Here’s a question for you: What do the Aerial Servant, Crypt Thing, Huecuva, Killmoulis, Lurker Above, Necrophidius and Yellow Musk Zombie all have in common?
The answer is that they are all creatures to bring a tear to the eye of a veteran role-player, yet don’t appear in any of the core Monster Manuals from Wizards of the Coast. Thankfully though they have all been resurrected along with countless other classics by Necromancer Games in their Tome of Horrors, and Tome of Horrors II.
These two alternative Monster Manuals deliver on their promise to provide old-school style monsters by culling the creatures directly from the old adventures and supplements themselves. The first Tome of Horrors contains enough critters to repopulate a dungeon circa 1983, and it’s sequel provides more of the same, but this time with a higher proportion of original material. This is so well done however that it’s almost impossible to see the join. You’ll still need Monster Manual I, if only for the staple kobold, goblin and orc fodder, but that’s about it. Tome of Horror I and II will fill your monster needs for years to come.
Let’s not beat about the bush; the monsters in the Tomes of Horror aren’t exactly designed with deep social interraction in mind. You’re not going to be discussing poetry with a Bloodsuckle, or attempt to woo a Yellow Musk Zombie (though I’ve known players who would try). Start to finish, these are books of cannon fodder, whether it’s in the dungeon or overland. The power levels range from CR 1/10 (Floating Eye)to Lucifer Himself at CR 39 with plenty in between, so these are books you’ll keep turning to again and again as your adventuring party racks up the levels.
Some of the critters are especially well suited as end-of-game baddies. There’s nothing funner than throwing a Barrow Wight at a 3rd level party as the climax to their exploration of a strange mound on a wind-swept moorland, then having the same adventurers follow a map found in it’s lair to a mausoleum half-sunk in a swamp where they encounter a Crypt Thing and it’s Yellow Musk Zombie servants. This is pure, unadulterated old-school gaming at it’s best, and no books evoke that desire better than the Tomes of Horror. Just remember to leave your Bard at the door with the mules.
If you want to pick up just one bestiary though, and want something a little different in your game world, then I recommend the wonderfully titled Monsternomicon from Privateer Press. Unlike the Tomes of Horror, this book can act as a drop in replacement for Monster Manual I, and offers critters based around their own Iron Kingdoms setting. Imagine dark fantasy with clockworks and steam-powered golems, and you won’t be far wrong. The artwork in this book captures the setting perfectly, though it’s the text that really stands out. This was arguably the first d20 bestiary which provided much more than just statblocks, ecology and description for each monster. Almost every monster has a section of Adventure Hooks, a Legends & Lore section and some schpiel from legendary Adventuring Scholar (a prestige class given in this book) Viktor Pendrake.
It’s a complete package that just bursts are the seams with gaming goodness. Everything from the size-guide silhouettes on the monsters in the corner of each page to the “template you add during play” Quickplates in the appendix is perfect. As a stand-alone bestiary, the Monsternomicon is the best there is and deserves a place on every GM’s bookshelf – though I suspect it won’t stay there for long. Because of it’s emphasis on steampunk, it is particularly well suited to Eberron. An Iron Lich would be right at home
And it’s got the best trolls in the game, bar none.
The last set of alternative Monster Manuals to look at are the Creature Collections from Sword and Sorcery’s Scarred Lands setting. This is a slightly darker setting where war between the Gods and Titans has literally warped and blasted the land. Many of the creatures in these books came about either as troops in the war, or as a result of the deific blood and guts spilled on the land and in the oceans. My particular favourites are the Krew from the Carnival of Shadows, a twisted fairground masquerade of beasties and their leaders that would inject long-term horror into any campaign.
There’s plenty that is useable in these books, though they don’t inspire me to the same degree as Monsternomicon or the Tome of Horrors. I’m not sure whether that’s because I’ve not really got a handle of the setting itself, or if the books themselves aren’t inspiring. The artwork in Creature Collection I is particularly bad, though it’s better in the second volume. Normally artwork (whether colour or monochrome) doesn’t bother me, but it this case it’s actually detracting from the quality of the text itself, which is a shame.
Some of the monsters in these books stand head and shoulders above the others. The Wrack Dragons are excellent, I like the backstory of the Forsaken Elves, and the various Golems and Hags are great. It’s just…….these books seem flat in comparison to the others in this review.
Both of these books deserve a space on your bookshelf(both are MUCH better than MM II!), though they might not get as much use as the Tomes of Horror and Monsternomicon unless you’re gaming in the Scarred Lands itself.
Phew! I’m done.