Critter Compendium by Tobias Beis is a collection of monsters for 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons, available now as a PDF through the Dungeon Masters Guild for $15. The hefty book presents a wide variety and number of creatures from earlier D&D editions converted to the current ruleset, along with original creations that includes artwork by the author. With 135 entries and appendices describing additional creatures and templates, Critter Compendium has enough creatures to populate several campaigns across the whole gamut of challenge ratings.
Nerdarchy was given a preview copy of the product, and staff writers Megan Miller and Doug Vehovec each spent some time perusing the pages and playtesting the monsters inside. Below you’ll find both of the writers’ impressions of the book in the style of what was good, bad and ugly, as well as overall thoughts about Critter Compendium.
Doug: Kudos to Tobias Beis for the incredible amount of work going through so many D&D books and supplements from the past and doing the legwork to convert creatures to 5th edition. Standouts for me as far as specific creatures in the book are the sections on dragons and obyriths.
The dragons are very cool and thematic, with all five under the umbrella of cosmic dragons. I really enjoyed the moon, sun, time, void and warp dragons. They all have creative breath weapons and feature original art by Tobias Beis. There are other iterations of these dragon varieties in the long history of D&D, but I believe the ones in this book are the same in name only and these are terrific both mechanically and from a lore perspective. Including these in my Spelljammer-inspired home game is definitely on the agenda.
Likewise, the obyriths that got their start in third edition have a great section that also features original artwork, along with terrific lore and an excellent sidebar on using these Lovecraftian-style entities as warlock patrons. The sidebar gets an extra thumbs up for suggesting a little tweak to existing rules rather than brand new mechanics or crunch.
Another wholly new creation (I think so anyway) is the howling echo creature. These spectral wolves have wonderful lore attached and nice original artwork. They fit into a rather narrow niche of CR 2 creatures that are not typically singular or solitary creatures, or leader-type creatures often paired with minions or allies. These entities would provide a great antagonist for a tier 2 party of adventurers and the lore element is intriguing enough to create a whole adventure around.
The appendix on elementals is awesome for two reasons: it has all original art, and truly elemental options for the conjure elementals spells. On top of that, the legendary elementals give these classic creatures high-level options as major threats for adventurers.
Some highlights for me in terms of old D&D creatures updated for 5th edition are the nerra, a planar race of beings from the Plane of Mirror, and the thoqqua. The former captured my imagination back in the day with their cool visual and abilities. The latter spoke to me as a wonderful threat for low level parties. Probably running Sunless Citadel had something to do with liking this creature. When I run the version in Tales from the Yawning Portal for my group, I’ll certainly trade out the fire snake in the Rift Node for one of these critters.
Finally, the organization of information in the back of the book is terrific. Critter Compendium entries are organized several ways: by creature type, challenge rating and environment. This is super useful for DMs when you’re creating your adventures, so you can quickly and easily find selections of creatures whether you want to feature a lot of fey for instance, or you need an appropriately powerful monster to challenge the party, or if you’re wondering what sort of critter might be lurking in the swamp.
Megan: All right, so I came into this from a little bit of a different angle, playtesting some of the creatures in the book with my gaming groups instead of reading the whole thing. My party got two levels off of this book’s content.
First, I love the versatility. I love the fact that there are all these charts in the back for terrain and DC. And from what I’ve played of this, things seem pretty on par with what’s in the Monster Manual in terms of what’s appropriate for what CR (turns out demons are just jerks that are resistant to, like, everything).
On the whole the layout and formatting of this book is beautiful, very professional. The page numbers, the art and all the stat blocks fit very well with one another and it’s good at guiding your eye through the information. At no point did I feel like I was reading an unmitigated brick like so many source books fall into the trap of.
I see Doug has already mentioned the Cosmic Dragons, but I’m going to do it again because oh my gods they’re beautiful and I want them. I have no idea how you’d make a void dragonborn work, but I want to play one badly now.
Doug: There are very few new creatures. This honestly became frustrating as I explored the book. Each time I came across something that grabbed my attention, I was hoping it would be something new. Alas, this was rarely the case. At first I thought perhaps the creator had been inspired by the various pieces of art and created new creatures, but by the time I got to the Wandering Tower – a truly terrifying type of mimic – I realized that by and large anything with art not by Critter Compendium author Tobias Beis is unoriginal.
It struck me as kind of shame in this regard. The original stuff wound up being my favorites, and a consistent art style – from the author himself – would have tied the book together more. I would rather see a smaller product with his original and imaginative creatures and art than a big book like this. He certainly has the chops to do so based on what I’ve seen.
The grisgol is disappointing. In D&D 3.5 where it originates the creature is much more magical, as suggested by the magical accoutrements that comprise its body. Something got lost in translation here unfortunately.
The elder redcap feels unnecessary. There’s redcaps in the Tome of Beasts, and we’ve got ‘em in Volo’s Guide to Monsters. Do we need more redcap? I don’t. It’s not a bad entry; it just made me groan when I saw it.
The Monsters as Characters section is hella OP. To the book’s credit, there is a caveat included that explicitly warns that these races are not balanced. However, if you’re going to include these options, you ought to try to achieve some balance.
The section on zombies and skeletons feels overly long and largely unnecessary. It adds a lot of crunch for things that could be better and more easily served by DM description. I don’t need different stats for small humanoid zombies, small/medium/large zombie beasts, small/medium/large zombie beastfolk, four-armed skeletons, everything from tiny to gargantuan skeleton and zombie dragons and so forth. I appreciate the effort, but I would have liked to see the time and energy spent elsewhere (like creating more original creatures with artwork).
Megan: I would have loved to have had more than a table for the Monsters as Characters section. I feel like, if I’m going to play a species I want to have the full description, information on what their societies are like, how to roleplay them. We’re given enough to stat one out on paper, but for people like me who lean more role play than roll play it falls a little flat. Even going back and reading the entries earlier on in the book didn’t feel like enough.
Doug: I don’t know why “harbinger beast” isn’t called “catoblepas” and call it a day. Either way this creature is firmly in the ugly category; that’s its schtick!
The different varieties of lizardfolk brought a smile to my face when I got to that section. I always thought that was a really cool concept in earlier editions and seeing the blackscale, poison dusk and sunscale lizardfolk was great…but the execution here is a little flat. In particular the sunscale lizardfolk’s smoke tolerance attribute seems superfluous.
Protectors are a worthwhile inclusion for low-CR celestials but they deviate from existing celestial creatures, which was off-putting. For example, instead of giving them spellcasting ability that includes cure wounds why not give them a healing touch like planetars, solars and devas? Going a step further, the lore describes them as healers for the angelic hosts…except all the other celestials can heal too, and much more powerfully.
The Monster Weapons section strays into the realm of too much crunch. What I enjoy most about 5th edition D&D is the streamlined nature and reliance on imagination and fluff. As an amateur content creator myself, it’s more beneficial to include unique weapons and attacks as part of a creature stat block. This section feels out of place in a creature resource.
Little details niggle at me from a consistency perspective. For example, the blue whale has an ability called “hold breath” wherein it can hold its breath for 30 minutes. The giant seal has the same ability, except it’s 20 minutes. Why not just do the math and use D&D 5E terms? A creature can hold its breath for a number of rounds equal to twice its Constitution score, so the blue whale would be about seven minutes. Or follow the format of lizardfolk and make it a multiple of the Constitution score. It’s a little thing, but I appreciate consistency in any system products.
Templates did not appeal to me either. Again, it harkens back to the bloat of editions past that just plain turns me off immediately. On top of that there are half-templates, further driving me away from this appendix. I totally get that a lot of people miss the crunchiness of previous editions; that’s fine and for them these additions to the book are probably great. But I don’t like it. Fifth edition inspires my imagination the way D&D did when I started playing in the early 80s, when we made stuff up a lot more often because there weren’t rules for every little thing. Piling oodles of new mechanics into 5th edition surely appeals to many players and DMs, but not this one.
Megan: What’s the difference between the bad and the ugly, really? In this case I’m going to assume the ugly is like a pogo. Like, it’s not a deal breaker sort of thing and you can see where the creator was coming from but it’s a little constructive criticism in that fashion?
More new content would have been great. I’m not super keen on the templates either. Some of the ACs in here are a bit high in my opinion; we were going with the CRs we should have when my players tested these and there were a lot of things in this book that they had a really hard time hitting. But honestly? I’m reaching for that.
Doug: Critter Compendium is a very ambitious project for a single person to undertake. Combing through earlier edition material that includes not just Monster Manuals and Monstrous Compendiums but supplemental sources like Ghostwalk and the D&D Miniatures game requires a heck of a lot of effort.
However, the effort converting all these creatures might have been better served creating new creatures in a smaller book. I can’t imagine all these adaptations have been playtested. If so, my apologies as well as hats off to the author. The original creations and/or creatures with the author’s original art standout as my favorites though. I’d like to see more of that. As a longtime player and DM, looking through the book started off as a fun trip down memory lane, but it didn’t take long before it became distracting to see creatures and art I’ve already seen. Along those lines, I would like to have seen proper credit given to the individual artists as well. [Addendum: At the time of review, I wasn’t aware this product was strictly for the Dungeon Masters Guild and utilizing artwork provided for community content creation. In light of that, this point is not applicable.]
It’s obvious that a lot of work went into this project and, again, I feel like that energy could have been directed differently. Less adaptations of old creatures and more new stuff from this talented writer and illustrator would make a more consistent and exciting book.
Megan: I really enjoyed this book. I love the way it’s laid out. I totally see myself reaching for it more than once in the future at the table. It is well laid out, and it’s paced well, and that is so important in terms of being able to find what you are looking for and just use it.
I didn’t at any point feel like I had to read things more than once to really get a grip on what they were. What I’m saying is, it’s very user friendly. More source books need to be like that. Laid out in an easy to read fashion where everything is where you expect it to be.
It’s absolutely usable. The difficulty curve is a little high in places, and some of the appendices are iffy, but they are appendices. The meat of the book comes before that. And the meat pretty great all the way through, in my opinion.