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Beautiful book with some CR problemsDemiurge 1138 (RPG Superstar 2013 Top 8) —
After a time spent on hiatus from the reviewing game, I'm jumping back into action with a look at Mor Aldenn: Creature Compendium. In the interests of fair disclosure, I'm writing this using a review copy given to me by Headless Hydra Games. So, on with the show!
The Good: First thing I noticed with this product were the production values, which are the cream of the crop. The layouts are easily read and the black and white art is some of the nicest I've seen in a 3rd party book.
The range of monsters hit a fair number of types and CRs, from 1/3 to 17. Despite being a product focused on a campaign setting, the monsters are definitely usable in a variety of games, so don't get scared off by the "Mor Aldenn" name. The basic theme of the creatures herein is "spooky critters of the woods and marshes", and the balance leans heavily towards fey and plants. And, really, there's always room for more fey and plants in the game.
In fact, the fey are generally my favorite of the creatures here, brimming with flavor and nasty game-potential. The leyspinners, for example, are fey spellcasters that can combine spells and weave the fates of their enemies, the mahr are shadowy boogeyman types that can teleport away with their hostages, and the stiltskin is an interpretation of Rumplestiltskin that works very well, casting that fey as a grumpy information broker who uses greed to divine valuable secrets. Very cool!
The Bad: The Challenge Ratings of a sizable percentage of the monsters are off, either being too high or too low. A number of the monsters are glass cannons; they can dish out a fair amount of damage but are very fragile for their CR. The arachnus, hagspider and the black glass undead (a CR +3 template that doesn't add HD!) come to mind.
The too low CRs are rather more problematic. The mahr is a solid CR 5, except for the fact that they have three different fear effects, all of which stack (as fear effects do), and all of which have a DC of 19. DC 19 is recommended for a CR 10 creature; I suspect that the monster creation guidelines can be a bit coddling, but it's still way past par for a CR 5. Any level-appropriate fight with a mahr is likely to end with the entire party scattered running in terror unless there's a paladin in the party. The marsh dragon (awesome idea, by the way; it's a plant-like dragon with control over shambling mounds) has a breath weapon that immobilizes everyone who takes any damage and is very difficult to escape from (hardness 6!) and summons an insect swarm (as per the spell) to those who can't escape fast enough. All marsh dragons, even the youngest, have this ability. Have fun rolling up new 4th level characters after fighting that wyrmling!
I have been led to believe that the gaiant comes from a different product, but the entry still feels rather incomplete. We get stats for one with character levels, but we aren't told what their base statistics are, making it difficult to make gaiants that aren't 2nd level druids.
The Nit-picky: There are a few proper mechanical errors, but they're pretty small stuff. The arachnus ought to have Quick Draw for thrown iterative attacks, for example, and the Manifest Child of the Ether definitely doesn't qualify for Quicken SLA for a 6th level spell.
There's no Table of Contents or Index! In order to find a critter, I have to scroll. Although bookmarks or hyperlinks would be nice, even just a ToC would be appreciated.
Also, do we really need both the arachnus and the hagspider? They're both CR 11 Large creatures that combine the features of humanoids and giant spiders, and both of them rely in combat on maneuverability and poison. They're both alright creatures, but they feel redundant.
Final Thoughts: Mor Aldenn: Creature Compendium is a solid monster book, but not a perfect one. Some of the creatures could use some rebalancing, but the flavor, statistics and production values are all quite good. As such, I shall bestow upon this book a rating of 4 stars. It's good! Don't be scared off by the campaign setting! If you like weird monsters, there's sure to be something appealing in here for you.
Finwicket's Bestiary: Along the Faerie Path (PFRPG) PDFClockwork Gnome Publishing
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Creative and cleverDemiurge 1138 (RPG Superstar 2013 Top 8) —
Disclaimer: I was not provided a copy for review. I actually bought my copy the day before the diaspora of review copies began. I'm just a fellow monster fan and designer with strong opinions and an urge to share.
Finwicket's Bestiary: Along the Faerie Path is the first offering from Clockwork Gnome Press. Congratulations! I'm always keen to see new faces enter the 3PP business, so how does their inaugural product stack up?
The Good: Along the Faerie Path is rather more than just a monster book, which works in its favor. The first several pages are devoted to describing the Plane of Faerie, a fey realm that works something like the Plane of Shadow conventionally does: it's coterminous with the Material Realm and can be used as a quick travel method to reach other planes. The logistics of the Faerie Realm, its domains and the Ancient Ones that rule it are given some ground work, but little mechanical backup. Which is fine, I think, as a launching point for ideas.
Since there's a lot of prose, it's important to note that it is of pretty high quality. Finwicket himself provides journal entries describing encounters with the four creatures from the book, in a style that reminds me of the Monsternomicon series from Iron Kingdoms.
The four monsters are creative and fill niches that aren't covered by the usual Pathfinder fey. Faerie seers are diviners and mystics with a neat unluck aura, harvest haunts are much more of a problem for farmers than adventurers, spindlers (my favorite) force cursed clothing onto reluctant customers, and thin men are two-dimensional assassins.
The Bad: Assigning a CR to a monster is always a tricky business, and the Faerie Path monsters don't quite pass the trick. The faerie seer has no offensive abilities whatsoever except for a weak dagger and the spell sleep, and is CR 7. The harvest haunt is a CR 6 with 22 hit points. Both do seem like they're more roleplaying challenges than combat ones, but they should be given CRs that more accurately reflect their weak natures.
The thin man is somewhat oddly balanced, although I can see the logic in it. If they get their sneak attack, they hit far above their weight class, but their AC and hit points are low for a CR 7. Their concealment could make them very tricky customers, but they don't have any spell resistance and a terrible Fortitude, so save-or-suck spells would be a good way to take them out. What's more problematic is the ambiguous nature of their attacks. They're given Two Weapon Fighting as a feat, and their armblades take into account those penalties, but they don't get iterative attacks and get full Str bonus to damage on both, as if they were natural weapons. So which is it? Iterative attacks would cause them to hit even harder, so I'd prefer natural attacks, in which case TWF should be dropped for an actually useful feat.
The Nit-picky: The font used in Along the Faerie Path has one very annoying quirk. The 3s and 5s look very similar, which makes the statblocks frustrating at first glance.
Final Thoughts: Along the Faerie Path is quite well written and a creative look at implementing fey in a slightly different way in a campaign. On the other hand, the CRs could use some adjusting and there are some slight mechanical difficulties with one of the fey. In light of that, I'm going to give this product 4 stars--a solid piece of work, but not perfect. I look forward to the further adventures of Finwicket!
Edit: Shortly after this review was posted, Along the Faerie Path received errata, adjusting the attacks of the thin man and giving the faerie seer more offensive ability. In light of these adjustments, my primary complaints with the book's mechanics, I think it fair to bump the rating of Along the Faerie Path to a solid 5 stars. Good work, guys!
Book of Beasts: Monsters of the River Nations (PFRPG)Jon Brazer Enterprises
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Something for everybody--if you like monsters, that isDemiurge 1138 (RPG Superstar 2013 Top 8) —
I like monster books. They're what got me into D&D in the first place. And since I'd heard very good things about "Monsters of the River Nations", I thought I'd give it a shot.
The Good: The monsters presented here are all flavorful and creative. Sure, some of them do fall into the "giant versions of ordinary critters", such as the piranhas and the giant flytraps. But the writing is suitably evocative. There's a nice blend of creature types and CRs; they do tend towards under 10, but so do most monster books and most games. My favorite creatures are the addanc (a hybrid beast pulled from Welsh lore), the autumn death (a skeleton surrounded by whirling leaves) and the silver bell (an animate plant with a very unusual metabolism).
The mechanics are well-done for the most part. The creatures seem properly balanced, and there's an interesting array of unique abilities on display here, particularly in flavorful curses and diseases. The icy disease of the frost mite swarm is nice and shuddersome, for example.
The art is very good, some of the best I've seen in a 3rd party product. It's B&W line-art and it reminds me of the better pieces of the Tome of Horrors line.
As others have pointed out, this product is rather wider in scope than other monster books, featuring two NPC encounters, two gambling games, a number of haunts and diseases, and some quick templates. Those quick templates are especially handy--I can see them getting some use in my campaigns.
The Bad: Editing could have been a little tighter. There are a few stat-block errors, generally to do with monsters applying their Strength score badly (notably the bog ooze, which only deals 1/2 its Str bonus to damage instead of the proper 1-and-a-1/2). There's also some typos and the wrong word being used a time or two, possibly due to spellcheck error (I noticed "desiccant" used to mean "one who desecrates", which surprisingly does not have an adjectival form).
The Nitpicky: I'm having a hard time understanding how the giant flytrap is supposed to work. It has slams with incredible reach, and a single bite attack. Real-world flytraps have multiple mouths, and the creature is illustrated as such, with no reaching tendrils or leaves or anything. Are the "slams" supposed to be extended mouth-leaves and the "bite" the ones in the center?
Final Thoughts: Book of Beasts: Monsters of the River Nations is one of the best 3rd party monster books for PFRPG out there. Is it perfect? No. But it's very, very good.
A real fixer-upperDemiurge 1138 (RPG Superstar 2013 Top 8) —
So, I love monster books. When 4 Winds started posting information about a big upcoming monster book, I got very excited. Did the Tome of Monster fulfill my expectations?
FYI: My usual review structure falls into Good/Bad/Nitpick, but there's some information that one should know going into the Tome of Monster before one buys it; it might swing some purchases either towards or against. The Tome of Monster, unlike a lot of other monster books, has a monster palette that swings strongly towards animals, anthropomorphic animals, and fey. 36 of its monsters are animals (about a dozen of those familiars), 13 are fey, there are two furry races and two templates to turn any character into a cat person (felid and werecat). I'm neutral on the unusual monster palette, but I thought it would be good to know.
Also of note: the art style is almost uniformly cartoony. There are good pieces and bad among them, but it was a bit of a surprise coming in. Perhaps if I'd read other 4 Winds products, I'd have been more prepared.
The Good: It's obvious that a lot of love went into the Tome of Monster. The authors clearly know a lot about legendary creatures from around the world, and wanted to strut their stuff. I'm a huge monster buff, and there were quite a few beasties in here that even I hadn't heard of. Many of the monsters derived from real-world sources have a sidebar detailing their culture of origin and how the original myth differs from the stats presented here.
I mentioned above that there were a lot of animals. Every one of those animals has a stat-block for use as an animal companion, and all of the familiar-worthy ones have a listing of what bonus they provide. Pretty handy stuff.
The Bad: Unfortunately, errors in stat-blocks are pervasive. Most of these errors have to do with perhaps the most fundamental part of a stat-block: the attack line. Many monsters have the wrong Base Attack bonus, or have Str-and-a-half damage on a natural attack when they have multiple attacks, or don't have Str-and-a-half when they only have a single attack, or have primary attacks that deal 1/2 Str for no apparent reason, or attacks that deal the wrong amount of damage. or size bonuses to attack rolls get lost... there's a lot of problems, is what I'm saying.
This lack of attention to detail extends to the prose as well. The grammar is poor enough for a lot of entries that I noticed it, and word choice is often clumsy or repetitive.
Balance is also an issue. A few monsters are notably underpowered, but more often are they notably overpowered. The flying fish, for instance. The CR 1 flying piranha deals Con bleed on its bite attack, and the CR 1/2 flying stingray has defenses a CR 2 animal would be jealous of.
The Nit-picky: Some of the design choices rub me the wrong way, because they take interesting legends and ignore the interesting part. There's nothing wrong with a bonnacon as a mundane animal, for instance, but it leaves out the legendary (and notorious) blast of boiling feces which is the only reason anyone's ever heard of it. Likewise, statting the cherubim, seraphim and ophanim as pretty people with wings passes up a huge opportunity to have real biblical angels: the ones with four animal heads and four wings, or a giant wheel covered in eyes.
Final Thoughts: I really wanted to like this book. It was obvious that a lot of love went into it. But with love should come care, and the editing was so bad throughout that it left the finished work a huge disappointment. I'm giving Tome of Monster 2 stars, but if it were properly edited, both stat blocks and prose, it could easily be a 4-star product.
Clever monsters, some fiddly mechanics and a worrying piece of artDemiurge 1138 (RPG Superstar 2013 Top 8) —
Although I wouldn't necessarily call myself a huge fan of the Mythic Menagerie series, I do certainly enjoy them. And since I've written a review of each of them I've read so far, I thought it only fitting to write a review of their newest offering, Oceans of Blood.
The Good: Oceans of Blood contains monsters in the theme of aquatic adventures, which is highly appreciated. Aquatic monsters tend to be somewhat same-y, so there's a nice variety on display. My favorite monsters here were the anemone behemoth, which has a Lovecraftian feeling (they are barely intelligent, but arrange stone plinths in bizarre patterns across the ocean floor) and the toothwraith (a ghostly shark that swallows its victims whole and suspends them telekinetically in its ectoplasmic mass while draining their energy).
The piranha-men are suitable for freshwater, which was a pleasant surprise. I would have appreciated more freshwater critters, though.
Core mechanics are as fine as they've been in the Mythic Menagerie series. Everything has the proper Hit Dice, skill points, feats and seems like it'd be an appropriate challenge for the CR, which has been a problem in previous releases.
The Bad: Unfortunately, some of the spotlight mechanics, the unique abilities that make a new monster interesting, are either weird or just plain don't work. Why can't you grapple your way out of a sarcophagous clam? Should breaking out of the shell do some damage to it, or reduce its AC? And why can't you attack the shell with a bludgeoning weapon? The wave horse's spotlight mechanic is that a wave follows behind it, and does more damage the more wave horses follow (inspired by Fellowship of the Ring, perhaps?). The problem is that it isn't made clear how a wave horse hits an opponent with the wave (trample?), how far the wave extends or how long it lasts. As such, the creature is kind of unusable.
My last problem isn't with the writing so much as it is the art. The art here is the weakest I've seen yet in the Mythic Menagerie line. Which isn't a huge problem--art is subjective, after all. What is a problem is plagarism. The cover beast, the dracopus, clearly has its head stolen from paleo-artist Todd Marshall's depiction of a Dimetrodon, as seen here. Same head shape, same angled eye sockets, same tooth array and the kink in the upper jaw, everything. That's not cool. That's not legal. Reference is one thing, but that's outright theft.
The Nit-picky: There's some editing errors that could have been caught with another editorial pass. Missing periods, a character becoming invalid in the piranhaman's critical entry, that sort of thing.
Final Thoughts: I really did like Oceans of Blood; the text was probably my favorite of the line so far. So why am I giving it only three stars, when I gave Engines of Destruction four? Two words: art theft. I feel like I need to send a message, and that message is: dump that artist and get someone who doesn't plagiarize art they found on the Internet.