Creature Collection Capsule Review by Bradford C. Walker on 06/01/03
Style: 3 (Average)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)
As you wait for the revised version, look back to see what launched the Scarred Lands into what it is today.
Product: Creature Collection
Author: Various Contributors
Company/Publisher: Sword & Sorcery Studios
Line: Scarred Lands
Cost: $24.95 (US)
Page count: 224 pages
Year published: 2000
Comp copy?: no
Capsule Review by Bradford C. Walker on 06/01/03
Genre tags: Fantasy Horror Post-apocalyse Other
In light of the upcoming release of Creature Collection Revised, I find it wise to look back upon the product that’s about to be superceded: the first Creature Collection.
Sword & Sorcery Studios’ Creature Collection is one of the first third-party d20 products meant for use with Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition. This 224 page hardcover book is a third-party book of monsters, one published before Wizards of the Coast published the official Monster Manual, that presents an array of creatures and constructs that exist in the Scarred Lands campaign setting. This book presents just enough information on the Scarred Lands—a couple of paragraphs of background—for a reader to see the presented material in context. Today the book’s major faults are known, and as of this writing the Sword & Sorcery Studios website continues to display the errata for the book’s errant Challenge Ratings and Climate/Terrain descriptions. That said, this product’s impact is significant- and not just for Scarred Lands fans. It is a landmark d20 System product, and its influence continues to this day.
The book is simple in its presentation. The cover is like white marble with black stripes in the shape of old-style book hinges/bindings, with clawed heraldic device centered on the front and the standard cover blurb on the back. Inside, each entry starts on its own page and continues on for as long as necessary. While this is, technically, an inefficient use of space it does make the Creature Collection far, far easier to read and use than the official Monster Manual. (Note: This feature is the biggest influence that the Creature Collection had on d20 products to date.) The artwork casts a dark pall over the whole of the work, which goes a long way towards establishing the feel of mythological menace and savagery that the monsters of the Scarred Lands are said to possess. I liked it then, and I like it now, but some of the artwork is better than others. It also seems as if some of the artists didn’t get accurate descriptions of what they illustrated, as typified by the piece for the Albadian Battle Dog. As annoying as the art mismatches may be, it does not detract from the overall functionality of the book. Despite the artistic flaws, the Creature Collection is still a remarkably clean product that is easy-to-read and easy-to-use during game-play.
As for the content, it is as varied as I implied above. You’ve got your variants on many a standard race—dwarf, halfling, elf, goblin variants—and some standard creatures (rocs, for example) that better fit what Sword & Sorcery Studios want out of the Scarred Lands. You’ve got plenty of setting-specific monsters, all of which are tied into the immediate or ancient history of the setting in rather direct ways, that vary in power from something less than a 1st level D&D character to something that even 20th level characters will fear. You've got all sorts of weird creatures, including a demigoddess, that will keep jaded players shocked and amazed for months or years such as the Well Spirit and the Bloodmare. The sampling provided is varied enough to allow a GM to use it alone for some time—as many Scarred Lands GM have—and there are a few standouts that deserve due attention:
Gorgons: This reinvention of the Greek monster away from both its Greek and D&D incarnations, yet honoring both, is a welcome change. By separating the creature into two types—the Low Gorgon that refers to the D&D version and the High Gorgon that refers to its Greek origins—the book simultaneously pays homage to previous versions while transforming the concept into something new for the setting. I dig it; I can have menacing beasts, cunning villains or both and still have them be gorgons. It helps that they share the same creatrix: the Titan called Mormo, Queen of Serpents. These snake-themed creatures will ruin many a hero’s day.
The Mithril Golem: I love giant robots, and that’s what this thing is all right. This is the servant of the god Corean, and it’s also the landmark around which the city of Mithril arose. The stats given here are almost superfluous, since any event that would prompt the golem’s reanimation would certainly result in a Godzilla-like disaster that results in Mithril getting stomped into rubble. Normally, I’d not like this sort of thing but I can’t help but think it’s neat here. The background behind it—that Corean made it to help wrestle Titans to the ground whereby the gods could hack them to bits—put the image of Ultraman or Jet Jaguar helping Godzilla against Rodan or something. It could happen again, given what’s present (and what’s come since), so it fits to give the giant mithril golem stats that would make demigods blanch.
Hags: For some reason, hags are usually one of the neglected monster types until a PC gets his hands on polymorph self (or something like it). Not in this book! This book presents a variety of hags, and then it goes on to say how much of a menace they are to the people of the Scarred Lands. There are a handful of new types, and they are found all over the face of this new world. GMs will not find it hard to use these hags as villains or minions to villains.
Ratmen: It’s about time that someone other than Games Workshop did this, and I rather pleased with what I see here. I’ve got a substitute race to fill the roles of all goblinoids, orcs and even drow with this race alone. Every time I read these entries I see one adventure after another feature these things and their allies coming forth to do Bad Things to Desperate Innocents while the heroes struggle to put them down. This is good stuff, and I am glad to see that the Ratmen—the Slitheren—caught on over the past two years with the players. This is an example of a well-done creature, and I hope to see its use expand beyond Scarred Lands (and early Necromancer) products.
Carnival of Shadows: These villains are fascinating. Just reading their entries in this book (and its sequel)—as with the Ratmen—compel adventures from my mind, seeking to find a hook upon which I can bring player-characters into conflict with them. It has a Ravenloft feel to it, and I can dig that in limited amounts. In this book, the one that gets me most is the Necromantic Golem. (I just like giant constructs, I guess.)
Again, most of these monsters are specific to the Scarred Lands campaign setting, but some of them ought to be used elsewhere. (Two of them—the Iron Tusker and the Sandmasker—reappeared under different names in Wizards’ Monster Manual II.) The Ratmen, as I said above, are best for this. Following would be the hags, the golems and the many animals, beasts and magical beasts. I’d like to see this happen, and I would hope that the revised edition better facilities this sharing of Open Game Content.
As noted previously, the Challenge Ratings are quite off and the Climate/Terrain entries don’t conform to the standard established by the D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide. If you buy this book, then you can acquire the appropriate errata at the Sword & Sorcery Studios website. Even so, I advise that you chat with other Scarred Lands users to see how best to use the content in this book. Practical experiences with the monsters in this book can and do provoke passionate discussions as to how accurate an entry’s Challenge Rating may be. More so than most, your mileage will vary with these monsters; proceed with caution, be you the GM running the game or the player at his table.
Normally I’d recommend buying this book; instead, I’ll recommend looking into Creature Collection Revised when it arrives as this revision of the Creature Collection should take care of all of the factual and mechanical errors. Should you not want to wait, or if you find a used copy in good condition for a good price, go on and pick it up anyway. It’s not like the original version will suddenly become unusable in your Scarred Lands games. As always, you will have to decide for yourself if this if for you--it certainly is if you want to get into the setting--but do check it out.