Originally Published at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2012/03/14/tabletop-review-qin-bes-
Qin Bestiary is exactly what you might think if you are familiar at all with the term “bestiary”: a book of monsters (and, to be fair, beasts and humanoids of various kinds). It is meant for use with Qin: The Warring States, a role-playing game set in ancient China. This volume is about adding creatures of Chinese myth and legend to the game, as well as supplying not one but three adventures in the back.
There is a lot to digest in this book, partly because there is just so much fascinating material to read through. There are basically three sections: monsters, the Yao, and the adventures section. There is a small section on ancient Chinese funerals and burials, and a new External Alchemy spell on the last page before the index. By the way, the index is great, especially for a smaller volume like this. There is also a small section of pre-made NPCs just before the adventure section.
The Monsters Section
This was, to me, a very interesting part of the book but possibly the least useful. I say that because it is filled with creatures from Chinese lore, and these creatures tend to be highly unusual, powerful, and possibly disruptive to immersion. Ok, now I’ve made a lot of judgments here, let me try to clarify. Let’s take the jiutou niao, a giant, nine-headed bird of prey that is rumored to be the spawn of a demon and a phoenix and purportedly kidnaps young girls for a tasty meal. Using this creature in a scenario is going to introduce a certain level of incredulity to the world, one that the GM may have a hard time explaining and/or the players may have a hard time believing. In this otherwise gritty world of romantic-heroic escapades, I think this kind of creature showing up is going to require some extra accommodation in the minds of the GM and the players, and may alter what seems like (to me) a world that focuses more on subtlety than the overtly martial challenge that creatures like the jiutou niao represent. On the flip-side, the jiutou niao or the wugong sui (a centipede-like creature that feeds on souls) might prove to be just the kind of challenging and epic encounter that the group desires, it’s up to the GM if they want to go that direction.
Alongside such challenges are more sly but deadly creatures like the pi, a sapient fox that enjoys human prey, or a malevolent ghost. The Zhongguo (the world of the setting) is filled with varieties of undead and otherworldly: ghosts, zombies, demons, flying skulls, and others more magnificent like the kilin, a celestial creature with the head and body of a unicorn, a snake tail, ox feet, and is covered in scales.
Wait, you want to know if there is a downright weird creature? Sure there is, it’s the ping feng, a 7-foot tall pig-like monster with a head at each end of its body. Actually, there are several quite weird creatures in this book, and you wonder how in the world people thought some of this stuff up.
The yao are somewhere in between animal and man. Essentially, they are animals that have transcended their savage nature to become human-like. Sometimes the gods transform them, sometimes they are mentored by an actual human or another yao, sometimes they just have a great yearning to elevate themselves. In Qin Bestiary there is an entire section on just who or what these creatures are and how they work within the Zhongguo. In a nutshell, you’re looking at another race: a humanoid or shape-shifter (into human form) that is based on a type of animal or, more rarely, an insect. The yao have their own special abilities and personalities based on what type of creature they arose from (i.e. a yao-spider is typically devious while a yao-monkey is often clever and carefree).
This is a very cool section of the book, as it introduces these “other” that are not man and not beast. GMs can play these as malignant or harmless, cruel or helpful, or play it toward the middle and let the players decide. The yao aspect can function in multiple ways, and is a great creative tool for the GM to use at his discretion. Players can also be a yao, if the GM and everyone is fine with it. In fact, the blood of an ascended beast can run in a character’s family – lots of possibilities there.
The Adventures Section
The adventures are designed to be short and full of intrigue for the players. Each one takes place in its own particular location and has a distinct feeling: horror, romance, adventure. There is nothing stopping the GM from stringing all of the adventures together, but they are not designed that way. The adventure sections are short so I will just give a little teaser of each one:
The first adventure involves a series of murders in a mid-sized city or town. There are a few clues, and a long buried secret…
The second adventure brings a party to a prosperous, peaceful town, where a strange woman who possesses great beauty has been staying. Her magnetism has drawn the attention of many suitors, and the characters may find themselves caught up with her and some other tricky situations…
The third adventure has the characters meeting up with a small merchant convoy, and inadvertently putting themselves in a tense situation…
Bam. The adventures are short, to-the-point, and you can put them in any campaign or just use them for a few sessions, even a one-shot.
What Do I Think?
The Bestiary is another great addition to the Qin line, full of tools for the GM. Each creature entry has an excellent story vignette before it is described, and that adds to the flavor greatly, as well as giving the reader an immediate sense of how each monster is perceived in the world of the Warring States. I personally can’t see myself using the mythical creatures very much, but it might make for some great challenges and flavor for the right group. The yao add a great dimension to the world, and help to infuse it with more racial possibilities than just human. Someone reading this far might ask: “why does a nine-headed bird bother you, but a transcended spider does not?” That is a good question, and I suppose that my answer hinges on the fact that the jiutou niao seems rather one-dimensional (i.e. a martial challenge primarily), while the yao are more complex and have more room for possibilities than the bird. Also, the story of the yao is more interesting to me: they are ascended creatures, beasts given the opportunity to be human and always struggle with that balance between keeping their true nature a secret and caving in to their animal desires. This is a bit more interesting to me than what is essentially a monster.
The adventures are excellent. The GM will need to be able to make up details on the fly, but there is a lot of action packed into these little scenarios, I highly recommend this book for the adventures alone.
Overall, if you enjoy Qin, you will enjoy the material in this book. Players will not find much of use here, unless they are intent on meta-gaming by knowing the stats of any creature their GM might use. GMs will find this to be an invaluable resource, especially if your characters are looking for an interesting challenge or a little terror to keep them on their toes.