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The Monster Overhaul Is More Than A Mere Manual

A great monster book on its own but also useful as a supplemental guide to pre-existing fantasy worlds.


Every monster tells a story. That’s the underlying truth of every bestiary released for a role playing game. Whenever the Dungeon Master pulls a monster book off of the shelf, they’re looking for something to help tell their story. It could be an obstacle, an adversary or even the antagonist at the center of everything. Whether through art, text or memorable abilities, each entry in these books is a sales pitch to the Dungeon Master in the hopes that they will be a memorable ingredient in their next adventures. Designer Skerples has been looking at monsters through this lens over on their Coins and Scrolls blog for a few years now. They’ve collected their best observations in The Monster Overhaul, a book that aims to pack the most usable information possible for dozens of monsters into its pages. Does this book stand out as a catalog of inspiration? Let’s play to find out.

The Monster Overhaul contains over 200 entries covering many of the monsters one might expect in a book like this. For the most part, rather than the usual write featuring a stat block, a picture, and a short write up describing the monster, the book surrounds the art and statistics with a handful of useful charts to inspire the encounter. These charts include everything from names to motivations to what they’re in the middle of doing when the players come across them. These charts are short, punchy and deliver a lot more usable information than many monster books I’ve read. The charts are built for the emergent play that’s a hallmark of the OSR but just as useful for Dungeon Masters who sit down to write the next session and think “Hey, a Frost Dragon would be a fun battle” and dig up some details.

My favorite charts in this style are the omen writeups which offer premade encounters in three flavors. Omens come in three flavors: a chart where its just the creature in the entry, a chart where the creature is paired with another from the same broad category and a chart where creatures are mixed from different categories. The omens feature clues the players pick up on to tip them off that something is coming and many of them offer a little bit of a story the Dungeon Master can build out. The players might hear mercenaries arguing with wizards and might get sucked into settling the disagreement as a neutral party. They might come across a battle between kobolds and goblins and steer clear or wait for the winner to emerge before wiping everyone out. Omens add a lot of flavor to each encounter while also quietly reinforcing one of the tenets of OSR style play: not every encounter should be taken on. Players might come across a giant and its pet ooze thanks to loud snoring, so they should exercise some stealth to move past or find another way through the dungeon.

What makes The Monster Overhaul stand out from the other books of interesting charts available is the amount of information packed into each entry. Some entries include generic lairs to use as encounter locations, discussions of how different monsters react to overtures of diplomacy and even raising some of the harder questions when it comes to monsters. For example, it brings up the “Are All Orcs Evil?” discussion that rushed through social media discourse and talks about the implications about that in their world. The book does a great job getting Dungeon Masters thinking about their campaign and the choices they make at the table and while world building.

The one area I found lacking in the book was the organization. I understand that role playing game book organization is more art than science but I found the categories they used a little arbitrary. I imagine this was to keep the fractal chart aspect of the monsters in play where each section has 10 monsters so a DM can roll a d20 and then a d10 to find a monster at random. The book shifts from monster type to environment to themes to a final chapter of science fiction monsters in a way that I found a bit jarring. There’s an alphabetical index in the back but Dungeon Masters should be aware this book is built for random page flip throughs more than cover to cover reading.

The Monster Overhaul provides Dungeon Masters with plenty of usable resources that will enhance their campaign world. It’s a great monster book on its own but also useful as a supplemental guide to pre-existing fantasy worlds.

If you found this review useful, please consider purchasing it through the emedded links within. Thank you for reading and supporting your friendly local game reviewer.

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Rob Wieland

Rob Wieland

Whizbang Dustyboots

Gnometown Hero
I love, love, love this book.

It's worth noting that there are about 200 top-line monster categories, but many of them, like the dragon entries, include charts that split them into subtypes. Technically, the book has two dragons: ancient and young. But there are also 20 types of each --red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet, black, white, prismatic, lead, tin, iron, brass, bronze, copper, mercury, silver, gold and chrome, complete with most of the customizations that would go along with traditional D&D subtypes.

When a monster looks like it's "missing" from the book, it's often just hidden as a subcategory of a monster category. So both the blink dog and "displaced cat" are part of the larger "shivered beast" entry, about strange "animals" from outside reality, that includes 12 specific types of monsters, which also include the parasitic wolf, true flatworm, angle hound, hidebehind, underdog, quantum ogre, logawurm, tunnel frog, ineffable beast and fungible slug.

I'm sure there are some highly specific OSR campaigns where this book wouldn't fit: strict medieval simulations with no magic or grim-faced sagas where even dark humor would be out of place, to say nothing of Skerples' whimsy. But IMO, this is the second book any OSR referee should get, after their core system book. Not only does it have, effectively, several hundred additional monsters, but it's just an absolute fountain of ideas, built to run with no prep, but many of which could be the basis of whole campaigns.
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