Welcome back to the weekly review! Today we’re taking a look at The Carceri Bestiary by The Grumbleputty! This product is essentially a monster manual for the plane of Carceri, one of the outer planes in the in the Great Wheel Cosmology of the Forgotten Realms. The supplement contains lore and statblocks for a whole host of the native fiends of the plane as well as custom artwork to accompany it.
Each product I review is given a rating out of five in each of three categories: Design, Writing & Production. Design focuses on mechanics for player and DM supplements, and on the narrative of adventures. Writing focuses on the style of the writing, including how well it has been edited and how comprehensive it is. Production takes into account layout, artwork and the general flow of the document. Also, despite receiving a free copy of this product to review, I’d like to stress that all views are my own, and I’ve not pulled punches where I feel improvements should be made.
The Carceri Bestiary contains twenty statblocks with accompanying lore and art for the inhabitants of Carceri. Three of these are monsters from old editions, whilst the rest are creatures of the authors own creation. They range in CR from less than 1 to 18, but most fall in the range of Tier 2 encounters. Within the creatures we have the fiends, which are broken down by their role and rank within the hierarchy of the plane, and some NPC statistics which might be useful for those running a campaign in Carceri.
The product currently has 2 5-star reviews and ratings. It’s available for $2.75 (which is worth it for the art alone!) and as of writing is not a best seller. The product was published on September 25th 2018. Including cover, the document is 26 pages long with custom art on almost every page.
Because this product doesn’t have sections or parts like an adventure of player supplement might, I’m instead going to break down my review by the three pillars of reviewing, and then highlight a few of my favourite monsters.
Design – 3/5
The design of the monsters in this supplement in terms of matching the stats to the lore is, generally, pretty good. There are instances where the author has detailed the abilities of the creature in the lore, then created new attack options of traits to fit the new monsters, and they work well. A good example of this comes from the first monster in the supplement; the Carniface, which can switch between using it’s extra legs for attacking and extra movement. Another example is Gullipher, which can disgorge smaller versions of itself called tongue serpents. This sort of mechanics-matching-lore makes it easy for a DM to pick which creature they want to run from their description, or even illustration, and know they can run an interesting combat with it.
Unfortunately, despite the fact that there are around ten creatures in the supplement with exciting abilities, there are quite a few others that aren’t much more than bags of hit points. I think the author was trying to give an all-encompassing look at the plane, and thus included monsters that would be the vanilla rank and file of the place (such as the block headed Vinculoth) but that means some of these cool creatures don’t do much from a mechanical standpoint, and could just be reflavoured ogres or imps, which I think has happened here. While this isn’t a major issue, it’s a shame there aren’t more stand out monsters in the product.
The major issue I have with the design of the creatures is that their CR is wrong almost every time. CR is a difficult beast to manage, with many postulating that the maths for all 5e creatures is off, that CR is meaningless, or that the rules in the Dungeon Master’s Guide are not those used by WotC designers. Whilst there is some truth to these statements, it’s my understanding that most DMs do get at least some idea about what they can expect to challenge their players with from an accurate CR. Even if the monsters are only balanced against themselves, CR gives a basic idea of what a party can handle. If your party is used to fighting CR 5 creatures, and then comes face to face with the CR 5 Empathurge, they will absolutely walk the encounter, as the Empathurge only has 2 hit points, and AC of 14, and doesn’t have any damage resistances or immunities. I’m not sure if this is deliberate, but either way it’s a mistake, and not the only one. There are no playtest credits for this product, which I think is clear.
Writing – 4/5
The style and comprehensiveness of the writing in the supplement is superb. I feel like I’m getting a real tour around Carceri while reading the product, and it’s almost impossible to distinguish what comes from previous editions of D&D, and what comes from the authors own mind. This quality alone, in my opinion, ranks the writing highly. If your style is so consistent that you can make be believe what you’re writing is ‘reality’, then you’re doing a good job.
As well as lore about the plane of Carceri, each creature gets a paragraph or two about its status on the plane, what it looks and behaves like, and what its notable abilities are. These too are well written and again, I wouldn’t know which come from old editions of D&D and which are the authors own creation. Each of the creatures has its own unique character which comes out well in the text, and means it’s never a bore to read.
The only thing holding the writing back from a 5 is that there are spelling and grammatical mistakes peppered throughout. Although they’re nothing major, they’re something an editor could easily have located and rectified. This would have easily lifted the writing to a score of 5.
Production – 5/5
Every creature in this monster manual has artwork. Every one. Although none of it is colour art, the sketches are impeccable, and the artist (who I believe is also the author?) should be incredible proud of themselves. Each sketch clearly displays the creature in question, highlights the major features, and never looks goofy or cartoonish. They range from desperate, horrified humanoids trapped on the plane to demonic looking animal hybrids with dragon-tails spitting fire to alien-like, creepy fiends and back to aberrations that I feel like must have been dreamt up in some Cthulhu-influenced nightmare. The vision of the artist/author is clear in each piece, and are perfectly executed. The cover is an awesome adaptation of an existing piece of artwork, and fits the sketched theme of the bestiary as a whole.
As well as the amazing artwork, the layout of the pages is intuitive, and makes it easy to read. My only suggestions would be to use two columns where possible, and to make sure that the lore of a creature is as close to its statblock and artwork as possible, to avoid confusion and flicking between pages of a pdf.
Here are some of m favourite entries in the bestiary!
The Iudex are infiltrators who mix with the prisoners in Carceri and try to foment riots and get them into even further trouble. These owl-faced flesh columns have four tentacles on which they move around, and look absolutely terrifying. Thankfully, they can take human form to ease their infiltration activities.
When the high ranking fiends of Carceri need to swell the ranks of their armies, they take their prisoners and encase them in living cages. The poor souls trapped within are forced to fight against their will, controlled by these horrifying exoskeletons. As well as being terrifying rank and file fighters, characters can also use abilities to free the prisoners trapped within as a get around to fighting.
Gross gross gross gross. If your characters ever anger a hag, let these loose on them. They are huge, translucent worm-like creatures with hands for heads. They are used to track down and capture people that need taking back to Carceri. They are absolutely disgusting, and are possibly my favourite creature in this whole bestiary!
Overall – 4/5
Despite the glaring issues with CR, and the couple of design discrepancies, I do think this is an awesome bestiary. Not only are the monsters within pretty awesome, but the lore about Carceri is superb, and I’d highly recommend this as a book for anyone wanting to run adventures in the Outer Planes! Best of all, the artwork in this product is phenomenal, it alone is worth the price of admission!