Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Fey Revisited


As part of the Pathfinder Campaign Setting books, there’s a line of periodic Revisited books. From the first one, Classic Monsters Revisited, to the more recent Mystery Monsters Revisited, this series looks in detail at a selection of monsters related by a specific theme. Each of the books seeks to add new insight and sometimes even redefine its subject creatures. Classic Monsters Revisited, for example, introduced Pathfinder’s take on goblins, and that take has gone on to become an iconic part of the game. Misfit Monsters Redeemed (slightly different title, but essentially part of this series of books) managed to take ten of the most ridiculous monsters in the game and make them both interesting and playable, and more importantly, viable threats to put in PCs’ way.

While I’ve generally considered all of the Revisited books to be excellent resources (particularly for games that heavily feature creatures from a particular Revisited book), the most recent one, Fey Revisited, is something of a disappointment. As the title suggests, this book focuses on ten kinds of fey. The book is designed and formatted in much the same style as previous Revisited books, but what’s lacking here is content. Sure, there are just as many creatures examined in the same number of pages, but whereas the previous books always provided new insight into their selected monsters, I came away from this book feeling like I hadn’t really learnt much new about the fey within. Most of them still seem somewhat nondescript, even characterless. On top of that, the book misses the opportunity to make clear distinctions between some of the very similar kinds of fey it examines.

The ten kinds of fey that appear in Fey Revisited are the dryad, gremlin, leprechaun, norn, nuckelavee, nymph, redcap, rusalka, satyr, and sprite. Of these, the dryad, nymph, and rusalka are very similar creatures, all female nature spirits with abilities to beguile or seduce, all three having very similar appearances. Indeed, a sidebar in the chapter on nymphs about the real-world mythology of nymphs talks about how “nymph” is essentially a catch-all term for a wide number of minor female nature deities. Tree nymphs were called dryads, and water nymphs, nereids, for example. In Pathfinder (and D&D before it), these have all generally been presented as separate creatures. By giving the dryad, nymph, and rusalka their own separate chapters, the book looks set up to draw a clear distinction between these creatures, to show the different ways in which they live and behave. But this doesn’t really happen. Instead, we just get more similarities. Rusalkas stand out a little just from the fact that they are neutral evil instead of the chaotic good of both dryads and nymphs, but nonetheless are still remarkably similar in behaviour and society. All three are reclusive, living in out-of-the-way locations, avoiding even other fey. All three sometimes form small, tight-knit groups with family or close friends of their own kind, but otherwise live solitary lives looking after the area (for nymphs), tree (for dryads), or water (for rusalkas) to which they are bonded. All three are somewhat vain and like gems and jewellery.

Now, I don’t have a problem with similarities between different creatures. Indeed, there should be some similarities, but with dryads, nymphs, and rusalkas, there are too many similarities, and not enough differences. I also don’t have a problem with some creatures being just a different kind of another creature, but in this case, it would have made sense to present them all in a single chapter (perhaps adding nereids and other very similar fey creatures in there as well). This is how the book treats the different kinds of gremlins. Admittedly, the game has always identified jinkins, nuglubs, pugwampis, etc. as kinds of gremlins whereas dryads and nymphs have always been presented as separate creatures. However, the Revisited series has always been about redefining, and so I would see no problem with the (completely unsurprising) revelation that dryads and nymphs were just different kinds of the same basic creature.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that everything in these three chapters is terrible and should be ignored or thrown out. There’s some decent and useful information in them. It’s just rather repetitive. When reading the rusalka chapter, I felt like I had read it twice before already. I do find it somewhat unfortunate that in the nymph chapter, after establishing that a nymph’s skin, hair, and eye colour generally match the prevailing colours of the humans in that nymph’s particular region of the world (something true of both dryads and rusalkas, too), the sample nymph Khalirai, who resides in the Mwangi Expanse is described and pictured as being white, whereas the humans of that area generally aren’t. The explanation is that she resides in an elephant graveyard (which, I’ll admit, is a pretty cool idea) and her skin matches the colour of the bones there. Alas, the fact that she is “one of the most powerful nymphs” in the region and that one of the principal abilities of nymphs is their blinding beauty (making hers even more powerful than the standard nymph’s) reinforces the stereotype that paler skin is more beautiful. This would have been an awesome opportunity to break away from those stereotypes by presenting a dark-skinned nymph (which makes sense for the Mwangi Expanse) as one of the most beautiful and powerful in that region. Instead, even though the text often refers to them, there isn’t a single dark-skinned fey pictured anywhere in the entire book.

Some of the fey in the book do fare better. I rather like the chapter on gremlins. Perhaps because it needs to discuss multiple kinds of gremlins, it’s the only chapter that occasionally breaks from the format that every other chapter uses. There’s no society section in the gremlin’s chapter, for example. There’s also no sidebar for a “token of the gremlin” (all the other fey have a sidebar for a special kind of temporary magic item that they can create and give to people who please them, such as the token of the dryad or the token of the leprechaun). One criticism I’ve had of previous Revisited books is that every chapter is always divided into the same sections (these sections are often different between books, but are the same throughout a single book) regardless of whether those sections make sense for the particular creature under discussion. As a result, sometimes some sections feel shoehorned in. Being able to break away from the standard structure can help draw attention to the differences between creatures and can also be a refreshing change of pace for the reader. The gremlin chapter does really quite well without a society section, and a few other chapters probably could have lost the section as well, particularly the nuckelavee.

Speaking of the nuckelavee, this was a chapter I was particularly interested in reading. Nuckelavees are an intriguing fey race because of their differences. Looking like a horse and rider who have been melded together and have lost all their skin, it has an appearance very unlike what most people imagine when they think of fey. Its demeanour, too, is rather different from other fey, even other evil fey. I was looking forward to learning what makes these strange creatures tick. Alas, I didn’t learn as much as I’d hoped, although I did learn some things, and this chapter, along with the gremlin chapter, is one of the better chapters in the book.

Fey Revisited is very fond of reminding readers that the people of Golarion know very little about fey. “Perhaps the least understood of Golarion’s fey, sprites are living paradoxes” (pg 59). Rusalkas are “one of the least understood of Golarion’s more prevalent species of fey” (pg 47). The word mysterious is used to describe pretty much every single fey in the book at one point or another. There’s nothing wrong with mysterious creatures and having the denizens of the game world not understand them. However, after reading the book, one would expect gamemasters to understand the creatures somewhat, and as a gamemaster myself, I really don’t feel that I do. There’s a lot of “they do this” and “they do that”, but not much of an attempt to get into the mindset of these “mysterious” creatures, to truly understand them.

After reading previous Revisited books, I’ve always found my head brimming with ideas that I want to try out in games. Alas, due to time constraints, I never get to use most of those ideas, but the fact that these ideas are catalysed is, to me, an indication of the efficacy of a book. After reading Fey Revisited, my head was not brimming with ideas. In fact, not a single adventure, encounter, or character idea crossed my mind, and I find that rather telling. It’s a shame, as fey are one of the more under-represented types of creature in Pathfinder. Fey needed a Revisited book. Unfortunately, I kind of think they still do.

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