Pathfinder Bestiary (PF2) (Patreon Request)
The first bestiary for Pathfinder 2 clocks in at 362 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page inside of front cover, 3 pages of editorial/ToC, 2/3 of a page SRD, 3 pages of advertisement, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 352 1/3 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
This review was requested by my patreon supporters.
First of all, regarding organization, it should be noted that the bestiary includes lists of creatures by level, and a list of creatures by type – the inclusion of these is helpful when navigating the book. Creatures traits, ranging from rarity to sizes, are included, and the book contains 3 rituals, which all deal with outsiders – abyssal and infernal pact do pretty much what you’d expect them to, and angelic messenger lets you transport to a celestial plane or the material plane, acting as a messenger. Nice here: The system’s degrees of success and failure now present the chances for narratives hardcoded in here – the angel stranded, the pact gone horribly wrong; these tried and true and oft-employed plot-devices now have a representation within the framework of the rules.
Considering that this bestiary is the first one for PF2, it warrants a couple of additional observations regarding its quality as such; the first bestiary for any given iteration of a fantasy game inheriting the general tropes of Dungeons and Dragons is usually neither something that I usually enjoy reviewing, or that warrants particular mentioning. In many ways, there is simply not that much to discuss, as the bestiary is required for a precise use of the system anyhow. And indeed, this bestiary is the first of these “first bestiaries” in quite a few editions that I actually read in detail, and not simply referenced when its use was required; partially due to my reviewer status, and partially because Pathfinder’s second edition represents a pretty significant change of the dynamics of these books in a few ways.
So, the first thing to bear in mind, is that the first bestiary needs to present a sort of lowest common denominator (and that is not meant in a disparaging manner) for fantasy gaming with the respective game; after all, the monsters in these books make up what you’d consider to be the standard, the pool that all supplements will continue to draw from. You may not be able to assume that everyone has bestiary #4, but chances are that if you’re playing a certain game, you’ll at least have the first one, right? In a way, bestiary #1 for a given system thus has a lot of “mandatory” creatures to be included. You’ll need orcs, ogres, dragons, some of the most iconic demons and devils – you get the idea. And then, still, plenty of people will have their nerdrage, because their favorite critter’s not, or no longer, included.
Heck, I know, for that’s exactly how I felt when I read the 3.0 Monster Manual back in the day. Speaking of which – you can picture my abject boredom and disappointment when I realized that I could have just left the 3.5 version of that book on the shelf and not miss much; in many ways, from a monster-perspective, Pathfinder 1, for me as a person, started becoming distinct and actually relevant when Bestiary 2+ hit shelves, when the creatures started to differentiate in both themes and focus from what we had seen before. This held particularly true after Bestiary 2, but I digress. PF 1’s first bestiary, to me, did not exactly elicit any serious excitement; I got because I was dipping my toes in PF 1, and not because I had a serious desire to get it per se; it felt like another iteration of a book I already owned twice, and while it is to this date my favorite of the three, it also continued a focus that I couldn’t help but bemoan.
I might be an odd one out in that regard, but know why I pored over my 2nd edition monster books, time and again? Why I actually read those in detail, something that, apart from the context of reviewing, I never had the desire to do for PF 1, at least not in the beginning? (That did change later, when builds became more distinct and differentiated.) The thing I was missing? It’s simple. Lore. Granted, we don’t need the same lines explaining how undead have no place in the natural order of things ten times over. More often than not, the information on habitat, ecology, etc. actually proved to be inspiring to me and made up a lot of what I considered to be exciting about reading a monster book. In direct contrast, monster manuals based on d20-systems system-immanently got rid of those components in order to fit in more statblocks – after all, the increase in rules complexity also resulted in an increased amount of space devoted to the respective statistics of the creature. Compare to that how 13th Age’s statblocks got rid of essentially all non-combat utility in favor of lore for another extreme example on the lore-to-rules ratio – in that case, competitive scenarios beyond combat were somewhat scaled down.
The bestiary for Pathfinder’s second edition is, in one way, a step away from that tendency, while still embracing it. Some creatures have multiple paragraphs of lore, while others have a single sentence, and said lore if often Golarion-specific. The layout presents the creatures in a one-column style, with a margin providing information pertaining to the creature – say, mephitis, to name one, have the information that other mephit types exist; angels have a brief note on angelic divinities and locations; it’s not much, granted, but it reintroduces some immediately gameable components that usually were relegated to lore sections back into the meat of the book. Why not more? I get it. Personally, I love getting my detailed discussions of creatures, but there also are plenty of people that want to maximize the amount of rules-relevant material, particularly in such a book. I am pretty positive that nobody is going to explain about the sheer amount of creatures included in this tome. That being said, while this space is *often* used to accommodate the lavish artworks in this tome, it also sometimes results in lost real estate, and I was somewhat puzzled to realize that the Lore skill’s use of Recall Knowledge regarding creatures was not included. Listing sample DCs and subcategories for the creatures in question would have made sense, and filled in some space; in a way, I get why – this’d have made the book look more busy than it already does. But at the same time, the skill-engine of PF2 has this use specifically hard-coded into its bones, so the lack of this aspect did strike me as odd.
Then again, there is more than the excellent artwork to comment upon in a positive manner, and that would, at least to me, be simply how elegant PF2’s statblocks are. While statblocks, including high-level statblocks, can be pretty compact, the new format allows you to add a ton of complex abilities and flavor into the monster statblocks, if you so desire. For rank and file critters, this means we get more statblocks; for more unique creatures, this means you can get complex and captivating critters with lots of special abilities.
Many people, and I confess to being among those, were afraid that PF2 would attempt to beat 5e at its own game, and that has not happened; in many ways, the two systems have gone diametrically-opposed paths, in spite of some superficial similarities, and nowhere is this more readily apparent than in the creature design and statblocks. D&D 5e presents creature stats in a very novice-friendly manner; the statblocks spell out everything in detail – when a creature has the swallow whole feature, we have a whole paragraph explaining how it works for that creature. Spellcasting behaves similarly, paying for the reduction in spell statblock complexity by relegating components of the spell’s rules to the main spell text. The creatures in Pathfinder’s second edition go a different route: Instead of spelling out everything (at the cost of how easily you can parse statblocks quickly), they establish a series of abilities that come up time and again, and then present the crucial components in a tight manner. In Pathfinder’s second edition, you have to know what swallow whole does – but when you do, you can see the glyph for one action, maximum size, the damage, and a “rupture” value that represents the damage you need to do to get out; Engulf and many other abilities work in a similar manner. So yeah, Pathfinder instead frontloads a couple of things you need to know, but makes parsing/quickly running statblocks you haven’t prepared faster.
An example, perhaps, to illustrate the difference – let’s take a look at the good ole’ Purple Worm:
“Swallow Whole (one action glyph) Huge, 3d6+9 bludgeoning, Rupture 24.”
“[Bite attack’s damage etc….] If the target is a Large or smaller creature, it must succeed on a DC 18 Dexterity saving throw or be swallowed by the worm. A swallowed creature is blinded and restrained, it has total cover against attacks and other effects outside the worm, and it takes 21 (6d6) acid damage at the start of each of the worm’s turns. If the worm takes 30 or more damage on a single turn from a creature inside it, the worm must succeed on a DC 21 Constitution saving throw at the end of that turn or regurgitate all swallowed creatures, which fall prone in a space within 10 feet of the worm.[…]”
Which of these is better? I honestly can’t say. Both of them have distinct advantages; 5e makes it easier for novices to have all rules spelled out at one place, while Pathfinder’s second edition requires that you know how “swallow whole” works – once you do, however, you become MUCH more efficient at running the creature; you don’t have to look for the mechanically-relevant components in a paragraph of text. I’ve talked to quite a few people, and the opinions are divided pretty much in the middle. Some prefer the detail, because they don’t want to learn the “universal” monster rules; some prefer the streamlining of these, particularly since the creatures in Pathfinder 2 have taken an important lesson from the first edition to heart – there is a much higher propensity towards having unique abilities (which are, obviously, properly spelled out), which renders them feeling less mechanical. Now, as a person, I can parse PF2’s statblocks more efficiently than those of 5e, plus I prefer this style. As a reviewer, I consider both to be two distinct and valid solutions to the same issue. So yeah, as far as I’m concerned, the PF2 statblock can be considered to be a success – statblocks are divided in utility, defense and offense – easy to read and parse.
Another success is one that is perhaps more subtle and something that mainly designers will notice, namely the fact that the statblocks adhere to a consistency between stats, sizes and e.g. spells – take e.g. a look at polymorph spells and the respective creatures. Speaking of creatures and details – one component to be renamed creatures. To explain that: IP and the like have been an issue all through d20’s lifespan, and this new edition takes a lot of critters and renames them according to Paizo IP. Let’s e.g. take the Alghollthu. These are now the catch-all terms for Bulwer-Lytton-esque antediluvian critters like Aboleths and Skum, as well as Veiled Masters; essentially the “Ruins of Azlant”-y critters (still one of my favorite APs). The categorical names makes sense to me as a whole; as for the other creatures, there are a couple of renames that are just a matter of getting used to it, and in several instances, I really like them. Take the Ankhrav. If you’re familiar with Germanic languages, “graben” means “digging”; “Grav” means grave; Ankh- is a pretty well-known prefix for a classic monster, so you can determine that that’s the new Ankheg. Arboreals are obviously tree-people, taking a step away from the ole’ Tolkien-IP. “Dire animals” have now become the proper appellations (cave bear, megalodon), with the obvious exception of dire wolves, which are a real world thing. Whether that makes sense or not for you depends, but the careful reader will also notice that the elemental creatures have been changed – we get 4 more normal elementals, and one odd man out per element. This includes xorns, invisible stalkers, salamander – those are now listed among the elementals. I confess to that throwing me in for a loop for a second.
So, one big advantage I noticed here, would be that many boss monsters have obviously been designed to focus on attacks on single targets or spread out attacks to multiple targets; the new action economy means that the boss monsters no longer require the set ups for full attacks to be efficient. GMs won’t have to engage in as much trickery as in PF 1 to make bosses, particularly stand-alone boss monsters, work. Speaking of bosses and something I LOVED seeing: The book takes an often more roleplaying-focused approach to some classics: Succubi, for example, now take damage from being rejected (cue in all those demons being insulted and becoming REALLY aggressive…), and this roleplaying angle can be combat-relevant, when e.g. including such a rejection or reference to one in the Demoralize attempt. I defy, I deny thee! Heck yeah. In many ways, this focuses more on the roleplaying, and uses it to supplement the combat; rules helping with roleplaying. That’s a good tendency, as far as I’m concerned. Mechanically, I love the succubus here; the artwork is (apart from 5e’s version), the least sexy take on the demon of lust I’ve seen in a while (srsly, I see more risqué outfits whenever I go out), so that may be a plus or minus for you. No chainmail bikinis herein; no cheesecake, no beefcake – so if you’ve been hoping for a more edgy game, if you considered the big games too sanitized, that hasn’t changed.
What *has* changed is often what kind of creatures were chosen: The highest-CR critter? It’s not a pitiful version of the Tarrasque (like in 3.0, 3.5 and PF1), but Treerazer, who goes Troll II on you – he turns you partially into a plant by just being near, and he’ll do more damage/horrid wilt you – OUCH. A really cool boss build of a unique critter, who gets an awesome build, a sentient, supportive artifact, and sidebar notes on cults. Awesome. I wish more creatures had been afforded this deluxe treatment – in particular, the take on the wendigo, another one of my favorites herein, would have deserved as much. The build is complex, genuinely frightening, and oh boy, it’ll kill you off…it’s a level 17 creature that sees heat, has the signature curse properly here, the ride the wind angle…this fellow REALLY deserved the lore angle. The amazing statblock only has one line of flavor, when it obviously would have been a perfect candidate for two-page boss-treatment. (Whoever made this one did a great job!) On a plus-side, there are quite a few options where this edition does some things I *personally* enjoy – werebeasts, for example, now have different abilities regarding their respective bloodlines. Wererats have different abilities than werewolves. Finer differentiation is nice to see.
There are some things that have kinda irked the OCD guy in me: Take, for example, the attacks called “jaws” – these attacks deal piercing damage, but there is no system beyond this damage type: Sometimes, these have reach, or range, sometimes they are agile (or deadly, or with another weapon property) – there is no nomenclature that differentiates jaw attacks from e.g. fang attacks. Fang attacks also cause piercing damage, and can also have weapon properties. Personally, I’d have prefer both referring to a unique type of melee attack with certain properties, instead of being essentially interchangeable. But that may just be me. This is not necessarily a downside for the vast majority of people. More relevant for most people: There are no rules for making your own critters, or for how class levels and abilities may be added to critters. I kinda hope that the engine here will end up being a bit more complex than the one for Starfinder; as much as I love SF’s engine, it also can be easy for math-savvy players to reverse-engineer.
Editing and formatting are very good on a formal and rules-language level. Layout adheres to a one-column standard, and the book contains artworks that extend to variants of different critters; different animated objects, for example. As noted, no cheesecake, no beefcake in the artworks. The artworks range from industry-defining amazing to good: I was e.g. disappointed by the Glabrezu artwork; I loved the Fleshwarp Grothlut – it’s amazing nightmare fodder; also one of the best drider artworks I’ve seen! As noted, while, for the most part, the space is well-used, there are a few pages where the margins could have used a tad more information – the side-bar of the Grim Reaper’s first page, for example, is 3/4s empty. These are the exception, but yeah. The pdf-version comes with detailed, nested bookmarks, making navigation comfortable. As per the writing of this review, I don’t yet own the print version, so I can’t yet comment on its merits or lack thereof.
Game designers Logan Bonner, Jason Bulmahn, Stephen Radney-MacFarland, Mark Seifter, with additional design by Alexander Augunas, John Compton, Paris Crenshaw, Adam Daigle, Eleanor Ferron, Leo Glass, Thurston Hillman, James Jacobs, Jason Keeley, Lyz Liddell, Ron Lundeen, Robert G. McCreary, Tim Nightengale, Alex Riggs, David N. Ross, Michael Sayre, Chris S. Sims, Jeffrey Swank, Jason Tondro, Tonya Woldridge, Linda Zayas-Palmer – if you’ve been following designs for a while, you’ll know a lot of these names, and you’ll also realize why this book imho succeeds in the massive uphill battle that it had to fight.
For one, it doesn’t feel like I just bought the 3.0 Monster Manual, or the PF Bestiary, for a fourth time. The changes in lore, nomenclature, and the creatures included, make this book feel different; sure, it covers the basics; it has to cover the basics. It’s the first bestiary. But it also puts a different spin on what will be the core canon of PF2. Kudos for that. Seriously. We have a book here where dullahans, wendigo and shoggoths (which, alas, are btw. appropriately hard to kill, but not as maddening as I’d like them to be) are all considered to be creatures of essentially the core array. In some ways, this makes the game feel different, and differentiates itself successfully from being D&D minus the WotC-IP; it instead uses Paizo’s themes and lore to some surprising effect. I like that.
More importantly, I can see many of the more complex abilities championing a focus on roleplaying and actively rewarding engaging with narratives, instead of being only numbers-games. That’s a very good thing as far as I’m concerned. Even better would be that, in comparison to Starfinder, the creatures tend to have a few more abilities; heck, even the elementals don’t all have the same attacks and actions. Monsters feel deadly and varied as a result, and it is my ardent hope that the monster creation rules have enough wiggle-room to create creatures that are versatile without being predictable. Contrary to what I expected, I did not consider reading this book in its entirety, as opposed to using it as required, to be a chore. This is an interesting and well-crafted tome of monsters, and sets the bar quite high for the new system; there is still some breathing room here, but if anything, this book left me hopeful we’ll get more two-page boss-spreads, more unique critters, and a whole ton of cool adversaries in the future. I hope that the tendency for lore being more important continues, and that the direction this points towards, is indeed the one the game takes – for that will make it different enough from PF1, 5e, SFRPG, DCC and other games I love to grant it its own unique identity.
So yeah, even if you were horribly bored by plenty of d20-first-bestiaries, you may want to take a look at this one; the book perhaps makes a more salient and obvious case for several key strengths of PF2 than the core rulebook, simply by courtesy of showing what can be built on the streamlined action system. As a whole, I am left with primarily niggles and nitpicks, and regarding those, certainly much less than I expected to actually have. My final verdict will clock in at 4.5 stars, rounded up due to in dubio pro reo.
You can get this bestiary here on paizo.com!
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