Wednesday, December 8, 2021

About a Groats-Worth of Grotesques

 A Groats-Worth of Grotesques is a big bestiary for OSR games.

I've received a print copy for review from the author George Edward Patterson. The DrivethruRPG print-on-demand version is a nice big A4 softcover book, counting 251 pages. It was released in May 2021.

From the DrivethruRPG blurb:

Being a SYSTEM-AGNOSTIC Role Playing supplemental treatise ON MONSTERS; which is to say a BESTIARY for your Tabletop Games of Fantasy. Styled in the manner of the Baroque Period; a Curiosity Cabinet of Creatures for enlivening the table!

The over 100 entries were gathered out of sundy authors, philosophers, physicians, and poets; sacred and profane. The illustrations are collages of diverse prints and emblems. From the lowly ant to the earth shattering Behemoth, the mundane dog to the alien Ch M G, this collection is a rollicking gambol through history and myth.

The blurb itself shows the (awesome, to me) baroque, anachronistic language style of the book, which aims at making it an in-world bestiary collecting information and rumors as they would be reported by sages and chroniclers of your fantasy world.

While the blurb describes it as system-agnostic, each creature entry includes simple game statistics (AC, HD, damage, and special features) which make them easily portable to most OSR games.

Things I liked:

  • Art. Lots of it. Each creature entry is accompanied by at least one public domain image (engraving) which has been, in most cases, artfully photoshopped to better match the author's idea. Public domain engravings have a long tradition of cheap (and fascinating) art for RPGs, so this might sound as nothing new. But what's here is stunning: the quantity and variety of images is insane, and the quality of the alterations is stylish and serves the author's ideas very well.
  • The baroque textual style. The book is presented as a XVI century bestiary: The book title and general introduction, and the first description of each entry feature a marked and remarkable baroque style, which obviously matches the art. The creature descriptions are particularly fascinating as they weave bizarre observations by a writing persona that is implied to be from the implicit game world.
  • The general theme of the grotesque. The creatures presented can be divided in thee groups: ordinary creatures, "classic" fantasy creatures, and unusual creatures. The first groups features creatures such as ants, camels, bears and so on, and imaginary creatures. The trick in the book is that all of them have at least one unusual feature which makes them interesting and subtly weird. The same applies to "classic" fantasy creatures (these include Dragons, Hell Hounds, Leucrotas, Mantichoras, Giants, Griffins and others): all have a twist, a unique take, and often a series of variants which are often all you need to make your classic fantasy game feel fresh without turning its monster fauna into an all new, completely unfamiliar, world. The last group is made of creatures that are new. A few examples: Bishop Fish, Vegetable Lamb, Filth Licker, Haunted Umbrella, and the Wonderful Two-Headed Girl. These are brilliant and and are the incarnation of the grotesque theme. Surreal, otherworldly, somewhere between nightmare and fairy tale, and yet somehow with a very real feel to them.

In short: I'm impressed with this book, which deserves more attention than it's had so far.

I can see this book as an excellent resource for a series of OSR games: Old-School Essentials, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Sword & Wizardry, and any other post-clone like Knave or Maze Rats. Especially if you want to inject your "classic" fantasy campaign with bits of unusual, surreal, fantastic, horrific, surprising creatures, and even more so if you want to completely put aside classic creatures for new ones.

A final note on price. At the time of writing this, the A4, 251 pages softcover is priced a mere $13.99, which is a lot of bang for your buck, when compared with many other products with a much lower page count, and the PDF is $4.99.

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