Saturday, 22nd November, 2008, 04:04 AM #1
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Random Esoteric Creature Generator
The Random Esoteric Creature Generator is James Edward Raggi IV’s attempt to provide DMs with a tool to create combat-oriented creatures at random from a series of tables calling for different die rolls.
Perusing this book you’ll find table after table of monster-creating randomness sandwiched between some descriptive and explanatory text. In addition to a simply rendered cover with some fair artwork, there is a plethora of weird, bizarre, blackline interior art. Almost all if this art depicts the bizarre (an unambiguous goal of the book), some of which may spark the interest and imagination, but most of which is “just there” neither adding nor detracting anything significant (this is, of course, a matter of subjective opinion). A small point of concern may be that only about two-thirds of the total page-count is dedicated to game material. The remainder is a monologue about the state of RPG evolution (tradition vs. WoWnime stuff) and how bored gamers are with what the core rulebooks make available to them followed by some “Ra! Ra! Go get ‘em, DM!” inspirational-use text at the book’s end.
The diatribe into which author Raggi goes in the foreword gives his rational for the work. It is very clearly stated that its purpose is to give DMs an alternative method of creature generation that is fast and easy, flexible (so you can use your imagination), and will catch your experienced, veteran players (who have every creature entry and stat block memorized) off their guard. It should be noted to anyone considering purchasing this book, though, that it is very much 1st Edition D&D-oriented, and is not specifically intended for compatibility with later editions. Further, Raggi lays out that the first thing any DM using the book should do is change anything he randomly generates that he doesn’t like (though he also encourages DMs to present players with things that make no sense on a number of occasions, just to throw them off and keep them guessing!).
If you are a fan of the original D&D or the “first edition feel,” you’ve hit the jackpot. The bulk of this work is reminiscent of the tables and matrices out of the old DMG, constantly calling for different die rolls so that probability can determine almost every aspect of a new, vicious creature. I remember the days of needing unprepared gaming material on the fly and resorting to the “random dungeon generator,” “NPC generator,” and “random encounter” tables and discovering what’s next right along with my players. Even the artwork looks like the MM and FF illustrations of yore.
For just about any other gamer, though, this book is not for you. Those who crave a reason and explanation for a creature’s existence, an ecological background, some intelligent or calculated motivation and thought from it, or even an appearance that demonstrates some level of reason will seldom find the creatures generated from this book to meet your desires. If you’re used to the layout of later edition D&D books and stat blocks, you’ll find it difficult to align them with what is presented here. There is constant calling for the use of different dice from one table to the next. There are even certain tables that call for unnecessary die rolls, like a d% roll for a table with 10 options, each of which is keyed to a roll result like “01-10” or “71-80” (so, clearly, a d10 roll could have been called for). Many entries within the tables are accompanied by seemingly arbitrary suggestions for how a result you generate should be implemented mechanically (this is very first edition!). And the potential for extreme unbalance will likely be frustrating as well.
Looking at the Random Esoteric Creature Generator from as objective a stance as possible (neither considering its applications to traditional or more modern editions of RPGs nor taking a stance on which have more merit), this reviewer finds the following to be true of the work for its own sake.
Strengths of the Product
If you ascribe to Raggi’s rationale for the purpose of the book and take his suggestion to throw out anything resulting from it that you don’t like, you are sure to come up with something inspiring and fun to throw at your players.
The creatures generated do, no doubt, catch players off their guard, so that veteran players will neither be bored with “the same old, same old” nor know automatically how to respond to a creature simply because they know its statistical strengths and weaknesses.
If you have the time to do so, you can adapt any creature you generate from this book to any edition of D&D. I don’t know about its applications to other games because I seldom play others, though there has been some mention about its use in Warhammer as well.
Used as presented, and with some moderation and creative work on the DM’s part, you will no doubt find something fun to add to your game that the players will remember killing (or being killed by) throughout their adventures.
Raggi writes a fun-to-read rant about something many gamers will have experience with or an opinion on: the evolution of RPGs (D&D specifically) and gaming with players that know too much to buy into the fantasy of the game anymore. Both topics I found interesting to consider and gave me an opportunity to weigh my thoughts and opinions against Raggi’s suggestions. I may just be a better DM and RPG gamer for the extra consideration.
Weaknesses of the Product
My game at the table has evolved as D&D has, and I consider myself more of a modernist than a traditionalist, so I don’t find that this book suits my style or game very well. However, as I said, I’ll make an effort to base my feedback in this part of the review on the merits of the book for its own sake, not on my outlook on gaming.
The first and most glaring flaw of the work is its failure to meet one of its own stated objectives. Raggi writes that “this publication is [his] attempt to help referees” create imaginative monsters “without… putting unreasonable demands on [the referee’s] time.” He goes on to claim it might even take only a matter of minutes – as easy as looking up a monster from a book and “copy[ing] down its statistics into your adventure notes.” However, after experimenting with this aspect in particular a number of times, I found that, on average, compiling the information generated from the tables and putting it into any sort of useful framework for actual gameplay took no less than fifteen minutes. When I tried, then, to balance my results with something of the desired level or encounter difficulty and determine its experience point value, I had to spend close to half an hour or more fleshing out the creature. As such, even for its applications in a more free-form system (like OD&D), its practicality is more limited than it claims to be. For creating something at the table and on the fly, it may be next to impossible to use without seriously disrupting the flow of your game.
As a matter of taste, certain gamers might love the creatures this product tends to turn out. However, I found that after a number of randomly generated creatures, I had to make some creative adjustments just to get anything that wasn’t a bird-like quadrupedal fish with a sticky, prehensile tongue or a geometric, slithering, hairy, phasing, nightmare combination. Some of the creatures I randomly created did, in fact, inspire me, with some creative adjustments. However, the ones whose end results I liked took a higher degree of time and effort on my part to come up with. It was certainly more time than I could have afforded to spend at the table, in the midst of a game. Again, the only way I can see using this tool practically is while in the planning stage of gaming.
The book does with all certainty meet its goal of creating challenges for players for which they cannot possibly have a predictable, boring response. However, creatures from this product are simply too bizarre to appear in any setting other than an alien world, alternate plane, or underworld full of abominations on a regular basis. Should they be used regularly, the DM will be doing a lot of work to constantly create them and players could potentially be frustrated in that they will always be hit with creatures who cannot be predicted or figured out even with intelligent player choices (how were you to know that the scaly, slithering sphere had a “save or die” special attack that was delivered through its touch?!).
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