Tag Archive: Volo’s Guide to Monsters

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.

Limited edition, alternate-art cover by Vance Kelly.

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.

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Review by Art Schmidt

Wizards of the Coast has been judicious in releasing a measured, steady flow of materials for the 5th Edition of the self-proclaimed “World’s Greatest Role-Playing Game,” Dungeons & Dragons (commonly referred to as “5E” by the roleplaying public-at-large).  WotC releases two adventure campaign books per year, one every six months (give or take), in addition to one rules supplement per year.  Xanathar’s Guide to Everything is the latest offering of new character subclasses, spells, magical items and a meaty section for the Dungeon Master (i.e. the person running the game for all of her players).

Aimed primarily at players who are looking for new classes to play, new spells for their characters to cast, and new ways to define their avatars inside the collaborative storytelling game, Xanathar’s Guide (or XGE, as I’m sure it will be come to be called) hits all of the expected marks.  Drawing on a wealth of material released by the D&D creative team via their popular Unearthed Arcana section of the D&D website and reprinting materials, primarily spells, from the Elemental Evil Player’s Guide, Xanathar’s Guide provides thirty-two (32!) new sub-classes for all of the current class types, including some new sub-classes not previously seen in the Unearthed Arcana material.

Unearthed Arcana was a hardcover book waaaay back in the early first edition of the game.  Similar to Xanathar’s Guide, the original Unearthed Arcana was an expansion of material from the Player’s Handbook, the standard players guide to the character classes and mechanics of the game itself.  This book title has been re-used throughout D&D’s over forty-year history, and its latest incarnation is the online “alternate rules” or playtest material which the D&D Team puts out for players and dungeon masters to use, experiment and, well, play with.  The Team asks for feedback from users on the material, trying to gauge game balance, player likability, and general “fun factor” of this material.  When material is popular, well-balanced, and fits a niche in the player character milieu that the D&D Team feels makes it worthwhile, it’s include in a hardcover book.  Such was the case with the previously released Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide for 5E, and it is the case again with Xanathar’s Guide, though on a much bigger scale.

In fact, Xanathar’s Guide re-prints a handful of classes from the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide as well, such as the Swashbuckler and the Storm Sorceror.  Ordinarily, one might fault a company for expecting their customers to pay money for a new sourcebook which includes a wealth of material already found in other sources.  And one might be correct.  Except that in the case of D&D, these re-prints make a fair amount of sense.  As far as the Unearthed Arcana material, the subclasses in Xanathar’s represent an updated, tweaked and in many cases streamlined class which is now officially playtested and provided with rules, which will make the material enjoyable and avoid headaches for players and dungeon masters alike.  Also, Unearthed Arcana material is not “legal” for the Adventurer’s League, since it isn’t play-tested, so those players who enjoy organized play have no access to any of those options until they are printed in an official capacity, usually through a hardcover book.

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Available this month from Wizards of the Coast, the second non-adventure supplement for the 5th Edition, Volo’s Guide to Monsters, adds new lore, art, and maps for more than 120 monsters–some new and some familiar–to flesh out your Dungeons & Dragons gaming.  Different from the D&D Monster Manual, reviewed previously here at, Volo’s Guide to Monsters will appeal to players wanting to read expanded narratives about their favorite monsters and spark their imaginations for future gameplay.

Stranger Things fans, if you’re looking for stats on the Demogorgon, you’ll need to look back to the Out of the Abyss adventure volume released last year.  But you’ll learn more about the culture, characteristics and lairs of Beholders, Giants, Gnolls, Goblinoids, Hags, Kobolds, Mind Flayers, Orcs, and Yuan-ti, guidelines for the heroic races Aasimar, Firbolg, Goliath, Kenku, Lizardfolk, Tabaxi, and Tritons, and the monstrous races Bugbear, Goblin, Hobgolbin, Kobold, Orc, and Yuan-ti.

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You’ll also find plenty of great artwork and maps accompanying all-new entries for Demons, Beholders, Dinosaurs, Giants, Kobolds, and Mindflayers.  An appendix includes descriptions of beast characters and another appendix includes nonplayer characters including Archdruid, Archer, Bard, Blackguard, Martial Arts Adept, Master Thief, and War Priest, Wizards and Warlocks, and a third appendix includes lists of monster stats by type, environment, and challenge rating.  Continue reading

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