Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Review & Commentary On Men & Monsters of Ethiopia: An RPG Sourcebook for 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons From Skirmisher Publishing

So I'm actually really curious about this book from Skirmisher Publishing, Men & Monsters of Ethiopia is a fifth edition source book. Ethiopia is a damn complicated place in mythology & history; the fact that there is a fifth edition source book is pretty damn good in my opinion. This book covers a mythic and mythological version of this Christian nation state's peoples, monsters, and background legends  which as existed for a very long time indeed.
This is a fifty three page book partially inspired by
Michael J. Varhola trip to Ethiopia and his experiences there getting real world inspirational material for this book. My own experiences with this incredibly rich and vibrant land come from two foreign exchange students from this land way back in '88. But my gaming experiences go back much further. But back to Men & Monsters of Ethiopia, this book has everything you need to flesh out a fifth edition campaign.
Anyone who reads this blog knows that I embrace adult themes and controversial subjects and for the better part of history dating back to 316 AD the country has been Christian. So the subject of religion was handled with kid gloves in this book; "From the 4th century onwards, of course, Ethiopia has been a strongly Christian nation, and beginning in the Middle Ages the country had a significant Islamic presence, both factors that prevail to this day. This is something many DMs might not wish to reflect in their own campaign settings, however, and, in any event, might not fit well in a typical polytheistic milieu. It might therefore be simpler to draw on the pagan religious traditions of the country, which included worship of the Classical deities of the ancient Mediterranean (e.g., one early king of the region refers in a proclamation of victories over his enemies to assistance from “my august god Ares” and to making sacrifices to Zeus and Poseidon).
Game masters can easily use the saints and concepts to which many churches in Ethiopia are dedicated as an indicator of which Greek gods might be worshiped in any particular area or temple. St. George, for example, is the patron saint of Ethiopia and could easily be replaced by the demigod Bellerophon, who has many analogous characteristics and is presented similarly in artworks."
 Fine I'm willing to forgive this bit of oversight but it does serve a duel knife in some respects on the one hand this is a book about a mythical version Ethiopia and it serves as a source book for that in spades but it makes the rich history into a pseudo or alternative mythological version of  history. This is fine because it allows the the DM to take full advantage of this mythology to create their own version for campaign work. But something about it bothers me; the work doesn't take advantage of the rich historical and mythological  tapestry of the Ethiopian kingdoms and peoples or does it? As well shall see this is not as easy to point out as it first seems.
We get a huge sectional overview of the usual fifth edition classes adapted into the lens of these complex lands and mostly this is for NPC development. Here's the sort of frame work that we're speaking of here;"Bandits might be encountered individually, in small roving bands that prey on travelers, or as irregular military forces under the command of local warlords that subsist by raiding or extorting
tribute from villages and other vulnerable sites. Bandits that operate on the Red Sea, and to a lesser extent on inland lakes and rivers, are more commonly known as pirates. Low-level characters of this sort conform in all respects to the statistics for the Bandit in the official 5th Edition monster guide and leaders to the Bandit Captain entry in the same resource. There is a 5% chance that all the brigands in a small band, or only the leaders in a large one, will be cannibals that are just as interested in eating victims as they are in robbing
them."  Suddenly those bandits become a bit more then simple quick encounters for a basic fifth edition encounter. The artwork in this section  is black and white, it does a solid job of conveying the setting but a bit more richness in detail in some of the pieces might have added a bit more flavor to it. The text does a great job of taking you into the setting. There's a certain something missing in this section when it comes to the black and white line work. The next section goes into animals and its really here that the book shines a bit more. We get guidelines on how animals are viewed and a few hints as to even that there might be prehistoric survivors within the setting. We dive right into adapting existing monsters from fifth edition into an Ethiopian campaign. This section is rich in some detail and local color consider for a moment this little blurb on lycanthropes; "Were-creatures of various sorts can be found throughout an Ethiopian campaign setting,  notably Werehyenas and, to a lesser extent, Wereboars. There are also rumors of Werelions but whether they actually exist or not is open to debate. All such creatures, in any event, conform to the general characteristics of Lycanthropes as described in the 5th Edition rules. In a land rife with holy men, rich in silver, and frequented by adventurers, however, Lycanthropes tend to get kept in check and only rarely become a significant problem."  Generally this is a really well thought out section on adapting and modifying existing animals and monsters  into a specific Ethiopian setting. Its well done and not too badly generic. It conveys the right amount of color and push for the book. The next section is really the meat of the book; here we get into mythological Ethiopian monsters and there are some powerhouses in here. The Boharia is a medium level threat that has a few surprises up its sleeve including the ability to flick poisonous blood at their victims and they're a wolf like species. A very nasty detail of these bastards is the fact that they use pack tactics on their targets and taken together can mean that PC's could be in real trouble.

Caracals are mid-sized wild cats which can prove to be a surprise for a PC or two not expecting a bobcat like animal capable of doing a bit of damage. They prove to be interesting and unexpected find in this book.
There's a lot more going within Men and Monsters of Eithiopia then I was expecting; " There are 17 new monsters with 29 stat blocks for them. There’s 20 pre-existing monsters that have been adapted for the setting. There’s 11 types of NPC, with 5 new stat blocks for them" mostly everything has been drawn from legends and mythology are within this section. Now earlier in this review I mentioned history and here's where the book really begins to draw on mythology and we get a real overview of two earlier edition Monster Manual favorites the Catoblepas finally get's its due as a force to be reckoned with. These monsters are drawn straight down from mythology of Ethiopia and will shake PC's up even with their mere appearance not to mention the toxic horror that is their calling card. These things eat toxic substances and poisons even invading camps to consume this horrid delicacy. Catoblepones are not aggressive but are irritable,
and will lash out with their sharp tusks against anyone who comes within reach of them. The swamps and mucklands of Ethiopia are their home and adventurers best give these areas a wide birth.

Then we get the Cetus and this island sized monster is nothing to mess with. The hero Perseus and Andromeda are tied in with this powerhouse. We get the Debbi with his aura of fear and then its straight on to the Arwean Dragons whom are all descended from a despotic draconic ruler of Ethiopia; these things are rare and very dangerous. They should be used with caution on the DM's part. These are the big guns of a campaign and are miniature versions of the dragons of Dark Sun. Dragon kings of old capable of ruling kingdoms which is their birth right. These monsters are entire campaign starters themselves and could be used as the basis for a vile villain of incredible depth. A very nasty piece of work indeed that can really cause all kinds of harm to a party over time. We then get into a legendary race of men known as the Gibetas who are a mysterious and ancient race of people that may have originated in Egypt. Underground dwellers, master combat engineers, mystics, & experts at mathematics, architecture, cryptography, and construction and are believed to have built many subterranean fortresses, temples, and other structures throughout Ethiopia, especially in its northern regions.

Cave halflings are on the menu as well here and we get a nice entry on these weird and mysterious peoples. There is quite a bit to work with here for extending a campaign venue. There's a sense in these entries of the depth of research that the authors really put into this book. The monsters in this section are centralized to the setting  of fantasy Ethiopia and there's a nice well rounded sense of atmosphere with this book. Now knowing Skirmisher Publishing as I do this is only the first in a line of Ethiopian themed fifth edition books in this line. I can see this being a setting that they're be exploring more of. So is this a good book for a fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons campaign? Hmm its going to be a very interesting question and the answer is two fold, if the dungeon master is interested in an African themed campaign in the wind swept regions of Ethpopia then yes this is the book for you. If this is a book that you're looking for as a casual monster book to add more men and monsters to your campaign possibly not. This book doesn't seem to be for the casual DM. There's volumes of material here with room for lots of expansion into full blown campaign material here. I'm going to give this a four out of five because some sections of this book seem a bit weaker then others. The unevenness of this material means that a DM is going to have to do a bit more research on their own to get the most out of it. All in all I think that it is work a look and there's more then enough meat on the bones to flesh out a campaign or two with this book.

So is there OSR resource potential for this book? I honestly think so, the material here is easily converted with a bit of fifth grade math and some time. The monsters and peoples are interesting enough to be worth the conversion and there's plenty of mileage for campaign use. The real issue is going to depend if A. Your players are going to want to deal with some of the intricacies of Ethiopian social mores and if B. This material is going to be enough to sustain a very long term campaign. Personally I'd drop them into the mix and see if they can swim in the deep end of Africa's most intriguing and weird countries.  

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