Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Make your own monster manual...

Seeing Monday’s interview with Rob Heinsoo, the architect of the new Fourth Edition of D&D, I got an old thrill. I never played 3rd edition—I moved around too much for the last ten years to find a group to play with. But Dungeons and Dragons is embedded into my brain, my way of thinking—for instance, I’ve just finished reading Neil Gaiman’s forthcoming The Graveyard Book, and immediately I saw the possibilities of playing whole campaigns in that world. It’s a way of absorbing and making your own some of the awesome things we read, especially the creations of incredible world-building authors.

And from the interview, it looks like it will be easier than ever to adapt the ideas of folk tales, myth, and fiction to this new edition. I thought I’d write a little about two books on my shelves, two amazing bestiaries, and then toss it out to everybody out there.

First, the classic Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges is an amazing find. I love it just for the depth of Borges’ research (I mean, he includes the Simourgh, a mythical bird from the classic 12th century Persian mystical poem The Conference of the Birds by Farid ud-Din Attar) and for the sense of whimsy he has about these creatures, what they are, and their ultimate significance. In other words, the books gets you thinking about the monsters and beasts in ways that stretch and tantalize your imagination.

The other bestiary I love is the recently published Beasts! edited by Jacob Covey and published by Fantagraphics. Each entry has a small paragraph of mythology or folklore followed by a full page painting or illustration by some of today’s most exciting cartoonists, illustrators, and graphic artists. We’re talking Art Chantry, Brian Ralph, Tim Biskup, Colleen Coover, Mat Brinkman—artists who’ve done some of the coolest comics, rock posters, grafitti, and graphics around today. The first edition sold out, but the paperback will be available in October, about the same time as the second volume comes out.

So, what’s your favorite catalog of strange creatures and mythical things?


Paul Hughes said...

Glad you liked the interview, Justin! And I think you're right, that it will be easier than ever to incorporate literary (and other) worlds into D&D now. I remember doing that when I first played RPGs in junior high in the early '80s. We would always try to stat out and use creatures and locales that we read about or even saw in movies.

Coincidentally, I'm also one of the writers for BEASTS!, and when we were brainstorming creatures for the new edition, one of the places we looked for inspiration was in D&D books--even in the old Fiend Folio and Monster Manual. So for example in the new BEASTS!, you'll see a few classic D&D creatures pop up, everything from Basilisks to the Tarrasque to Frost Giants--although the traditional legends we (and the artists) followed often differed greatly from the game interpretations.

Anonymous said...

I love BEASTS!, in part because it touches on the subject just enough to spark something between the art and the description. It's easy in a situation like that to say too much.

What I remember from the 80's was the wealth of really bad gaming material--fly by night supplementary stuff that had never heard of an editor or professional illustrator. However, what was cool about all that bad stuff is that it was like junk food for the imagination: if somebody else put together a resource that had six headed trolls wielding ray guns, then why the hell can't I have my seventeen variations of carniverous giant beetles, or balls of light, or chairs, or whatever...

Sarah Stevenson said...

These both sound great--not just because I occasionally play D&D, but because I just think bestiaries are cool (call me weird...) I have an old one by T.H. White, the author of The Once and Future King--it's a translation of a 12th-century Latin bestiary.

I'll have to pass these along to gaming friends!