that the Random Esoteric Creature Generator is inspirational, evocative, and truly impressive for how it puts the magic back into monsters for your game. I really can’t recommend it enough.
[5 of 5 Stars!]