Saturday, September 17, 2022

(Planescape) Monstrous Compendium Appendix III

This is another one of those books that I have a fraught history with. Appendices I and II were treasured items of my youth, but I didn't even know there was an Appendix III until something like 2012. My reaction, roughly speaking, was, "what the fuck?!" Having two volumes of a three-volume collection irritated me like you wouldn't believe.

It's something I struggle with as a collector. Well, maybe "struggle" is the wrong word. "Should struggle," maybe. "Am afflicted with," perhaps. I am two PoD volumes away from having a complete Kindred of the East collection, and I don't even really like that game.

I do like Planescape, however. And that's a struggle. A full collection of Planescape books would be great, and the only reason I don't have one is because they're ridiculously expensive.  I'm only eight books away, and the estimated price is more than 2300 dollars. A good chunk of that is in a couple of outlier books, but even the skinny adventure books are 50 dollars. Since I'm always a bit ambivalent about adventures anyway, I've resigned myself to the notion that the full collection is going to stay out of reach. And yet, The Monstrous Compendium Appendix III felt like an exception. I don't know what to say. The volumes were numbered and I only had two out of three. It bugged me.

So every few weeks I'd check. People were asking 90 dollars for this thing, and I just couldn't justify it to myself. But these things fluctuate. There's a trick to it. You check frequently and prepare yourself emotionally to pounce on a deal when it comes up. I'd done it before. That's how I got a copy of the Trinity Player's Guide for $15 when it customarily hovered around $60. But it's something that requires a weird combination of frugality and spend-thriftness. 

Anyway, it worked. In October of last year, I got my hands on a copy of this book for "only" 50 dollars . . . except that it never arrived. Maybe the boat ride from England was more treacherous than I imagined. Hard to say, because I never got a tracking number. I have a cynical suspicion that someone listed the book, and then after they made the sale, finally decided to check ebay, saw it was regularly closing for 2-3 times that price, and decided to wait me out. It wasn't until late December that I reluctantly asked for a refund.

The whole incident really undermined my resolve to wait for a "reasonable" price. Maybe I was wrong and that 90 dollar price tag wasn't an aberration, but the new normal. Maybe, as copies got progressively removed from circulation, it would climb, 120, 150, 200 . . . sky's the limit. I would need to do as I'd done with A Guide to the Astral Plane (the only other Planescape book who's absence from my collection feels like an acute oversight) and write it off, hoping some day for a possible PoD. Then the Colorado government sent me a check for $750 and I was like, "how can I most irresponsibly use this unexpected windfall?" and by coincidence, there was a copy with an asking price of $80, a mere 5 dollars over what I'd previously pretended was my ceiling price for a 128 page softcover supplement for a vintage rpg I never wanted to play again.

Never mind that this is only 10 dollars less than a price that I had, years before, decided to try and wait out. I think I can accept my C-minus-level consumer savviness. The real question is - after all that, was it worth it?

Hell, no! Of course not.

But this is why I prefer not to do reviews, and instead just randomly start some of these things off with tedious shopping anecdotes. Because "not being worth the years of obsessing and bargain hunting and eventually overpaying for" is not the same thing as "bad." (Funnily enough, this also works in reverse - a book can be incontrovertibly bad, but also absolutely worth it, like certain parts of Mage: the Ascension).

Although, to be clear, The Monstrous Compendium Appendix III is kind of . . .not "bad" exactly (and, in fact, often the exact opposite of "bad") but maybe . . . terrible? In the original sense of the term, as in we should all be feeling terror that this thing exists. A whole series of events had to go wrong for me to be in the position I am now, and it's kind of breathtaking to contemplate.

This book should never have been conceived, but having been conceived, it should never have been green-lit. But having been green-lit, it should never have been made. But having been made, I never should have bought it.

And yet, here we are.

Keep in mind, if this were a review, it would be a positive one. We assigned the class a personal essay and the weird kid turned in a harrowing account of his summer working at the sausage factory and intellectual honesty demands I give it a B+.

This is a book filled with interesting fantasy creatures, made at the pinnacle of AD&D monster design and presentation, authored by Monte Cook, who has an rpg bibliography to die for. It's a book that is firing on all cylinders.

But . . . It's all in service of Planescape's worst campaign pitch. This isn't just a book filled with 3rd-string monsters, neither iconic nor obvious enough to make it into the first two volumes. It is, in fact, a companion to The Inner Planes, and thematically centers on weird elemental creatures to make these strange and dangerous places feel more alive. And the thing about The Inner Planes (the book, not the planes) is that no book I've ever read, tabletop rpg or otherwise, has made it so obvious that no one involved really wanted to be doing the job.

The MC3 is a fun book, filled with unique creatures that you're absolutely going to want to meet, but all these creatures live in places you're absolutely not going to want to go (except, perhaps for the Mineral Quasielementals). "This plane of loneliness and desolation offers visitors nothing." Oh, good. I wonder what sort of encounters they're going to have when they get there.

Actually, to be fair, I chose one of more pointless quasielemental planes for that quote (Dust) and the MC3 had no specific native creatures (except the quasi-elementals) for that plane. Still, the point stands that the environments covered in this book are going to be used only in extremely niche adventures, and I'm not sure that it's a niche anyone really asked for or wanted. The big feeling of this book is that TSR was a machine for churning out supplements and MC3 is one of the last irregular, unsightly products to come off the line before they shut the machine down for being irreparably broken.

I cannot emphasize enough how un-iconic this book is. I seriously doubt anyone has ever been planning a game and thought, "hold up, I really need the stats for a devete and a khargra and can't go any farther until I have them, why, oh why weren't they in the first Monster Manual?" At best, this is a book you flip through and say, "why not?"

Which isn't actually a bad thing to be. There's a real sense of discovery here, and I quite enjoyed the sensation of never knowing what was going to be on an upcoming page. However, there was a reason I never suspected its existence prior to being blindsided by its entry on Amazon. Unlike the inner planes, ethereal, and astral books it supplements, it wasn't even obligatory. Its strangeness doesn't fill in the setting's noticeable gaps so much as emphasize how rote those gaps were to begin with. The opening line for the ooze sprite entry sums it up "Is every creature that hails from the plane of Ooze just a big joke?"

It's a rhetorical question, but it gets at the heart of the issue - did Planescape even want to incorporate the inner planes? For all of its virtues, this book does not offer compelling evidence that the answer was "yes."

Ukss Contribution: I say, even as this proves to be one of the more difficult Ukss entries to narrow down. I really liked a lot of the individual entries, precisely because they were just pointless noodling. No one's yearning for the Garmorm, a mind-absorbing worm-like creature that grows multiple humanoid mouths in grotesque imitation of its victims, the better to sing its warlike chants in harmony with itself, but it's going to be a memorable encounter.

My favorite of these inexplicable one-offs was the Ravid. Despite featuring the unfortunate line, "Would you rather face a creature of negative energy that wants to drain you or a beast of positive energy that wants to pump you full of life," it's actually a pretty fun creature - a more or less benign floating snake thing that causes absolute havoc wherever it goes by having an aura that brings inanimate objects to life. It isn't really intelligent enough to understand the chaos it causes, but it does like to see things move, so it's constantly on the lookout for new objects to animate, all the while avoiding the already-living creatures that seem to resent its presence. So really, it's a single creature that is multiple encounters all by itself. PCs are most likely to stumble upon the aftermath of its passage and then be compelled to solve this mystery before things get totally out of hand.

I love it, because this is what I think gods should be like - miraculous power, wielded in innocence. Changing the world just by existing within it. Having a tread too heavy for ordinary reality to bear. This is definitely something I can work with.

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