Tome of Beasts (5e)
#4 of my Top Ten of 2016
This gargantuan tome of monsters clocks in at a massive 433 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page inside of front cover, 2 pages of editorial/thanks, 2 pages of ToC, 1 page SRD, 2 pages of advertisement, leaving us with a mind-boggling 424 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
This review is based on the second version of the book and was moved up in my review queue at the request of numerous readers.
Well, wait…before we do, please bear with me as I embark on a little tangent. As I’m typing this, D&D 5e is a relatively young system, a phenomenon I like to call “B1BS” – Bland 1st Bestiary Syndrome. I have seen A LOT of first bestiaries for various editions and they, obviously, have to cover the classic basics. Unfortunately, that also means that they tend to bore the hell out of me. Yes, I need my dragons, devils, etc. in a new gaming system and these books cover exactly that…but still. Call me monster-hipster or discerning connoisseur, but ultimately, it is the second, the third bestiary I’m looking more forward to…or the 3pp bestiaries. Here, you can usually find the uncommon, the strange and the weird. It is hence I look forward to the first big 3pp-bestiaries with a mix of anticipation and trepidation.
Traditionally, there is one downside to big 3pp-bestiaries: Budget. 3pps usually don’t have the budget for a ton of expensive artworks or, if they want to get a book of these proportions done close to the system’s infancy, lack the time for making all the critters utterly unique in abilities and tricks. there are exceptions to this rule, obviously, but particularly in a system’s infancy, separating the wheat from the chaff is pretty difficult.
Well, the first thing you’ll note when flipping open this book would be that Kobold Press obviously did have the budget thanks to the KS that powered this: The Tome of Beast is chock-full with a gigantic array of absolutely stunning full-color artwork, making it frankly one of the most beautiful bestiaries I have read by any publisher. Yes, I actually consider this book to be more aesthetically pleasing than Pathfinder’s first bestiary or the 5e Monster Manual.
The second problem mentioned, at least concept-wise, is a non-entity of an issue as well: You see, Kobold Press has years upon years of evocative critters released for 3.5, 4th edition, Pathfinder, 13th Age…add to that the rich lore of the various Midgard supplements and you have a gigantic panorama of mythologies and concepts to build upon…and at least as far as I’m concerned, context has always made it easier to design critters for me. So the ideas already are there, just awaiting their mechanical representation.
That is not to say that this book contains only previously released critters, mind you – quite the contrary is the fact, actually! There are a ton of creatures contained in this massive book that have not been seen before. There is a reason for this scope: The massive mythology established for the Midgard campaign setting is defined partially by the gigantic assortment of creatures one can encounter there. Once again, this does not mean that the book is in any way tied to the system: While numerous little boxes and side-bars elaborate upon and contextualize the respective adversaries, this book can be considered to be very much campaign setting agnostic, although Midgard’s themes obviously do influence the type of creatures you can find within these pages.
The relative prominence of fey, to name a creature type, is a direct result of the canon established for the setting. Even beyond the confines of the setting, this canon can be considered to be an inspiration for the GM – when e.g. fey lords and ladies begin their entries by first establishing a massive array of fluff regarding their positions, including obvious adventure hooks, the book does shine. Speaking of which: From the challenge 8 Bear Lord to the legendary Lord of the Hunt to the Queen of Night and Magic or the River King, these beings not only are beautifully portrayed, they also make excellent use of several of 5e’s peculiarities: Legendary actions, lair actions and the like supplement these powerful entities…and the book also features regional effects: The areas in the vicinity of the fey lords start behaving in unique ways: The region containing the river king, for example, provides abundant fishing, but also makes streams strong and erratic as well as increasing the chance of rain and thunderstorms. The powerful entity thus makes his presence felt, merely by…well, being present.
This is as great a time as any to speak about one crucial feat that this book manages: Beyond being a massive collection of creatures, the book actually manages to unlock several of the absolutely legendary modules from Kobold Press’ catalog for D&D 5e. While conversion into the system is pretty easy, it is ultimately classes and monsters that are hardest to adapt; GMs seeking to convert some of the ever-green gems released for other systems thus have a crucial work load taken off their shoulders…and, considering the absolutely stunning artworks suffusing this book, they also get the bonus of having a great visual representation of the iconic foes. (5e GMs: Seriously consider getting “Courts of the Shadow Fey” – it’s frankly one of the most unique, amazing modules I know and with this book, conversion is dead simple for experienced GMs). That only as an aside. And yes, the Snow Queen is in this book. Told you there are a ton of new creatures inside!
Now another issue bestiaries of this size face would be that different people expect different things from bestiaries and striking the right balance between those needs can be challenging. Let’s face it, we gamers are an opinionated bunch: Take e.g. the owlbear or flumph – ask 10 gamers what they think about these classics and you’ll get vastly diverging opinions. Two of my players absolutely love these two, while 2 others immediately start groaning whenever I use these foes. As such, opinions will diverge when faced with e.g. an oozasis/mockmire – gargantuan, intelligent ooze that sports the option to implant compulsions in those that partake from its waters or fruits, a thing that can actually emit vapors that manipulate the emotional status of creatures nearby. The serpent/leopard hybrid serpopard would be an actually cool magical hybrid creature that I can see becoming a classic.
So beyond the fey and such creatures, one aspect I always loved about Midgard (and Southlands) is that the books manage to quote real world mythology and add this distinct, Midgardian spin to everything, generating an internally concise mythology of a fantastic earth-like environment that kinda could have been…if the world was steeped in magic, flat, and surrounded by the world-serpent…but you get my drift. The adaption of such themes also does not take the usual, Tolkienesque/Anglo-Saxon focus you can usually find in RPG-bestiaries, instead drinking deeply from the wells of Germanic, Slavic and Norse mythologies as well as from sources beyond the ken of many a designer.
You know, before Tolkien pretty much defined the basic assumptions we have for the type of fantasy we play in, the world did not sit idle and research can unearth a vast panorama of fantastic sources from far before the time of the venerable professor. Christian medieval mythology, for example, still features the accounts of Prester John, fabled ruler of the Nestorian nation, a legend sprung from the missionary endeavors of Thomas the Apostle, who supposedly ruled over a land of immortal and wondrous creatures. Back then, this realm was considered to be possible…and while we now know that the realm as depicted in the sources does not exist, the mythology it created, with for example the blemmyes, who have no head and wear their face on their breasts, still resonates to this date. To the uninformed, they may constitute a nice, if a bit weird adversary; to those in the know, they represent a type of fantasy all too often neglected.
But perhaps you do not share my fascination with obscure mythologies and fantastic flights of fancy of ages gone by; perhaps your particular taste hearkens closer to the horrific, rendering you dissatisfied with the creatures featured in the Monster Manual that fulfill said niche. Rest assured that aficionados of Lovecraftiana will find some much-needed beings herein: The Folk of Leng, prominently featured in many a current module and timeless classics like the Shoggoth are contained within the pages of these tome as well, once again taking a lot of work off your hands. And, before you ask: Yes, shoggoths may absorb flesh; yes, they emit a mind-shattering piping. While we’re talking about the darker creatures within these pages: There would be an undead, exceedingly hard to destroy aboleth variant within…and the fiends presented in this book are…well, fiendish.
Really fiendish. Not in the “kinda weird-looking humanoid”-kind of way; there are some beings here that truly are unique: Take the Soul Eater: These things look like basically a Medium-sized crab with humanoid arms, but from their back rises a horrid, blue-ish mess of almost Giger-esque proportions, sporting hundreds of pupil-less, red eyes. Classic creatures or creature types are not simply depicted – they are lovingly introduced. Take the sphinx herein: It actually comes with 11 classic riddles.
Does one of your players suffer from a mild arachnophobia? Well, this book actually contains several delightful arachnids, from the Spiders of Leng (obviously…where the folk are…) to the J’ba Fofi, the research was well-made; the latter, just fyi, is most commonly known as a cryptozoological creature, here with a unique angle beyond its origins in our world. Speaking of unique angle: There are beings within this book that have sprung from an imagination I can only applaud: One of my favorites would be the suturefly: It is said that these pests are the reason for forest folk not speaking much. They, or so goes the legend, lurk and wait for someone speaking lies, only to proceed to sew shut the mouth, nose or eyes of an offender who commits blasphemy, which these beings can sense. Tiny, yet exceedingly flavorful, these things feel like they could have come from the mythologies of our world, though at least to my knowledge, they very much are an original creation…or at least are so obscure I never even heard of them. I love this critter, though, much like many a being herein, the beasts herein are challenging foes – if your players are like mine and are experienced roleplayers, the adversaries herein certainly will make them work for their XP.
Let’s e.g. take a look at the mascot of Kobold Press, the small but fierce kobolds featured herein – 3 such huamnoids are presented, the kobold alchemist, chieftain and trapsmith, all of which are not simply variants and instead feature unique tricks at their disposal. The least powerful one, the trapsmith, features a challenge of 1 and has a hefty 36 hit points at his disposal, which means that, yes, if you expect an array of easily slaughtered mooks, then this would represent one of the few things this pdf does not deliver…and in my opinion, that’s a good thing. Throwing a mook at players is something most experienced GMs can easily accomplish and not something you usually buy bestiaries for- at least I don’t. Instead, I get such books for evocative beings and unique mechanical tricks – and in that aspect, the respective humanoids tend to deliver in spades. Aforementioned trapsmith’s statblock, for example, features no less than 4 sample traps! Now if you are a relatively new GM and concerned about perhaps throwing too strong creatures at your players, do note that the beings in this tome, oriented after the official DMG’s guidelines regarding HP per challenge. The MM itself does not seem to follow that guideline, so yes, the beings herein tend to be slightly stronger. That being said, the book does an excellent job of pointing towards potentially problematic options in sidebars and the like: When a creature has a detonate-style final parting shot, it talks about how to use this without screwing the players over; in the example of the trapsmith, consideration is given for the number of traps previously placed. It may be a little thing, but it certainly is something new GMs and players will appreciate.
One of the more prevalent complaints I have heard about the MM would be the relative dearth of proper, high-challenge boss-adversaries. The Tome of Beasts delivers in spades here: Beyond aforementioned fey lords and ladies, arch-devils like Mammon, Arbeyach or the scribe of hell Totivillus (renamed due to some immature people taking offense with his previous name Titivillus…), the book certainly offers some seriously powerful endgame adversaries. One of my further nitpicks would pertain one of these guys, though: At challenge 27, Mechuiti, baboon-faced demon lord of cannibals is a cool build per se…but ultimately, with baboon-face and area of expertise, he does feel a bit like a Demogorgon-ripoff; further emphasizing the pseudo-Mayan nomenclature in flavor would have helped in further distinguishing…but perhaps that was not intended and the being just intended as a means to bypass the closed IP of ole’ demogorgy. Why am I harping on this poor demon lord? Well, because the rendition of his fellow Camazotz is significantly more steeped in mythology and ultimately, more interesting. Yeah, I know, I pretty much grasping at straws regarding things to complain about. A similar creature obviously intended to unlock something classic would be the wormhearted suffragan – basically an undead worm-that-walks, which fans of old Kyuss certainly should appreciate. And yes, the guy features a nasty worm-affliction, though, alas, no animation of the dead…though you can easily add that aspect.
Another target demographic, obviously, would be guys that share a bit of a sensibility like yours truly: At one point, I simply started getting bored with the more classic fantastical creatures and wanted something radically different – the book does deliver in that regard as well: Take the tusked skyfish: A jellyfish like, flying entity with massive tusks and the option to spray adversaries with skunk-like stench-spray. Or the skein witch: Androgynous humanoids mummified in diamond thread that feature translucent skin – inside, they do not have organs, but rather dozens of quivering hourglasses. Bending and distorting fate, these weird beings have the abilities to supplement their unique tricks.
That is not to say, however, that the creatures contained herein that deliver the traditional niches are boring, mind you: I certainly want to throw a mithral dragon at my players and both steam and smaragdine golems feature enough unique mechanics: The latter is driven by a boiler and extinguishing the fire can shut it down – clever PCs will try to make use of that. Speaking of clever: Yes, the steam golem’s ability actually talks about what happens if a water elemental and the critter clash. A small note, for sure – but something most assuredly appreciated. The by now classic darakhul, the intelligent, militaristic ghouls of the underworld or mighty jotun giants similarly feature evocative mechanics – the latter would be as good a place as any to come full circle regarding the mythological aspect, for the book does something smart: Instead of trying to fill so far unreleased monster-niches that will be filled (sooner or later rendering the fill-in obsolete), the book instead focuses on providing the means to employ a creature’s themes, but with a distinct identity.
Were you, for example, sad to see that the MM had neither a siren, nor a nymph of similar stand-in? With the evil abominable beauty and the lorelei, we do find creatures that can fit these roles, while still maintaining a unique identity of their own. The beauty, for example, has a touch that burns you and a voice that deafens, setting her clearly apart from the spellcasting focus of the classic nymph. Have I mentioned Baba Yaga’s horsemen? As a fan of swarms, I was also pretty excited to see several of these featured within this massive tome…and as a huge fan of Norse culture and mythology and their twist in Midgard, I was happy to actually see Boreas in these pages. Winter is coming.
Deadly butterflies, gigantic serpents, simian demons with diseased ichors and a demonic representation of none other than German legend Rübezahl (interesting – I would have made him a feylord) and a selection of 3 dinosaurs should also make fans of Sword & Sorcery-style fantasy pretty happy with this huge book. Have I mentioned the time-travelling eonic drifters or the edimmu? Design philosophy-wise, the book also retains a sense of believability regarding the nature of the respective builds: Animals are efficient; the gearforged and similar created are obviously made with functions – it is a subtle thing, but one that is a mark of good monster design. The theme of death and related abilities also extend to the undead….and while I like a lot of them herein, it is perhaps the one creature category that feels a bit less inspired than the rest; there are slightly too many “undead ied to x, that’s why he does x”-type of creatures herein…but perhaps I am simply spoiled in that regard. To note a positive exception here: Shadow vampires are actually fiends and, for an incorporeal drain-y creature (of which I have literally seen more than 100 over the years), it does its job relatively well.
Now, I could continue rambling on about creatures herein and bloat this review further, but I believe you should, by now, have a solid grasp on what the book offers. There is, for example, a mini-NPC-codex with generic adversaries in the back, with black knights gaining fear-inducing charges, disarming city watch captains and the like providing some supporting role material. A table contains ability modifiers and features for uncommon races, if you require a quick and dirty “change race”-table. The book also contains a massive 2-page list of monster by challenge rating – and from several 1/8 creatures to 27, you’ll have more than enough fodder at pretty much every level. One slightly unpleasant complaint here: Monsters grouped by type and terrain would have made for great additions to this book and help regarding navigation and user-friendliness if you need associated creatures on the fly.
Editing and formatting of the 2nd edition are impressive for a crunch-book of this size. As a whole, the quality of prose and statblocks is pretty impressive, considering the size of this tome. Layout adheres to a beautiful 2-column full-color standard and the book sports one of the highest concentrations of amazing full-color artworks I have seen in any book. While fans of Kobold Press may know some of these from previous books, there are a ton of completely new artworks herein as well. As a further bonus, aesthetics-wise, the book actually has a unified look regarding the artworks. The pdf version comes fully bookmarked with nested bookmarks – good! While I have held the physical version of the book, a massive hardcover, I do not own it. If my memory doesn’t deceive me, then its spine was less thick than that of e.g. the Southlands book, so not sure how well it will survive in the long run. I do remember that the print quality per se was very high, though.
A metric ton of people worked on this: Dan Dillon, Chris Harris, Rodrigo Garcia Carmona, Wolfgang Baur, William Ryan Carden, Christopher Carlson, Michael John Conrad, James L- Crawford, Christopher Delvo, Matthew F. Dowd, Timothy Eagon, Matthew Eyman, Robert Fairbanks, David Gibson, Chrsitopher Gilliford, John Henzel, Jeremy Hochhalter, Michael Holland, Ben Iglauer, James Introcaso, Dan Layman-Kennedy, Christopher Lockey, Maximillian Maier, Greg marks, Dave Olson, Richard Pett, Marc Radle, Jon Sawatsky, Ryan Shatford, Troy E. Taylor, Andrew Teheran, Jorge A. Torres, Darius Uknius, Sersa Victory, Ben Wertz.
That is a LOT of different voices, which is which I’d like to mention the unsung heroes of the book: – Developer Steve Winter, editors Peter Hogan, Wade Rockett and Wolfgang Baur and proofing by Dan Dillon are what ultimately could have been a mess regarding the different power-levels and qualities of creatures and forged the book into a concise, remarkable whole.
So, should you get this book? To cut a long ramble short: YES! The second edition of Tome of Beasts is an amazing, massive collection of creatures that, in imagination and execution, is full of creatures that is on par and exceeds the best the Monster Manual has to offer. That being said, depending on how nitpicky you are, there is something you should be aware off: The book does have a 6-page errata. Traditionally, I do not take these into account and only count actual updates to the respective book. That being said, even if I disregard these (changes include e.g. a reference to “ability damage” being changed to “…Strength reduced. A creature with 0 Strength dies.” Depending on how nitpicky you are, that may well annoy you. Condition/damage immunity poison(ed) have been forgotten a couple of times; there’s a reference to “Diminutive” that should be “Tiny.” What I’m trying to show you here, frankly, is the extent of the hiccups and give you an impression of whether they would annoy you.
It should, however, be noted, that, as a whole, the book is TIGHT. Personally, even disregarding the errata, I most certainly have found more creatures I want to use within these pages than in pretty much all early-edition bestiaries before. Beyond the fact that this “unlocks” a ton of amazing Kobold Press books with its creatures, the emphasis on the unique critters herein also means that it will not be rendered obsolete as soon as the next MM comes around – instead, it is a titanic collection of gorgeous creatures that should be considered to be pretty much a must-have purchase for 5e-groups and monster designers alike; in spite of the minor hiccups herein, the totality of the creatures herein must be considered to be superb, evocative and suffused by the stuff of myths. In short: If I had to get rid of one 5e monster book and my choices were this and the MM, I’d throw the MM out of the window faster than you can say “Liosalfar.” (Yep, these delightfully creepy guys are in the book as well…)
So yes, this massive tome is very much worth the asking price and makes for a superb purchase – and I’d be surprised if I saw any 5e-monster book anytime soon that manages to beat this. In the end, my final verdict, in spite of the hiccups mentioned, will clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval and this also receives the nomination for my Top Ten of 2016.
You can get this gargantuan tome of cool critters here on OBS!