[Review] Pathfinder Bestiary

My wife presented me with a copy of the Pathfinder Bestiary for my birthday (by request).  For those unfamiliar, Pathfinder is Paizo Publishing’s attempt to keep the D&D 3.X edition (and all the supplement they created for it) viable by making essentially “3.75 Edition.”

Pathfinder RPG is the Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide put together in one $50 brick, while the Pathfinder Bestiary is the Monster Manual.

Each monster (and there are purportedly over 350 of them) are given one page, most of which is taken up with the large stat block and explanation of special abilties.  The rest is the Paizo-style depiction of the monster and a small paragraph describing the creature.  I like the Paizo-style rendering of the monsters, some of which are distinct from D&D’s version, but the descriptions are pretty sparse.  They do give an italicized description of the monster for the DM to use, something that 4E’s Monster Manual lacks.

In the back, there’s are sections detailing advancing monsters (adding hit dice and abilities to make a greater or lesser version of a monster), adding templates (such as “fiendish” or “celestial,” but oddly lacking “dire”), and adding class levels.  The last was a big feature of third edition, spawning troll rangers and the like.

The Pathfinder Bestiary lends itself to comparisons to both the third and fourth editions of the Monster Manual. Clearly it cleaves much more closely to the former than the latter, and how you feel about those two books will probably shape your own opinions about the Bestiary.  There are a few things worth noting, however.

First, the descriptions of the monsters are more “PG-13” than “PG” sometimes.  Many of the monsters are described indulging in bestiality, cannibalism, and even incest.

Second, with the exception of the dragons, each monster has only one stat block.  This is a big difference from the Fourth Edition Monster Manual, which has multiple versions of each monster (e.g. a goblin warrior, blackblade, hexcaster, etc.)  Fourth Edition seems to be geared more towards having encounters with almost “warbands” of different monsters while Pathfinder still seems to hold to Third Edition’s inclination of having solo or small groups of monsters in each encounter.  You’ll need to do the legwork of adding class levels to the base characteristics if you want to flesh out your drow society or make an ogre chieftain.  (Or, I suppose, buy a Paizo supplement.)

On a more subtle note, the art in Bestiary, and Pathfinder in general, seems less influenced by World of Warcraft with its giant-shoulder-pad anime style illustrations and more dark-and-gritty leather straps with lots of daggers, what I think of as more “Verner Klocke” if you know your miniature sculptors.  If I can oversimplify things, it’s like this:

  • Third Edition: spiky shoulder pads
  • Fourth Edition: blocky shoulder pads
  • Pathfinder: no shoulder pads

I hope that makes sense.

In the end, I think books full of monstrous opponents, or supervillains, or NPC’s really serve their purpose when they inspire a DM/GM/CK/Judge.  This is one thing I think the Fourth Edition Monster Manual did when it gave sample groups of monsters; a DM could ask him- or herself, “in what context would my party encounter this group?”  Most of the monsters in the Bestiary are well known canards of D&D.  There are several new monsters, on loan from Necromancer Games, which add dashes of new flavor.  And while I want to like Pathfinder, because I like the idea of making more distinct PC’s and less stock “character builds,” the game still has the biggest problem of Third Edition–it’s front-end loaded.  I can sit down and crank out an evening’s worth of play in a fairly short period of time with 4th Edition.  It’ll take quite a bit of work to stat out the same with Pathfinder.

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