The Short Version:
This book has more in common with a yearbook than a game manual. It is an archive of brief responses to a creative writing exercise on social media. These responses are of varying quality resulting in no clear vision or theme. The result can be summarized as novelty for the sake of novelty.
It’s title is vastly misleading given that the entire subject of ecosystems is limited to twelve pages at the back of the book – some of which is wasted on biome definitions better suited for an elementary school classroom.
While a yearbook can bring fond memories to the graduates, it has little meaning to the general public. The fact that the “public” release has entire monsters removed is the final nail on the coffin which makes me believe this book should never have been published in it’s current format.
See my far more positive review of On Downtime and Demesnes here: (LINK)
- The Physical Book
- The Monster Inhabitants
- How To Use This Book
- The Line Between Provocative and Distasteful
- The Bestial Ecosystems
- Final Thought
The Physical Book
My ~190 page hardcover copy was purchased from drivethrurpg.com for $20 as part of a bundle. It’s standard price is currently listed as $35 making it the most expensive book of the trilogy. I can only assume the price is inflated by the number of contributors.
To make a point of comparison On Downtime and Demesnes (another book in this trilogy) clocks in at ~250 pages with a $20 standard price tag.
The book is sturdy and has a satisfying weight for it’s small size. Like most cheaper indie releases it has a glue binding. However I noticed the text on the back cover was blurry to such a degree I checked to see if my glasses were dirty. Upon closer inspection it became apparent the entire cover suffered from low-resolution image compression, the type typically associated with the Jpeg format.
This is particularly odd given that both “On Downtime and Demesnes” and “Artifices Deceptions and Dilemmas” have an exceptionally smooth and crisp image quality with no noticeable pixelation. I can only guess that a preview image was accidentally used in the printing of the book – a thought further compounded by an obvious error in the text I will mention shortly.
The book contains quite a few black and white images drawn by five artists including Courtney Campbell. It is obvious that each artists has their own style, and different personalities seem to shine through the aesthetic.
What stands out to me more than the monster illustrations are the initial letters decorating the name of each monster. The “D” in Djinn for example is drawn to resemble a magic lamp. Likewise the “H” in Hydra has several decorative heads curving outward. This loving attention to detail really stands out to me, and I commend the work that was put into this detail.
The Monster Inhabitants
This book is focused exclusively on standard-issue creatures found in D&D. Expect to see both ubiquitous entries like goblin and unicorns alongside the more explicitly “D&D” creatures such as displacer beasts and xorn.
There are no game mechanics associated with these creatures, and I do not count this fact against the book itself. It is assumed whatever D&D derivative you are playing will already provide the relevant statistics for you. This is explicitly stated on the back cover:
“THIS BOOK HAS NO STATISTIC BLOCKS, NO REPETITION ANYTHING IN THE DOZENS OF MONSTER BOOKS YOU ALREADY OWN. THIS GIVES EVERY MONSTER DOZENS AND DOZENS OF IDEAS TO MAKE IT SPECIAL.”(“No repetition anything” is the text error I mentioned earlier.)
Every monster has the following: Variant names, an extremely short description, certain things considered true, and a vast number of ideas taken from community brainstorming. Some monsters also have notes about combat tricks, special resources, or some standard-issue variants.
Almost all of the book is dedicated to the ideas taken from community brainstorming. Monsters have roughly one third of a page on average dedicated to the variant names, description, “things that are known”, and combat tricks / resources. However multiple pages of disjointed ideas are given for each creature. At a glance I would estimate that the average idea is about four sentences.
How To Use This Book
This book is for people who are bored with the standard-issue interpretation of classic monsters, and are hoping to spice things up. So look up a monster, read the ideas, find one that inspires you, and work the idea into your game.
“Orcs are not a separate race but elves wearing masks.”
However this language is not entirely accurate. I think it would be better to use the word prompt rather than idea. The nuance here is that many of the statements are purposefully vague or open-ended in such a way that they cannot be used coherently without answering unwritten questions.
“Orcs are a forgotten placeholder, a bookmark that was never removed due to the god’s own destruction.”
Yet even calling them prompts not quite accurate. I had to sit down thinking for quite some time why the ideas or prompts felt removed in a way that was very difficult to put into words. That was until I recontextualized the book as a form of Social Media.
This is the true nature of the book – an archive of discussions presented as a roleplaying resource.
These are not ideas or prompts, but rather answers to an ur-prompt which was something akin to “Write something weird about this monster” I imagine. The answers bounce off each other, they showcase the personality of the writers, and otherwise exist as an inwardly directed conversation. They were never written for the reader, but rather they were written to the other various writers who contributed to the project.
If I had been a direct participant or witness of it’s creation I would never notice this quality. However this is precisely why I made a comparison to a yearbook. This book was always written and published for the contributors and it’s immediate community.
The “public” readers were always a secondary consideration – to the point the “public release” contains significantly fewer monsters than the version limited to those who financially supported the book before it’s release.
Merfolk, orgres, pixies, rust monsters, oozes, invisible stalkers and more have all been removed from the public release. I would once again remind you that this book is the most expensive of the trilogy, the $35 price tag for a book with purposefully cut content comes off to me as downright contempt for the public reader.
The Line Between Provocative and Distasteful
“Orcs are what happens when teen mothers drink during pregnancy in a fantasy world.”– Page 114
There are certain things you never have a good reason to include in a roleplaying game. I never expected I would have to add fetal alcohol syndrome to that list. The fact that this was included in the book genuinely disgusts me. The fact that anyone typed this disgusts me. The fact that it was copied into this book disgusts me.
Anyone who actually used this idea in a game should be publicly shamed alongside those who have player characters raped. There are zero contexts where this would be appropriate behavior.
This is exactly the sort of thing that fuels claims the OSR is filled with bigots and edgelords who rage at the thought of diversity in the roleplaying community or even just basic fucking decency.
I have no further comment.
The Bestial Ecosystems
“BESTIAL ECOSYSTEMS CREATED BY MONSTROUS INHABITATION INCLUDES CLEAR GUIDELINES FOR HOW PLAYERSCAN COME ACROSS MONSTERS IN THE ECOSYSTEM AND LEARN ABOUT THEM IN A SYSTEM-NEUTRAL WAY.”– The Back Cover
As an environmentalists I’m quick to jump on anything that explores the ecosystems of fantastical worlds. Given that the name of the book is quite literally “Bestial Ecosystems Created by Monster Inhabitation” one might expect the focus of the book to be on said ecosystems.
The section on ecosystems is twelve pages long, stuffed at the very back of the book. It begins with basic climatology for those unfamiliar with the subject. Next is an exploration of biomes, real and fantastical. A significant portion of this space is wasted by simplistic definitions of real world environments such as:
“Similar to forests, but more dense, containing tangled vegetation that has completely overgrown the land.”
Thankfully the portions concerning the fantastic are more detailed, but still not nearly as much as one would hope given the title of the book.
Procedures are given for creating simple ecological regions that have memorable features, and the importance of (for example) limiting the animal species of a region to a few iconic creatures so that the players get a sense of how one region is different from the next. These are things I broadly agree with, and have given in my own writing so it was nice to see another author feel the same way.
The last few pages explain the concept of an overloaded encounter die, and how it can be used to provide environmental clues to the nearby creatures that players may encounter. It ends abruptly after.
The public edition of this book should not have been published.