Most “monster manuals” are a perfect blend of “fluff and crunch,” of ideas and mechanics. I say perfect, because there is enough material in a decent monster book to satisfy those who are just looking for rules—perhaps just intending to re-skin the monster and call it something else to suit their homebrew campaign, even—and there is enough description and inspiration to interest someone who doesn’t even run the system but is enjoying the art, the ecology, the mythology and inspiration.
I think the Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual is a triumph of fluff, with story hooks that synthesize past edition’s mythology into well-packaged blocks. There is also a lot of great crunch here, but I am ready for the mechanics to go to the next level—they just need a little house ruling to get there, if you ask me.
Before I talk at greater length about the rules and math, I want to give unreserved kudos to the setting description and teratology. This edition takes the monsters’ sometimes contradictory backgrounds from past editions and does a careful balancing act with them, while injecting no small measure of new context along the way. The first thing I flipped to check? “Do the kuo-toa still worship Blibdoolpoolp?” Not only is the answer “yes,” but it is a much more interesting and complex “yes” than expected.
One of the things that most impressed me about Dungeon World was the “show don’t tell” worldbuilding of their monster descriptions, and I can happily say the same about 5th Edition. Making sphinxes explicitly fans of magical tests gives context to the Sphinx’s Riddle, and gives a plausible reason for having magical tests in your dungeon: win/win.
The Gnoll Fang of Yeenoghu is a perfect example as well: I think of gnolls as being the “next level” monster minion after the orcs who replaced the hobgoblins who replaced the goblins who replaced the kobolds. Could be boring. Giving them an infectious, demonic angle is very welcome, and this Monster Manual is packed with similar small flourishes, fresh ideas that give new life to old monsters.
I decided that the best way to try to understand the utility of this Monster Manual was to try to build a dungeon with it. I ran into my first speedbump, here: no index by challenge rating? The alphabetical index is one page, front and back, and the book is already more or less in alphabetical order. What I need when I sit down to populate an adventure with monsters is a spread of challenge ratings; they appeared later, in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and while that is fine I really don’t like having to flip back and forth between the two books to populate an encounter.
I miss Fourth Edition’s “roles” as well: as the whole Brute, Artillery, Controller, etc paradigm was a good tag to understand at a glimpse what the monster was up to, but losing them is no big deal. I am sad to see minions disappear; that was an idea with some legs, if you ask me. Hopefully they’ll stick it in a subsequent Monster Manual as a variant notion, sort of an Unearthed Arcana for critters. Or maybe there is another clever way they can carry the philosophy of the minion over that we’ll see in Monster Manual II or the next Fiend Folio. Spin an old idea into new mechanics like they did with Solos and Legendary actions.
Legendary actions are the “Solo monsters” of 4e, brought into the new edition. I am a big fan. I never quite made up my mind about 4e’s decision to decouple humanoid opponents from the character generation rules, making the enemy cleric (for example) a monster rather than an NPC. There were up sides and down sides, to my mind, but solo monsters were a brilliant way of giving a Big Bad teeth. Not just six attacks when it’s turn comes up, which massively increases the danger of a TPK while keeping the initiative order a boring back and forth, but with triggered reactions. 5e streamlines it even more, but conserves the heart of the concept: acting out of turn order. I’m into it, but trying to build a dungeon for first level characters I couldn’t find a creature with legendary actions within the right range of difficulty. A major bummer.
When I started reviewing Pathfinder’s Bestiaries, I made my criteria for a good stat block pretty clear. What I’m looking for, first thing, are a cool core mechanic. If a monster is just a list of hit points and a damage die, I think it is kind of a waste of space. I don’t need mechanics on basic stuff like holding its breath or if it is amphibious—if it has a swim speed and aquatic fluff, I can figure out that it lives in water on my own—but if it doesn’t have a rule mini-game, you’ve missed the mark.
The ghoul’s paralyzing touch is a good, old school example of what I mean, integrated seamlessly into a monster; the beholder (in every edition) is a great example of this ethos taken to the extreme. The new Monster Manual does pretty well with this, but not always. Some monsters, like Mummies and Mummy Lords, pack a lot of mechanical cleverness into a little package, but then the three pages preceding it give the rules for Modrons, all of which are rather identical, barring slight numerical increases and the pentadrone’s paralysis gas. A particular disappointment to me, since I’m a big Planescape nerd.
My solution to not having any creatures with Legendary or Lair actions appropriate for low-level PCs is to do what any good Dungeon Master would do: just graft one creature’s Legendary actions onto one creature, and the Lair actions onto another creature, scaling the difficulty on the skill checks and saves as appropriate. I like the Demilich’s Lair options; it has a re-charge that keeps it chaotic, and is easily adapted by swapping dispel magic for antimagic field. I’ll throw a couple of ghouls and a ghast into the adventure, and just have the ghast keep re-spawning, until the PCs find it’s grave and fight it with it using Lair actions.
Thanks for the inspiration, Castle Ravenloft. For Legendary actions…well, if you liked the 3e ethos of having a
chicken in every pot a dragon in every dungeon, or if you wanted to make sure this low level dungeon at least had a dragon in it—say, if you were building it for new players and wanted to give them the “full experience”—that’s the way to go. Grab your black dragon wyrmling and give it the legendary actions of an adult black dragon, scaled appropriately.
Don’t read the above as complaints, read it as critique. This is a great book, and my biggest complaint are that the cool rule systems in it don’t play a bigger role. That’s practically Dickensian; please sir, may I have some more? Or Animal House, I guess, if you are the Player Characters being beaten up by a monster’s Legendary actions while being hampered by their Lair: thank you sir may I have another! The new edition of Dungeons and Dragons is going to generate lots more of these books. This is a promising monster collection, and I think there is room for improvement in those inevitable follow-up volumes. Drop in an index by challenge rating; heck, drop in an errata index for this Monster Manual, while you are at it. The Fifth Edition is incredibly promising; judging by the comments in my review of the Player’s Handbook, I may have been premature in saying the Edition Wars are over, but I still think there is something for everyone here.
Art courtesy of Wizards of the Coast.
Mordicai Knode was putting the finishing touches on a dungeon for new characters the other day when he accidentally outlined a 1st-to-20th level campaign from start to finish. Oops! Find him on Tumblr and Twitter.