Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Fiend Folio. Ugh.

Ugh. Just ugh.

I've had cause, as part of the design of Emprise!™, to go through the 1981 Fiend Folio in some detail. Sure, it's been a constant companion on my desk for months now, as I use it liberally in stocking the Castle of the Mad Archmage, but I pretty much stick there to the beasties I know and like. But this is the first time in a while I've had cause to go through it comprehensively, and boy did it leave a bad taste in my mouth.

I harken back to Ed Greenwood's review of the book when it first came out, in Dragon #55. He hits the nail on the head with his observation:
Monsters such as the Al-mi’raj and the Hook Horror have strange appearances and little else; there is no depth to their listings.
Personally, I find that applicable to many of the creatures contained within. Do we really need so many different foot-high mischievous creatures populating dungeons that are there to pilfer things and otherwise pose threats of inconvenience to the player characters? Jermlaine, meazels, mites, snyads, bookas, dark creepers, etc. Sheesh! I personally find the xvarts to be an acceptable addition to the roster of humanoids (unlike Greenwood in his review), but I wholeheartedly agree with him about some of the undead or pseudo-undead creatures such as the Eye of Fear and Flame and the Adherer. They're not long-term monsters to be included in an official roster of beasts; they're the sort of one-time creatures with strange and puzzling abilities that are part of any DM's bag of tricks.

I also find that certain of the creatures are simply too restricted for use. The gambado, for example, is only found in some hole topped by a skull. That certainly limits its usefulness. Too, the berbalang; it's write-up is so specific as to seem to be be taken verbatim from a module. Again; fine as a one-shot, but hardly worthy of inclusion in the full roster of creatures.

Some are simply so sparsely written or weird-for-weird's sake as to be unusable (the flumph, gorbel, tirapheg), while others are simply "different for the sake of difference" (the frost man) or so derivative as to be almost embarrassing (the disenchanter and kamdan, for example).

Some folks like the artwork, but I confess I loathe most of the art of the Fiend Folio. Again, quoting Greenwood's original review:
But many illustrations are irritating, in that they do not closely resemble depictions of the monsters already published in the official AD&D modules. The Mezzodaemon is one such example; so is the related Nycadaemon. Some illustrations are not as visually striking or as complete as those published earlier in the Fiend Factory (such as the Sheet Phantom, Tween, and Sandman) and the modules (the Kuo-Toa, Jermlaine, and Kelpie). Why the change, if it was not markedly for the better? Other illustrations are noticeably crude, particularly those of the Mephits and the Enveloper (which at first sight earned the nickname “Pillsbury Doughboy” among gamers at GEN CON XIV).
Couldn't agree more, and I might even go so far as to say I don't like any of the clunky bulky-armor type illustrations that we saw throughout the early days of White Dwarf, the style of which were obviously used in the Folio (and I might add Warhammer). Personal taste, of course, but I find more than a little of the modern style of art in those old British illustrations. And I dinnae like it.

On the other hand, there are definitely pieces of brilliance in the book. The slaad (invented, apparently, by the now-bestselling-science-fiction-author Charles Stross; I especially recommend the Singularity Sky series and Accelerando for those who are perhaps Transhumanistically inclined)  are not only needed but well developed. I like the new giants and humanoids, and while I think the Princes of Elemental Evil may owe their creation to a mistaken interpretation of the implications of the name "Temple of Elemental Evil" (this book came out before the module, so all we knew of the Temple was contained in the module T1 The Village of Hommlet), I still think they're well done. Mephits and the grell are also favorites of mine.

So... what this means is that, basically, don't expect to see the whole range of FF creatures in my own Bestiary. I've trimmed out the clunkers (well, what I consider the clunkers, anyway) and folded the rest in and amongst the denizens of the two Monster Manuals. Nobody will agree with all my choices, of course, but hopefully my reasoning is understandable.