Thursday, April 11, 2024

Dragonbane Bestiary Review

I am on a Dragonbane kick at the moment. So, I thought it might be fun to review the Dragonbane Bestiary. I'd like to start off by stating that I made a mistake in my previous post about the Dragonbane Core Rules and the Dragonbane Bestiary. I stated that all the Dragonbane products were illustrated by Johan Egerkrans. This is incorrect. The core rules are illustrated by Johan, but the bestiary (with the exception of the cover) is illustrated by David Brasgalla. Sorry for that, David. (Hopefully, sharing some of your beautiful works here will make up for my oversight.) It's a testament to Free League's design aesthetic that I mistakenly assumed that both books were illustrated by the same person. The look of the Dragonbane books is very consistent, and they're beautiful.

The book opens with an introduction that's written as if representing the point of view of a person in the Dragonbane world who has made it their life's goal to travel around and catalog all of these creatures. Each chapter and each entry in the bestiary have a similar introduction. While it might seem like fluff, these entries do a great job of creating a vision of the Dragonbane world. The Dragonbane rules don't include a default setting. The boxed set does include a campaign with a setting, but honestly, I wasn't inspired by it. Fortunately, the same can't be said for the bestiary. The short bits of fiction create such a vivid picture of where and how the creatures described in the bestiary live, that the world is created as you read each one. I love this.

The creature stat blocks have the same format as those presented in the core rulebook, and zero time is spent reviewing that material. The book jumps right into the creature entries after the brief introductory fiction that I mentioned above and a sidebar about playable kin. Oh, yes … Dragonbane divides its NPCs into monsters and non-monsters. Non-monsters are humanoid creatures that play by the same base rules as the PCs, while monsters have their own special rules. (I talk about how this is a good thing in my previous post.) Every non-monster in the bestiary is presented as a kin. That is, it can be chosen as a player character option during character creation. (Kin is what D&D used to refer to as your character's race.) This expands the list of kin available to players from 6 to 15.

Every listing in the bestiary features one creature on a two page spread. The stat blocks are simple and most creatures require little detail. Each entry has a large beautiful illustration. In addition to the mechanical information about the creature, there is the flavor text that I mentioned before, and an example encounter as well as an adventure seed. The example encounter presents a single situation under which the players might find themselves faced with the creature, while the adventure seed sets up a plot that could involve the players with the creature over a number of play sessions. Every single entry in the bestiary includes both of these!

Entries in the bestiary are broken up into categories of creatures. First is the Nightkin. This entry includes: goblins, hobgoblins, ogres, and orcs. This was an interesting one for me. All the Nightkin share an aversion to sunlight and come out only at night. I never thought of this particular group of creatures that way. Goblins and Orcs run around in the sunlight all of the time in other games that I have played. In Dragonbane, they are nocturnal. So, already I find myself imagining a different kind of world. Also, as often as not, the flavor text for a creature paints a picture of a non-violent encounter. Often a creature in the bestiary might be personified as ill-tempered or difficult to get along with, but creatures in Dragonbane aren't necessarily good or evil. As an example, look at this excerpt taken from the entry for the ogre.

"My great-grandmother had an ogre. It came to the farm one day, hungry and alone. Before long it had moved into the barn and started helping with everything from pulling the plow to ditching and heavy lifting." – Julinel Garpe, farm wife

See what I mean about the flavor text helping to paint a picture of the Dragonbane world? Text like this appears on every page.

After the Nightkin are a group called the Rare Kin. These are communal creatures (hence the "kin") who are more rare and isolated. First here are the Cat People and I know more than one of my players who will be excited to see this as a playable option in Dragonbane. Also in this group are: the Centaur, the Fairy, Frog People, the Harpy, the Karkion, Lizard People, the Mermaid, the Minotaur, the Naiad, the Satyr, the Swan Maiden, and Tree Kin. Other notable kin from this group are the Frog People and the Karkion. I mention the Frog People because they have a leap ability that can end in an attack, and it reminds me of the Barbarian from the Diablo computer game. (Also, my daughter loves Frog People.) The Karkion are something that I've never heard of, and they seem to be unique to Dragonbane. (This assumption is reinforced when a quick web search finds that Karkion is also the name of a dedicated Dragonbane fanzine.) They are some kind of alien species that hunts demons. Their illustration makes them look like cat people with bat wings, and they can fly. Karkion and Frog People are character options as playable kin.

The other categories in the bestiary are: Insectoids, Trolls, Giants, Beasts, Undead, Dragons, and Demons. None of the creatures in any of these categories includes playable kin. The beasts section is interesting because it begins with a discussion of good and evil, and again emphasizes that such concepts can't really be applied universally to any being in the Dragonbane universe. 

Beasts include all manner of creatures that are predators. The category isn't for "animals," but for monstrous predators. Beasts are monsters motivated by their own survival first and foremost. Beasts regard other creatures as either a threat to their survival or as food.

Dragons and Demons are the most powerful beings in the Dragonbane world, and both are extremely dangerous. These creatures are described as having powers and motivations beyond mortal understanding, except that it is clear that Dragons and Demons hate each other. In Sweden Dragonbane is called, "Drakar och Demoner" which stands for Dragons and Demons. These creatures are central to the myth and legend of the Dragonbane world.

Every page of the Dragonbane Bestiary helps create a picture of a unique fantasy world. It's gorgeous. It's evocative. It's pure in its presentation. It's a perfect example of how these kinds of source books should be written. If Free League continues to support the Dragonbane product line with works like this one, Dragonbane is leveraged to push out 13th Age as my favorite fantasy RPG, and that is high praise indeed.

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