DFRPG Review: Monsters

This entry is part 4 of 6 in the series Dungeon Fantasy RPG Review

The fourth volume of the Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game is the bestiary of enemies standing between the characters and their loot. Monsters is a 66 page PDF written by Sean Punch.

Covers and Front Matter

Cover of DFPRG: Monsters
Cover of DFPRG: Monsters

Once again, the front cover of this volume sets the scene for adventure. A ghastly army of undead, accompanied by a flaming skull and a lich, prepare to take on the trespassing adventurers.

The back cover is primarily a reference for the hex grid. There is a table showing how many hexes creatures of various size occupy and diagrams for facing. The size and speed/range table is also included, as are rules for randomly rolling wandering monsters. The information here is helpful, but it won’t be referred to as frequently as the rules on the other covers.

The one page Introduction has a few tips for determining what monsters to throw at the PCs. Much of the advice boils down to “read the stat blocks and think”; more guidance for new GMs would have been useful.

Monsters in Action

The first chapter is five pages long and gives general GM advice for running monsters. The chapter is divided into two main sections: one from the delvers’ point of view and one from the monsters’ point of view.

The delvers’ POV explains how the PCs can interact with monsters prior to fighting. There are rules for recognizing what kinds of creatures they are facing, identifying weaknesses, and avoiding fights through stealth, negotiation, or trickery. This information is useful, particularly for new players, but putting it in the Monsters volume instead of Exploits means that players may not read it and may instead depend on the GM to let them know what options they have.

The monsters’ POV highlights combat rules that will be important for antagonists, which are referenced back to Exploits. This section includes several pages on how monsters think in combat, suggesting ideas for tactics, using terrain, and other helpful advice for the GM.

Monster Traits

The second chapter is a six-page list of various traits that monsters have. These traits show up as keywords in the monster descriptions, so GMs will need to refer to this chapter frequently while they are learning the game.

This chapter is dense: with the exception of a pair of sidebars and two small illustrations, there is nothing but traits and their definitions. Fortunately, the traits themselves are written clearly.

The Bestiary

The remainder of the main text—48 pages—is devoted to monster descriptions. There are about 80 monster groupings, with many of the groupings including variations or various species.

There’s a lot of positives in this section. There is a great selection of monsters; the list includes everything from giant spiders and direwolfs to dragons and liches. There are a variety of Elder Things that are grotesque to the human mind, zombies that want to eat minds, and slimes that have no mind. Each creature has at least a couple paragraphs of description for how it functions in combat, and there are enough mechanical differences between creatures that combats will feel unique. GMs can find creatures to fit almost any scene in this volume.

Unfortunately, finding the right creatures is not easy. There are a lot of organization and layout issues that make this chapter less functional than it should be. The monsters are listed alphabetically, but in a haphazard way. Orcs are under G (for “Goblin-Kin,” along with goblins and hobgoblins), but acid spider and giant spider are under A and G, respectively, while erupting slime, slime, and undead Slime are distributed through E, S, and U. Horde zombies are under H, while normal zombies are under Z. Elementals are grouped together under E, but ice weasels and ice wyrms are listed under I (while cold dragons are included with the dragon listing under D).

There is a long list of “Giant X” entries instead of putting entries under Ape, Giant; Rat, Giant; etc. Giant apes are listed with the other giant creatures, while flesh-eating apes and gladiator apes reside in their own area of the alphabet.

The bottom line is that the alphabetical listing is inconsistent. There are no other ways to look up creatures. Despite the suggestion in the Introduction for GMs to find monsters that fit the environment, there is no index to find creatures by environment. There’s also no way to look up creatures by how challenging they are to adventures, a point that I will come back to shortly.

The layout of this chapter is also subpar. Monster stat blocks frequently break across pages, making it difficult to look at a monster on a tablet at the table. There are a handful of sidebars in this chapter, but their placement seems random. The sidebar on Creating Monsters is buried in the second-to-last page of the chapter, when it should be featured front and center in this book; the poor placement ensures that GMs will miss this important information unless they read the book cover to cover. Some sidebars include information that is important for creatures that are many pages away, with no info in the monsters’ block that tells the GM to look at that sidebar. Several sidebars are even put in the middle of stat blocks, instead of between monster entries, making it even harder to reference the monsters’ information at the table. In the PDF, the sidebars also disrupt the digital outline; in the other volumes the interruptions are not bad, but in the alphabetical listing of monsters the entries for the sidebars add unhelpful noise.

The other layout problem is that monster stat blocks still feel like dense lists of traits, especially for more complex creatures. Adventurers made huge progress in simplifying character templates; it’s a shame that a key component of the monster stats remains a run-on paragraph listing of keywords & trait levels.

Although most of the Dungeon Fantasy books have been thin on interior art, the bestiary is one place where the lack of art feels like a genuinely inferior product, and not merely a missed opportunity. The industry norm for high-end games is a fully illustrated bestiary, and the mere 11 illustrations in this chapter fall well short of that standard. Worse, several of the images are dedicated to relatively obvious creatures like the giant rat, giant spider, and zombie; unique creatures like the as-Sharak, karkadann, and Watcher at the Edge of Time are confined to the text. The cartoon style of illustrations also feels cheap, and it’s inconsistent with the imagery featured in the gorgeous front covers.

As mentioned earlier, there is no way for GMs to quickly determine how lethal creatures are. GURPS combat has so many options and so many diverse character types that a fully worked out challenge system is probably an unrealistic goal. But, GURPS needs to provide more to GMs than the meager advice in Monsters and Exploits. At the very minimum, breaking creatures into tiers of difficulty could help GMs build encounters. A simple three tier system would be 1) monsters that PCs should be able to handle in packs, 2) monsters strong enough to challenge a party on their own or in pairs, and 3) monsters that PCs need exceptional luck, planning, or resources to tackle successfully.

Back Matter

The last two pages of the book are an index, with separate sub-indices for advantages, disadvantages, and monsters, and a page for GMs to take notes on creature, trap, and disease stats. The monster index alleviates some of the organizational issues in the bestiary; there is a standalone entry for orcs, and the various types of golems, slimes, etc. scattered through the alphabet are grouped together under the appropriate headword. However, the separate main index, advantage index, and disadvantage index seem unnecessary. The GM notes page is fine, although the diseases and traps pages seem like a more natural fit for Exploits than Monsters.

Overall Thoughts

This book exemplifies the highs and lows of the Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game. The content of the bestiary is great; there is a wide variety of creatures, and the various abilities show off the versatility of GURPS. While combats in other hack-and-slash games can feel mechanically repetitive, the richness of GURPS combat (and GURPS characters in general) comes through in how different it feels fighting zombies and flaming skulls.

On the other hand, the production value of this volume is low. The layout makes it hard to use the text in game, and the organization challenges the GM’s ability to find what they need when preparing. There is too much admonition without concrete guidance to help new GMs build their combat encounters, and the meager art is well below expectations for a major RPG publisher in 2017.