Review: Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes

In a somewhat surprising move, Wizards of the Coast opted not to release a new storyline adventure in the spring of 2018, and instead released another sourcebook: Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes. The spiritual sequel to Volo’s Guide to Monsters, the Tome of Foes is divided fairly evenly between being a book of lore and a collection of new monster stat blocks, with a few other odds and ends slipped in.

Unlike the other titular named characters featured in this edition, Mordenkainen is  a character from Greyhawk and not the Forgotten Realms. Not merely one of the greatest mages in the world of Oerth, Mordie was also the player character of D&D’s co-creator, Gary Gygax.

What It Is

The tagline of the book is “Discover the truth about the great conflicts of the D&D multiverse in this supplement for the world’s greatest roleplaying game.” A 256 page hardcover book, unsurprisingly Tome of Foes is full colour with many illustrations. It features background on the Blood War between devils and demons, the conflict between elves and drow, the feud between dwarves and duergar, and the continual gith civil war. Plus details on halflings & gnomes. For reasons. Mixed into these chapters are eight new tiefling subraces, three elven subraces, and a gith race with two subraces. The dwarf and gnome subraces from Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide are also reprinted in this book.

The last half of the book includes over 140 new(ish) monster stat blocks, half of which are CR 10+ and a sixth are CR 20 or higher.

Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes also comes with a limited edition cover exclusive to hobby stores. Sadly, a packing error apparently damaged a high percentage of these, forcing many to be recalled; get them while they last.

The Good

There’s a lot of fun lore in this book. As the book’s cover says, there’s some good background provided on classic D&D conflicts, which were only briefly mentioned in the Monster Manual. The Blood War, the gith civil war, and… well, those are the big two.

There’s a little on the evil (and unfortunately all dark skinned) variants of the elves, dwarves, and gnomes. While the drow received some good lore in the Monster Manual and Out of the Abyss, the duergar really needed the expansion provided in this product. This book gives a nice foundation for building on that conflict in homegames set in Greyhawk or the Realms, or inspiration for the cultural schism in a homebrew world.

This book has surprising value for players, detailing the culture, mindset, and gods of most of the non-human races in the Player’s Handbook. Paired with the orc section in Volo’s Guide to Monsters, dragonborn are the only race not expanded culturally. There’s even some references to how these various races differ between settings, although these are mostly confined to sidebars.

The new elven subraces are fun. Included are sea elves (a nice option for some campaigns), eladrin, and shadar-kai. I quite like eladrin as D&D had previously lacked a “high fae” people, and they fill that role perfectly. The shadar-kai also return to their fey roots, having originally been fey in 3e before becoming a human subspecies in 4th Edition. Shadow fey have popped up a few times through the editions, being in Mystara in Basic and Ravenloft in 2e/3e. While I’m not keen on some of the past emo/edgelord aspects of the shadar-kai, they fill a solid niche of shadow focused humanoids. I’m quite pleased to see their return. (Sadly, the spiked chain and related weird exotic weapons weren’t updated as well.)

Included in the Blood War chapter are additional traits to give to devilish cultists. There’s an option for each of the archdevils. Similarly, there are eight boons that can be given to followers of demon lords. I love these little customization options, which make generic cultists more evocative.

In terms of monsters, there are a bunch of new non-human NPCs. We have additional stat blocks for drow, gith, duergar, and shadar-kai. Plus a few new ogres and trolls. The trolls are especially fun.

There’s a lot of great monsters that have been updated to 5e. A quick list of select monsters includes: allip, astral dreadnought, berbalang, boneclaw, cadaver collector, choker, deathlock, derro, leviathan, phoenix, zaratan, elemental myrmidon, giff, grey render, howler, kruthiks, marut, meazel, nightwalker, retriever, skulk, and larva mage. There’s also some more yugoloths (typically the forgotten outsiders). And making their physical product debut are tortles, a surprise after their appearance on the Dungeon Master’s Guild. (But if you need PC race stats for the tortle, you still need to look online.)

The Bad

Let’s start with the obvious. This book has a terrible name. Based on the title it’s unclear what is inside, and the name doesn’t accurately reflect much of the contents. Even the blurb doesn’t give an entirely accurate picture. The inclusion of elements like the eladrin and shadar-kai are nice, but this is not the book I’d expect to find that content. And working in those elements comes at the cost of extra focus on drow fighting surface elves.

Plus the name “Mordenkainen” is somehow harder to spell than “Xanathar”. I’ve written the name a few dozen times since the book was announced and I still can’t get it right. I can’t imagine a new player trying to pronounce it in a game store or enter into Amazon. What’s next? Blibdoolpoolp’s Guide to Planes?

The theme of the book is incredibly unfocused. It’s a book on conflict. But there’s a hundred pages of new monsters. And gnomes & halflings for some reason. It’s simultaneously the high level monster expansion and a book on major racial conflicts and the PC racial sourcebook. The aforementioned halfing & gnome chapter doesn’t even try to match the theme of conflict, with no strife presented between surface gnomes and deep gnomes. 

Because it’s so poorly focused, it doesn’t give any of the lore in any of the first few chapters the space or attention it deserves. Wizards of the Coast could (and have) written an entire books just on hell and the archdevils & the Abyss and demon lords. (Ditto Paizo.) Big players, like the Yugoloths, only receive a two paragraph sidebar. Perhaps some more details on how the Blood War can (or has) spilled out into the mortal world, and thus how a DM could use it in non-planar adventures. If looking for lore on the Nine Hells or the Blood War there’s a half-dozen other books I might turn to first. (Such as two Fiendish Codex books: Hordes of the Abyss and Tyrants of the Nine Hells. ) Similarly, while there is an entire chapter ostensibly on elves and elven conflicts, the sea elves come out of nowhere and their major conflict—which is every bit as relevant as the drow fight—is given the smallest of sidebars. It’s an afterthought.

Meanwhile, the racial sections give a lot of information on the gods. The elf, dwarf, and gnome & halfling sections almost spend as much time on the gods as the race’s conflicts. And the elf section goes into a lengthy tangent for the Raven Queen, who has a brand new origin story for some reason. Four times as much space is devoted to the Raven Queen’s story as the shadar-kai’s lore. It really feels like someone fell in love with their Raven Queen story and couldn’t bear to edit it down, at the expense of the elven chapter as a whole. 

While the demon lords get reprinted from Out of the Abyss and several archdevil also appear here, Vlaakith the gith lich queen doesn’t. That’s a pretty irritating omission.

Over two dozen stat blocks are reprinted from prior products. Almost a fifth of the monsters in the book. I’m somewhat okay with the humanoids—like the derro and the choker—but reprinting the demon lords really diminishes a major selling point of Out of the Abyss. (But, frankly, they still are a selling point: several demon princes have been weakened here compared to Out of the Abyss.) Similarly, I would rather have seen brand new duergar blocks rather than reprints, increasing the maximum number of drow and duergar a DM has access to.

The Ugly

The book features another alternate/ collector’s cover. It looks beautify, but it instantly becomes a book I don’t want to use out of risk of cracking the spine, ripping the pages, scratching the cover, or staining places with greasy fingerprints. It ends up sitting on my shelf and I don’t use the content until I break down and get a copy with a regular cover from Amazon. One alternate cover was a special treat. A third is no longer special and instead feels like a cash grab trying to milk completists and collectors.
I feel exploited.

The book goes into a decent amount of detail of the Githyanki city of Tu’narath. But it never provides a map for the city. There’s never really been a great map of this city in the past, so you can’t even turn to online maps.

Several monsters lack art. There’s no molydeus demon art, and half of the star spawn lack illustrations. I can Google the former, but not the latter as they’re effectively new. There’s no consensus on what a “grue” looks like, and I would have appreciated an official one.

As the third “monster book” this product has a few more filler monsters. I’m not a fan of abishai, as they’re just more devils, albeit with a weird dragonic flavour. And the sorrowsworn, stone cursed, and sword wraith are wholly unremarkable page filler.

There’s also far too many new demons & devils. I’m always jaded when monster supplements have multiple new demons and devils, as we have more than will readily see use, and new additions seldom serve a purpose unfilled by the ones we already have. A couple new additions go a long way, but 11 new demons and 11 new devils are far more than was needed. That’s the same number of devils as in the Monster Manual!

Instead, I would much rather have seen more ways of customizing existing demons and devils. Especially demons, which the book calls out as being varied and are unique. Volo’s Guide to Monsters had a several entries that tweaked and modified existing monsters, such as beholders and yuan-ti, and something similar would have been an excellent addition to this book. (Admittedly, there is a table of unusual features, which is pretty awesome, but it could have easily been much more substantial.)

The Awesome

After being disappointed by the silly jokes of Xanathar’s Guide, I was quite happy with the little in-character notes here. The text really nails the voice of Mordenkainen and brings a lot of character into very little text. They’re snarky and pragmatic, but also often give a good perspective on the subject. I’m really impressed.

There’s some fun monsters. While less a “monster” and more a unique trait, I loved the ogre howdah and its ability to carry goblins on its back.

The star spawn were a curious grabbag of monsters loosely connected together by their ties to “Elder Evils”. But the Elder Evil themselves get some nice shout-outs and a dash a lore. And there’s blessings for their cultists as well! This makes me wish they’d gotten more of a place in the book.

I have a fondness for kruthiks, so I’m glad to see them back. I’m amused that two monsters I updated for my game in the last six months are in this book. (Kruthiks and the boneclaw.)

I’m critical of new monsters (with 40 years of D&D history and 5000 years of mythology, it’s usually better to look to existing monster than try to create something new). But the oblex is pretty cool. It has “token ooze” written all over it, but it’s creepy and has a neat hook.
-edit-
Okay… the backstory behind the oblex is beyond awesome. 

There are no less than 26 monsters in this book with legendary actions. If you’re looking for more examples of how to build boss monsters, this is a great source.

Each of the racial sections includes more random personality traits, supplementing those found in the backgrounds. This is a nice addition for people looking for more character inspirations. There’s often also an extra tables for adventure hooks, trinkets, or motivations.

Final Thoughts

For D&D’s 5th Edition, Wizards of the Coast committed not to releasing books that players might have purchased before. They didn’t want to just do the same book they’d done two or three times previously but with new rules. Instead, they’re experimenting with format a little. And in this case, the experiment didn’t work.

Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes is somewhat of a mess. It tries to be several things at the same time, attempting to be a monster book and a racial sourcebook for players and a DM’s book of lore and the book on demihuman deities, with multiple new subraces on top plus an introduction to the Raven Queen. And as a result, it does nothing particularly well. It wastes an entire chapter for no good reason and has lots of content you wouldn’t expect while omitting several things you would expect. While more demons, devils, and drow make sense and gith racial options fit perfectly, having this be the book with shadar-kai is unexpected, and the sea elves come out of nowhere. And I in no way anticipated this would be the halfling and gnome racial expansion book (let alone the third book I’d have with the svirfneblin write-up). And having well over a dozen pages of the book devoted to non-human deities is just a curious choice.

It really feels like they had half of a planar version of Volo’s Guide to Monsters and half of a book on the various PC races and just smooshed the two Word files together. Given the tagline I was really hoping to see more multiversal and planar conflict. Maybe more on the Modrons, and perhaps some details on angels and the good planar being’s conflict with the planes below. And it’s easy to imagine what a book on the player races could be with more room to work in feats, campaign setting variants, magic items, and more.

This is biggest selling feature of the book is the new monsters. More monsters is almost always a good thing. Tome of Foes is 135 pages of new monsters and some other stuff. Between this, Volo’s Guide to Monsters, and the offerings from Kobold Press I think I’m good for 5th Edition monsters for, well, the rest of the edition.

If you’re running Out of the Abyss and want some quick extra lore on demon, duergar, and drow, then this book is a good choice. If you want more lore on pretty any other subjects on in this book, I’d direct you to the Dungeon Masters Guild. And if you want more monsters that can pose a challenge to your party, try the Tome of Beasts instead. 

 

 

 

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