Why A GM Can Never Have Too Many Bestiaries
  • Why A GM Can Never Have Too Many Bestiaries


    My two favorite types of supplements for fantasy games are books of magic and bestiaries. Settings and adventures don’t really get me going, but I will get books of spells and monster manuals until the cows come home. Now that I am preparing for to start a new fantasy campaign (at least it will be a campaign by my standards, probably 2-3 months of play time) I am going through some of my newer bestiaries, looking for things to hit the players characters with during the game.

    The group is still on the fence as to whether we’re going to play Swords and Wizardry (which is our group’s standard for fantasy games) or Lamentations of the Flame Princess as our ruleset, but the two are close enough that prep can begin and we fill in the game later.



    One of my favorite bestiaries right now if Rafael Chandler’s Lusus Naturae. Created for Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and funded through Kickstarter. What makes this bestiary so good is that it is the product of the singular vision of a writer, interpreted by one artist. This is one of the things that sets Lusus Naturae apart from the other books I’m going to talk about. Fitting in with the Lamentations of the Flame Princess aesthetic, this bestiary opens up a gateway into a heavy metal inspired world that is brutal and surreal, and not for the weak of heart. It is also very much not safe for work.

    If you aren’t interested in games written for adults, by adults, then Lusus Naturae probably isn’t going to be for you.

    One of the benefits for me, as a GM, with this book is the fact that I know that the players in our group haven’t read it. Never discount the power of “clean” monsters in a fantasy game. Between Chandler’s crisp writing and Gennifer Bone’s evocative art, they have created a unique book that brings across both creator’s aesthetics in a manner that is reminiscent of Clive Barker or William S. Burroughs. “Unique” is something that gets bandied about, but in the “design by committee” approach of most game design studios it isn’t something that gets seen as often as it used to in tabletop role-playing games. The days of the vision of creators like Dave Hargrave’s Arduin and Greg Stafford’s Glorantha in Runequest seem to be in the past, except for a few bright lights that pop up here and there.

    An interesting mechanical bit that I plan on stealing from Lusus Naturae and using myself is the idea of the “killing blow.” This is a neat idea that transcends XP awards for killing monsters. The idea is that whoever deals the killing blow (whether through magic or a physical attack) receives a special boon. This might be an ongoing character ability, or it might be a onetime bonus to one of the next rolls made. Not every creature in the book has this, but the idea is a great one.

    Also, because of the OSR approach of an implied setting rather than an overt one, it makes it easy to fit the creatures from Lusus Naturae into any ongoing campaign.


    Wizard-Spawned Insanities by Johnstone Metzger and Nathan Jones is another unique monster manual, this one for the Dungeon World role-playing game. Like with Lusus Naturae, it has the benefit of unfamiliarity with the players in our group. For my purposes, it has the disadvantage of conversion from a system that isn’t similar to the rules that we will be using. It does create a couple of other steps for me as a GM, but so will the Pathfinder bestiary below.

    One thing that I like about Wizard-Spawned Insanities is that each monster comes with a mini-adventure or two. These are like more fleshed out versions of the lair encounters from the Swords & Wizardry books, not enough for a campaign but enough to fill in a night or two in an ongoing story. This book also uses the idea of an implied setting, which makes it easy to slot these into the world that your group is creating, and a barebones conversion of a creature shouldn’t be too hard: just use the hit points and damage of attacks as is, and go on with your game. A detailed conversion will take a little longer, but if a creature is something that you just want to drop into a game the quick and easy will do the job.

    Just like it says on the package, the creatures in the book are all the byproduct of wizardry in some way or another, either created directly by magic-users or they came about because they got in the way of magical effects. I like high magical worlds, which means that the idea behind Wizard-Spawned Insanities is something that will fit into the kinds of games that I am interested in running. There is a lot of weirdness to be found in the book, as well, which is another plus for me.

    A lot of gamers look only at their system of choice, but there are a lot of interesting things that can be found when you widen your field of vision a bit. You might even find your next favorite game. For me, the utility of a game book isn’t dependent upon the system that it uses. After more than 30 years of playing and running RPGs, if I can’t convert from one game to another I need to give it up.


    Since I don’t play Pathfinder, the Pathfinder Bestiary 5 wouldn’t have normally been on my radar, but flipping through the pages I found the weird fantasy elements that I like. While not as original as Lusus Naturae or Wizard-Spawned Insanities, there’s still some juice between these covers. The benefit to a “new school” book being used in an old school game is that the ideas, the frame of reference are different enough that the players won’t expect it, and the creatures aren’t as likely to be a reskin of monsters that the players have already encountered.

    The Manasaputras in particular caught my eye. I’ve had an interest in Indian (Asian Indian) philosophy and religion for a long time. The ideas inherent in the religion and myth cycles, much like with the Norse or Greek mythologies, are gameable. The idea of gods and heroes who possess great power, but are still mortal in many ways maps across to gaming really well. These concepts also play well against what players look for their characters to do during a campaign. Also, Taxidermic Creatures? If that isn’t weird fantasy, then I don’t know what is.

    You also find a lot of non-traditionally fantasy creatures, like grey aliens, that you may not have thought of previously, but now a fantasy game inspired by The Mothman Prophecies is trying to escape from my head. Sometimes, I feel sorry for the strange ideas that I inflict upon the players in our group. I know that I am preaching to the choir on getting Pathfinder books to a Pathfinder audience, but there is more resistance to the usability of “modern” games in old school communities. There might be almost as much resistance to Pathfinder as there would be to Dungeon World material.

    Yes, jettisoning much of the mechanics from Pathfinder, in order to use these creatures in an old school campaign does take a lot more work. My approach is to take the concepts that you like about creatures, and then reconceptualize them in the new rules (and this works whether you are trying to convert to an earlier edition, or an unrelated system like Fate). If you try to reverse engineer the monster mechanics you will often end up with a lot more work than you need, and an overly complicated monster write-up.


    Having a wide variety of tools in your toolbox as a Game Master is nothing but helpful. You can put forward richer worlds to develop with the rest of the group, and you don’t have to worry as much about running out of ideas…or more importantly, sometimes, running out of ideas that the players are not already familiar with. Even if you are only using materials from other games as a springboard for your own original creatures, everyone in the game comes out ahead.

    Kobold Press has done their Midgard Bestiary for 13th Age. Midgard is a cool world. I like that it developed out of actual play, rather than out of the can world building exercises. The elements of a game world that develops out of play are typically there because they arose to answer a specific question about a setting, or to fulfill an actual in-game need during play. One of the things that I like about 13th Age is the fact that there aren’t a lot of mechanics to the creatures, and this quality makes it easy to pull things out of a 13th Age write-up and reinterpret it into a new game.

    Midgard also has a number of unique creatures that, because they developed out of long term play through a number of D&Dalike systems, they are sometimes variants on creatures that fans of D&D will have a basic familiarity with. However, they are also enough differences, and enough new creatures as well, to make for a lot of new and interesting material for a GM.

    Basically, the tl;dr of this piece is that you can’t have too many bestiaries on hand as a fantasy GM, even if your group doesn’t play all of the games involved. Having more colors in your palette means that you can pain a wider variety of happy little trees.
    Comments 46 Comments
    1. Christopher Helton's Avatar
      Christopher Helton -
      Sorry about the quality of the Lusus Naturae pic. It looked nicer on my screen before I uploaded it.
    1. chibi graz'zt's Avatar
      chibi graz'zt -
      Hopefully we get word soon of the new Fiend Folio for 5e ;-)
    1. Bedrockgames's Avatar
      Bedrockgames -
      I agree that bestiaries are a great resource for GMs (even if books for systems you don't play). Each monster is a potential adventure. I'd add that real world bestiaries can be handy too.
    1. EthanSental's Avatar
      EthanSental -
      I agree chibi...sooner better than later! They left a lot of monsters on the cutting room floor after the first MM came out for 5e.

      I'm probably in the minority in that I don't feel books like Bestiary 5 is worth my money as I'd probably use 1 monster, maybe 2 out of the book. Not worth it in my opinion. There's plenty in books 1 and 2 that I've never used and my players have never fought against to satisfy my monster book needs.
    1. wcpfish -
      Getting the stories together was the fun part of this effort from Escape Velocity Gaming....Need some city critters? Check it out!
      http://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/...?term=Urban+ad
    1. Desh-Rae-Halra's Avatar
      Desh-Rae-Halra -
      The Lusus Naturae looks like a Death Metal Album Cover. It just needs an album title like Mosh Pit in a Hellish Wonderland.
    1. ExoKnight -
      Awesome article. I love monster books and have a couple of shelves worth. From Basic D&D to 5th Edition, OSR, PF, etc. I tend to play Labyrinth Lord these days and the great thing about the older editions is that monster conversion or creation is super simple.
    1. LostandDamned's Avatar
      LostandDamned -
      Yeah I agree, DM's can never have enough critters to plague their players with, but one thing confuses me, I keep seeing it everywhere.

      [ tl;dr] what the hell does it mean?!?
    1. delericho's Avatar
      delericho -
      Quote Originally Posted by LostandDamned View Post
      [ tl;dr] what the hell does it mean?!?
      Too long, didn't read.
    1. Celebrim's Avatar
      Celebrim -
      The big problem I have with Bestiaries, is that they have a very low value per page because it never seems like I use more than a page or two of anything beyond "Monster Manual 1". Most remind me very much of the original Fiend Folio - flashes of complete brilliance but also pages and pages of stupidity. Occasionally I buy Bestiaries on an impulse, but I almost always regret it when I really start thinking about how many of those 'creative' monsters I might actually use in the next 30 years.

      So in general, I tend to make do with improvising monsters as needed.

      The core of any monster worth buying or stealing is its unique mechanic or unique composition of mechanics that together produce something unique (a "mechanical chord"?). Too often what I see is highly original flavor to the monster, but nothing original mechanically. The monster also needs to have a viable ecological niche in the world, albeit one that can be supernatural, that isn't necessarily met by something else. For example, a new humanoid has value only in a world where that humanoid is going to play a major role and is essentially replacing some other more familiar humanoid for a particular reason or which has a very sci-fi Star Wars cantina feel to it. New dragons are almost useless at this point, but something like a flying ooze or intelligent plant represents fairly new territory.

      Ideal designs for a monster also have a degree of level invariance, so that they aren't too lethal to challenge low level characters, but still represent some threat when in numbers or advanced for high level characters. Unless you are playing Call of Cthulhu one shots, you can pretty much throw in the trash any bestiary written by someone who was dead set on impressing the players.

      Ideally, monsters are also very interactive. So for example, a Bodak is a terrible monster, since it just represents random death and doesn't offer very much in the way of interplay.
    1. Christopher Helton's Avatar
      Christopher Helton -
      Quote Originally Posted by Celebrim View Post
      The big problem I have with Bestiaries, is that they have a very low value per page because it never seems like I use more than a page or two of anything beyond "Monster Manual 1". Most remind me very much of the original Fiend Folio - flashes of complete brilliance but also pages and pages of stupidity. Occasionally I buy Bestiaries on an impulse, but I almost always regret it when I really start thinking about how many of those 'creative' monsters I might actually use in the next 30 years.
      I just can't take a comment like this seriously.
    1. Bedrockgames's Avatar
      Bedrockgames -
      Quote Originally Posted by Celebrim View Post
      The big problem I have with Bestiaries, is that they have a very low value per page because it never seems like I use more than a page or two of anything beyond "Monster Manual 1". Most remind me very much of the original Fiend Folio - flashes of complete brilliance but also pages and pages of stupidity. Occasionally I buy Bestiaries on an impulse, but I almost always regret it when I really start thinking about how many of those 'creative' monsters I might actually use in the next 30 years.

      So in general, I tend to make do with improvising monsters as needed.

      The core of any monster worth buying or stealing is its unique mechanic or unique composition of mechanics that together produce something unique (a "mechanical chord"?). Too often what I see is highly original flavor to the monster, but nothing original mechanically. The monster also needs to have a viable ecological niche in the world, albeit one that can be supernatural, that isn't necessarily met by something else. For example, a new humanoid has value only in a world where that humanoid is going to play a major role and is essentially replacing some other more familiar humanoid for a particular reason or which has a very sci-fi Star Wars cantina feel to it. New dragons are almost useless at this point, but something like a flying ooze or intelligent plant represents fairly new territory.

      Ideal designs for a monster also have a degree of level invariance, so that they aren't too lethal to challenge low level characters, but still represent some threat when in numbers or advanced for high level characters. Unless you are playing Call of Cthulhu one shots, you can pretty much throw in the trash any bestiary written by someone who was dead set on impressing the players.

      Ideally, monsters are also very interactive. So for example, a Bodak is a terrible monster, since it just represents random death and doesn't offer very much in the way of interplay.
      Well, there are better and worse bestiaries, but it is also in their nature that not all monsters will be immediately useful. But I have to say I get more value out of a monster manual as a GM than virtually any other book. Not every monster concept is going to resonate with me, but that is okay. They don't all have to be brilliant. Having filler monsters is okay if they serve a purpose (like creating a sense of variation and life in the world so it isn't all just goblins and orcs). It can also be very useful to lean more on random encounter tables so you are forced to use monsters that don't appeal to you at first (because I've often found when I actually run a monster I might not find that cool, I discover things about it.
    1. Celebrim's Avatar
      Celebrim -
      Quote Originally Posted by Christopher Helton View Post
      I just can't take a comment like this seriously.
      Really? I was taking your original post seriously, but perhaps I was mistaken to do so.
    1. delericho's Avatar
      delericho -
      Quote Originally Posted by Celebrim View Post
      The big problem I have with Bestiaries, is that they have a very low value per page because it never seems like I use more than a page or two of anything beyond "Monster Manual 1".
      There's a lot of truth in this. Bestiaries are like cookbooks in that regard - an awful lot of people get them, spend some time admiring all the wonderful things, and then use virtually none of them.

      Of course, the people who make cookbooks have long since recognised this, and now their books tend to be more about selling a lifestyle than actually being about using them to cook. I'm not sure how true that is of bestiaries.
    1. Doctor Futurity -
      Quote Originally Posted by Celebrim View Post
      The big problem I have with Bestiaries, is that they have a very low value per page because it never seems like I use more than a page or two of anything beyond "Monster Manual 1". Most remind me very much of the original Fiend Folio - flashes of complete brilliance but also pages and pages of stupidity. Occasionally I buy Bestiaries on an impulse, but I almost always regret it when I really start thinking about how many of those 'creative' monsters I might actually use in the next 30 years.

      So in general, I tend to make do with improvising monsters as needed.

      The core of any monster worth buying or stealing is its unique mechanic or unique composition of mechanics that together produce something unique (a "mechanical chord"?). Too often what I see is highly original flavor to the monster, but nothing original mechanically. The monster also needs to have a viable ecological niche in the world, albeit one that can be supernatural, that isn't necessarily met by something else. For example, a new humanoid has value only in a world where that humanoid is going to play a major role and is essentially replacing some other more familiar humanoid for a particular reason or which has a very sci-fi Star Wars cantina feel to it. New dragons are almost useless at this point, but something like a flying ooze or intelligent plant represents fairly new territory.

      Ideal designs for a monster also have a degree of level invariance, so that they aren't too lethal to challenge low level characters, but still represent some threat when in numbers or advanced for high level characters. Unless you are playing Call of Cthulhu one shots, you can pretty much throw in the trash any bestiary written by someone who was dead set on impressing the players.

      Ideally, monsters are also very interactive. So for example, a Bodak is a terrible monster, since it just represents random death and doesn't offer very much in the way of interplay.
      You're using the bodak wrong.

      Also, to contrast, I believe as of 2016 I have used 99% of the monsters from the fiend folio, in later if not original incarnations. That is one of the most depths-plumbed tomes I've ever owned, and I consider it indispensable to my fantasy gaming.
    1. Celebrim's Avatar
      Celebrim -
      Quote Originally Posted by Bedrockgames View Post
      Well, there are better and worse bestiaries, but it is also in their nature that not all monsters will be immediately useful.
      For me, believable constructs (as in, someone would actually pay to build and own one), undead variants, novel oozes, natural spirits of various sorts, freaky plant or fungi monsters, small fey, and various oversized fauna tend to have the most immediate utility because you can put them just about anywhere without impacting the overall zeitgeist of the world, and without having to do a lot explaining regarding how they came to be or how they survive where they are. Monsters that can just be hanging around in any given dungeon room even if its been sealed for a long time are almost invaluable.

      Big flashy monsters that have a huge impact on the game world around them are of very limited utility - giant predators for example not only lack utility in a low level campaign but ought to have an epic impact on the world. If there is a giant voracious predator anywhere within 50 miles, surely it ought to be legendary and attracting considerable attention already. And in terms of inspiring, nothing is worse than a new skin on a bag of hit points with a claw/claw/bite routine.

      More subjective is whether or not a monster is corny or campy. Humor monsters, sci-fi monsters, and wacky monsters I find just have very little utility.

      The least utility of all for me is a new sentient species. I can imagine running a game where that wasn't true, and you had 500 sentient species all coexisting happily in cosmopolitan cities and it was a common trope of an NPC that they were 'the' member of that species (that was part of the story). But not only do I not run that game, I've never been in that game (outside of say Star Wars).
    1. Ralif Redhammer's Avatar
      Ralif Redhammer -
      Heh, I actually use my cookbooks and bestiaries quite a bit (my wife, on the hand, prefers Pinterest for cooking recipes).

      I will always want more books of monsters and books of magic items. Especially when I’ve got players that have all of the core books, I want to still be able to bring surprises to the table.

      Quote Originally Posted by delericho View Post
      There's a lot of truth in this. Bestiaries are like cookbooks in that regard - an awful lot of people get them, spend some time admiring all the wonderful things, and then use virtually none of them.
    1. Celebrim's Avatar
      Celebrim -
      Quote Originally Posted by camazotz View Post
      You're using the bodak wrong.
      How do you use it?

      Also, to contrast, I believe as of 2016 I have used 99% of the monsters from the fiend folio, in later if not original incarnations. That is one of the most depths-plumbed tomes I've ever owned, and I consider it indispensable to my fantasy gaming.
      Curious. Achaierai, Adherers, Aleax, Algoids, Al-mi'raj and Astral Searchers then? The only entry in the A's I've ever used are Apparitions. In the last 30 years, I bet I've used less than 20% of the original Fiend Folio monsters in any game, and I can't say that I've ever encountered Achaierai, Adherers, Aleax, Algoids, Al-mi'raj or Astral Searchers either.

      I guess my tl;dr version is that I've always felt the more Bestiaries you own, the more returns diminish from owning more of them. Like, I can see reskinning an Algoid for some purpose or another, but the odds of using any of the rest of the 'a's are pretty darn small.

      UPDATE: Full list, Fiend Folio creatures have been 'used' in the sense of planned encounter or entry in a random encounter table. Starred entries were actually encountered in the game.

      Apparition*, Giant Bat*, Berbalang, Bullywug, Caryatid Column*, Coffer Corpse*, Crypt Thing*, Dark Creeper, Doombat*, Drow Elf*, Ettercap, Firedrake*, Forlarran, Gibberling, Grell, Huecuva*, Iron Cobra*, Lizard King, Mephit*, Phantasm*, Phantom Stalker, Sandman, Slaad*, Yellow Musk Creeper.

      The list of things I would use but haven't had the chance is probably not longer than what I have used. So even for a book that's been around that long, depending on how you define 'use', I've only used 10-20% of the book.

      Part of that is in that in a typical session, I will have as many or more homebrewed monsters than ones I took from someone else. So for example, the last session had dryads, phantasms (now treated largely as a Pathfinder haunt), juju zombies, pseudo natural templated giant piranhas, and a homebrewed undead warmachine and a homebrewed undead surgeon. Next session will probably have something along the lines of giant vampire bats, a green dragon, a quadrone, and homebrewed undead crane, plus some wandering encounters I haven't fully anticipated.
    1. Christopher Helton's Avatar
      Christopher Helton -
      Quote Originally Posted by Celebrim View Post
      Really? I was taking your original post seriously, but perhaps I was mistaken to do so.
      There's a couple of reasons why I can't take your post seriously. First off, it is purposefully, and willfully, ignorant of anything that has happened in the last 30 years, also it pretty much ignores the creative output of all of the people that I wrote about. As a critic, if I said something like that, you shouldn't have taken it seriously either, because it isn't actually contributing anything.

      Saying something like this in a home game? That's one thing. But saying it as part of a public discourse? That's just silly.

      Also, saying there's no use in the Fiend Folio? That's just writing off one of the most creative things that has come out of the history of gaming. I used it exclusively, for at least a decade, before I ever bought a Monster Manual.

      The Monster Manual has been repeated ad nauseum, and the material in it wasn't all that original to begin with. Mostly retreads of Tolkien and a number of other fictional sources.

      So, yes, I don't take responses like that seriously, as a gamer or as a critic.
    1. delericho's Avatar
      delericho -
      Quote Originally Posted by Ralif Redhammer View Post
      Heh, I actually use my cookbooks and bestiaries quite a bit (my wife, on the hand, prefers Pinterest for cooking recipes).
      A few years ago, I took a conscious decision to make considerably more use of my cookbooks. It was quickly apparent which ones were meant to be used, and which were meant to just look nice.

      I should perhaps do the same with Bestiaries.

      I will always want more books of monsters and books of magic items. Especially when I’ve got players that have all of the core books, I want to still be able to bring surprises to the table.
      Yep, I can certainly understand that. Personally, I would certainly like a couple more (for D&D 5e), but I don't need much more than that - I generally take the view that 1,000 monsters should really be enough. But YMMV, of course.
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