Book Review: Book of Beasts: Monsters of the River Nations by Steven Helt (Jon Brazer Enterprises)

Beasts. Whether you consider your domestic Tabby to be one or the ogre war party down the hall to be more your style, they come in all shapes and sizes. And some are probably more deadly than others. Though Tabby might scratch up your arm, the ogres are more likely to chop them off and use them as crude clubs. Fantasy roleplaying games like Pathfinder and Dungeons and Dragons provide homes for both categories of beasties and much, much worse.

Steven Helt and Jon Brazer Enterprises have pulled together a heck of a beastly lineup to torture maim eat bother players and gamemasters alike. Using monster stat blocks that would fit right in with the Monster Manual from any version of D&D I’ve played in the last 30 years, the Book of Beasts: Monsters of the River Nations offers fish, bugs, plants, and worse to ruin any PC’s day.

The front cover reminded me of all of the 3e D&D books I have on my shelf, with the red faux leather-looking background and gold leaf around the edges. Even as a PDF it looks pretty good, though it reminds me of the hardbound books of ye olden times. Electronic media has made it much simpler for publishers to connect to gamers without the hassle of publishing on actual paper.

However even with the throwback cover, I love the fact that they went so far as to actually bookmark all the relevant monsters and appendices in the PDF. With the Bookmarks open I can quickly bounce from Addanc to Stumble Fish and beyond without having to hunt page to page for what I’m looking for. Hyperlinks on the Table of Contents (“Listing of Monsters” and “Appendixes”) page would have also been nice, but having the whole book Bookmarked offers the same functionality without making it more difficult to produce a solid PDF.

The one-page monster descriptions offer an old school feel while providing enough information for any GM or player to run with. All of the relevant details, from XP worth and challenge rating to important statistics is clearly laid out and summarized for your use. The descriptions fill in the gaps. And if there was any doubt what the thing looked like, there’s an image of the beast for you to share with your players.

The Addanc starts off the monstrous lineup with a bang. I’d hate to run across an Addanc pond and encounter this thing in the dark. It’s like an even more warped platypus mixing a crocodile with a beaver! If this “beav-o-dile” is any indication, I wouldn’t be traveling alone in the River Nations if you could help it.

Other fun critters include the Bog Scum, which is something you don’t want to get on you. Being slowly digested isn’t my idea of a good time. Swarms of Frost Mites or Piranhas are also right up there in the “don’t run into these in the dark” category. Whether eaten by toothy-smiled fish or having your skin freeze and fall off, it’s not my idea of a good time. It makes fighting flocks of stirges seem easy by comparison.

(As an aside, I love images for monster descriptions. But it would be great to have a resource that simply included the monster pictures with stats on the back, perhaps in card form that you could print on card stock. That way a GM could show the picture on the front to the players without sharing any pertinent info.)

If the nearly two dozen monsters weren’t enough, there are also five appendices offering other fun tidbits like detailed NPC descriptions, gambling games, diseases, and drugs to introduce into your campaign. Some of these are little more than collections of statistics, but others are quite descriptive. Grammy Beshic the gnome and Konrad the Bandit King would offer more than a little trouble to unsuspecting PCs.

Before I move on, I do want to raise a concern about the use of drugs in campaign worlds. One of the appendices introduces Kobold Krack, which gives a bonus to Str and Dex and is highly addictive, but fairly cheap to acquire. Maybe it’s just me, but I tried introducing drugs (called “Dust”) in my Immortals’ Wake campaign and it backfired on me big-time. I had two PCs who hijacked the campaign by creating their own small thieves’ guild and became drug dealers. So be sure that introducing such things in your campaign doesn’t have unintended consequences. [I’ll get off my soap box now.]

I do have a couple of nits with art use and page layout… The image used as a page background behind the “Listing of Monsters” on page 2 makes tough to quickly find the Challenge Rating (CR). Some of the CRs are obscured a bit by the dark colors in the image. Even when I printed the page, they’re a bit difficult to read. This may be my old bifocal assisted eyes, but the image could have been made a bit lighter to solve the problem.

Beyond that, the art styles throughout the book vary from traditional pen and ink (black and white) drawings to shaded critters like the Forest Giant on page 8 and the computer-generated piranha on page 15. I prefer the B&W drawings to the rest, but understand budget concerns (good art doesn’t come cheap).

But honestly, the fact that there is a monster picture on EVERY page offsets all of my nitpicking nicely.

If you’re in the market for a few monsters to spice up your campaign, definitely take a look at the Book of Beasts: Monsters of the River Nations. There’s plenty in there to cause nightmares for even the heartiest of players!

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