Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Gamer ADD: Fiend Folio Part 1

Let me preface this by saying that one of my favorite poetic forms is haiku. It seems so easy — five syllables, seven syllable, five syllables; however, trying to create something truly beautiful with something so limited and small is a true challenge. This challenge often brings out my own creativity in a way that other forms of writing do not.

Thus, I was very much intrigued by Jeff Rient’s radical reduction of the 1ed PH weapon tables for his Wessex Campaign. Having had a lot of success, fun and creativity doing this sort of thing myself over the years I whole-heartedly agree with his assessment:
The lesson here might be that with a game as big as D&D one way of getting a handle on it is to cut it down to size.
Therefore, I happily followed him down the rabbit hole where he hypothesizes a campaign that only/primarily uses the Fiend Folio as its source for monsters. The FF had always been my favorite monster tome and I have gleefully used many of its inhabitants (even some of the goofiest).

This got my creative juices flowing and I am in full-on Gamer ADD mode. Given that I am not a huge fan of AD&D, the most likely way that I would ever implement such a concept would be with my favorite version of the game — B/X and its retro-clone LL. This gave me an intriguing way to further reduce the FF into a more easily digestible chunk — what would Basic D&D look like if it were only to use monsters from the FF?

Therefore, I went through the FF and gleaned only those monsters that might appear in the Wandering Monster Tables of a Basic D&D book — up to about 3+ Hit Dice . There are several very compelling implications to make about this list, so this will take multiple posts; however, I am going to begin with a criticism/concern.

As I was going through the FF and really trying to use it as a whole, one of its features really began to jump out at me — the length of each monster entry. It struck me that there are several truly creative and inspiring monsters like the Berbalang and Pênanggalan that I have never used because the flavor text was so long and complicated as to be virtually unusable for my style of fast and free play (who wants to skim through a page and a half of text to figure out how to use a randomly generated monster encounter?).

Curious, I did a cursory comparison of the FF to the MM. A quick (and probably inaccurate) count of monster headings in the Alphabetical Table of Contents revealed that the FF has about 161 and the MM about 212. The FF fits these headings into 91 pages while the MM does it in 97 pages. This means that while the FF averages less than 2 monsters per page (about 1.76), the MM has almost half an entry more per page (about 2.18). This only gets worse when one factors in monster headings that have a description followed by separate stat blocks like dragons and giants. The FF only manages to average 4 monsters per heading in these cases while the MM averages over 11 (11.4). In addition, the MM has a couple dozen entries that pack multiple stat blocks together (such as various animals with regular and giant versions). The FF has about three.

In other words, whereas the MM was one small step away from the bare-bones monster entries of OD&D and which made the MM one of those tomes that I constantly go back to no matter what version of the game I play, the FF is one (big?) step toward the over-complexity of later editions. Actually reading and re-reading some of these entries I am not sure if their length is a function of the complication of the game over time or simply an editorial need to fill enough space to justify a page count (probably both).

The implications of this for a Basic edition doesn’t bode well. Both the complexity and the verbosity of monster entries suggest a higher page count than 64, something I am not thrilled about. This is especially true when one considers that much of the complexity seems to be related to the growing canon of AD&D world/cosmology concepts like the various planes of existence.

The concept of the inner and outer planes has never set well with me, even before I became an Orthodox Christian. If, then, the page count beyond 64 is primarily taken up by cosmology and how it affects the game world not only are we one step closer to RPGs that spend more time telling us about their world than on mechanics (and thus limiting player freedom), but (more importantly) I may never have played the game.

Since my first exposure to D&D was with the Holmes edition, which itself was an exercise in DYI D&D, I have always been acutely aware of the freedom I had to mix and match as I please with the various components of the rules. AD&D (despite some of the claims of Gygax himself) was never the official way to play the game. Holmes gave me permission to fiddle as much as I wanted to. If my first exposure to D&D had been something I envision a Basic D&D flavored by the implications of only using FF monsters might be — complicated and constricting — I may have left D&D behind for greener pastures (the original Traveller comes to mind).


  1. Sounds like a fun project. Gygax embraced a number of the Fiend Folio monsters (even beyond the ones he created), incorporating them into the encounter tables in the World of Greyhawk box set (1983), and using them in WG4 The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun.

    A number of the Fiend Folio monsters debuted in White Dwarf, and were written for OD&D.

    I worked up some lists last Dec covering the above info that are covered here:
    Fiend Folio Sources & Uses

    The dungeon level tables in the back of the book should give some guidance as to which monsters are Basic level. Of course, if going by Holmes alone we shouldn't be limited by HD!

    The recent Complete Tome of Monsters for Swords & Wizardry may include Fiend Folio monsters. I haven't seen the whole thing but IIRC correctly the preview I saw had a Babbler in it.

    The unfortunate trend for increasing length in monster descriptions continued into 2nd edition. I have one of the 2E Monster Compendiums and each monster has an entire page.

  2. A lot of those lengthy descriptions (like for the revenant, penaggolan, meenlock) result from the attempt to simulate horror fiction and legends in a roleplaying context. It's not enough to have the monster, it must have a set M. O. of stalking, haunting, and killing.

    Along with the SF flavor of many of the other monsters, this is what gives FF its unique old school feel.

  3. Nice idea, Fr. Dave. I've always liked the FF (Flumphs aside) and never understood the contempt for it so many feel. I'll be interested to see how this project turns out.