The Rudis Review: The Encountered Volume I

Book: The Encountered, Volume I
Length/Type: 285 pages/hardcover book
System: 6-6 / Alpha Omega
Author(s): David Carter
Publisher: Mindstorm Labs
Licensor/Endorser: n/a

(5 0f 5 rudii)

I’ve said it before about Alpha Omega and the work of Mindstorm Labs – gorgeous. Their books are among the most beautiful in the industry. Plus, you have to love a book with more than one, fully illustrated human decapitation.

For those of you not familiar with the Alpha Omega far-future Earth, post-apocalyptic, mega-tech sci-fi/fantasy fusion setting, there is a review right here on RPGAggression. Just click the linky.

As for The Encountered, this is a monster book, and it’s a damned good one. It contains 202 monsters by my count, from the classic to the terrifying and original:

83 Freaks of Nature
38 Tech Fiends
18 Spiritual Creatures
42 Abominations
21 Demons

In addition to the many beasties, their backgrounds and their battle stats, Mindstorm leavens the book with GM advice for all levels of experience. Each entry contains a rich description of the beast in action, a section of tactics and non-battle behaviors, and, where appropriate, explanations for how the creature ties to the campaign setting. Exactly what you need to use the creature – and appreciate it – but not more.

The layout for each page is worth remarking upon: central to each is a gorgeous illustration of the monster in action, in its habitat. Each and every one of these monsters has its own, emotive, imagination igniting painting, centerpiece to the entry. I’ve never seen the like. 202 nearly half-page full color illustrations? Either Mindstorm is giving us these beautiful books at a loss, or they’ve chained a few artists in the basement. The game and descriptive information are organized around the edges of the painting, structuring the total almost like an interface.

Now that I think about it, I feel (but can’t confirm), that their layout and design team have done game interfaces before. The book just has that feel, and it works beautifully. Tons of info on the page, easy to reference and find, not feeling crowded at all (when by all rights it should). Someone read their Tufte.

As indicated above, the author arranges the monsters in The Encountered into five categories. All the Freaks of Nature are in one section, followed by all the Tech Fiends, etc. At first I found this innovative approach distracting – even confusing – then, as I considered, I realized it’s just useful.

Think of it this way: if you’re a GM and you’re inventing an encounter or writing an adventure, how do you use a monster book? Do you think, “Ah, I want a gorgon," then go look up the gorgon. Sometimes. Maybe. More often, you have an idea of the kind of encounter you want the party to have but no specific monster in mind; therefore, you peruse the book. The organization of The Encountered mirrors the kind-of-encounter-you-have-in-mind way that most GM creativity flows. GMs contemplating an encounter in the wilds against some sort of crazy mutated creature will skim Freaks of Nature first. If the encounter stirring in your head and heart owns a tech flavor, you’ll turn to Tech Fiends. If the group is at the point of interacting with the “demons” of the Alpha Omega world, start your skimming there. This kind of attention to organizational detail and usefulness is emerging as a Mindstorm hallmark that I’m really starting to appreciate.

However, while most of the monster categories are self-explanatory, I'm left wishing for short intro paragraph explaining each category and the author's conception. I can suss this out by reading, true, but if the author had explained the difference between, for example, an Abomination and a Freak of Nature at the beginning of their respective chapters, I’d be happier. This is a minor quibble.

Tangent: while I’m on minor quibbles, the one thing that irks me about the otherwise awesome Alpha Omega design approach is their rejection of page numbers – and not just because it makes it hard for me to tell you how many pages are in the book. Mindstorm's books use reference numbers. Chapter 10 gets us 10.1.2, 10.1.3, etc. Don't misunderstand me: you can find stuff, no problem. It’s functional approach and fits their design style, yet it irritates me. I want my page numbers.

Beyond the critters, the additional chapters in the book really make it sing. To begin with, Mindstorm gives us 7 new factions inhabiting the Alpha Omega world; then a chapter containing the detailed, step-by-step process by which GMs create their own beasties. Mindstorm has clearly decided – and rightly in my opinion – not to leave the monster creation process to guesswork or a mere appendix. Their approach is clear, logical and useful. Thank the d20…er…6-6 gods!

A chapter on Encounter Management rounds out the book and gives great advice for handling creatures in the Alpha Omega world. Better, the advice is mechanically driven: what aspects of monster mechanics matter most when deciding which to include in an encounter – including tables revealing some of the behind the scenes crunch calculations; which mechanics might prove misleading if not rightly understood; how to simplify encounter construction; and finally some guidelines for building challenging encounters. All this aimed at simplifying the encounter design process.

Then they give us 40 templates intended, not just for use in making new creatures, but for applying to the creatures in the volume. As their back-of-the-book blurb attests, this, theoretically, allows for over 8,000 creature variations. Now, clearly, I haven’t play tested all these templates, but at a glance the work in them seems to support the assertion. Exciting!

A glossary, an index, and a monster “character sheet” for recording your own creatures or prepping for a session finish The Encountered, and they very deftly present all of this the framework of their world fiction. For example, the chapter on monster design is titled “Creature Discovery” and framed in terms of NWSEC’s (New World Science and Engineering Commission) efforts to discover all the new and alien species the New World of 2280 has birthed. Mindstorm laces this kind of setting specific, fiction-rich inspirational content throughout the book, but lightly and carefully, enriching and not distracting from the monster supplement focus. It simply helps make The Encountered an even more entertaining, smooth and intriguing read.

This monster book rocks! Beautiful, rich and original, 200+ monsters, 285 pages, fleshed out with tons of additional info for using and making critters. If you play Alpha Omega, this is a must have. Here’s maybe the best part of the book: by my read, only about 10 – 20% of the monsters are truly setting specific. The Encountered will enrich any sci-fi/fantasy/horror game, and I advise considering it for non-Alpha Omega collections as well.

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