Review by Art Schmidt
This week the team over at Wizards of the Coast that produced the 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons is coming out with the newest addition to the line of hardcover books which make up the rules and playable content for the game. Fifth Edition is by far the most popular and widely-played edition of the grandfather of all role-playing games for the last few decades and may be the most popular edition ever. This newest book is titled Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, and its primary function is to provide nearly 150 new monsters for use in the game’s adventures, but the book itself is so much more than that. Previous editions have focused their monster books on stuffing as many creatures into them as possible. The more monsters, the more players will find the book useful, and (presumably) the more copies will sell. What the current team has excelled at is deviating away from that “more stats are better” mentality, and instead focuses on the “why” of the monsters instead of the “how many”. And Wizards of the Coast continues to pull this off beautifully in Tome of Foes.
Whereas previous D&D editions would have had the Monster Manual, and then Monster Manual II, followed by Monster Manual III, etc., 5th Edition has the requisite Monster Manual (reviewed here) but then wowed fans with Volo’s Guide to Monsters (reviewed here). Essentially a book full of monsters, Volo’s deviated from previous norms and expectations in that it provided a wealth of information (re: text) about the monsters, their origins, histories, societies, clans and behaviors rather than just their hit points and ever-more-creative ways to wreck a party of characters. And people bought in, big time. The stories behind why mind flayers eat brains and how they manage to have a functioning society, or about the different kinds of giants and how drastically different their societies were and how they view their own roles amongst giants and their gods, were fascinating, and provided many a DM (and player) ideas for running their campaigns and players.
At its core Tome of Foes still is a book full of monsters, but the background information it provides is just as deep and satisfying as that found in Volo’s. The chapters on The Blood War and the Elves are especially valuable in providing players with more sparks for their imagination. There are many new player options available in Tome of Foes in the form of playable races and sub-races. Of particular note are the new options for tieflings (a playable race from the Player’s Handbook) and the gith (a D&D favorite dating all the way back to the 1st Edition Fiend Folio). The gith are a race with two sub-races who roam the Astral plane with their silver swords, marauding and fighting each other in an endless conflict that sometimes spills over into the players’ world. Tieflings currently have only one race option in the Player’s Handbook, as compared to other playable races such as elves, dwarves, and halflings, who each have two or more sub-race alternatives to customize their characters. In the Player’s Handbook all tieflings are described as being infused with the essence of Asmodeus, the ruler of the Nine Hells in D&D lore, and they have one set of abilities for their race. In Tome of Foes tieflings are provided with eight other alternatives, one for each of the rules of the eight layers of Hell that are ruled in Asmodeus’ name (he himself rules the bottom-most, or ninth layer of the Nine Hells). These options provide a wide range of play for tiefling characters, specifically different stat modifiers and innate spellcasting abilities.
For the gith, the playable race is an interesting addition to the game, with two sub-races, the githzerai and the githyanki, the two original 1st Edition races of gith. The gith are structured as other races, with a major and minor stat bonus (depending on sub-race chosen), additional abilities, alignment tendencies (though again, as with all previous 5th Edition publications, no restrictions or mandates), and of course, psionics. As with previous psionic abilities, these are spellcasting abilities with a “psionics” attribute, which allows for casting without components. In other words, a mental method of casting. Although many players continue to clamor for a psionics mechanic in this edition, it seems as though the designers are sticking to their guns: psionics is just spellcasting without mumbling, hand-waving, and balls of bat guano. And in the current version of the game, which nicely balances a wealth of meaningful character-building choices with rules mechanics that are easily accessible to the game-playing public at-large, this seems a wise choice.
Of particularly disappointing note is the lack of options for other races. Elves get more sub-races in Tome of Foes (three, to be exact: eladrin, sea elves, and shadar-kai), but player content for dwarves, halflings, and gnomes is severely lacking. Dwarves get their own chapter, detailing lore primarily centered around the Forgotten Realms and their history and conflict with the duergar, and the duergar sub-race from the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide is provided, copied straight from that text. Likewise, the gnome sub-race deep gnomes is re-packaged here from the Sword Coast book, with a minor adjustment to one of the race’s abilities. Halflings, alas, get no love, and to make matters worse, they share their chapter with gnomes, and this chapter is shorter than the other race-focused chapters despite covering two distinct races. I think this may be the biggest area where the Wizards team missed the mark in this book, and the small races get short-changed (pun fully intended).
The elven sub-races were playtested in the Unearthed Arcana program, which Wizards supports on its website, providing any players who want to use it optional material with feedback regularly requested. The feedback impact can easily be seen: the sea elf sub-race is mostly identical to the Unearthed Arcana sub-race, with minor tweaks, and the shadar-kai sub-race (which has alternately been a human race or a generic “fey” race in previous editions, but here is a solid elven sub-race) has been overhauled from the UA material, seemingly due to underwhelming impact on the play experience based on tester feedback.
The monster section is the last and by far the largest chapter, taking up over half the book. And that’s as it should be; the D&D folks are providing more background and usable material than just stat blocks, but they also have to deliver in that area as well, and Tome of Foes delivers in a big way. There are expanded sections for demons, devils, and yugoloths (daemons), plus more ogres, more drow, more trolls, more duergar, several gith, and some old goodies from the original Fiend Folio and Monster Manual II. And despite forty years of dungeons and dragons, they are still coming up with new and interesting monsters! Huzzah!
Wizards has not shied away from reprinting materials from previous books in this edition where it felt if was warranted to provide a fuller picture of a theme or idea for readers and players, and it continues that trend here with the monster section of the Tome of Foes. In keeping with the theme of the Blood War from Chapter 1, all of the demonlord stat blocks from the Season Three adventure campaign book Out of the Abyss are reprinted here, along with the steeder monster stats blocks from that book. And it fits the theme, so more power to them.
Likewise, Tome of Foes strives to answer the continued call for more powerful adversaries for players to test their characters against. As 5th Edition has now been in circulation for nearly four years, and more and more players are obtaining characters at higher levels, the dearth of official published adventures containing challenges for those more powerful characters has become more obvious. One way the Wizards team is dealing with this is by opening up more community-created content on its official online material third-party publishing site, the Dungeon Master’s Guild (www.dmsguild.com), where folks in the community can upload not only new magical items, character classes, and spells, but entire adventurers, and have them reviewed by Wizards of the Coast. This is leading to more high-level adventures being available for players and Dungeon Masters alike, which is answering the need to some degree. But one issue with this is the lack of higher-level monsters to build those adventurers around. Characters can only fight dragons and demons so many times before it becomes… well… boring.
Enter Tome of Foes. Contained within are two or more monsters for nearly every Challenge Rating (CR) from 1 to 26, including more than forty creatures of CR 10 or higher, not counting demonlords. The astral dreadnaught from Planescape. The Leviathan. The nightwalker from the “Nightshade” monsters of the Shadowfell. Multiple types of abishai. The star spawns of 4th Edition. The berbalang and meazel from the original Fiend Folio. The rutterin from the classic Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth adventure. Al-Qadim‘s zaratan, 3rd Edition’s boneclaw and hellfire engine, and 2nd Edition’s frost salamander.
There are also some new monsters, including an interesting mix of clockworks creatures such as the iron cobra from 1st Edition, some of which are available to gnome tinkerers. Other new monsters include the corpse flower (a potential nod to the Stranger Things television show which features D&D prominently, and whose version of the demogorgon has been compared to the real-world corpse flower) and drow steeders. A plethora of fun and interesting monsters awaits resourceful Dungeon Masters herein!
Dungeons & Dragons Lead Designer Jeremy Crawford and Senior Design Manager Mike Mearls have repeatedly stated that their design choices, monster and class selections, and game mechanics all stem from one core game design thread: storytelling. They don’t just want to make a great roleplaying game, they want to tell imaginative, enticing, and flavorful stories that draw the players into the worlds being created, and give Dungeon Masters fodder from which to grow their own worlds should they choose to do so. Tome of Foes is another big step in providing players with storytelling material, both in the form of character options, monsters and lore, to tell their own stories. To quote the original Bard, who would surely have been an avid role-player had he been born in our age, “For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings.”
Let us tell stories, indeed.
Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes is available for pre-order at a significant discount off the cover price here at Amazon (and other fine online retailers) and it can also be picked up at your Local Friendly Game Store (or LFGS) starting on May 18, 2018, and more broadly starting May 29, 2018.