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Dragonbane Bestiary $19.99
Publisher: Free League Publishing
by Austin C. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 05/17/2024 12:12:10

This review was originally posted on my site:

Last year’s boxed Core Set for Dragonbane was one of the best launch products I’ve ever bought. Its combination of clear rules and dozens of hours of playable content left me eager to see what’s next! The latest book in Free League’s game line is the Dragonbane Bestiary. This collection of new beasties excited me for several reasons. First, one of my few criticisms of the Core Set was that its bestiary felt a little light (although considering how much is packed into the box I was hardly “disappointed”). The second—and more substantial—is that I really like Free League’s Book of Beasts for their Year Zero Engine survival fantasy game, Forbidden Lands.

With all that in my mind, there was just one question remaining: would the new Bestiary live up to the hype? Let’s dive in and find out.

Disclaimer: I received a free hardcover copy of the Dragonbane Bestiary in exchange for an honest review. Thank you, Free League!

WHAT’S INSIDE? The Dragonbane Bestiary is a 148-page book which contains 63 entries describing creatures ranging across a variety of fantasy adventure antagonists. These are organized into thematic chapters loosely following the fiction that the book is a work penned by the in-world halfling Theodora Sneezewort. Each entry begins with a quotation from someone else in-world which usually provides an “uneducated” opinion on the creature. This is followed by Theodora’s description, which is typically about one paragraph. A random encounter and an adventure seed follow, along with the creature’s statblock and a monster attacks sidebar (if required).

In addition to providing a bevy of antagonists for the gamemaster, nine of the Bestiary‘s entries are also available as new Kin for player characters. This includes both traditionally hostile “nightkin” species like orcs and goblins, as well as reclusive “rare kin” such as lizard people and satyrs. Those creatures which are intended as a player option are provided with suggested names and a unique innate ability. Unlike other fantasy games, Dragonbane‘s rules for Kin focus on one or two traits rather than more detailed differences, so this is in line with the Kin options in the Core Set.

For a game with a focus upon classic dungeon-crawling goodness, I was pleasantly surprised with how much humanity is written into many entries. I was also pleasantly surprised that this humanity is not presented in a “preachy” way. Theodora’s notes and the encounter/adventure seeds hint at nonviolent resolutions to conflicts. I feel they also acknowledge that people in the world may well have good reasons for being wary when dealing with these creatures! The emphasis on options and choices works well.

Each entry is laid out as a two-page spread, with no overlap onto prior or following pages. This provides the Bestiary with a fair bit of utility, since a gamemaster doesn’t need to flip around to find the relevant information. In a similar vein there are some entries reproduced here which are also present in the Core Set. For example, the ghost is described in both (with the same stats), but the Core Set’s descriptive paragraph is replaced with Theodora’s notes and the encounter/adventure seeds are added. Some of the “overlap,” in fact, is illusory. The Core Set has a single entry for dragons and for demons, while the Bestiary has sections dedicated to each of the game’s marquee monsters. Providing options such as guardian demons and shadow demons provides the gamemaster with additional tools and story ideas.

Overall I found the Bestiary‘s entries to be flavorful and interesting, but they didn’t quite live up to my expectations. A comparison with the Book of Beasts might help explain why.

Several of the Dragonbane Bestiary entries struck me as, frankly, short. The two-page spread is often about a page of text and a page of art. Much of that text, too, is the creature’s game mechanics. I found Theodora’s notes and the encounter/adventure seeds had good flavor, but that flavor worked as a “hook.” It left me wanting a deeper explanation of the topic. For example, the giant spider’s adventure seed mentions the ancient, telepathic spider Krikelbik and her family. Telepathy isn’t mentioned elsewhere in the entry (including the monster attacks table). Don’t get me wrong—talking gigantic spiders are kind of hilarious to inflict on players—but situations like this are a missed opportunity to provide more of the “living” context which the humanizing element seems interested in exploring.

Curious about gigantic spiders in my own work? To Hunt a God includes the philosophic vegetarian Yama-kisintha, who only eats Aldryami because logically, only entities which have blood are people. She horrifies and amuses me, and I bet she’ll make your players feel squeamish too.

More plainly, the book does feel somewhat … barren. It feels like there was both conceptual and physical space on the page to add more content. Even when I compare the Bestiary to the Monster Manual for Dungeons & Dragons 5E I feel the latter has provided more contextual information on its creatures’ habits, desires, and lives.

In contrast, one reason I love the Book of Beasts is its abundance of useful content and interesting ideas. For example, each entry has a “Resources” section which describes what adventurers might harvest from the monster. The inclusion of Lore rolls increases the detail about each entry, and it feels that there’s just plain more text on each page.

That said, it is worth noting that the Book of Beasts is digest-sized, so filling four pages per entry isn’t the same as filling four pages of US Letter. Nonetheless, I hope that comparison still demonstrates what I was hoping would be included in the new Dragonbane release.

PRODUCTION The production quality of the Dragonbane Bestiary is excellent. In particular, I want to note the high-quality polish given to the book’s text. This is something I think doesn’t get mentioned often in reviews when done well. (If you’re familiar with any of my other critical work, you’ve probably noticed I’m a teensy bit finicky about text.) Throughout the whole work, I think I noticed a single typo. That’s really, really impressive.

On a related note, I also compared a few page references to the rulebook in my Core Set, and they all seem accurate. I don’t have the separate Dragonbane Rulebook which is available as a hardcover from Free League, but from the product information I have reason to believe that the pagination between the two versions is identical. The Bestiary ought to be user-friendly regardless of which rulebook you’re using.

As Free League notes on the Bestiary‘s product page, much of the art is reused from a prior edition of Dragonbane. Since I’m unfamiliar with any prior edition this doesn’t bug me much—and I’m fairly sure this is the first English edition, anyway?—but it’s worth noting for consumers who do care. I do want to note that, to my knowledge, none of this art overlaps with the Core Set. If you’re new to the game like me, all of the art is essentially brand-new.

That said, the art is very good. My disappointment in the “barrenness” certainly is not due to the quality of the art! I do think that in layout some pieces I would have selected as “half-page” or “quarter-page” illustrations have been used to fill even a whole page. This hasn’t led to reduced resolution or visual quality.

CONCLUSION The Dragonbane Bestiary is a pretty good product, but didn’t live up to my expectations based on Free League’s prior works. If you already have and like Dragonbane, I do think buying the Bestiary is a no-brainer. You’ll get plenty of use out of its helpful combination of mechanics and story ideas.

If you haven’t already bought in, I don’t think the Bestiary is providing a must-follow example of how to create this type of collection. I also don’t really think I can recommend the Bestiary if, like me, Dragonbane is mostly on your Kink Shelf. This strikes me as a book which will be very helpful during games at the table, but struggles to be engaging for the armchair enthusiast.

(Not that I wouldn’t love to take Dragonbane for a drive but, y’know, scheduling…)

For DriveThruRPG scoring I’ve decided to give the Dragonbane Bestiary a four out of five because I do feel the book fell short of my expectations, and because I feel past products validate those hopes. This Bestiary certainly is not a “bad” book. I do, however, feel that it fell short of Free League’s (admittedly high) average book. Dragonbane is still an intriguing system, and I’m certainly still looking forward to Free League’s next release for the game line.

The Dragonbane Bestiary is available in PDF on DriveThruRPG for $19.99, and in hardcover on the publisher’s website for 438.00 kr. That’s currently $41.80, but I believe the listed price could change between the time of writing and publication. (No, I’ve never had to pay exchange rates or out-of-country shipping costs when purchasing a book from Free League; they don’t have any “hidden costs.”)

[4 of 5 Stars!]
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Dragonbane Bestiary
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