Let’s Talk Monsters – Fantasy AGE Bestiary Deep Dive – Opening Observations

Fantasy_Age_BestiaryWelcome to my second series of Monster-themed deep dives. In these posts, my son Xander and I dig down into what’s good and great in the creature compendiums that power fantasy role-playing games. If you want a sense of what we’ll be up to, please have a look at our work on the 5E D&D Monster Manual.

That series took 5 months, and it gave me a chance to hone my chops for this kind of writing, and it gave Xander the opportunity to share a lot of his monster art with the world. When we get underway looking at the FAGE Bestiary monster listings, expect the boy to contribute one piece of original art a week. (And yes, it’s kid art for now, but we all start somewhere… he’s 7, so let’s give him a chance to grow!)

The original plan was to jump into doing Volo’s Guide after the Monster Manual, but Xander was taken with the Bestiary cover, so now we are off and running. I’m delighted to do this, because I believe Fantasy AGE is a really tight “mid-weight” design that could use a lot more attention. I’ve really enjoyed both playing and running it when I’ve had the chance. Before COVID I was putting together a monthly session at my FLGS… that’s not going to happen, but this will.

In the coming weeks I’ll do my best to examine the already well-conceived listings in the FAGE Bestiary. It’s going to be challenging to add value here, because Chris and the gang have done such a good job. I’m up for it though; this isn’t my first rodeo… and I enjoy putting myself into a corner with a tough writing assignment now and then!

Before we dig down into the listings, it’s worth pointing out some general observations about the Bestiary. Having just finished a deep dive into the Monster Manual, I’m 100% dialed in to talk about the thoughtful choices that have been made here.

I suspect that the Green Ronin gang looked at the Monster Manual, perhaps multiple generations of it, and said to themselves, How can we improve on this formula? Now I don’t know any of the design team, and can’t claim any special knowledge, but the careful attention paid here speaks for itself.

Utility

The phrase that pops into my mind when I consider the FAGE Bestiary is, “By gamers for gamers.” The format of the listings is clearly born out the of question, “What would an ideal monster book look like?”

  • It would have a simple, consistent layout. Check.
  • There would adventure hooks, more than one, for each monster. Check.
  • Each listing would have some “color” that shows how people in the world think of the creature. Check.
  • There’d be a legitimate effort towards making monsters modular. Check.
  • It wouldn’t rely on rehashes of creatures from other games. Check.

It’s difficult not to compare the Bestiary to the Monster Manual, especially after coming off my deep dive. What’s readily apparent is the difference in design goals. In a broad sense, the MM is focused on giving you stuff to whup on the battlemap. There’s an effort at backstory and plot hookery, but even my son felt the pull of combat, combat, combat. He imagined our read-through as a fight against each of the monsters. I’m sure at his age, and even older, I would have felt the same way. The Bestiary, on the other hand, centers, quite literally, adventure hook options. Sure, you’ll probably fight this thing at some point, but how do we get there, and even better, why do we need to defeat this thing? Often it’s because people are dying or a community is threatened. Meaty, actionable, at-the-table stuff.

Calling out these hooks is helpful period, but it’s especially useful to the GM in a hurry. Maybe you’re one of the those people that has loads of quarantine time on your hands. (If so, make sure you’re running games for the rest of us!) But I’m busier than ever… so I’m loving the design decision to say, hey, don’t worry, here are three clearly written ways to get these beasts into your game. And it’s really more than that. Each one of the adventure hooks is a launching pad for at least a one-off, if not a whole campaign.

Modularity

Devoting a section to modding monsters is borderline brilliant. The Monster Manual makes a stab or two in this direction, but devoting a section to creature builds and modifications  is great. Why not let GMs, at least, behind the curtain to see how things are put together? I can’t think of a single reason to stick monster construction in a black box in any system. There’s a lot of lip service in the industry about “making the game yours,” but Green Ronin is one of the few publishers that gives you tools to do it.

It’ll be awhile until we work back to the where the Modifying Monsters section lives, but I’m looking forward to digging into it. My sense is people don’t read this “back of the book” material very often, but there’s gold in them thar hills!

Originality

Has this happened to you? You crack open a monster book only to be greeted by page after page of D&D monster clones? This feels especially prominent in a certain kind of OSR product. Yes, I get the joke of “Floating Eye Beast,” but even when I’m playing a game that emulates a certain kind of D&D play experience, I’m hoping the designer has added something genuinely creative.

Of course Fantasy AGE is very much not a D&D clone, or retroclone, or anything of the sort. Still, I’ve seen plenty of fantasy games that attempt to go their own way, but can’t escape the long shadow cast by D&D.

Not so with this Bestiary. I know a monster or two, and except for takes on some of the classics (Basilisk, Minotaur, etc.) there are loads of beasties I’ve never heard of, let alone seen in a creature compendium. The Green Ronin gang has poured over dusty tomes, or done some internet delving, to bring you the freshness. They touch on Inuit, Egyptian, and Welsh mythologies, and that’s just for the letter A!

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That’s it for now. Just a little peak under the hood. Xander and I are well underway in our read through, and his interest in monsters continues unabated. My plan is a to examine a letter’s worth (or two) of creatures a week. I hope you’re curious enough to come along for the ride!

Until then, stay safe, and stay sane…

 

Image Credits: 
All images copyright Green Ronin Publishing

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