Bite-Sized Review: Dungeon Fantasy Monsters 2 – Powered by GURPS

I am a bit late to the party, since the newest Dungeon Fantasy RPG offering has come out almost almost two months ago. But since that has only been the PDF and the print version is still to be shipped out, I think this still qualifies as hot off the press.

Cover Dungeon Fantasy Monsters 2

If you haven’t heard about it yet, Dungeon Fantasy Monsters 2 (Powered by GURPS) was the latest official GURPS kickstarter that ran through March and raised over $50,000 from over 1000 backers. The turnaround on the pdf was just a bit more than two months and now let’s see whether the final (electronic) product delivers.

Facts

Author: Sean M. Punch (a.k.a. Dr. Kromm)
Date of Publication: 04/06/19
Format: currently PDF-only (Warehouse 23-only)
Page Count: 55 (2 cover pages, 1 title page, 1 content page, 1 index page, 1 page ad)
Price: $15.00 (PDF), $ 0.30 per page of content; Score of 5/10 (+1 for full-colour)
Preview: http://www.warehouse23.com/products/dungeon-fantasy-monsters-2

Review

As all my other reviews this one will be rated according to meat (rules, stats, game mechanics), cheese (setting, characters, story), sauce (form, writing, style, art) and generic nutritional substance (universal nature, adaptability). At the end you find a weighted average of those components and a value score that also takes into account price per page.

The biggest surprise is probably that I class this book as both meaty and cheesy as it contains a lot of story ideas, probably more than any non-adventure Dungeon Fantasy title so far. This is such a big change from the otherwise excellent GURPS Dungeon Fantasy Monsters 1 (DFM 1) that it bears repeating: You don’t only get 24 new monsters, but also 48 adventure seeds to use them in your games. That’s a huge help, especially for the newbie DFRPG game masters that this is geared towards.

But I am getting ahead of myself. The book is structured really simple. The short introduction tells you what you need to play (the DFRP, especially the Monsters book, but DF 1-2 and DFM 1 along with GURPS Basic work just as well) and a couple of important things about the stat blocks. Then you’re knee-deep in monsters. Each of those gets a two-page spread (unfortunately not aligned for pdf use) with a full-colour illustration, stats and explanations, an atmospheric lead-in (sometimes quite extensive and with lots of historical, social, occult or ecological information) and the mentioned adventure seeds. Extras vary between variants, companion monsters, using the monster as a PC, meta-game hints or looting the body parts. The whole thing is rounded off by a table of contents and an index.

Meat

That’s what folks are coming for when buying a Monster Manual and the book delivers a wide range of foes with detailed stats – although don’t expect character point notations in a monster book. The power level is mid-to-high. There are few pushovers, but most of the challenges don’t require a ST 20 Barbarian or a Magery 5 wizard to overcome – some however do. Quite a few rely on horde tactics, but some can hold their own against a whole party. The mix tends towards the weird of  the spectrum, but doesn’t really discriminate by type: undead, demons, animals, humanoids, constructs and what that-other-game-tm calls outsiders are all there. Angels, giants, nagas, succubi/incubi (guess which gender the illustration depicts) and Trétold (basically ents) are plugging holes in the DFRPG. Most others are strange new additions that will be new for even the most jaded players.

What’s new and extra-useful are the detailed notes at the end of the stat block that explain the weirder abilities or things that are not explained in standard DFRPG and cribbed from regular GURPS. There are quite a few new ideas among these, even if most replicate stuff that standard GURPS has been doing for some time.

Tactics are represented for all monsters, though more detailed for some and less for others. About the only thing that’s missing is some sort of danger scale. In some cases, there are explicit statements on how dangerous the monsters are for weaker or stronger delvers, but most often than that we are left with just an impression through the descriptions. Par for the course in GURPS and I am not sure other systems really do better with their difficulties and challenge ratings, but a simple five-skull system wouldn’t have been a bad idea.

Apart from that, the meat is pretty much perfect.

Meat score: 9.5

Cheese

As I said, there’s a surprising amount of story-relevant stuff in there. Instead of a single descriptive paragraph like in DFRPG: Monsters or DFM 1, we get at least four longish paragraphs and occasionally much more. The less complicated the monsters are and the less space the boxes with variants, loot, minions etc. take up, the more lore we get. This flexibility makes each entry unique and ensure we don’t have to read the same boring headings for each monster.

The backstories of the mosters are fun to read and at times extremely imaginative. Most of the situations the monsters will be encountered in are combat-oriented, but every other monster seems to have a purpose – or at least a way to pull dirty tricks – that means it is not purely sword-fodder.

The ecological, historical and otherwise relevant details make the monsters come truly alive and give them a place in the – deliberately generic – game world. We still get a sense of which factions are going to care about which monsters and why, but of course the details are malleable enough to be dropped into your own campaign.

There are no harsh incompatibilities between the monsters, but there is also no real unifying theme, even though the monsters presented tend towards the weird and horrifying from Tomb Bugs who entomb you to breed there young, over the crazed Ramex who reach inside you thinking they can regain their humanoid bodies that way, to undead Bleeders who collect the spray of your blood from the smallest wounds and Redthorn plants who are looking to turn you into fertiliser. This collection is certainly not PG-rated.

The book doesn’t lend itself to just rifling through it and plomping down a monster without reading through its entry thoroughly. For that the older DF titles are better. Most of the monsters here, especially the stronger ones are its own mini-story. While this is not so great for beer-and-pretzels games, it does make for a much better story.

Speaking of story, some of the adventure seeds are more like encounter seeds, while some might form the basis for a multi-session adventure. What especially caught my fancy is that often they don’t treat the monster in question in a vacuum, but also examine who might want to make it the delvers’ business to get rid (or capture or butcher or transport) the monster. While they are not always original, they all offer some hooks to place the monsters in a dungeon or a quest.

There is a certain Dungeons-and-Dragonesque zaniness inherent in some of the monsters like the Fly-Dragon or the Redthorn. The book is certainly surprising to the reader and the encounters with its inhabitants will likely be unexpected by your players too.

All in all, the fluffy cheese side gets served very well indeed. One might miss a larger framework tying some of the monsters together, but then this is a monster manual and not an adventure or campaign builder. The fact that the collection of monster illustrations was probably licensed together and half of the monsters written just to fit the artwork might have something to do with that too.

Cheese score: 8.5

Sauce

The biggest departure from regular GURPS books (and also DFRPG: Monsters and the DFM  series) is the full-colour artwork. And the monsters are almost all from the same artist too: Rick Hershey. While he is never going to be my absolute favourite, the monsters are mostly appropriately alien and scary looking and the unity of art gives the book a nice and coherent look. The more alien monsters generally look better than the old fantasy standbys like Angels, Succubi, Nagas and Chimeras.

You can get a good overview on the cover and the preview shows one of the, in my opinion, less stellar examples, the Chimera. The only really atrocious image is the Manaplasm. Yes, I get it’s a slime, but I can see the border pixels even at page-view size! Likewise, the text alignment following the artwork is sometimes a bit weird and out of whack. I wouldn’t have minded smaller images in some cases to get a better text flow. You can see a less annoying example of that on the preview of the Strix. Generally, I wouldn’t mind getting the art separate in the PDF version to do quick printouts for the players. The text alignment makes it a bit easier to copy and paste, but the readability suffers.

That cannot be said about the writing as such, though. Dr. Kromm was in super-charged mode when he was writing this. Not only is it an extremely enjoyable read, the information is presented in easily accessible format, there are also puns galore. True, I didn’t laugh out loud, but I did chuckle quite a few times. The adventure seed titles are a motherlode of jokes that will surely find their way to many tables.

Editing and indexing are top-notch as usual, though there isn’t that much to index anyway. The PDF is fully bookmarked and the table of contents is hyperlinked.

The following section was updated  with new information 06/08/19 (thanks to T-Bone of Games Diner fame for pushing me to find a solution instead of whining):

A tiny defect is, however, that the two-page monster spreads are misaligned if you go for a two-page view in the PDF in many readers, because the backcover is included before the title page. You can easily rectify this with a PDF editor – or by changing settings on your reader (for my Adobe Reader it was done by menu>View>Page Display>Show Cover Page in Two-Page View). I still don’t get why the back cover has to go before the title page, but this way it’s no big deal any more.

This is probably the most unified GURPS supplement in a whole while and it does set a high standard for all that follows. Let’s hope the same will be said of Magic Items 2.

Sauce score: 7,5

Generic Nutritional Substance

As a Dungeon Fantasy supplement, there is usually not a high bar to clear in terms of generic usefulness. Yes, all these monsters can be used in standard Tolkienesque fantasies. Some of them will probably look out of place in Narnia and some will be a bit too weird for some tastes. But a surprising number of them will also fit right into some modern-day horror, dark urban fantasy or even dark faerie tales.

It’s not an extremely generic supplement, but certainly caters to more than just hack & slash fans.

Generic Nutritional Substance score: 7,5

Summary

A more than solid effort that leaves very little to be desired, except maybe being four times as long and a nice hardcover with stitched binding. If Steve Jackson Games is going to run two kickstarters like this every year and maybe finds a way to the page count up to a hundred, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a GURPS revival in the future.

This book is pretty much a must-have for Dungeon Fantasy aficionados and a very good investment for anybody who likes their fantasy monsters a bit weirder than usual. Have a look at the preview yourself if you are unsure. You get two complete monsters for free that way. Even if you decide not to buy that’s pretty much worth taking the time to have a look.

Price is still high, which comes with the limited page-count, but without considering that we have a new high-score, edging out some recent very high-quality stuff like The Hall of Judgment by a not too tiny margin. The Hall gets its own back in the value score, though.

All in all, think twice before you’re passing on this tasty morsel!

Total score: 8.475
Total score is composed of a weighted average of Meat (32.5%), Cheese (32.5%), Sauce (20%) and Generic Nutritional Substance (15%). This is a balanced book. A “cheesy” setting- or a meaty rulebook would change the percentages for cheese and meat.

Value score: 6.7375
Value Score is composed of the average of Total and Price.


GURPS is a registered trademark of Steve Jackson Games, and the art here is copyrighted by Steve Jackson Games. All rights are reserved by SJ Games. This material is used here in accordance with the SJ Games online policy.

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