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Friday 13 November 2020

Friday Filler: Beasts & Behemoths

There is no denying the continued and growing popularity of Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, with it having appeared on the television series Stranger Things and it no longer being seen as a hobby solely the preserve of typically male, nerdy teenagers and young adults. Yet as acceptable a hobby as roleplaying and in particular, playing Dungeons & Dragons has become, getting into the hobby is still a daunting prospect. Imagine if you will, being faced with making your first character for your first game of Dungeons & Dragons? Then what monsters will face? What adventures will you have? For nearly all of us, answering these questions are not all that far from being a challenge, for all started somewhere and we all had to make that first step—making our first character, entering our first dungeon, and encountering our first monster. As well written as both Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set and the Player’s Handbook are, both still present the prospective reader and player with a lot of choices, but without really answering these questions in an easy to read and reference fashion.

Step forward the ‘Dungeons & Dragons Young Adventurer’s Guides Series’ published by Ten Speed Press. This is a series of introductory guides to Dungeons & Dragons, designed as primers to various aspects of the world’s leading roleplaying game. Each in the series is profusely illustrated, no page consisting entirely of text. The artwork is all drawn from and matches the style of Dungeon & Dragons, Fifth Edition, so as much as it provides an introduction to the different aspects of the roleplaying game covered in each book in the series, it provides an introduction to the look of the roleplaying game, so providing continuity between the other books in the ‘Dungeons & Dragons Young Adventurer’s Guides Series’ and the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set and the core rulebooks. This use of art and the digest size of the book means that from the start, every entry in the ‘Dungeons & Dragons Young Adventurer’s Guides Series’ is an attractive little package.

The first in the series, Warriors & Weapons provided an introduction to the various Races of Dungeons & Dragons, the martial character Classes, and the equipment they use. Subsequent entries in the series have examined Monsters & Creatures and Dungeons & Tombs, culminating in the surprisingly late and seemingly out of sequence, Wizards & Spells. And there it would seem that the ‘Dungeons & Dragons Young Adventurer’s Guides Series’ had covered just about everything that the reader and potential play of Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition need to know before progressing onto the roleplaying game itself. So the publication of Beasts & Behemoths, the fifth entry in the series, comes as something of a surprise, the unexpected equivalent in the series of the Monster Manual II to the Monster Manual. Of course, another book about monsters makes sense, since not only are books about monsters fun, but there are an awful lot of monsters and creatures in Dungeons & Dragons, and the earlier Monsters & Creatures cannot have been expected to cover all of them!

Where Monsters & Creatures categorised its entries by terrain, so Caverns & Dark Places, Forests, Mountains & Other Terrain, Oceans, Lakes, & Waterways, and more, Beasts & Behemoths breaks them down by size—Tiny & Small, Medium, Large & Huge, and Gargantuan. Its forty or so entries include Cranium Rats, Demilich, and Pseudodragon under Tiny & Small; Drow, Gnoll, and Sahuagin are listed as Medium creatures; Corpse Flower, Minotaur, and Umber Hulk for Large & Huge; and Purple Worm, Roc, and the dread Tarrasque for Gargantuan. The mix includes the familiar, such as the Hobgoblin, Orc, and Minotaur alongside the little known, like the Yuan-Ti and the Oni, but all are classic Dungeons & Dragons monsters and creatures. In addition, Beasts & Behemoths includes two subcategories, Lycanthropes and Metallic Dragons—or Good-aligned Dragons. So the former category has descriptions of the Wereboar, Wererat, and Weretiger as well as the Werewolf, whilst the latter ranges from the Brass Dragon to the Gold Dragon. This compliments the writeups of the Dragons of various colours in Monsters & Creatures. Every entry is given a double page spread, the left hand page showing an illustration of the creature or monster, a listing of its special powers, a description of its size, and an indication of its Danger Level, from ‘0’ or harmless to ‘5’ for really nasty. On the right-hand page there is a description of the monster or creature and its lair, accompanied by a list of things to do or not do when dealing with it.

Thus for the Medusa, the given Danger Level is ‘1’ and her Special Powers are, of course, her Petrifying Gaze. Her size is listed as being typically Human-sized—except that is, for her hair, which might be a whole bigger (and writhing, of course). Her write-up includes a description of how she comes upon the transformation into a Medusa and the price paid, plus the types of lair she prefers. The entry advises that when encountering a Medusa, an adventurer should carry a mirror with which to catch her reflection, as well as a powerful healing potion which undo the effects of her Petrifying Gaze. It also advises that an adventurer not catch her gaze nor seek out immortality.

Like Monsters & Creatures before it, Beasts & Behemoths adds legendary entries and encounters to complement its ordinary encounters. The description of the Death Knight is accompanied by a  legendary entry for Lord Soth, the fallen Knight of Solamnia from the world of Krynn who would later be plucked from Krynn by the mysterious mists of Ravenloft. It covers his history, his lair, and the fearsome skeleton army he has at his command. Again, this is a nice accompaniment to the legendary entry for Vampires, the feared Count Strahd von Zarovich, to be found in Monsters & Creatures. These legendary creatures are foes that the adventurers are unlikely to face for a very long time, but they are ones to be whispered about in hushed tones—even the ones who are not evil or chaotic. Each of encounters consists of a short piece of fiction which sets up a situation that ultimately ends the reader being asked how he might react or what he might do next. To accompany the description of Pseudodragon, the encounter describes how Florizan Blank, the bard known as the ‘Dandy Duellist’ who combines dance moves and swordsmanship, comes upon such a creature in woods whilst he is tracking down a Hobgoblin tribe which attacked a nearby village. Will he attempt to tame the creature and take it as a companion—and if so, how? Will continue on his way, hurrying after his quarry lest they launch a raid on another village? These encounters nicely illustrate the play of Dungeons & Dragons and the type of encounters and questions that players will be dealing with from session to session. In addition, the inclusion of Florizan Blank is a nice call back to the fourth book in the ‘Dungeons & Dragons Young Adventurer’s Guides Series’, Wizards & Spells.

Just as in Monsters & Creatures, the last words in Beasts & Behemoths are about using beasts to create stories and build a hero, taking the reader on his first steps to composing his adventurer’s story. It opens up a little to ask the player to wonder about the other heroes his character will adventure alongside, what and where his adventures take place, and of course, why? It explains a bit more about the play of Dungeons & Dragons, so serving as a light primer before the player gets to the table.

There are just two issues with Beasts & Behemoths. First, for a book filled with great Dungeons & Dragons artwork, it does not list or credit one single artist. This is really disappointing, not so say inexcusable, and both the publisher and Wizards of the Coast should know better. Second, Beasts & Behemoths commits the same error as Monsters & Creatures in using anachronisms when it comes to describing the size of the monsters and creatures in the book. For example, the Cranium Rat is described as being the size of a sneaker or Hobgoblin as being the size of a professional (American) football player in all of his gear. Again, the inclusion of such modernisms breaks the verisimilitude of the book, making very much a reference work out of the game when it could have been a reference work both out of the game and in the game.

Physically, Beasts & Behemoths is an attractive little hardback. It is bright, it is breezy, and it shows a prospective player what his character might face, both in the art and the writing. Further, the art shows lots of adventuring scenes which can only spur the prospective player’s imagination.

Now obviously, Beasts & Behemoths is designed to showcase Dungeons & Dragons and introduce the prospective player to what his character might encounter—especially in Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. However, much of its content would work just as well as introduction to some of the monsters of Dungeons & Dragons-style retroclones, though in its look, it is brighter and breezier than the style and tone of the typical fantasy roleplaying game from the Old School Renaissance.

Monsters & Creatures introduced the prospective player to just a tiny, but often iconic, few of the monsters and creatures in Dungeons & Dragons. Beasts & Behemoths adds to that, but also stands alone in that a player could read it rather than Monsters & Creatures to get an idea of some of the foes his character might face or encounter in the game. Similarly, Beasts & Behemoths is more of a general reference work, something suitable to have at the table during play, since its contents can serve as the legends and the folklore that a player character in a fantasy world might have learned about said monsters and creatures as he was growing up. That said, doing so adds another book to the table, and that may add unnecessary clutter during play. When it comes to clutter, are two books devoted to monsters in the ‘Dungeons & Dragons Young Adventurer’s Guides Series’ enough—or will there be a slew of them, cluttering up the series?

Beasts & Behemoths is another bright and engaging entry in the series, providing another light introduction to the monsters of Dungeons & Dragons, and the game itself. It again nicely works as a gift as much as it does a useful reference work, but as an entry in the ‘Dungeons & Dragons Young Adventurer’s Guides Series’, it feels very much like an extra in the series rather than part of the essential quartet of titles.

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