EZG reviews Behind the Monsters: Omnibus
This massive pdf is 76 pages long, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page SRD and 1 page back cover, leaving us with 72 pages of content, so let’s take a look at this massive tome, shall we?
Now if you’re not familiar with Tricky Owlbear’s Behind the Monster-series from the 3.X days of old, here’s the idea of the series: Know those bestiary entries? Remember from the days of old the information on habitat, society, history etc. and later, the ecology-articles? Well, behind the monsters essentially takes a look at monsters and provides extensive background information on them, supplemented by crunch for variants and interesting options. Beyond that, we also get information on lore-DCs for the respective critter as well as some tactical advice for dealing with the respective critter, provided in a way that the entry can be shown/read to players. If you’re not familiar with the series as of yet, here’s the news – this one is essentially a compilation of old material, fully updated for PFRPG – so let’s take a look, shall we?
Owlbears, what other creature could be possible for Tricky Owlbear Publishing, would be the first in the compilation. We all know about the “A Wizard did it”-background of this notorious creature – here, we actually get a detailed background story that explains the reason WHY Owls and Bears have been chosen – providing a coherent and sensible reason for the creation of these beings in the first place. Kudos for that, but where the entry shines more is with cool peculiarities like owlbears being bad in reacting to being flanked – DMs are encouraged to penalize flanked owlbears with concise, easy to use rules – which is AWESOME and something done not nearly enough in regular monster-design. It’s peculiarities like this that make creatures more distinct. The creator used control collars to keep the reins on these ferocious beasts and so we also get the entry for these items – which is cool, though these, like ALL items in this book, lack the information on how much they weigh – an annoying blemish, especially since the items usually are rather intriguing. Also rather cool – owlbear-tokens as a semi-magical low-level item of respect for primitive cultures is provided herein – a cool little item, though the aura should probably read “faint”, not “feint”. 😉 We also get the full statblock for the transmutation-disrupting…Bearwols! (at CR 2, btw.!)
The second creature covered herein would be the Xorn – here, we get no origin-myth, but rather a tale of how these weird beings may have come to the material plane as a result of a conflict between drow and duergar, bribed to participate with mithril – which is a bit of a weak point of this particular myth: The legend assumes that there is no mithril on the Elemental Plane of Earth, which is something that some supplements and modules contradict. Still, a nice yarn. On the crunchy side, we get rules that allow player characters to find tell-tale signs of xorn hiding within the rocks. Following the cool trend from the owlbear-entry, we also get an optional weakness for DMs to include in their game, this time all about exploiting the xorn’s senses and overloading them, making them more susceptible to specific attacks by forcing them to roll saves twice – and again, I love those ideas that reward the PC’s legwork since it very much mirrors how I tend to reward smart players. Beyond that, we also get a nasty Xeran at CR 7, which would be a magma-based xorn with a truly nasty temper and a magma-line breath weapon as well as the Shadowstone Cloak made from the hide of an elder xorn, which not only comes with nice benefits, it also includes information on how costs are affected if the xorn hide is provided – neat!
While we’re at the weirder creatures of our hobby – what about the Bulette? Well, in this legend, the creature was the result of the madness of a wanna-be-conqueror archmage aquatic elf seeking to raze the surface world to the ground – upon his defeat and subsequent imprisonment, the mad mage created these creatures…perhaps in a designed environment created by the elves of old to capitalize on his massive arcane prowess. If so, stranger beings still might lurk out there to exact vengeance in the name of their mad creator. Among the cool character advantages, a glitch seems to have swallowed at least a part of a sentence with the second paragraph beginning “spellcaster and a roving bullette.” – that’s it. Which is a pity, for the ideas for tactical combat (plat growth to enlarge hindering roots, for example) are quite cool. Unfortunately, one of teh tactical options makes no sense, though – feather fall is supposed to help against their tremorsense, negating the vibrations and allowing travelers to cross their territory – unfortunately, that would extend to all creatures with tremorsense, something clearly not intended by the spell’s description or the relatively powerful tremorsense ability, especially when feather step would fit the fluff much better Among the new pieces of crunch, we get a new level 3 spell (which should probably be on the magus/inquisitor-list as well) that nest you burrow speed, tremorsense and a bonus to attack when attacking from below the earth – a bit powerful for level 3. We also get the CR 3 Maglette Swarm variant creature, land-piranhas. Rather cool!
Barghests are the fourth creatures covered and are reimagined as the offspring of goblins created by the exiled, soul-stealing sword-wielding god Karg-Thaal: The instruments of his revenge versus the keepers, barghests have spread across the planes. In line with the countermeasures, this time casting gentle repose on characters makes barghests incur a morale penalty upon failing a will-save when attacking protected foes – rather cool! As a further weakness, barghests that have feasted on powerful adversaries may be sent back to the home of their vile master upon being hit by magical fire -interesting, also as a storytelling device/to save doomed groups that have already lost one of their own to the creature. Worse, said rift may result in invasions from teh dread god’s realm…VERY COOL. Necklaces made from barghest fangs (which can grant minor bonuses and temporary hit points…) and a new feat are the crunchy bits provided – the feat allowing first level characters to draw upon angelic heritages, shifting to outsider type with minor deflection bonuses once per day. Okay, I guess, but rather weak – redesigning this as a feat/trait-combo, with the feat being more useful (minus the 1/day restriction), would have probably been prudent.
With the next entry, we go full out – what could have been just a lame joke-entry turns out to be rather well-crafted: The CR 5 Terror Turkey. Yes, Terror Turkey. And yes, it has deadly quills, a sonic gobble, matings eason rage, a clumsy flyby…what a damn fine critter! While I’m not a big fan of the quills (which require a perception check and then a ref-save to avoid), the creature again comes with cool weaknesses…oh, and 3 recipes. Roasted Terror Turkey, Terror Turkey soup and sandwiches! While we don’t have Thanksgiving in Germany, I nevertheless tried the roasted Terror Turkey recipe by substituting its more mundane lesser brethren recently – and it was rather delicious! Kudos for a cool entry that also provides rules on using the bird’s quills for crafting darts!
And next up…are skeletons. Yeah. How can they be exciting? Well, we get a tale of woe and love, o harsh punishment and a divine mandate that create the first of these beings, a deadly, immortal, mad creature, doomed for all eternity. Unfortunately, the tactical character advantage options have been subjected to sloppiness of a rather sad degree – first of all, the rules refer to undead immunity to critical hits and center on options to ignore that by attacking structural weaknesses – cool per se, but undead no longer are immune to crits in PFRPG. The second option refers to turning undead, which has been reduced to a feat not that many clerics I know use and ignores completely the channel energy ability. Weak. We also get an oil that temporarily makes piercing and slashing weapons deal bludgeoning damage and we get a new quality for skeletons – flesh-stealing, which may use the skeleton in question and leave a purple scar on the target. Not sure whether this quality is worth the CR +2 and d10-table to roll regions of where the flesh is stolen since the regions have no unique benefits.
Gargoyles get a rather cool background-story that can be blended with other creation-myths of the race – as an instrument of punishment, rods linked to an artifact that may transform beings into gargoyles, the result of a terrible justice system. The combat between a thieves’ guild and the creators of said artifact damaged the awakened item…what has since befallen it, well, that’s mostly up to the DM. Beyond the regular gargoyle, we get two variants for clan gargoyles and good-aligned noble gargoyles. Unfortunately, the non-lethal damage dealing subduing ray of the noble gargoyles lacks a range. Clan gargoyles look like they’re made from earth and gain some earth-related abilities. On the tactics-side, gargoyles may be distracted by cries of pain (e.g. by good actors) -a and spellcasters may tear asunder their transmutation-spells via spellcraft to hold gargoyles in place – exceedingly cool! Also nice – we get a fully mapped sample lair and a new alchemical item, gargoyle blood, which allows you to temporarily get DR 1/magic.
The tale of Gothos Sund could have been a tale of the grand era of weird fiction – a hunter who learned to destroy new creatures, ropers, and inadvertently was transported to their home realm. Instigating a slave-revolt against the overlord ropers, the man also freed the ropers from their chthonic deity, the Great Maw, who may still be out there, looking for the ropers – thus explaining the relative xenophobia and isolationalism of the species – they’re hiding! Among the crunchy bits, we get an alternate statblock for ancient ropers as in the tales – slightly less powerful than their regular versions, but studded with a fortification-like ability and superior mental faculties. Unfortunately, the alternate statblock uses wrong mechanics to simulate the drawing of creatures – no combat maneuvers or the like instead of just using the regular rules. We also get a variant option for ranger’s favored enemy ability, allowing to specialize in killing one particular type of creature – not sure whether that’s a good idea, though, unless your campaign has a very monotonous opposition. We also get 6 variants (5 at CR +2, 1 at CR +1) for ropers that specialize in crushing (using some antiquated rules-language, but workable), ones with icy breath, fast hunters, mind-controllers, ropers that can temporarily petrify foes and ropers than can unleash deadly waves of psychic energy – nice variety there! We also get 3 items – roper poison, roper whips and a roper’s skin as a cloak – unfortunately, only the last gets a price and a harvest/craft-DC and none get a weight.
Vegepygmies, spawned from weird russet mold in caverns beneath the barrier peaks, in corridors of metal of a fallen star, have since spread throughout the lands and while the origin story here may be interesting and a nice read, it somewhat pales to the tactics/modifications provided – vegepygmy sap may be used to delay the onset of slime/ooze/mold damage, vegepygmies exposed to sunlight slowly turn berserk and finally, old colonies can create artifact-like russet mold bombs, infecting whole swaths of land. Oh, and old colonies of these threats may spontaneously develop giant, deadly guardians – almost 30-feet-tall Vegegyants, which, at CR 6 are very dangerous for their CR with force blasts, nets emitted from palms and a significant amounts of hp. I LOVE this creature, though its statblock lacks a perception-score in the sense-line, instead only offering +X. Since the skills list the +14 bonus, I’ll let that slip though – functionality is not impeded. All in all, one of my favorite chapters herein.
The final creatures covered would be the Dark Folk, i.e. Dark Creepers and Dark Stalkers. The story here is once again aptly-written and presented, weaving a yarn that resonates quite nicely with the theme of light/dark and the fear of degeneration is competently portrayed – if you’re interested in it, though, you’ll have to read this pdf yourself. Unfortunately, the tactics-section once again features a cool idea improperly executed -as a cool idea, strong magic auras can be used to distract Dark folk. Unfortunately, magic aura i8s considered an example – but the spell does not allow the suggested increase in aura-strength, just a cloaking/modification of the aura. This is especially puzzling since the other tactic, inciting faux death throes via positive energy, makes proper use of channel energy and the rules, offering one superb, cool tactic. Also rather cool – specific attacks may make Dark Slayers turn temporarily undead – complete with positive energy vulnerability. Also on the crunch-side, we get the CR 5 Dark Keepers, guardians of the blood grails and we also get information on the libraries and hidden caches of the dark folk as well as a new item, the Staff of Warding. All in all, one enjoyable chapter.
Editing and formatting are by no means bad – in fact, most of the time, they’re really good, making the often rather significant glitches stand out even more, especially since they sometimes impede the usefulness of the crunch. A good rules-editor would have helped a lot here. Layout adheres to a one-column b/w-standard with a black pillar on a side. The letters are big enough to enable you to print out 4 pages of this pdf on a regular page of DinA4-paper, which is nice and the reason I don’t complain about the 1-column standard. The b/w-artworks in the book are ok, though don’t expect to be wowed. The pdf comes extensively bookmarked with nested bookmarks.
Bret Boyd, K. Axel Carlsson, Michael Ferguson , Chuck Cuthbert and Stefen Styrsky have delivered a nice supplement – beyond the intriguing legends, the crowning achievement here should be the exploitable weaknesses and peculiarities that make fighting these beings so much more distinct that I really love. These are simply awesome when they work (which they do most of the time) and overall, I’d wish that more monster-designers would introduce options like this. This also makes me yearn quite a bit for MORE. I want to see more of these supplements – theme-wise, this is a 5-star+seal of approval pdf… one that also exhibits quite a few problems. From 3.5isms to spells not working as the tactics describe to the glitches here and there, we have quite an array of accumulating issues that drag down what could have been a superb offering. I did my best to give you an overview of potential problems that can be found herein, but still encourage you to take a look at this if you even remotely like ecology-articles or how Paizo’s redesigns of classic monsters add to their lore and provide more details on them if you can look past the issues. In spite of really loving the plethora of ideas herein, I can’t go as high as I’d like on this one -with the flaws, the best I can do, is rate this collection 3 stars and hope for more careful updates in the future – or new pdfs taking the cool concept into PFRPG-territory.
You can check out this cool collection here on OBS!