Saturday, February 20, 2021

Dressing Your Monsters: Raging Swan Press Monstrous Lairs I & II [REVIEW]

So you were all prepped for the party's confrontation with Uzbug, the Dread Kobold Warlord of Doom, but once the session started, the players abruptly decided to go raid a nearby pirate stronghold instead. Or perhaps you're running a sandbox with lots of random encounters, and the dice just announced that the players are about to stumble onto a hidden Duergar outpost (right after this 5-minute snack break). Or maybe you're planning next week's attack on the goblin caves, but you'd really prefer not to lean on the same setting details you leaned on for the previous five goblin caves.

Enter Raging Swan's GM's Miscellany: Monstrous Lairs, Vol. I and Monstrous Lairs, Vol. II.

(Disclosure: I was given free copies of the products discussed here in exchange for a fair review, and the DTRPG links in this post are affiliate links, which support this site at no added cost to you).


These resources contain system-neutral 'dungeon dressing' random tables, but themed specifically for different kinds of monsters or other opponents, providing details particularly suitable for their lairs. They don't include maps, stats, etc.; these tables are for the color, the flavor, the details that can bring a bare map you just grabbed (probably off Dyson) to life! I've reviewed some of Raging Swan's dungeon dressing material before, and thought very highly of it. These monster lair tables are also quite useful tools. I have a few minor critiques, but overall, I think these are well worth the money - particularly if you are likely to use the same kind of creatures multiple times in a campaign, or if you are likely to generate content on a tight timetable.

Worth mentioning up front: these volumes compile lair description tables that are also available individually - but the compilation volumes make a lot of economic sense, if you're likely to use these much. For example, you could buy Monstrous Lair #2, "Troll's Cave", for only $1.45 USD in .pdf - but Vol. I contains 22 different lairs, and Vol. II contains 24 different lairs, but each sells for $7.45 USD in .pdf (these have reasonably priced Print-on-Demand options, too).


Contents, in a bit more detail:

Vol. I:

  • Monstrous Lair #1: Owlbear Den
  • Monstrous Lair #2: Troll Cave
  • Monstrous Lair #3: Ogre’s Cave
  • Monstrous Lair #4: Goblin Raiding Camp
  • Monstrous Lair #5: Harpy’s Nest
  • Monstrous Lair #6: Minotaur’s Den
  • Monstrous Lair #7: Giant Spider’s Web
  • Monstrous Lair #8: Ghoul Nest
  • Monstrous Lair #9: Wights’ Barrow
  • Monstrous Lair #10: Mummy’s Crypt
  • Monstrous Lair #11: Dark Creeper Village
  • Monstrous Lair #12: Medusa Lair
  • Monstrous Lair #13: Aboleth’s Sunken Cavern
  • Monstrous Lair #14: Lizardfolk Village
  • Monstrous Lair #15: Bandit Camp
  • Monstrous Lair#16: Thieves’ Hideout
  • Monstrous Lair#17: Witch’s Hovel
  • Monstrous Lair #18: Bugbears’ Lair
  • Monstrous Lair#19: Gnolls’ Camp
  • Monstrous Lair #20: Kobold Warren
  • Monstrous Lair #21: Pirates’ Cove
  • Monstrous Lair #22: Sahuagin’s Sunken Cave

Vol. II:

  • Monstrous Lair #23: Troglodytes’ Warren
  • Monstrous Lair #24: Roper’s Cave
  • Monstrous Lair 25: Scrags’ Sunken Cave
  • Monstrous Lair #26: Sphinx’s Cave
  • Monstrous Lair #27: Cultists’ Hidden Fane
  • Monstrous Lair #28: Smugglers’ Hidden Den
  • Monstrous Lair #29: Vampire’s Crypt
  • Monstrous Lair #30: Assassins’ Hideout
  • Monstrous Lair #31: Wyvern’s Nest
  • Monstrous Lair #32: Sea Hag’s Grotto
  • Monstrous Lair #33: Dryad’s Glade
  • Monstrous Lair #34: Green Hag’s Swamp
  • Monstrous Lair #35: Ghost-Haunted House
  • Monstrous Lair #36: Fire Giants’ Hall
  • Monstrous Lair #37: Hill Giants’ Steading
  • Monstrous Lair #38: Frost Giants’ Glacial Rift
  • Monstrous Lair #39: Otyugh’s Sewer
  • Monstrous Lair #40: Drow Outpost
  • Monstrous Lair #41: Duergar Outpost
  • Monstrous Lair #42: Derro Outpost
  • Monstrous Lair #43: Wolves' Den
  • Monstrous Lair #44: Chimera's Den
  • Monstrous Lair #45: Hydra's Den
  • Monstrous Lair #46: Basilisk's Den

Ok, but what's in each lair? Each two-page spread lair follows a standard template:

  • The Approaches (the lair's entrance, or in some cases, spoor near the lair that hint at creature's presence and nature).
  • What's Going On? (because, let's face it, it's always cooler if the monsters are doing something other than waiting for adventurers to wander by...).
  • Major Lair Features
  • Minor Lair Features
  • Monster's Appearance
  • Treasures
  • Trinkets (or, in Vol II, 'Trash')


When I started looking over these tables, these were the questions I brought front and center:

  • What is this best used for?
  • How flexibly will it support my own imagination?
  • How reusable is it? How soon will I 'use it up'?
  • Does it generate better (i.e., more evocative, colorful, cool) content than I would on my own?
  • Or, at least, does it generate good content faster than I would on my own?

To assess how this compares to just making up my own lair descriptions, I decided to test the material under fire. I grabbed a timer, semi-randomly selected a monster type (Giant Spider!), and then immediately gave myself 5 minutes, timed, to come up with a lair description. Here's what I came up with.

GIANT SPIDERS’ NEST in 5 minutes…go.

Ok, so obviously webs. New webs, also old webs, also birds or old prey hanging in webs. You can find cool treasure in the desiccated remains in the webs. Maybe there is not-dead-yet prey stuck in the webs too. You can rescue them and get - rewards; thanks; information, quests and story hooks….maybe someone you needed to find is in that web. Maybe the person in the web has gone mad with fear and fights you.

Hmm. The spiders themselves…any dead spiders sitting about too? Maybe one giant creature or monster that the spiders sucked dry. Like a dead owl bear wrapped up in webs.

Sticky walls…walls rubbed smooth by spider bulk in the tunnels? Perhaps the spiders have laid cunning traps and ruses to draw prey in and then entrap them. Huh - big leaves or branches cover a pit trap with fresh, sticky webbing slung across the bottom? The spiders are waiting for you down in the pit trap?  
(1:47 left…) This is where my creativity has paused…

An idol. A spider-god idol - the spiders worship something horrible, right? Ok, there’s a jeweled obsidian idol that hums faintly if you touch it and is very evil. Maybe it came from BEYOND. Maybe an emissary of a ‘lesser’ species’ serving the spiders is present. Spiders have factions? Maybe one side of the lair has spiders on team A and vice versa…can you play them off each other?


Then I reset the timer, flipped to the correct page in Monstrous Lairs Vol. I, grabbed a d10, and repeated the challenge. Here's what I generated:

Approaching: a thick spider web blocks entry to the nest. 
Inside, the giant spider is covered in fist-sized young.
A mass of thick webs all attach to a single monstrous thread that fades into the shadows of a deep alcove piercing the ceiling.
I’m not happy just with that; I’ll roll up a second major feature too.
Several large objects are hidden from view under a blanket of dusty spider webs.
Minor feature: hundreds of tiny white spiders crawl over the desiccated body of something that may have been once a person. 
The giant spider itself has a heavy carapace covered with thick black hair; matted clumps of hair look like long spines.
Treasure present: several silver arrows in perfect condition pin a huge spider to the wall.
Also, a frayed spider silk rope lies next to an unfortunate web farmer.

Done - with 1:26 left on the clock.
To be honest, I felt this was an acceptable but slightly underwhelming lair, and not necessarily a clear knock-out win over what I had come up. So I grabbed the dice again, reset the timer again, and made another spider lair using the random tables - and this is where I started to see some of the beauty of this product. Because each lair only takes a few minutes to crank out, but each lair can be quite different from the next. And although the first one didn't scream 'evocative creepy spider lair!' at me, I was much more goosebumped by the second one I generated:

Approaching: Rats, squeaking loudly, scatter at the party’s approach if they aren’t quiet - this might alert the spider within.
However, THIS spider is not here yet, but returns moments after the PCs start investigating its home.
Notable feature 1: Dangling from webs, hundreds of skulls and bones hang from the nest’s ceiling.
Notable feature 2: A large spider’s egg, crawling with hundreds of white fist-sized spiders, hangs from the ceiling.
A broad swath of dried blood covers a section of web near one wall.
The spider itself has a riot of green, brown, and red swirls all over its thick carapace.
Treasure: Intricate leather armor with red piping that mimics a spider’s web.
Also a shattered bottle lies just beyond the grasping hands of a fallen victim. It’s labeled ‘anti-venom.”

DONE - 2:07 left - ok, let’s keep going with creative connections…
What’s with the weird armor that looks like a web?
Did it belong to….Drow, or some very spider-friendly ally? Is there/was there a spider-serving cult? Or an assassin’s group that brought fresh victims to trade for spider venom? Huh.
Stopping now with 1 minute left.
Notice how the "monster's appearance" table means you can have a bunch of different, memorable foes of the same species? This doesn't have to be just "oh, that one time we fought another giant spider." It's "that one spider - you know, the one with the weird colored swirls on its body" - unlike the previous spider, with the big stubby hairs all over it. And the lair details in here get quite evocative - I mean, one 'minor lair feature' entry says "the ribcage of a victim provides safe haven for a large egg sac." I want you to just pause and dwell on that image; some poor soul's former bone-house filled up by a pale, swollen egg sac...that is a deeply horrifying detail. That is starting to make me think of this giant spider as something obscene and awful and inexorable, and yet (of course) intent on protecting its own...this has the makings of a very colorful encounter.

Now, to be fair, not every encounter generated here hits me so much in the feels. For one thing, some monsters are perhaps a bit less environmentally evocative. I wasn't terribly impressed with the Owlbear lair generator, for example:

Outside - a pile of corpses sits outside the nest, as if the creature were unusually fastidious.
Inside, it’s digging a pit, already two feet deep.
A rope bridge connects two ledges above the nest.
Meat has been stripped from the bones of a seven-foot-long fish.
This particular owl bear is missing all its feathers, giving it bald patches on its head and upper body.
Treasure: a carved, jade figurine depicting a bear sits by an intricate ivory carving of an owl.
Also, a leather girdle, stretched nearly to its breaking point, is among the nest’s detritus.

That lair doesn't really speak to me with as much coherence, but I have to admit, I'm not sure I could quickly design something that says 'cool Owlbear lair' any better or faster. And it still makes this Owlbear a bit more memorable, and gives some interesting tactical landmarks for an encounter. So even in the not-so-grands, you still get some cool individualization of each specific creature's abode.

Although each entry gives you ten different 'monster appearances' to work with, the potential shelf-life of these tables probably extends past ten lairs, in many cases, because you can mix and match entries into different combinations (another hairy spider with other lair features, for example). On the other hand, I find that I keep wanting to add a couple of lair features to the same lair, to really make a lair pop, so that would work in the opposite direction for reusability. Anyway, I don't really plan to make more than ten owlbear lairs in the coming year. :-)  


These things are really useful, but they aren't perfect. Fortunately, the things I'd like to critique are fairly small. There are a few odd production-value issues in Vol. I (Vol. II seems better). In Vol. I, the .pdf bookmarking in the product I downloaded was uneven, with a number of hyperlinks pointing to wrong pages near the intended page. That doesn't take too long to get around, but it is annoying. The front matter pages for Vol. I even state "Welcome to this Raging Swan Press System Neutral Edition Village Backdrop" - a reference to a different product from Raging Swan (Vol. II's front matter says "these tables can be used before or during the game to help breathe life into a roper's cave" - but at least Vol. II actually includes the Roper's Cave lair tables!).

Happily, these quibbles detract a bit from the shine, but not too much from the usefulness, of these random table collections.


If you only ever get one Raging Swan Press product, I suggest you spring for their Dungeon Dressing guide instead - but these Monstrous Lairs offer a really nice supplement (in fact, combining both the extensive but more generic Dungeon Dressing tables with monster-specific tables for certain areas would likely be a very powerful combination for quick dungeon design).

I'll finish my recommendations by thinking about different types of users:

If you're likely to make one goblin cave (for example), and time pressure isn't an issue, you probably don't need this product, unless you are not terribly confident in your own creative ideas and want to supplement them.

If you're likely to make multiple goblin caves (for example), these products can help you individualize repeat lair types so that you don't feel like you're always rehashing the same old thing. In fact, here's a fun challenge: know that cool Ten-Monster Setting challenge that's floated around before? You could pick half a dozen monsters from one of these compilations for small campaign setting, and still have very unique-feeling monster encounters across your campaign, thanks to these tables.

If you're likely to make a bunch of crazy encounters on short notice as you generate sandbox content right in front of your players, then I'd definitely recommend this resource, because it just makes it so fast to come up with the colorful stuff mentioned earlier.

Probably the best thing I can say to sum up my feedback is that I'm GMing tonight, and I used this resource to get ready for tonight's session. There's an underground river that my players are planning to navigate as they search for a hidden ancient lore-archive...and there's an aboleth in their way...but, thanks to Monstrous Lairs, it's not just 'an aboleth' - it's the aboleth with a multitude of scars covering its purple skin, and with one of many eyes covered with a milky white film of blindness, surrounded by old bones now brittle as chalk-powder, and by murals depicting tentacles bursting from waves...etc. 

Overall, then, these tables are RECOMMENDED.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Artsy Fartsy (temple vault sketch)

 I felt like sketching this morning, and drew some kind of ... underground temple vault? 

At an earlier stage in the drawing, I asked a family member what they thought. The response: "Is this an interior or exterior scene?" 

Sigh. Keep practicing, I guess. :-)

The initial sketch started in the odd corner of a paper sheet, so the weird line at top left is a join between two sheets.