Russ Nicholson, whose illustrations populate much of the Fiend Folio, passed away on May 10, 2023. His grotty, incredibly detailed art style is one of the most defining aesthetics in my mind for old school D&D, along with other great artists like Erol Otus, and more specifically an evocation of the messier, darker, more cynical, British approach to fantasy (he contributed art to Warhammer too!). Nicholson was active in making art for roleplaying games just about up to his passing, including Dungeon Crawl Classics, Old School Essentials, and Through Ultan's Door. The Fiend Folio was, I believe, my first exposure to Russ Nicholson's art, and the Fiend Folio was one of the first AD&D books I ever had; Nicholson's art was one of the major reasons I got so into old school D&D, a visual aesthetic that spoke to me and grabbed me. I think Nicholson has to be given credit for getting a lot of people into old school D&D, or at least contributing to the image and aesthetic of going on an adventure into a decrepit dungeon with strange monsters. Rest In Peace to Russ Nicholson, we've lost a truly great artist and contributor to D&D and other roleplaying games.
|A great example of art by Russ Nicholson!
The penanggalan is a longtime personal favorite monster of mine, ever since I first found out about it from a now ancient article on Bogleech.com! The image of a pale woman's head flying through the sky, entrails hanging down below, sucking blood and killing children through the thatched roofs of houses is just the best, and the idea of it being a normal woman during the day and leaving her body behind at night provides a fantastic narrative and seed for adventure. Malay vampires (and really Malay folklore monsters in general) are really cool, I might make some posts statting some more up. But uh... does this need a full page and a half of description??? This is, unfortunately, probably the most unwieldy and long monster description for any AD&D monster. A PAGE AND A HALF!! I do not think that the specifics of whether the penanggalan was a cleric when she was alive, or what a know alignment spell will do when cast on it, or the feeblemind effect of seeing the transformation from human woman to flying undead head, or the slow and steady effect of the penanggalan's feeding, its hypnosis, etc etc etc, none of that is necessary in this amount of detail. The penanggalan as written is an adventure in and of itself, a specific narrative arc that progresses from it selecting a victim to the victim's death and aftermath, and there's barely any deviation from that path other than "the party figures out its a penanggalan and fights and kills it OR finds the body and kills it." I can't believe the Fiend Folio, otherwise a great monster book, completely ruined one of the world's greatest folkloric creatures by making it a damn railroad. This is a 5/5 monster brought down to 2/5 by how awful the implementation is. Just cleave close to the folklore and keep it simple!!! That's all I ask!!
Now THIS is a great and well implemented monster! A large, grasshopper like insect that dwells in deserts, prized for its water divining antennae but dangerous because of its deathgrip pincers. Sweet, simple, and effective. I think giving an animalistic monster some body part that is prized or valuable, whether monetarily or for a directly applicable use, is one of the best ways to make an otherwise mundane animal relevant to the players, and the pernicon's water divining antennae are a great example of the latter. Its antennae vibrate and give off a low hum when within 120 feet of water; very useful in a desert, especially if you're actually going to make water matter to the player characters! The pincers are also delightfully terrible, only dealing 3 points of damage but also taking a point of constitution from "drain[ing] the water and other body fluids from the victim,"; AND this repeats every round! The pernicon's pincers don't just let up, even after the victim dies it will continue to grip, and forcibly removing it will only deal an additional 1d4 damage. That might not sound like much, but these guys are encountered in numbers of 4 to 40! Nasty, but reasonably so! Also, interestingly enough, they are listed as semi intelligent, and the delightfully rendered Russ Nicholson illustration has its hand raised as if it were giving a speech; the description doesn't really describe them as intelligent, but that could be an interesting angle to take.
Not really that interesting. Basically just a weird summonable fire elemental that serves the summoner and, when the summoner is killed, disappears only to reappear "intent on vengeance" 1d4 hours later. They can shapeshift, are immune to fire and weak to cold, deal fire damage, yadda yadda. Nothing super notable. I like how the illustration makes them look like a kind of weird B movie monster, though. Very rubber suit esque. The description only calls their typical form a "reddish, 8' tall humanoid with huge fiery eyes," so I'm glad the illustrator went in this more alien direction.
Very basic, but very effective. Yet another type of ghost (it's almost comical how AD&D statted up every synonym for "ghost" as a completely separate monster—ghost, specter, apparition, etc etc etc), but in this case it feels more earned since a poltergeist is such a specific image: an invisible ghost that can only act on the physical environment, throwing objects around. That the Folio poltergeist can't even deal damage with its thrown objects is kinda funny; all a successful hit does is cause a fear effect that makes the target flee, with a chance of dropping objects they are holding. I like fear effects and effects that force the PC to flee, they're fun. Otherwise, just another incorporeal undead; but does it need to be much more? A poltergeist can just be an immaterial force that throws stuff around! I think I might not stat it up though, treat it more like a room hazard; giving it HP feels kind of wrong.
What a name!!! This hearkens back, to me at least, to some of the more sci-fi inspirations to early D&D; a "protein polymorph" feels like something that could have appeared in an episode of Star Trek or something. But what actually is it? Well, its a colonial organism made up of intelligent single cells that can take on the appearance of anything, including inanimate objects, living beings, even Groups of living beings (its described as joining these independent bodies together by a near invisible cord or film of protoplasm which is just so cool). So, it's a weirder doppelgänger with a wider range of transformative abilities. Not the most distinct niche for a monster, given the whole slew of other imitation creatures that already exist in D&D, but I think the weird colonial single celled organism angle and its ability to imitate groups of living creatures make it a bit more interesting. Also, it can't imitate noises nor accurately recreate facial expressions, which provides a much clearer way to identify whether something is an imitation; I always wonder how the hell you're supposed to figure out a doppelgänger is a doppelgänger. Really, I kinda think this is just a 2/5 creature, but it being a slime mold and the ability to imitate a group of creatures connected by a film of protoplasm bumps it up a star for me. I'm a sucker for a gooey guy.
Kinda mid. Yet another tribal humanoid monster that dwells underground, except this time they are mysterious pale shaggy humanoids that uh... wait a minute, why not just use white apes? Yeah, literally just use white apes. These guys are just apemen except no they're not apemen they're like, weird little eared bear men, murderous care bear types. They have leaders, they wield axes and swords, they berserk when they reach a certain HP threshold (that part is at least kind of interesting I guess), and they hate surface dwelling elves and... become slaves of the drow to assist in their war on elves? That's really weird. Why wouldn't they just be allies of the dark elves? Why slaves? That feels weird, justifying themselves... enslaving themselves to the dark elves? Weird. I would just use like, white ape men or something.
These are cold water piranhas. The description even explicitly calls them that. They are bloodthirsty and swarm ravenously if blood is spilt, up to twenty can attack a human sized target at once and it has an... incredibly cumbersome way to handle that. At first I thought it was pretty interesting, since it involved rolling a percentile die to see how many even attempt to attack, but as it turns out you still end up needing to roll an individual attack roll for every single damn fish. That's so stupid. By the way, did you know piranhas don't really do the whole "swarm uncontrollably if even a bit of blood is spilt in the water" thing? Piranhas don't actually devour large animals like humans, cows, etc to the bone under normal circumstances. That myth originated in a piranha attack coordinated by Brazilian fishermen when Theodore Roosevelt visited the country on a hunting trip in 1913 (they blocked off parts of the river and didn't feed them for a very long time so that they would be desperate for meat when they threw a cow into the water) and he wrote about it in a book that he published the next year, popularizing the image of the piranha as a killer fish for American audiences. Having a killer fish is valuable for a D&D bestiary, of course, but this implementation is boring.
|Unfortunately also a Russ Nicholson... they can't all be winners
Uh oh!! Uh oh!!! This one looks really racist! A "seemingly insane" race of humanoids that just so happen to... wear animal skins and warpaint? Very unfortunate! I think this, along with the quaggoth, is another great example of the unnecessary inflation of different humanoid types in AD&D; when you get down to it, this is just a pretty overtly weirdly racist humanoid monster. Well, with the exception of its Two Kind Of Interesting Ideas. So, Qullans exude an aura of confusion that causes all attempts at communication and interchange between them and other intelligent peoples to fail; I fear that this is just a weird justification for unquestionable violence directed toward them, but I can't help but find the idea of a whole group of people cursed to supernaturally confuse those around them just interesting! Maybe that supernatural confusion is the cause of their seeming "insanity"? Also, they have swords that are so sharp that they deal +3 damage and have +3 to hit, and if someone manages to get one of these swords the bonuses sticks around... until the sword gets blunted, and unfortunately due to the confusion effect ruining all attempts at communication, nobody knows how they keep their swords so sharp. That's kinda cool actually! Very intriguing! I generally think that making bonuses be from nonmagical stuff is pretty cool, to keep magic sticking to the really genuinely weird stuff, and connecting this mysterious sharpness to their confusion effect makes it all feel very tight conceptually. Too bad its uh, really weird and unnecessary otherwise. This is really a 1/5 monster, but the combination of the confusion effect and the super sharp swords nets it another sword; I'm just more likely to steal those ideas for something else than use this monster as is.