Beasts, Men & Gods

Not to be confused with this text, which is certainly well worth reading, Underwood’s opus (reprinted last year), is a classic late ’70s, early ’80s amateur take on D&D. Written and published when Underwood was in college, this book has developed a “cult following” over the years and it makes for a quite entertaining and informative read on many different levels.

Underwood’s approach was to create more detailed rules for many of the things in the original game that didn’t make a lot of sense to him – or didn’t appear to him to be “realistic.” We see height and weight tables, “willpower” ratings, and a more complex way to determine, and maintain, alignment. More and more complex rules follow – all in an effort to chase that ever-elusive target: “verisimilitude.” The same impetus, I suspect, fueled the details and all the tables and new rules in the DMG. While it presents itself as a game in its own right, a basic inspection will reveal it to be a supplement and set of “house rules” that looks somewhat like Arduin and other productions common in that “era.”

Like other innovators, Underwood wasn’t content with the spells and player class divisions in the original game, and so he elaborated whole new series of magical schools and their subdivisions. These include more spells dealing with necromancy, elemental magic, “natural lore,” and others. Most of his innovations appear in the new character classes, combat, and magic. For the latter, he uses a “mana point” system. I admit that I am curious to see more of the world he must have created to house all of this. My suspicion, however, is that he thought he was better at creating algorithms than in world-construction.

Unlike his peers, Underwood didn’t have a big section on new monsters. Like Raggi, he wanted GMs to make up their own own creatures. I liked this line:

“I find it disgusting that characters are allowed by some referees to consult their rulebooks for various aspects of the monsters they are engaged in combat with. I strongly recommend that referees deny players access to their rules regarding monsters during the course of play.”

Underwood then, like Raggi, gives tips on how each GM can create their own monsters: “The best monster to fight against (as far as suspense is concerned) is one you know nothing about.” He then gives brief, but interesting, descriptions of roughly 20 monsters. In the – comparatively – long section on dragons he notes:

“Dragon magic is NOT gaudy magic with a whole lot of special effects. Make it interesting, not devastating.”

Some of his work on dragons is quite reminiscent of the material in Dave Arenson’s Adventures in Fantasy – a strangely neglected D&D variant from the same time period. Arenson’s efforts are, unsurprisingly, superior, but the way each author sought to make the dragons more individualized and curious is noteworthy. I want to write more about AIF in the future, because I suspect that there is plenty in that system to mine.

All in all, Underwood’s book reminds me of the way D&D hit so many of us back in the ’70s when we first encountered it. One of my friends, for example, taught the game to one of his childhood friends who immediately ran home and designed his own version. It was awful. My younger brother, similarly inspired, sought to come up with a way to add firearms to the game – with the same lack of success. But these failures, no matter how ridiculous and how dreadful, point to the way D&D delighted and inspired us. Once we were introduced to the game, we thought we could do anything – even instantly add to it and make it better. Even if our efforts turned out to be lamentable, they point to the way the game turned on, and spoke to, our imaginations and our confidence.

When looking at an early book like this one, it’s easy to see how wrong people were in their estimation of their own abilities as game designers. The amateurish production, the poor illustrations, the bad writing, etc. are all plain enough. What’s harder to see is the dancing, bright fire lurking behind these lapses. Once we have seen that we don’t need to “design a whole new game” and once we know that making up complicated new rules doesn’t make the game any more fun, or better to actually play, we can channel that creative urge more productively. For every transparent mistake Underwood made, and there’s a few on each page, you can see the evidence of the amazing power of imagination he was seized with. It fairly smokes off the pages – even now. The OSR is all about keeping that creative power going, while we learn from the mistakes of the past.

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3 responses to “Beasts, Men & Gods”

  1. baronvonheil says :

    You clearly never played the game sir. I am among the few who have. It’s far superior to D&D in every respect, in fact it’s the best fantasy game I’ve ever played, and there have been dozens over the years. This review is patronizing and arrogant. I’m talking about the mechanics of course, since there is precious little world detail. I’ve always been fine with that though. One of the weaknesses of new games is to spend too much time developing setting and suggesting story. Give me a rough framework and solid mechanics and I’m good to go. I’m going to ignore you anyway.

  2. Vault keeper says :

    Great!

    This is the first review i stumble upon about the game. I am actually the italian guy who made the petition on my old blog through which i managed to convince Mr. Underwood to reprint this gem.

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