Review – Monster Manual (Dungeons & Dragons)

Dungeons & Dragons, in one of its many forms, was (after Space Hulk) the second “gamer” game I ever played – and, of course, my first RPG. I played both Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (2E) in middle and high school – my D&D Rules Cyclopedia is fairly tattered from heavy use, the AD&D 2E Player’s Handbook remains the one RPG book I just own two copies of, and I’m pretty sure I escaped from Zanzer Tem’s dungeon often enough to have memorized the layout. And I played more D&D 3E than any other edition (and my 3E books take up more space on my shelves than any edition of any other game). All told D&D is pretty near and dear to my heart, and for all the innovation in the RPG marketplace in recent years, it still remains the bright star around which the rest of the RPG world must orbit.

However, I found the great game falling by the wayside with its fourth edition, which featured a mechanical precision I can admire in a detached sort of way, but for me had lost the flavor of D&D. So I was pretty excited about the fifth edition, which I tabbed as my most anticipated game at GenCon 2014, and was only one of two games (along with Legend of the Five Rings) for which I set aside the time to play in more than one event. Now, with that introduction, you might think this would be a review of the 5E Player’s Handbook, but you’ve all probably had that for a month at this point, so I thought I’d write instead about something that (most of) you don’t have yet – the Monster Manual.

DnD_MonsterManual            The Monster Manual has for some time been one of the three “core” D&D books, alongside the Player’s Handbook and the Dungeon Master’s Guide. But, at the same time, it has often played third fiddle to those books. It was the final book of the three released for 3E. If you aren’t a GM you can theoretically just never look at it. Even the DMG has a list of magic items you can look through and beg your GM to give you. But the Monster Manual is, rightfully, getting a bit more respect in fifth edition D&D, getting released before the DMG. And that respect is deserved. While the Player’s Handbook is, of course, the central tome, there may be no book that will be consulted by the GM more at the table than his trusty Monster Manual. Basic rules? He has those memorized. Charts and tables? Those are on the back of the screen. But if you’re crafting an adventure you’ll have to consult your handy Monster Manual during preparation, and then it will probably be coming out again and again during the sessions.

With all that in mind, I’m thrilled with the fifth edition Monster Manual. It’s big. It’s pretty. It’s easy to use during play.

Now, some of the basics are obvious. It’s a list of monsters. They’re alphabetical. If you’re making your own adventures you pretty much have to have it. But some details are called for. There are all of five pages of lead-in at the front of the book to tell you how to mechanically use the monsters (there’s also some fluff about monster types and lairs). And the only information you really need to important from another source is for spellcasting monsters. There simply isn’t the need for the more voluminous rules lead-in and importing that was sometimes necessary in prior editions.

UmberHulk            Every monster gets a stat block, a (mostly) flavor write-up, and its own art – usually its own fantastic art (even for multi-type monsters like demons and devils, every single subtype gets its own art). The write-up might convey general information, where the foe might be found, history, purpose, etc. Note that the write-up outside of the stat block might also contain rules information like the fact that the creature does not need to eat, breathe, or sleep. These write-ups are well done, and even though something like a bestiary isn’t usually at the top of my list of RPG reading material, this one does a pretty good job of it.

Stat blocks are pretty compact, conveying all of the information needed for most creatures in a quarter or half a page (sorry, beholder, there’s no way to cut all of those eye ray descriptions down to half a page). This includes new Legendary Actions for certain epic foes. Legendary actions permit a monster to take additional actions outside of its own turn (up to one legendary action after each opponent’s turn). For example, on its own turn an ancient dragon can cause fear, bite, and claw twice. Then it can use its 3 legendary actions to make tail and wing attacks throughout the rest of the round.

Another pair of new kinds of effects also apply to Legendary creatures (these two found outside of the stat block) are Lair Actions and Regional Effects (not all Legendary creatures will have these abilities). A lair action is another action that the monster gets to take outside of its turn, always on initiative count 20. For example, a red dragon encountered in its lair can force magma to erupt, trigger a small earthquake, or cause volcanic gases to form a toxic cloud. Regional effects can be more adventure-centric. For example, the area around a white dragon’s lair might be covered in chilly fog, subject to constant freezing rain, or blocked by ice walls.

For entries that are grouped, such as giants or demons, there is one long set of text describing the group generally and then the individual classifications, before a series of pages of stat blocks and art. In addition to the obvious candidates, there are also multiple stat blocks presented for creatures like orcs, with stats for a standard monster and then more advanced versions (there is not an extra image for every single one of these stat blocks – you don’t really need a distinct image for hobgoblin, hobgoblin captain, and hobgoblin warlord).

As I noted above, the Monster Manual is pretty big, clocking in at 350 pages (they added an extra 30 pages and went over the standard page count for a binding of this size). And I count about 325 distinct stat blocks in the main part of the text (so those hobgoblins would contribute three, and the dragons contribute 40). In addition to those, there are also two appendices of other potential foes – beasts and NPCs. The beasts appendix houses not only the normal animals, but also giant and dire versions. This appendix adds another 95 options, although some entries (Giant Spider) are probably going to come up a lot more than other (sea horse). The NPC section includes 21 entries, from Commoner to Archmage.

The challenge ratings of the foes available are, as I’d expect, skewed towards the lower end of the difficulty curve:

CRchart

Although it doesn’t have the same sort of hard mathematical certainty that encounter matching did, the challenge rating still has the same general function – a single monster of CR X should prove a good, but not lethal, challenge for a party of 4 level X heroes. For the table above, note that the “0” entry includes fractional challenge ratings as well. It also does not include entries from the two appendices – the beasts cap out at about CR5 (and the relevant ones are mostly from 1-3), so adding them in would further add to the count on the left half of the chart. Longtime D&D players will not be surprised to learn that the CR30 entry is the Tarrasque (for those not familiar, this is more of an iconic entry included for historical purposes, rather than something one would ever encounter in-game).

When looking at the spread of CRs available, it may be helpful to keep in mind the way that fifth edition keeps monsters relevant longer. Gone are the days of vastly scaling attack  bonuses and armor class. A weaker creature is still going to have a lower attack and lower armor class, and will definitely have lower hit points, but a big enough swarm of little guys can eventually bring down all but the toughest opponents. Also, given that most adventuring takes place when characters are at level 1-10, and that this is the basic monster book, I think it’s appropriate that the monsters included congregate more heavily at the lower CRs.

CambionWith all that said, the book is not perfect, and contains one major unforced error. There is an index of stat blocks by name (although it’s in some sort of micro-font to make it fit on two pages). There is not, however, an index of monsters by CR. The exclusion of such a basic and helpful handful of pages is baffling – it was included in the two prior iterations of the Monster Manual, and it’s really helpful for the DM when building adventures and encounters.

In addition to that, I am uncertain as to the utility of the NPC appendix. Don’t get me wrong – having stat blocks of NPCs ready to go can be pretty handy for a DM. But there are so few of them because they don’t scale. What if you need cult fanatics who aren’t CR2? Or a Gladiator who isn’t CR5? And there’s no indication what sort of challenge the “Mage” (or whoever) is going to provide without peering through the stat blocks (especially since, well, no index by CR). It’s not that you can’t just make up your own tribal warrior of whatever level you want, but it kind of defeats the purpose. To me, this feels like the sort of thing that might appear in a more expanded and useful format in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. We’re only talking about nine pages here, but if they had taken the 9 pages devoted to Appendix B and turned those into additional index pages, this book would have been pretty much perfect.

On a personal note, I couldn’t help but notice that not only are githzeri and githyanki included in the Monster Manual, but so are modrons! Combine that with a reference to Sigil in the Player’s Handbook, and they’re really getting my hopes up for the return of Planescape.

Overall, the Monster Manual should be a welcome addition to the bookshelf. It is, of course, a critical component of the GM’s arsenal. But it also looks great overall, has great art, reads great, and is just overloaded with monsters. It’s easy for the Monster Manual to coast and be a very workmanlike tome, but this one really excels.

Promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy.

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