Review: Creature Codex

Roleplaying game publisher Kobold Press second big book of monsters is the Creature Codex. The book was funded on Kickstarter, with the project launching less than a year ago, in December 2017. The book defied the odds and reached the hands of its backers only a few weeks later than its estimate shipping date of August 2018. And impressive feat for a small publisher.

Prior to the Kickstarter, the book was first mentioned on the official Dungeon & Dragons podcast, DragonTalk where it was teased with the name Tome of Beasts 2: Electric Beastaloo. It didn’t make it as the final name… but it’s funny.

What It Is

A full-colour hardcover, Creature Codex is 429-pages long. It has non-glossy white pages with no overt background, but almost every page has an art piece (as there is a monster on almost every page).

Inside the book are roughly 410 new monsters. Among these new monsters are a couple fey lords, several new animal lords, 4 demon lords, a couple archdevils, and several other tough monsters. There are over 35 legendary monsters, with two-dozen monsters being CR 15 or higher.

The Good

Like their previous efforts, this book was playtested by backers who gave each monster a once-over and some extra attention. Backers could also submit a monster, and a good dozen were included in this book. There’s some really fun and evocative new monsters in the book.

Most of the monsters seem relatively balanced, and most of the traits and powers I read all seemed fairly easy to use at the table. Thankfully, there are few monsters that seemed to be familiar monsters but with a higher CR, effectively using the old statblock with an extra trait and some Hit Dice. (There are a few, though.)

While there are no boxes around monster statblocks, they make use of a sans serif font that makes the rules mechanics stand out from the flavor text. This fluff text is formatted akin to other 5e monsters with in-line headers describing important elements of the monster, such as its ecology.

There are many sidebars in the book. Most of these describe how the monster fits into Kobold Press’ world of Midgard; this also allows the general flavour of monsters to be setting agnostic. Other sidebars include poisons or associated diseases.

Apart from NPCs, the book features scant new humanoids, and the new ones all seem to exist in Midgard already. There’s not a dozen new humanoid species to fill each small valley and island in the campaign setting, which can get increasingly silly.

The back of the book has a few Appendix, with charts for monsters by type, CR, and terrain. Always useful for a quick monster or two.

A lot of monsters are pulled from myth and folklore. Some more familiar names include (in no particular order): Chupacabra, Crimson mist, Carbuncle, Wendigo, Wolpertinger, Pech, Nightgaunt, Mandrake, Werebat, Kitsune, Kappa, Jiangshi, Lamassu, Hungry ghosts Hound of Tindalos, and Grindylow. There are also variant liches based on clerics and warlocks. There’s a wealth of additional folkloric monsters; generally, whenever I googled the name of a somewhat lackluster creature it turned out to be a real world cryptid or mythical beast. In one case, while my wife was reading over my shoulder, she commented that the creature I was reading shared the name with a My Little Pony villain. While not the most interesting or evocative monster ever, I appreciate digging through mythology rather than just building a new monster based on a bad pun or weird visual. Of course… those monsters are in this book as well.

There’s also a few Lovecraftian monsters, some of which were added via a Stretch Goal. Lovecraft continues to have his fans, and he does envision some pretty weird and horrific creatures. In general there’s a lot of horrific monsters that might fit well into a fantasy or cosmic horror themed campaign.

The Bad

The Creature Codex is really just a big book of monsters. There’s no theme or set tone, no underlying concept that differentiates this book from the Tome of Beasts or a Tome of Horrors. It’s just… more. Even Tome of Beasts was almost “Midgard and Southland monsters”, giving it something to distinguish it from other monster books.

Like too many other monster expansions of the past, the book relies on ____ type monsters. Monsters with a lot of subtypes where you can add a new descriptor and create a “new” monster. Giants, hags, golems, dragons, and oozes. There are no shortage of these. Plus the inevitable list of new demons and devils. And the numerous new types of undead, as every conceivable manner of expiration spawns a new type of living dead. This book even adds “angels” to that list, introducing eight new heavenly critters. Eight! A new angel or two might be nice, as they’re usually an underused creature type, but eight?!

There’s also a curious number of book and text related monsters. I counted the Bookkeeper, Paper golem, Inkling, Weirding scroll, Sigilian, and the Ink guardian ooze. So when the party walks into a library and gets their ass kicked by a tome, they can ask “yeah… but what KIND of codex creature was it?”

Like Tome of Beasts, each entry has lore before the monster, but the volume continues the Pathfinder design of starting each entry with a physical description. Given there’s pictures on the page, a line or two of description is more than enough, but some are four or even five lines long, eating into useful text and background material. And sometimes, the monsters could really use that extra line or two.

While most of the monsters fill up the space nicely, there’s a few whose illustration seems a little large, as if padding the entry to avoid requiring extra writing. Like the Ahuizot, whose picture could have been 10-20% smaller without losing any detail and allow an extra paragraph explaining why you should use that monster in your adventure rather than one of the other forty-odd monsters.

The Ugly

There’s a bunch of Lovecraftian monsters here and in the Tome of Foes, but there’s STILL no 5e elder thing! One of the classic beasties, seen in Mountains of Madness, a famous dungeon crawl through a ruined city.

There’s a few monsters I’m not thrilled by, but I’m going to be a dick and single out one. I’m not a fan of the Gulon. It’s based on myth but implementation is so-so. The Gulon’s traits are curious: giving it Amorphous seems like an error that would negate the hook of the creature and how it squeezes between trees.

Also…there’s the fey drake—how is this different from a fairy dragon? What stories and adventurers only work with a fey drake and not a faerie dragon?

The Awesome

The Kickstarter version of the book came with a sticker reading “Tome of Beasts 2 Electric Beastaloo”. So if you didn’t like the Creature Codex name, you could rechristen your book.

I quite like seeing more fey lords. As there are fewer established archfey in the game and no official ones detailed as yet, this is still a nice content gap. These monsters don’t just become creatures to beat up but potentially influence the story of the world. The various fey lords and ladies of my setting will strongly resemble Kobold Press’. (This is a little subjective and hypocritical given I complained about all the new demon lords and such—but a nonsubjective review is just a description of a book’s contents.)

Giving a quick shout-out to some monsters that caught my eye, I was amused by the idea of lesser golems. Golems tend to be powerful and hardy constructs, but there’s a niche for cheap and inexpensive helper constructs made of less durable substances. These fill that role.

The book has a few “punny” monsters such as the Exploding toad and the Swolbold (a big, muscular kobold). I groan, but the explode toad is useful as well as ridiculous, as a living trap. And while discussing monsters with catchy names, there’s the Albino death weasel. It’s simple and might make a fun pet.

And while I’m pointing out fun monstres, I laughed at the Keg golem. It’s ridiculous, but somewhat useful, being an effective guard of a dwarven tavern or brewery, or being an accidently animated being.

In a curious but fun bit of design, a Bar brawl is statted up as a monster. Odd, but it works, effectively being a massive swarm of people. It’s not a case of “if” you will use that monster so much as “when”.

While visually unremarkable, the mechanics of the Fractal golem are interesting and would make a surprising fight. It’s a neat idea that would have been somewhat difficult to get right.

Lastly, the book has Baba Yaga. Yes, that Baba Yaga.

Final Thought

While Creature Codex is very similar to Tome of Beasts and even superior in a few ways, the market of 5th Edition is very different now than when Tome of Beasts had released. Since mid-2016 we have seen two monster expansions from Wizards of the Coast: there’s simply a lot more monsters in the game. There isn’t as much of a burning need for this product. While Tome of Beasts quickly became a must-have book that was used every session or two of my home game, I have still used only a small fraction of the content from that book. I doubt Creature Codex will see as much use. The competition for table time is just higher.

Counting through the monsters of the book, there are 115 or so that I’d use without hesitation, and a few that might be dropped into my game sooner rather than later. And slightly more than that are what I’d consider “okay”: monsters I might use if they fit the story I have in my mind or a fall upon them randomly, but nothing I want to purposely design a story around. That leaves a comparable 110 monsters that are simply “meh”. The monsters I’m unlikely to ever seriously consider. The hit : miss ratio for the book isn’t bad, but it’s worse than Tome of Beasts.

If you’re one of those DMs who thinks you can never have enough monster books, then you should buy  Creature Codex right now with zero hesitation. There’s a few surprises, some nice monsters, and the presentation is solid. Also, if you need monsters right away and Tome of Beasts is sold out from your FLGS while a copy of Creature Codex is sitting on the shelf then you will get your money’s worth. It is a good purchase.

But… if you already have Tome of Beasts you’re probably better off getting one of the other official monster books, such as Volo’s Guide to Monsters. If you already own those books, then Creature Codex might be a little superfluous. It’s good, but chances are you haven’t used all the monsters you already own. It’s the monster equivalent of stacking a few new movies onto a Netflix watch list or videogames to your Steam library.

The Creature Codex is a lovely “extra cash” purchase when you have a few extra bucks from a gift or minor windfall. Especially with fewer official D&D books, it’s a nice option and treat for the ol’ Dungeon Master. It’s nice to have and you won’t regret the purchase, but it’s not so necessary that you have to budget for it right away. 

 

 

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