Horde Book 1: A Swarm of Stirges
This book is the first in the innovative Masters and Minions series from Behemoth3. The series takes a second, closer look at monsters from the early days of D&D, and provides GMs with something much, much more than just a goofy looking critter to suck hit points from the PCs before they meet the villain. A Swarm of Stirges gives the stirge some things it has always lacked: a complete life-cycle, a place in the ecosystem, a raison d'etre. Unfortunately, Stirges is a collection of many incredibly cool ideas and one monumentally bad one.
Did you ever meet someone and instantly hit it off? You sit and talk for a while, and as time flies by you discover all the many things you have in common. The two of you leave the place where you are to go get a drink somewhere else. Maybe dinner, too. But by the time the waitstaff are putting the chairs on the tables, trying to get you to leave, you have discovered your new friend's obnoxious personality flaw. It's a pretty important flaw, and very hard to ignore. It doesn't exactly make them a bad person, but it's more than enough to make you feel that you want this to go no farther than friendship, and you certainly won't be kissing them goodnight.
That's what it was like to read A Swarm of Stirges from Behemoth3.
Stirges is a collection of many incredibly cool ideas and one monumentally bad one. I am not the only person to think the bad idea was a bad idea; it says right in the book that one of the Behemoth3 staff thinks the idea is "so lame that no one would ever want to play one as a character." Writer Tavis Allison really ought to have listened. But the great thing about RPGs is that you're free to ignore the stuff you don't like, and if you do that, you have to say that Stirges is a very fine piece of work.
I am not the only person to think the bad idea was a bad idea; so did one of Behemoth3.
The meat of the book starts with a nod to Eric Carle, one of my favorite children's authors: "By the light of the moon, a little egg was laid on a leaf." It's a very apt allusion to The Very Hungry Caterpillar, the story of a caterpillar's life of eating various things until it metamorphoses into a beautiful butterfly. The similarities end there, though, because the life of a stirge is neither charming nor beautiful, and the creature it changes into is the stuff of nightmares.
This book is the first in the innovative Masters and Minions series from Behemoth3. The series takes a second, closer look at monsters from the early days of D&D, and provides GMs with something much, much more than just a goofy looking critter to suck hit points from the PCs before they meet the villain. A Swarm of Stirges gives the stirge some things it has always lacked: a complete life-cycle, a place in the ecosystem, a raison d'etre. But that's not all. In addition to these useful details on the stirge as an individual, there are also rules for stirge swarms (obviously), larger masses of stirges (blights), adult stirges (blood bloats), spontaneously generated undead by-products of stirge attacks (hollow husks), and alas, a new race of creatures (Ashmalkins). Each creature is introduced and assigned stats, then gets fleshed out in subsections entitled "Combat", "Ecology", and "Design Notes", with a descriptive sidebar called "Read Aloud".
The "Read Aloud" sidebars don't add much unless you're a beginning GM who needs help describing things to your PCs. The one in the blood bloat section actually misuses the term "moray eel" (a predator with regular jaws) in place of "lamprey" (a blood sucking parasite). But, you get your money's worth in the "Ecology" and "Design Notes" sections, so the "Read Alouds" are entirely forgivable. The "Combat" sections help you run the critters in your adventures. This is not just number-crunching and die-rolling; there are also explanations of special abilities as well as favored tactics. The "Ecology" sections are the real meat of this book, describing in vivid detail some of the most repulsive, creepiest (and sadly, one of the lamest) monsters I've ever come across. The "Design Notes" sections give readers a glimpse into the creative process at Behemoth3 and provide useful suggestions for running the monsters, complete with chatty playtest anecdotes.
The creatures themselves, with one notable exception, have enormous potential for creeping out your players. Of course, you already know what a stirge is all about, but chances are you've only thrown a few of them at your PCs at a time. Now you can overwhelm them with swarms and blights of stirges. If a stirge should reach adulthood, well, you've got yourself a blood bloat. They're about the size of a medium-sized dog, they're too fat to fly, they suck blood faster then stirges, and they lay eggs by the thousands. If you get a lot of stirge victims in one area, you just might have a few hollow husks on your hands. I don't want to talk too much about the hollow husks for fear of spoiling things for any players who might be reading, and whose GMs might decide to use these creepy critters.
Think of the brownies from the movie Willow, but without the gravitas.
The rest of the book is inextricably intertwined with the thing I've been complaining about all through this review: the Ashmalkin. These things have got to be the lamest fantasy race since the Gully Dwarf. Cross a Tinker Gnome with a Kender, add a reckless disregard for personal safety, give it a sadistic disposition, reduce it in size to about six inches tall, and you've got an Ashmalkin. Think of the brownies from the movie Willow, but without the gravitas. If you're running a silly campaign, or are in desperate need of cheap laughs for comic relief, these are the critters for you. Otherwise, do as I do: ignore them. Unfortunately, writer Tavis Allison seems to love them, and they keep cropping up in the "Characters", "Adventures", "Denizens", and "Encounters" sections. But if you ignore the Ashmalkins, those sections are so darn good that you have to forgive Tavis' sins.
The "Characters" section introduces a nifty high-fantasy prestige class: the Wing Jockey. If you've got flying mounts in your campaign and you want to let your characters bond with their steeds and do cinematic, swashbuckling aerial feats, let them take a level or two in Wing Jockey. The coolness of this fantasy Top Gun prestige class is enough to offset the fact that it was invented for stirge-riding Ashmalkins.
The "Adventures" section includes more than just a few plot hooks. There are also new items (including uses for stirge bits and blood bloat chrysalises), a new spell (mostly for use by Ashmalkins, but it could conceivably be useful for the non-lame races), and some excellent notes on what happens when a swarm of stirges spends a lot of time sucking things dry in one area.
The "Denizens" section showcases five NPCs, but two of them are Ashmalkins, the rest were created by Ashmalkins. For this reason, I fully expected this entire section to be very, very lame. I was wrong. Well, not entirely: the Ashmalkin characters are in fact lame (well developed and well written, but they're Ashmalkins and therefore lame by definition), two of the other NPCs don't really stand out, but the last one, the Hollow Husk Lich, is truly inspired. You still have to ignore or replace the Ashmalkins in his origin story, but apart from that he's chock full of storytelling potential. If the "Denizens" section had included only this NPC, I'd have called it good.
The "Encounters" section is pretty much what you'd expect: sample critter groups to throw at your PCs and a couple populated location maps. Sadly, the maps are crawling with Ashmalkins. Get a pen and cross them out.
By now, you've probably figured out that I think the Ashmalkins are lame, lame, lamity-lame, and you're right. These things suck so hard they could power a Dirt Devil. In spite of this, I still heartily recommend A Swarm of Stirges: at $7.50 for the PDF (or $15.00 for the paperback), it's a real bargain for the other concepts, which are exceptional. The file is extensively cross-referenced and full of links to Behemoth3's Sword Project (which is also pretty nifty). If you've already bought the PDF, but feel the need for a hard copy, you can use your PDF as a 50% off coupon for a book you can hold in your hands. If you buy the print copy ($15), it comes with a free download of the PDF. Art folios and package deals are available at Behemoth3's Masters and Minions page. If A Swarm of Stirges is a good indication of what we can expect from Behemoth3's Masters and Minions line, we're in for good things indeed.
This review is based on a complementary copy of Horde Book 1: A Swarm of Stirges.