What Do I Know About Reviews? Kobold Guide to Monsters

I’ve said it before, but I love books about RPGs. I enjoy the discussion of how and why we game, and why we do the things we do. Kobold Press has consistently been putting out various guides that address these topics from various angles, and the most recent one is the Kobold Guide to Monsters. Like previous Kobold Guide books, this is a series of essays, collected along various sub-topics, looking at an aspect of RPGs. In this case, monsters.

The Book of Fiend-ish Essays

This review is based on the PDF version of the product, which is 114 pages long. This includes a page of reviews of previous Kobold Guides, a page of authors, a credits page, a table of contents, and an ad for previous Kobold Guides at the end of the book.

If you have seen the other Kobold Guides, you will see the same layout and format for this book. This is a single column book, with headers denoting different sections of an essay, with full page breaks between the sub-topics contained in the book.

What Are We Looking At

The book has three sections, within the broader theme of monsters in RPGs.

  • On Concepting Monsters
  • On Detailing Monsters
  • On Using Monsters

Concepting monsters is largely about creating new monsters or determining what you want to change about existing monsters. Detailing monsters spends its time looking at why monsters do the things they do, and how to communicate that to players. Using monsters talks about what a game looks like when you combine monsters with their purpose in a story.

The authors for the various sections include the following:

On Concepting Monsters

  • Mike Mason
  • Wolfgang Baur
  • Celeste Conowitch
  • James Haek

On Detailing Monsters

  • Monte Cook
  • Crystal Frasier
  • Micheal E. Shae
  • Kelly Pawlik

On Using Monsters

  • Shawn Merwin
  • Meagan Maricle
  • Kate Baker
  • Steve Winter
  • Shanna Germain
  • Vee Mus’e
  • Luis Loza

I’m not going to do a deep dive into each of the essays, but I did want to point out a few of my favorites in each section.

In the first section, my favorite essays are those written by Wolfgang Baur and Celeste Conowitch. Baur’s entry resonates with me, because it touches on the idea that you want some aspects of a monster to be familiar, while retaining some surprises. It focuses on creatures from folklore, and how part of the fun of using them is providing some aspect of what is known about them, while adding in some abilities that the player characters may not suspect but won’t feel “wrong” in implementation. Conowitch’s entry is about emulating pop culture monsters, but the part I especially appreciated is her discussion of how what the monster does outside of combat doesn’t need to be justified with statistics.

In the second section, my favorites are the essays by Crystal Frasier and Kelly Pawlik, which in some ways are the opposite approach. Frasier’s essay discusses analyzing monster behavior by applying the hierarchy of needs to the creature’s behavior. Pawlik’s talks about looking at what you need to detail and how based on who your target audience is.

Among my favorites in the third section are Meagan Maricle’s and Shanna Germain’s essays. Meagan Maricle’s discusses the overall story and how monsters fit into the story structure, and how to connect the monsters to the PCs even before a confrontation. Germain’s essay looks at befriending monsters as allies and the consequences that action might have to the game.

These are not the only essays worth reading, just my personal favorites in each section.

Monstrous Benefits

One thing that is an increasing benefit in the Kobold Guides is that it allows a lot of talented designers and developers to speak directly to an audience when their contributions are often filtered through the expression of game rules. It gives the reader a reason to go back through their RPG books and note who contributed to them, and then informs the reader of the mindset of the person working on that project. The information provided is engaging and insightful.

Wandering Monsters

The individual topic headings seem well defined, but the essays do bleed into other topics, back and forth. Additionally, many of the essays, while good, are more about encounter design and table management than an actual discussion on monsters. As is often the case with essays from a wide range of authors, several authors may touch on the same subjects, and that’s great when they have different perspectives, but often they have a shared view of “best practices,” which come across in multiple essays.

Qualified Recommendation–A product with lots of positive aspects, but buyers may want to understand the context of the product and what it contains before moving it ahead of other purchases.

My only real caveat for this book is that it’s not a “101” level book for new game masters. This is great analysis, but it’s also the kind of analysis that may dive more deeply into the conceptual than a more casual gamer may want. This is an engaging “201” level book.

That said, if you are interested in behind-the-scenes analysis of how monsters are developed, or you want to see theories of how monsters push the narrative of a game, or perhaps most importantly, you want to have access to voices working in the RPG industry now, this is a good product to consume.

Consume, like a monster, waiting in its lair, trapped and isolated from food sources for an agonizing amount of time . . . waiting.

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