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Review: Midgard Bestiary, Vol 1. (AGE System)

Full Disclosure: I received a free PDF copy of the Midgard Bestiary after providing feedback and a playtest report of the draft version.

Kobold Quarterly and Open Design should be familiar to a lot of you by now, and those kobolds just keep going! Currently underway is one of their biggest projects ever: the Midgard Campaign Setting. If you’re interested in collaborative worldbuilding and shaping a new setting, you should check it out.

Lots of Open Design projects in the past have been for the Pathfinder RPG, but Green Ronin’s AGE system (used for the Dragon Age RPG) is enjoying a surge of popularity these days too. Hence, the Midgard Bestiary. It’s packed full of 50 monsters and adversaries newly statted up for the AGE system and is a very welcome addition to any AGE GM’s tool kit. I highly recommend it.

Layout & Art

Including covers, the PDF is 58 pages and other than the monsters there is a table of contents, an introduction from Jeff Tidball (AGE System Lead Developer), and a brief ‘How to use this book’ section. After that, it’s on to the monsters.

Overall the book is very well laid out with one monster per page, all with a neat, clean stat block in the style featured in the Dragon Age RPG itself, which is very easy to reference in play. Keep a list of the Standard Stunts handy and everything else you need to run the monster is there in the stat block. Two of the monsters have an extra box on the page: one about the Gypsosphinx’s riddles and how they affect combat, the other about the Harem Assassin’s courtesan weapons which appear to be fully usable by player characters.

As well as the stat block and description, each monster entry features black and white art of the monster. While much of the art is familiar, it is all beautiful and evocative and it’s great to see it all collected together like this from across the many Open Design patron projects. Each piece gives you a great sense of the monster being detailed and all are perfectly serviceable for holding up to players and saying “You see this”. I should also mention the coloured cover art, which features a cool action scene of an elf and centaur fighting a dragon. Some cover at tends to be very passive, but there is real action here.

The Monsters

Most of the beasties here are drawn from past Open Design products and converted to the AGE system, though there are a handful of brand new creatures from the Midgard campaign setting. This isn’t a bad thing at all, just a point for clarity. It’s actually really great. It’s like a ‘Best Of Open Design’ Bestiary with old favourites given new life in a new system. I’ve used the bone crab before but seeing the AGE version in action during our playtest was a lot of fun. It was so easy to run a few of these guys at once and their hive tactics worked perfectly. I can’t say enough about how much fun it is to use these monster’s stunts!

It really shows in the monster entries the care and dedication taken in crafting their stats. The AGE system is used to full effect in this book with tonnes of powers and stunts new to the AGE system. One notable exception is the Alseid Hunter which has no special powers. I asked author Josh Jarman about this during the playtesting process and as I suspected the Alseid has purposely been left without unique powers to make it easily usable as a player race. It’s a great foe, specialising in ranged attacks and I could easily see it as an NPC or PC.

Josh was great during the playtesting process and based on feedback I provided the Death Butterfly Swarm was tweaked. It’s a challenging threat, but in the earlier version my players found it near impossible to kill without a mage. Non-mages felt a bit useless in combat against it. Now players are still in for a tough fight but creative ones have a good shot at taking the swarm down even without magic. The monster is a lot more fun to fight. I was a little worried about this one before, but I feel that it’s now a more versatile foe and I’ll definitely be using it in my AGE games. Again, the changes made from playtest feedback are a testament to the consideration put in by Josh and the other designers; they really wanted this book to be the best it could be and they’ve done a great job of getting it there.

As I mentioned above the stunt system really shines with these Midgard monsters. Running them as a GM is almost as fun as fighting them as a player! Even if you’re on a cold streak with few to no stunt points the monsters hold their own. And there are plenty of them. One thing that’s been missing from the Dragon Age RPG is a big book of beasties; and now we have one. These monsters obviously suit Midgard, but I can easily imagine a lot of them feeling quite at home in Thedas. With such fun stat blocks, they’ll be great for reskinning, too. Whatever you do with them, 50 new monsters appropriate for a wide range of PC levels will provide endless opportunities for excitement in your AGE game, regardless of the setting.

Speaking of setting, while these monsters would work in most worlds, the bestiary is a great peek into the world of Midgard. The descriptions of the monsters flesh them out beyond their stats and really make you want to run them, giving you further ideas about how, when and where to spring them on your players, as well as what their habitats and behaviours are like. Some of these, like the dust goblin scavenger and Arbonesse exile are specific to Midgard and their descriptions speak of empires and wastelands and other elements of the campaign setting. It should get you excited for Midgard or at least provide inspiration for your own settings.

Potential Downsides

This review has been pretty positive so far, but there are three things that you should know before you make a final decision about whether to purchase the book. These aren’t bad, really, just important to be aware of.

First, this is a book for GMs, not players. Also, it’s a bestiary, not a gazetteer. Now, these points might seem obvious, but I think they bear mentioning. While there are some juicy titbits of Midgard setting information in this book, its purpose is to present foes for GMs to stack against players. If your primary goal is to learn more about Midgard, this isn’t the product for you. Join the Midgard Campaign Setting project instead; that’s where the real meat is. That said, if you really want every single piece of information there is about Midgard, you should also pick up this book.

Secondly – and I’ve already mentioned this, but it’s worth repeating – there aren’t that many new monsters here. If you’ve been part of several Open Design projects before you may be familiar with a lot of these monsters. That should be fine, because they’ve never been statted up for AGE before. However, if you’re grabbing this book just for art, descriptions and inspiration, just be aware that you may have seen many of these foes before. Again, not a biggie, just something to note.

The third potential downside is more important, especially for new AGE GMs. None of the monsters in the book have “levels” or “challenge ratings” or the like; no indication of which ones are appropriate foes for PCs of different levels. Now some you can sort of tell because they have crazy powers that would wipe out lower level PCs, but it’s not always obvious.

This is more a symptom of the Dragon Age RPG and AGE System itself, rather than any fault of the Midgard Bestiary’s. For those of you unfamiliar with AGE, there is no real ranking or indication of challenge rating of monsters. This fact could make the Midgard Bestiary – or any AGE bestiary or monster list – far less useful for new AGE GMs who are unsure which foes to throw at their players.

The Game Master’s Guide of Dragon Age RPG Set 2 has a partial solution. Page 17 has a section called Combat Math which talks about the mechanics of constructing appropriately challenging encounters. It goes on to point out how complicated this can be and follows up with a simpler method of guesstimating and getting the challenge somewhere in the right ballpark of difficulty. This goes a long way to helping AGE GMs present encounters that aren’t too hard or too easy.

That said, if you are the type of GM who is comfortable tweaking the monsters’ stats on the fly that could help you while you get a feel for how these monsters fit in. Proving too tough to hit? The next near miss strikes the foe’s armour and knocks part of it off, making them easier to hit from now on; or you just take a few hit points away, secretly (or add a few if the fight is too easy).

Another useful aid is to look at the adventures included in the Game Master’s Guides for Sets 1 and 2 and compare those monsters to the ones in the Midgard Bestiary, to get an idea of about how challenging they are. Experience, here, will also help over time. It’ll get easier.

So, that’s all the ‘negative’ things I have to say about this book, really: it’s a book of monsters for GMs (not a setting guide or a player’s book) and you’ll have to do a little prep and a bit of thinking before using the monsters.

Verdict

Midgard Bestiary Vol. 1 is a great product. If the potential downsides listed above don’t bother you, you’ll enjoy this book. While many of the monsters may be familiar to Open Design patrons, they are all interesting and engaging challenges and statted up for AGE they feel brand new and are a pleasure to use. Midgard Bestiary Vol. 1 is a must have for any AGE GM. 50 new monsters to throw at your players as well as to use for inspiration and insight into how to build your own. Great art and great descriptions, coupled with AGE monsters that are just a whole lot of fun to run! Your players will be constantly surprised by the versatility of these foes thanks to their unique powers and stunts.

There’s plenty here to love and the Midgard Bestiary is a great addition to any AGE campaign. The book only costs five dollars; that’s a lot of bestiary for your buck. This book has gone through extensive playtesting and has had lots of love and talent poured into it. $5 is an absolute steal. In fact, grab the free Dragon Age RPG quick start rules and Open Design’s Midgard Bestiary Vol. 1 and you’re set for hours of action-packed monster bashing, stunt rolling fun! See you in Midgard.

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