D&D Review: Volo’s Guide to Monsters
The first major monster expansion by Wizards of the Coast for 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons (and the second official accessory for the tabletop RPG game), Volo’s Guide to Monsters is an odd duck of a product. It’s a hybrid of a Monster Manual 2 and a book of monstrous player options (like 2e’s Complete Book of Humanoids or 3e’s Savage Species) and monster ecology books, such as the articles published in Dragon or the various Revisited books published by Paizo.
Ostensibly, Volo’s Guide to Monsters also throws the old Volo’s Guide to _____ from 2nd Edition into the mix. These guidebooks were ostensibly written by Volothamp “Volo” Geddarm, a troublesome scholar renowned for both getting into trouble and getting adventurers into trouble on his behalf, who writes travelogs of his journeys. Most of Volo’s works were in-character tomes that served as world books to regions of the Forgotten Realms.
Volo’s Guide to Monsters is a 224-page hardcover book. The 100-page first chapter (Monster Lore) is very much like the aforementioned monster ecology articles with a dash of the Volo’s Guides, with little notes written by both Volo and the Sage of Shadowdale, Elminster (or, more accurately, Ed Greenwood, creator of both characters and the Forgotten Realms). Volo writes lore for the monsters with his particularly brand of unreliable narration while Elminster corrects him. This chapter provides almost a dozen pages of lore for each beholders, orcs, gnolls, yuan-ti, Mind Flayers, goblinoids, kobolds, and hags. The 18-page second chapter (Character Races) includes seven new Player Character races: aasimar (updated from the DMG), firbolg, goliaths, kenku, lizardfolk, tabaxi (catfolk), and tritons. Each of these is given a full race write up and lore. Also included in this chapter are the goblin, hobgoblin, bugbear, kobold, orc, and yuan-ti pureblood, which receive quick listings of their racial traits. The final 100 pages of the book are devoted to “new” monsters, the vast majority of which are updated from past editions of the game (if not all of them). There’s 50-odd new types of monster, several new variants of existing monsters, with these variants focusing on the eight featured monsters (orcs, kobolds, etc).
In an experiment, Wizards of the Coast has also released a rare “limited edition” cover for the book, exclusive to Wizards Play Network game stores. It’s a slick little black-and-grey number that’s a mix of matte and glossy with silvery highlights. And I’m terrified to handle it for long periods out of fear of rubbing off the details, scuffing the matte, scratching the silver, or generally ruining it. I just bought a book I’m unlikely to regularly use at my table.
I imagine more than a couple OCD collectors like myself will pick up a second copy for use at the table, a copy that can take a little more abuse. I haven’t ordered one yet, and might do so from Amazon to save a few bucks on a superfluous book.
I have mixed feelings about this move. It’s a slick cover, but I think I’d have liked it almost as much if it had the regular book cover texture, and I’d be much more likely to actually use the book. It’s a neat way to get people out to game stores to buy their copies, but I imagine quite a few were doing that anyway. And getting people to buy multiple copies seems like a particularly pragmatic and mercenary way of boosting sales; I’m not a fan of that move with $5 comics and am even less a fan with $50 books
The hook of the book is its in-character nature, as it is supposedly written by Volo and edited by Elminster. Copies of Volo’s Guide to Monsters now exist in the Forgotten Realms. However, the presence of both authors is rather muted, limited to assorted small sidebars. This certainly helps the book in terms of readability and maintaining and consistent tone: that of a generic D&D accessory. If the lore chapter were entirely written as Volo the book would be harder to read, the information harder to absorb, and generally the tone jarring when alternating between this book and any other D&D book. And this way the book doesn’t need to worry about mixing game knowledge and in-world knowledge. And as Volo and Elminster’s thoughts are mostly found in little side notes, they’re easy to ignore if so desired.
Visually the book is solid. There more pieces of art that feature the world – more locales and scenes of drama – and fewer pieces that are just “generic adventure X”. I also enjoy how the look of the pages changes between chapters. The background hue of the pages shifts dramatically between Chapters one and two, when the book moves from DM content to player content, and again when the book becomes a bestiary, evoking the Monster Manual‘s layout. If you cracked the glue on both your MM and this book, you could easily slip these pages together and be unable to tell the difference (if you ignored pages numbers that is). I appreciate the consistent look.
There’s lots of useful details in the lore sections. The inclusion of random personality traits and names is handy. And useful: you never know when the PCs will decide to take a prisoner. It can turn a random encounter into part of the campaign. (I’ve already used this once, rolling randomly for a kobold name.)
The beholder section really focuses on their psychology, which is useful for creatures as alien as them. They’re much more complicated than orcs and gnolls. But the true standout section here is information on beholder’s lairs: that they will design lairs with flight in mind and to accommodate their distinct body shape is good information to remember. And there are trap ideas given, which are interesting, and good inspiration for more traps in general. Trap ideas are always good.
The inclusion of giants in this book pairs it nicely with Storm King’s Thunder. The giant’s chapter has a fairly length Realms-specific origin for the giants, but it gives some advice on how to adapt to other settings. And it’s far enough in the distant that it could be dismissed as myth, or added into any world without impacting the current status quo.
A number of creatures in the first chapter and given variant abilities! There are variant eye rays for beholders (allowing you to swap out eyebeam powers for different spells); alternate coven spells for hags and new lair actions for elder hags, which is very useful; and a bunch of new actions for the yuan-ti. This stuff is golden and is what I wanted out of this book: a way to make the existing monsters more interesting.
The new player options are mostly solid additions. While I don’t like reprinting options, putting the aasimar in a book rather than the Dungeon Master’s Guide is a good idea (although… this is still mostly a monster book). The firbolg is a neat addition, although it’s very different than past versions of the race (although that differed quite a bit from the mythological roots). More effort could have been made to bridge the concepts. I’m a fan of the kenku, so seeing them in the book is a big plus. Also, I like the restraint in adding new races pulled from established D&D lore rather than inventing a new race wholecloth, which then has to be forced into DM’s campaign setting.
The hit-to-miss ration of monsters is really, really good. Of the over 100 monsters in the book, probably less than 10 are disappointing. There’s a lot of classic and interesting monsters here that I would not have objected to seeing in the Monster Manual.
The name of the book and introduction imply that Volo will have a large presence in the book, which isn’t so: the majority of the text isn’t written in character. While I listed this as a “good” it’s also worthy of a mention here. The lack of emphasis on a first person tone makes it harder for a DM to change the lore based on “unreliable narration” and makes the presence of Volo in Volo’s Guide to Monsters largely secondary; the book is very much misnamed. More could have been done to insert Volo into the book. Perhaps each monster lore section could have had a page (or even half-page) of straight text from Volo introducing the monster with some flavour.
Not all entries have the same information. For example, there are no giant names, no traits and names for goblinoids, and no personality traits for kobolds. Not every entry is given the same amount of pages either, with gnolls and kobolds receiving fewer pages and giants receiving the most. I don’t think the entries should have been required to have the same amount of pages, the kobold entry does suffer due to the fewer pages.
While most of the lore is solid, the entries on goblins, orcs, and kobolds are a little weak. The goblinoid entry really doesn’t connect the three disparate goblin races together, so they still seem unrelated. They might as well be three unrelated humanoid races, such as halflings, dwarves, and elves (as the text itself comments). The goblinoid and orc entries also have a strong religious slant, really focusing on their deities, which makes these entries far less generic and harder to use in other worlds. Even the description of orcs as the “godsworn” seems a little forced, like WotC is trying too hard to find a role for D&D orcs that is different from the orcs of Warcraft or Middle Earth. I found the weakest part to be the kobold entry. The book doesn’t really bring kobolds to life or do anything new or interesting with them. They’re just there. Even the suggested traps are a little rote and cliche.
Variant abilities are included for less than half the creatures in the lore chapter. Where is the variant bugbear garotter or sniper actions? The gnoll berserker rages? The orc soldier’s defensive skill? This is a huge missed opportunity.
The beholder chapter has an image of an eye of frost (occasionally called a “snowball”). Along with the eye of flame this is one of the common variants of the beholder that popped up during 4e but there’s not statblock give, or even variant eyebeam powers that allow you to make an eye of frost or flame. Sad.
Beholder reproduction is weird. It drives a little of the beholder chapter but doesn’t seem to conform to known lore. It’s just… weird. The book also dropping the distinction between sane and regular beholders. Generally dislike when D&D lore is rewritten and altered. Between this book, I, Tyrant and Lords of Madness there was a lot of established beholder lore thrown under the bus because one of the writers like the hook of beholders being nightmares made flesh (which is already an existing monster: the feyr .)
While I rant about beholders, I’m really not a fan of the inclusion of Xanathar’s Guild. It’s of limited use for everyone, even those DMs running in the Realms as the guild is already well documented elsewhere. Giving it a full page and a half is likely overkill for what could have been an interesting half or quarter page section, freeing up space for myriad different subjects.
Speaking of wasted space, the giant section devotes a large bit to a glossary of giant words. I find this stuff interesting, but generally useless in play as I’m never going to cross-reference a book in play to find an appropriate word. The words are also a mishmash of Swedish, Icelandic, old English and other languages, making several sound like muddled English. Throwing out a few giant words runs the risk of having the DM sound like the Swedish chef from the Muppets.
The book also reprints goliaths, which were already available in the Elemental Evil Player’s Companion.
In terms of racial balance, the kenku seem a little weak, while the bugbears seem a little strong.
The book provides player stats for monstrous humanoids from the Monster Manual but omits the humanoids from this book. Darklings (aka dark ones aka dark creepers and dark stalkers) would have been a neat race to open up for players, as would the froggy grung. And the absence of playable gnolls is an issue for many. (Thankfully, other people have you covered for gnolls)
The cover art of the regular edition of the book is pretty unfortunately cropped. Some of the details (like the second giant in the background being waved back) are lost due to the cropping and placement of the title.
There are some recycled pieces of art in the book, which is unfortunate. This is especially noticeable in the Nonplayer Character section. The bard artwork is especially dated.
My biggest complaint about the book is that it includes a LOT of low CR monsters and precious few high-CR monsters, which is the exact opposite of what the game needs at this moment. 75 of the book’s 125 statblocks are CR 5 or lower. There’s only 17 monsters of CR 10 or higher (and one of those just modifies the lich statblock from the MM).
There’s a few odd choices of monster. With literally hundreds of excellent first rate monsters to choose from, some odd selections were made of what to include. Meanwhile, there are still a lot of quote-unquote classical monsters that have still not been updated. Just skimming through the 1e Monster Manual (and skipping beasts and archdevils) there’s the brownie, brain mole, dragonne, ear seekers, eye of the deep, lammasu, leprechaun, locathah, neo-otyugh, nixie, nymph, shedu, su-monster, sylph, thought eater, and wind walker. (I don’t think I recall the wind walker. Was this guy ever updated? The lack of art likely hurts, that and its late place in the book make it super forgettable.) Instead of the above, we get reprinted guard drakes, firenewts, xvart, deep scion, korred, and sea spawn.
As a personal dislike, there’s no grippli. Instead have the grung, which Chris Lindsay can be blamed for. It’s his prerogative as the design to slip in the obscure monsters he likes. But it’s also my prerogative as the reviewer to complain about that option by name. The inclusion of the grung pretty much means no grippli in the foreseeable future, as there’s no need for two small, tropical tree frog people.
After so many additional monster books by Paizo and WotC I’m rather excited by what is not in this book, specifically new types of giants, dragons, devils, or golems. The few new giant statblocks are all of existing types (even if it would be neat to see the return of mountain giants, death giants, or voadkyn).
The chart of physical characteristics for beholders and yuan-ti rocks. These creatures are meant to be unique and varied, and these charts are a neat way of encouraging physical diversity among those critters.
Similarly, there are a few tables of random treasures or items for various monsters. These are a little like the trinket table in the Player’s Handbook but more focused and flavourful.
There’s a random warband builder for gnolls. It’s neat but unlikely to see much use compared to the actual encounter building rules. But, it’s a random encounter table for an entire warband, complete with associated monsters. That’s cool.
The picture of the kobold inventor has a stick with a scorpion tied to it (also in the statblock), which is a lovely callback to the kobold illustration from the 2nd edition Monstrous Manual.
I love the out of combat uses described for beholder’s eye rays.
The maps of lairs can be a little fancier and ornate, being examples and sources of inspiration more than adventure locations; Jared Blando’s art is well suited to these maps, and there are some excellent and inventive pieces. I’m particularly fond of the creepy and alien mind flayer lair
The mind flayer entry has a few magic items. Very cool.
I adore that the writers went with the more obscure tabaxi rather than just having generic “catfolk” in the book. And their ability to rapidly move every other round is distinct and useful.
Edit: I forgot to call out the hag entry. Hags are an oddball choice for the book, not being an “IP” monster, like the gith, or a classical fantasy race with unique D&D , like the minotaurs. They’re classical but not as iconic in D&D. But the book knocks them out of the part with the details on pacts, vehicles, hierarchy, and the like.
Volo’s Guide to Monsters is decent. Above average but not exceptional.
The name implies the presence of a first person narration that just is not there. These little first person footnotes are really confined to small sidebars, which already existed in the Monster Manual.
The lore sections of the book are uneven, and not all of the features races are well served. The book really shines when it focuses on the elements unique to D&D: the giant ordning, mind flayers, yuan-ti, demonic gnolls but stumbles when it tries to make the more generic monsters interesting while also tying them to D&D lore.
However, the book is much more interesting than just a straight new monster book. All past attempts at making a Monster Manual 2 stumble over the necessity of fitting 300 new monsters into the game, leading to poor design and loads of filler. By focusing on fewer monsters, the ones in this book are much more desirable and there are fewer monsters just filling the pages. And the increased lore encourages you to use some of the most classic monsters in your game, providing adventure hooks and the inspiration for their lairs.
I would have still liked to see a focus on monsters with a higher CR.
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