It’s rerun week here at The Daily Bestiary. To give myself a little break while I manage things on the home front, I’m posting a “Best of” list I submitted to Reddit’s r/rpg subreddit last March. Enjoy Part 2!
17) Races of Stone David Noonan, Jesse Decker, Michelle Lyons
The Races series lacks a certain oomph. The books have their moments—Races of Destiny’s illumians look undeniably cool, and the invention of the goddess Dallah Thaun in Races of the Wild to explain the edgier side of the 3.5 halfling character is inspired. But on the whole they are skippable, with two exceptions. The first is Races of Stone.
If you like dwarves, Races of Stone is obviously for you. But if you’re not a dwarf fan, RoS might make you one. Their lives are described with richness. Their pantheon is interesting. There are prestige classes and rune magic to explore.
RoS’s chapter on gnomes may not work for the fey gnomes of Golarion. But you won’t care because you’ll have already skipped ahead to the goliaths. At time of publication, these competition-obsessed giant barbarians instantly felt fresh and likeable, with a psychology that made sense and customs and legends that brought them to life. It’s no wonder they made the transition to 4th Edition (in the Player’s Handbook 2, no less), and they’ll easily make the transition to your Pathfinder game as well. They instantly fit the bill for a big brute PC who doesn’t come with the baggage of a half-orc…and the fact that they wield oversized weapons will have your damage-obsessed players drooling.
Add to that some decidedly weird but compelling subraces—chaos and whisper gnomes, dream dwarves, feral garguns, and stonechildren—and some solid prestige classes and feats (Fling Ally!) and you have a book that offers a lot for your Pathfinder game. [Edit: I probably should have said more here. While the default D&D gnome doesn’t work as well for Pathfinder, chaos and whisper gnomes fit in perfectly. And dream dwarves and stonechildren are just weird and unexpected in a very good way.]
16) Fiendish Codex I: Hordes of the Abyss Ed Stark, James Jacobs, Erik Mona
Hordes of the Abyss comes low on our list because it’s a bit of a repeat: Two later books on this list (spoiler alert: Manual of the Planes and the Book of Vile Darkness) cover a lot of the same territory. But HotA is able to give more real estate to each of the demon lords, and softens up their stats a bit so that non-epic-level parties can still have some fun. It’s also got good advice on how to use different demons for specific roles in your campaign. But the real meat is 50(!) pages of Abyssal locations and adventure hooks that can be dropped right into Pathfinder’s Abyss without even blinking. After all, the number of layers in the Abyss is supposed to be infinite, right? Change the eladrin to azatas and the obyriths to qlippoths and you’re good to go. If you like demons, get this book.
Further reading: Hell books never seem to have the freewheeling spirit of the Abyss (a case of art imitating alignment?). Fiendish Codex II: Tyrants of the Nine Hells is a decent edition to your shelf, especially if you like Hellish politics, but only after you own HotA. Also, James Jacobs’s “The Demonimicon of Iggwilv” series fleshed out the demon lords even more in the pages of the 300 era of Dragon. [Edit: Reading this again, I definitely stress HotA first, then TotNH only if you’re a big devil fan. And Green Ronin’s Legions of Hell book is great; I haven’t yet read Armies of the Abyss.]
15) Player’s Guide to Eberron James Wyatt, Keith Baker, Luke Johnson, Stan!
This one comes in early on our countdown for pretty obvious reasons—it’s basically a digest of other Eberron sourcebooks, including ones that will appear later on this list (hint, hint). But it definitely deserves to be here, because it does something that (pre-Pathfinder) I’ve never seen another Player’s Guide successfully do—it actually gives players a sense of what their characters would know about the world!
(This shouldn’t seem novel, but it is. Seriously, the Player’s Guide to Faerûn barely even tries; it’s just another excuse to slather on feats, spells, and prestige classes.)
As a GM, I might not just hand this book over to my players wholesale. But I’d certainly Xerox from it with abandon: “Okay, so you want to play a half-orc with a dragonmark? Cool. Let’s say you lived in the Shadow Marches…before taking a gig in the Eldeen Reaches where the campaign starts… Read these four sections and you’re good to go!”
So even if you’re not playing in Eberron, it’s a good model for how to present world information to players. And if you are playing Eberron, it’s a great refresher course even for GMs. Eberron is a big setting with a lot of big new names and concepts to absorb…and the PGtE is way wieldier than the giant Campaign Setting.
And for both players and GMs, the PGtE offers lots of new tidbits and options. Along the way, it references and synthesizes almost every published 3.0/3.5 core supplement that came before it. This is in keeping with the setting’s promise: “If it exists in D&D, it exists in Eberron”…and yet (unlike a lot of latter-day sourcebooks) it does it without feeling like an advertisement, or like those books are absolutely required. It’s more like, “Oh, you want to use incarnum? Here’s where you’d find that. PCs with the scout class were stationed here during the war. That rare subrace of dwarves you like? They’re here, and this is how they fit into the setting.” It’s low-key and kept mainly to the sidebars, but it rewards you for the books you have without punishing you for the books you don’t. [Edit: This is a major bugaboo for me. Especially late in an edition or setting’s run, a lot of the books seem dependent on or serve as advertisements for the books that have come before—Complete Mage, for instance, leans heavily on Complete Arcane, and Dragon Magic cross-references pretty much every 3.5 book under the sun. PGtE is much more elegant: Rather than saying “See this book for the full story,” it instead says, “Do you have this book? If so, here’s how to use that material.” That’s a subtle but important shift in emphasis, and is especially successful because, like I said, it’s mostly kept to the sidebars. (By the way, I exclude the Pathfinder Player Companion series from this criticism, because those books act more as indexes and shortcuts to character creation than as stand-alone references—you get them specifically to help you navigate and get the most out of the books you already have.)]
If you don’t have any other Eberron books, I’d use this the same way you use Underdark: Browse it for inspiration and discard the rest. And if you do have other Eberron books, this should definitely be on your reading list.
14) Frostburn Wolfgang Baur, James Jacobs, George Strayton
WotC put out a few environment-themed books. They varied in quality—frankly most were weak. But Frostburn was solid, with everything you needed to run an arctic campaign. In a perfect world, I would have lobbied for more human cultures (esp. based on Vikings, Eskimos, Laplanders, etc., instead of FB’s vague barbarian tribes), but the races, classes, and monsters already in FB keep me happy enough to pull it off the shelf and browse.
And it’s close to a Core +1 book—I’d probably want a decent setting or Viking sourcebook to go along with it, just in case, but if I wanted to kick off a Pathfinder arctic campaign quickly this book would more than do the trick. (It should also complement Reign of Winter or Jade Regent Adventure Paths quite nicely.)
13) Lords of Madness: The Book of Aberrations Richard Baker, James Jacobs, Steve Winter
Monster books are tricky. How many times can you read about the intestinal structure of a dragon before you’re satisfied? And the longer format can make it harder to sustain tone and excitement through the whole book—compare the tightness of the articles in the dark elf-focused Dragon #298 (an absolute must-read) to many of the more comprehensive but somehow less riveting drow books out there.
So while the Draconomicon, Libris Mortis, and Drow of the Underdark all have plenty of goodies for fans of those monsters, it’s Lords of Madness that leaps off the shelf. The monsters are introduced, explored, and then ushered away before they lose our attention. And Pathfinder GMs won’t even mind that many of the monsters are D&D-specific (beholders, mind flayers, etc.) because crunch GMs will still find plenty of monsters to steal and stat blocks to convert, and lore GMs will be able to adapt a lot of the origin stories to Pathfinder Darklands races.
Of particular note—and what brings me back time and time again—is the introductory breakdown of the many elsewheres (and elsewhens) from whence aberrations hail, the links to the Cthulhu Mythos in the aboleth chapter, and the exploration of creepy aberration deities.
Further reading: If you like undead, get Libris Mortis next—several of the prestige classes are great (every campaign needs a master of shrouds), there are statted NPCs galore, and with over 50 pages of monsters, there’s bound to be at least some you’ll use. Keep a special eye out for a tree of necrotic cyst spells all based off of a mother cyst feat—it’s a neat concept so briefly mentioned you’ll glide right over it if you’re not paying attention.
Otherwise, your next choice should be the Draconomicon, a hefty tome with statted dragons for every core species at every age category, plus a stack of new dragons to boot (including planar dragons and landwyrms).
Drow of the Underdark looks gorgeous and glossy on the shelf, but the aforementioned books are so strong and the same material has been done so well elsewhere that it brings up the rear.
12) Secrets of Sarlona Keith Baker, Scott Fitzgerald Gray, Glenn McDonald, Chris Sims
I typically have zero interest in books with psionics that don’t say “Dark Sun” on the cover. At time of purchase I also had little interest in Sarlona (especially when compared with Xendrik or Khorvaire) or the Quori. But this book overcomes all those hurdles.
That’s especially telling, because the Eberron setting books are notoriously uneven in tone and scope. Some of the early entries are surprisingly dry given the supposedly swashbuckling pulp noir setting; meanwhile, some of the latter books went too far in the other direction, being little more than encounter sketch after encounter sketch. Secrets of Sarlona got the balance just right. It made a continent I had no interest in come alive and suggested lots of opportunities for adventure.
What does it offer the Pathfinder GM? Well, it’s a setting with Asian overtones, for GMs hungry for something to put in the Dragon Empires. It’s also a master class in using also-ran and leftover races to construct a setting: humans and dwarves; psionic races like dromites, elans, and xephs; half-giants, ogres and a new race called the eneko; and even shifters, skulks, changelings, and yuan-ti. If there’s a blank spot on your map, SoS will make you want to fill it. A reliance on psionics is the only thing dragging it down.
Further reading: This book is probably going to make you want to get the Expanded Psionics Handbook, if only so you can see a picture of a maenad or xeph, and that’s just fine by me.
11) Explorer’s Handbook David Noonan, Frank Brunner, Rich Burlew
I just knocked the later encounter-sketch heavy Eberron books. But despite being an example of just such a book, the Explorer’s Handbook really works.
The genius is in the chapter structure:
1) Travel: Reasons to you go. 2) Tools of the trade: The means that get you there. 3) Points of Origin: A selection of starting points. 4) Midpoints: Intriguing stops along the way. 5) Destinations: The big finishes.
Stitch them together, (one from Column A, two from Column B, etc.) and you have just made a fantasy Indian Jones movie in minutes. That’s exactly what Eberron promised to be, and this is the book that most facilitated that goal. In fact, if this were an Eberron book list, I’d have it at #2.
But this isn’t an Eberron list. So what does it offer the Pathfinder GM? Well, that 1-2-3-4-5 model for pacing fast-paced, globetrotting adventures is genius. Sure, good GMs know this stuff instinctively, and similar advice is buried in big books like the Pathfinder Core Rulebook or the GameMastery Guide, but it’s nice to have it so neatly illustrated in a slim volume.
Second: Airships! Regular ships! Lightning rail trains! Weird monasteries and mausoleums and caverns and lost cities! These are all things you want in your game at some point, and here they are all in one place for easy reference. There’s always that cross-country journey you were going to hand-wave, but then you rolled a random monster encounter, and suddenly your players are fighting storm wyverns from the riggings of an airship and the player casting fireball wants to know if the masts will be in the area of affect, and you go, “Uhhhh…” With this book you point to a map and say, “You tell me.” Bam. Done.
So yes, it’s an encounter book…but it feels like much more. And though it doesn’t quite have the re-read value of Secrets of Sarlona, it’s also more useful at the gaming table (and doesn’t constantly nudge you to pick up the Expanded Psionics Handbook). So it nudges out SoS and nearly ranks in the Top 10. The only thing holding it back is that it’s so Eberron-specific there are swaths of it that may just not work for you (especially if you cringed at the words “lightning rail”) and because other more Pathfinder/Golarion-friendly Eberron books are filling up the front of the queue…
10) Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting Greenwood, Reynolds, Williams, and Heinsoo
Look, the Forgotten Realms is the most popular setting in role-playing (give or take a Golarion) for a reason. There is something for everyone in the Realms. And even the most diehard Pathfinder fan can find something useful in this book. Subraces? Check. Need a monastic order on the fly? Here are eight. Want your alphabets or currency to be realistic? Here are sample letters and notes on trade bars, plus gems both real and imagined. Not to mention 234 pages of setting notes, hooks, and NPCs, an alternate cosmology and around 120 (yes, you read that right, 120) deities.
It’s a tome. You won’t pull it off a shelf as often as many of the other books on this list. That and our vast overfamiliarity with the Realms in general knock it down several places. But that overfamiliarity was well earned. Save it for a swing in a summer hammock or a long winter’s night next to a wood stove.
Stay tuned for Part 3...
More to come tomorrow. Again, here’s the original thread if you want to see redditors’ comments. And I'd love to hear your thoughts!
Also, my college friend Maggie just had a story published over on Strange Horizons—check it out!