The Random Esoteric Creature Generator for Classic Fantasy Role-Playing Games and Their Modern Simul
Rating: A+ Length: 66 page PDF
This is clearly a different sort of book than what I usually review. However, it's also a fantastic resource, so I felt like it was well past time for me to put up a post about it (also, I wanted to break the streak of nothing but workout recaps, and I haven't quite finished tweaking the recipes I have lined up to post soon).
James Edward Raggi IV is one of the most famous names in the OSR (old school renaissance/revolution/revival/too many other variants). He's the creator of Lamentations of the Flame Princess (both the game and the publishing company), he's the writer of a number of adventures that tend to have a "deathtrap dungeon"-style (e.g. Death Frost Doom and Hammers of the God), and he puts out Free RPG Day products that go beyond just being pared-down quick-start rules or a simple adventure.
This particular product is different from all of those in that it has nothing to do directly with Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Instead, it's a collection of guidelines and random tables for creating unique creatures for your old school D&D-type game of choice. Now, this can be of particular use if you are running a Lamentations game since that system has no bestiary, but aside from a minor hiccup about movement speeds (where no baseline is defined explicitly but I believe it assumes 30' for normal unencumbered human speed), everything is presented in a very generic way that makes it easy to adapt the particulars.
Now, the book does start in a slightly annoying way by having four introductions: one for the current (10th anniversary) edition, followed by reprints of the original one, Raggi's write-up for the Goodman Games-published edition, and the introduction that Goodman Games actually printed. On a first read, it's a little interesting to see the differences, but it becomes extra page space to skip past pretty quickly. I don't mind their inclusion (as I said, it was interesting to see the differences), but I think the extra introductions would've been better off placed at the end to go with the artwork from the old editions.
Once that's out of the way, though, what follows is 38 pages of guidelines and tables for making creatures, all the way from picking their basic shape and physical characteristics to adding special abilities (including a simple guideline for determining how many abilities a creature may have) and coming up with simple tactical plans and motivations for conflict. This is all pretty much solid gold from start to finish. Aside from tweaking the insect-type general entries to include mosquitoes, roaches, pill bugs, and centipedes and putting a hold attack into the special abilities table (despite being referenced in a few places, the only ways to actually end up with that is to have a larger-than-Large creature with a prehensile tongue or to have the "tentacles" distinctive feature), I don't think I would change anything about them.
The balance between entries that are mostly just flavor (like the general type lists or many of the distinctive features), entries that are purely mechanical (like several of the special abilities), and entries that mix both (like the basic body shapes) is great. In the vast majority of my attempts at using it, I end up with enough flavor to have a strong idea of how to fit the result into a game so that I can develop the rest from there AND I have all of the mechanics at hand, too. Most of the (admittedly free) random creature generators I've seen lean almost entirely to one side or the other. This is the only one I've found that gives enough information on both sides to actually feel like I'm ending up with a complete creature that I can actually use. It feels like something Raggi used for himself several times to end up with such polished tables that deliver on both fronts.
And really, it may just be blind luck, but it feels like there have been so many cases where I've decided to run through this just to fill in a bit of spare time and ended up with something that feels perfect for what I wanted to fill a role or to built an adventure around. I think a lot of that comes from the bits of flavor being enough to provide suggestions for creative development without going so far as to impose themselves as an ironclad constraint (...perhaps except for the "mechanical features" distinctive feature, which I'll admit to just treating as a weaker version of "metal-like features" because I hate the clockwork/steampunk aesthetic).
Following all of that, Raggi gives advice on filling in the gaps to prepare the resulting creatures for use in play, including suggestions to help the creatures feel wondrous and different. I don't agree entirely with what he says here, but then, I like some elements of faerie tales and even the occasional dash of gonzo high fantasy in my games. All in all, though, it is mostly good advice.
If you're running any sort of D&D-type game that could use some fantastical creatures, this is a must-have. I've seen a lot of people talk up Vornheim as a key resource for any GM, but honestly, I think that's only the case if you want to run urban or political adventures. The Random Esoteric Creature Generator is useful for those and for any others, too. It's an absolute gem.
Rating: A+ Length: 66 page PDF