This Tuesday I got hold of my copy of the new Monster Manual, quite literally as soon as it was delivered to my local games shop. The Monster Manual (MM) is a catalogue of creatures that can be used in Dungeons and Dragons campaigns and is the second book that comprises the “core set” essential to play, although truth be told an experienced DM could start running a full game right now, especially as your players have now had a month to play around with the Players Handbook that I reviewed shortly after its’ release.
Now let me be absolutely clear here. I’ve made no small issue of how much I love this edition, and I really tried not to gush too much over the PHB, clearly that didn’t work out very well. I also love Monster Manuals. The first ever game of D&D I played I was thrown in at the deep end and asked to be the DM, and after a quick flip through the 3.5 edition PHB and Dungeon Masters Guide I found myself flipping gleefully through the collection of Monster Manuals I’d been presented with. Now my actual role-play chops were pretty weak back then, and combat was one hell of a beast to get to grips with I’ll admit, but as I leafed through the fantastic menagerie a world of possibilities opened up for me.
When 4th edition rolled around and I actually started getting a handle on what I was playing with, the core-books gave me an opportunity that I’d struggled to grasp in 3.5 – the ability to design my own monsters. 4th ed has been criticized for it’s overly form-fill monster design template, but I found that platform allowed me vast creative powers that I spent a lot of time carefully refining, and for the first time I could see the ticking machine behind every game I’d ever played.
So you’ll understand me when I say that I was excited for the new 5th edition MM, and you’ll perhaps understand why I was in the shop an hour before the delivery fan showed up, and maybe not judge me when I tell you that…
In keeping with the “return to form” style that 5th edition has been striving for, this book sees the return of creatures that have not seen the light of print in some time, including modrons, the piercer and flumph, as well as the return of the old stalwarts such as the owlbear, mimic, and colossal Tarrasque. There are no new faces to be found, but every single creature has had something of a shake up and strip down. They are all reduced to their bare-bones, as though all former designs have been thrown out of the window and Wizards of the Coast sat down and said for every creature “What is it? When you get right down to it?” Now mechanically this has left the actual statistics of the creature betraying very little personality.
However, this book is crammed with rich detail, brilliantly woven ideas and suggestions on how to use these creatures, and more importantly, ways in which they can fit into a living world! The first few pages take time to give you some ideas of ways to populate different locations with monstrous habitants and giving them sound reasons for being there. 4th edition offered little on that score, where 3.5 seemed to almost bind creatures to certain geographical reasons. More “important” creatures, such as dragons, beholders and demons have sections dedicated to how they influence the world around them. This all helps create a rich environment in which adventure almost seems endemic.
The basic design of the book is terrific, it has the definite feel of a scientific document, not dissimilar to the 3rd edition books (although I think they’ve done it better in this one). The artists commissioned for the illustrations were asked to include detail sketches, and they have been dotted throughout the book. Now the artwork on a creature can make or break your opinion in seconds, it is your first impression after all, and on the whole the art in this edition is great, BUT – and here I make a lot of people sad – 4th editions’ first Monster Manual had better artwork. This is a generalization, both have their ups and downs for sure, but there were one or two big disappointments for me. For example, I was really hoping to see this owlbear:
Terrifying, right? Check him out in our Top 10 Bears in Games. No pictures are online for the actual artwork that was selected, but I can tell you now it’s pretty much a fluffy teddy by comparison. I had a half hearted attitude to the owlbear until I saw the screaming predator above, and please, please take that image away with you because Winnie the ~Hoo~ (owl noise) is not scary.
And why do all giants throw rocks? Even the highly intelligent ones, you’d hope would have either crafted metal tridents, or even sharpened a redwood at some point. But that’s me, I’m picky.
There are a couple of glaring layout flaws. The biggest, and by far the most shameful is the lack of an index by Challenge Rating. At the back is a list of creatures in alphabetical order, which is great, except that by and large they’re mostly alphabetized anyway (excepting where they’re in categories such as the demons or genies). The CR listing is useful for arranging your encounters by the level of the party, without that list we can look forward to carefully checking the CR of all creatures as we leaf through the book, and that’s listed somewhere about a third of the way through the stat-block. Unhelpful to say the least, hopefully something they’ll be rectifying soon through online support (but WotC’s online support is a rant for another day).
The NPC class has returned! Does anyone here remember NPCs listed as level 3 Nobles? 4th edition did away with them somewhat but it has returned in the form of an appendix at the back of this book. There’s also an appendix of general animals, a few of which are mildly magical such as the Blink Dog and Phase Spider which I think deserved a page of their own as opposed to the column that they got.
So 5th edition drops it’s first disappointment, but it’s still an excellent book that offers a lot of amazing opportunities for Dungeon Masters to really play around, but I still have two months to wait for the Dungeon Masters Guide so that I can set to work creating my own menagerie! Maybe a giant with a javelin.