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Reviews - Monsternomicon
 
by Demian Katz


Monsternomicon cover Monsternomicon Volume 1: Denizens of the Iron Kingdoms
Published by Privateer Press
Written by Rob Baxter, Colin Chapman, Andrew Flynn, Brett Huffman, J. Michael Kilmartin, Joseph Miller, Doug Seacat, Matt Staroscik, Jon Thompson, and Matt Wilson
Art by Brian Snoddy and Matt Wilson
240 b & w pages
$29.95

I love monsters. All too much of my childhood was spent digging through dusty copies of Dragon at the local library in search of new beasties, and I still can't resist a good (or, for that matter, bad) monster movie. I'm also growing to love Privateer Press and their high-fantasy/steampunk Iron Kingdoms setting, as evidenced by my recent review of the wonderful adventure module, The Longest Night. For both of these reasons, I was overjoyed to have an opportunity to review the Monsternomicon, a hard-bound volume devoted to the creatures of the Iron Kingdoms.

As with many hardback D20 releases, the book is designed to look somewhat like an ancient tome, albeit an ancient tome with a big scary zombie bursting from its cover. This cover features lots of bolts and hinges beneath its text and logos, and on the inside, a light background of stains and tatters is printed behind everything. The book doesn't follow exactly the same format as Wizards of the Coast's Core Rulebooks, but it's close enough to look nice alongside them on your gaming table, and unlike some competing products, the book manages not to render its text unreadable with its decorations. The layout is accompanied by lots of gritty illustrations by Brian Snoddy and Matt Wilson, and while few of the monsters portrayed are especially stunning or innovative in design, they're all skillfully drawn and dynamically posed.

As expected, the majority of the book is devoted to monsters, and close to a hundred beasts are detailed. Each monster gets at least a two-page spread, with more space devoted to some. The entries follow the same basic format as the Monster Manual with several notable enhancements. At the top of each entry, a silhoutte drawing shows a size comparison between the beast in question and an average human. In place of dry descriptions, each entry is introduced with an anecdote by Professor Viktor Pendrake, Adventuring Scholar. After the combat tactics, most entries also feature a "Legends & Lore" section offering tidbits of knowledge categorized as Common, Uncommon, Rare and Obscure and either one or two adventure hooks designed to introduce player characters to the monster.

I really like this layout, but I think Privateer Press made a mistake by failing to include an introduction explaining it. The book goes straight from the table of contents into the first entry, and it leaves the reader a little uncertain of how to deal with some of the information. I didn't notice the size-comparison silhouettes until I was almost a third of the way through the book, and the rules and background explaining the "Legends & Lore" system and the history of Viktor Pendrake would have served the reader better as prefaces than as appendices. All but the most unobservant readers will eventually figure out how everything fits together, but some guideposts would have been nice from the start.

The content of the book is of almost uniformly high quality, though I confess that I was a little disappointed nonetheless. The Longest Night was such a tremendous success that I had extraordinarily high expectations of this product, and while it is strong, it doesn't stand out as much as it might have. The monsters are interesting and well-thought-out, sometimes also effectively comical or mildly disturbing, but none of them stray far from previously established formulas. The Pendrake anecdotes and adventure hooks are nice touches, but only a few of them struck me as being truly inspired. Although I was occasionally engaged or amused by these features, I found myself getting tired of hearing about exactly how Pendrake's latest scholarly assistant was slaughtered or finding hooks that basically amounted to "the monster has something valuable/is killing people, so you must find and defeat it." Don't get me wrong; it's almost all good stuff. I just had hoped to be stunned by some of its originality, and that never happened.

Despite the fact that it didn't utterly astound me, the Monsternomicon is good at what it does. Its pages consist of a good mix of undead abominations, technological constructs only found in the Iron Kingdoms setting, playable races, dangerous animals, unique figures of legend, and reinventions of familiar beasts like trolls and dragons. All challenge levels are covered, from the fragile and unwittingly dangerous Moonwing moths all the way up to some nearly godlike dragons with Challenge Ratings in excess of 50. There's a fairly decent amount of material that is of general use to almost any DM, though large chunks of the book, notably the mechanical creatures and new races, are best ignored by a DM running a campaign outside of the Iron Kingdoms.

The book's Iron Kingdoms emphasis is further established by frequent references to specific bits of geography (making me wish that the setting's worldbook would come out soon!), and it even features some appearances by familiar characters and creatures (and, I should warn, spoilers) from The Longest Night and the rest of the Witchfire Trilogy. Speaking of the trilogy, I was rather surprised that only a handful of the new monsters introduced in those adventures are reproduced here. It's nice that Privateer Press concentrated on filling this volume almost exclusively with new material, but this means you won't be able to put the adventures away after you're done running them since you'll still probably want to look up Swamp Shamblers and the like from time to time. I suppose this should come as no surprise -- one shouldn't expect absolute comprehensiveness from a book clearly marked "volume one."

Though most of the book seems error-free, there are a couple of serious problems. The worst flaws are, for some reason, found in the section on dragons. There are some places where it looks like somebody forgot to fill in statistics (a table on page 53, for example, contains some underscores where numbers should be), and some of the descriptions seem to have gotten jumbled together - a description of a fire-breathing dragon mentions that the beast is sometimes known as the Frost Mother, which simply makes no sense. Of course, your players might be grateful that some of the dragon material is currently unusable - these beasts are so powerful that it's probably safest to keep them the stuff of rumors and legends until your campaign reaches a very high level indeed. Hopefully by that time, some errata will have been released.

As I previously mentioned, the book's monsters are supplemented by material contained in several appendices. Some of this material should probably have been front matter, but most is located in the appropriate place. There are some nice rules and items designed to make library research almost as valuable to the Iron Kingdoms hero as it is to the Call of Cthulhu investigator. There's a useful assortment of "Quickplates," monster templates like "Alpha Hunter" and "Deep Dweller" that can be applied quickly and easily to bump Challenge Ratings up a notch or two. These are followed by some well-designed new Prestige Classes: the Adventuring Scholar, the Bone Grinder and the Monster Hunter. These were actually among the highlights of the book for me, and I've already started playing with an Adventuring Scholar character -- great fun! The last few pages of the book contain a discussion of the cosmology of the Iron Kingdoms and a list of playable races. While these materials are somewhat appropriate to this volume, they seem like they might have fit better into the still-unreleased worldbook, and I would happily have sacrificed them in order to get the one thing this book seriously lacks: a set of encounter tables showing where these new monsters can be found and possibly giving some hints as to which traditional Monster Manual monsters are appropriate for use in the Iron Kingdoms.

Ultimately, the value of this book depends on what you plan to use it for. If you're running a general fantasy campaign, it may be of some interest to you, especially if you're after the rules and classes in its appendices; however, its usefulness will be limited by the fact that many of its monsters aren't as interesting in isolation, and by the large quantities of Iron Kingdoms-specific material. If, on the other hand, you're running (or thinking of running) an Iron Kingdoms campaign, it's almost essential reading. While many of its creatures aren't too original, they are all, as I've said, solidly designed, and they'll serve as a good basic assortment of beasts to give the Iron Kingdoms a unique flavor and to provide some surprises for players who have memorized the standard Monster Manual. Reading this book is also a valuable experience for an Iron Kingdoms DM, since Pendrake's stories, despite sometimes being repetitive, help give a sense of the world and its inhabitants. Pendrake himself may also make a useful NPC from time to time, and his complete statistics are provided for this purpose.

I can't help feeling that in some departments, the editors and publishers could have done a better job here. Still, though it may not be as perfect as I had hoped, it's a solid contribution to the line of D20 monster books currently on the market and an important part of one of the most promising new campaign settings around. This isn't for everyone, but those who need it will value it highly.


 

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