I was one of the fortunate few to get my grubby mitts on an advance copy of the Monster Manual for Dungeons & Dragons. We’ll have a full review of the book in the next few weeks. In the meantime, I wanted to explore some of the aspects that jumped out at me as we flipped through.
One of my most popular articles is 10 Monsters I Use in Every D&D Campaign (and 5 I Don’t). I figure Buzzfeed is to blame somehow for that article’s popularity. So because it’s a monster book, I present 10 Things I Dig About the New Monster Manual (And 5 I Don’t).
The Classics Are Here
The 2e Monstrous Manual, because of when I started playing D&D regularly, is the one that sticks in my mind as the iconic monster book in many ways. There were plenty of monsters that would come up regularly, and a number of goofy ones that were more colorful than anything else. The 3e book concentrated on making more playable groups, cutting out a lot of the goofy monsters while also pushing forward some new groups. The 4e monster books purposely spread monsters out across multiple books in order to give each monster several variants.
This Monster Manual takes the broad view of giving you as many monsters classically associated with D&D as possible. There are few variants (there’s only two kinds of kobolds, for instance), which give you a broad range of D&D monsters. A full suite of chromatic and metallic dragons, various undead, orcs, ogres, oozes, giants, and more. There’s even the set of “innocuous dungeon things that are actually monsters” between the cloaker, piercer, roper, and mimic.
…Plus a Few Surprises
Modrons, in their DiTerlizzi-styled glory, come back. The “mysterious” Flumph is here, stench spray and all. Fomorians, one of my favorite bad guys from a number of 4e adventures, are in the book. Intellect devourers want to eat (and replace) your brain. Even the mighty kraken makes an appearance. While most of the monsters are the classics of D&D, there’s a few more recent (and/or forgotten) that creep their way in.
Lair Actions & Regional Effects
One of the best new advancements in monsters doesn’t directly incorporate into the monsters at all, but instead, how they affect their surroundings. Some monsters are so integrated into their lair that they are able to perform Lair Actions that affect exploration and battle. For instance, the red dragon can cause magma eruptions, tremors, and volcanic gas clouds. Not only does it give the creatures extra oomph when fighting them on their home turf (giving extra reasons for clever parties to try to lure them out), it lets their presence affect other fights elsewhere in the dungeon. It also gives an excuse for the classic load-bearing boss dungeon.
Regional Effects are more for world-building and story-telling, and expand the idea of Lair Actions to a wider area. Powerful creatures affect the land itself. The red dragon causes earthquakes, fissures, and make every pool nearby into a sulfurous jacuzzi. We’ll explore this aspect of things in a later article of how regional effects can inspire your campaign world.
The monster ability that I know will make my friend Sly Flourish very happy: powerful creatures can simply choose to succeed on saving throws a certain number of times per day. Taking out the big bad isn’t a matter of just chaining the correct combination of spells when they can just choose to selectively shrug off spells. It involves more wearing down a powerful monster in battle and choosing the right times to unleash powerful effects. As a DM, it also gives you more difficult choices when running monsters, and less of a worry about needing to specifically address broken combinations of spells and abilities.
As you might have seen from a lot of the previews, there’s plenty of text outside the statblock. The basics of each monster is covered, as well as whatever origin story is needed to know where they come from, and a variety of story hooks, personality traits, and plot points to weave in. Plus, some abilities that aren’t important to how it operates in combat but are still important overall (like needing to eat) are included.
Statblocks in the past few editions of D&D could get to be pretty large. They covered a lot of ground, but also ended up taking up more space in published products like adventures. It also meant copying monsters for reference was a bit more difficult.
The new stat blocks are much more slimmed down on average, and there’s a mix of simple and complex monsters at a variety of challenge ratings. In some cases, that means the art has lots of room to breathe, and in others, it fits between the art, the lore, and the stats all occupied a page. Several abilities have been streamlined in the rules that makes this happen as well: since there’s only vulnerability, resistance, and immunity (no vulnerable: 10 or anything more specific) it takes up less space in each one.
The downside is that monsters with spells require you to cross reference their abilities once again, though they are good at specifying what spells they have prepared, cutting down on that prep.
Inspiration from 4e Monsters
4e monsters took a number of concepts and streamlined them in order to make monsters easier to run at the table. The new edition takes many of these concepts forward in various ways. For instance, solo monsters are now represented by legendary actions which allows them to act more often during a turn. Recharge rolls for monster attacks have come back, so managing attacks like dragon breath weapons is easy. Many of the “insta-kill” attacks work more like 4e where multiple saves have to be blown in order to have it actually kill, and the intermediate step is a bad condition, though not drawn out as much as before.
All new art fills the Monster Manual. There’s the same meshing of styles that were in the Player’s Handbook. The “concepting” process gone through with the monsters in a series of articles on WotC’s site means that players had a voice in determining what an iconic version of these monsters would look like.
Some of my favorites are the creepier monsters. Undead have often been underserved, sometimes being more cartoony than scary. The undead in this book look more menacing, and truly monstrous.
Monsters Are More Usable Thanks to Bounded Accuracy
I was initially surprised at some of the challenge ratings of monsters, especially compared to how they were used in other editions. However, because of bounded accuracy, monsters remain usable in a much wider range than before. Ogres may only be challenge 2 now, but they can serve in greater numbers at higher levels to add some minions that pick a punch.
Even the mighty Tarrasque only has an AC of 25, making him attackable by a lucky 1st level character… who will then be squished with the Tarrasque’s massive damage output.
Loathsome Limbs and Other Variants
While there aren’t as many variations within monsters with different stat blocks, there are a number of sidebars that show how to customize monsters to add them to different environments or give them new special abilities. Case in point: the classic troll. It regenerates as it always has. However, there’s a variant where limbs severed from the troll might get up, crawl around, and attack the party. I remember one of my first DMs pulled this on my group, and it annoyed the heck out of us. Now, those loathsome limbs are fully supported with their own rules. Be sure to bring the fire.
Then there’s five aspects I’m not too excited about.
No Monsters by Challenge Rating Index
One of the easiest ways to build encounters is to look at list of monsters that are appropriate for the party’s level and let your imagination go from there. Unfortunately, such a listing doesn’t exist in this book. I’m sure someone will compile one, and I’ll gladly print it and put it in the book, but it seems like an oversight.
Hopefully this is only a temporary concern, but without the Dungeon Master’s Guide, we only have some of the puzzle. Advice on constructing encounters is not here, and the only guidance on challenge rating is the system where a monster is a moderate challenge to 4 PCs of that level. That section lists that there will be guidelines of using an XP budget in the DMG, but for now, it’s hard to really place how difficult some monsters are and what an appropriate encounter really looks like. (As some have pointed out, that information is available in the basic rules online, but there’s nowhere that references that fact in the book.)
No Kobold Chieftans for You
I liked the approach that gave a few variants to monsters that you’re likely to see in bigger numbers. So in your battle against the kobold raiders, you might see a few regular kobold warriors, a chieftan, and ones that throw alchemical bottles. In this MM, you’ve only got kobolds with wings and without. There are a few exceptions (drow and gnolls, for instance), but overall, there’s usually only one or two per. The DMG might have more advice on adding parts to them (hopefully simpler than the “add levels” system) but for now, you’ll need to focus on mixing and matching different monster types for the same kind of experience.
As mentioned above, for any monster that has spells, you’ll need to prep them in advance with what those spells do, and when is good to use them. In cases like the Lich (now 21st! level challenge rating), having a lot of spell cards at hand will be critical to juggle that many spells every round.
Minions Do It With More Than 1 HP
(With apologies to d20Monkey). Minions, those 1 HP wonders of cannon fodder critters, are no more. There aren’t mob/swarm rules either. Hopefully these options will be in the DMG, but in the meantime, I’ll probably steal the mook rules from 13th Age.
And one more bonus in neither category:
What’s the Zaratan’s Dex Score?
While it does contain all ten monsters that I always use, it only contains one of the five I don’t. How will I know the AC to hit an island turtle?
There’s my quick impressions of the Monster Manual. We will follow up with a full review, as well as some articles on other ways to use the book, in the next few weeks leading up to the book’s full release in September.
A complimentary copy of the Monster Manual was provided to Critical Hits for review purposes.