Review – Bestiary (Pathfinder Second Edition)

The second edition of the Pathfinder roleplaying game released last week. While the extensive core rulebook obviates the need for a distinct game master’s guide, the core rulebook was not the only Pathfinder 2E product that released on August 1, 2019. The most important of those was the Bestiary – those adventurers need enemies to overcome (and allies and mounts and so forth), do they not?

The general outline of the Bestiary will be familiar to those who have played Pathfinder or other fantasy roleplaying games – 350+ full-color pages of alphabetically-arranged monsters, animals, and people with accompanying statistic blocks and illustrations.

Each entry for each monster (I’m just going to call them all monsters, whether or not they are likely to be combative opponents or allies) includes a full-color illustration, the needed stat block, as much body background text as will fit on the rest of the page, and a sidebar with some additional note (most often something about the type of treasure it might have, or other related/variant monsters, but sometimes just flavor/background). How much space the stat block is going to take up is typically determined by how long the monster’s special actions/abilities are. The stat block for the ‘basic’ alghollthu master takes up about 40% of a column, sporting only a list of occult spells known, a disease, and slime. The stat block for the veiled master, on the other hand, consumes an entire page despite getting to shorthand back to the basic stat block, thanks to its ability to change shape, consume memories, modify the suggestion spell, flurry with its tentacles, and thoughtlance people.

In general, this works out to the monsters getting a more than adequate amount of background description – Pathfinder has really honed the art of keywords, so that text doesn’t have to be repeated in stat block after stat block. So it might take a third of a page to fully present all of the nuances of an engulf ability – but all that you need in the wemmuth’s stat block is “Engulf [Two-Action Activity Symbol] DC 37, 4d8 bludgeoning, Escape DC 35, Rupture 36.” That’s very nice, because Pathfinder likes to provide its own nuance and flavoring even for ‘standard’ fantasy monsters. The way Pathfinder has distinguished goblins is well-known, but we get discussions of gnoll cannibalism, what lamia society thinks of their curse, and the importance of family to orcs. The only entry I thought could really have used more space for background text was the wendigo, which was squished down to a measly two lines.

A common usability question in books like the Bestiary is the presence of indices, tables of contents, and such, that enable the game master easily locate what sort of creature they might want to use. The Pathfinder 2E Bestiary does not disappoint in that regard. There’s an alphabetical listing in table format up front of individual stat blocks. There’s an appendix of paragraphs of creatures by type (e.g., aberration, elemental, undead) and then level. There’s also the all-important (at least to me) listing of creatures by level, so that when I’m looking for what sort of enemies to throw at the party, I can zero right in on the appropriate ones. One table that has sometimes appeared in books like this that isn’t here is a listing of creatures by environment (e.g., plains, forests) … but I’m not sure I ever used one of those anyway.

From a level perspective, the Bestiary leans heavily towards lower levels – the right call, to me, as many more games are played at low levels than high ones. So, in that table of creatures by level, there are ~4 pages for 5 or less, 2+ pages for 6-10, and ~1.5 for 11+. There is the Grim Reaper and one other unique monster, Treerazer, but the Bestiary otherwise avoids demigod level threats.

The array of monsters includes most of the mainstays from traditional fantasy roleplaying (a notable exception is the beholder), but also monsters that take on greater significance in Pathfinder, such as the neutral evil daemons (to round things out between the chaotic evil fiends and the lawful evil devils), the psychopomps (astral beings who guide the dead), and the lizard-like linnorm (who have cultural significance to part of Golarion). Another area beyond traditional fantasy foes that Pathfinder explores, including some entries in this book, are Lovecraftian sorts of beings, with the most powerful of these coming from beyond the stars or far below the waves.

There are a few broad trends to be found in the monsters presented.

One is the use of broader categories. Some of these are obvious ape/giant ape combos – if there’s room for a normal and ‘advanced’ version of a monster, it’s in there. But there is a generous use of categories, especially among planar entities. So there are the usual angels, dragons, demons, devils, elementals, golems, giants, and hags; but also aeons (lawful planar entities), arboreals (forest guardians), archons (lawful good planars), azata (chaotic good planars), cave worms (including the infamous purple worm), daemons (neutral evil planars), dinosaurs, drakes (including wyverns), fleshwarps, genies, gremlins, linnorm, naga, nymphs, oozes, planar scions (e.g., aasimar and tieflings), proteans (chaotic planars), psychopomps (neutral planars), and sprites. And even a few, like alghollthu, that are really entirely different, but work with/for each other. There are a lot of them that you just know are going to be further expanded in future bestiaries. These combinations did produce the only couple of occasions when I wished there was another picture – I don’t need two images for ‘bat’ and ‘giant bat,’ but an image of a janni (the weakest form of genie) would have been nice.

Another, much less significant one, is presentation of alternate names. A variety of the traditional fantasy species have both their own name and the name that others use for them, and it isn’t always clear where one might find them. For example, lizardfolk (who refer to themselves as the iruxi) are listed under lizardfolk, while sahuagin (which is both their name for themselves and the traditional fantasy name I’m used to) are listed under sea devil.

Undead tend to be presented a bit differently from the other monster types. While there are stat blocks for individual undead, many of the undead types also have template rules so that any creature can be turned into a vampire, skeleton, ghost, lich, etc.

Note that the Bestiary is a fully GM-focused book – although there are a lot of species that could (and, I presume, eventually will) be used as ancestries, such as the tieflings and the usual assortment of underground versions of dwarves, elves, and gnomes, there are no rules for making player characters with any of them.

Ultimately, I’m not sure what else one could ask of the new Bestiary. Bestiaries are, in general, not the most sexy of books – they are tools for the GM, not shiny new toys for players to salivate over as they plot out the next twenty levels of feats they’re going to take. But a Bestiary is an absolutely vital tool. No Bestiary means no game. A bad Bestiary means an annoyed GM, and nobody wants that. Luckily,  Pathfinder 2E gets a good Bestiary – one that gives GMs all of the basic tools they need, presented in a way that’s easy to use.

Promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy.

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