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Dragon Warriors Bestiary
One of the conceits of the Dragon Warriors setting is that the Lands of Legend are thinly veiled takes on countries and cultures from our own history: our Jerusalem becomes Crescentium, our Venice becomes Ferromaine, our Roman Empire becomes the Selentine Empire, and so on.
The Dragon Warriors Bestiary applies a like conceit to the inhabitants of the setting; creatures mundane and fantastic are ripped from the histories and mythologies of our cultures to populate the the Lands of Legend; some creatures are presented unchanged, others are given fantastic twists, and a fistful are cut whole cloth from the imaginations of authors Dave Morris and Oliver Johnson.
What’s In This Book?
The Bestiary devotes 70 of its 90 pages to cataloguing ~138 creatures from the Lands of Legend setting; book chrome and Chance Encounter and Treasure & Habitat tables account for the remaining pages. The complete absence of any player-facing content means that the Bestiary is for GMs only.
The creatures aren’t presented alphabetically: rather, creatures are categorized into sections such as Animals, The Undead, Creatures of Sorcery, that sort of thing. This categorization isn’t hugely helpful; happily, the index is useful and makes finding creatures by name a cinch.
Each creature merits a few paragraphs of flavour text, followed by a stat block and details of any special abilities or spells. I’ve embedded a representative stat block to the left of this paragraph. Yeah, the Bestiary is Ronseal-like in that it does exactly what it says on the tin, game on.
The Bestiary is packed with creatures ranging from the usual Elves and Dragons through the unique Volucreth and Death’s Heads—“vile supernatural creatures [with] the appearance of a human head with a long horn sprouting from the forehead and black bat-like wings behind the ears.” Rakshah, Minotaurs, and Hydras make welcome appearances too, and the authors give some of these mythological monsters a Legend-ary spin.
Many of the creatures are designed with the intent that the GM use them sparingly to provide surprising opposition to players jaded from too many encounters with Wights and Harpies. This Saturday Night Special vibe means that design-by-exception is the order of the day, with lots of custom rules embedded in the text; the index is hugely useful here in making it easy to flip to the relevant creature block.
Remarkably few of the creatures are illustrated, maybe 1 in 5 or thereabouts. My battered paperback of Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings has no illustrations, but it ain’t like I’m gonna be pushed to narrate a description of an enraged Humbaba anytime soon. When you’re GMing, it’s kinda nice to be able to hoist up your monster manual and point to an illustration while letting rip with an enthusiastic slice of narration. You can’t really do that with the creatures in the Bestiary ’cos there ain’t a lot of illustrations to go around.
The Bestiary is published in softcover and PDF formats. Both formats are black-and-white affairs, sporting the usual “two-column layout with generous margins” design common to the Dragon Warriors line, and a full-colour cover painting by Jon Hodgson. The text sports a hefty table of contents and the aforementioned index of every creature in the book is useful. (The index in the PDF version doesn’t take advantage of the technology to hyperlink the index, which a small missed opportunity.)
Hodgson’s cover painting of a Knight weathering the fury of a dragon’s breath is smoking hot. Friends or Foes was the next book published, and the story continues on that book’s cover as we see the body of the roasted Knight lying across the back of a mule. Well played Hodgson.
A Solid Purchase
Many RPGs have monster manuals, and the Bestiary is a perfectly presentable and workmanlike example of the form. If you’re running a flavour of the Dragon Warriors RPG that is about fantastic dungeon-crawling, then the Bestiary is a solid purchase. There are enough creatures contained within its covers to keep players on their toes for many a delve into the barrows of long dead kings.
If you’re running a game that’s “dripping with a European folktale sensibility,” one “where the fae and the fantastic lurk on the blasted moors and are rarely seen,” then the Bestiary is less useful. For such games, one where atmosphere and mystery are front and center, a workmanlike catalogue of creatures mundane and fantastic is pablum.
Hearken To Raggi
The well-regarded Pendragon RPG, which shares some thematic elements with the style of Dragon Warriors game that I favour, devotes a mere 10 pages to a perfunctory bestiary; that paucity is a feature. As James Raggi opines in his Lamentations of the Flame Princess RPG, “fantasy gaming tends to overuse monsters, turning adventures into a safari.”
You will note that unlike almost every roleplaying game ever, there is no “stock” list of monsters included with this game. Because monsters should be unnatural and hopefully a little terrifying, using stock examples goes against the purpose of using monsters to begin with. [That] the players need challenges and fights is understood, but the temptation is always too great to skim through a standard monster list to lazily fill out an adventure. Don’t do this. Not ever!