My review of the Player’s Handbook, here, was fairly positive. Okay, perhaps overwhelmingly so. Beyond a few fairly glaring indexing issues in the magic section, I found the book to be delightful and highly useable. Having now received the second in the holy trinity of rulebooks, can the same be said for the Monster Manual?
The book is, of course, quite different than the Player’s Handbook, and this review will reflect that. As more of a reference tool, or as a collection of pieces for the DM to use, there’s simply less to review. But, I am sure I can find quite a bit to say.
A Review of the 5th Edition D&D Monster Manual
Art and Aesthetics
So perhaps the most positive thing I had to say about the Player’s Handbook was how pleasing the volume was aesthetically. The art was great, the formatting top notch, and beyond a few quibbles the usability of the volume was fine. The Monster Manual both continues this trend, but also surpasses it.
In terms of art, the book is chock full of gorgeous illustrations. There are not many pieces I find any issue with, and plenty I consider exceptional. Some pieces that I enjoyed quite a bit include the Death Knight (page 47), the Pixie (page 253), the Slaadi (page 275) the Troglodyte (page 290), and Castle Ravenloft (page 296).
Pieces like the Troglodyte and certain other ones, like the flumph, really bring a spark of life to a creature that I didn’t find much of before. The art piece itself serves as inspiration for using the creature, even before you read it’s flavor entry and stat block. Quite a few creatures are revitalized in this manner, actually, making the art serve the multiple purposes of filling out the book, providing a quick visual description of the creature, but also serving as a creative well to think about some of these creatures in new ways.
There are some pieces I dislike, however. Chief among these is the Owlbear art. I just find it weird looking and silly. This is exceptionally sad because the concept art we had seen come from Wizards in the past couple of years for the Owlbear was quite good, but this piece completely loses out on the predatory aspects of both the owl and the bear, and sort of looks like something out of Adventure Time.
(I like the sketches to the side, and the artist’s website will show that she’s very talented. I just think this particular piece was a miss.)
Another one is both the Cambion and the Incubus/Succubus art. While the art itself is good, and it’s not a knock against the artist’s skill, I think I dislike the sort of mood of the pieces. They feel less like medieval temptation demons (or children of devils), and more like goth club costumes. I would actually quite enjoy these pieces in the context of The World of Darkness games, but to me they don’t much fit into the theme of the rest of the book.
As far as the layout of the book is concerned, well, it’s in alphabetical order, which is to be expected. I do like that most monsters get one or two pages to themselves; there’s not a whole lot of crowding monsters together on a page. There’s not much to complain about on that front. The book has two appendices, one for more normal sorts of animals and one for humanoid NPCs, which will certainly help prep time for your games.
Overall the aesthetic of the book is stellar, and is certainly among the cream of the crop as far as role playing game books go. The person or team in charge of layout ought to feel pretty damn proud of themselves. But what of all the delicious crunchy bits?
Digging Into It
The book starts with a small section that basically tells you how to read the book and the stat blocks of the monsters. It gives some general ideas on what monsters are, where they dwell, and the use of them in the game. It’s just four or so pages, and experienced players and DMs won’t find anything new here. As far as new DMs, I’m not sure how effective it would be in actually explaining what all of this monster nonsense is, but it seems thorough, and the stat blocks seem intuitive enough that I don’t see many problems with people navigating them. I believe much of what a new DM (and the rest of us actually) will need in order to actually use this book will appear in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, as far as encounter building is concerned.
I actually am somewhat perplexed that there isn’t some more detailed encounter building guidelines incorporated in this book. Perhaps a page or two listing appropriate encounter groups by level, or a blurb at the end of the entry showing a typical encounter group of each monster (ala the 4th edition Monster Manual). It really takes away from the usefulness of the book, really. Having some very simple encounter guidelines here while we wait for the more comprehensive ones in the DMG just seems to be a smart thing to do.
On the other hand, encounters in 5th edition are somewhat easy to gauge at this point, and it does explain that typically a creatures CR shows that it is a moderate challenge to a party of 4 characters equal to it’s CR. Using that alone to make encounters seems a little sloppy to me in practice, however, especially when you are playing parties of fewer or greater than 4.
The stat blocks seem easy enough to read, and aren’t confusing if you know the game already. Many monster stat blocks could fit on a card (wink wink Gale Force 9), and include only what you really need. In most cases, there is more text given over to flavor than to statistics, which is exactly how I prefer it.
A portion of monsters have plenty in the way of actions and attacks to properly distinguish them from other monsters, especially iconic creatures and the new “Legendary” rules for certain creatures. Still others are very simple, given stats and an attack, leaving the fluff to really give them their flavor.
A creature that is legendary has a few extra things going on to really bring about that feeling of being a powerful being. One of these are new legendary actions. These are essentially actions that the creature can take on someone else’s turn, usually 3 a round. They’re minor things that make fighting a single legendary creature seem like a much less one sided affair, and create some cinematic drama. In the case of a dragon, for instance, it can tail whip or beat it’s wings. These actions are generally lesser than it’s main standard actions, but definitely make them worthy foes.
A legendary creature may also have a lair, which in turn grants even more actions in the form of “lair” actions. When a legendary creature with lair actions is in it’s lair, it automatically takes a lair action on initiative count 20. These are generally terrain or regional effects, like mist taking form in a Silver Dragon’s lair. A lair also has general regional effects that change the landscape around it for miles, creating wonderful description and story opportunities should you wish to use these.
One of my favorite legendary creatures, for pure flavor, is the Mummy Lord. It’s legendary actions deal with negative energy and the swirling of sand, or the speaking of powerful blasphemic words. It’s lair actions allow undead to sense exactly where people are within the lair as well as cause spellcasters pain. The regional effects are just wonderful: food and water instantly molders and stagnates in the lair, divination magic becomes unreliable, and all of the treasure in the lair is cursed -giving the taker of the treasure disadvantage on all saving throws while he carries it. Awesome!
It really turns the creature into a good cinematic center piece for a session or adventure. A battle against a legendary creature will be more methodical, exciting, and obviously longer and more deadly. All in all, the legendary creature rules are a home run.
I’m actually a little disappointed about the number of creatures who really only have a simple attack as their action. I understand the want to simplify things for this edition, and to allow the DM to use the flavor to bring the right feel to these monsters, but I do wish there were a few more interesting things that some of these creatures did.
Honestly, I was a huge fan of the 4th edition monsters, or at least what was attempted, and would have liked to see a bit more of that differentiation in play. The Legendary creature is obviously an evolution of the “solo” creature type, so I would have also liked to see the roles make an appearance here, at least with certain humanoid creatures that fight in organized groups.
As mentioned in my other review, the rules of this edition really speed up combat. It’s worth it to mention here that the Monster Manual doesn’t take away from this, though many creatures will have battles at different tempos, especially the legendary ones.
At the end of the book, as mentioned before, are appendices that list NPCs and more “normal” animals. These are fluffless, and seem to be more useful for using as a reference mid game in case you need a random NPC or a Bear. It’s worth it to note that PCs and NPCs/Monsters are set up very differently, and aren’t easily translatable as they were in 3rd edition. The NPC archmage, for instance, isn’t simply a high level Wizard PC already levelled up, but simply a “monster” with stats and abilities to emulate what an arch mage would do in battle against PCs. I’ve heard criticism of this sort of asymmetrical way of dealing with different sorts of characters, but I really haven’t decided whether or not I dislike it. Thoughts?
The strength of this book lies on one hand in it’s aesthetic value, and very firmly in the other hand with it’s flavor and story content. The crunch is usable and not bad, but it serves a practical purpose without elevating itself above other editions. The “fluff”, however, makes this book far and away my favorite Monster Manual of any edition.
I guess in a way it speaks to what got me into D&D in the first place. When I was way too young to play, I would flip through the old books my father had (I am very much a generational gamer), which were the AD&D first edition trinity as well as the Unearthed Arcana and the Fiend Folio. At that age I couldn’t get my head around the rules and mathematical bits. But the art and the flavor entranced me. That was what drew me in. Even the very silly looking creatures were awesome to little me. (And the fiend folio had plenty of those.) Some of that draw, that “magic”, is present in this book for me. This is an entertaining book to flip through, whether at the game table or in your reading chair with a cup of tea.
This book has flavor in spades. As mentioned before, much of the book is given over to the descriptions, flavor, and story hooks of each creature, and there are very few that I would consider inadequately addressed. Not only does it have a lot, it is of just very good quality. Some Monster Manuals of the past few editions have been lackluster or not exciting in this department, seeming to want to rely on the familiarity we have with these monsters. This book holds no such notions. It tries to get you excited about the mainstays, and it completely reinvents some of the obscure ones to show you that even THIS can be cool. Just look at the flumph! One of the silliest D&D monsters ever, and here in this book it is actually really neat, and easy to slip into a campaign. Still weird and alien, but now in a way that would blend naturally into a D&D game and add a good bit of flavor to it.
Nearly every creature has some bits of D&D history in it’s description, to show you how to easily add it into your campaign with story hooks already attached. In some instances this is just slightly overwrought for me, such as with the Blights. In other instances it electrifies the imagination, as with the Hags.
The Blights, for example, are evil plant creatures made of vines and needles and other such things. The description of them say that they came from the seeds of an evil tree, which came about from the wooden stake that was used to kill a particularly evil vampire. Many will recognize these creatures and the Gulthias tree from the Sunless Citadel adventure from 3rd edition. I feel, however, that this description was just a little too over detailed, and would have preferred perhaps for the Gulthias tree to be mentioned as a hook at the end, because these creatures can easily work for many different evil forest purposes. Not that there is anything preventing you from using them how you want, and it is well written (as was the adventure that was it’s origin), but the fluff here didn’t excite my own imagination as much as others.
The Hag entry, however, did just that. It’s well written, it’s steeped in medieval witch lore, and it’s daaaaaark. There’s child murder mentioned here, and horrible witch births. These are twisted macabre creatures that revel in their malevolence, and the description provides lots of little hooks to add them into your own campaign, such as their use of covens to work powerful magics, their want to taint the virtue of other creatures and lead them into dark bargains, and their use of illusion to draw creatures to them. It’s probably my favorite entry, but there’s a lot of competition in the book, especially when you’re reading through the huge Dragon or Fiend sections.
The one entry that I can think of off the top of my head that doesn’t have enough of this sort of thing for me would be the Tarrasque. I have always been fascinated by the Tarrasque as an elemental engine of destruction, and part of this is simply the mystery of what the heck it even is. I hoped the description would delve into multiple possibilities, but it’s rather small, especially in comparison to the stat block. One small disappointment in a sea of awesome however.
Overall, the story content within this book will leave it’s mark on the RPG industry for a very long time to come. Many creatures come away almost reinvented, or simply revitalized, making you think deeply about monsters that have simply been sitting in the tool shed this whole time.
So this volume serves both the purpose as a reference tool, but also as an idea producer. Simply flipping through it and reading a random entry can bring forth a wealth of adventure and session ideas. It is really only a shame that we still have to wait until December(!) in order to effectively use this book to it’s fullest potential.
So, until the Dungeon Masters Guide is released, I can safely say that for me the future of this edition is bright indeed. I just hope that the staggered release schedule that they chose to do, ostensibly due to wanting to give each book a good round of review and editing, won’t hurt the edition right out of the gate. I do believe some may feel that this volume goes hand in hand with the one coming, and is thus a lesser thing during the interim. We shall see.