Thursday, February 23, 2017

Strange Stars - OSR - A REVIEW

So a while back Trey Causey of Sorcerer's Skull Released "Strange Stars" a " setting for any game where modern transhuman science fiction meets classic 70s space opera." It was a pretty good all purpose supplement about a very "Star Wars" (or perhaps more "Ice Pirates") meets Ian Banks' Culture Novels or Lecke's Ancillary universe and it was followed shortly by a FATE mechanics book for the setting written by John Till. I know nothing about FATE so I can't comment on that one, but recently Trey and Hydra Cooperative put out Strange Stars OSR.  I think I know OSR and I even know Stars Without Numbers, which is a slightly crunchy (Optional DM facing crunch - it's fine) version of space Dungeons & Dragons using the contentions of the 1980's Basic & Expert books ('B/X' or Red and Blue Box).


Interior Sample of Strange Stars OSR

I also know Trey, in an internet acquaintance way, and think he's one of the best people working in the OSR gaming scene (though I don't think he'd consider himself OSR exactly, even if I think he's running a Wizard of OZesque 5e campaign or maybe a B/X Planet of the Apes game these days), who doesn't get nearly the credit he deserves.  Not only is Mr. Causey's blog always updating with something interesting to say (though often about comics or sci-fi movies, and usually fairly short), but it has been for years.  Mr. Causey's earlier works regarding "The City" are a phenomenal setting that was one of the early departures in the tabletop revival blogging scene from vintage rules recreation.  "The City" is detailed in "Weird Adventures" and is a 1920's weird fantasy New York attached to a Weird fantasy America and world.  It is amazingly well done, pulling from a rich well of popular culture and geek culture to create a truly inspiring and darkly humorous setting.  The folks at Hydra Cooperative are also pretty excellent, and produce high quality works, so I have a great deal of fondness for both author and publisher - but still I bought this PDF ($5.55) with my own money and so I promise to be critical of it where it's deserved.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

In the City at Night - Trade your Dreams for Tawdry Fashion

Pennington -Year One
The Capital is eternal, possessing the hubris of something that is, and it's 2,800 year history of continuous metropolitan occupation gives it some claim to being the largest, longest continuously occupied human city in the world, unless some poor bastards still cling to something akin to life in the blasted cities of the Imperial Heart Provinces. Still discounting bone singers, the Capital was a bustling city of high industry when the Papacy of the Red Sun's was truly the scattering of nomadic cattle raiding tribes that Imperial propaganda still paints it as.  Only Far Vehisu claims a longer history, and far Vehisu also claims to have been founded a thousand years in the future.

With great age, comes a deep, wide detritus of knowledge and a deeper one of trash. Much of the Capital's trash is magic, and some is still useful.  Below is a 2D20 table of magic items that may be found in the Capital.  The items shown are varied, but tends towards the less martial and more esoteric functions as conflict in the Capital is just as often whispered intimations in a dusty salon as it is knives under a canal bridge.


Friday, February 10, 2017

The City at Night - They Stalk Darkened Streets - Blackhearts

Michael Whelan - Descent

This began as a random encounter list companion for the most recent post of random urban landmarks for the capital of the Fallen Empire, but became a long monster description relating to a form of ghoul designed for Fallen Empire.  Ghouls are one of my favorite D&D monsters and almost always make an appearance in my games, being a truly horrific source of imagery for me, and the 'Blackhearts' below are an especially horrible and pathetic variety.

One of the things I decided when running Fallen Empire Games was to use mythological monsters from less common mythos, and for various reasons the folktales of the Caribbean became the source of some of the monster design, Blackhearts being based on the legend of the Blackheart Man/Uncle Gunnysack (not Bunny Wailer's reinterpretation as a symbol of resolute anti-colonialism but a boogeyman that steals children and carries them off in his gunnysack).  Likewise Duppys and the Rolling Calf are likely to appear on Fallen Empire random encounter lists, though in equally twisted forms
.

There is no safety in the winding and convoluted streets of the Capital, paths overlaid, rewritten, and turning in on themselves and ruin crumbling next to commerce, while hideous things creep up from the underways, down from the abandoned stories above, and out of the canals.  Palisades of repurposed masonry and expensive imported timber protect the dockland redoubts of the Resurgent Merchants a Wreckers, magical wards still have some power around the manses of the craft and trade castes and the nobility and their servitors are more often than not themselves predatory beasts that hunt the night.


Most citizens and visitors to the Capital have no such protection and rely of stout doors, heavy locks, iron shutters, silence and low folk magic to protect their homes and family.  These protections are effective for most, but each night at least one family is reduced to red ribbons and one band of late night revelers dragged under the green scum of a nearby canal by something long dead.

While many potential dangers stalk the Capital’s crumbling streets from renegade Knights Perilous to duppies formed of an angry spirit and cyclones of trash, one of the most common and most awful is the Blackheart, skulking at the fringes of society with their sacks of human bones and preying on the weak.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

In the City at night

It takes two days of canal travel from the Eastern and Western canal to reach the Docklands after one has passed through the shadowy enormity of the Capital's great walls and the mercenary militia and trade towns that cluster about the gates.  Two days of distant spires, and endless vistas of ruin as the bargemen pole furiously up the green canals - past fishing rafts, and under the black snapping flags above the dens of feral thralls.  Through expanses of arcane lilies that project the ghostly images of ancient beauties from their blooms, and over the fish gnawed bones of thousands of years worth of suicides and murder victims.

Hubert Robert - 1789

The Capital sprawls at the confluence of two great rivers, bound and channeled within the great circuit of it's two hundred foot, bonewhite walls and emerging again as canals that lead outward, rays from a dying sun.  For even though the Capital is dying, the spires of the Imperial Presence still gleam in the sun with its ancient shadow stretched out to cover entire blocks and neighborhoods of insula.  Within however is only a wilderness of dust and great polities of vermin, the street a mazed jungle of imperfection and abandoned buildings.   Imperial tower blocks stand in indestructible bonewhite and magically extruded stone, but the less permanent materials of their interiors are rotted and burnt away to leave only regal shells for the pigeons to roost beneath.

Urban Life is limited to to the North Eastern Quadrant of the Capital, around the foreign quays and the outlanders market where the men of the Resurgent Kingdoms gather to trade the salvaged wealth and mysteries of empire for the earthly dross of grain, dried meat and clean wine. Only here are the canals clean of unnatural life, and the night streets safe from haints, ghouls, blackhearts, and ferals.  Magical sinks cover much of the Capital's Southern half, the once towering factor hives collapsed into themselves, teaming with feral thralls and worse - the roaming sports of curdled magic: parliaments of owlbears, cockatrice, hollow men and even the rumored demon.

Hubert Robert Again

Within the civilized Northern half of the capital the dockyards form a new and growing metropolis of Resurgent adventurers rebuilding from rubble as locust like they plunder the Capital's ancient glories or trade them for necessities and cheap intoxicants. Swaggering mercenary guards, white haired men and women of the Pine Hells, or wilder places that once were the Empire, provide rough security to those who can pay and it is not uncommon to find such oddities as a pair grey skinned, lamp eyed Ibian wrestlers, guarding a hook handed corsair captain from the Southern Isles or a merchant caste family protected entirely by amazons from across the mud sea clad in the corroded golden plates worked from the shells of ancient automatons.

Beyond the dockyards are the mansions of the trade and craft caste families, both afraid of the ways the Resurgent newcomers ignore the all consuming Imperial system of courtesy and caste, using violence as a negotiation tactic, and intrigued the Resurgent appetites for Imperial craft, salvage and trade. Even with the new trade most of the craft and merchant families ape the manners of the nobility and remain immured by custom within their mansions, or possibly extinct - a few bones in the high rooms of a darkened and moldering house.  Here and there though there are signs of growth and life, with gardens that are more then overgrown tangles of magically augmented plants, and windows that glow with light in the darkness.

Surrounding the Palace Spire itself are the Spires of the nobility, a world of their own, still inhabited by the degenerate and decadent remainders of the caste and their servitors.  Many towers are empty, but a salvager can never tell if somewhere within a hundred stories of crumbling opulence a great magus noble remains, surrounded by her pack of dedicated servitors and ready to protect her inherited mountains of rotting finery with fel sendings or life draining sorcery. 

Hubert Robert 1783
To wander the streets of the Captial is too witness broken wonders built on a scale larger then human ambition and abandoned because their care is beyond human ability.  It is to age and decline in every crack and worn stone block and to know that humanity's best days are behind it, to feel one's own insignificance, overshadowed by the past.


Sight in the moonlit Capital Streets, random Locations (A-Z or 5D6)

Friday, January 13, 2017

THE ALTERED DREAMS OF REGIMUND CRUFT

Reginald Cruft, my player character in Ben L’s Dreamlands game is a 19th century American veteran of Union side of the US Civil War, and by 1885 a 47 year old failed medical student and raving drug addict.  In his delirious and debauched state he has dreams, and these dreams have recently been very consistent - they have been of the Dreamlands. In the Dreamlands Cruft is a wizard, capable of some minor feats of charm and mesmerism (though at second level he has the spells “Charm Person, Sleep and Enlrage/Reduce - the last being hard for him to justify as mere mesmerism).

Below is a table for the effects of the various overdoses that push Cruft into the Dreamlands and how they change him during his travels there.  Presumably when Cruft dies in the Dreamlands, his body, wracked with overdose, will be found in his filthy New York garret or a dingy go down opium den.
D12
Drug of Choice
Dreamlands Side Effects
1
Morphine
Stronger and faster, harder in every way, a jarring transition from the waking world to the Dream. Within everything feels heavy and slow, a molasses of impossibility.  Dreamer will act last in party initiative order regardless of action for the rest of the session.
2
Taking the Cure
Painful body wrecking withdrawal symptoms. All Physical stats reduced by 3 for the session and spell slots reduced by 1 (highest level spell).
3
Raw Corn Spirits
Cheap searing alcohol in grand draughts leaves the dreamer with guts like water and a susceptibility to the slightest pain, body running with sweats.  For the rest of the session any blow to the dreamer will stun him or her for a round in addition to doing damage.
4
Cocaine Lozenges
Fractured and jangling, the good feeling of the waking world crumbles into totten bone and a searing pain behind the eyes, leaving the dreamer irritable and suggestible (-2 to all saves v. spells or paralysis) for the session.
5
Fly Agaric
It’s hard to know where the visions ended and the Dream began, but while the ‘real’ occasionally flashes back into the dream in the form of remembered faces, and glimpses of a dusty window, there’s no effect on the Dreamer’s functionality.
6
Nutmeg
The sailor's’ consolation, a gut ripping glass of nutmeg tea causes pleasant enough dreams after the vomiting subsides.  Within the Dreamlands, the sense of smell seems stronger.
7
Opium
The pestilential pipe, a daily pleasure, provides for a swift transport and brightly colored experience in the land of Dreams.
8
Gassy Lager
Despite a certain thickness of the tongue and a tendency towards flatulence the side effects of this tipple are limited, though everything in the Dreamlands resembles a cartoon version of itself from the pages of a cheap pamphlet.
9
McMunn's Elixir of Opium
Patent medicine for the toothache and the cramp, but to those in the know it’s a fine tincture of opium, and smoother than the raw stuff. The shift from waking body to dream body is smoother to, making the dreamers body a closer approximation of the ideal then the actual and providing +1 HP per Hit Die for the session.
10
Hashish
A dream within the dream, spaces retreating fractal and numberless, the mind of the Dreamer is open to possibility and may cast and memorize spells as if one level higher.
11
Whiskey
A good night drinking bonded rye whiskey lead to riotous dreams of superiority.  Dreamer’s melee attacks are at +1 hit.
12
Conditional Sobriety
Unable to soothe his fevered mind with more than a few scrapings of a pipe or the last finger of whiskey or two, the Dreamer has staved off withdrawal sickness, but is still sweating and paranoid.  Falling to sleep while cooing over a loaded 1851 Colt Naval revolver.  The revolver has slid into the Dreamlands, a weapon that may be used in two ear shattering fusillades before exhausting its ammo. It will fade after one session should the dreamer remain in the Dreamlands.

1851 Naval Colt: ATK as Explosive/AOE - Explosion Value 2 - Damage 1D8, may cause morale check, random encounter check.  

Friday, December 30, 2016

Spelljammer - Rocks of Shardspace

The day singers of Chapel Crag sing the World Lay, in ten hour shifts, rejoicing and wallowing in the beauty of the world when it was whole, water, air, greenstuff and plenty.  The toilers along the Crag's terminator take solace in these words as their worn hoes cut the pumice soil and nurse every seedling with monastic care.  The night singers, face out their own, opposite windows in the towers of song, cry the Dirge of the Fall of Man into the unforgiving night, and its echoes glance from the slumbering ruins and cracked cold earth, haunting the dreams of those who struggle on the nightside, and forever re-imagine the great shattering that broke the world, and the first childlike cruelty of the infant god as it hatched from within.

 
Aiming for not Quite Fantasy, not Quite Sci-fi
- Chris Foss

 
My ship, "The Groomsman's Demure", floats among the rocks and crags, it's old hull of spun night silver over hard iron ribs, cut down, razee to a 24 port sixth rate, 89 souls aboard, but well founded and with sturdy leak free tanks, newly tarred that allow us to cruise long among the shattered  crags of the Shardcloud.  A letter of mark from Brawl Rock gives us the justification to seize what we will, but more it is a pass to travel where we wish and pick the rich bones of shattered worlds.  We seek rare prey, Dread Spindral or Boward's Luck, a bastion world of the 3rd Arcane Integrem, plundered once in a cursory manner 80 years ago by Captain Boward of the "Lark", before retreating again into the deadly cold space of the Licheside.   The Spindral is hurtling back now on a long elliptic and with Boward's notes, the services of a Red Sage and the visions bought dearly from the Night Singers, I know where she'll cross the Green Belt.   

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Total Party Kills, Death Saves and Character Mortality

ALL MEN ARE MORTAL
I was recently exchanging comments with a Dungeon of Signs reader regarding the use of dragons and other extremely scary high-level creatures in low level adventures.  I'm for it, but my interlocutor made the point (a decent one really) that for new players character death, especially a total party kill is a really discouraging thing and might discourage someone from tabletop roleplaying.  This got me thinking about "Total Party Kills", and I realized that I've never run one, and never experienced one as a player, at least since returning to games as an adult. The very next time I ran a game though there was a furious animated furniture based massacre of the entire party, and everyone felt pretty good about it.
Edger Samuel Paxson - Custer's Last Stand (1899ish)
This general lack of 'TPKs' may seem shocking, especially as I run and play games using older systems, or retro-clones that have a reputation for being exceptionally deadly to characters (Like LOTFP - which actually has lenient death rules).  It's also not to say that characters haven't died with frequency and finality in games I've run and played with - even beloved characters, nor to say that this isn't upsetting.  I was quite aggrieved when my Hill Canton's character, the Eldish renegade "Tizzird" died from the single blow of a strange fractal demon thing.  His replacement "Killer" Ponzi the mob enforcer is somewhat less enjoyable.  Yet despite frequent character deaths, things never seem to come to the dread Total Party Kill, and I think this has a lot more to do with play-style and GM attitude then ruleset.  

In the past I've suggested that the death of characters and even entire parties is positive to the tabletop roleplaying experience - and I stand by the idea that character development is more fun when it happens through play cooperatively with setting development, and that the death of characters is part of this development.  This may seem contrary to a lot of players and GM's experience, and I've seen plenty of discussions about how character death is campaign destroying.  So the question becomes, why one would want a game where character death is a regular risk and how to do so without having problems or spoiling the fun of the game.

I think the why is very clear.  Games are more fun when there is a way to lose or when there are setbacks, and for a story of fantasy adventure character death is a clear loss condition.  It is also a way of signalling a loss that has little impact on the other players in a group.  If loss results in a negative effect to a character (turned to stone, sucked into a dimension of punishment) reversing this effect or rescuing that character almost always becomes the other players' goal, unless the player whose character has been negatively effected insists otherwise.  This can be a fun element of a tabletop game, but it should be rare and not the dominant result of in-game failure, because it prevents the players from completing or working on their own goals and plans.

ATTITUDE AND FAIRNESS
The Saint of Killers is a vary boring Player Character
One of the key things to legitimizing character death is to make sure that everyone at the table thinks it's fair, and recognizes that it's the result of informed player decision or risk taking, rather then GM fiat, trickery or malice.  This means that where there is high character mortality, non-adversarial play is even more important then ever.

What do I mean by "non-adversarial play"?  It's pretty simple, playing tabletop role-playing games as a cooperative game or story telling venture between everyone at the table, but especially between the GM and the players.  The GM is not trying to 'get' or trick the players into losing, but rather attempting to create and environment/setting for the players to explore and adventure in.  The best way to do this while including terrible monsters, deadly traps and  this is to be a magnanimous GM and remember that the players are operating only based on the information you as the GM are giving them.

First it's good to assume that when a player has their character do something seemingly self-destructive (say leap into a very deep well) that they misunderstood your description.  Always double check and even re-describe the danger.  Something like "The well vanishes down into the blackness, it looks like a really long drop - do you really want to jump down it?"  More often then not the player will reveal that they misunderstood your description (i.e. they thought the well was a five foot drop to water or something) and change their plans.  If the character still does the seemingly suicidal activity, then it's not as if anyone at the table can reasonably feel the GM tricked a player into killing their character when the inevitable happens. That's being fair to one's players and it goes as far as giving the players reasonable clues about traps and how dangerous monsters appear, even when they don't specifically ask.  Remember that as the GM you control the entire subjective experience of the characters.  If you say "There's this big lizard in the room, and it looks cranky" the player may envision an iguana, while the GM knows this thing is closer to Godzilla.  Use description, and if you're terrible at that, even provide a clear statement that the enemy is dangerous. Remember the character certainly knows a 30' long lizard can likely swallow them whole, even if the player hasn't been given enough information to recognize that fact.

Adversarial, "killer GMs" have another terrible habit beyond withholding information about dangers, they also demand that the players provide 'perfect' responses to dangers.  The classic example of this is a swift moving underground stream. A killer GM will make the players roll a series of saves to avoid being swept away and drowned unless the players carefully describe their efforts to cross the stream - doffing armor, setting up ropes, using poles to prob the stream bed etc.  Now a non-killer GM might make the players make the same rolls to avoid being swept away, but only after letting them know about the risks, because their characters, being competent dungeoneering types, would spot that the swift moving water was dangerous to enter without removing their armor, or taking some other precautions.  GMs should assume character competence. Does a beast look diseased?  The characters will notice the acidic puss dripping from its jaws, before they have to save v. death when it bites them.  Does the rope bridge look ancient and frayed?  The characters will notice that it might be unsafe, before plunging into the depths. Is the narrow bridge above the lava made of slick obsidan, characters will notice and cross slowly and carefully - without the player telling the GM. Again, by giving both players and characters the benefit of the doubt, and accepting that errors in player observation are most likely errors in GM description (boxed text makes this worse as often neither players nor GM pay attention to it).

This same tactic works for traps and similar engines of character destruction - the key is being consistent.  Whenever a player says "I open the door" for example, I always confirm - "You reach out and grab the handle to pull it open?"  Usually the player adds something else, usually about using a 10' pole with a hook on it.  That means they survive some simple door traps, but are far less likely to complain when the door opens to reveal a howling vortex into the depths of space because as a GM I have been playing fair with them (howling space vortexes make for very chilly doors if you ever need to check for them).

Both of these ideas, confirming if players want to commit to potentially dangerous actions (or any serious action really) by making sure they have all appropriate information, and assuming character competence, go a long way toward making sure that player choice leads to character death not confusion, GM vindictiveness or bad GM description.  Yes, as a GM you can present situations where almost all choices are deadly, and this isn't adversarial - as long as you provide hints, clues and signs of danger, and don't prey on player's failure to explain simple precautions as the mechanisms that lead to character death.

SETTING NOT STORY
More then making character death or a total party kill feel like part of the game rather then the end of the game, one needs to treat them as such.  This is one of the dangers I see with narrative based campaigns.  If the heroes of the story die it is very hard for the story to continue.  Yes, sandbox players develop plans, discover world-wide NPC schemes and build backstory - but they do so without the baked in expectation that these elements are the focus of the campaign, and because the setting is designed around setting, not narrative, changes, including character death, are much easier to incorporate.  This isn't an attack on narrative play, or it's not intended as such, and it's not something novel - Dragon's of Despair famously requires the GM to keep canonical characters alive to keep the adventure path's story moving forward.  It's just that in a narrative based adventure structure (where adventure moves through a branching set of story options) character death is extremely undesirable, and forces unanticipated, drastic rewrites of the core game structure - the narrative.  This seems especially true in D&D based games where the mechanics aren't really built around narrative progression as much as exploration.  It may be much easier to work out in different systems that are built for narrative play.


Friday, November 11, 2016

Fallen Empire, Carcosan Nonsense - A table of metaphors, lies, and explanations.

Inspired largely by this post at Rotten Pulp, and by a nice big hangover binge on Calvino, I've prepared this handy table.  Useful perhaps for when people ask scholars or oracles how the game world came to be a sublime ruin teetering toward the aesthetic of grotesque.  Of course you might find it useful for other reasons as well - for example I'm keeping it open on my phone to help talk to relatives at Thanksgiving.

Michael S. Hutter paintings are always good for inspiration.



Sunday, November 6, 2016

BlackSun DeathCrawl - A Review

BlackSun DeathCrawl was published in 2015 by James MacGeorge.  It’s a pay what you want PDF
and I’d call it one of those great free (or nearly so) products of the OSR that are made with heart and singular vision.  The book itself is 64 pages, though much of that is made up of ominous prophetic statements in large fonts and lovely full page etchings from the common domain (I recognize a lot of Gustav Dore’s illustrations from Dante’s Divine Comedy) that really add to the setting feel.  Actual, game ready content takes up far fewer pages, but that’s okay, because the Deathcrawl at its best is less of a module or adventure then setting for playing very grim survival based dungeon crawl. The adventure part of the books is actually its weakest, a set of scene based encounters that while unrelentingly bleak and open-ended provide a bare skeleton of an adventure that doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the setting.  That promise though and the horrifically spare setting itself are wonderful and make up for the minor weaknesses of other areas.

One such minor issue is that Deathcrawl uses DCC as it’s basis, which makes for some rules kludge that needs to be converted for most, but this is minimal and Deathcrawl generally avoids the fidgety nature of the DCC system by eliminating all classes except fighters.

OMINOUS STATEMENTS AS SETTING

“And yet the Cursed dig...because they have forgotten what it means to do anything but dig, fight and flee.”

That’s typical of the somewhat lyrical, somewhat overwrought declarations that MacGeorge  uses as the main setting vehicle.  Even setting rules (all players begin as a level 1 warrior) are communicated in this way, and it makes for an effective enough system to communicate setting and feel.  It’s rather evocative really, and allows justifies Deathcrawl’s interesting rules changes (Death occurs by burning up a character’s ‘hope’ - formerly Luck in the DCC rules and by the steady accumulation of terrible mutations).  More than anything Blacksun DeathCrawl feels bleak and allegorical, a mystery play from some religion based on Black Metal Album covers rather than normal tabletop fantasy or the series of evocative vignettes that the module sets out to promote ‘moral’ play (in the sense that more of the play derives from making moral decisions, not that it forces players into having a specific moral stance).  Yet I suspect it’s best played as a dungeon crawl where finding a way deeper to escape the Black Sun’s torturous light and unstoppable minions while discovering food and water are the only goals.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Monster Design and Necessity

So D&D 5E is about to put out a new monster manual... Volo's Guide to Monsters  it might be awful, and it might be really cool.  It sounds like they are focusing more on unreliable narrators and ecology to tell a lot more detail about the monsters in the book, rather then just provide a cacophony of statistics.  Now I fear Volo's Guide will not amuse me, though it is definitely taking cues from Patrick Stuart and Scrap Princesses "Fire on the velvet Horizon", but only because I don't think Elminster flavor text can be anything but dreadful.
Arthur Rackham
(because one needs better goblins)

Still there are things to be said about monster design, and I agree with Mike Merles and 5E when they want to focus on the intangibles of their monsters: their behaviors, ecology, hooks related to them and similar inspirational information for the GM - up to a point.  Monsters are iconic and a central theme to table top fantasy, and doing them well goes a long way towards doing a game well.  The issue is - what's really useful and necessary in a monster design, especially one published as a supplement.  For this I think to the games I've played recently and what makes encounters in them good.

I'm been playing in Ben of "Marazin's Garden's" Dreamlands game a bit and I have noticed that one of the things I enjoy is that we've yet to encounter any monster from a book, at least as far as description and characterization goes.  To me this is a mark of a good campaign and good world building. 

Using unique monsters means among other things that the GM needs to describe them and that the players need to think about them as more then a reference to a Monster Manual.  One of my major complaints about published modules, and even the 5E Monster Manual, is a lack of description for monsters, beyond dull formalities.  There is a balance in designing pre-made monsters, somewhere between several pages of (likely dull with Elminster invoked) of genre fiction the Volo's Guide promises and the terse statistics based descriptions found in the Little Brown Books. I'm not sure where exactly it lies, certainly Fire on the Velvet Horizon is pretty lyrical in its monster descriptions, but its a fun read because its descriptions are full of evocative detail that gets a GM thinking about how to use the monsters described within - and of course anything done well is better then the best thing done badly.

Personally however I have little use for Monster Manuals, even good ones.  For me, the aesthetics of monsters aren't hard to think up and design, and the most important element about an encounter is that it makes sense in the setting.  I tend to run non-standard settings, and making monsters that fit those settings, tell stories about the setting and generally provide a point for player interaction, wonder and decision making is often far easier then fitting monsters from other sources into a non-standard setting.