Creature Components – Tome of Beasts (5e)
#5 of my Top Ten of 2018
This installment of Playground Adventure’s so far absolutely fantastic Creature Components-series clocks in at 54 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page inside of front cover, 1 page editorial, 3 pages of ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 46 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
This review was moved up in my reviewing-queue as a prioritized review at the request of my patreons.
Now, before we dive in, let me state the obvious: This book is about the concept of harvesting parts from defeated monsters for use with magic; conceptually, this is a development of the idea of power-components, i.e. optional material components that can change the casting of spells, function of other magic, etc. Secondly, it should be noted that the book, after the first installment for 5e took a look at the basic Monster Manual, covers the massive Tome of Beasts by Kobold Press. In case you do not yet have this phenomenal tome, you should definitely get it: The Kobold crew has delivered a truly fantastic tome of unique critters that is pretty much a must-own book for a 5e-campaign. To use this book, you need Tome of Beasts and the first Creature Component-book.
It should be noted that, aesthetically, the book adheres (if the cover was not ample indicator) to the same sentiments as the Tome of Beasts, mirroring layout and presentation-aesthetics as well as some artworks from the ToB, which is a nice touch here, though *personally*, I preferred the somewhat travelogue/catalogue-style aesthetics championed previously. The frame narrative of the book is retained via a nice piece of introductory prose. It should be noted that this book does not explain the basic mechanics of harvesting creature components in detail – for that, you will need to reference the stellar “Creature Components Vol. I”; since that book is simply phenomenal and covers the basic creatures, I wholeheartedly recommend getting it asap if you haven’t already.
Making use of Tome of Beast’s components, the book also inherits synergy with the Deep Magic-series of spellcasting-themed pdfs released by Kobold Press. While many of these have in the meanwhile been collected and expanded in the Midgard Heroes Handbook, the GM-centric “forbidden” magics covered in the series are not included in that tome.
Deep Magic, as a series, has been somewhat hit and miss for me, and the revision in the MHH has improved most components to the point where I consider them valid. That being said, since the Midgard Heroes Handbook does not contain the Void Magic and Blood & Doom installments (former is stellar, latter is super problematic), this Creature Component installment has elected to reference spells from the series with the unified, superscript “DM”-tag. You will be able to use the majority of the material herein sans owning the Midgard Heroes Handbook or the Deep Magic-installments not included in it, but I considered it still important to note. If you absolutely want to use absolutely every component herein, you’ll need aforementioned files. (Links collated at the bottom of the review.)
That being said, in this review’s rating, I am not going to penalize this pdf for its internal consistency regarding these spells, nor am I making any judgment on the spells the components build upon. I endeavor to focus on the content of this book, i.e. the way in which the components enhance the respective magics and the game itself.
That being said, the content of this second Creature Component-installment begins with a bang and a modification to the component harvesting engine that is absolutely phenomenal. It’s an optional rule, and one that, in hindsight, is one that I should have expected from the base engine: Harvesting complications. It makes sense once you think about it: You’re tinkering with potentially volatile and highly magical creatures, and as such, it makes sense that exposure to acid, toxins, etc. could happen. As such, the book opens with concise rules that codify potential hazards when harvesting components. You can handcraft these, or refer to a simple percentile roll and consult a table: Here, you take a look at component potency and immediately see the hazard category. In a nice analogue to the basic system, the hazards are grouped in three types: Lesser, moderate and greater hazards. Identifying and mitigating them, DC-wise, is concisely-presented, and the book also suggests skills by type to identify them.
DCs of harvested materials are contingent of the vanquished creature’s proficiency bonus, as well as an ability modifier of the defeated foe. This renders the harvesting process much more engrossing and captivating.
But you’re interested in the main meat of this massive book, right? Well, the majority of this book is devoted to a metric ton of diverse components sourced from a variety of creatures. Each component notes what type of component it is (like cerebral fluid, voice box, claws, etc.), the potency and the spells that can be augmented by them. Each component notes a price and a cost as well. Some of these can only enhance a very specific spell, while others can affect a variety of different magical effects. Take the first component, a nihileth aboleth’s cerebral fluid: It can augment crown of madness, detect thoughts, dominate person or similar enchantments: The fluid is rubbed on the spot where the “third eye” of the caster usually is, and once the spell enhanced thus has run its course (by broken concentration or elapsed duration), the target must succeed a Constitution save or fall prey to a disease that renders skin translucent and slimy, causing acid damage when not fully submerged every 10 minutes and prevents the regaining of hit points – basically, a skum-transformation light, which you can add as insult to injury or lace into a less openly hostile spell for a nasty surprise. You will also note that the component use here actually sports a description on *how* it is incorporated into spellcasting. This may seem like a small thing, but it is a component that enhances immersion: Instead of an abstract casting process, the use of the components becomes relatable: We can imagine the act of casting this way. To me, that is a big plus, and one aspect of the book that most assuredly enhances my enjoyment of it.
Ala essence can be employed to enhance spells dealing lightning damage, imposing disadvantage on the respective save. Andrenjinyi esophageal fluid can render polymorphs permanent; using an angler worm webbing strand can render web-spells harder to discern. You can enhance your climbing speed granted by spider climb…and there are some truly distinct changes: When using, for example, a hair braid of Baba Yaga’s horsemen in conjunction with conjure fey, you tap into a central concept of magical thinking, namely the use of a component acting as a sympathetic link to the whole- you can call forth an aspect of said Horsemen, with proper stats provided. Some of these components actually radically change how a spell can be employed: When you incorporate a Bereginyas essence in your fog cloud, to give you an example, allows you to attempt to smother one creature inside per round you maintain concentration, adding a whole new aspect to the spell.
Employing blemmyes intraocular fluid can make your compulsions carry a desperate craving for meat. There are also components that extend the duration or reach of spells – with the right components, you can, for example, enhance the amount of targets affected by water walk or increase the duration of the spell. Using a buraq feather while casting blade of wrath, for example, provides a shining, radiant blade that only slowly fades once your concentration’s been broken. There also are instances, where a component’s use taps into the cultural perspective of a being: Using a chernomoi amygdale when casting fear taps into the evolved fear of wyverns and channels that into the way in which the spell manifests itself. Chronamental effects, predictably, can be employed to enhance time-manipulation spells, but show a keen insight regarding balance, opting to extend the range of the slow spell instead of the already very potent benefits granted. There are also components that have multiple uses: Employing a dragon eel heart when casting fire shield switches the energy damage caused to lightning, for example; alternatively, spells that inflict lightning damage can enhance the damage caused by lightning-based spells – and in a smart way, the amount of possible augmentations thus is contingent on spell levels.
As an aside, the annotations provided throughout add interesting notions: The prevalence of some exotic beings from the outer planes in Midgard, for example, is mentioned as a phenomenon, acknowledged within the context of the multiverse – a nice note that is, should you choose to, easily ignored…or that may end up being truly inspiring. Notes on how drake hide breaks your quills most of the time also made me smile. These notes, in concordance with the physicality implied by the components, significantly improves the sense of tangibility that is associated with the spells – an arcane eye becomes just so much cooler once you take an incorporeal creature’s eye and make that the magical facsimile eye, enhancing the efficiency greatly.
The book closes with a section on new magic items: Here, we can find the lightning arrow, which may leap to nearby, metal-wearing beings; wing blades made with eala feathers can alter their composition based on the eala from which they were sourced, and also burst into flames; darts made from spire walkers, the legendary ghostwalk leather (rendered with a fantastic artwork) and bota pouches are in here: The latter can contain liquids and transport them rather stealthily. Super stylish (I’d wear them as depicted in the artwork!) red boots of the fey can execute devastating stomp-shockwaves. Shadhavar flutes enhance inspiration dice granted and lenses of the lynx allow you to peer through fog. 4 neat magical item variants and mithril dragon hide as a new material finish the crunch-section, before the book ends with the well-written framing narrative.
Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no serious glitches on a formal or rules-language level. Layout adheres to Tome of Beast’s elegant two-column, full-color standard with classic full-color artworks that fans of Kobold Press will recognize. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience.
Daniel Marshall & BJ Hensley, with development by Stephen Rowe and Dan Dillon, provides a massive expansion to the Creature Component formula, one that I consider to be more than worth the asking price. Since I assume you’re already familiar with the previous book, let me talk a bit about a subtle aspect of this series that you may have missed. Do you recall my example given above, where a creature’s eye becomes the arcane eye, enhanced properly?
This example highlights a couple of aspects that explain the lasting appeal that this supplement and its predecessor have: One, it emphasizes the aspect of magic as a kind of technology-substitute, a crutch, if you will – magic is, much like modern, real life technology, a superb way to extend your senses, your power; but if Marshal McLuhan’s extension of Freud’s notion of the prosthetics god is to be believed, such tools also limit the individual.
Tellingly, in German, “watching TV” is called “fernsehen” – literally, “far seeing,” implying that you can see what’s far away…but not necessarily what’s nearby. Secondly, much like modern technology, magic in RPGs seems to conjure things ex nihilo; we are not cognizant of electricity flowing through our smart phones, conjuring images of our friends. Magic in RPGs, system-immanently, works along those lines – we don’t have the years of study or raw power our characters have. We do not understand magic in-game, just the sketch of the magical effects.
Modern magic in RPGs, as such, often by requirement of convenience, follows a design paradigm of simplicity that is hard to argue with: We don’t have the time or inclination to track minutiae of spell formulae, long strings of syllables to recite at the table or to track a huge amount of diverse components. Yet, this complexity is exactly what characterized historical approaches to magic. Even the process of thinking did ostensibly require purification, meditation, etc., as seen in the various mystic traditions inspired by religions, as well as the religions we have in real life themselves. Add to that the requirement for a variety of esoteric components, and we have something that is extremely arcane, in the classic sense of the word, hard to pull off. It has to be. After all, magic doesn’t work in real life.
There is, traditionally, effort required for magic to account for its scarcity, for its unreliability– phenomenal effort, in fact. We think of magic as rare and hard to master, even though, in the games we play, it’s anything but that, courtesy of the demands of the game.
Now, while a more “real”, a more “realistic” approach to magic would be unplayable and violate the design-tenets of actual usefulness at the table, creature components can provide a thematic bridge between the two extremes. Magic will still retain its functionality, its ease of use, the sheer accessibility that highlights it as a component of a game. However, at the same time, the use of these structurally-earned resources adds a sense of consequence, sequence and immediacy, of the real to magic – the benefits conveyed by the components, ultimately, make the magic that uses them feel more plausible. After all, the PCs know where and how they earned these powers, these extensions of magic beyond the functional default facsimile of narrative structures they usually represent. In a way, creature components allow for a dash of “real” magical feeling added to the convenience of the default spellcasting engine, and it does so without bogging down the game.
Or, you know, you could just be thinking “This is cool/like in some book I’ve read”; or you like the direct correlation of critter and reward, which makes it a rather easy and more interesting way to reward players without having critters carry gold that should not care for shiny metal.
Either way, the concept of Creature Components is amazing, and the notion of the harvesting being potentially hazardous adds a concise risk-reward ratio to the proceedings that I absolutely adore. In short, this is a great supplement, well worth getting. My final verdict will clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval and it is a candidate for my Top Ten of 2018.
You can get this inspired supplement here on OBS!
Missed the phenomenal Creature Components Vol. I? You can find it here!
The epic, legendary Tome of Beasts can be found right here!
The Midgard Heroes Handbook can be found right here!
Deep Magic: Void Magic, a really cool installment of mind-wrecking magics, can be found here!
Deep Magic: Blood & Doom (if in doubt, skip it) can be found here!