Pathfinder Review: Bestiary 5

Bestiary_5The common wisdom among d20 roleplaying gamers is that you can never have too many monsters. Paizo seems to be putting this to the test with Bestiary 5, which – despite the numeral in the name – is the seventh hardcover book of monsters for the Pathfinder Roleplaying game (and if you include softcover books, there’s probably three or four more, including Inner Sea Bestiary, Inner Sea NPC Codex, and Occult Bestiary).

It’s a lot of new monsters for the system, but likely still far behind the record set by 2nd Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

What It Is

Bestiary 5 is a 319-page hardcover book (plus a 1-page of advertisement) with full colour pages that (unsurprisingly) looks a lot like Bestiary 1-4. By my count, it features over 275 monster stat blocks ranging in Challenge Rating from CR 1/6 to 24. The book includes 14 new animal companions and six new familiars. Nine monsters are given rules for use as Player Characters or NPCs, but half of these are reprinted from other sources. Most monsters receive a single page with a noteworthy few warranting a second page, while a handful of related monsters share a page.

Like Bestiary 3 and 4, the book reprints monsters found in prior Paizo products, mostly Adventure Path volumes but also several creatures from Inner Sea Bestiary. Inclusion here means these monsters will be added to the online Pathfinder Reference Document (PRD), making them easier to used in the Pathfinder Society Organized Play program and likely in other Adventure Paths. But for people who had those books, this bestiary has less new content.

The book ends with the universal monsters rules like all Paizo bestiary volumes. The pages of monster feats, simple templates, and monster creation rules repeated again, for the increasingly unlikely possibility this is someone’s first and only bestiary (which would be problematic as this book references rules, monsters, and powers from Bestiary 1, 2, and 4). A good 30-odd pages are devoted to this backmatter. There are a few new universal monster rules in this book, related to occult and psychic monsters.

The Good


IMG_0841Bestiary 5
features a solid mixture of Challenge Ratings, including both low level critters and high level threats. There are a couple monsters for every CRs from 1/4 all the way to 20. There are even a few Mythic monsters, although these are still fairly rare.

Bestiary 5 maintains the current format of Pathfinder’s monsters, which works for the most part. They haven’t decided to switch to the simple monster format from Pathfinder Unchained or get experimental. For the most part I like the layout and it works well for the requirements of Pathfinder. I’m particularly fond of the two-line description preceding each monster, which makes great read aloud text as a gamemaster.

Given this is the fifth Bestiary, there are precious few classic d20/D&D monsters left to be upgraded to Pathfinder, but a few managed to slip through the cracks. The cambion is finally updated, included as a type of demon. There are also three classic monsters, reprinted using the Tome of Horrors Complete as a reference. There’s also the firbolg, which is a creature from both D&D and mythology; I have a soft spot for names I recognise from my 2nd Edition Monstrous Manual.

Psychic monsters finally get their moment in Pathfinder. There are also a few token creatures from the psionic section of the 3.5e SRD: the brain mole, caller in darkness, and thought eater. These have been waiting patiently for Paizo to deal with psychic magic. There’s also a dash of some eastern mysticism with the India inspired Manasaputra. I’m unlikely to ever use these, but it’s great to see some love for non-Western religions.

Quite a few monsters are pulled from mythology. I (usually) appreciate mythological inspiration, as beasts of legend that have been around for generations tend to be more interesting and evocative than creatures created whole cloth by a game designer. There are cryptids from across the world, including some lesser known local legends.

The book has a lot of grid-filler monsters, such as a variety of low level dragon creatures. Because sometimes you want to pit a low level table against a draconic creature that isn’t a baby/wyrmling.

There are a lot of unusual oozes in this book. Oozes tend to be one-trick pony monsters that blob over their victim and slam or dissolve prey. This bestiary has several new oozes that act differently, including one that’s remotely humanoid, one made of hair, several tied to emotions ala Ghostbusters 2, and one that’s living gunpowder.

While this was hyped as the “occult/psychic bestiary”, this book also serves as the science fiction bestiary, with numerous alien creatures receiving stat blocks, along with a number of technological monsters, including a few different robots. Detailed are the iconic grey alien, reptoids, grey goo (ie a nanotechnological swarm), androids, and the just plain weird anunnaki. I doubt I’ll ever use these, and skimmed most these entries, but the Pathfinder ruleset is meant to be flexible and not everyone wants to use it for generic fantasy. This content likely has its audience. There seems to be a lot of 3rd Party Publishers doing science fantasy at the moment: Numenera seems to have started a trend. It makes this book a solid resources of a d20 Star Wars campaign or other sci-fi game.

The Bad

IMG_0842The book features a LOT of filler, both padding and expected monster types. There are the standard must-have monsters: new dinosaurs; three new demons, devils, and giants; new good outsiders such as angels, archons, and azatas; five new dragons (because dragons always need to come in groups of five). These seem included more to fill check-boxes than out of necessity or because of potent story need, hitting a few CRs that are not completely covered. The new giants seem particularly uninspired, and even lack the environmental hook that traditionally defines giant kin. There are also the myriad new undead spawned in increasingly specific situations, with most being variant ghosts or alternate power that are expanded into a full stat block.

As mentioned, while this book was justified as an “occult bestiary” at PaizoCon – updating the psychic monsters following Occult Adventures – but there’s far more sci-fi than mystical, more psionics than psychics. Given one of Paizo’s complaints of the former psychic rules was that they were too sci-fi, this feels off and ill fitting. There’s a couple dozen creatures with psychic powers but only half that number feel occult in nature, with more being extraterrestrial than spiritual. It really seems at odds with the spiritual and mystical presentation of psychic magic in Occult Adventures. This is especially curious given the dozen psionic creatures from the d20 SRD that were not updated in this bestiary. This bestiary really feels like a companion to last year’s Iron Gods Adventure Path.

Even if you expand the definition of “occult” to mysterious, otherworldly, and in possession of esoteric knowledge than another couple dozen monsters certainly qualify. But this is still under a fifth of the total monsters in the book.

Many of the aliens seem weird and I’m not sure of the inspiration. I’m uncertain what to make of the anunnaki, who look like the aliens from Prometheus of all things, but can change shape (and have a bite attack, which is all kinds of messed up for a civilized alien race). The name comes from Mesopotamian gods, but ties into ancient astronaut/ conspiracy theories, which makes them feel a little like Stargate villains.

While I’m quick to shout-out this book for drawing a lot of inspiration from mythological creatures, there are some pretty darn obscure monsters featured here. Some are interesting but we get a few familiar tropes, different culture’s versions of an evil hound or mismatched animal hybrids.

There’s also the sahkil, which are fallen psychopomps. This is an interesting idea, but in practice they’re just another subtype of evil outsider joining the seven or eight already in existence. The concept is neat as a villain or two-line variant, but not an entire monster type.

The Ugly

IMG_0856Many of the monsters feature precious little lore. This has been a problem with Pathfinder bestiaries since the beginning – the system’s large stat blocks devouring page space – but there are more instances in this book. I imagine some of this has to do with the crunchiness of the game: simple monsters powers have been done, so new monsters have to have more inventive, which means complexity. And there is an increased need to clarify effects to help adjudicate interactions with the game’s myriad other powers. But even comparing this product to Bestiary 4 shows a marked increase in monsters lacking useful lore, with twice as many creatures having limited descriptions (this is even when excluding constructs, dragons, and the few creatures who received a full page of lore in prior bestiaries).

While the limited lore has always been a weakness of the bestiaries, this seems particularly frustrating following the Dungeon & Dragon’s excellent 5th Edition Monster Manual and Paizo’s own Monster Codex. While matching past books in terms of design and format is admirable (and satisfying from an OCD perspective) Paizo cannot ignore innovations of their primary competitor, nor can they rest on their laurels and keep doing things the way they’ve always done things without striving for improvement. This is especially frustrating since monster lore is one of the things that initially set Pathfinder apart, with the goblins in Burnt Offerings demonstrating how flavour can make a common and mechanically uninteresting monster engaging and new. Mechanics and stat blocks make you able to use a monster in your game, but flavour makes you want to use a monster. There really needs to be a balance between lore and crunch, and this book just doesn’t hit find that mark.

The dragons have always particularly suffered for flavour; metallic and chromatic dragons at least received descriptions way back in Dragons Revisited in 2009 (for 3.5e D&D and rather out of date now in terms of both rules and lore), but the new dragons released since have been ignored. As of this writing, there are 15 true dragons described so sparsely that the flavour for each could fill a tweet with enough characters left over for a hashtag. With 10 previously published dragons starved of background and a solid role in the game, it seems unlikely we’ll learn more about esoteric dragons and how to actually use them in a campaign as more than big sacks of hit points to be murdered. Esoteric dragons in particular seem unneeded as 4/5ths are tied to planes, and could have easily been templates applied to existing dragons. I not even certain what separates a dream from a nightmare dragon apart from breath weapon and a few powers; is a nightmare dragon a fallen dream dragon or are they unrelated? There’s story there that needs to be filled.  

One particularly egregious example of limited lore is the devastator: a CR22/MR8 creature that receives a dragon-esque single sentence of lore. As an epic boss monster it needs at least a paragraph and could easily have warranted a second page. Especially since the devastator is sandwiched between the filleriffic demon and devil sections (such as the seraptis demon, which also receives a single sentence of lore, attributing their corruption to events that happen after their death, damning them forever because people reacted poorly to their suicide). As it is now, the devastator is a shallow creature with nothing to distract from its ridiculously over-designed appearance, resembling a bad ’90s Image Comics villain who would look more at home fighting Spawn than a party of 19th level fantasy adventurers.

Many of the monsters in this book also seem redundant, lacking a unique place in the world. For example, the Lovecraftian deep ones. Skum already filled this niche. Explicitly so, as they were used in the role of degenerate fishmen in the Innsmouth inspired Wake of the Watcher adventure. Yes, we now have the hybrid deep ones (with character rules), but this could effortlessly been hybrid skum. Similarly, the new dark folk, the Caligni, seems designed to be the playable dark folk, ignoring the existence of the fetchling. There’s also a page devoted to the polar bear. Which is markedly different from a regular bear… how? Couldn’t they just have slipped a simple template on a grizzly?

There’s also the muse, which seems rather needless as the role of inspiring fey is filled by the nymph (and the muse explicitly uses the nymph’s inspiring ability). The muse also uses sound as a weapon in curious ways, which is kinda neat, but really encourages you to use a muse in a combat encounter (especially with little lore to give you an alternative). It’s a very odd implementation of the muse concept, as it shoots sound bullets.

The corpse lotus is a problematic monster. It’s presented as an ambush predator that hides among flora, but it’s freakin’ huge (as in size Huge) and should be visible a dozen meters away.

The fext is rather hard to use. First is the art, which is another comically exaggerated design. It’s hilarious. The fext is also only killable with glass or obsidian weapons, but only the latter has game rules, which are unlikely to see use. Very unique vulnerabilities are great for unique villains but poor for generic monsters.

Speaking of awkward art, the leechroot is neat concept that really doesn’t come across in its illustration, being written as killer roots but resembling a bark cage on the page. The concept is interesting and reminds me of the killer branches and roots in Evil Dead but the picture is unclear.

Several of the new psychic monsters use a pool of Psychic Energy or PE, basically emulating Power Points from 2e/3e. Which is noteworthy for not being how psychic magic works in Pathfinder. This is super odd, given monsters traditionally use the same rules and the designers explicitly removed the point-based system from psychic magic.

This is not a stand alone book. There are numerous required books, including several other bestiaries and Occult Adventures, which is required to use some monsters in this book. I find this problematic as not everyone can reliably reference the PRD during play. Having run a couple Adventure Paths, I was surprised by a few monsters than made of use a feat or spell I was unfamiliar with but couldn’t quickly reference as the required book was being used by another player at the table.

The Awesome

IMG_0847Anyone who has glanced at the magical deck of many things has seen the “lesser death” card, which might arise and challenge the party. This finally gets a statblock alongside its big brother, the grim reaper. That’s kinda cool.

While it seems like a grid-filler creature, I was happy to see the aether elemental. Aether was the fifth element tacked on to the cosmos in Occult Adventures for telekinetic kineticists, so it was nice to see it receive some attention. It’s annoying when changes and additions to lore just get forgotten, and it seemed like this fate was befalling aether as all references to it were confined to the kineticist chapter.

While I’m often critical of made-up monsters, especially ones that are just weird mishmashes of tentacles and alien features, the dwiergeth caught my eye. It can swallow adventurers whole but stores them in an extradimensional space of teeth which is hard to escape from. That’s just creepy and fun (I just wish the concept was attached to a more visually evocative monster, or one with more story).

Several monsters that caught my eye and need a shout-out. Such as the giant mantis shrimp, which is almost certainly the result of the Oatmeal comic. There’s the shen dragon, which is a spiritual Chinese dragon, and appeals to the Dragonball fan in me. The taxadermic creature is just fun, and easy to work into any game, which is something I look for in monsters. I was also impressed by the two new colossus; fighting a walking house is evocative, as is the idea of a giant stone sphinx coming to life. House spirits are simple but common in folklore, and thus a neat addition to the game. And the emotion ooze struck me as entertaining.

The red panda illustration on page 113 is fierce yet adorable.

And a special mention of the muse art on page 179. While not a fan of the creature, I like that they went with a plus sized figure rather than the typical fey waif. It makes the muse resembler a greco-roman version of Wagner’s Brünnhilde, which works.

Final Thoughts

IMG_0851I’m not particularly impressed with Bestiary 5. Having looked at every monster in the book and tallied if I could consider putting it into a game, two-thirds the monsters in this book fell into the “nope” category. The hit:miss ratio in this book is unfortunately high. This is troublesome even for a book in a content sparse game system, which Pathfinder very much is not. When any given monster needs to compete with over 2000 other monsters, standing out becomes a challenge. At any given CR there might be 50 different monsters competing for use at the gametable, and only a dozen of each CR might get used in any given campaign. But… while the hit:miss ratio is unfavourable, there are a number of hits, and lots of monsters that will bring something interesting to your game.

One complaint I find myself focusing on is that all the other hardcovers products have a very distinct theme and focus – such as Mythic, the Occult, or Horror – so I don’t see why the monsters books couldn’t be less of a hodgepodge and more focused around a theme. I wonder if merging this book with Occult Bestiary and making that a larger hardcover while releasing a smaller Science Fiction Bestiary full of robots and aliens would have resulted in a more coherent and desirable product. Right now, gamers seeing occult monsters for a game of that theme need to purchase multiple books. While it’s desirable for a bestiary have broader appeal than just a single audience or tone, that shouldn’t come at the expense of the primary focus.

The recycling of monsters from the Inner Sea Bestiary feels like a particularly curious decision. Monsters from Adventure Paths seem fair game for reprinting, since finding those monsters can be tricky and buying APs for monsters is expensive for little content. But the Inner Sea Bestiary was already a monster book. If the problem was availability of that content, it should have been possible to add Inner Sea Bestiary to the PRD to make those monsters available for use in other products. If the Inner Sea Bestiary was out of print, reprinting might also make sense, but that product is still available in print. It also devalues the monsters (and point) of the Inner Sea Bestiary, which was monsters unique to the world and not generic; stripping out flavour and making them generic doesn’t add anything to the monsters.

It’s hard to know how to recommend a book like this…

It’s a book to think about if you want more monsters. But that much is obvious. If you don’t have a Pathfinder RPG Bestiary then I would recommend 1 before this book (or even 2, which was a necessary but less flash book). Even if you have a couple Bestiaries then 1-3 or the Codexes are superior purchases. I might even recommend the 3rd Party Tome of Horrors or Advanced Bestiary ahead of this book. If you only have the first 2 Bestiaries and want a fourth, this is certainly an alternative to Bestiary 3 & 4, especially as there’s a nice mix of CRs. Even if you’re looking for monsters to expand an occult themed game, then Occult Bestiary is your best bet followed by any of the other bestiaries, which are probably just as useful to your game (with the number of eastern monsters in Bestiary 3 or higher numbers of Lovecraftian critters in Bestiary 4 making those superior suggestions). It’s not even the best source for technological threats, as the Inner Sea Bestiary has what you need at half the price.

Bestiary 5 is a nice alternative for gamemasters who want something new, monsters unfamiliar to their players, that do different and surprising things. Which can be desirable after using the same book for several years. If you need more monsters, it’s a decent purchase and you’ll likely find more than enough monsters to justify purchasing the book.

 

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