A Questionable Review of The Strange Bestiary

Posted: 2014-11-24
Word Count: 840
Tags: non-review penandpapergames rpg

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These ambiguities, redundancies and deficiencies remind us of those which doctor Franz Kuhn attributes to a certain Chinese encyclopaedia entitled ‘Celestial Empire of Benevolent Knowledge’. In its remote pages it is written that the animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.

Jorge Luis Borges, “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins”

Nothing bores me more than long lists of things, unless they’re funny. (See above.) So anyone who expects a detailed and insightful review of a Monster Manual for Monte Cook’s The Strange may as well Abandon All Hope, as gates to the recursion Hell Frozen Over no doubt read.

Yes, there are beasts for all the “recursions”, or all-too-real simulations running in the Matrix-y universe-sized dark matter wibbly-wobbly spacey-wacey quantum computer called The Strange. There’s plenty of critters for Ruk and Ardeyn and the Strange itself, but additions too for Atom Nocturne, Cataclyst (like anyone would want to go there), Crow Hollow, the Graveyard of the Machine God (worse than Cataclyst), Hell Frozen Over (what it says on the tin), Middlecap (only one creature, for your puppet-world needs), Singularitan, and Thunder Plains. There’s also generic entities from folklore, literature, and pop culture for various worlds of Mad Science, Magic, Psionics, and Standard Physics. And yes, there’s a few beasties for the “public domain” worlds like Innsmouth (Deep One, Nightgaunt), Oz (Flathead, Rak, Sapient Tree), and Wonderland (Capricious Caterpillar). There’s creatures for any Difficulty Level, from 1 (Nul) to 10 (Kaiju).

The art is generally pretty good, although the Elder Thing entry has the worst illustration of an elder thing I’ve ever seen. Lovecraft’s description is remarkably, almost painfully exact, yet only Wayne Barlowe, Erol Otus, and a few Chaosium artists ever got it right. Also, the illustration for Killer Robot looks more like the Time Zombies from “Journey to the Center of the TARDIS”.

However those who know the system realize that every NPC has only four basic numbers: Level (1-10), Health (usually but not always Level x 3), Damage, and Armor (or anti-damage). The rest is description: special abilities, modifier to Level for certain tasks, attack types, and so forth. By design, this makes designing NPCs and monsters trivial. This, then raises the question of why we need a Bestiary. Granted, the most developed game-specific worlds of Ruk and Ardeyn are different enough that they need “official” entries. The same cannot be said for creatures from common sources like Blob, Cyclops, Djinn, Grey, Ogre, Orc, Reanimated (like a certain medical student / baron might have created), Transhuman, or Witch. I’d almost add Vampire and Werewolf to this list, except they’re major factions in a canonical recursion named The Gloaming. Every GM will have his own ideas on how such creatures look, behave, and fight; they may differ even between recursions, e.g. the witches of Oz vs. the witches of Innsmouth vs. the witches of Waverly Place.

This complaint comes from someone who bought the PDF, though, so I’m not condemning the book. It’s probably a great resource for a GM of The Strange (Strange Master?) who needs a critter quickly, or is stuck for inspiration. I particularly like the Killing White Light (who says light is good?), Mad Titan (nothing like Thanos at all), Mystereon (she’s Batman), Octopus Sapiens (who fits nicely in Numenera too), and Skeleton (generic but saved by the comment that they make excellent snipers). I also like two of the “People of Renown” in the back of the book:

  1. The legendary Archcoder has complete control of reality in the Strange and in recursions (Level 10 and nigh-godlike powers). She may be much weaker should she translate into the universe of matter, e.g. Earth (suggested Level 4). As the text notes, there’s a plot hook right there. (Shades of Dogma.)

  2. Sasha the Blade, a child evacuee in WWII, accidentally stepped through a gate into the Strange. She’s since grown up into a fearsome mercenary. Between her origins and her three companions (Alvin, Margaret, and Sydney), I can’t but help see her as a very angry Susan who killed the Witch, skinned the Lion, and kicked the Wardrobe into splinters before hunting down that sanctimonious git who wrote her out for wearing lipstick and liking boys.

(What can I say, I like powerful women.)

If you’ve put up with me up to this point, or just skipped to the end, here’s my verdict: The Strange Bestiary is a great resource for GMs pressed for time or short on inspiration. With a modicum of time and imagination, though, a GM can easily come up with creatures about as good, and perhaps more suited for his campaign.