I’ve always loved monster books – in fact, my first Dungeons & Dragons book was the AD&D 2e Monstrous Manual rather than a Player’s Handbook. While I couldn’t completely understand the stat blocks until I bought the other rule books, the Monstrous Manual was full of interesting beasts and story tidbits that were perfect fodder for my imagination. Since then, new monster books have been the releases that I look forward to the most for each D&D edition. Even outside of role-playing games, I’ve purchased quite a few books like Arthur Spiderwick’s Guide to the Fantastical World Around You, The Discovery of Dragons, and A Tolkien Bestiary that are essentially monster manuals without any game stats.
While a basic monster book might just be a collection of game stats for a range of monsters, my favorites are the ones that are also full of plot hooks, setting information, and great artwork. While the stats are essential for play, it’s the rest of the entry that provides inspiration and encourages me to find a way to use the monsters in my game.
I recently expanded my collection of monster books by purchasing the 3 Pathfinder Bestiary books and have been reading through them over the past couple weeks. They’re a bit of a mixed bag for me for a few reasons. First, a lot of the monsters have existing 3.x versions in other books I own. While I recognize the need for Paizo to keep the SRD monsters in print, I also feel like they missed a bit of an opportunity to differentiate Pathfinder from D&D by taking different directions with some of the classic monsters. Second, Pathfinder feels a step behind 4e in terms of monster design. When looking at a Pathfinder or D&D 3.X statblock, there are a lot of things that require extra reference material (spell and feat lists) and a monsters primary tactics aren’t always as clear as I’d like. I’d also like to see more setting information, especially since Golarion is a more detailed assumed setting than D&D has used in its past couple editions, but the amount given is generally better than the pre-Essentials 4e Monster Manuals.
Despite those shortcomings, the three books do have a lot of things I like. Pathfinder art is generally top-notch and I appreciate the places where Paizo have put new twists on existing monsters and added entirely new monsters. For example, I like the idea of Derro abducting surface dwellers and then erasing their memories in a way reminiscent of alien abduction stories (which as far as I know isn’t something from D&D). While the first Bestiary has a selection of monsters very similar to the D&D 3.5 Monster Manual, the other two books in the series include a good number of new monsters and more obscure monsters from D&D’s past editions. I particularly liked the focus on non-European monsters in Bestiary 3 which included imperial dragons, asuras, oni, kami, rakshasas, and more.
While I’m not sure when I’ll actually run a Pathfinder game, I’m happy to have the books on my shelf as places to turn for inspiration no matter what game I’m running.