Creatures of Barsaive
Creatures of Barsaive is designed to be the bestiary for FASA's Earthdawn. Overall, it is better than most bestiaries, although not perfect.
The book is not just a description of 50 additional creatures from all parts of Barsaive. Rather, it is an interesting and informative commentary by the Great Dragon Vasdenjas on the creatures that inhabit the land. Vasdenjas explains how he views all these creatures, how he hunts them, and even how most of them taste!
The book describes all sorts of creatures: underwater monsters, jungle dwellers, and forest critters, as well as hunters who prowl the savannas and winged ones who float gracefully through the air. Each creature gets a full two-page spread, with a large half-page picture that brings it to life. Vasdenjas comments upon the habitat, behavior and abilities of the various creatures. Luckily for the players, he also mentions how to deal with most of the creatures. Of course, his advice is not always useful; how are the players supposed to "blow fire" at a creature? And if a dragon suggests to "fly away at first sight" from a creature - what are mere mortals supposed to do? After the dragon's comments, there is a section on special rules and powers for the creature, and finally its actual stats.
Each creature also has a short "Adventure Hook". This part is one of the book's most disappointing features. Most adventure hooks are basically "Mage X hires you to kill creature Y and retrieve part Z from it." There are some interesting twists to this plot, however, as the entry for the Wyvern illustrates. The idea of an alchemist who hires the players to retrieve Wyvern poison so he can make an antidote for it seems straightforward. A week after the party returns with the poison, however, a local official is killed by Wyvern poison. The party then must stay one step ahead of the law while trying to track down the alchemist to prove their innocence (since they likely made it well known that they were searching for a Wyvern).
This bestiary does include a number of creatures that are familiar staples in fantasy campaigns. At first glance, this may be disappointing to those who liked and expected more unusual creatures, such as those outlined in the main Earthdawn rulebook (the Bog Gob is one of my favorites). In this book, however, even Basilisks, Cockatrices, Chimeras, and the above mentioned Wyverns have interesting twists to them. For example, the Basilisk's eyes glow, and it is this light which kills. Thus, during the day the Basilisk is fairly harmless, for the light only shines a few inches, while at night it can shine 30 feet or more. There are also a number of creatures that have been twisted by the Scourge. The Unicorn was actually a bloodthirsty killer before the Scourge (ever wonder why it has such a large horn?), but now most have changed into peacefully creatures. Of course, the operative word is "most." The players are in for a shock if they encounter a herd of Unicorns that promptly tries to kill them!
About two-thirds of the creatures that inhabit the books' pages are new and different, however. One example is the Leech Rat: a parasite that directs its host to kill. The rat then drops off its host and feeds on the fresh kill. The Gate Hound has the ability to temporarily drain magic from an area, essentially causing an Adept's magical skills and powers to diminish. The Vetta has a natural defense from predators: a herd of them puts any nearby animals to sleep!
My main complaint about the book is that most of the creatures are quite high-powered. As mentioned above, the dragon recommends running from a good number of these! There is even an entry for a Horror corrupted Dragon, worth an appropriate 270,000 Legend Points. To be fair, though, Creatures does say that the PCs should never defeat it; it should always be an enigmatic villain, always able to defeat any party of players. While there need to be dangerous creatures to challenge high circle players, most of those presented here can easily kill a low-level party if the GM is not careful. This works in the dangerous world of Earthdawn, but the PCs might tire of having to battle for their lives every time they set off through the wilderness.
At the end of the book is a 10-page rule section, one of the best I have seen in a bestiary. Its highlight is two pages on how to use creatures. It describes appropriate numbers of creatures for a party to combat and how to make encountering a creature seem appropriate. The "Why Do Creatures Attack?" section is often missing from other bestiaries. While this section is short, it includes possibilities such as a herbivore defending its young (it will likely fight to the death) or a carnivore hoping the PCs will be a meal (it will likely give up if the PCs put up too much of a fight). This emphasis on realistic portrayal of creatures adds extra flavor and believability to any of the unbelievably fantastic creatures that the PCs come across.
The actual rules then take up the remaining eight pages. There are new rules for special attacks that creatures can perform, such as biting then shaking their prey, pouncing, or swarm attacks. The swarm option is designed to give extra bonuses to packs of smaller creatures, making even a pack of normal dogs more dangerous than they would first seem. Finally, there are rules for creating new creatures. This section includes suggestions on designing "realistic" creatures; for example, creatures with high armor ratings usually move slower and have a lower Physical Defense than others. While these rules are not perfect, they certainly give GM's some hints about creating a creature, including rules-of-thumb such as having creatures do DEX/3 attacks per round, and a starting place on how many Legend Points the new creature is worth.
The book itself is quite well laid out. The artwork is all quite good and, like most FASA products, Creatures includes excellent color plates. I found the commentary by the dragon to be quite informative and entertaining, and much better than "reference book" descriptions. Plus, this format gives the GM more of a "fudge factor" -- after all, the dragon could be mistakenů
I would recommend Creatures to any Earthdawn GM who plans to have a campaign where the PCs spend time traipsing through the wilderness. In city-based campaigns the new creatures are not all that useful and only a few of them can realistically inhabit kaers. A GM of any system, however, who wants to add colorful creatures, or familiar ones that will still keep the PCs on their toes, should also seriously consider Creatures. Although it has its faults, it is a quality bestiary and an entertaining book to browse.
Style: 5 (Excellent!)