Monday, February 21, 2022

A Pinch of Salt: Ekphrastic Beasts

  • Reviewer: Dan D.
  • Author: Janaka Stucky
  • Art: Ellie Gille, Jeremy Hush, Joe Keinberger, Nathan Reidt, Arik Roper, Skinner
  • System: D&D 5e
  • Physical copy received as gift from third party
  • Read, unused

Bucking all predictability, I am reviewing a 5e product for this Pinch of Salt. I am a maverick who must be stopped, soon there will be anarchy in the streets, cats and dogs living in harmony, etc etc.

Now, this obviously means there's a rather large bias to get out of the way. I will do my best, and likely fail, at passing by the aspects of 5e that would send me down a rabbit hole of yelling into the void. I am judging on a curve, and I am not going to read the stat blocks. This book is not designed for me, take that as you will.

What I am Looking For

As this is a bestiary, I have a rather concise list of things I am looking for and making judgements upon.

  • Image - Does the monster have an interesting/noteworthy/memorable visual appearance (via art or description)?
  • Concept - What a monster is and does outside of appearance. If I was telling you about a monster without the book on hand, would my description be cool?
  • Connectivity - How does the monster fit in and interact with the world? What is its relationship to the environment, other creatures, and human beings?

The best bestiary entries, I feel, are the ones that provide a scenario that gives context to the encounter with the creature. If the intended interaction is combat, then there needs to be reasons for why, some sort of link between the monster and the surrounding world - "it's an evil monster" is worse connectivity than "its home river has been polluted and it is angry and sick".

An entry can get by with middling image and concept and good connectivity, but the reverse is rarely true, and all three is a welcome break from the trend.

(Now, these three points might seem to lend themselves to a sort of point-scoring system. I do not like point scoring systems, so these will remain the mere impression of one.)

The Opening

The book opens with a sizable forward by the author describing how the book came to be and some of the nature of its contents. While this is a nice touch, I do think that it ran entirely too long for the amount of context it provided.

Most noteworthy is the bit on how the implied setting behind the book took shape as the creatures were being written. I did appreciate these points of tying things together, but I tended to find that they only went one way: entries could directly reference backwards, but never forwards (for example, the Xivvians directly reference their servants the Lamplighters by name, but the Lamplighters do not mention the Xivvians.)

What's In a Name

Ekphrasis is the act of a vivid textual description of visual art. It is a very nice and cromulent word, but for all the focus it gets in the forward it is unfortunately absent from this book - the art carries all the legwork and I found the words to be weak overall. The writeups fall afoul of the bane of bestiaries everywhere, filler. Lots of words spent on how dangerous something is, when that is readily communicated by concept and appearance alone. Many monsters have their writeups truncated even further still by the size of their stat blocks, or by the addition of pencil sketches that eat up a column, or just leaving the column mostly blank.

The art itself is of varied but overall above average quality thanks to Ellie Gille's dark fairy-tale watercolors and Joe Kineberger's chaotic grotty messes, which are standouts. Unfortunately the other pieces give it a more uneven visual quality, especially later on with the Xivvians, where there is a cluster of works by the same artist on the same subject.


The Monsters

Arrikath - A cackling demon, and that's about it. There is the mention that some wizards will summon it, but the description does not tell us why they would or what they would get out of it. Few are the wizards who will summon a cackling demon simply for kicks and giggles, they should be looking for something only this demon can provide. It's the core principle of demon summoning.

Azithaenth - The description is good - predatory shadowy monsters that arrived with a rain of meteorite impacts, that have been nearly driven to extinction by organized hunting efforts. Solid concept here, I can imagine a rural township digging up what they think is just a huge chunk of iron and unwittingly releasing one of these. Let down by the art on this one, though, for reasons I cannot describe.

Bellmodeth - A wee demon who hunts down folks who have reneged on their contracts. Not much more than that. Does imply a setting where deals with devils are relatively commonplace, would have been nice to have had something else enforcing that in the book.

Bezglazzy - Creepy bogie in the woods who steals eyes. I was confused as to whether or not it was a unique monster. Did not have really any good ways of onboarding the thing, it mostly keeps to itself and you're most likely to just stumble upon it in the deep woods. Which is fine and good I suppose.

Bog Hag - Fey of the swamps that turned monstrous after the humans arrived and the trauma of having their homes stolen was internalized as festering hatred and sorrow. Now they lurk at the edges of settlements, devouring unlucky travelers and wayward children.

Böogrú - A minor old god summoned by pagans up in the hills, needs steady blood sacrifice to remain appeased. I like this one - gives off the idea that some cult long ago fucked up royally and now the descendants have to disappear people on the regular to deal with the problem their predecessor's caused. It can tie neatly into "the cult has disbanded, no one is feeding it, it's on the prowl." Good stuff, I can work with it.

- I feel like this one didn't need a separate entry, as its linked intrinsically to the bog hags. To whit, these changelings come about when a bog hag devours an infant and then gives birth to its changeling double, which is horrifically gross and I approve of it. Everything else is just normal changeling stuff, though.

Chiropterror - I keep calling them chiropractors in my head. Unavoidable I think. Here we get a somewhat anomalous (though more appear later) segment of italicized prose. There is no omniscient narrator description. They're nasty little cave monsters, and I do love me some horrible things in the dark, which makes me wonder why they are here because 5e is not a dying in caves game. But they would be a fine fit for a Jacob Geller video.

Daemdirisi - A unique entity, being an ancient warchief who was resurrected (foolishly) by the tribe's shaman, to predictable results. This is another one where I can see the hooks: the few remaining descendants of that people, the pressing threat of the past haunting the now. You have a good, solid reason to go track it down and fight it. I really like this one.

Death's Head Shrike - Skull-headed bird. Human skull, not bird skull. All birds have bird skulls as their head, except these, which do not. A swarm animal. Nothing to see here. Nothing of note.

Deepsea Wight - Love the art on this one; nasty gelatinous abyssopelagic undead. Mention of the fact that they will drag themselves onto land or on deck wins some huge bonus points for creep factor.

Den Mother - Ents are tree-shepherds, Den Mothers are that for wolves. I love the idea, but it's wasted as a bestiary entry. Would be much more interesting as an NPC.

Disciple of the Morning Star - Necromancer cultists in their tombs filled with terrible goodies. They have apparently been mostly erased from the historical record (entry says that very few institutions keep record of them, and those that do keep it restricted), and that to me says that what they actually did was interesting. We do not get that information, which is a shame.

Dream Serpent - Sleepy dream-hoarding dragon. No real hooks, unfortunately.

Drosyrad - Bog nymph, nothing of note.

Fibroh - This is just a goblin. It's a fairy goblin, a Midsummer Night's Eve type of goblin, but goblins is goblins and this is one of them.

Fire Sentinel - Enormous magmatic giants that burst up from the earth's mantle for the express purpose of "fuck this place in particular". 4/5ths of the page is their stat block, which is the first instance here of an unfortunately common trend in bestiaries, especially 5e ones: including stat blocks for entities that no one in their right mind would fight, because they are instant death.

Foundling - Feral children. Unfortunately, there isn't anything to them beyond that, just ordinary feral children. No strange gods or weird gang rituals or anything of that note. As someone who is also writing about feral children, I must register my disappointment.

Golkih - Fills a kobold niche, I suppose. Weird nasty dog thing, up in the mountains. Nothing of interest.

Grinlene - A variety of vengeful undead, undermined by the fact that there is no telling what causes them to happen. Possibly a drowned woman? So close, we could have had a build-it-yourself whodunnit adventure out of this monster but the text is silent as to the cause and place of death.

Hàskis - A column of ash with a burning skull on it. Would be a nothing of note entry, were it not for the fact that the text proposes the "legends" that they are either trolls that got dunked in magma and have been perpetually burning ever sense, or engineered hunting dogs for fire giant sorcerers. Both of these are great, except for how they are couched in "legends say", thus making the interesting part suspect in its veracity. Combine the two concepts and you have a killer monster idea, but hiding behind "legend says" implicitly tells the audience that these theories are not the case.

Horyx - Beast-headed men, warriors from afar. Could have said where they are from, or why they are here, but there is nothing.

Iwsii - Fey oracles. I like the design and the art, but they would be rather clumsy to fit into adventures.

Keyhoarder - Another creature that should be an NPC. A fey that loves gathering secrets. If the secret is locked away, they will steal the key. The write-up does say that one can and likely should make deals with them to get places, but continues on to spend half the page on a stat block instead of fleshing out the magic merchant aspect.

Kithrui Ghaisha - Possibly my favorite monster in the book. I really like this one for its clarity of concept - a big nasty demon that is drawn to sites of catastrophe and loss, feeding on all that bad mojo and then using the deaths of everyone who fails to kill it to keep on going. This is good! Actionable monster with roots in the world.

Kythys & Mhaothon - Gods with statblocks. Hard pass from me, don't truck with that. Another entry no one would fight.

Lamplighter - Overwhelmed by their concept. Protohuman sorcerers who astral-projected into the void, were seen and consumed by Spooky Alien Forces, now acting as servants and beacons in the world. Great for flavor, but I feel like I need some serious elbow grease to find a place to put them.

Murúch - Basically a siren or mermaid that disguises itself as a large fish, gets hauled up by the fishermen, and starts eating people. Likely a monster one hears about in retrospect and then specifically goes out to hunt, which is good.

Nagaraja - Enormous primordial serpents. There is no reason to fight this, or interact with it at all.

Plague Knight - Undead fascist crusaders. Ended up undead because they were playing around with occult powers and blew themselves up, which is funny. The plague aspect seems tacked on, though, it's got nothing really to do with the backstory.

Răzbuna - A nifty concept. Horrible monster caused when you kill a wolfpack leader, would tie in very nicely with the Den Mothers, and also gets a bonus for being a monster that feels like it has some real folkloric feet to stand on. I could imagine hearing this in a book of traditional stories from somewhere in the real world.

Reanimaggot - Pretty typical shambling undead, but the name is fun and they're nice and gross.

Rüu Gisin - Frog knights, but with no real way to interact. They're just the size of normal frogs and their only listed behavior is "protecting their home", which is hardly anything unique among the animal kingdom.

Scroll Keeper - I am a sucker for libraries at the center of the multiverse, but these guys are ill-served. The random table of scrolls have potentially fun titles like "Scroll of Political Discourse" and "Scroll of Mechanical Physics", but all they give is like a +2 to a skill.

Sea Shepherd - Like an ent, but a giant, and for the ocean. No reason to fight them. More an aspect of landscape than anything else.

Sel'gorach - Unique monster, duchess of hell, love the art (possibly my favorite of the book), the description tells us nothing of value. The big scary dangerous demon is big, scary, dangerous, and a demon. Also she cannot fly.

Spider Queen - What it says on the tin. Only real difference is that it looks mostly like a human, most of the time.

Strix - Bonus points for giving Lilith the proper screech owl rep she deserves. Doesn't really have anything to do, though.

Thounquis - Killer concept - island civilization ruled by necromancers, whose beaches are patrolled by these corpse-amalgamation monsters. Yes please, I love it, I would like to know more. The art is a let down, though, it's just kinda a multiheaded zombie in the black cloak. The concept carries it, without the island of the necromancers it would be quite dull.

Thoz'gorin - Centauroid battle demons. Nothing of note

Tomb of the Ancients - An inanimate object with stats. Brief mentions of horrible treasures of the old gods within, none of which are actually provided. A shame, because the text sets them up as loci for weird events and leftover arcane knowledge and terrible entropic/mutagenic effects.

Transdimensional Dragon - It has an ability called "Pure Witness of Quantum Revelation", which is rad, but again we must ask in what circumstances would anyone both want to fight this and reach any outcome that isn't false vacuum collapse localized entirely within your kitchen.

Unholy Creeper
- Carnivorous plants on desecrated ground. Would honestly be better served as part of the writeup of potential hazards in desecrated ground.

Xivvians - My least favorite part of the book. A subsection of extradimensional flesh monsters that are following the Lamplighters to our world, fair enough. But the section just goes on for so long, with so many different varieties, and the art swiftly gets repetitive on top of being a step down from the other pieces. There's very little differentiation between the monsters, and the descriptions are rarely on the same page as the picture (a shift from the entire rest of the book). lots of talk of stuff no character will ever see, learn, or use. Artifacts mentioned, no list given. Overstays its welcome. All the names and forms blur together.

Ysherosz - So, so close. A "kingmaker" demon that is attracted to those who value power over all else. Let down by the fact that it possesses the victim, rather than a more engaging conflict point of someone making more and more heinous acts to please it. Making it an unvarnished possession makes it too smooth and neat.

Zhizhutu - A human head, but with spider legs.

All told, there are 16 aberrations, 5 beasts, 1 construct, 2 dragons, 9 fey, 7 fiends, 3 giants, 6 humanoids (which is silly, since they include the frog knights as humanoid), 6 monstrosities, 2 plants, and 7 undead.

Best in Show: Bog Hag, Böogrú, Daemdirisi, Den Mother/Răzbuna, Kithrui Ghaisa - I could plug these into a map with basically no elbow grease and it would work. All of these have strong enough hooks that I could make a scenario out of them with hardly any work on my part, and that's gold star material.

Final Thoughts

I'm saddened somewhat. The desire to make good art is here, and in many places shines through brilliantly, but it is hamstrung and stymied at every point by its attempts to fit in with a format that does not serve its strengths and multiplies its weaknesses. It falls short of its goals because of the mold it's been forced into, which is a major problem for an art book.

I'd like to get an answer from the author, or anyone else who is in-tune with the design philosophies of the 5e sphere - what is the motivation behind including stats for what should be instant-kill entities, or those that there would otherwise be no reason to fight? Is there an expectation that players will regularly be in an appropriate power range to fight these? Is it an obligation to keep with the 5e format? I legitimately don't understand. I get why it was made for 5e, but I don't get why that must entail making the exact same mistakes. The forward has a section addressing things like alignment issues, but alignment is still in the stat block. Saying that something is a problem and then doing it anyway doesn't solve the problem.

A cautionary lesson, I suppose.


  1. My favorite bestiary, for comparison's sake, is the companion book for the Spiderwick Chronicles. Borges' Book of Imaginary Animals is also nice, but doesn't have DiTerlizzi art.

  2. I should retire from Bones of Contention so you can write a review of my monster book. I'd love to see its strengths and weaknesses addressed in this format.

    Even lacking the specific criticism, your approach is instructive to how I would write a monster book in future.


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