Kobold Press’s Tome of Beasts 1 (2023 edition) is packed with over 400 monsters ranging from the adorable “Burrowling”, a small humanoid resembling a meerkat that will likely die from loneliness if separated from its folk, to the horrifying “Myling”, a spirit that attaches to a creature and saps their strength before dragging them into the earth as a final burial. Each monster stat block has accompanying art as well as a lore and an ecology guide. The appendices contain tables to allow quick searches for monsters based on CR, terrain, and creature type.
Many readers may own the 2016 edition of Tome of Beasts 1 and are hoping to understand if the changes warrant purchasing the 2023 edition. The significant changes are improvements to monster stats and mechanics, 18 new or newish monsters, and 11 removed monsters. There’s also a ton of new and improved art. See Kobold Press’s blog post for more information on exactly what changed.
Kobold Press provided review materials for this review.
Table of Contents
- Fantastic Villains
- Iconic Categories, Novel Monsters
- Surprising Experienced Players
- Do you need a few more beasts?
One of my favorite features of Tome of Beasts books are the monsters that can serve as centerpieces to homebrew campaign arcs or oneshots. Tome of Beasts 2 (affiliate link) had the Virtuoso Lich which I once used to “2000’s Alternative” my players’ characters to near death.
One of the creatures in the updated Tome of Beasts 1 that drew me in for an arc or oneshot is the Dissimortuum. This undead, CR 7 creature drags behind it using its third arm a sack of spare parts taken from its victims with intent to compose another Dissimortuum. A first Dissimortuum is created by a necromancer to slowly raise the undead, and this Dissimortuum is bound to obey the necromancer that created it. Subsequent Dissimortuums created are independent of this necromancer’s control.
The central feature of this creature is the nearly indestructible mask it wears. Even in death, this mask emits a magical aura. A creature that wears the mask, even briefly, may begin losing chunks of time. Perhaps they find evidence of macabre deeds performed during this time. Only too late do they realize they’ve been assembling a new body for the Dissimortuum as it rises before them, animated again.
What would I do with this creature? A Scooby Doo one shot! The party arrives at a small village in the dead of winter when the days have grown quite short. At first the townsfolk are suspicious, explaining that recently a necromancer had cursed the town with this three armed creature. Luckily, the village was able to destroy him and his undead creature, but there are some who believe their ordeal is not over. I’d provide clues such as:
- Someone was digging at a fresh grave in the graveyard
- Some of the necromancer’s things are still in the burnt husk of the home he was living in
The first night in the village an earth shattering scream would wake the party; they rush to find a fresh victim missing limbs. Through their investigation I’d expect them to piece together what is happening by interviewing townsfolk, reading a journal left behind by the necromancer, and looking for clues to the identity of the possessed in the graveyard and at the site of the murder. They would find their way to the Dissimortuum’s mask just as it rose, alive again, before the terrified, innocent villager that unwittingly assisted it. Alternatively, let them find the mask and seek a way to destroy it as a step along the way to a larger campaign.
Iconic Categories, Novel Monsters
In my homebrew arcs I like to world build through the creatures that I present to the party. If the party encounters a T-Rex deep in the heart of the jungle, then it only makes sense that they’d encounter other dinosaurs in the region as well. Tome of Beasts 1 provides sets of monsters including dinosaurs, angels, demons, devils, clockwork creatures, giants, fey lords and ladies, and spiders.
Intelligent creatures such as the fey lords and ladies might serve as fantastic NPCs with stat blocks at the ready should the party try to press their luck. The various clockwork creatures would be home in any setting where engineering and magic have become interlaced such as Eberron.
Surprising Experienced Players
My table tends to be a mixture of experience levels. When faced with a familiar enemy, my more experienced players will metagame a bit for their own character actions, but they’ll leave the joy of stumbling into resistances and vulnerabilities for the less experienced players. This often leads to less intraparty talk in combat than during roleplay and puzzle encounters. At other tables, one player that knows the secrets of the creature might spoil it for the whole party. This is sometimes satisfying, but sometimes deflating for the party. It’s also almost universally despised by the GM.
Some of my favorite combat encounters have been ones where no one in the party knows the details of the creature they’re encountering. All of the Tome of Beasts books are fantastic for this, and Tome of Beast 1 (2023 Edition) is no different.
Imagine I described to you a disheveled corpse crawling from the structure of a long forgotten ruin of a city. Its ashen skin flakes as it presses itself off the ground. It shambles towards the party, arms outstretched. You, savvy reader, may be thinking we have a run-of-the-mill zombie. It’s not until someone takes fire damage after touching or making a melee attack that you realize something is a bit different. I describe the flame bursting from the point of contact enveloping the party member that struck it. Then it releases its Draconic Breath on the party. And more of these creatures begin crawling from the rubble. Many more.
I’m describing the Ashwalker, one of the many monsters that were not published in the original Tome of Beasts, but added in this Tome of Beasts (2023 edition). Foes like this give even the most experienced player pause when encountering otherwise mundane creatures.
Again, imagine the party walking into a cave and seeing evidence of kobold occupation. The party hears murmurs ahead and sneaks into a room containing a number of kobolds equal to the party. Everyone agrees: you like these odds. The fighter rushes into the room to attack the kobold wearing war paint. Instead of scattering, the kobolds rally. The fighter strikes the painted kobold who in turn reacts by shooting spikes from his shield at the fighter. The kobold releases a warcry that frightens half the party, emboldening the other kobolds to rally and fight. Perhaps you’ve chosen the wrong cave.
The Kobold Chieftain, along with the Trapsmith and Alchemist, are three new kobolds that Tome of Beasts 1 add to the GM’s arsenal. The CR 5 chieftain would be a formidable boss fight for level-appropriate adventures, especially if supported by Monster Manual kobolds and an alchemist or trapsmith. These kobolds can also liven up any published module via substitution.
Do you need a few more beasts?
If you don’t own the original Tome of Beasts 1, then I’d say picking up Tome of Beasts 1 (2023 edition) is an easy choice! The quality of these creatures is fantastic. The opportunities for the homebrewer to create fantastic one shots and story arcs around these creatures are enriched by the quality of lore. In a system that is close to a decade old as of this review’s writing, the opportunity to provide new experiences for veteran players cannot be undervalued.
If you do own the original Tome of Beasts 1, it may be a bit harder to make the call. The added mechanical value comes as 12 new monsters, 6 updated monsters, and streamlined mechanics for many monsters after years of playtesting. As an example of streamlined mechanics take a look at the Bagiennik: an aberration that sits somewhere between Groot and the Swamp Thing. In the old version of the monster there is a long description that provides the option to stabilize a dying creature or act like a potion of healing or have the effect of a lesser restoration spell. The new description turns all those ors effectively into ands in about half the words. In the old version the action wasn’t in the action section so on a quick glance a DM might not realize the ability is useful in combat at all. For more detail see this blog post from Kobold Press. The 2023 edition also has updated art for over 30 monsters.
Tome of Beasts 1 (2023 edition) is available for purchase now in both digital (affiliate link) and physical (affiliate link) formats.