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Reviews of 'The Bestiary'

The Bestiary

by Steven 'Stan!' Brown
Fifth Age, Volume 4


Reviews of 'The Bestiary'

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Reviewer: Matthew L. Martin

Rating: Stars

The Bestiary is intended to be the definitive guide to the creatures of Krynn, as well as a fun read for both novel fans and game fans. Despite a couple design decisions I'm not sure about, and a few glitches, it fulfills this role quite admirably.

Cover: Remove the DL and SAGA logos, and strip Stan!'s cover credit, and this could very well be the book as seen on the shelves of the Great Library . The cover's got a very archaic, Krynnish feel to it, and since that's what the product is shooting for, it succeeds wonderfully.

The Author's Foreword is, as usual, an interesting look into the thoughts of the designer, laying out Stan!'s feelings and intent on this project. There's reportedly a move by some people at TSR to get this added to every TSR game product, and I strongly support that idea.

The Prologue, one of the two parts of the book in 'gamespeak' and the traditional green, white, and black design, is designed primarily for a listing of special abilities. This may have worked better in the back of the book, right next to the capsule stats, but I can see the logic in placing it up front as well. In either case, it's a good idea for a product like this, as it allows the stat blocks in the descriptions to be minimized. While some may say it's paying for material most of us already own, it also reduces the amount of books to flip through. It's not great reading, but it's necessary to make The Bestiary a complete product.

Then, we move on to the meat of the book: "An Ansalon Bestiary: Caramon Majere's Guide to Meeting Fantastic Creatures of Myth and Legend, and Surviving the Experience". According to the in-world story, Caramon and Bertrem have written this book together, and it shows. It sounds just like I'd expect the two of them to sound: Caramon's a great storyteller, if a bit self-effacing in spots, and Bertrem is perfect - studious, fastidious, and a bit stuffy. The pairing of the two makes The Bestiary as fun to read as it is useful, due to the dichotomy of voices.

Chapter One: "Ansalonian Beasts" is the longest chapter in the book, at 64 pages, the length of some whole TSR supplements. That may be something of a problem. There are a lot of great stories and ideas in this chapter, as well as numerous strange and unusual creatures, but the fact remains that the bulk of this chapter is dedicated to mundane beasts. Now, these creatures are quite important on Krynn, especially in maintaining the real-world feel that I consider important to a good DL story. I'm just not sure if this chapter couldn't have been trimmed a bit to make some more room for the creatures more likely to hook the reader. Part of me wants to say that this chapter also might have been better later in the book, after a browser could be caught by the more fantastic creatures, but I'm not sure how that would have fit in the 'in-world' design rationale. In any case, while I'm not sure some of this material was necessary, most of it was interesting. We learn a lot about the creatures that inhabit Ansalon, and we get some interesting stories from Caramon in the process. This is where most of the continuity 'glitches' that have been mentioned can be found, so I might as well address that topic here. To be honest, I wasn't bothered that much by most of them. I'm quite willing to accept that Caramon and the rest of the Heroes went to Sanction at some point during or after the war. The bits with Silvara left me a little confused, but I can see how they can be rationalized. The only one that really left me annoyed was that about Sturm and Caramon talking about the High Clerist's Tower, since I cannot for the life of me see how that can be munged into continuity in any way.

Chapter Two: Magical Creatures deals with the more supernatural beasts of Krynn. Most of these creatures will be familiar to longtime gamers, although I'd never heard of Nature Elementals, and found them an interesting and offbeat concept. This is good stuff, but not exceptional.

Chapter Three: Monsters covers the creatures that really don't just fit anywhere else. We get some interesting speculations on the chimera, and the wyndlass is another monster I'd never heard, but is quite interesting--it could be used to add something of a Lovecraftian horror feel to a DL game.

Chapter Four: Undead and Unnatural gives us a look at those things that really should not be. The chaos creatures get described first, as we see how two different people see a daemon warrior. There's also an interesting note that the frost-wights and shadow-wights don't seem to have any real evidence for their existence, which makes sense--they don't leave bodies behind when slain, and anything they touch (as well as most of the people they encounter) disappears, so all that's left is eyewitness reports. The chapter then moves into the traditional undead. Caramon's opinions on Soth were amusing; I wonder how he'd react if he were informed of Soth's 'current' status? :-) The legend on ghouls also struck me, as did the origin of spectral minions, which explains a lot about how they came to haunt Darken Wood. There are a couple things that left me confused in this chapter, though; I think I understand how the "Restless Dead" applies to the creatures described following that point, but it took me a look or two. That might just be because I usually don't think of vampires and the like in that way, though.

Chapter Five: Dragons and Dragonkin highlights the draconic monsters. I'd have liked to see more space on the dragons, but _Wings of Fury_ already fills that niche. (Regarding chromatic dragons and their ties to mortal vices, I'd link Blacks to Cruelty, Blues to Pride, Greens to Avarice, Reds to Hatred, and Whites to Sloth.) We get a lot of space on draconians, but not too much on the spawn, given that they're new and undeveloped. Draconic relatives also get a good number of mentions, although I was slightly surprised to see the gorgon placed in that category. Putting worms in this category was amusing, too.

Chapter Six: Peoples of Krynn discusses the humanoid races. Everyone can relax, the brutes made it in. Most of this chapter discusses the goblinoids, beastmen, and ogrekin. Good stuff, but again, nothing exceptional.

The Epilogue, "Monsters and You", deals with how to use monsters in a campaign. It gives guidelines for making monsters unique, as well as picking monsters at random for dropping into an adventure. I don't think much of random encounter tables, but some gamers use them, and they are a part of DL tradition. We also get the conversion notes on monsters reprinted almost verbatim from the Fifth Age boxed set, as well as a list of creatures by habitat and a handy index/master monster table.

Now that I've done the breakdown of the book's chapters, how does it stand up as a whole?

Art: Quite nice. Both the sketches and the color illustrations are nicely done. They're not as slick as traditional DL artwork, but since these are supposed to be Usha's renditions of the beasts of Ansalon, they fit well. There are a couple I don't care for--that shadow-wight looks a bit too reptilian, and the brute looks more like a hairy and dazed sailor than a brutal barbarian soldier--but overall, I was impressed.

Writing: Extremely well-done. Between this and Citadel of Light, I've come around to the idea of using first-person narration in source material, something I was skeptical of before. Caramon and Bertrem, as I mentioned before, make for a wonderfully fun pair of narrators. Caramon gives us the adventurer's view, while Bertrem takes a more scholarly approach. We also get a couple 'cameos' from Raistlin (flashback only), Palin, and Goldmoon, who give their own distinctive styles. There are a couple moments that really shine, especially in the "Undead and Unnatural" chapter--Caramon's aforementioned opinion of Lord Soth, Bertrem's explanation of why Soth might not be unique, an account of the Companions confronting a vampire, and the classic line "How many libraries do you know of that have zombies rearranging books?" (No, I'm not going to explain that one; buy the book yourself!) Others that come to mind include Caramon going gorgon-hunting, his encounters with manticores and hill giants, Alhana's opinions on chimera, and the description of the wyndlass. In addition to the plain fun, the book's also a wonderful resource. I can only think of two creatures I know of on Ansalon offhand that aren't described; Stan! said they'd only missed about half a dozen. (Still, I wish dreamshadows and dreamwraiths had shown up; I've heard of them, but never had a writeup. Maybe in the 15th Anniversary Project.) We get descriptions of how the creatures live, fight, and interact with mortals, as well as information on their role in Krynn's history, legends about their origin or role in myth (I liked the one on snakes), and some descriptions of adventures had by Caramon or his companions. Nearly every creature has some sort of blatant adventure hook, although this does tend to die out near the book's end.

As a good read, this comes highly recommended. As a piece of art, it reaches nearly the same level. As a resource, this is a definitive work on Ansalonian beasts; buy a copy and put it on the same shelf as the classic adventures, the first three ,i>Chronicles, Art of the Dragonlance Saga, Leaves, the Atlas, and the Fifth Age box. It's one of the best supplements done for the Fifth Age, and the most useful to the average gamer. Very impressive, Stan!


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