REF3: The Book of Lairs (1986)

If TSR had one tried and true talent, it was taking a killer idea and just, not killing with it. Such is the case with REF3: The Book of Lairs (1986).

This is a groundbreaking book in a lot of ways. It’s a whole new approach for TSR. It’s just the third time they published a square-bound softcover (after Elemental Evil and Lankhmar) and it is one of the first adventure anthologies. But not regular adventures: these are very short mini-adventures — as the title implies, they generally focus on a monster’s lair. This is actually a pretty new type of encounter, called, well…an encounter. We’ve since digested the form and terminology so thoroughly into the language of RPG design that it is hard to talk about it as an innovation, but this way pretty cutting edge stuff that would bridge the gap between the old school dungeon design, the new narrative frameworks emerging through Tracy Hickman’s adventures and the encounter-crawl narrative adventures of that would dominate D&D adventure design in the ‘90s.

And yet, I find this execution so boring! There is so little art and what’s there is sketchy and mostly uninspired (even the cover, which is good, is recycled from Dragon 65). The monsters are mostly standards: giant animals, the gamut of monstrous humanoids, most of the undead types. None of them are bad, per se. The problem is there is very little distinguishing them from the sort of encounters any given DM might come up with. This is a chance to be WEIRD, to use bizarre monsters, or bizarrely use familiar ones. Only two stand out for me — one involving thri-kreen guarding an idol inhabited by the spirit of all insects and one involving a pseudovampie, which is kind of underwhelming on its own, but really comes together when you reskin it as a sulky goth kid pretending to be a vampire in a graveyard.

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