Mar 022018
 

Pathways Bestiary

This massive tome clocks in at 229 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page advertisement, 1 page back cover, leaving us with no less than 223 (!!) 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.

 

Okay, so the thing that drew me to Rite Publishing back then was the blending of really imaginative concepts and deadly, highly template adversaries. Here were monsters that did not need me to beef them up to stand a chance against my PCs. When the Book of Monster Templates hit sites, I was ecstatic: It took the monster template concept from 3.X’s beloved Advanced Bestiary by Green Ronin and one-upped it. Not only were the templates super-interesting, they sported unique and diverse abilities, many of which pushed the boundaries of what I expected to see. I liked the Advanced Bestiary (who didn’t?), but I loved Steve’s Book of Monster Templates.

 

As the master of Rite Publishing, Steve continued to provide amazing templates – and for FREE/PWYW, no less, for every installment of the Pathways e-zine featured one of the templates, always with a unique sample creature added, often with absolutely gorgeous flavor. Now, I adored these, I still do; however, the game evolved, Rite Publishing grew to become Steve’s dayjob and the time-constraints and limited budget a free magazine, of a 3pp, no less, could afford, meant that there were a couple of instances where the wording could have been tighter, where editing needed to be rushed.

 

Even when I had to bash one of Steven’s designs, he took the criticism in stride, encourages and supported me; he was there not only as a publisher, but also as a friend, and when he was taken from us too soon, I was crestfallen. I miss him to this day and his writing continues to influence my games, my own writing, and what I expect to see. In many a way, he pushed the boundaries of what I dared to expect and demand from roleplaying games. I am incredibly happy that Rite Publishing continues to prosper.

 

Where am I going with this? Well, this book, in a sense, is a monument to Steve’s work. It collects the first 60 templates released in Pathways by him and his talented cadre of freelancers, and polishes them, brings them up to speed and presents them in a refined, new manner. In a sense, this is the second Book of Monster Templates that I always bugged him to write.

 

Now, from all of this you can glean that I am, to a degree, emotionally invested in this product. Frankly, I’d have a hard time going full-blown analysis-mode and review-bot, abstract my own emotional investment. But then again, Steve would tell me to buckle up, call things as I see them and tell me to rate this as neutral as usual. To review this the rite way and not to make any excuses on behalf of his legacy, so there goes.

 

After a brief introduction of none other than legend Owen K.C. Stephens, we dive into the respective creatures and templates. Here, I am going to deviate a bit from my usual formula. If I were to discuss the respective templates and monsters in detail, this review would be bloated beyond any usefulness for the customer, so instead, I’m going to paint the picture in broad strokes, all right? Great!

 

So, first things first: Know how the 7 deadly sins are kind of a big deal in Pathfinder, beyond the neutral evil outsiders? Did you want templates to *really* reflect them, to e.g. represent champions and creatures of the Thassilon empire? Well, we get one template plus associated creature for each of the sins. These are not just any templates, mind you: The gluttonous creature gets a grinning maw in its belly; the lusting creature’s gaze can wreck your equipment-based bonuses; prideful creatures fight not simply to win, but to prove their superiority – which is actually a thing, thanks to the rules. These examples do not even begin to encompass what the templates offer, though.

 

You see, the templates herein are not simply content with just providing some numerical bonuses and perhaps one cool ability; no, the templates in this book sport multiple unique signature abilities per template, sometimes even going so far as to add a whole subsystem of trickery to the ability complex bestowed on the base creature. In short, you will NOT just mistake such a creature for a weirdly colored version of its base creature; you won’t just find animals with slightly fiendish touches, or critters that add a bit of elemental energy damage. Instead, you’ll find templates that really make a difference in how the creature operates, in its options, etc.

 

Now, there are a couple of somewhat elemental-themed critters within: E.g. the +1 CR pyroclastic template. To give you an extent of the level of modification you can expect to see from each template within: We have type change to elemental, immunity to crits and flanking and precision damage, vulnerability to cold perfect flight as well as burrow speed. They get a long burn, that adds not only fire damage, but has it last. Their aura causes Con-damage on a failed save and they get a breath weapon. Gentlepersons, that is the *least* amount of modification you’ll see herein. Yep, beyond the usual play with abilities and standard offense/defense tricks, we get no less than 3 signature abilities. Oh, and you don’t want to add the template, but need a brutal boss ASAP? What about a CR 23 pyroclastic red dragon? AC 39, over 500 HP. Need I say more?

 

Okay, another way to illustrate the extent to which the respective templates go to make the playing experience unique, would be the Agent of Chaos. One of the abilities bestowed by the template is the chaos field. Whenever someone nearby uses supernatural, SP or spell, the ability automatically causes a mishap, and the ability takes longer effects into account. Here’s the thing: We don’t get one, or 20 different effects; no siree, we actually get a massive 100-entry-strong table of chaotic effects! These are not brief ones either – in total, the table takes up 3 whole pages. And yes, these are not just cosmetic, but mechanically relevant! And that is before the next ability, the warpwave, which can have 20 different effects! Speaking of which: There actually are two feats to further build on the warpwave, so yes, the monsters and templates herein do actually come with supplemental material where appropriate.

 

Speaking of the monsters: Take the amber template – obviously, this makes creatures adhesive, and the creatures can negate freedom of movement and they can encase and suffocate victims. The sample creature here, lavishly depicted in full color, would be The Glorious Snare – a CR 4 amber unicorn. Yes, it is CE. Yes, it actually is pretty lethal. There are also rules-components that exceed significantly the frame we usually expect from templates: Take the bladeleaf creature. Not just a template for plant creatures, it provides basically a statblock that is based in part on the stats of the respective base creature, representing the animated swarm of leaves. Yes, the template actually allows for swarm-creation. Blood magic creatures can enhance their abilities via killing other beings. In this case, we get no less than 4 new spells to tie in with the template, one of which actually conjures forth fully-statted creatures.

 

Need some creatures that embody the cataclysmic end of days? Well, what about a template that will do just that, increasing CR to 25? Speaking of super-potent stuff: What about the DIY-Kaiju-template Daikaiju? Divine champions can assume frickin’ avatar form…yeah, there is definitely a ton of amazing, high-concept stuff here.

 

Fans of the mythos aren’t left out, either: We get a Dark tapestry template and the many-angled template, for example. Really neat! That being said, even though the editing has improved, there are a couple of snafus left: In the many-angled creature’s write-up, we have an erroneous reference to the lostling instead; there’s a statblock that has a double “AC” in the line – this book is not perfect in that regard.

 

Now all templates are this epic in scope, though: Want a representation of the not-at-all-wholesome prankster? The deadly prankster template offers just that, turning whimsy to being full-blown creepy! Prefer something more twisted? The Mad Harlequin allows you to make your own Joker or works as a nice foundation for Jack-of-Tears-inspired creatures. Want an undead jester instead? Red Jester template. As a fan of things macabre and dark, these struck a chord with me.

 

Dichotomous creatures are another example I adore: The creature represents a duality, rather than a singularity in morals, allowing for the fusions of e.g. demons/angels. Not happy with all representations of some classic undead? Dread Banshees, Phantom Armors, Revenants, Sayona and Crucifixion Spirits make for brutal, interesting takes on the respective concept, more in line with the level of deadliness than the more standard iterations.

 

We can find dream killer and false idols represented here, and there is a template to turn you into a gallows-based construct. The grandmaster template comes with an integrated cabal of servants and unique tactical tricks that, in conjunction with similar commander options, make for a deadly threat. Combine these fellows with the destined kingkillers, a template representing figures like Mordred or V, and we have a great coup-d’état scenario. The kingkiller’s wounds are cursed, btw., and not in some pansy manner – they can only be healed under a specific circumstance, which makes the old “the good king lies dying” actually work within the confines of the game! And that is before the sub-ability sections. Oh, and yes, we get kingdom-building-rules-synergy for the kingkiller!

 

Heartless creatures take a trope from classic fairy tales, creating duplicates…and the only way to truly slay them, as they’re born of negative emotion, is to find the origin. If played to their capabilities, Heartless can make for a potentially world-ending threat…and make for a super-difficult, cool investigation if handled properly. The template only clocks in at CR +1, but frankly, I could see this carry a whole campaign.

 

Need more forward threats to throw against the PCs? Both hellfire and hero killer should do a good job there. And yes, the latter isn’t called “Hero Killer” for giggles. Are you one of the folks who wished that Iron Kingdoms had continued support for d20-based games? Well, this book contains the iron lich! Speaking of classics: Poison and Deep dragon templates

 

Now, Pathfinder is an offense-heavy game – it’s much harder to establish a good defense than a good offense – and if you’re a GM whose players just steamroll over most published monsters…well, then you may want to check out the nigh-invulnerable template. This template represents something I loved in 2nd edition, where a few creatures like Greater Wolfweres actually fully regenerated each round, unless killed in a very specific manner. Well, the template represents just that, allowing you to create a classic, nigh-unkillable monster. This template, on its own, could be used to duplicate a more classic horror gameplay. Just modify it to suit the respective creature, add/detract cooldowns, etc. Gold.

 

It’s not all evil, though: Creatures infused with the fires of heaven or beings that represent the concept of the sublime can make for potent allies for stalwart heroes, with feats like Too Pretty to Kill further enhancing this trope.

 

If you’re like me and enjoy esoteric, weird or philosophical concepts in your game, then the notion of the timebreaker creature will most certainly appeal to you as well….and even if the concept per se is not something you like to explore theme-wise, the abilities are uncommon enough to warrant integration. If you’re bored of the standard treasure golems, why not use the treasure hoardling to represent the concept of the self-defending treasure? And if you enjoy the aesthetics of the Soulsborne games, you’ll probably also enjoy the walking weapons, the disintegrating void creatures, the walking wastelands. Creepy and eternal, the eye-studded watchmen creatures eternally hold vigil, while witchfire and whispering phantasms speak of dark things just beyond your ken.

 

Beyond all those templates, the last 30 pages are devoted to appendices: We first get recaps of creature types, then subtypes, then universal monster rules, then templates by CR-adjustment. After that, we get sample monsters by CR. These appendices are incredibly useful and make navigation of the book simple and smooth.

 

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are better than in the original iterations and quite a few rough patches have been smoothed over and properly codified. However, there are more glitches in the book than in comparison to most of Rite’s recent offerings. Layout adheres to the two-column full-color standard used by Rite Publishing and the pdf comes with a ton of full-color artworks, most of which were previously used for Pathways covers, so yeah – the artworks, while not adhering to a uniform style, are amazing. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience. As per the writing of this review, I cannot comment on the print version, since I do not yet own it.

 

Steven D. Russell, Matt Banach, Jonathan McAnulty, Will McCardell, Mike Welham and, of course, Owen K.C. Stephens are the authors of this tome, and they have in common that their names are synonyms for amazing books. All of these authors have, in more than a few cases, gained my highest accolades and they all know what they’re doing.

 

Now, as a reviewer, I have to admit to not being too happy with the minor verbiage deviations and cosmetic hiccups that have crept into the book; but frankly, I’d rather have a couple of those than a book full of bland standard templates. You see, this book is, in a way, an epitome of the Rite Publishing mentality: We receive a vast array of truly formidable, high-concept templates, with unique critters attached to them. The templates are not content with just representing the base concepts, they utterly embrace them and make them not a side-flavor, but the leitmotif of the creatures. They also do not shirk away from making creatures challenges, which is a huge plus for me. In comparison, the only series of monsters that, in design-philosophy, feels similar, would be Legendary Games’ Mythic Monsters series. Considering the amazing standards set by that series, this should be considered to be high praise indeed.

 

The creatures and templates within this tome are geared towards more experienced GMs and players, and the book is better off for it. Considering how often I hear from GMs whose players steamroll through many published modules, this book is pretty much required. Beyond the simple challenge, the design philosophy of the templates excels in another level: The book does not just escalate numbers. The templates grant power-boosts, yes, but at the same time, the book emphasizes smart tactics and roleplaying as well: Quite a few of the creatures herein can inspire whole campaigns and make for truly deadly foes, but at the same time, their strong motifs also make sure that clever players are rewarded when tackling them. Your brain and creativity will provide better angles to win than just rolling high with a min-maxed character. Now, that does not mean that folks who like ROLLplaying won’t get a ton of challenges here; quite the contrary. It is interesting, though, that the unique abilities of the templates go one step beyond the usual rules-confinements in favor of making the creatures distinct, unique and rewarding to face.

 

Now, this massive bestiary may not be perfect, but its ideas can keep your game going for literally decades. In the rare and distinguished air of its predecessor and Green Ronin’s Advanced Bestiary, I actually prefer it over them, courtesy of the truly distinct, creative and courageous design-decisions that suffuse the templates herein. My final verdict will, in spite of the hiccups here and there, clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval. This is absolutely worth getting and any GM I know will love pouring over these pages…and start cackling with diabolical glee. This is a wonderful monument to a design philosophy and the man that championed it. Do yourself a favor and check it out.

 

You can get this glorious tome here on OBS!

 

You can directly support the creation of the FREE Pathways e-zine here on patreon!

 

Endzeitgeist out.

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