After the initial trilogy (Player’s Handbook, Monster Manual, Dungeon Master’s Guide), Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition (5E) releases have been almost entirely limited to campaign books, plus the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide, a gazetteer that also had minimal mechanical content. Volo’s Guide to Monsters breaks that streak, with the first significant new mechanical content since the release of the DMG, including a variety of new monsters and new playable races. Volo’s Guide to Monsters, which sees wide release today (November 15, 2016) is a 224-page, full-color hardcover, and retails for about $50 (there is also fancier version that is available only through hobby channels, but this review is based on an advance copy of the more broadly available version).
Most of Volo’s Guide to Monsters is divided into three sections – the new playable races, new bestiary entries, and a broader discussion of the details of nine popular categories of monster. There are a few notes from Volo and Elminster “stuck” onto the pages of Volo’s Guide, but the general tone of the book is standard fare, not a presentation from the particular perspective of the eponymous Volothamp Geddarm.
The playable races is the shortest section (weighing in at about 18 pages), but the part I was the most excited about, simply because it represents the first significant new character options since the Player’s Handbook (there have been some new character backgrounds in prior releases, most notably in the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide). That’s the result of a clear stylistic choice with 5E, and I respect that choice, but I must admit to a hankering from time to time for new Dungeons & Dragons crunch.
The most exciting new species appearance (for me, at least) is the aasimar – characters with celestial blood in their veins – who did not make it into the Player’s Handbook alongside their infernal cousins (the tieflings). All aasimar have a bonus to Charisma, darkvision, resistance to some kinds of damage, and limited healing ability. They also have two typical sub-race options, the protector or the scourge. This selection gives a boost to a second ability and a transformation power. Both powers allow the aasimar to do extra radiant damage when it is active, but the protector power grants flight while the scourge power deals out even more damage (including to the aasimar). A third sub-race is the fallen aasimar, those who have strayed from the path of good. The fallen aasimar’s transformation power causes fear and inflicts necrotic damage.
In addition to the headlining aasimar, Volo’s Guide includes another twelve playable races. Six of these are more obscure races that get full write-ups but don’t have sub-race options. The other six are well-known ‘monstrous’ races – they simply get stat blocks (all six of these come from the categories covered in the book).
The six more ‘typical’ options are the firbolg, goliath, kenku, lizardfolk, tabaxi, and triton. Firbolg are woodland guardians with a strong lean towards being druids. More so than the standard PC races, firbolg adventurers will be unusual for their kind, likely needing a specific reason for this choice, rather than simple wanderlust or ambition. Firbolg are large (but not quite Large, although they are treated as Large for purposes of carrying capacity), although they have an ability that lets them pass as a more usual humanoid size. Goliaths are also larger than usual (7-8 feet), and are generally athletically gifted, with bonuses based on their natural mountainous territory. Psychologically, they place great value on fairness and self-sufficiency, leading to a stoic and lawful neutral outlook.
Three of the remaining race options are anthropomorphic – lizardfolk (of course), the kenku (flightless birds), and the tabaxi (cats). The lizardfolk and kenku strike me as problematic options. Kenku (agile types with natural criminal skills) cannot speak normally (they cannot speak at all, except to mimic sounds) – something that is, for me, usually a deal-breaker in a PC race (yes, that means no Wookies in my Star Wars games). Physically lizardfolk are fine, with their bonuses focused on being seven kinds of tough (higher Constitution, natural armor, natural weapons, etc.). But a large part of their write-up focuses on how different their psychology is, including an inability to feel emotion in the way that people do, and I think that staying true to that would make them awkward in a campaign with significant roleplaying beyond combat and exploration. The tabaxi, on the other hand, have no such issues – an inclination towards curiosity and gathering information works pretty well with the adventuring mindset. Mechanically, they are agile and perceptive.
Finally, there are the tritons, an aquatic humanoid race. They are noble but arrogant, and often a bit clueless about the nuances of the surface world. Mechanically, they have what seems like pretty standard traits for an aquatic race that is fully functional as a PC race – fully amphibious, swim speed, and able to take cold and pressure. They also have limited ability to control air and water and, because Aquaman needs some company, they can talk to aquatic animals (although not control them).
The six monstrous race options are orc, goblin, kobold, bugbear, yuan-ti pureblood, and hobgoblin. The book warns that these six are not designed to be balanced with the standard player races, but may be weaker or stronger. So a DM has extra reason to be cautious about the use of these races (in addition to the roleplaying issues that will arise from trying to integrate a ‘monster’ PC into a standard campaign that will likely visit locations where such creatures are usually killed on sight).
Although the new playable races are the part of Volo’s Guide to Monsters that gets me the most excited, the largest section of the book is a background discussion of nine different monster types – beholders, giants, gnolls, goblinoids (bugbears, goblins, hobgoblins), hags, kobolds, mind flayers, orcs, and yuan-ti. I wouldn’t have thought of hags as archetypal enough to warrant inclusion here, but otherwise the choices seem solid (dragons and gith are referenced as not being covered because they are being saved for something else, but I am unaware of how certain some later product on them is – a dragon-specific book seems pretty easy to do, but ‘product with a lot on the gith’ just raises my delusions that WotC is going to bring back Planescape).
This section of the book (plus some parts of the bestiary) brings to mind the Pathfinder Monster Codex, but Volo’s Guide is much less regimented. Not only do the nine monster types not get equal page count, but they are allowed to simply flow together, instead of being cabined at full pages each (on average there are about 11 pages per type, with giants getting the longest page count at 15 and kobolds the lowest at 8). The focus of each section varies from monster to monster, but all sections provide a lot of information on the history of the monsters and why they act in the manner they do. Following the general dichotomy between D&D 5E and Pathfinder, this portion of Volo’s Guide also deviates from the Monster Codex in that (even including the related bestiary entries) the content is much more background oriented, rather than having lots of new feats, equipment, and so forth for the monsters. The focus is on behavior and motivation, not mechanics.
The beholder material emphasizes their paranoid psychology and how a beholder might construct its lair. The material on giants primarily concerns their society, allowing for a richer experience if the DM wishes to flesh out giant foes (it could be useful for running the Storm King’s Thunder campaign, although I’m not sure that the information presented here is always on all fours with how the different giants are presented there, especially the storm giants). The section on gnolls again goes into psychology, although knowing more about why the gnolls are trying to kill and eat you may not change the gameplay experience that much.
The goblinoids provides quite a lot of information on the very divergent species and their social structures. This information seems like it could be quite handy, since these are the sorts of foes that often appear in large numbers and have motivations more complex than gnawing on your thighbone. Busting up an encampment of goblins or hobgoblins seems like exactly the sort of thing many adventuring groups will do at some point, so the DM may appreciate tools on what the PCs might encounter, and how the goblinoids might react. Ditto for the orcs. The kobold section has similar information, but they get such a sympathetic presentation that one has to wonder why those evil adventurers are disturbing the poor kobolds in the first place.
The material on mind flayers puts special focus on the overarching purpose and functioning of their colonies, but is probably a bit less useful, if only because many fewer adventuring groups will ever be so foolish as to invade a nest full of mind flayers (just the one you met on the road is bad enough, yes?). The yuan-ti section also provides history and social context, but like the mind flayers it is probably a very special episode when the characters actually go into a yuan-ti city, rather than dealing with them away from their normal social parameters.
Volo’s Guide to Monsters also includes around 100 stat blocks. Many, but not most, of these tie into the monster types discussed earlier in the book. The monsters that fall into those categories are most commonly specialized versions – hobgoblin assassin monks, yuan-ti anathema, annis hags, giants with a distinctive religious bent, kobold sorcerers, elder brains, tanarukk (demon orcs) etc. Each category gets at least a couple, usually more (up to five, I think). The bestiary includes several returning notables that didn’t make it into the Monster Manual, including barghests, catoblepas, cranium rats (an old favorite of mine), vargouille, and the froghemoth. Plus there are more dinosaurs – I don’t think of dinosaurs as a frequently occurring thing in D&D, but when you’re doing the dinosaur thing, you want a good selection to populate that lost world.
There are also monsters that I wasn’t familiar with – the flail snail is my new favorite (apparently rhyming is awesome). These options seem to include a slight lean towards fey, but range from weak to strong, and include lone monsters and organized ones (including newt and frog people). Finally, there are about 10 more pages of NPC stat blocks.
Volo’s Guide to Monsters provides a deeper look for continuing D&D players – a deeper roster for the DM, a deeper insight into common foes, and a deeper selection pool for players who want to go beyond the (admittedly already expansive) character options from the PHB. I wish there was a little more time spent on the new PC races, which will not be nearly as familiar to players as the PHB standbys, but I get that there’s only so much page count to go around.
With that said, as a functional matter this is primarily a DM-focused book. There is interesting reading to be had, but (barring the occasional goblinoid or orc PC), it is reading – when the dice hit the table – that is being used by the DM, not the players. In that role, Volo’s Guide provides some nice extra flavor for common monsters, as well as additional options, making it a worthy addition for a D&D 5E campaign.