A Groats-worth of Grotesques
I often refer to my “GM’s Toolkit,” and for a good reason. I like having resources available before, during, and after a game; I find them crucial to being a good Gamemaster. I am always looking for new and unusual resources to add to it. Recently, I received A Groats-worth of Grotesques to review and was immediately struck by its uniqueness. But regardless of how unique something is, it all boils down to its usefulness.
Note: The Skull as a Complete Gentleman Co. provided Rolling Boxcars with a review copy for this article. If you have an item you’d like Rolling Boxcars to review, please visit our Product Review Request page.
A Groats-worth of Grotesques is a system-agnostic bestiary based on Baroque imagery. This letter-sized collection runs the gamut from grotesque versions of familiar creatures, such as the ant, to twisted and fantastical beasts like the Chimera. Arranged alphabetically, each entry includes black and white Baroque period illustrations with excerpts from literary works, songs, poems, or other sources.
The book’s preamble is stylistically similar to its images. It strikes me as a little whimsical in the way Baron Munchausen is presented in books and films. The preamble provides readers with the author’s influences and inspirations and “how-to” use the book’s entries.
Game terms and statistics are written or referenced in relationship to old-school D&D, purely for its sense of familiarity to most readers. Every entry includes four specific areas: Attack, Defense, Movement, and Special.
- Attack – represents the type and amount of damage the beast inflicts.
- Defense – armor class is denoted in relation to a type of armor. For example, it might be noted as “Leather Armor, 2HD.” Leather armor translates to whatever value is used in the game system, and 2HD translates into whatever methodology to determine hit points.
- Movement – movement is expressed in relation to the speed of other known creatures such as humans or horses. For example, “as fast as a horse.”
- Special – used to explain special abilities, factions, tactics, etc., the beast might have or use.
Each entry includes a short blank line on which the Gamemaster can note game or system-specific stats or details. The book concludes with a short, two-page appendix containing lengthier special abilities that apply to multiple beasts. Most entries in the bestiary include “marginalia” to provide Gamemasters with tips on using or playing the beast. Some of these notes continue the author’s whimsical tone.
As an example and the embodiment of strangeness, the Manitchora has the body of a lion, a scorpion’s barb-tipped tail, and the head of a man. Its six rows of menacing teeth, three upper and three lower, are singular units—each row is a continuous piece of bone. If its visage was not frightening enough, it loves to consume human flesh. Adventurers, better be on their toes, or they might get them bitten off!
If something a little more mundane is to your liking, I recommend looking at the varieties of dogs given in the Groats-worth. The Laconian is a hunting dog bred for speed. Its ability to sense all manner of undead, ghosts, or otherworldly beings sets it apart from mundane mongrels. If ghost hunting is not your bailiwick, perhaps you’d prefer The Pariah. This dog (sometimes cats too) lives on the fringes of human settlements. Although not domesticated, it takes on the mannerisms and dress of humans. Despite their appearance, they are still incapable of human speech or reasoning. These oddities and more await the curious Gamemaster and road-wary adventurer.
A Groats-worth of Grotesques is simply a bestiary, but its inspiration is marginally different or at least openly conveyed to readers. The menagerie of beasts ranges from the mundane-Esque giant-sized ants to flesh-eating cow (that oddly looks more like a lion) and everything in between; a new take on old literary monsters. There is plenty for Gamemasters to work with or use as a source of inspiration.
The excerpts for each entry are interesting and quite entertaining at times. The usefulness of the marginalia is hit or miss. While generally useful, some of it is less so. The actual game-useable parts of each entry are easy to understand, but… it’s not really system-agnostic. The author should have taken a different approach to make it more system-agnostic. However, as it stands, it is entirely usable and easy enough to convert on the fly. A little, and I mean a little, work on the part of the Gamemaster is par for the course, is it not?
I love all of the old woodcut art used throughout the book. I appreciate the author’s use of real-world literary images, as twisted as they are, as the inspiration for creating the grotesque bestiary. As much as I like the artwork, the over-flourished calligraphic font for the entry titles is hard on the eyes. As thematic as it may be, it is very hard to read in most cases.
So, will I be adding A Groats-worth of Grotesques to my GM’s toolkit? Yes, I will, but there is a caveat to this answer. The caveat is that I don’t necessarily see myself using these beasts for fantasy games like Old-School Essentials, D&D, and the like. Instead, these grotesques are better placed in historically themed roleplaying games like King Arthur Pendragon, Chivalry & Sorcery, and the like. If you’re into historical-themed games, A Groats-worth of Grotesques may very well be a worthy addition to your GM’s toolkit.
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