Supplement Review: Midgard Bestiary, Volume 1 by Josh Jarman from Open Design

A couple of years ago when Bioware released Dragon Age: Origins for the PC, it didn’t take me long to buy it and install it. I even played for quite a while until I got to a battle that I couldn’t get past. I spent two weeks trying different methods until I finally gave up and moved on. Though I liked the dark fantasy background, it was a single game scenario that caused me to stop playing.

So when Green Ronin released the Dragon Age RPG, I was intrigued by the premise of roleplaying in the world but never managed to pick up a copy of the game. Then, on Free RPG Day 2011, I picked up the Dragon Age Quickstart Guide. It’s been sitting in a pile to take a look at… until today.

When I started looking at the Midgard Bestiary, Volume 1, I immediately noticed terms like “stunts” that I hadn’t seen before. Thanks to Green Ronin’s generosity on Free RPG Day, I was able to brush up a bit on how the AGE system works. After a read-through of the quickstart, I would say it’s more than just a streamlining of a D&D-like rules system. For instance, I love the simplicity of the ability score plus focus mechanic as opposed to having a more complicated skills-based system. And the idea of Stunts is awesome – similar to a house rule I used for ages I referred to as “brownie points.”

Ultimately, between the streamlined, yet super-flexible ability/focus mechanic and the ability to do stunts to make certain actions count for more than others when you need a little boost, I think the AGE system has a lot going for it. I’d like to see a modern version of the AGE system (perhaps using Technology vs. Magic as an ability score) to see how it might translate to an urban fantasy or horror setting.

Anyway, as you might have noticed, I got a bit distracted as I dove into the AGE system that the Midgard Bestiary, Volume 1, but let’s get back to it now.

First, let me say that I think Wolfgang Baur and the rest of the kobolds at Open Design working on the world of Midgard are opening a great big door by providing a world monster supplement for a game system other than 4e or Pathfinder RPG. I’m a big fan of an open approach, because the more people can use in their favorite system, the more likely they are to actually pick up other supplements. Midgard is a big place – there’s no reason why AGE, 4e, and Pathfinder RPG supplements couldn’t form a huge patchwork to form a better picture of the setting as a whole, is there?

Within the pages of this bestiary, there are fifty different monsters – from the magical treant parasite Ala to the mechanized Zobeck Legionnaire. Each monster gets a single page with a description, a stat block, and a picture. Though some descriptions and stat blocks are bigger than others, it’s great having a one-monster-per-page layout. A minor nit with the layout is that sometimes the stat block overlaps the picture of the monster, but that’s pretty easy to overlook for the great content. Plus, the compressed stat blocks of the AGE system work well to describe everything you need to know about a monster quickly. From abilities (and foci) to combat ratings, attacks, favored stunts, and more. I did find it a bit odd that there was no mention of monster size in the stat blocks, which made it difficult to tell how long a reach some of these critters have on a combat map.

One of my favorites is the Bemmean Wizard, who uses a Black Geas to make sure his (or her) hirelings do exactly what they’ve been contracted to do. I’ve always been fascinated with magical tattoos, so the concept of a tattoo almost branding and enslaving an adventurer into serving the goals of the wizard is interesting. That said, I was curious if there were methods for removing the tattoo at the end of a contract? Or does it simply change to an inert state somehow or fade over time? What happens if you have a character working for more than one Bemmean Wizard? Does each wizard have his or her own unique tattoo? Though the assignments given by Bemmean Wizards are often dangerous or suicidal, are there characters out there who take it upon themselves to beat these challenges and collect tattoos like trophies?

Another favorite is the Clockwork Hound, where the picture reminded me of Max, the bionic dog from The Bionic Woman. (Yes, I’m old. And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, look for clips from “The Bionic Dog” episode on YouTube!) The idea of three of these things hunting in a pack should terrify any enterprising thief in Zobeck. The scarier part is that they may not do much damage (1d6+3 bite) but if their masters in the secret police don’t catch up fast enough they may rip you to pieces if you try to escape. And what happens if some of the Zobeck Legionnaires go rogue and want pets? I’d hate to get between a mechanical soldier and his mechanical dog…

The Weaving Spider also presents a bit of a clockwork horror. I can imagine these little magic sewing constructs creating more than a few nightmares if you stumbled into a weaver’s shop and found them working on a project. Though I’m sure they’re quite useful to members of the Honorable Order of Weavers, I’d hate to see a swarm get turned loose on a customer who decides not to pay the agreed-to price to the merchant.

My favorite picture in the whole book is for the Spark. This little critter from another elemental plane really wants to get to know its victims. The picture of the goblin infected by the spark speaks volumes about the goblin’s mental state with its goofy grin, tongue lolling about, and blank stare. Remind my characters to avoid any big storms on Midgard any time soon so he can avoid being taken over by one of these things. I’d hate to be charged with electrical energy long enough to toss a few lightning bolts only to die as it leaves to find another host…

Writer Josh Jarman along with the other writers who helped and the artists who put a face on each creature have done an amazing job of creating a fiendish collection of monsters to cause players more than a little grief and more than a few GMs more than a little relief and inspiration. What’s fun, is that even though the book is well written – the best part about the book is what isn’t said. The hints and suggestions at deeper histories, overriding goals and plans, and more should offer plenty of food for imaginative GMs to run with, whether they use these creatures for Dragon Age or port them to another system. Sometimes it’s the mere suggestion that such beings exist that can spurn a GM on to creating unique ways to torture delight their players!

But I’ll leave you with a thought
from Jeff Tidball (AGE System Lead Developer at Green Ronin) out of his introduction to the book. Though many of the monsters in this book are variations on themes that have existed before in other games, it’s those variations that make a difference…

“In the same way that 100,000 rock bands have written a few million songs based on the same three chords, 100,000 game masters have written millions of adventures that are all interesting and fun in their own way because the soul of an adventure is found not in its skeleton, but in its unique variations of muscle and flesh.”
— Jeff Tidball, “Introduction,” Midguard Bestiary, Volume 1

If you’re looking for a few creatures to inspire you to create great adventures and put some new flesh on those bones, definitely take a look at the Midgard Bestiary, Volume 1 from writer Josh Jarman and the kobolds at Open Design. I’d be surprised if you didn’t find at least a few nuggets between these pages to get a few brain cells firing!

Check out the Midgard Bestiary, Volume 1 at the Kobold Quarterly Store or at RPGNow today!

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