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Monday, 21 March 2016

The Monster Manual

In some ways, the Monster Manual is one of the cornerstones of the roleplaying hobby—and has been for almost forty years. The original Monster Manual, published in 1977, was the first hardcover title for Dungeons & Dragons—and quite possibly any RPG—and the first release for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Even before the Player’s Handbook and the Dungeon Master’s Guide. It presented some three-hundred-and-fifty monsters for the game, monsters that are now standard in Dungeons & Dragons. In the decades since, each of the subsequent iterations of Dungeons & Dragons has received its own version of the Monster Manual and in many cases received multiple bestiaries from the famed Fiend Folio and Monster Manual II for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and the Monstrous Compendium for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition to the Monster Manual II and Fiend Folio for Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition and Monster Manual 2 for Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition. Then of course there are the multiple bestiaries released by third party publishers for Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition, such as the Monsternomicon from Privateer Press, Sword & Sorcery’s Creature Collection series, The Tome of Horrors series from Necromancer Games, and Pelgrane Press’ recent 13th Age Bestiary.

So we come to 2014 and the Monster Manual for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. The second release for the latest iteration of the game, it comes with some four hundred or so individual monsters each with a streamlined, easy-to-read stat block, as well as a superb full colour illustration. The book is decently organised and easy to use—once you get used to the idea that monster types are organised under that type, so that all of the Dragons are under the Dragon entry, the Demons under the Demon entry, and so on, and that many of the creatures given in previous iterations of the Monster Manual are listed with the more mundane creatures. 

The supplement’s introduction explains the stats used for its contents, but before it does this, it asks some two good questions—’What is a Monster?’ and ‘Where do Monsters Dwell?’ The first question is simply answered as being  “...[a]ny creature that can be interacted with and potentially fought and killed.” The latter question is answered with a plethora of ideas where monsters can be found and encountered—“A ruined wizard’s tower atop a lonely hill riddled with goblin-infested tunnels”, “A chain of rocky islands on a vast, sunless sea that’s home to aboleths and insane kuo-toa”, and so on. There are thirty of suggestions that each evokes a potential adventure idea and from the outset enforces the importance of the location in the game.

Many of the Monster Manual’s stats will look familiar bar one—Challenge Rating. This is a measure of determining which monster is suitable to be used as a challenge to the player characters. Simply, a Challenge Rating 1 monster, such as a Bugbear, a Harpy, or a Lion, represents a difficult, but not deadly Challenge to a party of four First Level characters. The same again at Challenge Rating 2, Challenge Rating 3, and so on. Some creatures have a Challenge Rating of less than 1, so for example, a  Kobold is Challenge Rating ⅛, so eight represents a challenge to a First Level party. This scales as a party acquires Levels, so that at higher Levels, monsters go from challenges with fewer numbers to challenges in mobs. This seems simple enough, but it does feel as if limits the use of a particular monster in the long term. Now there are rules for adjusting a monster’s Challenge Rating in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, but not in the Monster Manual. Which means that if the group just has access to the Player’s Handbook and the Monster Manual, there is no means for monster to grow and change as there was in Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition.

Every monster, including its variants, gets stats and a description. The latter always covers the key points  about each creature or monster. A physical description, some history, where it lives, its habits, and so on. Over the years these monsters have been presented over and over again, not just in the pages of the different Monster Manuals, but also the pages of Dragon magazine and numerous supplements. In this Monster Manual these descriptions feel like succinct, but well written bullet points. In addition, there are nods to Dungeons & Dragons history throughout the Monster Manual. Every good player of Dungeons & Dragons should know the meaning of “Bree-Yark!”, while the inclusion of Strahd von Zarovich’s history adds substance to the entry for the Vampire.

Going through the Monster Manual it is clear that the designers have delved deep into Dungeons & Dragons’ weighty back catalogue of bestiaries to bring this collection to Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. So of course the classic, signature creatures are here—the Beholder, the Lich, the Stirge, and the Gelatinous Cube, as well as old standbys like Orcs and Goblins, Ghouls and Gargoyles, and so on. Of course this includes Dragons—some thirty pages are devoted to both the Chromatic and Metallic Dragons—and almost as many are devoted to Demons and Devils. The latter are presented free of the controversy that affected previous iterations of the Monster Manual and includes a discussion of the notable demonic and devilish figures, such as Orcus and Asmodeus. No stats are given, but then again at the starting Levels for most campaigns their stats are not really required. Plus stats for Tiamat, Dungeons & Dragons’ signature monster can be found in The Rise of Tiamat.

As much as the design of the individual monsters feels streamlined, many of the more powerful creatures possess both extra powers and abilities that hint at their great power. These Legendary Creatures have Legendary Actions—Lair Actions and Regional Abilities. The former are typically three actions that a creature can use to defend its lair. For example, the Beholder can make the ground around it slimy and slippery, cause grasping appendages to sprout up from nearby walls, and an eye to appear in a nearby wall and shoot out a random ray. The latter are Regional Effects that presage a monster’s influence and hold over an area. For example, anyone within a mile of a Beholder’s lair feels as if he is being watched and whilst the monster sleeps, reality within that mile is warped from one day to the next. Lair Actions and Regional Effects are also given for the Chromatic Dragons, Mummy Lords, and Vampires as well as Good-aligned creatures such as the Metallic Dragons and Unicorns. This is a fantastic pair of new mechanics that brings the power and influence of such creatures to bear far earlier than just the monster’s lair and makes encounters within the lair much deadlier where the creature should indeed should have the advantage of home ground.

Monsters from other Dungeons & Dungeons also make their way into the Monster Manual. So it includes the Bullywug, the Githyanki, and the Githzerai from the Field Folio and the Fomorian and the Gibbering Mouther from the Monster Manual II for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition; the Crawling Claw from the Monstrous Manual for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition; the Chuul and the Grick from the Monster Manual for Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition; and the Nothic from the Monster Manual II for Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition. This makes sense, after all a new edition gives a chance for the designers to examine the game and each of its iterations and take the best from each. Thus the Monster Manual feels very much like Dungeons & Dragons’ greatest monster hits.

Three individual creatures stand out—the Cockatrice, the Ghoul, and the Wight—because of how their powers work now. In previous editions of the game, all three had powerful attacks that were essentially game disrupting. So the Cockatrice could turn a character to stone, the Ghoul could paralyse you, and the Wight made you lose Levels. Certainly in the case of the former, once turned to stone, there was nothing that your character could do unless the other player characters had the right spell or scroll. The Cockatrice can still petrify a player character, but the victim of the petrifying bite gets two turns before being petrified and it only lasts twenty-four hours. Likewise the Ghoul’s claws can still paralyse a player character, but it only lasts a minute, and the Wight can still do Life Drain, but rather than draining whole character Levels, it drains a character’s maximum Hit Points (as well as his Hit Points) and this lasts until the character has had a Long Rest. One might look at this design aspect of the game and suggest that its effect is to declaw Dungeons & Dragons, to make it not as challenging as it was in previous editions. Now that point of view may have some merit—and if you feel that it does, it is not as if there are not enough alternatives to Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition to find the fantasy RPG that suits your ‘Iron RPG’ preference—but the design choice is to make the game playable by adjusting elements that in previous editions would have brought play to a halt.

Rounding out the Monster Manual is a pair of appendices. The first lists Miscellaneous Creatures and it is here that you will actually find some creatures that in previous editions would have appeared in the main listings. While many of the creatures listed are mundane—the Badger, the Constrictor Snake, the Horse, the Poisonous Snake, and others—many like giant versions of those creatures plus the Blink Dog, the Phase Spider, the Worg, and so on, have their entries here. This may well be disconcerting to Dungeon Masters and players of previous versions of Dungeons & Dragons and it does mean that many of these more ‘mundane’ creatures come without descriptions. 

If there is an issue with the Monster Manual, it is that this edition lacks lists. There is no list of entries by Challenge Rating and there are no lists of entries by terrain type. This undermines the utility aspect of the Monster Manual, making it less easy to use when setting up and writing an adventure. Fortunately, Wizards of the Coast has since released this list as a PDF.

The Monster Manual is a fine looking book. Of course as the cornerstone of the once-again best selling RPG in the world, it is a fundamental book for running Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. Even if the Dungeon Master does not buy the Dungeon Master’s Guide, he at least needs the Monster Manual. The Monster Manual is an essential supplement and gives the Dungeon Master the best monsters to play with.