Mind Storm Labs kindly forwarded a copy of their latest release “The Encountered: Volume 1” for the “Alpha Omega” role-playing game. I often review new gaming products, but this is the first time I reviewed a dedicated bestiary supplement, essentially a book of creatures, both benign and malignant for the PCs to test their skills against. Before I started to read the book I took some time to define the criteria I would use in my evaluation. Monster supplements to my thinking need clear, simple layouts for quick reference during combat encounters, quality art so the GM has something to describe to his players and rules for building encounters and/or creating new creatures.
Production quality on the 285-page book and pages is excellent. “The Encountered” (TE) binding is solid and the cover is a disturbing glossy black with the suggestion of dark creatures surrounding the logo. I applaud the use of minimal art on the cover, a bit of a risk when marketing, but I think better than putting the best art on the cover that screams “BUY ME” on a game store shelf. Interior pages are high-gloss paper and in full color with excellent print quality.
The high-quality printing is clearly necessary because of the art. Art that is simply stunning! I do not have the words to do the art justice, so here are a couple of samples.
Every monster page has art of this quality on it. The game’s theme is very dark and the art reflects this very well. In fact, much of the art depicts man-eating monsters eating men! The artist is fond of bloody violence in his art with lots of decapitations and partially devoured victims. Great stuff! However, some of the art borders on the is disturbing, so for the first time ever on this blog I am giving parents fair warning that their 8-year-old should probably not read this book. That said, I cannot say enough good things about the artwork.
Update: I tracked down some additional non-Alpha/Omega work by the lead illustrator Matt Bradbury. I thought you might be interested in his other work.
In terms of game utility, most monster entries are a single page. The left side has the skills and abilities and at the bottom are the standard attacks. Special attacks like acid spitting or poison attacks are in a completely separate area on top of the artwork. This feature impressed me because I often overlook special abilities buried in stat blocks. By setting the “cool” attacks totally apart from the other stat information, I found it easier to find them. Good for the GM, bad for the PCs.
The graphic design of each entry is very clean, with lots of icons and color-coding to make it very obvious what each section on the page does. Towards the end of the book, I forgot to read whether or not the creature was a spirit or a demon and just looked at the color code at the top of each page. It speaks to serious thought going into actually using the book in a game rather than just reading it.
In addition to the 200 creature entries, TE introduces seven new factions to the “Alpha Omega” world. Each faction has a theme, like bio-engineering or robotics. Besides plot hook value and back story, the factions also created many of the creatures and use them as tools to further their goals. The entire book intentionally resembles an intelligence report from NWSEC (New World Science and Engineering Commision) an in-game intelligence and research organization, so all of this story fluff added a layer of depth to the monster entries. Each faction also receives an entry to give a bit more background about their origins.
Once past the monster entries, TE gives a lucid and clear process for creating your own creatures, giving them characteristics and assigning pre-built templates to them. Templates are guides to adding abilities or vulnerabilities to your creation with numeric value bonuses already assigned. For example, the “brawler” template boosts athletic, health pool and unarmed combat statistics, but the “clever” template adds to wit and wisdom. Everything is very clearly explained and simple to follow, so making a new monster is quite easy. It is literally step-by-step.
Now that you have some monsters, you need to design an encounter. Encounter design is always difficult. Either you choose a monster that is too easy to kill and the combat ends too quickly or a monster annihilates the party without really trying. TE recognizes this fact and spends an entire chapter discussing encounter design and I am happy to say that the writer understands this issue. I know this because of a single sentence.
…it is ultimately impossible to accurately measure the capabilities of a group of PC’s and creatures in a simple, consistent manner.
Finally, a game designer that understands (and admits) that no amount of math or playtesting will ever resolve the “too easy/too hard” encounter problem in a simple way. It is far more an art than a science, but TE provides some help and guidance. First, they actually include tables with average damage based on dice rolled. I now know that the average of 5d8 is 22.5, so I can look at my party and see if they can take that amount of damage on a regular basis. Simple formulas based on party statistics and the monster in question provide guidance as well. Of course, experienced GMs will not need these features, but it is a tremendous aid to a new GM.
If you want a closer look at some of the rules and more art, you can download the “The Encountered–Volume 1” PDF preview from the Mindstorm site.
“The Encountered: Volume 1” receives my highest recommendation, not only for its excellent art and graphic design and story-telling but for taking the time to make the book easier to use at the game table and providing advice for new GMs. I also have a copy of the first “Alpha Omega” module entitled “Milk Run” and will post on that in the very near future.
Trask, The Last Tyromancer