Winter’s Roar: Vikmordere Bestiary
This bestiary, spawned as a stretch-goal to the “Into the Wintery Gale” mega-adventure, clocks in 62 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial/ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page advertisement, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 57 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
Sooo, I’ve seen A LOT of bestiaries in my years of roleplaying. If you’ve been following my reviews, you’ll by now know that the one thing I bemoan most about the current editions of the game would be that the respective creatures don’t have as much room to shine and be developed as they once had. Well, this bestiary does something interesting in that regard – each creature contained herein is depicted in a two-page spread – this means that, if you get the print copy, you can fold the stats to your side and show the artwork, contained on a hand-out-friendly second page to the players. That is a HUGE deal. Particularly when you consider that Mates Laurentiu’s art for this book is frankly AMAZING. See that front cover? All those critters? Every artwork within these pages is of that quality. Yes, this is a beautiful book.
Which brings me to the second challenge this faces – I mentioned the lack of space current bestiary-formatting allows for creatures; the sheer size of statblocks means that there is not that much room to develop the flavor of a given adversary, which renders the fluff-writing an exercise in concise writing that is not an easy feat to accomplish. Speaking of statblocks -after more than 5 bestiaries and a vast array of other monster handbooks, it’s hard to make creatures stand out. We all remember the point in 3.X when slapping a loosely-draconic theme on critters was en vogue…that reminded me of the time when comic books had monkey on the cover. I digress.
I know I’m rambling, this is going somewhere. Bear with me. So, from a formal point of view, the creatures herein range from CR 7 to CR 16, spanning the reach of the levels the associated mega-adventure deals with. A crucial difference in comparison to similar Norse-themed bestiaries, however, would be that it is crafted to adhere, in style and theme, to the mythology woven for the people of the Vikmordere (hence the title) – in case you are not familiar with this culture, picture them as a thoroughly amazing cultural blend of Vikings and Norse culture with Native Americans. It may sound odd, but it works really well and puts a fresh thematic spin on the subject matter, one that maintains the feeling of being a clear love-letter to both. This is, in some cases, represented by the very nomenclature employed.
Take e.g. the undead revenant-like critter called Aptrgangr, two variants of which are provided (and YES, each of the them has its own statblock and its own full-color art): Lake aptrgangrs not only curse and befoul the bodies of water they’re in, they may also release a snake from their bodies, constrict foes…but the interesting component here, to me, would be how they establish relevance: Sure, the fluff text talks about their effect and mythology, which is nice and dandy – but the snake provides a visual cue, a plot-device, if you will and a strong visual metaphor; the befouling of water represents a built-in narrative angle for the GM to use and the rest of the build retains combat-relevance. The land-version of the aptrgangr is more straight-forward, though the dark blades, quick coup-de-graces and familiars they gain ultimately mean that they may be fared more in direct combat – but, by virtue of familiar choices, they also retain a sense of foreboding, of omens, if you will. Oh, and rejuvenation.
Woe to any settlement that attracts one of the dread brunnmigi, grotesque fey that lair in wells, who use mimicry to lure their prey in and then drown the unfortunates, spoiling water with sadistic glee. In an age without ready access to running water, one of these predators can easily depopulate a whole thorp if not put in its place! Into these mythological and very real feeling anxieties are realities of the game skillfully woven in – take the elderfey, as an example: This being once was a druid, but one whose unabashed love of life ultimately corrupted him; not ready to accept the cycle of life and death, these beings are tied to a specific tree (which spells doom for them if it is destroyed) – and in order to retain the balance of life and death, they can implant trees in victims, having them grow in a rapid and disturbing pace from those that are unfortunate enough to cross their paths. You know that I like my fey dark and creepy – this one positively qualifies as nightmare fodder as far as I’m concerned…and I mean that as a complement. It feels like it could have been drawn from mythology.
Or let me talk about the Fafnir dragons – hunted as abominations by their kind, these beings are shapechanging beasts, regal and lethal and have elevated greed and paranoia to a form of art. surrounded by an aura of avarice and capable of teleporting held items to their hoard, these beings are rightfully loathed…but there is more to them. Those that drink the blood of a fafnir may undergo the change into one themselves, somewhat akin to a lycanthrope: As such, they do have a hybrid shape, artfully depicted by Mates Laurentiu. Oh, know what’s worse? They don’t breed true. Instead, their unions result in the birth of lindworms, another new creature: Think of these as lethal, serpentine predators with 6 clawed legs that are nigh unerring hunters – not even nondetection will save you from these hunters!
If you’ve been following northern mythology in its various iterations throughout different editions of the game, you may have noticed that, at one point, the lupine threats in the frigid North have become less pronounced; the Fenris (no, not the oomphteenth build of the original Fenris wolf – these are a whole species) should change that. Black as night, Huge and lethal, these supreme predators can smash you to the ground…and woe to any prone before them – with but a twist of their head, they may tear off limbs of such unfortunates! Frost wisps, harsh, but lawful aberrations in service of winter despise flames – beautiful and alien, mortals to them are magma-blooded devils, which adds a unique spin to any encounter with them. What about a snake-like predator that quite literally is the incarnation of frostbite, with an aura that renders items brittle and hypothermia-inducing cold damage? The visual metaphor, once again, is so obvious I don’t think I have to explain it.
The horned glacial bear would be another magical beast of ice and snow – and it is, in spite of what I feared at one point, unique – not simply a variant of a bear-like winter-wolf, it can cause avalanches and emit devastating roars. There would also be the høyonde (translates literally to “high/tall/very” and “bad folks/things”), the spawn of traitorous Vikmordere who consorted with giants, these would be scions of death that not only may channel the forces of entropy (read: negative energy), they also have a nasty death aura that hampers the forces of life. The hidden ones, the huldufólk, also have their representation here – in touch with the very earth and rocks, these fey may animate rocks and sing a bolstering song to the very earth itself…but this connection goes both ways and stone may be used to slay them…
Even what should arguably be lame herein…somehow ends up not being that. Take the icy vigil: A medium construct of a frozen warrior. Stifle your yawns, ladies and gentlemen – they not only generate spawn from the slain, they may employ simulacra, wield equipment of ice and reform after destruction…oh, and put away that staff of fireballs – magic immunity. Disregarding the well-crafted prose, the mechanics of this adversary set it apart as not yet another boring guardian critter. The margygur would be aquatic fey that can sense the currents of destiny and fate like the currents that surround them (cue in Ayreon’s River of Time) and as such, they may share their prophetic visions with others, making for a cool quest-reward/social interaction…or a deadly foe, should they decide that the PCs will bring doom…
Now the aforementioned vigil would be cool; the treasure golem style Nibelung would be a more straight-forward construct (with cost to create etc., just fyi) – and yes, feeding it treasure will make it grow in potency. You know, I think pretty much all capable dragons in may game have just added a new layer of defenses to their lairs….that aside, the nomenclature-choice is smart here as well, evoking obvious mythological connotations. Now, as is wont to happen, not every creature’s statblock in a bestiary of this length is necessarily a stroke of genius. The overseer would be one example where that is the case.
Think of these guys as huge oak trees, with 5 dryad-shapes bound within the branches – for these beings are created when 5 dryads bond with one tree: All lose their sentience and become subsumed in the overseer’s body, its personality wholly independent from the animated fey. This may sound weird, but in spite of the conservative statblock, this is one of my favorite creatures in quite a while – its very existence poses several unique conundrums to ponder: Were the dryads tricked? What threat caused them to undertake this drastic measure? The more interesting aspect, however, pertains the nature of free will: Unwilling to give up its existence, the overseer is understandably opposed to the freedom of its constituent dryads. Then again, they do have a right to reclaim their freedom, a right towards an individual existence, in spite of the fact of their status as “parents” of the creature.
The very existence of the overseer is inextricably-linked to the question of free will, it represents an escalation of the phenomenon of parentage as an experience that can deprive one of one’s self and thus serves as a creature-made warning to retain one’s sense of self – after all, that does benefit, at least in real life and a case less pronounced, the offspring. Similarly, its existence could be read as a rousing call towards those that continue to leech off their parents to assume an own identity, separate from the parts that constitute it. Of course, you may just shrug and think of it as a “cool creature with an awesome artwork” – but that’s why I adore it. Its straightforward visual metaphor is one that can break abusive and unhealthy relationships by virtue of its impact and puts the creature, at least in my mind, into the rarefied regions where gaming can actually leave people as better persons.
Moving on to less intellectualizing adversaries, the pesta, a horrid monstrous hag armed with a rake, is pretty much a living incarnation of disease, plowing the fields for the reaper – once again, the choice of weapon, while seemingly innocuous, ties in with the visual metaphors we all have consumed, time and again and expands them – by virtue of their arms, they are literally the ones preparing the reaping, much like disease precedes death. If all of that sounded to grim, let me introduce the ratatosk – small fey that love riddles and look a bit like extremely fluffy and cute squirrels with two tails, beings of continuous renewal and destruction…and they’re good guys. Their artwork is also so cute that I’d seriously gift one as a plushy to my significant other.
In case you have been disappointed by the potency of sea serpents, the serpent of the depth should change that: At CR 15, these 8-eyed, horned killers not only are majestic – they control the very currents and those caught in their grasp can look forward to being flayed by their lethal, spiky coils. Speaking of disappointment – you know that I’m pretty much enamored with Norse mythology, so take my word for it when I’m saying that this book has the better representation of Sleipnir in it: With fire that burns past immunities and the ability to safeguard souls as well as a whopping 100 ft. movement rate, it is an appropriately powerful steed. Snow screechers may look like somewhat fey yeti at first glance…but only at first glance. Beyond the eponymous screech, they can alternate cold or fire damage and generate unsettling sounds, making them perfect ambush predators stalking the camp grounds.
We return to obvious mythological frames of reference with the stag of the whitewood – an alseid-like (think centaur with deer instead of horse-half) and a stag’s head evoke so many tropes from our real world myths, I do not even know where to start: From the white stag to the alseid-ish angle to the hunter, there is a myriad of connotations and implications to add to these…and that from a guy who usually does not like this type. The tundra troll would be more interesting from a mechanical point of view, with fragile, shoddy shields and armor allowing for some nice tactics against theses beings.
Unique: The vaettir, life-draining undead icy corpses have a draining aura and go into a kind of hibernation sans food – but they also generate haunts! Another undead would be the vereri stalker – who casts his spells via the focus of a severed head! (Yep, you do NOT want to be coup-de-grace’d by these folks…)…oh, and with a hair or similar part, they can and will track you! They, like 3 other critters here, are one of the few creatures whose art does not get the full-page treatment. While we’re on the topic – what about a frost-themed banshee-like undead spirit with access to hexes?
If you’ve noticed an absence of amorphous, strange threats – what about the aquatic vatndökk, a slime whose very touch suppresses magic…and who doubles as a magic-dead zone? Yeah…and they may capsize vessels. Considering the frigid climate, these things will put the fear back into the high-level adventurers…and they represent one of the most delightfully deadly adversaries herein. Then, there would be the winter wyrm and winter wyrmling – both represent basically ice worms. Yeah, I know – there are quite a few of those out there already – but bear with me, their respective builds are actually nice, with pit creation, hibernation and fantastic artworks.
The final creature herein can partially be seen on the cover – the wintertide jabberwock, with its one line- and one cross-shaped pupil that can only be slain be severing both of its heads. With eye-rays, head-regeneration and a fear of vorpal weapons (understandable!), the creature represents a great high note to end the book.
Editing is top-notch on both a formal and rules-language level – in the instances where I took apart a statblock, I noticed no serious hiccups. Formatting-wise, some very minor aesthetic hiccups can be found – there are instances where the first paragraph of the flavor text is formatted like a statblock ability….hey, come on, I’m trying to find something to complain about, all right? Layout adheres to an absolutely gorgeous two-column full-color standard with borders that employ graphic elements coded as Norse. The artwork by Mates Laurentiu is absolutely stunning and makes this one of the most beautiful bestiaries I have seen any 3pp put out. Each of these critters could, quality-wise, be found in a Paizo/WotC-book – the artwork alone is worth getting this…and yes, I’d advise in favor of the softcover: The fact that you can show the one-page monster-illustrations sans spoiling the statblocks to players means that you’ll spare time and effort printing the art as handouts. The fact that they all have one style adds a great unified visual identity to this book. Oh, and yes, the book comes fully bookmarked for your convenience.
Justin Andrew Mason and developer Stephen Rowe are both names that I associate with quality; in this instance, however, they delivered something that exceeded my expectations. You see, I get to see a metric ton of monsters. I’m spoiled beyond belief by Legendary Games’ mythic monsters and bestiaries and my expectations at this point are VERY hard to meet. This book surpassed them by the sheer value of consistency. There is something I consider great (not “good”, not “very good”, “great!”) in every single critter within this book.
Let me elaborate: When we boil it down, monster-design is both an art and a craft: You can string together numbers and components like feats; no problem. The artistry is when it comes together, when you add those unique abilities and give the mathematical construct its own sense of identity, its own story. In the best of cases, though, it does not end there. Take Kobold Press – the Midgard-setting they made is pretty much defined by the mythological resonance it evokes. I do not use the excellent setting lightly as a frame of reference.
We, as human beings, have a rich tapestry of myths that are, if you believe anthropology, to a significant part extensions of our conditio humana, our shared experiences. It is thus that you can find parallels between different cultures and their animism, religion and myths – they serve to illustrate facts, concepts and experiences – often in an anthropomorphized form. These tales continue to evolve with our lives; much like the changed experience of the industrial revolution gave rise to fresh incarnations of horror, much like Web 2.0.’s slender man and similar creepypastas, we are defined by our mythweaving, by the incarnations of truths and symbols we inherited, by the complex constructs that generate a shared frame of reference to communicate.
One way to excel at monster design lies in mastering mechanics and artfully making the unique; another, less often seen, lies in tapping into this shared frame of reference, into the mythological sphere, and employing the powerful resonance it evokes within us all. There is a reason for that: It’s hard. You see, the very first thing we usually do when running games is to take that frame of reference and apply it. Thus, straight adaptions feel old, stale, been there, done that to us. The genius of this humble bestiary lies in tapping into the shared frame of reference, the cultural resonance shared, and employing it in a creative and new manner that makes it a cohesive, unique entity.
A cynic may accuse me of over-intellectualizing in this review; my response would be that me actually pausing and analyzing to this extent is not something I do lightly or by accident; one creature that manages this feat is a happy accident; two are a tendency – a whole book full of them, however, is intentional, deliberate craftsmanship and artistry. This book represents one of the best bestiaries I have read in quite a while and its creatures will make plenty of appearances in my games. This is a steal, an exercise in excellent, unpretentious (in spite of my analysis – this is very much a bestiary, not a lecture in academia!) design – and oh boy do I love it to bits. My final verdict will clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval and this is furthermore a candidate for my Top Ten of 2016. Get this!
You can get this phenomenal bestiary here on OBS!
The mega-adventure (review forthcoming) that spawned it can btw. be found here on OBS!