Take Cover from A Swarm of Stirges

The stirge. It is a monster whose name echoes down the halls of dungeon crawling history, evoking terror and scorn as it does so (terror for low-level characters trapped in a cavern with them, scorn for high-level adventurers all but immune to their blood-sucking attacks).

This monster, whose roots date back to the dawn of Dungeons and Dragons 30 years ago, gets the royal treatment in Behemoth4’s first “horde” book: A Swarm of Stirges

The book presents an extended ecology of the monster, from the blood-sucking flying larvae that adventurers are all too familiar with to the disgusting, over-sized “blood bloat”, an oversized, leech-like beast which represents the pinnacle of stirge. The book also introduces “hollow husks”, creatures who were drained of their blood by stirges, and have now risen from the dead with an insatiable hunger for that which was stolen from them. Also new are the diminutive, evil fey known as “ashmalkin” which tame stirges and use them as mounts.

The first half of the 54 page book introduces the stirge ecology and the monsters associated with it. The second half delves into uses for the assembled horde. There are a handful of new alchemical and strige-derived items, three adventure hooks and five unique NPCs. The “Encounters” section presents different kinds of units — like “swamp units” and “risen dead” units — comprised of monsters from the book. There’s also two sample stirge lairs: an ashmalkin swamp lair and a subterranean stirge nest.

Old-Fashioned Blood-Sucking Fun

Although written for Dungeons & Dragons 3.0/3.5, A Swarm of Stirges draws heavy inspiration from 1st Edition D&D. They choose a good time to do it, seeing as how this is D&D’s 30th anniversary, and gamers tend to be a nostalgic lot (of course, some are so nostalgic that they never stopped playing 1st edition…)

The monster ecology sections of the book are excellent, and evoked some of the classic articles from the old Dragon (and perhaps the new one as well, since the feature has returned as a monthly staple). While there is little new about the stirges, I liked the blood bloats, and the hollow husks are inspired creations. The stirge swarm, which transforms a single bloodsucker into a 1000-strong monstrosity, seems underpowered though. I love the idea of a stirge swarm — its just the thing to put players in their place — but if a normal stirge is 1/2 CR with 5 hit points, shouldn’t a swarm of 1000 have a CR of considerably more than 3, and far more than 22 hit points? I want a stirge swarm to be something to evoke absolute terror from players, particularly ones whose characters have reached mid-levels, and now look down on stirges. A CR of 8 or 10 for this threat would have been far better.

I wasn’t thrilled with the ashmalkin. I’ve never been much for the Faerie realms, and I have a hard time imaging my players taking stirge-riding fey seriously (even if they are packing enough firepower to kill the party five times over). The ashmalkin reminded me of something I would have gone hogwild for back in middle school, but they’re just a little too … silly … for my Greyhawk campaign.

I can appreciate using the ashmalkin to enhance the threat of the stirges, but personally I would have gone with custom viruses, diseases and other microscopic threats to increase their lethality. The stirge’s Con drain is bad, but imagine the look of horror on the players faces as their characters start suffering from other ability damage … or start spreading a disease amongst themselves.

That said, I could see them doing well in a high-powered magic setting like the Forgotten Realms, and perhaps they’ll make an appearance in my occasional “destroy the Realms” campaign known as “Realmsbreakers”.

I was disappointed by the “adventure hooks” and “new items”, which were far too short for my tastes. I’d rather have seen two to three times as much content in each section (even if that meant ditching one in favor of the other). As is, they seem added in just to be sure that reviewers couldn’t say they hadn’t been included.

The “Denizens” section is better — the vampiric blood bloat and ghost stirge are particularly nasty uses of Monster Manual templates, while the hollow husk lich is just plain evil. The “Tactical Units” section is a good idea — it pulls together content from the rest of the book nicely, and its something other d20 publishers would do well to implement. I’d love to have seen these tactical units put together in stat block format for quick reference, perhaps as a web enhancement for the product. Finally, the sample lairs are short, but useful, providing plug-and-play locations for DMs eager to put their new material

The book looks good — the internal pages are very readable, with text that’s not overly small and has just the right amount of leading. The internal artwork is simple black-and-white line art, and it complements the text well. I’ve seen too many small press d20 products that have spoiled their presentation by going overboard with grayscale artwork that ends up looking muddy; it’s nice to see Behemoth4 avoided that particular trap.

One area where Behemoth4 has really excelled is the PDF version of the A Swarm of Stirges. Anyone who buys the print version of the book gets the PDF version for free. That’s cool, but what’s far better is the PDF itself. The book is extensively hyperlinked — not only does it have the standard (yet still often ignored) Acrobat bookmarks, but every d20 term is hyperlinked — clicking on that link brings up a description from Behemoth’s version of the SRD. In addition, most of the internal terms are also hyperlinked — for example, the list of monsters and CRs at the beginning of the book are linked to the monster entries later on.

Final Analysis

Stirges didn’t knock my socks off, but I did find it to be an enjoyable read, and certain elements — particularly the blood bloats, hollow husks, and my own, home-grown version of the stirge swarm — will be finding their way into my upcoming 1st level D&D campaign. Fans of old-school D&D — the kind of folks who don’t blink at stirge-riding fey — would do well to pick up the book. Others would do well to at least take a look at the book, particularly if they’re interested in expanding the ecology of one of D&D’s classic monsters.

At $12, the print version of the book is a decent buy, but the real steal is online — RPGNow is selling the book for $5. At that price — and with all of the effort that Behemoth4 put into the PDF’s hypertexting — that’s the version I recommend buying.

Product Details

  • A Swarm of Stirges
  • Part of the Masters and Minions series
  • Behemoth4
  • By Tavis Allison
  • llustrated by Sang Lee
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