5e Review: Tome of Beasts

Photo 2016-08-05, 11 38 32 AMKobold Press has published several small products for the 5th Edition of “the world’s Oldest Role-Playing Game” aka Dungeons & Dragons. Their previous efforts were small player accessories of races and a few adventures. Last year they Kickstarted a larger product: the Tome of Beasts, a hefty book of monsters for 5e.

Initially asking for $20,000, by the end of the pledging process, Kobold Press had cleared over $191,000. Advertised as “300+ new monsters for 5e” the success of the Kickstarter changed the product’s tagline to “400+ new monsters”. The final product is larger than the official Monster Manual, having 430 pages of content compared to the MM’s 350.

The book is finally coming out in print (and only a couple months late, which is pretty good all things considered) the Tome of Beasts has 350 new types of monster with 13 NPCs and a total of slightly over 410 stat blocks. 45 monsters are CR 14 or higher and over 40 have legendary actions. Additionally, 20 monsters in the book were submitted by Kickstarter backers, chosen from over a hundred submissions.

Disclaimer

I not only backed the product on Kickstarter, two of my monsters are in the book: a monster I designed for one of Kobold Press’ Monarch of Monsters contests made it in, as did my backer submitted monster.

As such, there *might* be some subconscious bias in my review. But I’m a harsh critic and a nitpicky bastard, so hopefully that will cancel out any desire to be overly favourable to the product.

Photo 2016-07-31, 11 31 05 PMThe Good

The PDF has high production values, with full colour art and headers. The pages are mostly white, but each page has a subtle duplication of the monster illustration adding some contrast to the pages. It’s not quite a stylistic parchment background, but it’s clean. The text is legible, being small but not quite drifting into micro-print, even in the statblocks. There the standard font variation between flavour text and statblock, with the former having a serif font, making it easy to tell at a glance if text is part of the monster’s stats or not. This is pretty typical, but still appreciated.

(As of this writing I have not received my physical copy and cannot attest to the binding, paper quality, etc. However, from past experiences with Kobold Products, I expect the physical book to be high quality, so I’m comfortable posting this review.)

The monsters are presented similar to the monsters in the Monster Manual, with the flavour text following the name and preceding the stat blocks. The flavour is broken into subparagraphs with bolded first lines that provide a brief topical description: how WotC has been presenting monsters since late 4th Edition with the Monsters Vault. Each monster is given a couple paragraphs of lore. I appreciate this emulation of formatting, not just because I like products to match and look similar, but because it shows Kobold Press was actively paying attention to the presentation of the edition rather than just quickly converting mechanics. As a point of comparison, Fifth Edition Foes by Necromancer games not only continued the 3e/Pathfinder formatting of presenting the monster first followed by flavour text devoid of descriptors, but that book had some pretty short and sad examples of fluff. I’ve commented before that I add monsters to an adventure because they fit the narrative. Whether or not I use a monster at my table is pretty heavily dependant on its flavour text, and skimping on that text – no matter how cool the monster’s abilities might be – results in a monster might as well not exist for the use it will see at my table.

Backers of the book’s Kickstarter received several monsters early, so they could playtest the creatures prior to publication. I imagine all (or most) of the monsters in the book have been tested and retested. And it shows. The abilities of the monsters are tight and legible. These all seem to be monsters that would run quickly and easily at my table, and all seem to be about the right CR (although that’s really hard to gauge, especially at higher levels…) .

Included in many monster entries are sidebars with comments on language, small background information, and how the monster fits the Midgard setting. And in one instance, an entirely different monster. I appreciate that the setting details were included for fans of that world, as they also providing an extra example of how the creature place in a larger world. I appreciate that Kobold Press didn’t assuming people were using their setting.

Despite the name, the book isn’t just beasts (or even primarily beasts). There’s a wide range of different monsters from several different terrains. Ice/cold climates are well represented, as are arid/desert biomes, and clockwork constructs. These themes owing to the monsters’ origins in prior Midgard campaign setting products, especially the recent  Southlands spinoff. In addition to the various new humanoids, there are new variants of classical humanoids, such as a new gnoll, more ghouls, and (of course) kobolds.

Included in the book are a handful of creatures pulled from the pages of Lovecraft: spawn of Cthulhu, deep ones, shoggoth, mi-go, denizens of leng, and gugs. D&D and Cthulhu have always been closely tied, but these are so often excluded from official products, making them a pleasant addition.

The book ends with a chart of NPC features, for taking monsters and mapping them onto NPCs statblocks. So you can make a darakhul knight or bearfolk archmage. An excellent addition.

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The monster stat blocks are not contained in text boxes, like the 5e Monster Manual. A few stat blocks even cross pages. This is  minor complaint, as not every WotC product uses the boxes. But I enjoy the visual separation of monsters and find it quicker to find where the monster’s mechanics begin. Similarly, a couple monsters have mechanics in their fluff text, which should probably have been included in sidebars instead. Thankfully this is rare.  

While criticizing the formatting of the monster entries, the first couple line of each monster entry is bolded and italicized. This is a holdover from Pathfinder, where it was supposed to be a description of the monster. However, unlike the Pathfinder blurbs that are effectively read aloud text, these sometimes have introductory or background information on the creature rather than just a physical description. After seven years of Pathfinder, my brain has conditioned itself to skip or skim that text, so having to purposely read it now is awkward.

Monsters with resistances continue to use the phrase “from nonmagical weapons” rather than “from nonmagical attacks” as WotC moved away from, as seen in the updated version of the Monster Manual or DM Basic Rules. Because not all instances of bludgeoning damage can come from a weapon.

A few monsters in the book seem placed in odd locations. The dune mimic could have been “mimic, dune” especially with the later “mimic, maps” entry. Oddly, one of the few oozes in the book is the corrupting ooze, which is the sole ooze under the “ooze,____”. And I’m not sure why the spider thief isn’t with the other clockworks.

One of the best things about monster design in 5e is how easy it is to tweak or customize monsters, by adding a single trait or swapping powers, such as the poltergeist being a variant spectre. Saddly, there are precious few variant monsters in this book, which feels like a missed opportunity. While there are few monsters that feel like they could have been variants of existing monsters, these are uncommon.  

Photo 2016-08-05, 11 38 58 AMThe Ugly

The Tome of Beasts has a very eclectic mix of monsters. There is a lot of what I would term “filler”. And there is a plethora of new humanoids. Too many humanoids is a pet peeve of mine: even in a large fantasy world there’s just note enough space for too many independent humanoids races. It gets silly to have a unique race and culture in every valley or dale. 

There’s quite a bit of redundancy. Did we need groundhog people and hedgehog people and lemurfolk? Multiple different bird folk and insect people. There’s also the usual variants of undead: every way someone can die seems to create a slightly different form of living dead. As an example, there’s the rusalkas and drowned maiden, both of whom are undead people who died from drowning and attack via kissing. Similarly, there are also three or four sexy fey who dwell near water. These are all female of course as inherently female monsters either have to be supernaturally beautiful or supernaturally ugly (like the qwyllion, which is a nymph that went evil and thus became ugly).

I image many monsters were included because they already had art, which is one of the more expensive parts of producing a game product. This does mean monsters were included not because they were the most compelling additions or interesting creatures, but because pictures already existed. (For those will previous Kobold Press products, I expect you will see a lot of familiar illustrations.) As such, there are also a lot of campaign specific creatures: the monsters here are ones created to complement Midgard. While the lore tries its best to be setting agnostic, this is a Midgard Campaign Setting book in everything but name.

There’s only a handful of mythological creatures in the book, creatures of folklore and legend. It’s far from comprehensive. This is likely because past monster products by Kobold Press were released for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, which already covered most of the classical monsters with their three or four Bestiaries, leaving Kobold Press to invent their own monsters, create new variants, or find more obscure content. But apart from the Monster Manual, this is the first real must-have monster product for 5e, so the continued absence of semiclassical monsters feels more noteworthy. It feels odd to have a couple variant nymphs when there’s still no base nymph.

The book also falls into the trap of secondary monster books by included new subtypes of existing monsters. We have six new demons, nine new devils, six new dragons, five new giants, six new golems, and four new hags. It’s like having new golems and giants is a mandatory requirement of a monster product; I’ve never seen anyone excited for new giants or dragons. And because of the points mentioned above, most are not what you would initially expect from new golems, giants, or dragons.

There is no chart of creature by either type or terrain. Boo! Sometimes you just need a fey creature of the appropriate CR. I imagine this could be an easy Web Enhancement on the website.

The demon lord Qorgeth has no motivation and limited lore. I suppose it is a demon, who aren’t known for deep motivations or layered plans at the best of times, but it should be more than just a creepier version of a Purple Worm that just wriggles around until smacked by the PCs. This drew my attention as its art is nightmare inducing and quite large, so I wanted to know what it’s deal was, only to find precious little.

There are some Mythos Monsters in the book, but not every creation made it in. There are no yithians, nightgaunts, flying polyps, or spawn of shub-niggurath. This is getting a mention solely because my personal fave, elder things, are also absent. Boo again!

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The book has numerous high level threats, which were few and far between in the Monster Manual. Now that more campaigns are hitting higher levels, this feels more necessary. Not to keep pooping on Fifth Edition Foes, but its lack of high level opponents was a sizable flaw with that book. With over 75 monsters of above CR 10, this book is the authoritative source of end-game content for 5e. Heck, there are more CR 20+ monsters in Tome of Beasts then there were CR 10+ in Fifth Edition Foes.  

The Monster by Challenge Rating chart and Table of Contents is hyperlinked. For a PDF user who often breaks out the iPad at the game table or on the go, this is awesome. I’m always surprised more professional PDFs don’t take advantage of the benefits of the format.

The book features over 40 new fey, which are a monster type that often does not see a lot of love or attention. This is exciting for fans of the First World/ Faerie/ Feywild. There are even Fey Lords and Ladies; demon lords, archdevils, and the like are regularly given stat blocks in prior editions of the game but this is the first archfey I can recall seeing. It’s certainly a notable absence and a welcome addition.

While on the subject of fey, cold iron returns! The Fey Lords and Ladies section includes a sidebar on cold iron, which bypasses the resistances of fey. I’m glad to see this return to the game, and was saddened by the absence of cold iron in the base rules. I like the silver/cold iron distinction between devils and demons but can live without it with demons. However, cold iron seems far more necessary when dealing with fey. Its placement in a monster entry is unfortunate, as there are a number of fey throughout the book that are susceptible to cold iron, and it’s not apparent this sidebar is included. But I can’t think of a better place in the book.

The art in this book is seriously top notch. It bears repeating. This is a very pretty and well illustrated book.

Blemmyes! A semi-classic monster from real world western mythology that is oft forgotten. I wrote them up myself once.But it’s great to see them in a professional product.

Final Thoughts

This is an excellent third or fourth monster book for a game that only had one book of monsters.

Okay… while I kvetch, it IS still an excellent book. And while I argue that it could be better – that there are a lot of monsters from myth or the history of the game that could have been included – I honestly cannot fault Kobold Press for opting to convert monsters they had already published. And while the book is certainly influenced by the Midgard Campaign, the presence of the world is not overt and focus on *ahem* Midgardian monsters is simply the result of those monsters more easily and cheaply updated.

Of its 350 new types of monsters in the Tome of Beasts, there are easily 145 are monsters I would definetly use (or to to find a flimsy excuse to use) and an additional 135 I could give or take depending on the situation. This leaves just 70 monsters I consider uninteresting, redundant, or just plain lame. This is a very reasonable hit:miss ratio, and I expect to get a lot of use out of this product, especially when my campaign gets higher in levels.

This book is a must for campaigns nearing the teen-levels, or for a game with experienced players who are no longer surprised by standard monsters, or for Dungeon Master that want an increased presence of fey. While you’re unlikely to enjoy every monster in this book, there WILL be lots of monsters you do like. 

 

 

Shameless Plug

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If you liked this review, you can support me and encourage future reviews.

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