By Thilo Graf
This pdf from Headless Hydra Games is 35 pages long, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1.5 pages of SRD, leaving 31.5 pages of content, so let’s check it this monster manual, shall we?
Monster manuals have come a long way since the 3.X-days of old – today not only the stat-blocks are easier to read, but most new monsters also come with signature abilities that make them unique and stand out. Subsequently, the standard and expectations we have for more monsters are perhaps higher than they once were. Seeing that Headless Hydra Games’ offerings have been hit and miss for me, I was quite curious to see which kind of creatures we get. Their Mor Aldenn campaign world, though it comes with interesting premises, has not yet been detailed to an extent that makes it easy for me to determine what to expect from it apart from a certain old world flair. Each of the creatures in this particular bestiary comes with a short paragraph of read-aloud text to introduce them to your players – nice to have. That being said, what kind of creatures are we introduced to in this bestiary?
The very first creature already offers a glimpse of the weirdness to be expected from this bestiary – the CR 11 Arachnus is a dread amalgam of spider and giant, multi-armed and legged and both poisonous and expert giant slayers. The brutish mutants make for interesting foes thanks to e.g. their climb speed, which offers them a mobility seldom seen for creatures of their size. I only have the minor gripe that a many-legged, a large arachnid creature should probably get stability as an extraordinary quality.
The second creature we’re introduced to is a variation of the Wight, the CR 6 Black Glass Wight – undead suffused by veins of fragile, reappearing black ice, these creatures are only created via the most vile of efforts and come with breathweapons, additional melee damage and an aura of terror. They come with a CR+3 template to create your own black glass undead, which is greatly appreciated by yours truly – there is something iconic and cool about these scions of depravity and death. However, the writing of this particular entry does not wholly go hand in hand with the excellent premise – some of the wordings could have been a bit more clear. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still good, though not stellar.
Shock troops for the Night Hag’s forces, the Blacktalon Lizardfolk (CR 4) is a sub race of Lizardfolk that is not only evil and stronger, but also heals faster. Nevertheless, I consider them to be LAME. It’s like in Diablo – colour the enemy different, make them tougher – viola. While they do have pounce and rend, making for new tactics, I think they would have benefited from a full-blown write-up in the style of Raging Swan’s TRIBE-series or their own pdf: An origin myth, tribal tactics etc. go a long way to endearing humanoids and making them unique. That is especially true for variants of existing creatures.
The next creature, though, more than makes up for the Lizardfolk: The Marsh Dragon comes with several age categories (as is the tradition with dragons) and 3 sample statblocks for the young (CR 8), adult (CR 12) and ancient (CR 17) age category, respectively. But wait, you say. Do we need another dragon? No, not really, but this one is no mere dragon: Grab a seat, the marsh dragon is a strange hybrid of dragon and plant, breathing cones of razor sharp growing spores that rapidly grown into entombing vines which attract deadly insects in droves. And they have facial tentacles and a mastery over shamblers (into which wyrms can transform you with a mere gaze!) – this dragon is simply creepy as hell, disturbing, has some lovecraftian undertones and a plethora of cool signature abilities – what’s not to like?
Next up is an entry of the Gaiants (with a sample CR 2 druid statblock), large humanoids somewhere between a treant and a fey, which are also a playable race in the Mor Aldenn setting. Seeing that they have their own pdf, I’ll get on to the next creature, the CR 5 Bog Giants: Reclusive marsh dwellers, they are a rather timid and gentle sub race of giants but failed to catch my interest due to a lack of unique fighting techniques and signature abilities.
The Gold Cap Myconids (CR 4) can’t complain about a lack of signature abilities – even stranger than their regular cousins, these intelligent mushroom-creatures. Their spores can access the momries of those near them, draining intelligence and making them alien sages of the underdark – now that’s cool!
The CR 11 Hag Spider (which you can see on the cover), predators created by the Night Hag from hags and phase spiders can ambush from the ether, spin webs from there and ensnare their victims in dread nightmares. Iconic-looking, cool plot-foes, these creatures are deadly and smart foes which make for some cool adventure ideas.
Next up is another definite winner, the Leypinner-fey (CR 10) – seeing that ley-lines seem to feature prominently in the Mor Aldenn-setting, these creatures are more than interesting – being able to entwine both multiple spells in their unique casting and weaving the fates of foes and friends, these powerful entities are also dependant on ley-lines, coming with several in-built ideas that will enable any DM to use them as allies, foes, or both – mechanically smart, full of fluff, these creatures are a prime example of excellent writing and design.
the Mahr (CR 5)-fey are on the rather dark side of fey – bugbear-like, fear-feeding kidnappers, they make for a nice take on the bogeyman-trope. their weakness to honest laughter also makes for a nice signature weakness to reward smart adventurers.
I’ve already commented on the CR 10 Manifest Child of the Ether in my review of the “Eldritch Spell Compendium”, so I’ll just mention that the creature is cool and reprinted here.
The swamps have more dangers in store for your PCs, though: The CR 1 Marshlings, an intelligent, rot-inducing plants and the mirejack (CR 6), a small, corruption and decay-spreading fey composed of rock, mud and tangled branches just wait around the next bog.
If your players ever get truly swamped (*pays 2 bucks into the bad pun box*), the intelligent, huge Mythravens (CR 7) make for cool allies/rescuers – wise birds with 4 precious, magical gemstones in their beaks, they make for interesting allies as well as dangerous game for less scrupulous parties hired by wizards to harvest the gems.
The CR 10 plaguecrawlers are more deadly, huge, disease-spraying variations of carrion crawlers – the vermin is so twisted, even its blood is a carrier of diseases.
Portunes (CR 2), a take on the wee-folk of Germanic and Scandinavian mythology, these little fey are sought-after servants for mages (especially relevant in places like Mor Aldenn, where mage-schools are so prevalent) and come with a new magic item-template, the wondrous trinket, which might make for a mischievous gift if the PCs don’t honour their portrune or break the traditional taboos. It’s fluff like that which makes an otherwise unremarkable statblock come to life – nice!
The CR 1/3 Puppet Imps (amalgams of sticks and pebbles) already known from the stories included in the expanded player’s guide, these itching wounds inflicting foes are neat low-level enemies.
The Spell Pikes, CR 4 pikes with variants for each school, make for an interesting concept – the excess magical energy mutated these fish and gave them some interesting abilities, which might make the creatures not only a bane for fishers, but also for some interesting plot ideas. This is the only critter in the book that lacks its own artwork.
The CR 8 Stiltskin is reprinted from the Moon Folly-pdf and in the end, we get 2 interesting animal-like creatures: The Tuskbeast (CR 3) is a blind boar with bone-spikes on the back and the CR 6 Veraxar is a tiger-like, intelligent being with some supernatural spell-like abilities and Elven affinities.
The b/w-artwork throughout this book is GORGEOUS and can hold its place with the best of 3pp-publications out there. Formatting is clear and the statblocks and abilities are easy to read. Layout adheres to a two-column standard and is quite printer-friendly. I would have loved to see bookmarks, though – at this length, they really help navigating the file. It should also be noted, that at ~50 MBs, this pdf is rather large, something to keep in mind when working with e-readers. Monster manuals are always welcome at my table, but right now, I’m a jaded guy – I’ve read so many of them that it has become hard to impress me with just about any creature out there.
That’s why I’m happy to report that the Mor Aldenn Creature Compendium is BRIMMING with cool ideas, iconic creatures and smart signature abilities. To the point, in fact, where I consider only 3 of the creatures herein rather bland – that makes for a LOT of cool foes. In an ideal world, I’d happily give this pdf 5 stars and the Endzeitgeist seal of approval. However, there are unfortunately some blemishes marring what would otherwise be a stellar product: While the reprints of some of the monsters are nice to have, they take up space that could have been used for original critters. The argument of having all collected in one book does not apply, as the death raven from the Eldritch Spell Compendium is missing. More importantly, though, this pdf could really have used another pass at editing – there are a lot of glitches, from punctuation errors, wordings that could have been clearer and forced me to reread a sentence to other minor glitches, that, while not impeding the overall usability of the book, make some of the entries harder to read than others. Seeing the amount of authors who contributed, this inconsistent quality is not surprising, but it unfortunately does tarnish what otherwise would by a stellar example of design and writing. No bookmarks, a lot of errors and some reprinted material would usual result in a final verdict of 3 stars. I LOVE these creatures, though – they are mostly smart designed , iconic and cool and the price for this pdf is very low. Thus, I’ll settle for a final verdict of 3.5 stars, rounded up to 4. If you don’t care about the editing glitches and missing bookmarks, GO GET THIS. For you, this pdf is a five star purchase.
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