Monster manuals are one of the evergreen books in tabletop RPGs. Monsters can help define the world not just as things for the players to battle but also through their art and the bits of lore connected to each creature. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 4th Edition has kept monsters to a minimum so far, focusing on human antagonists with the occasionally fell Chaos beast at the end of an adventure. This may also be a byproduct of their release schedule focusing on adventures in towns and cities, most of which have an investigative tone rather than a good old fashioned dungeon stomp. That changes with The Imperial Zoo, the first dedicated monster book for the line. Though, in flipping through the review copy sent to me by Cubicle 7, they do keep the magazine style of the rest of the line by including some player facing elements to make chasing after beasts more about earning a profit than saving a town from a monster. Does the book deserve praise from the Emperor? Let’s play to find out.
The Imperial Zoo frames itself as a narrative exploration of the Old World wilderness written up for the pleasure of the court. The book splits the tour into three trips, with each section roughly corresponding to one of the three broad levels of character experience. On the low levels you have things ranging from giant wolves and rhinox, while the third trip looks into shard dragons and merwyrms. Many of these creatures offer glimpses of the world beyond the Reikland. Each writeup is framed as the explorer’s encounter with the beast. A handful of entries offer different statblocks, one for a generic version and the other for a “legendary '' one. TS Luikart, Elaine Lithgow and Padraig Murphy use one of my favorite game writing techniques to offer a little variety. Though the official account is in the main text, many entries come with small sidebars offering argumentative takes and alternate ideas about the monster's powers and behaviors. I’ve loved this element ever since I first encountered it in Shadowrun where the various shadowrunners would offer sarcastic takes on the text. These sidebars give the monster sections a little more pep.
On the players side, the game takes a swing at providing a new system for players who are fans of a certain silver-haired monster hunter known for taking steamy baths and having coins tossed at him. There’s a brief discussion on how monster hunters can profit off of slaying the beasts in the book by chopping the beast up and selling parts in town. It could just be that carnosaurs are good eating or that the local witch needs the eye of a night goblin for an upcoming ritual. It’s a pretty good fit for the Old World given how so many of the adventures are focused on player characters making a dishonest buck. This leads into the other new system in the book for players by brewing potions and poisons for themselves out of these exotic ingredients. The book rounds out with writeups of the characters who commented on the zoo entries, weapons and armor that are useful in monster hunts and a collection of creature traits for a one stop reference shop.
The Imperial Zoo sits somewhere between a monster manual and a wilderness campaign guide. Given the urban nature of this edition, I can see why now is a good time for a book like this. While I enjoyed the dissension in the write ups, my preferences lean towards direct discussion with the GM by providing hooks, variants and monster strategy over flash fiction. I found the wilderness guide stuff like selling monster parts and alchemy more engaging. I hope that we see a few more adventures focusing on those elements, as that’s where the strength of this edition truly lies.