5e Review: Fifth Edition Foes
Despite the absence of a new Open Game Licence or Game System Licence from Wizards of the Coast, Necromancer Games has released one of the first 3rd Party Products for the 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons: Fifth Edition Foes. Quite possibly the first 5e 3PP that isn’t a short adventure.
What Is It?
As the name suggests, Fifth Edition Foes is monster book. In its 261-pages it contains 250-odd monsters and 115 are identified as “Special” Open Game Content, which refers to monsters used under special licence with WotC. This is a little less than half, and some of these don’t *seem* to belong, not originating in the pages of 1e books.
The product advertises that it is compatible with “5th Edition”, but leaves out the “5th Edition” of what: you’ll be hard pressed to find the term “Dungeons & Dragons” inside. That’s because this product is written using the 3e OGL and a special licence arranged between Necromancer Games and Wizards of the Coast back in the early days of 3rd Edition, which permitted Necromancer Games to update classic monsters to the 3e ruleset. Monsters from the Fiend Folio, Monster Manual II, and even Dragon Magazine were revised and updated. This book also contains some monsters created for Necromancer Games’ 3e monster books – the iconic Tome of Horrors line – and some created for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.
So, summarizing, it’s a book legally presented as a 3e book but with statblocks, math, and mechanics compatible with 5e.
Along with a forthcoming companion book of spells, Fifth Edition Foes was funded through Kickstarter. As of this writing, the PDF of Fifth Edition Foes is out but the hardcopy is being finalized. Because so many smaller publishers use the early PDF release as a way to edit, I’ll be ignoring obvious typos (like “Gtrappling” in the adherer entry, or the legal entry beginning with “This printing of Tome of Horrors Complete…” and generally referencing the ToH repeated times); Necromancer Games is a small company run as a hobby so I won’t hold them to the same standards as a company with a full time editing staff.
The book has a lot of fun, classic monsters that are good but didn’t quite make the cut for the official Monster Manual. Monsters that are older than the mean average age of D&D players. I’m talking about critters such as the kelpie, hippocampus, cave fisher, crimson mist, and froghemoth. And the book includes some that WotC is unlikely to ever update, such as the flail snail, carbuncle, pech, lava child, tabaxi, crabman, grippli, and yellow musk creeper.
Fifth Edition Foes includes full indexes, including one that sorts the monsters by type and one that sorts by Challenge Rating. This is something the actual Monster Manual was lacking.
Most of the monsters seem to have been well converted to 5th Edition. The math seems workable: the balance of 5e is a little looser so thing just need to be “close enough”. Most of the traits and powers of the monsters are workable and most seem like they’d be fun at the table. The damage seems to be about right and I saw almost no obvious conversion problems, such as referring to “Bluff” instead of “Deception”; this can be a huge problem when updating existing content, and it’s all but impossible to catch every reference.
The book contains no dragons or devils and only a single giant. And the two demons included are demon princes. I put that in the “pro” column, as I get tired of the mandatory sections with new demons, devils, giants, and dragons in every monster book. Those monsters get tired and derivative as the writers stretch to wriggle some new terrain or variant into the world.
I’ll start with the nitpicky. There’s no index by terrain or environment. This is handy for random encounters. Because Fifth Edition Foes is emulating the Pathfinder statblock there is an entry for “Environment”, but this is awkward to use when looking for a quick swamp monster. (This would be an excellent web enhancement.)
Because the book uses the 3e OGL, the monster entries and stat blocks are formatted like Pathfinder’s. This isn’t too hard to understand, but if switching between the MM and this book, the different formatting slows down reading. It can be harder to quickly find the information you’re looking for. Using the legacy licence also means the writing style different than 5e, with terms like “tactical advantage” instead of just “advantage” and other small differences, like abbreviating Strength as “Str” rather than writing the full word. But this isn’t consistant and a few instances of plain ol’ “advantage” slip in. Again, not deal breaking but a bit of a hinderance to easy play.
There are some small mechanical problems, such as most of the grappling creatures omitting the escape DC. And monsters tend to have a lot more conditional immunities. All undead seem to be immune to fright and unconsciousness, which is not consistent with other 5e undead. And many powers that incapacitate don’t allow new saving throws each round like most 5e powers do, allowing monsters to stunlock characters.
Fifth Edition Foes repeats the Monster Manual‘s problem of lots of low CR monsters and fewer high CR monsters. In fact, there’s only ten monsters above CR 10, fewer than the MM. Admittedly, this is less of a problem in this edition where multiple low level monsters can challenge high level parties. However, one of the things I really wanted to to see from a secondary monster product is more high level opponents. Now, if this was a big book of legacy monsters – like the Monster Manual – it’d be more acceptable, as the established monsters need to be an expected level range (for adapting adventures) and you can’t omit classics just for new high level threats. But, as mentioned earlier, half the monsters in this book are newish, being pulled from other Tome of Horror volumes. The designers could have easily focused on higher CR threats and made this book more useful as the high level monster book. Instead, there is a wealth of low CR humanoids and mook creatures. I wonder if the focus was on low level monsters because the designers were uncomfortable designing for a level of play they had less experience running in this edition.
For all the classic monsters included there are a LOT of absences. I counted well over thirty absent monsters from the Fiend Folio alone, and there are likely many more from the 1e Monster Manual 2 and Dragon Magazine. These include such beasties as the disenchanter, huecuva, necrophidius, and nilbog just to name a few. Their omission seems glaring, especially with so many merely adequate new monsters, as if the publisher was saving some monsters for a Fifth Edition Foes II. I wasn’t a fan of that strategy from WotC during 4e and I’m less of a fan now.
I’ll be blunt: the art is ass. Necromancer games may advertise their books as “5th Edition rules, 1st Edition feel”, but what this book truly feels like is an early 3.0 Edition 3rd Party Product. This is because that’s exactly what it is! The art is entirely recycled from the prior Tome of Horrors line. Some pieces are over a decade old. Now, I didn’t mind the recycled art for the Tome of Horrors Complete because that was expected: it was a reprinting of older books. Reprinting the art is expected. (But, even then, some of the art was painfully low rez and detrimental to the quality of the book.) This product does not get to play the “reprint” card. Standards of minimum production values in an RPG book have increased over the years, even from small publishers.
The flavour text for the monsters was also not updated. The entries I checked were word-for-word what was written in the Tome of Horrors Complete, even when the page had lots of negative space remaining. Some entries are particularly short, such as the chaos knight, which has zero lore. There’s literally no information on their creation, backstory, legends, or place in the world. Part of what made the 5e Monster Manual such an excellent book was the focus on the monster’s lore and story. The book made you want to use the monsters, and not just for their funky powers. The fact the designers didn’t even try to increase the lore for many monsters is a big mark against this product.
The formatting is also poor. Several entries awkwardly continue between pages. This is irritating at the best of times but this book does so awkwardly, pushing the title of the next entry down the page. I’d prefer if any overlap filled a column, as that permits the reader to casually scan the top of the page and identify the header of the monster without having to move the eye down.
The innovations of 5e monster design are also largely ignored. Only one monster makes use of lair actions and only five monsters are legendary. 5e has demonstrated its system is adaptable when customizing monsters, such as the ash zombies from the starter set or the examples of monsters with added spellcasting or variant weapons in the Monster Manual. With that in mind, not every monster in Fifth Edition Foes deserves to be a new monster. We didn’t need a full page for the fetch when it just adds cold damage and immunity to a zombie and a little fire vulnerability. Similar could be said of the hanged man, corpsespun, olive slime zombie, gallows tree zombie, or yellow musk zombies. This is especially noteworthy with the final one, which is the same CR as a regular zombie. That’s five new monsters they could have included by just having a page of alternate zombie traits, or a sidebar on the monster’s entry.
And as a final irritant, the death dog appears in the book but is already in the 5e Monster Manual. Which is a pretty sloppy error and means one less new monster.
It’s since been pointed out to me that the blood hawk, fire snake, and giant seahorse are also printed in the Monster Manual, meaning this book is short four monsters.
When they developed these monsters they opted for hard fights, rounding down CRs. If a monster was in-between a 4 and a 5 they went with 4, to give players a challenge. Because players are a resourceful lot. I like this, and it’s nice to have some scary monsters. I like that they didn’t play things safe.
I’m thankful his book exists for many monsters I think of as iconic. My first monster book was the 2e Monstrous Manual, so I associate creatures like the aurumvorax, crypt thing, catoblepas, leucrotta, quickwood, and wolfwere with D&D. They’re as much a part of D&D to me as the illithid and beholder (and more so than the assorted devils and demons, which were not part of that book). Often moreso, as it took me many years to add a mind flayer to my 2e game, and I never used a beholder, while the aurumvorax made a couple appearances.
A few of the new monsters are pretty neat. Like the grue, which is really a nerd joke that has taken on a life of its own. It’s earned its place as a monster. The bone cobbler sounds fun, as does the grimm and midnight peddler. (But I would have loved some more lore and hooks for these.)
Wizards of the Coast has said that they were holding back the Open Game License to give people time to digest the rules and learn how to make good products, so publishers would make better 3rd Party Products rather than rushing to get them out the door. I’ve been skeptical of the full truth of that statement, but Necromancer Games does demonstrate the logic in the idea.
A couple extra months would have done wonders Fifth Edition Foes.
A delay would have giving time for new art to be commissioned, new lore to be added, and some sombre through on the wisdom of having six freakin’ variant zombies in the book. It would have permitted more time to learn the rules, to be able to tighten monster powers. And it would have given more time to feel comfortable with high level play, allowing some more dangerous creatures to be written and playtested.
Fifth Edition Foes feels like it was rushed out the door to make the narrow window where it would have no competition with other 3rd Party Products (or even official accessories). Rather than trust the quality of their monsters and product, they opted to release now and cash in on the post-launch excitement for the edition, while fans are hungry for new content.
It’s a useful product. I don’t really regret my purchase. But I did opt to get the $20 PDF (pricey for a PDF) rather than the dead tree version (over twice as much), which helps mitigate my disappointment. There are monsters in the book that I will be happy to use, and monsters I wanted to use from the Tome of Horrors Complete but never found time to use. More monsters is always good. But in the end the book is a poor example of how to upgrade a product for 5th Edition, and that you cannot make a 5e product just by using compatible rules. An important lesson I hope Necromancer Games learns and other publishers take to heart.