Planar Bestiary

A Walk Through the Planes – Sidestory: Planar Bestiary




I’m of two minds about the Planar Bestiary volume published by Monte Cook Games as a companion to their campaign setting Path of the Planebreaker. It’s filled with over 150 new monsters, most of them hailing from other planes of existence and a vast majority of them strange, wild, and creative compared with typical fifth edition D&D monsters, even the ones in other third party books. But at the same time, its formatting and lack of relevant indexing makes it a weirdly difficult book to use as part of an ongoing planar campaign. I like having my copy on the shelf, I enjoyed reading through it, and hopefully will recall a few of the more notable monsters for the next time I’m running an adventure. However it’s likely to stay on that shelf because of its surprising dearth of lore.

Perhaps “surprising” is the wrong word for how little lore each of the monsters in this book is given, considering that it’s 160 pages long, meaning that every monster is given a single page entry, including its image. These images are extremely necessary, too, because given the intentional uniqueness of all of these monsters and how little space (sometimes as little as a single paragraph composed of a couple sentences) is given for their descriptions, without illustrations it would be incredibly difficult to conceptualize many of the new creatures. Fifth edition D&D statblocks aren’t the imposing behemoths from late third edition or Pathfinder, but the more abilities a monster has the more space is given up for mechanics. A lot of making these monsters stick out from the typical fare involves giving them cool abilities never before seen in the game, and so the statblocks can come to dominate entries, meaning that flavor, lore, and tone are sparse to nonexistent. This shouldn’t seem weird to anyone who began D&D with fifth edition, as that’s more or less standard nowadays, but compared with, for instance, the Planescape compendiums it’s rather disappointing. 

The only new cat art is for the Champion of Summer, who are basically Feywild humanoid panthers.

What are these monsters’ habitats? How do they behave? How do they fit into the greater ecology of their respective planes of existence? Sometimes one or more of these questions is answered, but just as frequently they’re left entirely up to a DM’s imagination. And while this is partially due to space constraints, I get the sense that this was also by design. Bruce R. Cordell and Sean K. Reynolds, the book’s two authors, seemed to want to leave things as open-ended and undefined as possible so as to give DM’s a wide swath of freedom when designing their own adventures. I understand the impulse, but ultimately I find that decision far, far less compelling than definite information about creatures that makes them easier to actually insert into a campaign. For example, it would be far more useful and flavorful to learn that a monster is from Gehenna than to learn that they’re from any one of the Lower Planes, as this allows me to conceptualize how they exist. Yes, there’s flexibility in saying that a monster can come from anywhere and be used in any way a DM wishes, but that’s implicitly always the case, and this is exactly the circumstance where open-endedness is detrimental.


This decision to keep monsters so sketchily defined beyond their combat prowess  probably also informed the decision to list monsters alphabetically and include a table organizing them by challenge rating, but nothing else. What’s sorely missing is a listing by plane, which at least for me as a DM would make this book imminently more usable. If, say, you wish to take players to the Feywild and find out which Planar Bestiary monsters they might meet there, then you’re going to have to look through every single entry to figure that out, and frequently this information will only be mentioned in one obscure location hidden midway through. Short of (I believe) Bytopia and Arcadia, the book features monsters from every single fifth edition plane, plus some hailing from new locations in Path of the Planebreaker, alternate dimensions, and even one from further outside the cosmology than the Far Realm. Keeping straight where everyone is hailing from is left entirely to readers, with no assistance. If you’re a DM wondering which two or three of these new monsters might be found in Pandemonium, or trying to plan for characters’ visit to Elysium, then good luck with that. There isn’t even a table easily tying things in with Path of the Planebreaker, such that occasionally there are monsters who fit in perfectly with those new planar locations that you would definitely want to make use of when running an adventure there, but remembering which ones is left entirely to you. 

A shechnyku in all its horrifying glory, i.e. a dinner as prepared by David Cronenberg.

Ok, so the formatting is unhelpful, but what about the monsters, themselves, you ask? Well fortunately, they’re very good. Not universally so, there’s certainly a small chunk of the book devoted to creatures that are of the “a slightly different type of ______ elemental,” which are particularly boring when given so little lore, but these are in the minority. The general design feeling seemed to be that your basic, “filler” monsters are already included in the official supplements, so instead let’s have fun and make each encounter a showstopper, regardless of level. A luck lamprey, for instance, might be CR 1, but is going to be a completely different encounter from anything players have seen before. Usually, when I’ve covered monster compendiums I’ve highlighted favorites, and for once I’m ending up in trouble because I have a lot of favorites here and it’s difficult to decide which to mention. Of the 150-ish monsters, somewhere around 120 of them would be neat to run, featuring new abilities or twists on old ones that should surprise even veteran players. Still, I’m going to pull out a few that should pique your interest.


“A shechnyku is a bizarre creature that looks like a levitating cluster of internal organs. Although many of these organs are familiar and common to humanoids (heart, lung, liver), others are completely inhuman (glowing spots of deep sea fish, insect ovipositors, venom glands), and others are duplicates (extra hearts, brains, or stomachs). Most of these organs are unconnected from each other, tumbling about randomly. As the cluster floats, it sings, filling the air with strange and haunting melodies.” It’s a monster that hails from a remote dimension with terrain made of living flesh, and as such has understandably alien motivations. It can also split into multiple beings when slashed, because its physiology is just that weird. I would’ve happily read another dozen pages about this weird being, though most of what we’re actually given I included above.

One creature that didn’t need any additional lore was the portal wight. Ever wonder what happens when a person is killed when traveling between dimensions? Well portal wights are the answer, a new undead being searching to reunite with their other half, which is rather difficult for them to achieve given that it’s in another dimension entirely.  And while portal wights are a fun way to screw with low-level planar travelers, there’re much more crazier  ways to mess with high level ones, such as peripleths. These are wormlike aberrations older than the present multiverse, and with this they have the knowledge of how to distort planar geometry and smash planar paths (including the Path itself). 

There are many fates worth than death in the planes, and becoming part of a yox is definitely one of them.

That MCG is able to work with the Great Wheel cosmology allowed them to make new yugoloths, demons, devils, angels etc. that reference the canonical types, but also to go so far as to create a new type of rogue modron, the hilariously silly modron deadfall. Their entire methodology involves landing on enemies and refusing to get off them until they’ve answered a thorough interrogation. They’re kind of a single-use gag enemy, but what a wonderful one. 


There are, unsurprisingly, new Far Realm monstrosities, and a worm queen as part of Cordell’s requisite new wormy weirdos quotient. There’s the yox, created “when a squadron of modrons became trapped in a bubble of pure chaos and were fused together into one erratic, insane creature” and the zeitgebar witness, who’s basically the “IGNORE ME” guy from Venture Bros. There’s the CR 28 and 29 Tomb of Winter and Qorth-shemkur from the cover, who demand to be made the center of a longstanding planar campaign that reaches maximum level, and the grethik and ovisan hunter, who hail from the same Prime plane and are at war with each other. In essence, whatever sort of monster you’re looking for in a planar campaign, there’s a good chance you can find it or something close to it that you can make use of somewhere in this volume, it’s just the issue of actually finding them that’s difficult to surmount. The uniqueness of each monster’s abilities also fights against the lack of lore here in that even having just finished reading the book, I find it difficult to remember which of these monsters are which because so often they are defined by what they can do rather than who they are. 

A modron deadfall, mid-interrogation.

There’s one other demerit I feel that I need to give for the Planar Bestiary, which is that every single one of the monsters from Path of the Planebreaker is repeated here (though in a couple cases with changed names for reasons entirely unclear to me). I understand why this was done, because both books are meant to be standalone volumes… but at the same time, are they really? I would’ve much preferred 10 additional monsters, or even moreso that those 10 pages had been spent to expand the new entries with more lore and flavor. I’d love to know, for instance, what merrenoloths think of Styx demons and vice-versa, or what’s going on between the vanuras and the slaads (“another prominent toad‑like species”), who I assume go unnamed because of copyright reasons? 


So Planar Bestiary ends up in a weird place for me. While I wholeheartedly recommended Path of the Planebreaker, this companion volume leaves me with too many reservations to do the same, even though for anyone who wants to play a more traditional Planescape campaign it’s almost certainly the more useful volume. The actual content, from the art to the statistics to the concepts, is almost universally strong, but the book’s also so sparse in lore that it significantly hurts the volume, at least for old planar fans like myself who consider that side of things absolutely paramount. Maybe if MCG uses some of these monsters for an adventure in the future it’ll cement some of these creatures’ identities and make them stick more in my mind, but for now I think it’ll be going back on the shelf. 

Subscribe to our newsletter

Subscribe to get the latest Exposition Break articles sent to your inbox.