This is a hilariously too early review of a book that don’t yet exist, but is probably worth your time: The Monster Overhaul, by Skerples. The book is a re-imagined and better organized version of the classic monster manuals of old, and as such, superficially similar to Flee, Mortals! which was also a “classic monster manual, but better” book.
As far as I can tell, both projects are great (I personally used Flee Mortals goblins in my games and they work as advertise), but Flee Mortals is written with the 5th edition of DnD in mind (with heavy inspiration from e4, and I don’t mean it as an insult, they know what they’re doing). Their goal is to freshen up the mechanical infrastructure of DnD battles in a way that is both tactically interesting and reasonable to manage on the DM side., that is, To oil the mechanical wheels of the DnD combat experience.
Skerples do… some of that, with variety of simple special moves and variants for well known monsters, but it’s really not the focus. The main goal of the Monster Overhaul, as far as I understand it, is breathing life into the old monsters, giving them a soul.
Let’s look at The Kickstarter Preview to see what I mean. I’ll now go over the 10 “elementals” presented in the preview in order, and devote more attention to the ones I liked.
It covers 10 types of elementals: Elemental, Elemental Spirit, Elemental Tyrant, Firebat, Gargoyle, Grue (living hungry darkness), Living Gem, Sandwalker, Spitling (a cute minimally-viable-living-element) and Will-o-the-Wisp (Some of those are not always classified as elementals, but its usually close enough to sort of fit). Out of those there are some very generic creatures (Elemental, Elemental spirit) specific classical monsters (Gargoyle, Will-o-the-Wisp) and some novel (or at least rarer) creatures (Spitling , Living Gem, Elemental Tyrant). Mechanical details, in the OSR spirit, are relatively sparse, and usually there to serve a specific role in play, like a “puzzle monster”, “extremely useful ally to have”, “very dangerous enemy with exploitable weakness” or “holy shit run!” and not really to set the stage for tactical combat. So what, exactly, do you get from the book? mostly, random tables, actually (hopefully) the secret divine names you need to give imaginary creatures souls.
Maybe the most generic creatures of the chapter. Elementals are (traditionally) huge lumps of matter that tries to kill you. So how can you give soul to something so basic it’s pretty much an entry on the aristotelian periodic table? with very specific random tables.
As a GM, you never want to bother with a book that offer you description which is on par with what you can come up with on the fly. so “Fire Elemental = Big scary thing that wants to burn you” is not good enough. what, instead, Skerples offer us?
let’s roll a few Elementals and see:
Can you see the soul? The chassis is the classical “big angry thing burnnnnn” (with lots of fire attacks and pyromaniac tendencies) but the execution is sparkled with exactly enough unique descriptions and motivations to make this fire elemental more than just a random encounter, letting me as a GM to fill up the gaps – the fire is invisible and so it can probably be seen only by tracking what is burning harder then it should be. The Elemental is not there just because, but was summoned by a Night hag, which sized the chance to enthrall it into her schemes. How? probably by presenting it with a chance to satisfy it’s desire for fame, which (as it is a Fire) it is indifferent as to the what it is famous for, a fact the PC could well use.
Let’s do another:
So an ancient battlefield was filled with so much agony that the air spontaneously incarnated as an Elemental, sounding like the whistling of arrows in flight and talking like the howling of the wounded. But, alas, the empire that fought in this battlefield is long gone, and so the born Elemental is all out of subjects of just revenge. What to do? It now desire stories of the empire’s demise, more gory and detailed the better. It might offer a service in thanks to a good storyteller, or just exact it’s ethereal vengeance on passerby if it’s not satisfied.
see what I mean by Soul? the mechanical structure is sound – the Elemental is scary and nigh unkillable without trickery and preparation – but the real added value of the book is the evocative description and the option to make the Elemental into more then just a generic scary monster.
Also, the art is badass:
here is the e5 version as reference:
big? yup. scary? might be, for low level characters, and as generic as you can make them.
2. Elemental Spirit
It’s basically a take on the concept of a nymph, but generalized into any element. The art is great, the mechanical aspect boils down to “very good allies to have” (with the ability to locate anything for you and heal all your hp) and “will steal you if it likes you too much” (with WEEK LONG charm ability).
A nice touch is the “number appearing” section which gently encourage you to have a coven of, (roll 2d10) 13 wise stone gnomes under a carved stone circle somewhere in your hexcrawl (don’t piss them off, they are more then 6 and so can summon a stone elemental to crush you once a week!)
The best part in my opinion is the random lair. I really need to put a wise lightning spirit (the book claim are called “Kaqtukaq”) in a shipwreck somewhere on the map, maybe with a ghost pirate lover for good measure.
2. Elemental Tyrant
It’s really a matter of personal taste, but the tyrannical elemental king probably the weakest entry in the preview for me. Not because of the execution – the art is the best in the chapter, the random names are scary and bombastic, and the random treasures are the real deal (who wants a Bag of Glacier Seeds? or Flask of the First Fire Stolen by Humanity? yes please). But I don’t really see a use for a thing which is both clearly an outsider with alien mindset and also a ruler of an earthly domain. I might steal from the tables for an Evil Giant ruler, but the creature itself is just too much, unless you build the entire campaign around it. Although, the art really makes me want to use it, somehow. It might be a good Sealed Evil in a Can, or big bad.
Is it really an elemental? it’s a bat, it’s on fire, and it tries to chase you into a small spaces and then uses it’s bouncing AOE attack, which you can strike back at the other bats. Nice. Very simple, very usable, have other 7 elemental variants (never met a bouncing and screeching Terror Geode before but now I want to!) note again the 3d6 appearing – it’s not a scary monster by itself, but a group can burn you down real quick if you’re not careful. Using moral rules is critical with such creatures – with only 8 moral, you can easily scare it off relatively easily, and you should (maybe using water?)
From the “straight out of old school DnD monster manual” family. As such, what can it offer that adds on the classics? let’s compare to the OSE Gargoyles:
We have here a relatively tough (4HD, AC as chain, immune to non-magical attack) creatures, appearing in a group (1d6), which are very hostile. Skerples basically stick with this template, but double down on the numbers (now we have a group of 2d8 5HD monsters appearing!) tune down the nigh unkillability of the things (as leather AC, though you need to smash it to hurt it) and adds, as usual, some soul. The soul have three parts:
1. sadistic personality which makes deadly battle likely and terrifying
2. a distinctive weakness with mechanical weight (slow to react and act last in a round, get stunned if surprised) to exploit and make said battle manageable if you play smart (+ lower moral, which again makes TPK less likely)
3. Random table of distinctive and weird appearances for your favorite stone cold killers!
Not really an elemental, but who cares, say hello to the scariest puzzle monster you ever met. The Grue is a patch of hungry darkness and it is hilariously hard to kill conventionally, with lightning speed, max AC, 2d8 bite and general disregard for doors and walls. It can only hit you if you’re in the dark though, so don’t run out of torches, and if you trap it without darkness to flee into, it will just pop out of existence.
very very good.
7. Living Gem
Another original monster (I think?) and a good one – the living gem is a moral dillema and\or a puzzle in NPC form – it’s pretty much a floating magical child who wants to see the world, potentially a nice child, but it’s worth LOTS of money, up to 1d10*10,000 of money. Also? it’s worth about 5 times intact. How do you kill a laser shooting diamond without breaking it? no idea, the book offer no clue either, but be sure your players are going to think of something.
Another monster I don’t remember seeing before, killing sand that drink your moister, with solid gimmick – it’s relatively weak, but regenerate to full hp every turn. Comes in other elements – Water Weird that feed on Panic, Ice White Beguiler which kill everything that makes a sound, and bog Lyegrabber which eats the Calcium from your bones. Solid.
Minimally viable elemental, cute, easily distracted, and potentially lethal in large groups (appearing – 1 or 10x1d10!) It’s basically a small Calcifer or elemental version of Kodama. The only elemental that can be your wizard’s Familiar. The part that gives it soul? cute and element-specific names, and silly behavior:
Another not really elemental classic monster. It’s canonically tricks you off the path and to your death. why would anyone ever follow it, and actually engage with the monster? Well, now the mere presence of the Wisp makes you very very lost: The bewitching light of a Will-o’-the-Wisp renders maps useless. PCs cannot consult or alter maps while a Will-o’-the-Wisp is visible. Good!
But more then this – how can you breath life into this old and well known monster? as usual, with tons of random tables: one for what it actually trying to do (maybe kill you, maybe give you tons of treasure) one for hazard it can lead you into, one for what it actually is and one for the random corpse you find in the bog, which is my favorite.
This book is really good. What you need as a GM is usually not a more complex statblocks (though it can also be useful) but monsters which feel alive and are interesting to face as players. Evocative and original description, reasonable maps, clear motivation for weird but cool creatures, tricks your players will be scared to face and weaknesses they will be thrilled to exploit, tons and tons of random tables. This is the book I want on the table while running a game. It combines the dry usability of technical manual and the soul of derange medieval bestiary.
It’s the real deal, go buy it.