The Random Esoteric Creature Generator for Classic Fantasy Roleplaying Games and their Modern Simulacra, by James Edward Raggi IV, published by Goodman Games. 32 pages, $12.99
The RECG is a set of tables for constructing bizarre D&D-style creatures, complete with Armor Class, Hit Dice, number of attacks, damage, special abilities, movement, morale, etc. It’s not tied to any particular version of D&D, as indicated by the somewhat unwieldy subtitle, but it won’t produce creatures ready to play for 3e without at least some tweaking, and 4e is right out. If you’re willing to do some more work to stat up the creatures, you can probably use the most interesting aspects (generally the description and special abilities) for nearly any game system.
When I say bizarre, I mean bizarre. This is not a system for calling a rabbit a smeerp, not even a rabbit with frickin’ laser-beam eyes. Maybe a flat rabbit-like creature that moves by slithering, attacks with its spiked tail, has a rubbery body that halves damage, and drains Charisma with a successful attack. Exactly what is rabbit-like about the creature is left to the GM’s imagination and descriptive abilities. The system is really good at coughing up things that you never would have imagined on your own. It is somewhat less good (read, makes no attempt at all, except to advise the GM to try) at making it all hang together coherently. The author’s advice seems to regard that as a feature, spurring the user to greater heights of creativity in trying to decide what “a 20-sided die with characteristics of a skunk, made of water” might actually be.
It’s good for creatures out of nightmare, or settings where creatures out of nightmare might be common such as an old-school dungeon. You wouldn’t use it as a starting point for anything that makes a pretense of naturalism, even Gygaxian naturalism, or tries to fit into an ecology. To be fair, the author is perfectly up-front about his disdain for that sort of stuff; most of the advice on using the charts is along the lines of “Monsters that are not unique are not mystical creatures of wonder.” I’m not sure what I think of that; monsters of legend are a fairly mixed bag some being unique (the Minotaur, the Sphinx), others being something that anybody might run into on a lonely road at night (Will o’ the Wisps, boggarts, Hakutaku, etc.) It’s true that players will be more wary of creatures that are new in their experience, but wariness is not the same as fear. I’ve never had any trouble getting players to fear level-draining creatures like Wraiths, for instance. It’s because the players know what Wraiths can do that they’re afraid of them. I think if you follow the author’s advice on using the tables, you run the risk of turning encounters with the monsters into a game of Russian Roulette (because of the fairly high possibility of nasty special abilities that the characters can’t in principle know about or prepare for) and you rob your campaign of the opportunity to have a certain unique flavor. Players who learn to deal with a kind of monster unique to a game world gain a sense of mastery over the domain that I think is rewarding. If you followed the link to the description of the Hakutaku, note how the ancient Chinese text goes into detail about how to deal with them: Make a peach bow, jujube arrows, and attach kite feathers to them. Shoot it with them. If Wolf Demon becomes Whirling Wind (piāo fēng 飄風), remove a shoe, throw (the shoe) at it, and it cannot transform.3 If there’s a kind of creature that’s been kicking their asses and taking their lunch money whenever they run into it, and the finally figure out it’s vulnerable to sonic damage, that can be a really satisfying and memorable moment for a campaign; in a single encounter they may never figure it out, particularly if such weaknesses are determined randomly as in the RECG instead of by theme (a crystal creature is vulnerable to sonics, a fire creature to water, etc.) They also gain a mental hook (this is the game world where people burned by fire come back as Firewights) that distinguishes the game world from all the others that might be using the same source books…even including the RECG. If every monster is sui generis then that flat rabbit stingy thing might have occurred in anybody’s campaign.
- Does what it sets out to do, and provides good guidance in how the author intends the book to be used
- Spurs creativity
- Good looking, nice and evocative illustrations
- Caters to Old School adventure gaming
- Not directly tied to a particular edition of D&D
- Pricey. $12.99 is a fair chunk of change for 32 pages. While I respect what Goodman Games is accomplishing by getting this in game shops at all, I would have been happier to have this at half the price via PDF; given its size and nature I probably wouldn’t even bother to print it out.
- Charts are somewhat bloated. There’s really no reason to have, say, the special ability to temporarily drain an Attribute point split into 24 entries (1 for each attribute times whether the attribute is drained 1, 2, 3, or 1d6 points); that should have been one entry with the attribute determined randomly and the amount drained being 1, 2, 3, or 1d6 depending on the roll of a die. Similarly for various immunities (cold, fire, wood, etc) the creature might have and whether they do half or no damage, or levels of regeneration.
I’d give it 3 out of 5. I like it, but I like Old School stuff and I like random charts as a brainstorming tool. I think the people who will really enjoy this are the kind who know they want it just from the description of what it is. They’re also probably the kind of people who immediately upon getting it and rolling up a few creatures say, cool, now let me do my own even more awesome charts!