The Fiend Folio. Ugh.

Ugh. Just ugh.

I’ve had cause, as part of the design of Emprise!™, to go through the 1981 Fiend Folio in some detail. Sure, it’s been a constant companion on my desk for months now, as I use it liberally in stocking the Castle of the Mad Archmage, but I pretty much stick there to the beasties I know and like. But this is the first time in a while I’ve had cause to go through it comprehensively, and boy did it leave a bad taste in my mouth.

I harken back to Ed Greenwood’s review of the book when it first came out, in Dragon #55. He hits the nail on the head with his observation:

Monsters such as the Al-mi’raj and the Hook Horror have strange appearances and little else; there is no depth to their listings.

Personally, I find that applicable to many of the creatures contained within. Do we really need so many different foot-high mischievous creatures populating dungeons that are there to pilfer things and otherwise pose threats of inconvenience to the player characters? Jermlaine, meazels, mites, snyads, bookas, dark creepers, etc. Sheesh! I personally find the xvarts to be an acceptable addition to the roster of humanoids (unlike Greenwood in his review), but I wholeheartedly agree with him about some of the undead or pseudo-undead creatures such as the Eye of Fear and Flame and the Adherer. They’re not long-term monsters to be included in an official roster of beasts; they’re the sort of one-time creatures with strange and puzzling abilities that are part of any DM’s bag of tricks.

I also find that certain of the creatures are simply too restricted for use. The gambado, for example, is only found in some hole topped by a skull. That certainly limits its usefulness. Too, the berbalang; it’s write-up is so specific as to seem to be be taken verbatim from a module. Again; fine as a one-shot, but hardly worthy of inclusion in the full roster of creatures.

Some are simply so sparsely written or weird-for-weird’s sake as to be unusable (the flumph, gorbel, tirapheg), while others are simply “different for the sake of difference” (the frost man) or so derivative as to be almost embarrassing (the disenchanter and kamdan, for example).

Some folks like the artwork, but I confess I loathe most of the art of the Fiend Folio. Again, quoting Greenwood’s original review:

But many illustrations are irritating, in that they do not closely resemble depictions of the monsters already published in the official AD&D modules. The Mezzodaemon is one such example; so is the related Nycadaemon. Some illustrations are not as visually striking or as complete as those published earlier in the Fiend Factory (such as the Sheet Phantom, Tween, and Sandman) and the modules (the Kuo-Toa, Jermlaine, and Kelpie). Why the change, if it was not markedly for the better? Other illustrations are noticeably crude, particularly those of the Mephits and the Enveloper (which at first sight earned the nickname “Pillsbury Doughboy” among gamers at GEN CON XIV).

Couldn’t agree more, and I might even go so far as to say I don’t like any of the clunky bulky-armor type illustrations that we saw throughout the early days of White Dwarf, the style of which were obviously used in the Folio (and I might add Warhammer). Personal taste, of course, but I find more than a little of the modern style of art in those old British illustrations. And I dinnae like it.

On the other hand, there are definitely pieces of brilliance in the book. The slaad (invented, apparently, by the now-bestselling-science-fiction-author Charles Stross; I especially recommend the Singularity Sky series and Accelerando for those who are perhaps Transhumanistically inclined)  are not only needed but well developed. I like the new giants and humanoids, and while I think the Princes of Elemental Evil may owe their creation to a mistaken interpretation of the implications of the name “Temple of Elemental Evil” (this book came out before the module, so all we knew of the Temple was contained in the module T1 The Village of Hommlet), I still think they’re well done. Mephits and the grell are also favorites of mine.

So… what this means is that, basically, don’t expect to see the whole range of FF creatures in my own Bestiary. I’ve trimmed out the clunkers (well, what I consider the clunkers, anyway) and folded the rest in and amongst the denizens of the two Monster Manuals. Nobody will agree with all my choices, of course, but hopefully my reasoning is understandable.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

19 thoughts on “The Fiend Folio. Ugh.

  1. I've never been a big fan of the Fiend Folio. When I'm in a charitable mood, I'd say its contents are "eccentric," but, most of the time, I find it far less useful, pound for pound, than either of the Monster Manual volumes.

  2. I agree, fairly whole-heartedly, Joe. I ignore many more of the FF monsters than I use. The only ones that see any kind of regular rotation in my games are:

    – caryatid columns
    – crabmen
    – crypt thing
    – death knight
    – drow
    – flind
    – githyanki
    – githzerai
    – jermlaine
    – kelpie
    – kuo toa
    – lamia noble
    – mezzodaemon
    – nycadaemon
    – shadow demon
    – slaad
    – skeleton warrior
    – sons of kyuss
    – sussurus
    – svirfneblin
    – tentamort
    – vodyanoi
    – xvart

    I've used others every now and then as strange one-offs, or oddball creatures from a strange monster summoning device (and aarocockra appear in WG4, among others), but the ones above are my FF 'staples'.


  3. You and Ed Greenwood are no fun. And sure, there's some garbage in there (as there is in the Monster Manual), but Russ Nicholson's monster illustrations are my favorites in all of 1st edition.

  4. I like the Fiend Folio. Sure there are some not-so-great monsters in there… but take a close look at the Monster Manual and you'll find the same thing.

  5. "And sure, there's some garbage in there (as there is in the Monster Manual)"


    A lot of AD&Ders are simply not capable of assessing the MM in the same light. It just has this iconic, talismanic power. However, a good 25% – 50% of it is dross I've never really bothered with.

    MM2? 50% – 75%.

    The FF is very different (mostly very British) and it's easier for many to cast a critical eye on it.

  6. If you have the chance (and are feeling in the mood for punishment), take a look at the articles in the early White Dwarf from which much of the FF was taken – the rejects are _even_ worse. Loads of one-use novelty monsters and stuff designed to be unfair to the PCs in order to rail in their excessive amounts of gold or similar. I was blogging about early Dwarfs on my blog until I lost momentum. I do intend to pick that thread back up again.

    As for the comment on the art – Sir, blood has been spilt for less!

    Nicholson's artwork is stunning and his work along with that of the rest of the freelancers illustrating the early Fighting Fantasy books (McCaig, Hartas etc.) defined monochrome fantasy art for a whole generation of Brits. Take a look at Warlock of Firetop Mountain – to my eyes this is what D&D fantasy looks like.

    Perhaps it's time for some of us Brit OSRers to start spreading the love for early 80s Brit-art!

  7. Wow Joseph, your last post was really something else…

    The Fiend Folio was composed of mostly fan-created submissions to the Fiend Factory columns of early White Dwarf magazines. It had twice as many illustrators as any of the other books representing that diversity. There was no thought to any of the "we-need-to-make-more-long-term-monsters-for-an-official-roster" b.s. that you seem to fixate on, it was simply player participation in expanding the limits of the (then limited) pastime.

    A pastime that was inclusive and diverse.

    Sure there were some stinkers, but you come off as little more than a sycophant with your Greenwood quotes and Goldilocks exclusion principles: Too vague… Too specific… Not enough info… Too much info…

    You don't like it? Fine. You want to revise it? Okay. But you don't get to denigrate it because your inability to utilize it.

    Bad taste? Indeed.

    I'm wondering what creatures you've "personally created" to be included in your "…own Bestiary"?

    Care to share all those original, non-derivative monsters, (…and of course your own illustrations of them…) in your next post?

  8. you don't get to denigrate it

    Don't look now, biopunk, but I just did. Amazingly, I "get" to do whatever I want on my own blog. Funny, that, eh?

    @blizack: I checked, and those Russ illustrations are exactly the ones I don't personally care for (the death knight in particular comes to mind). Different strokes…

    Oh, and Scottz over at Old School Rant, if you're reading this, I loved the book when it came out, too. But then again, I was 15 at the time…

  9. I am baffled by such sentiments aimed at the FF. I've always thought it was cool book, with a few stinkers, but so what? I personally think that MMII was far inferior. Alot of monsters in there are vague or bland, or needing alot of beefing up in the quality department. The art was similar to this. And how many variants of giants, dragons and lycanthropes do we need? Some more original monsters would had been good for the old MMII.

  10. But there's so much to *love* in the Fiend Folio! Flinds, huecuvas, norkers, penanggalans, crypt things…

    When I was younger, I was a bit of an Anglophile (I blame too much Doctor Who and Monty Python's Flying Circus on PBS), so I might be biased in my personal elevation of FF above other monster manuals of the time.

  11. Several of the monsters were just weird, but then some of the classically inspired monsters from the MM are just weird when you think about it.

    There are other creatures within that were quite interesting, but so overly detailed (Slaad, Githyanki/githzerai, Dark Stalkers/Creepers) and so powerful as to be very hard to just drop into any campaign.

  12. I like the first Monster Manual better than the Monster Manual II.

    I like the Fiend Folio better than either of the Monster Manuals.

    I like James Raggi's Random Esoteric Creature Generator better than any of the above.

    Weird, one-time use monsters are my preference. For opponents that are members of a species, I prefer real-world animals and humans.

  13. I really like the FF. Sutherland, Otus, Russ, Drow, Kenku, Lizard King, Githyanki! I love the detail and artwork.

    The more esoteric stuff really adds flavor and mystery to the game. Everything doesn't have to make sense.

    Everyone knows how to deal with the more common encounters. I find the "one-off" creatures make things more interesting as well as challenging.

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