Review – Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes (Dungeons & Dragons)

Following up on Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes adds more new mechanical content to a Dungeons & Dragons fifth edition library that is still focused primarily on campaign books. Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes was released on May 29, 2018. The 256-page, full-color hardcover retails for $50.

The majority of Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes (about 140 pages worth out of 256) is a supplemental monster manual, with full stat blocks, illustrations, and write-ups of dozens of monsters, both new and rather old (in addition to the titular Mordenkainen, nostalgia fans will note that the Tome of Foes also includes several shout-outs to the cover of the original AD&D Player’s Handbook, which is, believe it or not, a smidge older than I am). This includes the full array of indices for ease of reference – indexes by creature type, by challenge rating, and by environment.

But the selection of what’s in that 140 pages of bestiary is heavily influenced by the first 115 pages of the book, which consists of five chapters on specific types of creatures/races (often pairs). These chapters cover the Blood War (demons and devils), elves, dwarves and duergar, the gith (both githyanki and githzeri), and halflings and gnomes.

From the point of view of quantity of content, the most significant part of the Tome of Foes is the devils and demons and their endless war. The Blood War is the perpetual struggle between the lawful evil forces of the devils (hailing from the highly regimented Nine Hells) against the chaotic evil forces of the demons (from the multitudinous layers of the Abyss). This struggle a titanic one, and some would argue that it is only the attention that these two forces pay each other than prevents them both from drowning the rest of the planes in blood. The chapter on the Blood War (which runs about 30 pages) lays out the general nature of that conflict and  the structure of the two sides (especially the devils, whose preference for structure gives a lot more to talk about). The bestiary section is then replete with new entries for various demons and devils. That includes eleven ‘normal’ types of demon and eleven ‘normal’ types of devil, plus a baker’s dozen of demon lords and archdevils. The roster of dignitaries include Baphomet, Demogorgon (fresh off of his appearance in Stranger Things), Orcus, Zuggtmoy, and Moloch (note that the demon lords already appeared in D&D5E in the Out of the Abyss campaign). On top of that, the neutral evil yugoloths get a half-dozen new options.

While the demons and devils have the most page count in Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, by my reckoning the most significant part of the books is the chapter on elves, which brings a really fresh take on one of the iconic D&D races. The elven chapter leads off with the creation story of the elves as formed from the blood of Corellon Larethian, who was at his course a being of immense mutability. It is only later in their history that the elves take on more definite forms, and Corellon themself only took on any sort of long-term form as a result of the actions of his progeny. The Tome of Foes into numerous aspects of elven life concepts based on this origin story, discussing memory and the trance in terms of eternal souls being reborn as the more limited elves in between time spent on the planes somewhat closer to their primal, mutable selves. The elven chapter also plays on this to give one of the best tie-ins I’ve seen for a genderfluid or truly androgynous character. The high deity of the elves, after all, does not truly have a gender. Truly androgynous elves are considered the blessed of Corellon, while the rarest of the blessed can change sex on a day-to-day basis. The elven chapter also touches on the drow and the shadar-kai (a group of transformed elves trapped in the Shadowfell). It’s just an incredibly well-written chapter.

The dwarves and duergar chapter is solid, although it does not soar to the same heights as the elves (it is also ten page shorter … perhaps there’s some sort of meta point being made here). Here can be found traditional fare about the lives of dwarves, types of dwarves, and the dwarven pantheon (as one might guess from the chapter title, the duergar play a more prominent role here than the drow do in the elven chapter).

The gith and halfling/gnome chapters span about 15 pages each. These chapters are welcome, if only because these races do not get the same sort of attention usually garnered by the elves and the dwarves. My favorite part of these covered the halflings, although the little guys deserve more than half a dozen pages. The most enlightening part of this short span concerns halfling deities, who (except for pantheon leader Yondalla) are all essentially folk heroes elevated to godhood. The anecdotes told of each of the deities each illuminate something about the character of the halflings. The gnome deities have similar content, although the highlight of the gnomish material is mechanics for svirfneblin.

The gith (which I was first exposed to in Planescape), are a split race that was once enslaved by mind flayers. Once they had seized their freedom, philosophical differences tore them apart. Ruled by a gith lich and allied with Tiamat, the githyanki reside in the astral plane, where they interrupt their boredom (beings do not age on the astral plane; nor do they have basic needs to meet such as food) with savage raids on settlements on other planes. The githzerai, on the other hand, believed in isolating themselves, and took up residence in Limbo. The highly-ordered githzerai survive in the pure chaos of limbo thanks to their iron discipline and the powers of the (rather confusingly named) anarchs, who have the ability to stabilize the chaos-stuff of Limbo within their vicinity. As gith have not been presented before in fifth edition, the material her is mostly a basic primer, with a little extra focus on how non-gith PCs might be able to get around in the city of the githyanki.

Consistent with these chapters, the bestiary portion of the Tome of Foes has a variety of stat blocks for eladrin, drow, duergar, derro, and gith (sorry, gnomes and halflings).

For those who are not the dungeon master, the Tome of Foes does present several new player options (almost all of them new racial options). The Blood War chapter provides new Tiefling subraces based on which having a particular archdevil as an ancestor. The elven chapter provides the sea elf, shadar-kai, and eladrin subraces. Of particular note are the eladrin, who are elves native to the Feywild (something of an intermediate step between their ‘true’ selves and the elves of the Material Plane). The eladrin can manifest four aspects, themed around the seasons. They might manifest the same season all their lives, change based on the actual season, or based on their emotional state (although the rules require a long rest to change season, I can see roleplaying opportunities for season changes in the heat of the moment). The dwarven chapter includes the duergar subrace (they do still have their traditional magic abilities). Similarly, the halfling/gnome chapter has a deep gnome subrace (sorry, halflings, nothing for you). Unlike the duergar, the svirfneblin only get their full spread of innate magical abilities if they take the Svirfnebling Magic feat (assuming that the campaign uses the optional feat rules). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the gith chapter includes mechanics for both gith subraces, which hadn’t previously appeared in a 5E book.

Also like Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes also has the eponymous character providing little side notes to the main text. Xanathar’s comments came from a unique perspective (a self-centered, thoroughly evil beholder, who also happened to be incredibly oblivious). While, I suppose, Mordenkainen’s comments also come from a somewhat distinctive perspective (an archmage who is committed to “the balance,” and thus tends to work against any non-neutral faction that seems to be gaining too much power), they didn’t seem either amusing or insightful. A small shame, given Mordenkainen’s status as one of the longstanding icons of D&D. Ultimately, however, these sidebars are both infrequent and short, and don’t detract form the book.

Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes is an excellent addition to the fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons library. Although the additional bestiary is a bit skewed towards devils and demons, it is still a welcome supplement. Plus, the discussion on the various PC-playable races can be used as helpful background for players on their own characters, or for the GM in bringing these communities to life. However, is it the chapter on elves that is truly the crowning jewel of the Tome of Foes, presenting a fresh and well-written take on one of the oldest components of this genre of fantasy. The book is almost worth buying just for that. (Although I did not have to, because promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy).

 

 

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