Monday, 17 October 2011

Uncle Andrew's Bestiary

So, I think when I'm coming up with my next campaign I'll be using an idea I'm christening "Uncle Andrew's Bestiary", after the character from The Magician's Nephew and inspired by this post. An Uncle Andrew's Bestiary is, in essence, a volume which the DM gives to the players at the start of the game as a piece of realia, which pupports to be a catalogue of monsters that might be encountered in the adventuring environment. Example versions of Uncle Andrew's Bestiaries are:

  • A volume inherited by one or more of the players from an adventuring uncle.
  • An ancient book found in the dark corner of a library.
  • An old hard disc from an abandoned space wreck.
  • The log or diary of an explorer in a museum.

The point of an Uncle Andrew's Bestiary is that it should give out enough information to get the players interested, but not enough that it prevents them from wildly speculating and becoming worried. Of course, as a piece of realia, there are no stats, and the conceit - that this is actually a written account of a real person - rests on the assumption that the author did not get close enough to the creatures he wrote about to be attacked/killed by them. This means that their abilities will remain mysterious and unquantified for the players until there is an actual encounter.

Some example entries from an Uncle Andrew's Bestiary:

  • "In the tunnels under the mountain lived a horrid, gaunt, grey creature, like a thing that had tried to become human but failed."
  • "There were many eyes glimmering in the dark, and the impression of a huge writing body mass; I fled back the surface."
  • "Something like a large feathered frog, with a maw of razor-sharp teeth and long legs made as if for jumping great distances. The jungle people told me not to go near."
  • "It had a long body like a snake, but transluscent; inside I could see what I think were human bodies. Its head was like a man but with a loose, open jaw. The locals called it an Apotavee and told me it appeared once a year."

And so on. An optional extra would be to draw sketches to accompany the entries, to give it a Travels of Marco Polo sort of vibe.


  1. I'm imagining something like the bestiary in How to Train Your Dragon, in which ever entry ends "extremely dangerous, kill on sight."

    I had no idea the movie was based on a series of children's books, BTW. Here's the original bestiary. The drawings have a pleasing Ronald Searle quality to them.

  2. The Dragonlance Fifth Age monster book was done in this style, presented as notes from one of the iconic characters' adventures, complete with sketches of the monsters. All the stats were hidden at the back in an appendix.

    I believe the WFRP2 monster book takes a similar approach.

    Neither are proper Uncle Andrews since they do include the stats. One that definitely fits the bill is Xenology for Warhammer 40,000; no game statistics at all, just an inquisitor's notes on various creatures from the setting.

  3. This is a great idea; I only wish I had the artistic talent to pull off the sketch-work. I'm going to have to file this idea down for the next campaign, though.

  4. I am still mulling the right balance between "fair warning" and "sense of mystery" and kind of concluding that there needs to be a mix of monsters known to players, and monsters unknown but with danger level reasonably figured out from their size and mien, and monsters with a secret trick but that you can avoid or run away from, and the very very occasional killer bunny from hell.

  5. @Boric: The solution to that is to just find a fantasy artist you like and get your hands on as many of their creature sketches as possible. Alternatively, there are a few photoshop tricks to reduce colour artwork to a more sketchy style. Or you can go for somehting more like Trampier's illustrations from the Monster Manual. A bestiary just isn't a bestiary without illustrations of weird monsters.

  6. This is a good way to do things. Absolutely anything you can do to put expository material in the hands of the players in such a way that they actually want to pay attention to it is a good thing. Including hints of various campaign secrets in this text is all to the good - interesting, named magic items waiting to be claimed; names of dungeons waiting to be plumbed; names of wizards whose spellbooks would be worth trading for/stealing... all I'm saying is, don't stop at monsters, and weave as many of these items together as possible.

  7. And don't forget the obligatory monster of which the author only caught a glimpse and based his entire description off of it. So that enormous, trampling centipede was actually a herd of cattle being moved by bandits under cover of darkness.

    Some people just have overactive imaginations, even in fantasy settings.

  8. Great idea! You could even extend its scope and reach a format akin to the Pathfinder player guides, including data about the world, the regions and the dungeons, but with a sandbox play in mind. This way, the players could drive the sandbox with really meaningful choices.

  9. Yeah I'm giving this a red hot go myself as current, its hard getting a good "hook" to each monster, something that instantly has shape and sinister purpose in the readers mind.
    Also if the written description is strong enough, and I'm not thinking detail here, more vividness and a sense of archetype, the drawings can be very loose. If the writing is vague, the drawing has to carry all the weight.
    Like a child's or "inspired" amateur's drawings of a readily understood monster like a demon or a minotaur can still be terribly evocative.
    Although arguable a drawing in crayon/blood/feces of something that you have no fucking idea what it was meant to be, would also be "evocative".

    Or something recognizable and banal like dog. Or somewhat absurd like a dog with another dog growing inverted on its back.
    But drawn thousands and thousands and thousands of times.

    Or at night, a car slowly cruising at your walking pace, its windows entirely filled with chihuahua, perfectly and unnaturally flush with each other, moving rapidly and barking in furious silence.

    i have completely lost the thread of the point i was trying to make

  10. Fantastic idea. I'm too lazy, but if someone publishes one, I'd buy it!