Game: Savage Species
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Review Dated: 23rd, March 2003
Reviewer’s Rating: 4/10 [ Just shy of the mark ]
Total Score: 34
Average Score: 6.80
Too much filler and not enough killer; Savage Species is in trouble. What’s the point of the book? It’s there to let you use monstrous races as player character races. Actually, the blurb notes that the supplement “provides everything you need to play a monster as a character or make the monsters your heroes fight even more formidable”. The latter is certainly true. The two usual candidates of yet more feats and yet more prestige classes step forward to add more tooth and claw to your monsters. There are templates too. The difference between a template and a monstrous prestige class is that the prestige class progresses on a scale whereas the full effects of the template come into being straight away. There are better and cheaper ways to improve your monsters than paying US$29.95 for Savage Species. What about monsters as player characters? There are two key elements to this and depending on your own roleplaying style you’ll rate the importance of them differently. The supplement will need to get to grips with rollplaying and the roleplaying problems of playing a monster, it’ll need to help out with the game mechanics and help out with the game itself. After all, you’ve got this Ghoul PC, what the hell are you supposed to do with it? Just how overpowering is the need for flesh? Does a four armed Sahuagin need as long for its craft roles as a dwarf?
Savage Species tries to sort out the game mechanics. It’s not really interested in offering advice on how to roleplay a monstrous race or even on pointing out what makes a monstrous race different from a character race in the first place. As far as I’m concerned that’s not a good start but it’s not a fatal flaw. I’m not a crunch happy gamer but if the dice bits are slick and smooth then I’ll treasure that. The conversion from monster to player race isn’t slick and smooth; it’s awkward, cumbersome, full of grey areas and DM estimates. DM estimates are good. The ability to make good DM calls separates the pro from the newbie. Advice on DM estimates is something to encourage. I appreciate books that present rules as a set of options for a DM to gauge and use as they think best. I don’t appreciate, however, “DMs will really have to estimate for themselves” followed by a “but our estimates are the best and here they are” followed by a dozen pages of estimated mechanics for standard WotC creatures. I was also riled to read that if a monster hadn’t been included in these dozen or so pages then it’s undoubtedly going to be difficult to translate into a player race and undoubtedly going to slow the game down for everyone else. Right, because a Sea Hag PC (included in the lists) isn’t going to bring a bias to the game, a Succubus, Vrok, Mind Flayer or Silver Dragon aren’t going to do it either. Quite obviously a whole load of monstrous races are going to be awkward to fit into a campaign. An arbitrary comment about unknown creatures is just a waste of space.
Savage Species is a 224-paged book. The appendices start at page 152. The first appendix, which is the bulk of these pages, list sample monster classes – races converted into races. The second appendix is a huge compiled table of monsters that repeats everything with extra from the dozen pages of samples I’ve just whined about. The last appendix includes some new creatures – which aren’t new if you have Monster Manual 2 (or even the books, such as Deep Horizon, where they appeared before Monster Manual 2). See what I mean about the filler? There are rules for furries.
The monster classes are introduced in chapter three, which starts as early as page 25. The rules here are designed to let you play a monster as a class. It’s suggested that you might want to play a monster because it’s cool. These rules let you concentrate on the cool features (which I assume are special powers). Fair enough. I’d prefer unusual character choices to be made because they seem especially suited to the campaign, will provide interesting roleplaying opportunities, will enhance the plot, story line or even just offer something different but I shall not turn my nose up at “cool”. Again it’s really up to the experience of a DM and her best estimates to sort these monster classes out. The book’s pointers are a good enough way to going as any other.
Then there are feats. Yawn. Even today there are still new and worthwhile feats being published; psionic feats, for example, underwater or aerial feats are still fairly thin on the ground. These monstrous feats don’t really capitalise on their rarity; there’s too few in the style of “Prehensile Tail” which really must be a monstrous feat and too much in the way of “Quick Dive” or “Desert Dweller” could equally be applied to standard character races.
The equipment chapter is helpful because so many of the monstrous races shouldn’t be able to use standard equipment. The book modifiers a monstrous character race effective character level based on the special powers the creature has – not for how hard it’ll be for the character to find armour, use trappings, cast spells or make allies. For what it’s worth this chapter works, it does what you’ll want and comes up with equipment that it’ll interest non-humanoids.
A chapter of new spells is a typical inclusion for a d20 supplement and so you’ll find it here in Savage Species. The spells are designed to be those ones that’ll interest monsters most and in that respect they’re somewhere between the feats (not really successful) and the equipment (quite successful). I was expecting more Druid spells here but the class that benefits the most is Cleric. Spells like “Jagged Tooth” really is only helpful to spell casters with natural weapons but “Forestfold” which enhances move silently and hide checks or even “Girallon’s Blessing” which gives the caster an extra pair of arms could just as equally be cast be an elf. New spells don’t really make playing a monster as a character any easier but they do add more oomph to your current list of monstrous foes.
Prestige classes for monsters certainly make monsters tougher too. I suppose they’re useful if you’re including monster characters in a long campaign and want to keep those characters on roughly equal footing with the “normal” characters. In that case they’re helpful for game balance. The success of this chapter is to offer tips and suggestions on how to create your own prestige class and your own monster race prestige class. You’ll welcome this flexibility when you discover that very many of the sample prestige classes in Savage Species are really quite specific to one monster race. Illithid Savant is useless if you don’t have Mind Flayers in your game, Slaad Brooder’s are useless if you don’t have Slaads and so on. To be fair there’s about an equal number of prestige classes that could be applied to any race. Even here, though, there’s typically some catch; the Scaled Horror and Wave Rider both strongly favour a water-based scenario.
The Campaigns chapter is a bit of a lost fish. For some reason it’s placed between chapters on prestige classes and templates. It’s not much of a chapter either since it only has four pages to call its own. It’s this chapter that keeps Savage Species on the radar as far as I’m concerned. Here the DM will find the much-needed tips and tricks for -actually using monstrous races as characters- in their campaign. These few pages quickly look at problems with alignment and distinguishing between monsters and monstrous heroes.
There are rules near the start of the book for turning monster races into monster classes and near the end there are rules for advancing monsters as classes. It’s another tiny chapter and it’s mostly all overlap. There are short comments on finding an appropriate character class for a monster. In order to make monster encounters tougher there are such obvious suggestions as attacking the characters with groups of monsters, including a monster cleric (or other class), making the monsters bigger or using a template. Gosh. Would you have thought of that by yourself? A squadron of Drow backed up by a wizard? Thank goodness WotC are here to help out with suggestions like that.
Then there are templates. I like templates but too many of the ones in this book make me shudder. The “Feral” template applies to creatures that have shirked civilization and gone to live in the wild. The ability changes range from +4 to -2 and that’s ridiculous. Take FooFoo the inn daughter’s pampered puppy and toss poor FooFoo into the wild. If FooFoo survives as a feral dog she’ll be as strong as a small earth elemental, as tough as a Griffon and as wise as a Wraith. The “Incarnate” template applies to a construct that’s been given an actual life and living body. I think the “living body” change gets carried away with itself. A stone golem is still made of stone; it should have some damage reduction but not so under this template. The Incarnate template also removes all special attacks too and so I imagine acid golems won’t be acidic any longer. Pheh. Still, it’s not all bad. I quite like the “Multiheaded Creature” template and the “Tauric Creature” template too.
Chapter Eleven would confuse Nietzsche. “Becoming A Monster” is a chapter that works on the premise that after reading this book players will want to turn their characters into monsters. Ack! No! There should be a chapter that suggests players and DMs should try not to fall into the syndrome of using the latest toys in the most recent supplement just because they’re there. If there’s a real in character reason, a twist of plot, a planned game feature or, I suppose, for people who just don’t care if their games follow in the trail of WotC supplements then there a few pages of ways to turn characters into monstrous characters.
Savage Species isn’t an awful book; it’s just not a good book. It just about does what it needs to do; it gives you suggestions on how to convert the game mechanics of monster stats so they can be used as a playable race. Savage Species only gives you a tiny bit of roleplaying advice. I think Savage Species would have been better as a magazine article or a cheaper, smaller paperback because it doesn’t need over 240 pages and US$29.95 for “you’ll need to use your judgement” is just too much. There’s nothing in the book that puts it on gamers “must have” lists and there’s an awful lot that can be read once and then ignored ever after. There’s too much filler and not enough killer content.