originally published at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2014/10/10/tabl-
It’s been a great year for tabletop antagonist collections. Troll Lord Games put out their new edition of Monsters & Treasure. Wizards of the Coast put out the extremely well received Monster Manual and so on. Lost in the shuffle however was Pelgrane Press’ 13th Age Bestiary, which sort of surprised me as the core manual was really well received by critics and gamers alike. Since its release, however, it’s been hard to find someone who is playing or talking about the game save for some hardcore pockets of fans on the internet. Take this very Bestiary I’m reviewing today. If you go to DriveThruRPG.com, there aren’t any reviews and even Amazon.com doesn’t have any for you. I noticed something similar at Free RPG Day when the 13th Age adventures were continually passed over for other offerings at the gaming stores I visited. Perhaps in both cases 13th Age products were just getting overshadowed by the other releases that came out around the same time. God knows it has taken me two months to review this due to my own gaming backlog and even now it was mainly because I felt sorry for the book. It’s too good of a release to be ignored.
If you’re unfamiliar with 13th Age, the best way to describe it is as, Fourth Edition Dungeons & Dragons done right.” Now I know there are some D&D 4e fans out there, even some that prefer it to the other editions of the game, but the majority of gamers really seem to loathe it. There are soon interesting ideas and good concepts, but it ended up being a system I enjoyed the sourcebooks for but really didn’t enjoy playing. 13th Age however takes a lot of the good parts of 4e like healing surges and an emphasis on background and combines it with some of the best parts of 3e D&D. It’s definitely worth picking up the core rulebook, but it is a pretty cost-prohibitive line where the PDFs are a lot more pricey than comparable products from other gaming systems and the physical books are only a tad bit more. If Pelgrane could reduce the electronic prices to something more in line with the rest of the industry, they might be able to rekindle some interest (or generate some new) from casual or less experienced gamers who think the industry is just D&D and Pathfinder.
So let’s talk the 13th Age Bestiary. Although the page count is similar to a lot of other (cheaper) monster collection, there are only about fifty monsters in the book. Now that may disappoint some of you when you read this as you were hoping for at least a hundred or more creatures to kill or throw at your players, but that’s all you get it. Accept it or don’t get it. What you get as a trade off if an exceptionally detailed look at each creature, along with three to eight variants of each monster, giving you a lot more options than you would normally see in a collection like this. The extreme amounts of background information fits the general idea of 13th Age wonderfully. After all, if players get bonuses for detailed background information, why not apply the same level of detail to the cannon fodder, mid-boss and recurring foes? The end result is something that reminds of the best Monstrous Compendiums from the AD&D 2e era, with great art and equal attention paid between stats and informative text about the ecology, personality and background of these creatures. It’s going to be personal opinion on whether quality or quantity is more important, but as a game that strongly prefers role-playing to roll-playing, I think the 13th Age Bestiary is a wonderful example of what makes the product line so popular with its core fanbase and also what would make it a fine fantasy alternative to those who are bored with the Big Two.
When you first look at the contents of the Bestiary, you might be a bit puzzled as to what made it in and what didn’t. For example you’ll see Black, Red and White dragons, but not Blue or Green. Why? Hey, it’s their book. Maybe they couldn’t think of enough Green and Blue variants. It’s also interesting to see what B-Lister (or lower) creatures were included and elevated in this collection. Redcaps, Mycanoid, Intellect Devourers, Sahuagin and the Chuul are given more love, respect and detail than I’ve ever seen. The Chuul has always held a special place in my heart so it was fantastic to see this recreation of the creature in terms of motivation, personality and worldview. It’s discussing these “lesser” creatures with the same care and attention to detail that the Drow, Tarrasque and Ghouls get. The game even pays attention to the dog vs dragon Kobold argument that has been going on since Wizards took over the D&D line from TSR. I love the little things like this.
There are also some new creatures that the game can call its own (unless I’ve somehow missed these are d20/OGL releases somewhere else). You have something like the Warbanner, which is a living magical flag. It almost feels like an homage to Warhammer. You have the Whispering Prophet which appears to be a demon who tempts the desperate. There are Wibbles which seem like a version of Ioun Stones that someone came up with after a few too many hits of LSD. So on and so forth. There are some really neat new original creatures here which shows that 13th Age is NOT just another game expecting the OGL to do all the work for them.
So what’s bad about the 13th Age Bestiary, Well, we have already covered that it’s a bit overpriced for what you get and there are far less creatures in this collection than in ones for other comparable games. It’s also perhaps worth noting that the narrative style might put off a good portion of gamers, especially those who prefer older OSR style games. While I think the writing is witty, intelligent and fun, even I can’t deny there is a level of pomposity and arrogance to it which will leave a bad taste in the mouth of some gamers. The writers definitely comes off saying, “Our game is best. We know fun. You don’t. If you have a different opinion, you are WRONG.” I don’t think this is intentional, but I also know I’m not the only person who has flipped through this and come away saying, “Wow, did an editor not warn them how bad the tone of this piece can be?” Take for example the Rust Monster article. It starts off by badmouthing the DM vs Players attitude of some of the oldest versions of RPGs. Which I agree with, but that’s not really something to do in a Monster Manual type book. That’s for blogs and editorials. Then it says things like, “The shoutback is an angry curse against an irritating monster that threatens fun.” No, no monster does that. That’s bad writing and BAD thinking. A monster, an adventure and even a game is only as good as the DM running it. You would think authors who gave such depth to the Bullette would know that. It’s a bad DM that threatens fun. A good DM can make any monster work and certainly not as “just” a punishment tool. It gets worse with phrasing like, “We’re not sure if the rust monster is particularly fun but we can see that it has a place in some campaigns, or perhaps only in some sessions.” That is a terrible attitude to take. “SOME Campaigns” reads like “THOSE KINDS OF PEOPLE.” Which is a massive faux pas. Things like “Rust monsters are such a hateful element of the fantastic ecology” that you have to wonder why they included the creature in the Bestiary at all, save to run down gamers who like to play a different style of game. I don’t honestly believe that the authors of the 13th Age Bestiary are that elitist or arrogant, but OSR fans are already going to be on the defensive after that paragraph denouncing the Gygaxian way of gaming and that is just coming to come across as “We took your money but we don’t want you to play our game. Screw you.” That’s how bad word of mouth spreads. Although I like 13th Age, things like this make me not want to play the game even though I agree somewhat with the intended meaning of the poorly phrased soapbox rant. The whole thing comes across as tacky and classless. A better editor or publisher could have prevented this from going out with such an unfortunate tone. Alas.
Overall, the 13th Age Bestiary is a fun but flawed piece. It’s a bit lacking in creatures, is certainly overpriced and the authors have the occasional attitude problem, but each entry is exceptionally in-depth, well written and it’s a fantastic addition to a one of the best new lines from 2013. It’s certainly a must have if you’re already a fan of the line, but at the same time, you will need the core rulebook or the entire Bestiary will come off like gobblygook with mechanics and writing that assumes you already know everything about the setting and world. My advice is to hold off on the 13th Age Bestiary until you’ve purchased the core rulebook and/or played a few games in the system. If you like what you see, then yes, you’re going to want to run right out and purchase this. It’s very well done. It’s not perfect, but it’s very well done.
[4 of 5 Stars!]