D&D 5 Review: Monster Manual
September is the Month of Monsters, as Wizards of the Coast releases the third product for 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons: the terrifying Monster Manual. It’s hyped as “A menagerie of deadly monsters for the world’s greatest roleplaying game” and certainly qualifies as such. It’s a heck of a lot of monsters.
What Is It
A 352-page hardcover release, the Monster Manual features close to 425 monsters ranging in Challenge Rating from 0 to 30. The vast majority of the monsters are below CR 10, with only 30-odd being above CR 15. Unsurprisingly, the book is full colour with illustrations on almost every page and good production values with thick, glossy pages and a sturdy cover.
It’s a magnificent book. There’s so much art and so much flavour. It’s a joy just to flip through, an excellent read crammed with adventure ideas. As a world builder, I kept reading monster entries and coming up with new ideas of how to integrate monsters into my settings, and feeling inspired to do some worldbuilding. I’m still fighting the urge to dust off my ol’ 4e world and give it a revision.
With so many pieces of art there are some so-so ones, but even the worst picture is decent. With over a hundred pictures needed, Monster Manuals are expensive, so there are normally there are a few stinkers: cheaply bought pieces or ones that couldn’t be replaced in time. But even these are not too egregious. And I only spotted a couple recycled pieces of art. (I came down hard on reusing art during 4e, but I’ve since relaxed as I’ve realized how expensive art can be. It’s hard to avoid.)
The book most resembles the Monster Vault from late 4th Edition, with each monster being accompanied by a sizable amount of fluff, divided by boldface subheadings. These sound bite headings are a little like aspects from Fate: small evocative phrases designed to encapsulate a concept of the creature, but followed by a lengthier description. The cloud giant has the descriptors “High and Mighty”, “Affluent Princes”, “Children of the Trickster”, and “Wealth and Power”, which emphasize what makes the cloud giant interesting and different from other giants. Monsters receive an average of half-a-page of description. Many monster receive a full page of flavour and descriptions, and several large categories of monster (demons, devils, and dragons) receive multiple pages of description.
This puts the text-per-monster above the 1st and 3rd Editon Monster Manuals (and far beyond the 4e MM), and close to the 2e Monster books. However, as all the (non-spell) abilities of a monster are contained in the stat block, the monsters arguably contain *more* flavour than their 2nd Edition counterparts, who often had lengthy descriptors of combat effects and abilities buried in their text.
There’s a wide variety of monsters in the book and a solid mix of D&D’s intellectual property (mind flayers & beholders) and mythological creatures (manticores & chimeras). A reliance on the IP was a failing of recent monster books, so I’m happy to see diversity. Creatures from mythology are more widely known and instantly recognizable, opposed to the weirder D&D critters. There are even a few old favourites in the book, including myconids, flumphs, quaggoth, magmin, and the return of piercers (along with their replacements, the darkmantles. That’s right, there are both!).
I like the design of 5e monsters. They’re simple creatures for quick fights without a lot of moving parts or rules to learn. 3e and 4e monsters could be daunting at times, especially at high levels. I like the non-symmetry of monsters, with some having high hitpoints and low AC while others being nigh-unhittable glass cannons. They’re not the same stat block again and again with different powers. Because the guidelines for what determines a monster’s challenge are broader than just hitpoints and because the math is flatter, there’s much more diversity to monster.
I also quite like Legendary monsters. These replace solo monsters as creatures designed to seriously threaten an entire party – the archetypal boss monsters – but with more flavour than just being mechanically designed to fight an entire party. Legendary monsters get to act multiple times each round, fixing the one vs. four action economy and *most* can shrug off status effects, but they also gain extra actions in their Lair and influence the terrain surrounding their home. It’s a neat effect that reminds me of Sinkholes of Evil and reality wrinkles from 2e Ravenloft or the corruption of the land of Dragonlance‘s draconic overlords.
The Monster Manual also has a lot of Easter Eggs and references. There are frequent callbacks to classic modules, locations, items, campaign settings, and even NPCs. And Wizard of Oz. It’s winking without seeming too much like an in-joke or self-referential; it’s done in such a way that I f you don’t get the reference, you don’t feel excluded. (“Bree-Yark” being a possible exception.)
The book also brings back templates as a method of tweaking monsters, although these are much simpler than in 3e. Included templates are the dracolich, shadow dragon (nice!), half-dragon, and myconid spore servant.
The majority of creatures in the book are low CR. A high majority. Something like 50% of the book is CR 5 or lower, and 80% below CR 10. Considering classes don’t even come into their own until level 3 or 4 (and a lot of games will be starting at those levels) there’s a lot of monsters that will be non-threatening on their own. Even classically tougher foes, such as the chimera, medusa, or manticore are lower CR. Most monsters seem to have dropped down a CR or two. It feels like this is a Monster Manual for only part of the game and not an entire campaign from 1 to 20.
That said, with bounded accuracy, monsters are usable across more levels, so the low CR critters can still pose a challenge at higher levels. And the base difficulty of monsters seems higher. An even fight (four PCs vs. one creature with a CR equal to their level) is much more challenging than in the past two editions. And most campaigns do not make it past level 10, so focusing the majority of monsters on the low level band makes sense. An uneven spread of monsters is common to most primary Monster Manuals/Bestiaries, and a sequel is often needed. But it’s a shame this common problem wasn’t addressed or anticipated.
Similarly, no Monster Manual is ever complete or comprehensive, there are always missing monsters. Even the 384-page Monstrous Manual from 2e lacked a lot of iconic critters. Noteworthy omissions of this book include the allip, aquatic elf, assassin vine, barghest, bodak, catoblepas, cave fisher, derro, froghemoth, green slime, grippli, larva mage/ spawn of Kyuss, mongrelman, nerid, nymph, pech, sirin, and sylph. Being a child of 2e and the Monstrous Manual, creatures like the aurumvorax, formians, feyr (or fihyr), gibberling, hatori, ixitxachiti, and neogi are just as iconic to me as the mind flayer (or more so, as I never used an illithid until 4e).
While the earliest editions get numerous references and nods, 4th Edition seems to have been ignored. For example, there’s no mention of elemental titans in the giant section, no references to Primordials, no elemental archons or legless angels, no eladrin or other high fey, no devas, and the like. Even the humanoid racial powers are very different. The little abilities of creatures such as kobolds, gnolls, and orcs are completely different between 4e and 5e. Many are flipped: goblins move like 4e kobolds and kobolds now attack like 4e gnolls. While I’m not a fan of 4e, it was still an edition of D&D and shouldn’t be entirely ignored, and reinventing all the racial powers seems needless.
While the art is decent something should be said about the “sketches”. Every now and then art resembling a pencil sketch will fill in some white space in a monster entry, providing a closer look at some physiology, a different pose, or other variant. Most of these are decent. But a few are just uncoloured roughs of the final illustration, which is a little boring and makes the image seem extra redundant, especially when the illustration could have been anything else. Pure filler.
Not all spells in Monster Manuals are included in the Basic rules, necessitating the Player’s Handbook. However, the PHB has been touted as “optional”, the big book of expanded races and class options. The PHB shouldn’t be required for the Dungeon Master; it should be possible to run the game with just the MM (and maybe the DMG), referring to Basic for combat rules and spells. This is further complicated as 5e has returned to only naming spells in a monster’s statblock rather than listing a full description. I’m personally alright with this change as it keeps stat blocks manageable in size, also leaving room for more monsters. In practice, full descriptions of “spells” just led to non-essential abilities being excluded, and monsters lost many non-combative powers or flavourful spells. However, having to reference a spell in a book that’s likely being used by the players is awkward. If the spells are in Basic at least the DM can print out spell cards or have a searchable PDF handy when running a spellcasting monster. (To say nothing of the Erinyes entry referencing a magic item planned for the DMG.)
While one cannot complain about the quality or amount of flavour in the book, there is little rhyme or reason to the order or presentation. Unlike 2e where each monster received a section on “Habitat & Society” and “Ecology” each 5e monster’s fluffblock is a unique butterfly. In order to find a specific bit of information the entire entry might need to be read. Much of the time the boldface text is clear enough to make this easy, but there are some vague headers. And without the push to consider ecology or habitat, this gets omitted from some monsters.
There’s also a fair amount of wasted space in the book. Because each monster gets at least a full page (with only one exception) some monsters with little lore and few motivations don’t make full use of their space. A few monsters have a really large illustration to pad their page. This is really a niggling, nit-picking complaint, but I wonder if they couldn’t have done more with the cockatrice (or given the couatl an extra column).
In terms of monsters, I’m not sure why merrow went from being aquatic ogres to evil giant merefolk. I’m not fond of the design of the aboleth, as they look too savage, more like a dire lamprey than a genius psychic mastermind.
Let’s start with the ugliest problem: the binding is ass. Like most of its books, WotC is opting for a Perfect Binding to their 5e books rather than a stitched binding. Think the difference between the original 1e printings and the orange spine reprints (like the infamous Unearthed Arcana). The pages are individually glued onto the spine. So long as the glue holds things are good, but if you got a less tacky batch individual pages will come loose. This has befallen more than one PHB. The printer they chose is also cutting the pages prior to gluing for potentially uneven page width.
I don’t foresee problems, as this was the same binding used for the 3.5e and 4e books, and my copies of those books held up just fine. But WotC does seem to be rushing the printing of the books, and using a new printer (US versus China or Canada), so it’s worth being a little extra careful with the book, such as evenly stressing the binding after purchase and not over-opening the book. (Being able to test the binding is another reason to buy local and not from Amazon.)
A mechanical problem is a lot of monsters seem to deal damage to ability stats. I’m fine with that, as it’s a nice way to scare PCs of any level. However, this seems to have potentially been an afterthought, as only high level magic like greater restoration (available to casters at level 9) will heal ability damage. This is nasty for an ability inflicted by a Challenge 2 or 3 beastie. It feels like in-between the PHB going to the printer and the MM being finished someone decided ability damage was going to be a thing and forgot to include an easy way of reversing the effects.
There’s also a lot of omissions in the book. There’s no monster building rules, no estimating the Challenge Rating of characters created using the character classes, no adding classes to monsters, and no rules for playing monsters or making monster NPCs. There is also no monster-by-terrain chart, random encounter tables, or references to how much treasure is appropriate for monsters, and this information is also not included in the stat blocks. There’s no chart of Monster-by-CR, and while an official PDF of this was released (and kudos to WotC for getting it out) it has no page numbers, making it awkward to reference.
The book includes a few choice templates. But there are some obvious omissions (lycanthrope, vampire, and lich). Some rules are provided although the Challenge Rating of the result is vague. It’s particularly irritating for the lich, which is a staggering Challenge 21, making it a boss monster for even high level PCs. Certainly a more potent threat than the lich has previously been, making it difficult to adapt adventures featuring lower level liches.
And a third comment about the art in the book. There’s a LOT of cropped images. Pictures blocked by the stat block or only partially shown. I’m hoping for a comprehensive art gallery on the WotC site.
While on the subject of art, lets talk about the vampire illustration. That, my friends, is the unholy abomination that is the 3rd Edition imitation Strahd von Zarovich by way of Lestat. Ugh. Just… ugh. After the excellent art in Open Grave, I had hoped the unholy abomination of Lestrahd had been staked and left for dead.
And then there’s the cover. I like it better than the PHB but it’s still bad. It’s far too dark. There’s soooo much black. And the composition is funky. There’s a third adventurer poorly positioned so he’s all but unseen in the corner, just cluttering the image. The lightning in the background is also weird. Even looking at the uncropped image I’m not sure of the source of the lightning. I’m not sure if the dwarf is scared or picking a fight.
The book continues the trend of decent indexes, with a two-page index using 6 point font and listing every stat block in the book. And the index is accompanied by some fun little illustrations akin to the condition appendix of the PHB. After so many years of bad indexes, it’s nice to see some attempt made.
I love how easy it is to make variants of monsters, and how many don’t even modify the challenge. I hope to see fewer full monsters in the future in adventures and sourcebooks and more variants. Plus it makes it so easy to surprise players, especially experienced ones who might know all the tricks.
Pierces are now immature ropers. That’s such a simple yet workable idea.
Metallic dragons are back. There’s quite a few creatures that are unabashedly good. It’s nice to see rather than trying to force everything in the book into a “you’re expected to kill this” box. Sometimes you need an ally or a mount or stats to trick or sneak by a good creature.
The kraken is a pretty cool addition. There are a few neat choices like the yeti, revenants, and scarecrow.
And while I hate the picture of faux Strahd, the image of Castle Ravenloft is excellent. A+ for that.
The 5th Edition Monster Manual is a beautiful book. And it’s very arguably one of the best monster books of all time, a contender to the crown. And with books like the classic 1e Monster Manual, the 2e Monstrous Manual, the Bestiary or Tome of Horrors Complete for Pathfinder, or even the Monster Vault for 4e, the 5e MM was up against some pretty stiff competition. Even after 5e has gone the way of earlier editions, this Monster Manual will still have some solid appeal.
If trying to hook someone into D&D I might consider skipping the Player’s Handbook and going right to the Monster Manual. The Starter Set might make it easier to play, but that requires an interest in wanting to try out the game. If you want to make someone curious about the game, to soften them up for the Starter Set and excite them with all the possibilities the game brings, this book is the one to hand out. In reading it I feel like I’ve thirteen again, skimming the 1st Edition Monster Manual borrowed by the public library and being fascinated by the boundless creatures. There’s just something appealing about reading about fantastic beasts and wondrous beings.
I’m really anticipating finding the time to work on some 5th Edition monsters. I’ve already toying with ideas for updated monsters, variants, and new lairs. The book has enflamed my imagination. I want to use it. It’s made me excited. I don’t just want to use a monsters or see a particular creature in a fight: I want to tell stories, make worlds, create new monsters, and more.
And this is the best thing I can say about the book.