Wizards of the Coast gets an “A” for effort
Review by Art Schmidt
So let’s cut to the chase, shall we? Your time is valuable and so are your hard-earned gold pieces, unless you are a thief, in which case let’s face it, it’s not really your gold no matter how hard you “worked” to pick that fat merchant’s belt pouch (c’mon, be honest, we both know it’s true). The 5th Edition Monster Manual from Wizards of the Coast (or WotC, for short), which goes on sale on the 30th of this month, is a well put-together book, with tons of classic monsters in it, and is really a must-have for anyone looking to run a homebrew 5th Edition game, or looking to convert any of their existing modules/adventures to 5th Edition. Go out and buy it, though please do not pay the $49.99 suggested retail price. Most game stores and online retailers will have it for around $30, including Amazon.
Okay, so… if you are still reading this then I will assume that: (A) you don’t fit the Dungeon Master description I used above, (B) need some more convincing, or (C) you have some time to kill right now. Either way, cool.
The book itself is nicely bound with thick high-quality covers which are a must for a book that’s primarily going to be hauled around from game session to game session in a book bag, backpack, plastic tote or other means. So, it’s going to see a lot of handling and miles (unless you are nice enough to be hosting the game, in which case, Huzzah to you!!!), and it should take the abuse quite well.
The pages are also high quality, thick glossy paper stock and the book is lively and colorful throughout. I was not a huge fan of the background on every page which was introduced in 3.0, but in this series of books (the Players Handbook and Monster Manual so far, anyway) WotC is not placing thick borders on every page which in previous versions squeezed the content and gave it a skimpier feel (lots of artwork, less content). The Monster Manual is chock-full of good information and continues their current trend of combining good humor and retro-elements into the content, as was done in the Starter Set and the Player’s Handbook. The references to the Temple of Elemental Evil, Emirkol the Chaotic and the Demi-Lich Acererak are nice touches and an appreciated wink to both older gamers and the previous creators and contributors who have helped keep the game going for so many years. I especially like the disclaimers at the beginning of each book so far, which are quite humorous and show that while the WotC Team took its work seriously, they didn’t fall prey to taking themselves so.
You will find nearly every classic monster you could ask for in the book. And while at 350 pages it is a hefty brick of a book, its usefulness to the Dungeon Master can’t be denied. From the mandatory entries of giants, dragons, fiends, elementals, constructs, undead and humanoids of all flavors, to the more exotic modrons, yuan-ti, the warring githyanki and githzerai, and the ever-present but rarely used axe beak, the book has a ton of monsters across the spectrum of challenge ratings. (Seriously, how many times have you encountered an axe beak in all of your adventures?)
Speaking of Challenge Rating, the Monster Manual fails in one critical area and that is providing at least a brief explanation of how to use the Challenge Rating system. Currently, this information is only contained in the free Dungeon Master’s Basic Rules PDF provided by WotC, and while it will certainly show up in the forthcoming Dungeon Master’s Guide (current release date December 9, 2014), it would be nice if the Monster Manual had at least a brief explanation of how to use it. Then again, given that I’ve read the Basic Rules PDF a couple of times and am still hung up on how precisely the Challenge Rating system works for constructing encounters with more than one or two monsters in them, perhaps they thought that a useless simple description was better than an almost-as-useless half page of text with a chart that still doesn’t quite make sense. One big item absent from this edition is a listing of creatures by challenge rating; nothing is handier when looking for a CR5 mob for your party wandering in the wild, or when fleshing out your latest original adventure, than a listing of monsters by their challenge rating. WotC has provided the list of monsters by challenge rating on their website, as a free PDF download as they have so many other PDFs. It is also going to be released in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, so perhaps that is where it will be more useful; we’ll see when we get our hands on that book. The PDFs are both helpful to the community and shows their ability to use modern technology to enhance the game.
Another thing I really like about this edition is the overall layout of the text and monsters. Unlike 3.5, where each creature entry ran into the next, this edition takes an approach that is both easier on the eyes and also flows better when perusing the manual. Very little descriptive text runs from one page to another; each set of monster stats are laid out in “blocks”, all on the same page, and are easy to read and more concise for reference. Pictures are large and deliberate, not stuffed into corners or wrapped around text like in the previous editions. Also, the 3.5 edition text was very small and at times (for an old gamer like myself) difficult to read. The text in this edition is larger and has the teensiest bit more whitespace, which makes for a much nicer looking book and a much easier read.
As far as game mechanics, the Monster Manual reflects some of the newest aspects of this version of the system, two of which are the addition of a “tenth” alignment (unaligned) and the new Legendary Actions abilities of certain creatures. Both of these show WotC’s determination to listen to the community at large and are further examples of the Design Team led by Mike Mearls breathing some fresh air into the game itself.
The alignment system has always had its hang-ups; trying to be all-encompassing while leaving little room for forgiveness for individual player actions, being overly explanatory in different versions and then swinging back to being too brief in others. Alignment has always been imperfect, and perhaps that’s because it’s an attempt to describe the broad spectrum of human emotion, intelligence and the subtleties of motivation in a simple three-by-three grid. Countless Internet memes have had great fun with this over-simplified catch-all; from numerous Star Wars and Game of Thrones charts to Batman, Doctor Who, and even one for The Big Lebowski (warning! Some of these are NSFW). But despite being the center of constant debates and jokes (and joke debates), the alignment system is an integral, if flawed, part of D&D. And WotC has done the system a huge service by adding in the “unaligned” descriptor. Because, let’s face it, it isn’t fair to call a T-Rex evil just because it has to eat. So do we, don’t we? But using “Neutral” as the catch-all has never really worked within any of the various descriptions. “Unaligned” is great, especially for DM’s who have to adjudicate the use of alignment-based magicks and spells during the middle of an encounter.
The Legendary Actions listed in the Monster Manual is also another great improvement for the game. It provides powerful and unique creatures with actions that go above the normal claw/claw/bite/breath weapon attacks that most monsters have. For instance, the Ancient Red Dragon (Monster Manual entry shown above) can use a Legendary Action to make lava spew up through the floor of its cave to catch unwary heroes off-guard. Another Legendary ability which vampires have (along with dragons and others) is the ability to select a failed saving throw and automatically succeed. Awesome! Of course, a good DM will fudge rolls when absolutely needed to keep the game (and the fun) flowing, but this is a clever and simple way of infusing this into the game itself and making it both more acceptable to those who never, ever fudge die rolls (even if it means an unfair party wipe) and also more selective as to which creatures get the ability.
The last thing I will comment on is the artwork. There is literally a picture of every monster in the manual, full of both color and detail. The artwork may seem repetitive if you own any of the previous 5th Edition publications (particularly covers of the “Mines of Phandelver” adventure and Basic Rule Book from the D&D Starter Set, as well as the cover of the box itself, all of which bear the same exact artwork!), but unlike with the grossly repetitive (lazy?) covers in the Starter Set, I will easily give WotC a pass on this one. After all, with every single creature getting a fully-realized rendering, it would be a bit demanding (not unrealistic mind you, but demanding) to expect unique art work for every single picture.
There is a section in the back containing more “mundane” creatures, such as dogs, wolves, and all manner of “giant” creatures (including, yes, the giant frog), and here the pictures run a bit short. But that’s okay because, after all, who doesn’t know what a shark or a mammoth looks like? I am curious as to the placement of some more fantastical creatures in this section, such as blink dogs, death dogs, phase spiders and winter wolves. Why put those in the mundane section, and then place the hill giant in the main section? Hill giants are really just giant couch potatoes with clubs instead of remote controls, after all.
Also, in a separate section there is a very short but handy section of non-playing characters (NPCs) of all flavors and sizes, complete with spell lists! It’s a nice little time-saver which will make any DM happy to have in a pinch. Huzzah!
With that, I have to say that the Monster Manual is a well thought-out book and worth every penny ($30 worth of pennies, anyway). I can’t wait for the Dungeon Master’s Guide!
And so, at the end, I leave you with… the mighty Tarrasque! The ground trembles!!!
Editor’s Note: The D&D 5th Edition Monster Manual is available at a pre-release discount at Amazon.com here for less than $30 until Tuesday, September 30, 2014.