Pathfinder Review: Monster Codex

Photo 2014-10-30, 3 18 35 PMThe latest book for the Pathfinder Roleplaying game is the Monster Codex, the sixth monster book for that game. Sixth! The Monster Codex goes into greater detail on twenty established monsters, devoting twelve full pages to each monster. Each monster entry includes 7-9 new statblocks for the monsters, a brand new monster, a couple pages of new mechanics, a page of prebuilt encounters, and a full page of flavour text. The new mechanics vary depending on the entry and some monsters get a new class archetype, some get feats, other get favoured class bonuses, and others have magic items.

The book includes entries for the boggard, bugbear, drow, duergar, frost giant, fire giant, ghoul, gnoll, goblin, hobgoblin, kobolds, lizardfolk, orc, ogre, ratfolk, sahuagin, serpentfolk, troll, troglodyte, vampire.

The Good

Photo 2014-10-30, 3 18 01 PMI love the concept for this book. It’s actually a book I’ve been requesting for a few years. Pathfinder is a very… robust… game system and making NPC statblocks can be a very time consuming process. Creatures like orcs, gnolls, and ogres are very flexible and can be used at many different levels, but doing so is a chore.

This makes this book very usable for campaigns new and old. It’s a monster book for monsters you already have, for monsters that already exist in your game world. Even people running published adventures or Adventure Paths might find a use for this book, using it for new NPCs, random encounters, or extra monsters. If an encounter requires three fire giants, you can opt to pull out this book and have a single high CR fire giant or a mid-CR giant and a regular giant. It provides options. And there’s a goodly range of threats in the book, with monsters going from CR 1/2 all the way to 20.

The choices of monster are good, with most being low-CR monsters that fill a classic role in the game. They’re archetypal. It would have been tempting to add a few newer monsters or Paizo’s Intellectual Property to the mix, trying to make a new classic, but the vast majority are iconic humanoids (and the one exception is a good one).
As always, the art is top notch. Pathfinder has an excellent stable of artists. The art in this books is particularly good, with most pieces being decent. There’s a picture of a character every couple pages and the majority of pages have some artwork. The same artists seem to be used for each entry, keeping the monsters consistent throughout, so we don’t have clashing interpretations (although the hobgoblins look a little too much like orcs for my tastes). There’s a nice range of genders in pictures, and some token female orcs, goblins, etc.

The new monsters included in the book are hit and miss, but the Monster Codex also (re)introduces the flind and vampire spawn, previously excluded from monster products. A nice use of the space and appreciated revival.

The full page of flavour is also a nice amount of fluff. It’s not quite the multiple pages of a Revisted book from the Pathfinder Campaign Setting line, which means those books still have some value (as most monsters in this book were covered in products such as Classic Horrors Revisited or Classic Monsters Revisited), but the full page is significantly more than the beasts received in standard monster books (excluding the D&D 5th Edition Monster Manual). The flavour text is nicely generic, usable in any campaign world and (typically) not specific to Golarion.

The Bad

Photo 2014-10-30, 3 17 36 PMThe flavour big wall of text for each monster is a LOT to take in. The flavour is nice, but there’s no separation or consistent organization to the information. If looking for a particular bit of lore you need to skim the entire entry. And because extra pains were made to genericize the monsters for non-Golarion worlds, some of the entries are uninspired and just not that interesting. And not all the entries are equally generic. I saw at least one god name-dropped. And the duergar entry has a LOT of Golarion-centric dwarf history.

Several of the new monsters not inspired. Particularly the drow entry’s abrakarn viper, the hobgoblin’s yzobu, and the kobold’s kyrana. They seemed only tangentially related to their monster. I wonder if new monsters should been optional, as that space could easily be filled with more new mechanics or another example statblock.

For a book that seems like a compilation of entries from the Revisited books, there’s not a lot of content pulled from those books. It would have been a good opportunity to update some of the 3.5e monster options to Pathfinder or reprint the best ideas for a wider audience. (I remember really liking a few of the bugbear feats from Classic Monsters Revisited.)

I question the inclusion of some of the mechanics like archetypes, as that content doesn’t typically have prerequisites, thus being usable by PCs, making this book a potential player reference. I don’t really like the idea of a monster book being a player book. While not included in the Additional Resources page of the Pathfinder Society, I imagine there will be some pressure to include it by players who want to use, say, the apocalypse oracle mystery.

A curious omission is the lack of content from the Advanced Class Guide. One of the talking points on the ACG was the inclusion of the shaman class, which would be useful for savage humanoids that don’t have standard religions. How they always referred to orc or lizardfolk shamans but that meant nothing in the game, but with the new class this changed. However, here we are with a book with divine magic using shamanistic monsters and the races are clerics and druids and oracles and witches. The absence of a dedicated shaman class doesn’t seem to be an impediment. (And doesn’t help my negative opinion of the ACG as the bastard child of rules bloat and filler.)

I also lament the missed opportunity of using this book to differentiate the low CR humanoids. Many lack unique mechanics or powers, and there’s little to differentiate a fight between orcs and hobgoblins and gnolls beyond choice of mini and description. With two pages of new mechanics for each monster, it would have been the perfect place for some alternate racial traits.

The Ugly

Photo 2014-10-30, 3 16 27 PMThe sample encounters are okay, but often include a lot of low CR monsters in high CR encounters. Such as a CR 16 encounter with six CR 1/3 monsters. This is an extreme example and the half-dozen filler monsters aren’t likely meant to contribute, but there are a few examples of mid-CR monsters in high teen CR encounters, which just doesn’t work with the math of the game. This really stands out to me as I just finished an AP that high some high levels and there were a few encounters that just were not a challenge because the mob of monsters needed a 25 on a d20 to hit my PCs.

The book is also small. At 253 pages it’s 67 pages shorter than the other Bestiaries or even the NPC Codex, which tend to be in the 32-page range. But this book is the same price. Now, some of this might be the effect of inflation and Paizo opted to offer a book the same price as their other monster books rather than the same size. Half a decade of inflation has likely changed what they can charge for books. But I look at the teeny tiny Monster Codex and wonder what it could have been with five more monsters or each monster receiving three more pages.

The book highlights some of the problems with magic and treasure in the Pathfinder game. To keep the numbers appropriate for monsters, the creatures in the book have to be loaded down with magical treasure. Creatures like the savage troglodytes, incapable of producing much of their own goods and dressed in soiled rags, somehow has members with multiple magic items.

The highest CR monsters typically use male pronouns: fire giant king, boggard priest-king, frost giant jarl, etc. (The drow being an obvious exception.) Most of reference that females can hold the position, but I don’t see why one of them couldn’t have been a queen. This is even more insulting for the fire giant that does include a queen, who is 1 CR lower than the king.

The Awesome

Photo 2014-10-30, 3 16 48 PMThe one newish monster is the ratfolk, which isn’t just new to the game but is fairly new to Pathfinder, appearing in the Bestiary 3 (although I believe it was also in the Advanced Race Guide). While there are no shortage of other monsters that could have been detailed (catfolk are popular in the community, and I’m a tengu fan) warren dwelling rats are interesting, and casting the ratfolk as mercantile salesmen works (it reminds me of Templeton from Charlotte’s Web for some unfathomable reason).

The vampire entry is particularly interesting with thralls and other vampiric servants rather than just more vampires. I kinda wish there were other entries like that, such as a fleshwarped creature in the drow section.

The book ends with simple templates for the Core Rulebook classes, which quickly allow you to add a dash of a class to monsters without adding individual levels. They’re quick-and-dirty but they look like they’ll work without making something too complicated.

There’s no shortage of pictures of goblins in Pathfinder products. They’re everywhere. But the goblin art in this book is particularly is excellent. They might be some of the best goblins I’ve seen.

The book ends with a solid appendix. There’s not just a list of monsters by CR, but a list of all the new rules content and references for where to find the abilities used by the monsters in the book.

Final Thoughts

The sixth monster product in a game system tends to be weak, filled with padding and unnecessary new monsters that try their hardest to be fun and iconic but are just awkward to fit into a campaign setting or fill a niche already occupied by a half dozen creatures. And yet Paizo has managed to produce an excellent sixth monster book that is not only useful but fixes problems with the system. It supplements existing monster products without directly competing or fighting too much for narrative space or place in an adventure or campaign setting. And its useful at multiple levels with the creatures being useful as bosses at low levels or mooks at higher levels.