Sunday, 13 January 2013

Mystery Monsters Revisited

Pathfinder is a game with a lot of monsters. Some have been part of the Dungeons and Dragons game for a very long time. Others are more recent additions. These monsters cover a vast variety of different kinds, from lowly goblins to powerful dragons to terrifying undead. Some monsters, like orcs and the aforementioned goblins, are staples of the game, showing up in some form in virtually every campaign, while others are rarer and see only occasional use, if any use at all. And some monsters are really just variations on other monsters, only with different names and slightly different abilities.

While there are many monsters in the game that were simply made up by the author of some supplement or adventure or other, most of the monsters are inspired by real-world folklore and mythology. Many of these only vaguely resemble the sources that inspired them, but many others are closer to their real-world roots. A subset of these monsters trace their inspiration back to real-world cryptids. These are creatures that many real people believe in—some strongly—creatures that are somewhat more plausible than dragons or vampires, but are still far from accepted by the scientific community. These are creatures like the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, and the chupacabra.

Mystery Monsters Revisited, the latest book in the Pathfinder Campaign Setting series, examines ten of these cryptids in detail. It is also the latest in a line of Revisted books that has been uniformly excellent in quality. Each book has examined ten creatures (or ten treasures in the case of Classic Treasures Revisited), generally painting them in a new light and breathing new life into them. The line began with Classic Monsters Revisited (which looked at the staples like goblins, trolls, and bugbears) in 2008 and has since had numerous other offerings, such as Dragons Revisited, Undead Revisited, and the slightly differently titled Misfit Monsters Redeemed (which looked at ten of the most absurd monsters ever created for the game and made them playable). Like its predecessors, Mystery Monsters Revisited provides an excellent insight into its ten subject creatures and how they fit into the world of Golarion. It allows gamemasters to enrich their games by including creatures that are more than just nameless things to kill, giving each creature a reason and purpose for being there. And even if some of these creatures never actually show up in a game, the book still provides a compelling read that adds just a little more awe to the game world.

The ten creatures presented in this book are the bunyip, chupacabra, death worm, mokele-mbembe, mothman, Sandpoint Devil (based on the Jersey Devil), sasquatch (Bigfoot), sea serpent, water orm (which covers creatures like the Loch Ness Monster and Ogopogo), and yeti. One thing that initially surprised me a little is that, in game, tales of these creatures are treated with pretty much the same scepticism as they are in the real world. Some people believe readily; others scoff. In a world teeming with supernatural creatures, some far more bizarre than any of these cryptids, it seems, at first glance, a little strange that people might find talk of sasquatches or sea serpents difficult to believe. However, when you think about it a little more, you realize that a world with so many lifeforms is going to have even more tales and stories, most of them embellished beyond recognition or even totally made up. It makes sense that some people are going to dismiss many of these tales—not even necessarily tales of these cryptids, but of many other monsters that they haven’t personally witnessed. They might disbelieve outright or simply believe people have mistaken a bugbear for a sasquatch, or something similar. So, in the end, I really like that Mystery Monsters Revisited has kept the “mystery” around these creatures. It adds a little twist to the world. Just because it’s a world where virtually anything is possible doesn’t mean that people automatically believe everything they hear.

Alas, the mysterious nature of these creatures doesn’t work quite so well when mixed with the mechanics of the Pathfinder game. It’s hard to establish a monster that virtually no one knows precise information about when a single Knowledge skill check can reveal many, if not all, the details about that monster. Still, this is one of those areas where I believe GMs are well within their purview to fudge the rules a little, allowing for extra-rare categories on Knowledge checks. While this shouldn’t be done to excess, it adds to the fun of the game if, once in a while, the PCs encounter something strange and unknown.

Each of the ten chapters in this book is laid out in the same basic manner. Each begins with a general overview of that chapter’s monster, then continues with sections on “Evidence” (what signs there are of the creature in the world), “Ecology”, “Habitat & Society”, “Campaign Role”, “Treasure”, “[Monster] on Golarion” (covering where on Golarion the creature can be found), and ending with stats for a sample creature (generally a specific individual or variant, but in the case of the mokele-mbembe and the Sandpoint Devil, the base stats for the creature). There are also several sidebars in each chapter covering short miscellaneous details, such as magic items related to the creature or unusual special abilities. To a certain extent, I think that putting all the monsters into the same format is somewhat limiting. It forces each monster to conform to a specific pattern, one that may not always fit each creature. While the “Ecology” section makes sense for all the monsters, the “Treasure” section is a much harder fit. Many of these monsters don’t collect treasure and in many cases, it feels like the author of that chapter is straining to come up with something to put in about treasure. Many of the treasure sections contain lines to the effect of, “As with most animals, the accumulation of treasure holds little interest for...” That said, while I find the chapter format constraining, it’s not overly so. The authors still convey a great deal of information in each chapter and manage to make each cryptid a vibrant and unique creature. I do particularly love the sidebar on the real-world folklore that appears in each chapter.

One of the great things about this book (and others in the Revisited line) is that it has opened my eyes to creatures that I might otherwise have ignored or made little use of. The yeti, for example, has always been a creature that I’ve found... well, somewhat boring. Until now, nothing really interesting has ever been done with it. Now, however, they suddenly have a history and a personality, one that sets them apart from all the other humanoid creatures in the world. When my Jade Regent play-by-post group reaches The Hungry Storm (an adventure I disparaged for having dull encounters with yeti after yeti), I’ll actually have material to help spice up its endless yeti encounters. The book has also helped bring my attention to creatures I have simply never really noticed before, such as the mothman. I had seen it in Bestiary 2, of course, but I had never really looked at it. Now, I can’t wait to find a time to use a mothman in one of my games. I don’t know if I’ll ever find the right moment for it, but I’m aware of mothmen now, and so the likelihood is certainly much greater than it was.

Overall, Mystery Monsters Revisited is a fine addition to the Revisited line of books. I wouldn’t call it an invaluable resource as games can run perfectly fine without it, but it is a resource that will enrich games that make use of any of the creatures within its covers. And even if you don’t have any plans to use any of these creatures, it is still a fun read that expands the world of Golarion a little bit, and might just plant the seeds of ideas that might result in you using these creatures after all.

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