|Written by Ryan. Costello, Jr|
|Tuesday, 03 June 2008 08:06|
Dungeons & Dragons is at its best when its versatility is streamlined. Savage Species takes most creatures from the first Monster Manual and offers them as playable races.
When I was still new to 3.0 D&D, after I had a few characters under my belt, I began to consider what options the Monster Manual had to offer. Although it presented options for playing certain races, their level adjustments scared me away. I closed the door and went back to the Player’s Handbook.
Savage Species reopened that door. Published long before the Races Of series, Savage Species was one of the first books to introduce new playable races. True, the races mostly weren’t new, but being able to play them? This book could be a huge win or a huge disappointment.
At a Glance
This may be the first sourcebook released with the profile window style cover. Slightly different from the typical profile window that became the standard for the first Complete series, as well as others. This cover art is monotone and the subject is still like a paper doll, not striking a mighty pose. It is very reminiscent of a chapter header, in fact.
The art itself, by Jeff Easley, is quite good. Obviously a troll, the right side of the creature is straight out of the Monster Manual, wearing no armour and armed with a club and a rock. The left hand side shows what happens when you pump a few class levels into it. Heavy armour, a massive sword, a helmet. It’s great! Except for his left hand. Whenever I look at this cover, my eyes are drawn first to his left hand, the way it looks like his fingers are curling backwards. It’s like an Escher illusion slipped onto the cover of a D&D manual. I shouldn’t be so focused on one small flaw in a great concept executed effectively, but I can’t help it.
There is less artwork in Savage Species than the average sourcebook its size, possibly because it is so chart heavy. Most conspicuous is Chapter Four: Feats, which only has the header artwork. Chapter Five: Equipment has several illustrations, but they are static examples of monstrous weapons: interesting, but not dynamic.
The art that is in the rest of the book is sharp, with a lot of fun had putting familiar monsters in new situations, like the Deinonychus by Jeremy Jarvis. Not only is it an amusing and realistic depiction of a dinosaur trying to wield a sword, but it drives a point home about how difficult some of the options this book presents are to implement.
The new templates have some excellent examples, like the Symbiotic Bugsucker by Wayne Reynolds, a bugbear with a stirge guest, or the tauric hobgoblin-griffon. These and other pieces illustrate some of the bizarre creature creations that can be achieved with the help of this sourcebook.
Final mention has to go to Sugglir Wissenka by Jeremy Jarvis, the sample Illithid Savant. It is unapologetic in its gruesome depiction of a mind flaying.
If the Monster Manual is a locked tome, as its cover suggests, then think of Savage Species as the key. It takes the denizens of D&D and makes them available to players at any level. An ogre as printed in the Monster Manual may not fit into a party of low level PCs, but the Ogre monster class makes a younger, smaller ogre balanced enough to adventure alongside a first level human cleric and Halfling rogue.
Beyond that, any conceivable option to enhance your monster character is covered. The traditional thinking that goes into character options is crushed into a lump and remolded to fit hundreds of new ideas. Not all good ideas, and the designers are quick to point out which ones they believe are too hard to use. But at least they printed these rules against their better judgment. If someone wants to play a shambling mound, Savage Species does not stop them.
A nice touch is the chapter on becoming a monster. Rituals and other avenues of transformation are explored that give players another way to implement the rules this book offers. Not only that, but mid to high level adventures can use temporarily turning into a monster as a tactic to infiltrate an evil encampment, or could turn into an angel to repeatedly haunt an old miser on the eve of the Festival of Love. The chapter almost feels like an afterthought. If so, it is one of the most brilliant afterthoughts D&D has ever benefited from, far superior to the similar concept that Player’s Handbook II botched.
This book also opens the possibilities of themed parties heretofore inconceivable in traditional Dungeons & Dragons. One illustration depicts an aranea, an ettercap, and a drider forming Team Spider. Another has three archons adventuring together. Rarely does one creature type have two monsters of the same ECL, making such themed parties unbalanced. Now everyone can start at first level and move up together.
A DM’s Dream
What could Savage Species offer to DMs that the Monster Manual does not? Options. The rules that allow a player to make a monster PC also let the Dungeon Master take an existing monster and play it at any level. An entire campaign could be set around a single monster. The blond dwarf barbarian Goldilocks sets out to find the mightiest horde. First he kills a baby Beholder but his horde is too dull. Then he kills a momma beholder but her horde is too artsy. Finally he kills a daddy beholder and his horde is just right.
Not to mention the new feats and equipment that can significantly alter how a monster runs in combat, expanded rules on advancing monsters, and so many wonderful templates.
I have often complained about sourcebooks that have both sections for players and sections for DMs. The beauty of Savage Species is that every section is as good for players as it is for DMs. No matter who you are buying this book, there are no pages wasted.
Game Design Notes
Savage Species is very candid about the designers’ process developing this sourcebook. It divides monsters up based on how difficult it would be to adapt them to most campaigns, openly warning players about the pitfalls of playing certain monsters. They go into how some monsters might not be as fun as they are challenging, and that a player should keep his DM and fellow players in mind when choosing perusing these options.
The “acid tests” are some of the most insightful sections in the book, going through each step of determining a monster’s level adjustment. Other sourcebooks say that a monster’s challenge rating has nothing to do with its effective character level, but only Savage Species delves into why that is. Not until late into 3.5’s lifespan did Wizards of the Coast revisit the idea of regularly going “behind the curtain” to get a designer’s opinion on the rules, which might not be a coincidence. This is one of the last releases under the 3.0 rules set and it receives the same treatment as the last 3.5 releases before 4th edition. Maybe these designer’s notes are just to pad pages, but the information they provide is extremely insightful to amateur designers or anyone interested in how a roleplaying game comes to be.
How can a book with extensive options be limited? Because there is only so many monster classes one can play before the novelty of playing an unusual race wears off. Even if you play a series of extremely different monsters, like an efreeti, an awakened wolf, and a large fire elemental, playing an outsider (socially speaking, not the creature type) gets repetitive.
Furthermore, many of the options presented are very specific. There are eleven prestige classes, for example, most of which have such strict prerequisites that only a few monster/class combinations qualify. There could have been more versatile prestige classes, like a class for monsters with gaze attacks and another for monsters that use different forms of charm. Instead, there is the Siren prestige class for advanced harpies, and the Illithis Savant for advanced Mind Flayers.
DMs could make endless monsters and populate an entire campaign world with personally constructed creatures. Realistically, it is more fun to use monsters straight out of the Monster Manual and save the altered versions for significant villains.
Hard to fault the book for its release date but it is a fact that this book was released under 3rd Edition rules, not 3.5. However, it was released only a few months before the 3.5 update. Surely Wizards of the Coast had the 3.5 changes in mind when this book was under development. Outside of occasional references to older feats and certain monsters listed using their original statistics rather than their updated version, there is nothing out dated here.
Chapter one is very reminiscent of the first chapter in the Player’s Handbook, except there is a Step 0 added to the basics of Monster Characters. That step is “Check With Your DM”. Not only great advice, it is amusing and atypical to include a Step 0 in the instructions. This sets the tone for the rest of the book that breaks all the rules in the name of fairness.
Assume Supernatural Ability is a general feat that can be taken by any creature that can change shape, such as druids. So if you change into a creature with a gaze attack, you can choose to assume the gaze attack as part of the physical changes you undergo.
Blowhard is a wonderful feat because it captures an ability large creatures often have in fiction and it adds mechanics I enjoy to the game. A creature that is big enough can create a powerful wind effect, blowing smaller creatures back. I’m pretty sure the giant did that to Mickey Mouse in Disney’s Jack and the Beanstalk, and I am always happy to have new rules that force creatures around the battlefield.
Certain magic weapons, we will call them blood affinity weapons, grant special bonuses to creatures of the right type wielding them. For example, Elf Edge is just a +1 longsword to a non-elf, but to elves (including half-elves) it provides a Dexterity enhancement.
There are so many magic items named after monsters to help describe their use, isn’t it about time there was a magic item named after humans? Gloves of Man fit nicely over a tentacle or paw, giving the wearer a fine set of fingers complete with opposable thumbs.
The Emancipated Spawn prestige class is an undead spawn freed of his enslavement when his master is killed. Like the Risen Martyr from the Book of Exalted Deeds, this prestige class is a fun way to temporarily bring back a character that has died, or can be used as a hook to start a new adventure at the end of another.
The Incarnate Construct template is unlike any other in the game. It actually lowers a creature’s level adjustment by removing construct traits and changing its type to humanoid. Like Pinocchio or Lieutenant Commander Data, a construct that is willing to give up everything it is can become a real boy.
A couple of the templates are quick and easy to implement, making a normal creature stand out. Multiheaded Creature adds heads. Winged Creature adds wings. Simple.
Tina played a Pixie, which gets at will invisibility and a great fly speed, but has a single hit die, a d6 at that, for five levels. There were bets taken early in the campaign about how many sessions she would last. As a matter of fact, she survived the entire campaign, and had enough of a variety of abilities that encounters played out very differently than in our previous campaign.
I used the Tauric Creature template, one of the more involved templates, to create a mid-dungeon boss fight for my players. He was put to sleep and coup-de-graced in the first round, before I even got to his initiative.
Savage Species is an amazing book. Pen and paper roleplaying games are best when there is no separation between PC options and NPC options. Before Savage Species, playable races were us and monster races were them. By blurring that separation, any creature can be given more depth, monsters are not just XP piñatas waiting for a PC to smash. No matter who you are, you can get something good out of this book.
If You Liked This Book…
Unearthed Arcana introduces bloodlines, a new character creation option to give a standard race a touch of the monster.