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Saturday 13 December 2014

RPGPundit Reviews: the 5e Monster Manual

This is a kind of mini-review, by my standards, anyways.  I got the Monster Manual and the DMG for 5th edition last week, after some mailing mix-up, as part of the compensation for my Consulting on 5e.  I'll note, thus (as if anyone out there still didn't know this by now) that I was involved on the 5e project, and that bias should be kept in mind.  Even so, as far as I recall I had no role whatsoever in the design of the monsters (there may have been some very brief chat about design goals, but absolutely nothing to do with the concrete mechanics of the thing), and I think I can be relatively objective within the boundaries of my biases here.

So, this is a review of the new Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual.  It was published by Wizards of the Coast, and Chris Perkins was the lead designer (out of what appears to have been a large team) for this particular book.

I'm not going to go into the usual level of detail for this book, seeing as how most of you reading will already be familiar with D&D in general, and 5th edition in particular.  Suffice it to say, like all 5e rulebooks, the Monster Manual is actually a supplement/expansion of the core Basic D&D rules, which are available for free download on PDF from the Wizards website.

The book is 350 pages long, jam-packed with text and images; its interior is full-color with very impressive art.  The book is a hardcover with a very well-rendered image of a Beholder (in a fight with what we can presume are some player characters) featuring prominently.  The Beholder is, I think, a very good choice for the Monster Manual cover, as it is one of the great iconic D&D monsters, and one we associate with D&D far more exclusively than some of the other popular monsters of the game.

Now, I've never been one of these D&D gamers obsessed with the Monster Manual.  I've never needed more than a few dozen monsters to manage a campaign.  I'm not a sentimentalist here. This might affect my view of things.

So the real question as I see it is not "what is the Monster Manual?", because you all know that already, but rather, how does this Monster Manual compare to what has come before?

Pretty favorably, I'd say.

If we look back at a retrospective: the 1e Monster Manual was quite inspirational in an old-school way, but it was certainly lacking in some of the detail that later editions would have.  The 2e Monstruous Compendium (or whatever it was called) is a favorite of some, but not of mine.  Its over-detailed ecological notes were too impractical for my tastes, and the three-ring binder format was (to me) much more of a hassle than it was worth.  To me, it exemplified a lot of what was bad about post-old-school design.  The 3e Monster Manual was a return to sanity, but I didn't feel it was really ideal either; the art was that kind of irritating 'dungeonpunk' aesthetic that exemplified that edition.  In many cases in all three of these editions, it seemed as though the monsters weren't particularly unique; variances in hit dice or attack bonuses did not necessarily tell you all that much about the playable differences (2e fluff excluded) between one type of humanoid monster and another.  And of course, the 4e monster manual doesn't even count.

In many ways, I think the 5e Monster Manual incorporates some of the best of all the previous editions.  The artwork is amazing. The material, almost everything in it, is strongly playable; there's nothing there that's just flavor-text meant for the GM to be entertained but useless in actual play.  There's plenty of descriptive material, but of the kind you can very directly apply to the PCs' encounters with the monster in question.  And there's very creative elements of individualization for all the monsters: things like descriptions of the creature's lair (sometimes, in cases of very powerful monsters, complete with "lair actions" that can be used to emulate the creature's control of its home environment), motivations for roleplay, and specific and unique tactics and attacks.  The end result is that not only do Kobolds seem very different from Goblins, but Green Dragons seem very different from Red Dragons, and not just because of the type of breath weapon they use.

Are there any details that I think the 5e Monster Manual does less well on than some of the other versions?  Yes; a couple of practical elements in old-school play: number appearing, morale, and treasure types.  I know that there are rules on the last two of these in the DMG, but I'm spoiled on the old Rules Cyclopedia when it came to this.  Ah well, you can't win them all.

The last question is, really, can you use this book if you are not playing 5e and have no intention of playing 5e?
I would say yes.  Statistically, 5e has sufficient similarities to most of the other D&D-variants that conversion would be fairly easy.  There are some clever ideas, like hit die type being determined by size, monster backgrounds, lair information, special abilities, etc. that could easily be introduced as house rules for (for example) an old-school game.  The background and details on many of the monsters is sufficiently novel, interesting, and (most importantly) practical that anyone could be interested in this book as a sourcebook for non-5e play.

That makes this book especially valuable, because it makes it useful even to someone who has no intention of playing 5e.

All in all, the new Monster Manual manages, in my opinion, to be a worthy successor to some of the best to have had that title before it.  As art, as game material, and as inspiration, it's a job well done.


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