PF Review: Advanced Bestiary
The Advanced Bestiary is a 3rd Party Product for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game product published by Green Ronin Publishing. Green Ronin is getting back to its 3PP roots after focusing on licensed products (2PP) such as DragonAge or the DC Comics flavour of their Mutants & Masterminds d20 hack.
Given it’s a Pathfinder product, I wonder if Green Ronin should have instead called it the Advanced Bestiary Guide or Ultimate Bestiary.
What Is It?
The Advanced Bestiary is a 311-page hardcover book that focuses on templates rather than monsters. It features 119 different templates ranging in CR adjustment from -1 to +6. Each template includes a sample monster, but there’s some variation allowing for 150 monsters ranging in CR from 1/3 to 29. There are also 5 feats, 6 spells, and some alchemist discoveries.
The Advanced Bestiary was first published for 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons, back in 2005, when it won the Silver ENnie for Best Monster or Adversary Product. It was released late in the life span of 3.5e when 3rd Party Products were legion and it was hard to get noticed, let alone make a profit. Many game companies were moving away from 3PP, branching off into their own IP. The Advanced Bestiary was very popular, and remains a frequently referenced book by Paizo, who regularly uses it for their Adventure Paths – Paizo even updated a few choice templates for Bestiary 4. However, due to shenanigans, the profits for the book’s sales vanished and the product ended up costing Green Ronin a fortune, and almost killing the company. But it remained popular.
To judge how popular, in late 2013 Green Ronin launched a Kickstarter for a Pathfinder update. They made more than 200% of their goal, which allowed the book to be published in full colour. Delivery was estimated for this July but, of course, was delayed. But, two-to-three months delayed is not that bad for a Kickstarter project.
For backers, Green Ronin sent out a pre-release PDF in August while some last minute layouting was done (and likely letting the backers do some unofficial editing, hunting for typos and errors as only a few hundred fans can. A practice I fully support as it means the final print product is better). The final print-ready PDF was sent out in early September, and this review is based on that version.
There’s a lot of content in this book. At 300-pages and change this shouldn’t be a surprise, but there’s still a lot of monsters and templates. Even if you don’t plan on using a templated beast this book is a decent purchase, having so many monsters. Many of the templates even include variates based on the subtype of monster; a good example is the jotunblood giant that include not only the base Bestiary 1 giants but all the giants from later bestiaries as well. There’s a good variety of complexity to the templates in the book, ranging from “phew simple” to “OMFG complex”. For example, there’s a single template that clocks in at just over four pages, not including the sample beastie.
To make things easy, the book even contains Pathfinder’s Universal Monster Rules at the back, along with a very details section on monster stat blocks and applying templates. And it offers some sound advice for checking the final product against the expected numbers in the Bestiary.
There’s some fun monster choices as well, although a few monsters get a lot of love. There are two or three purple worms in the book. But the Advanced Bestiary also makes use Frog God Game’s Tome of Horrors Complete referencing that book several times.
The book doesn’t just have example monsters for the templates but adds an extra bit of details. Some are presented as variants, but many are presented as unique creatures with a backstory and most of the humanoids are presented as individuals. They’re not monsters, they’re NPCs.
To make finding content you want easier, the book contains a list of all the templates by CR and all the example monsters by CR. The sample monsters are not just listed by name, as their race and type are also included so finding the hobgoblin(s) in the books is not too difficult. And there’s also a fairly decent index that not only contains the templates and sample monsters but the universal monster abilities.
The book itself looks good. The art ranges from good to excellent. The monster illustrations are the equal of many official pictures. It’s arguably better than Paizo’s early efforts, as it lacks the stinkers of the Bestiary 1.
The layout of the book is clean and simple; it reminds me of the layout of the aforementioned Tome of Horrors Complete with templates separated with a wide banner with their name (only in colour rather than B+W). The pages have some background flourishes, but these are minor. The monster statblocks are fully shaded and pop from the page, with little details like the drop shadow making them stand out and catch the eye.
The book includes various plane-touched and environmental templates, such as cold creature for adventures in arctic locales or a plane of ice. This makes it easy to slip favourite monsters into different terrains or planes, and enables you have longer adventures in planar locations. Or just make a nigh unslayable fire troll to roll over your party.
I’m fond of the dread undead templates. While a few undead are template monsters (skeletons, vampires, zombies) many are just static creatures. A level 1 human commoner and level 15 elf barbarian killed by a ghast will both become identical ghouls. The dread templates allow the latter to become a much scarier foe. And you can really be a dick to your players by warning them of a “wight dragon” and not specifying the spelling.
The original Advanced Bestiary came out late in the lifespan of 3.X, when there were three Monster Manuals on the market and numerous 3rd Party monster books. This revised Advanced Bestiary is similarly late in the life span of Pathfinder. While there are fewer 3rd Party monster books there are more official monster products, so there’s no shortage of monsters. As such, the usefulness of the product will vary from person to person. If you have the four Bestiaries, the NPC Codex, the Inner Sea Bestiary, the Monster Codex, and the Tome of Horrors Complete then you might not need the Advanced Bestiary unless you’re really planning on running three or four more Pathfinder campaigns.
(Green Ronin deciding to start supporting Pathfinder at this time is a curious move. I wonder if it’s more a statement to Wizards of the Coast, picking a side in the PF vs 5e Edition War. Likely not, but it’s an interesting idea.)
With many of the templates being focused on adapting monsters for specific planes there’s a lot of grid filler templates. Just as there are so many demi-elemental and para-elemental planes that exist for symmetry, there are a lot of extra monsters. Like the scalding creature template for steam. I’m not sure how many people were crying out for steam monsters. I wonder if just applying aquatic and fire templates to the same creature could have served the same purpose.
There are also some weird templates. Thonefused is the strangest to my eyes. I’m not sure where the concept of a half-LaZBoy came from. And there are some less interesting templates like nocturnal. The activity cycle of animals is seldom important enough to template a monster to make it active at night. And the bipedal and manimal templates have narrative overlap.
There are something like four different “plant monster” templates (bramble, moss lich, plantblood, swamplord plus the green warden). 5% of the book is focused on making creatures into plants or making plants better.
The white background of the pages are rather stark. The lack of a background and the bright primary colours of the headers and stat blocks make this odd for a PF product. The book doesn’t try and “match” the Pathfinder aesthetic. While direct copying would be bad (a violation of Paizo’s Trade Dress), the book could try to feel similar. For example, Dreamscarred Press’ Ultimate Psionic copies the feel while still being its own product.
As a final nitpick, the templates often overlap, beginning in the middle of a page. Entries run together. Templates seldom occupy a concise spread of pages and the last third of a statblock is often found on a separate page. It’s a little bit mess. Gaming books tried to move away from that late in the 3e era, and Paizo follow’s WotC by having monsters or templates fill an entire page. But I know that trying to limit entries to full pages would inevitably mean less content and likely fewer templates in the entire book rather than more pages and room to breathe (or expanded backstories).
Reiterating an earlier point, there are some lovely pieces of art. I’m particularly fond of the Mist creature (and not just because I’m a Ravenloft fan).
I’d also like to draw attention to the licence page. Holy cow that is impressive. Five columns of teeny tiny font. If you don’t have Tome of Horrors this book will contain a lot of new monsters.
There are a few templates I found particularly nifty for various reasons. While I question the need for four plant monsters, the id moss is essentially the Vertigo comic character Swamp Thing, which is pretty neat. The Transforming Construct template lets you do just that. I totally want to make an iron golem that turns into a metal coach. The swarmblood template is a little different than the other “-blood” templates, which imply an unusual heritage, instead allowing a creature to literally have swarms for blood! It bleeds fire ants! Although, sadly, it’s only usable on living creatures, so no mummy that ooze scarab beetles when hit. (Unless you’re willing to bend the rules. Which I totally am. Swarm mummies away!!) There’s also dream creatures, fulfilling the “dream plane” checkbox. But it’s nice to see the Plane of Dreams get a little love. Editions seldom last long enough for Nightmare Realms to see a book (the planes of Dreams and shadows are personal favorites, and the former is just less “cool” so it doesn’t see a lot of support).
If you’re excited about D&D 5th Edition and planning on shelving your Pathfinder books alongside your 2nd Edition and Vampire: the Masquerade books then the Advanced Bestiary is not for you. Even from a fluff perspective (and there is some) there’s not much to hold your interest.
If you’re a big Pathfinder fan and rely on Pathfinder Society and/or the Adventure Paths then this books is also not for you. You’re just not going to be making enough of your own monsters.
But if you’re still committed to Pathfinder and running adventures of your own design then the Advanced Bestiary is a pretty darn good book. Even with the official monster books, having extra templates allows you to easily customize creatures without heavy use of class levels and lets you to surprise your players with old favourites while giving familiar opponents new tricks. And if your players have memorized the Bestiary or have apps allowing them to sneak a look at the stats, this book will really allow you to pull the rug out from under them.