Welcome back to another RPG review from yours truly.
…Yes, yes, I know, the whole Animorphs blind readthrough thing still hasn’t been done. I promise it will before the year is out, at least. For now, though, I’m reviewing a title from the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. Yeah, I know, it’s been a while since I’ve done one of those! Indeed, last time I did was all the way back in 2009, with the then-recent Pathfinder Bestiary. Now I’ve finally returned to this D&D offshoot to look at one of its most totally terrifying titles: Classic Horrors Revisited!
Introducing the “Monsters Revisited” Concept
Classic Horrors Revisited is just one of what I like to call the “monsters revisited” titles. In a way, they are the spiritual successors to the old Dragon magazine’s “Ecology of…” articles – quite possibly intentional, given that both are productions of Paizo Publishing – in that both have the format of plenty of pages of flavorful Medieval bestiary/field guide-esque information on the creature at hand, interspersed with bits and pieces of game rules. The line has five titles so far, including titles such as Dungeon Denizens Revisited and Dragons Revisited, with two more announced titles on the way.
Each chapter of the book focuses on a single creature, with multi-paragraph segments dedicated to overviewing the creature, detailing its ecology (or, for the undead, necrology), talking about its habitat and/or culture, noting treasure typically associated with the monster, and listing variants of the creature. There are also sidebars giving feats and other extra game information, real-world origins of the creature, or other handy information. As if bookmarking their entries, each monster entry begins with an illustrated image of a scene of the creatures being described as the chapter header and ends with a profile illustration of the creature accompanying an example stat block of its species at the end, creating a good illustrated front and end marker for each critter.
With the basics of the “monsters revisited” books listed out, let’s finally get around to reviewing the content of Classic Horrors Revisited. In my reviewing of these titles, I will break down each entry in my own way: how Pathfinder gave its own spin on the creatures, the game potential presented, and the new game rules such as variants and the chapter’s end “stat block and illustration” page.
Chapter 1: Derro
Created by the (literally) mad genius of one Richard Sharpe Shaver, the strange subterranean entities known as the derro have become surprisingly prevalent in fiction, appearing in everything from Japanese horror movies to…well…D&D and Pathfinder. The chapter header certainly shows why these little terrors were picked as a “classic horrors” as well: the image of a horde of pale-skinned, blank-eyed figures with wild wisps of hair, leather clothing, and wickedly sharp bladed weaponry looming over a man sleeping peacefully in his bed is definitely an unsettling one.
Pathfinder Envisioning: The Dungeons and Dragons interpretation of the derro were as dwarven offshoots that are sadistic and quite insane. Pathfinder’s derro are indeed insane, and quite sadistic, but they are most definitely not related to dwarves. Instead, the derro presented in Classic Horrors Revisited are a lost colony of former fey that have degenerated in both mind and body thanks to the hefty consumption of a particularly nasty blue fungus. They’ve now gained an obsession with overworlders and the fact that they can actually survive in the sun (whereas the derro have a decidedly vampire-like reaction to the big solar mass), and engage in ceaseless experiments to attempt to figure out the secret of staying in the sun. Given that they’re utterly batshit insane, though, their progress is basically at an eternal constant.
Gameability: Even if you aren’t playing Pathfinder, the derro are pretty useable. Their presence as a species with amazing technology but perpetual madness means that they are basically an entire group of mad scientists. Then there’s their habit of stealing away humans for their twisted experiments and their idea of random cattle mutilations as “relaxing vacations”, which are entire campaign adventure hooks in and of themselves. The only thing you may have trouble with is their specific background as a devolution of beings from the realms of the fey; if you don’t have many fey in your campaign (if at all), or you want a different origin of the derro, you’ll have to do a bit of tweaking to their history and motivations.
Game Rules: The derro actually have a fairly decent amount of game rules for a flavor text-dedicated title. First off, the derro have four weapons presented: the fauchard polearm, the claw-studded aklys throwing club, the quartz-crafted crystal chakram, and the twisted needle-tipped injection spear. And if typical poisons in your injection spear just aren’t good enough, there are also stats given for a poison crafted from the infamous brain fungus! The chapter’s end stat block is for Evehxa, a 6th-level derro Sorcerer that acts as a leader of her enclave. The example seems decent enough for the “mad science” of the derros represented in a magical manner, but I must question the art. Namely, why does the member of a species described in the text as “wiry” have so much cleavage?
Chapter 2: Flesh Golem
While not quite as evocative as the image of a derro abduction, the chapter title image of the flesh golem does its job well enough, showing an enraged flesh golem smashing apart his master’s alchemical tools as said master warily watches on in horror.
Pathfinder Envisioning: The flesh golem has pretty much always been the same throughout the games it has appeared in. It is the Frankenstein’s monster equivalent, the stitched-together “thing that should not be”. Pathfinder puts a little twist on them, however. As presented here, the flesh golem is also part of the unquiet dead, the spirits whose bodies were used to stitch together the monstrous construct always waiting for the opportunity to take control away from the golem’s creator and wreak havoc out of revenge. There is also a lot of talk of the “spark of consciousness” that awakes some flesh golems into sapience.
Gameability: They’re flesh golems, obviously they’re gameable. As for the Pathfinder spin addition, as I said, not a whole lot was added onto the existing mythos of the flesh golem. At the same time, the whole “spark of consciousness” and angry spirits thing could be worked with, or even tied together. While the text seems to indicate that awakened flesh golems just learn from their surroundings like children, what if the truth was that awakened flesh golems had some spiritual imprint left of the memories, experiences, and feelings of one or more of the bodies used to create them? Or even that their intelligence was granted as a gift by the spirits in order to further piss off the golem creators.
Game Rules: Two variant flesh golems are presented. The first, the electrical flesh golem, is basically a flesh golem with miniature Tesla coils bolted into its shoulders or back that grant it added speed . That…yeah, that’s just damn awesome. The other is the less impressive unholy flesh golem, which is basically the flesh golem for those people that don’t think normal flesh golems are necromantic enough. The chapter’s end stat block is for the “Beast of Lepidstadt”, a 6th-level awakened flesh golem Barbarian whose goal in life is to amass knowledge and aid those in need in order to gain acceptance in spite of his short temper and disturbing nature.
Chapter 3: Gargoyle
The gargoyle’s chapter header is of a paranoid individual looking back at a graveyard’s moonlit mausoleum topped by two gargoyles. While simplistic, it does convey the idea that gargoyles could be anywhere, whether you know it or not. Sort of a “Weeping Angel effect”, if you will. Indeed, given that one of the named gargoyle groups in the text are called “the Blind Angels”, I can’t help but wonder if the writers weren’t thinking the same thing…
Pathfinder Envisioning: Pathfinder posits gargoyles as stony creatures with theoretically millennia-long lifespans that are constantly being kept in check by their own rampant violence and hedonism. They eat violently, breed violently, raise their young violently… You get the picture. They are also obsessive about collecting things and having their own twisted ideas of “fun”, and may or may not actually the results of a pact with a powerful demon.
Gameability: Gargoyles as presented here are not just game-worthy, they’re damn creepy. They will eat you alive, but that’s not really the worst part. Sometimes, they’ll kill you not because they’re hungry, but because they’re bored. A Pathfinder gargoyle’s idea of a fun game to play is to work its way up a family, killing pets and livestock, then children, then the adults, leaving each one to ponder the fate of the last before they too get dashed upon rocks or strung up on spiked fences to allow the gargoyle to have a good laugh. In addition, they’ve got a species-wide OCD, so their treasure hoards can contain some lovely loot for those that are brave and strong enough to face the gargoyles.
Game Rules: There are plenty of variants presented, representing “wild” gargoyles: those offshoots that live in natural, rather than urban, environments. The snowy Arctic gargoyle, bark-studded forest gargoyle, volcanic obsidian gargoyle, and desert-dwelling sandstone gargoyle all provide wilderness encounters with these typically urban creatures. Of course, if you want an urban variation, fear not: the powerful gemstone gargoyles and geyser-spewing waterspout gargoyles (shades of the original Gargouille legend there) are there when you need them. Finally, the chapter’s end stat block presents a 4th-level Gargoyle Rogue by the name of Ajekrith, a particularly twisted specimen that likes killing homeless people for the lulz.
Chapter 4: Ghost
A spectral headless woman in a low-cut dress walks down a staircase. Eh…I guess I’ve seen worse chapter header images.
Pathfinder Envisioning: Ghosts as presented in Pathfinder are basically the undead that nobody wants to become, but end up existing anyway. Sure, you can make yourself into a lich and go about doing whatever your shriveled, bloodless heart desires, but to become a ghost is a random occurrence and one that is stated to be an all-around unpleasant result of some sort of obsession.
Gameability: The book really says it all when it states that ghosts can be both a storytelling or combat experience. The wealth of real-life ghost stories alone can tell you that, and the addition of more varied ghostly abilities only aides that.
Game Rules: While not quite “variants” as such, the chapter gives a plethora of new abilities for the Ghost template from the Pathfinder Bestiary to be able to grant. Some include Fatal Fate, which allows the ghost to curse a living individual to perform its unfulfilled desires to allow it to pass on (with the alternative being a slow, creeping death), and Phantasmagoria, wherein a delusional ghost can create masterful illusions born of its fragile psyche. The sample ghost presented is Maven Mosslight, a 9th-level Sorcerer killed by her own servant out of a jealous rage.
Chapter 5: Ghoul
Now this chapter header’s more like it. A dank cavern lit only by luminous fungi, swarming with ghouls (some only barely visible to add the creep factor) vying for or already gnawing at a wooden coffin in desperate hunger.
Pathfinder Envisioning: Said to be corpses touched by the curse of a demon lord, ghouls are eternally hungry for humanoid flesh. Sure, they have minds of their own, and can do what they please, but in the end the never-ceasing hunger pangs always come back to them. There is also some lore about a connection between ghouls and elves, so you elf haters out there can rejoice at that fact, I guess.
Gameability: Pathfinder ghouls keep a facade of living etiquette, having coffinside “dinner parties” with tombstones as platters, holding conversation with humanoids kept for later consumption, and the like. It’s this twisted perversion of humanoid civilization that gives the ghouls as presented here a lot of game potential. How far down does the rabbit hole go, for instance? Ghouls are listed as having their own subterranean cities, for example; does that mean they also have their own politics? Do ghouls engage in undead courtship and romance? Are there corrupt schools for children that become ghouls?
Game Rules: While most of the variants aren’t really that interesting (a fire giant ghoul has the Fire subtype? Gasp!), I must say the idea of a werewolf ghoul has some appeal to it. In addition, there are three feats for ghouls: Brain Eater (which allows ghouls to gain a temporary boost in intellect by consuming a corpse’s brain), Civilized Ghoulishness (wherein a particular ghoul is juuuust lively enough to pass for a sickly humanoid rather than an undead flesh-eater), and Warren Digger (which gives ghouls a burrow speed, just to screw with your players that much more). The stat block at the end of the chapter is for Ehriman, a wandering 14th-level ghoul Necromancer who’s a bit of a food connoisseur: namely, he wants to have a taste the flesh of all the world’s civilizations.
Chapter 6: Hag
D’aww, the cute widdle baby on the chapter header’s entranced by a red ball. Wait…who’s holding the red ball? …Oh. Oh god.
Pathfinder Envisioning: Pathfinder presents hags as the savage, destructive feykin “relatives” of the growth and vitality represented by nature fey such as nymphs and dryads. This is a rather interesting case of minds thinking alike, as I actually envisioned hags for the Arkadenverse in the same manner. I didn’t think up the idea of hags having sex with humanoids to produce flesh-eating curse-bearers called killcrops, though…that’s all Pathfinder. There are minor differences presented between the hag types – the oddly crocodilian-looking annis hags, the scheming and swamp-dwelling green hags, and the isolationist anglerfish-esque sea hags, as well as the pseudo-haggish “night hags” of the far realms – beyond that, but most of the fluff focuses on the concept of hags in Pathfinder as a whole.
Gameability: Pathfinder-verse hags are put forth as scheming primal forces and the “un-fey” of the world, and also have a certain fondness for keeping ogres, marsh giants, and other giants around them. If you happen to have a setting with the Unseelie and Seelie Courts like I do, you could perhaps work this up by having the hags literally be the un-fey, an Unseelie experiment born of giant and fey blood.
Game Rules: No real variants or extra game rules as such, but there is the end chapter stat block as always. This one is for Ulla Jarnrygg, a 9th-level annis hag (a species also known as “iron hags” in the Pathfinder-verse) Sorcerer who claims to be the daughter of a legendary frost giant leader.
Chapter 7: Mummy
While perhaps a bit stereotypical, the illustration of greedy tomb robbers being snuck up on by a shambling mummy is a rather fun choice of a chapter header.
Pathfinder Envisioning: Pathfinder’s mummies are very much “I think, therefore I am”. They are born because the culture that buried them believed in an afterlife connected to the world of the living, and thus can come back to their bodies to either rule over former subjects or just to pound the shit out of someone that violates their resting place.
Gameability: Eh, I’m not so sure I’m personally a fan of the idea of mummies being animated by sheer-force-of-willpower, but it’s still a pretty good entry with a lot of ideas on what mummies are wont to do after they come back from the dead.
Game Rules: In addition to some diseases specific types of mummy can carry, such as bog crumble for bog mummies or phantom infestation for homages to the 1999 version of The Mummy, there are the obligated chapter’s end stats. This time, it’s for Queen Shielseis, a Cleric 9/Aristocrat 2 that is none too happy that her beloved’s tomb was plundered.
Chapter 8: Vampire
Again, a very stereotypical image for the chapter header illustration: namely, a redheaded vampire prepared to sink her fangs into the neck of a Victorian-style noblewoman in the oft-used “going in for the bite” vampire pose.
Pathfinder Envisioning: Pathfinder’s vampires are all evil, hedonistic, and vain, mainly because any good vampire in Pathfinder ends up committing suicide or starving to death. Why they couldn’t just go drink animal blood is beyond me, but eh, that’s just my opinion.
Gameability: There’s not much new ground tread, but such a lengthy treatise on vampire ecology and sociology is good if you wanted to run a heavily vampire-centric game that is more Carmilla or Dracula than, say, Vampire Diaries or Twilight.
Game Rules: It shouldn’t be suprising that there are vampire variants presented here, given the globe-encompassing nature of the vampire legend. Some of the variants presented include the aswang of Filipino lore, China’s “hopping vampires”, and the Greek/Slavic vrykolakas. Also, there are nosferatu. Hells yeah. The chapter’s end stats are for one Aubrey Aldamori, a vampire Fighter 11/Aristocrat 2 with a rather familiar-looking red cape and black suit.
Chapter 9: Walking Dead
This chaper has what is probably my least favorite header illustration in the entire book. Not to say it’s bad, mind you, just that out of all the awesome illustrations, the zombies and skeletons gathered together in a graveyard are the least awesome.
Pathfinder Envisioning: There’s not really a lot of novel stuff here, and a lot of what is novel is just trying to explain the problem of why a mindless undead is evil. Hint: it’s still just about as convincing as any other explanation trotted out as to why they’re evil.
Gameability: This is probably the least “jump out and bite you with ideas” chapter. The most interesting thing to me personally would be the comments on spontaneous “grave armies” that arise for no particular reason beyond the bloody terror that soaks the ground they were buried in.
Game Rules: Plenty of variants here, including your Romero-style “brain-eating zombies” and The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies-style cursed zombies. My favorite two, though, have to be two of the skeleton variants: the four-armed whirling Mudra skeletons and the detonating “bone bombs”. The stats at the end of the chapter are for zombies born of the “Gillamoor plague”; namely, they are human zombies with the relentless, brain-eating, and plague zombie variant archetypes stacked on. Nasty.
Chapter 10: Werewolf
Our final chapter’s header illustration is that of a man in the wilderness, clearly in pain as he bursts through his clothing and contorts into a werewolf. Again, a very stereotypical image, but it’s a time tested one that truly works.
Pathfinder Envisioning: While not too different from standard werewolf lore, Pathfinder definitely plays up and reinforces the fact that werewolves are cunning hunters and apex predators.
Gameability: Werewolves are always fun stuff, and there’s a lot of psychology behind them put out in this chapter, especially the idea of “city werewolves” that prefer their human form vs. “woodland werewolves” that have fully embraced the beast.
Game Rules: There are some traditional werewolf wards and remedies listed, as well as minor notes on werebears, wereboars, and wererats, but nothing much beyond that. There is, oddly enough, a potshot at the wereravens, werebadgers, and werefoxes of the old D&D campaign setting Ravenloft, although it could be just a friendly ribbing.
While beautifully illustrated (hey, it’s a Pathfinder book, what else would it be?), how exactly does Classic Horrors Revisited fare from an RPG supplement standpoint? Let’s go to the board and find out!
- Plenty of interesting variants of classic monsters.
- The derro, ghoul, and hag chapters present some of the best takes on those monsters I’ve seen.
- With six pages dedicated to each creature chapter, no monster gets more or less overall say in the title.
- Plenty of ideas to springboard off of.
- Some of the chapters near the end of the book, especially the walking dead chapter, tend to drag a bit compared to the earlier offerings.
- You might be turned off by the references and backstory tied to deities, demons, devils, and locations specific to the Pathfinder campaign setting world of Golarion, or be frustrated about having to alter these portions for your own world.
- Gamers that prefer substance over style may not like the sparseness of game statistics compared to flavor text.
Not a whole lot bad to say about this book, really. If you love monster ecology-type writings, then there’s little to dislike about Classic Horrors Revisited. This title deserves nothing less from me than a 9/10.