Publisher: Paizo Publishing
Favourite fantasy monsters are given a Pathfinder Chronicles pedigree. But is it worth paying close to twenty dollars for a 63 page monster book featuring only ten monsters, all of which are in the Monster Manual and are part of the OGL?
Pathfinder Playtest fever has me excited about Paizo Publishing as a company, but before the Pathfinder Beta ’s release, I’d only ever downloaded (through Paizo.com ) Pathfinder material. Everything else they have published independently has been tied into the Pathfinder adventure paths or been part of the Pathfinder Chronicles campaign setting about Golarion, the world in which all Pathfinder adventures take place. Finding a Paizo release generic enough to be used unmodified in my game sold this book for me. If it was even remotely useful, my expectations were met.
At a Glance
Part of Paizo’s reputation for top quality production can be attributed to the stunning full colour art they include in everything they publish. I know they recycle artwork, and normally I only comment on a book’s original pieces. Because I am not familiar enough with Paizo’s past releases to say what art appeared where previously, for this review I will proceed as though everything is new.
Andrew Hou’s cover artwork is very fun, a pack of goblins gleefully overtaking a single giant, possibly an ogre. The shame and disbelief on the giant’s face expands the events of the image.
Paizo showed how they could make the familiar new and exciting again with their take on goblins in the first Pathfinder Adventure Path, Rise of the Runelords. The sadistic little buggers on the cover let anyone who missed it up to now know that these aren’t your daddy’s goblins. Unless you daddy’s goblins are Gremlins. Then they’re a lot like your daddy’s goblins.
The cover isn’t perfect. The title of the book is a small star off to one side where one might expect hyperbole about how will Spiderman get out of this one. The title of the book definitely plays second fiddle to the Pathfinder Chronicles banner. I understand Paizo wants to get the Pathfinder name out there, build brand recognition, but throwing the name on everything they produce this side of the Game Mastery line can get confusing.
Inside the artwork is almost universally top notch. The monsters have been given a face lift that rejuvenates their look while emphasizing their defining features. Gnolls are depicted one step closer to hyenas, bugbears are creepy stalkers instead of hulking grunts, and orcs have never looked so barbaric.
Not every update is completely successful. Hobgoblins look extremely generic, but not in an appropriately military way. They are ordinary monsters. Trolls look plant-based, like wound roots. Interestingly there is mention of a troll variant called a Moss Troll that is described as “more plant than giant”. I would be impressed if an artist could fit more plant elements into the troll design.
It is rare to find a role playing game sourcebook so short on rules. For a book such as this to be worth a glance, it needs good writing. Classic Monsters Revisited has the best writing of any rulebook I have ever read. I do not make such a statement lightly. I was so immersed in the racial entries that I was caught unawares whenever I came across feats or items. The superb writing rekindled my interest in beasts I thought I knew.
Take the minotaur. The classic mythical minotaur was a single creature, the half-bull son of King Minos, not a race. Although the Greek minotaur was wholly tied with the labyrinth, generally the D&D minotaur race dropped this association. Classic Monsters Revisited brings it back. The Pathfinder minotaur lives in a maze that it uses as its hunting ground for sport. At night it leaves its home to drag someone in so it may spend the next week, month, year stalking this victim.
The bugbear is another wonderful example. Shortly after describing the bugbear’s gruesome habit of cutting off victims’ ears and stringing them to a necklace, there is mention of how bugbears get depressed any day they do not kill anything and pout while clutching they necklace of ears to their chest. I rode the prose like a subway from shocked to sympathetically amused.
An incredible amount of detail fits into each entry, exploring numerous facets of the lives of these creatures. I felt I got to know and understand their various evil ways of life without feeling like I’d just put down a copy of National Geographic.
Most impressive is that this was not the work of a single highly talented writer. This was developed and contributed to by a full writing staff. Maybe they each rose to the occasion. Maybe an alpha designer brought out the best in all the others. However it was accomplished, the writing is to be applauded.
Each chapter is about a familiar monster. After going into great detail about the typical examples of the race, a brief entry towards the end introduces significant variants. In just a couple of paragraphs, the origin of the variants, some flavour about them, and then rules for employing these variants in a game are outlined. Even the simplest variants, like the forest dwelling ogre variants the Shaggras, clearly have a lot of thought behind them. What’s more, these variants are unique to this publication, separating it from a talk-heavy version of the Monster Manual.
Important to the OGL
Editor-in-Chief James Jacobs reminds us in his introduction that the SRD was designed as a rule aid, not to provide information about those rules. A new player without access to the Monster Manual would know nothing about orcs beyond a stats block and physical description. Classic Monsters Revisited fills in the blanks between stats and character for these creatures better than even the source material.
Each of these monsters has a full page stats block, but it is just a reformatting of the SRD information. So the bulk of the crunch in this book is already available elsewhere.
This book does not have lots of rules for your character or campaign. It emphasizes ideas over options. However, there is that 1% crunch that Paizo dangles just in front of crunch-hungry gamers. This is not to make such people salivate, they are not cruel. Generally the rules are race-specific. Just not all of them. Buying Classic Monsters Revisited for these few rules is like buying Magic of Incarnum for the pleasure of reading.
Every chapter contains an “In Golarion” section. These are not longer than half a page and provide little more than geographic information about the creatures. If the campaign specific material stayed in this designated area, everything would be fine. Unfortunately, mentions of Golarion creep under the fence and into other sections at their leisure. Not enough to ruin a chapter, but enough to annoy readers uninterested in Golarion.
If you measure the value of a gaming book by its page count, this is undeniably one of the least valuable books published. It is shorter than an issue of Dragon magazine, back in that publications paperbound golden age. Even taking into consideration how dense the pages are with text, the book is short. When Paizo can sell the 410 page Pathfinder RPG Beta rulebook for $24.99, seven dollars more than this 64 page book, it is hard to argue that this is an expensive skinny book.
There aren’t many rules to talk about, but most of those that made the cut are pretty juicy.
The Slate-Stalker Bugbear variant has a brilliant supernatural ability. They can turn invisible to all but one creature. What is scarier than suspecting there is some deadly threat nearby? Being the only one that actually sees the threat.
Minotaur’s Charge is a feat that lets a charging character initiate a bulrush for free. It is a logical idea with an extremely simple mechanic, it is a wonder no one thought of the feat before. Extra points for tying minotaur into a rule with bull in the name.
Pummel is a special ability of the degenerate ogre that acts like rend but with bludgeoning weapons. Again, how did no one think of this before?
Not everyone would call this a juicy bit, but I love The Goblin Song.
Before one session of my home campaign, I read the chapter on lizardfolk. I had to include lizardfolk significantly in my next session. After that session, I read the chapter on minotaur. I had to devise an entire story arc in my campaign around the PCs caught in a minotaur’s labyrinth. In those two sessions, I included almost every creature in Classic Monsters Revisited and that is not a coincidence. The only creature I did not fit in was the troll, possibly because I hadn’t finished reading its entry yet.
This is the best a book like this could be. If you are interested in getting into the heads of your villains and enjoy a read while you’re doing it, pick up Classic Monsters Revisited. This is not even a suggestion, you have to. If you could live without a book that’s heavy on context and light on mechanics, there is very little for you here. Pick it up anyway.
If You Liked This Book…
One more time in case you haven’t clicked on any of the many links in this review to the Monster Manual.
Date Released: April 2008
Date Reviewed: August 22nd, 2008