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Friday 27 November 2015

Monsters for the 13th Age

It is in the nature of the beast that RPGs such as Dungeons & Dragons are supported by bestiaries, supplements that provide beasts, monsters, and things for the player characters to kill and loot. Indeed the very first supplement and the very first release for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was the Monster Manual! So it is no surprise that 13th Age, the story-driven action fantasy Dungeons & Dragons-style RPG published by Pelgrane Press has received its own monster book in the form of the 13th Age Bestiary. This builds upon the few creatures included in the 13th Age core rules to present some fifty-two creatures—a number that quickly rises to over two hundred once you figure in the very many variants in its pages—that are primarily new takes upon old, familiar foes, though a few new monsters are included too.

The old ranges from the Basilisk, the Bat, and the Black Dragon to the Stirge, the Tarrasque, and the White Dragon, whilst the new includes the Jorogumo, seductresses and seducers with the upper body of a human or an elf, but with the lower body of a spider; the Saved, demon-wracked escapees from Hellholes; and Wibbles, the spontaneous bubble-like creations of fumbled spell castings that like to congregate and then randomly attack spellcasters. Some are particular to The Dragon Age, the setting of 13th Age. For example, Zorigami are intelligent clockworks that serve as the timekeepers for each Age, Dawn Zorigami appearing at the dawn of the Age with an insatiable curiousity before building themselves into the bold brotherhoods of Apex Zorigami, and finally battling as Dusk Zorigami to be the last of the Age.

For the most part, each entry dispenses with background and gets to the point. Instead each entry is about how to use that monster and its variants, most obviously, but not always, in battle and how they are tied into the 13th Age’s Icons—and thus to a certain extent, the player characters since they also have relationships with the Icons. Things found with the creature or in its territory are also listed, even their very mention being more interesting than conventional treasure types. Rounding out each entry is a number of adventure hooks. For the most part, the monster write-ups in the 13th Age Bestiary feel stripped back and to the point.

Despite this sparse style, the 13th Age Bestiary does interesting things with familiar monsters. For example, it takes the Stirge, a fairly simple creature that is the bane of low level player characters and ups its game by adding variations that give it a fairly simple ecology. Beyond the basic bloodsucking insectoid it and adds the Archer Stirge that can attack at range—but not blood let—and the Cobbler Stirge that does not drain blood to feed, but secretes instead secrets it to build a hive of coagulated blood. The authors then turn this hive into a sanguinary structure, slippery and coppery sweet, the drained bodies of the Stirges’ victims sealed into the walls, their treasure scattered across the floor beneath them… If an encounter in a Stirge hive such as this is not a way to run something akin to the films Alien and Aliens, but for low-level characters, then the GM is missing an opportunity. In the process, the book also makes some creatures more playable. For instance, the Basilisk has always been a difficult monster to use given that its primary form of attack is petrifying its victims, but the 13th Age version turns the Basilisk into elementally aligned creatures whose poisons once inflicted upon a victim, enable a Basilisk’s stare to trigger various effects such as liquefying, igniting, or evaporating the victim, or even coagulating his blood. It takes a number of failed saves to get this stage, but it is no longer a case of a failed save hindering play. It is still nasty, but now unhindered…

One aspect that runs through many of the creatures in the 13th Age Bestiary is that of horror. A very many of its monsters are horrifying and that is how it should be. Rarely though do the fifty-two here touch upon the Lovecraftian, upon the Cthulhu Mythos. The most obvious are the Shoggoth-like Chaos Beasts and Elder Beasts, whilst the Sahuagin might just have the Innsmouth cast to them… On occasion, it feels as if the authors are having a joke at our as well as their expense. The most notable entry for that is the Gelatinous Cube, which appears alongside variants that take its its shape and up the ‘Platonic Solid’ count to give us the Gelatinous Tetrahedron, the Gelatinous Octohedron, and the Gelatinous Dodecahedron.

As full of invention as the 13th Age Bestiary is, it would seem impossible to find fault with it. Yet it does have one single fault, which is that it is not an enjoyable read. In fact, in places it is almost boring. Now bestiaries like the 13th Age Bestiary, and of course, the Monster Manual, are not really designed to be read from cover to cover in linear fashion.* Rather, they are lists—and technical lists at that—designed to be dipped into and consulted for ideas and prompts by the GM and the DM to add things to his game. The 13th Age Bestiary performs this function just as you would want it to, but is still far from an entertaining read. There have been monster books which are good reads, for example, the Monsternomicon, Privateer Press’ bestiary for its Iron Kingdoms setting originally published for the d20 System and more recently for its own Iron Kingdoms RPG. What is important here though is the term ‘setting’. The Monsternomicon and its ilk, add to the setting, both in terms of flavour and background. The 13th Age Bestiary does this, but only to an extent and really only for those few monsters that are new to 13th Age, which leaves many entries bereft of background and thus something other than the technical. Yet this actually supports one of the aims of the 13th Age Bestiary. It enables the GM to take any one of the classic monsters listed in the supplement, from the Orc and the Kobold to the Lich and the White Dragon, and apply the supplement’s mechanics to support those creatures in the setting of his choice. Thus you can take the Lich and drop it into any setting that has Lichs and include the variants given in the 13th Age Bestiary along with its Parliament of Lichs. This works again and again for the entries in the 13th Age Bestiary.

*It should be made clear that books of spells are even worse.

Physically, the 13th Age Bestiary is cleanly and neatly presented. The most notable aspect of its presentation is its illustrations by Rich Longmoore. These nicely capture the menace and horror of the monsters and things depicted in this supplement. Rounding out the book is a short chapter on monster creation, and an appendix of random features and abilities, plus a uniform list of the entries herein and those in the 13th Age core rules.

If you liked the way in which the monsters in the 13th Age core rules were treated, then the 13th Age Bestiary does more of the same and then does some more on top. Not only does it provide interesting and hopefully challenging takes upon old classics, it also includes new monsters too. The result is a thoroughly flexible collection, useful and applicable whether the GM wants it for The Dragon Empire or another commercially available setting or one of the GM’s own devising.  

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