It has been a couple of years since the release of the core set – Players Handbook, Monster Manual and Dungeon Master’s Guide – and in between we’ve mostly seen the release of campaign books that have added their own flavour that a half-awake DM can implement to great effect in his/her own games.
Across the last two editions we’ve seen something of a template in terms of extra material, and the same with independent adaption Pathfinder; more monster manuals, more player options, flavour books that add new worlds or mixed materials that play to a theme, accompanied by campaign modules which are primarily focused on a playable adventure, rather than adding usable material for anyone to use.
5th edition has taken a complete sidestep from the formulas of the past. The campaign modules, such as Princes of the Apocalypse and Out of the Abyss, each provide material for DMs and players alike, and the same can be said of the supplement Sword Coast Adventurers Guide despite being primarily focused on player options. All of them have a heavy slant towards the Forgotten Realms setting, but leave options wide open for homebrew settings and other pre-made worlds like Athas and Eberron.
Ok, enough preamble, what does this have to do with Volo’s Guide to Monsters?
Instead of a new Monster Manual, we instead have an in depth study from Volothamp Geddarm, the legendary explorer, interspersed with edits and notes from the far more respectable mage Elminster. We open with Volo’s pompous introduction and Elminster’s tear down of his friends ego, and their back and forth notes continue throughout the book, leaving a distinctive slant on this new approach to a bestiary.
We start with a series of deep studies into some Dungeons & Dragons classic nemeses that go into far greater depth than previous books. Personally I’ve always had a weakness for the slaughtering horde of humanoid hyenas, Gnolls; Volo gives us a full scale breakdown of their personality, motivations, composition of their packs and the horrors that travel with them on their bloody tours of carnage. Honestly I’d never considered mixing trolls into the mix, or the sheer variety of roles within the horde. Alternatively you can take the time to learn about the lifecycle of the mindflayer, how gods influence the military composition of goblin hosts, and get into how to role-play a properly conniving coven of hags.
Follow this up with a section for the players, monstrous races. Kenku and lizardfolk pulled straight from the monster manual, goliaths for those who didn’t pick up the Elemental Evil players guide, and a host of new and less civilised species to join the party. Personal favourite may be the Triton, aside from the fact that you improve three of your ability scores instead of one or two, but I also love the personality issues they come with, entirely convinced that they are in charge everywhere and issue commands rather than making requests.
Finally, an extra hundred pages of assorted creatures and beasties, most of which are supporting cast members for our Chapter One case studies, like the demonic mutants of the gnoll hordes, variations on the beholder, and finally the mindflayer’s Elder Brain. We also have a supply of new creatures, strange monstrosities of the outer planes, the infamous Froghemoth, and some new and interesting enemies for all levels; monstrous, human, and quite a few in between.
Aside from being a fun little toolkit, cut with entertaining notes and annotations from Volo and Elminster, this is raw inspirational material. I’ve read plenty of books from other editions, mostly 4th but plenty of 3rd edition and a healthy collection of other rule sets, but there aren’t quite so thought provoking volumes amongst other collections. Perhaps 5th edition is just the one to have clung to my particular creative mindset – everyone finds their own muse after all – but I find myself with a lot more to bring to the table with every book. It’s most important to remember of course that the information is by no means de facto, brilliantly conceived but not gospel, and if you’re going to pluck from Volo’s Guide, do so without damaging what you have already created.
This is a slimmer volume than the core set, but still well worth picking up, and at some point I think I’ll be topping up my bookshelves with a few of the campaign books and extra material, on top of the freely available .pdfs filled with playtest material on the D&D website.
So now I have to prep a bunch of cat-person-murder-monks for later on in my campaign.