Review: “Monster Manual” for “Dungeons & Dragons” 5th Edition

Death KnightWhile we’ve applied great attention to the new Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition Player’s Handbook, it falls to the Monster Manual to fill in the other half of the D&D equation. Monsters exist so PCs can look awesome. Without good monsters, the best abilities in the Player’s Handbook are meaningless. For us dungeon masters there is no book more important and more heavily used than the Monster Manual. If this book doesn’t give us the right challenges to put in front of our PCs at all levels of play, the entire game can quickly fall apart.

Well, you can sit back and relax. With a fantastic design, writing that inspires the imagination, and mechanics that make monsters fun to run and fun to fight, the Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition Monster Manual may very well be the best monster book ever written.

Why Do I Care So Much?

Since the release of the 4th Edition of D&D, I’ve obsessed over Dungeons & Dragons monsters. I’ve seen them work well. I’ve seen them collapse into bowls of useless jelly. I’ve been lucky enough to write a dozen or so articles and adventures for Wizards of the Coast focused on dragons, demons, and creatures of the outer planes. I’ve had the pleasure of designing the elemental princes Yan-C-Bin and Olhydra and the opportunity to design the most powerful officially published D&D 4th edition monster of all time, the elemental prince Cryonax. Throughout my level 1 to 30 D&D 4th Edition campaign, I watched the best and worst monsters designed for 4e crash against the sharp rocks of 4e’s powerhouse PCs.

It was with that experience and background that I lifted the mighty 5th Edition Monster Manual and gazed into the horrors within.

Holy Crap, That’s a Lot of Monsters

Those are the first words that went through my head when I opened this book. It’s huge. The Monster Manual has 352 pages with nearly 450 individual monster stat blocks. This includes over forty different dragons across the four age categories and ten colors. The book begins with a few pages on design and ecology before jumping right into the monsters themselves. In the back is a section on miscellaneous creatures (a bit confusing since many of the creatures in this section feel like monsters to me) and a most-welcome section on non-player characters. More on this later.

The selection of monsters originates from monster books throughout all editions. It has all of the standard monsters you’d expect and a few you would have expected to be released in future books like the githyanki, death knights, and demilichs. It even includes oddities like modrons, yochlols, and flumphs (at least Alphastream’s happy).

There are fifteen pages on metallic dragons, an amount I would consider excessive for good-aligned creatures, and five pages alone on beholders not even including the awesome zombie beholder hidden away in the zombie section.

Unfortunately there are no unique monsters in the book other than the Tarrasque which, at CR 30, appears to be more of a dare than a real monster. I would have loved to see some of the demon princes and devil lords in here instead of four variants of brass, bronze, and copper dragons.

Still, it’s hard not to flip through this book and say “wow weretigers!” This book feels like it has everything.

Monster Design and Ecology

The Monster Manual begins with a nice description of this book’s place in the world, how to use the monsters within it in our games, and how the design team define monsters. Most of this will only need to be read once.

The section entitled “Where do Monster’s Dwell” includes a fantastic list of monstrous lairs for many environments. There are six of these environments and thirty adventure locations. Here are some examples:

  • A ruined wizard’s tower atop a lonely hill riddled with goblin-infested tunnels.
  • A subterranean rift willed with giant fungi and ruled by a megalomaniacal beholder or mad formorean king.
  • A wizard’s academy rife with corruption and practitioners of the necromatic arts.
  • A storm giants coral castle, beautiful yet foreboding.
  • A lich’s secret demiplane, where the undead archmage hides its phylactery and spellbook.

Each of these thirty adventure locations evoke fantastic ideas for adventures. They’re a wonderful bonus to a book we’d only expect to be filled with monsters. If this is a sneak preview for the upcoming Dungeon Master’s Guide, we may be in for a real treat.

Next we’re given descriptions of the traits and stat blocks of the monsters. This is our first real glimpse into the design of 5e monsters. We’re given descriptions of how things like alignment, hit points, and armor class work. We also see how the proficiency bonus adds up for monsters. Lastly, we get the details of legendary creatures, a topic we will return to later. While we’re given some good concepts on monster design, we’re not yet given enough material to build our own monsters. Wizards of the Coast explained that this would be included in the Dungeon Master’s Guide.

Then from page 12 to page 350, it’s monsters all the way down.

Monster Descriptions and Stat Blocks

Each monster section includes a number of subsections that describe the monster’s role in the world. These subsections are packed with potential story hooks and adventure ideas to mine for material for our games. Each variant of a monster is likewise described. Equal weight is given between these descriptions and monster’s stat blocks.

The stat blocks themselves include all the mechanics we’ll need to run monsters during the game. While not as heavily formatted as a 4e monster stat block the design makes it easy to reference during a game. Descriptions of actions tend to have more words than 4e stat blocks. They’re written more naturally, describing the intent and effect in the world rather than a line that reads more like a rule on a Magic: the Gathering card. The extra words can take a bit more time to parse making it necessary to fully read a stat block before we attempt to run it.

Monster damage includes both a static average and a normal dice equation. Having run 13th Age for about a year, I’ve grown accustomed to static damage and appreciate having the option. I expect most DMs will choose the dice equation but the static average can help greatly when PCs face off against dozens of monsters. Unfortunately, there’s no instruction for what to do on a critical hit with static damage. The obvious choice is to double it but that’s actually more damage than it should be. Instead, use the advice of D&D designer Jeremy Crawford: on a critical hit roll the damage dice and add it to the static damage.

Bounded Accuracy: From Solos to Normals to Minions

One of the core design tenants of D&D 5e is the idea of “bounded accuracy”. This fancy term means that armor classes, saving throws, skill bonuses, and attack bonuses don’t scale with level. Instead, characters and monsters are given a “proficiency bonus” that goes up slowly over the full level range.

As an example, let’s look at two monsters, the bugbear (challenge 1) and the death knight (challenge 18). The bugbear has an AC of 16 and an attack score of +4. The death knight has an AC of 20 and an attack score of +11. Unlike these scores, hit points and damage scale sharply. The bugbear has 27 hit points to the death knight’s 180 and the bugbear inflicts an average of 11 points of damage on a hit with a single attack a round while the death knight has three attacks for 27 damage on each hit.

This focus on the math may seem unimportant but the effect at the table is quite significant. A challenge 2 creature, like an ogre, is roughly equal to four level 2 PCs. Thus, it acts somewhat like a solo creature to level 1s or 2s. At level 5 or 6, though, ogres start to feel like normal monsters and you might face a group of them at this level. At level 12, ogres start to look like minions. PCs can kill swathes of them with single spells and it takes a lot of attacks from a lot of ogres to break through a PCs hit points.

This means monsters can be used over a much longer level range than we’ve seen in past editions of D&D. Monsters start out looking like solo threats, then move to groups with each member being roughly equivalent to a single PC, and then eventually to minions that require dozens to threaten a group of PCs.

In short, bounded accuracy ensures 5e monsters stay relevant across a wider range of levels than ever before.

Asymmetrical Horrors

Another nice design feature of D&D 5e monsters is the lack of symmetry in their design. This is a return back to the way WotC and TSR designed monsters before the 4th edition of D&D. In 4e, if you named a level, you knew exactly what the creature’s attack score, defenses, hit points, and damage output were. Every level 16 threat was almost the same as every other level 16 threat with minor differences. In 5e, a challenge 4 banshee is very different threat than a challege 4 ettin. I imagine for us monster designers, it will be tricker to build a balanced monster than the single chart we used to use with 4e.

Save or Die

Various players and designers over the past 40 years have had different opinions on the “save or die” mechanic. If we look back at the original 1st edition of D&D, there was a whole saving throw just for saving or dying. Did you gaze into the loving eyes of a medusa? Save or die! Did a banshee scream at you? Save or die! Did you trigger a poison needle trap? Save or die!

In 4e, we saw something a bit less severe. Characters received multiple saving throws before something really terrible happened. Some players preferred the extra buffers between them and the afterlife. Others felt it removed the lethality of D&D adventuring.

Looking across the 5e Monster Manual, it’s clear the designers steered back towards more dangerous monsters. Monsters like the banshee can wail and force all living creatures who can hear her to make a DC 13 saving throw or drop to 0 hit points. The medusa can petrify those who can see her eyes if they fail a DC 14 Constitution saving throw by more than 5. The cockatrice gives an attacked creature two chances to save before petrification and the cockatrice’s petrification only lasts for a day.

Life-draining creatures like the specter and vampire drain maximum hit point values instead of sucking levels out of characters. It’s easier to manage at the table while still being something players will fear. These hit points return after a full rest, however, instead of requiring the casting of a restoration spell.

While not completely returning to the dark days of 1st edition, many creatures feel more lethal than their 4e versions.

Legendary Threats

Boss monsters have been a tricky thing in all editions of D&D. 4e approached this by creating a “solo” monster category. These solos were intended to challenge a group of PCs by themselves rather than requiring additional monsters. This didn’t really work out. Due to the lower number of actions and debilitating effects focused on a single creature, solo monsters posed an easier challenge than many DMs intended.

The 5e Monster Manual includes a number of “legendary” monsters who fill the role of solo bosses. Legendary monsters have a set of additional actions and defenses that make them much more difficult than most monsters. On the defensive side, legendary monsters often include an effect called “legendary resistance”. This resistance lets legendary monsters automatically save on failed saving throws a certain number of times a day. This all but neutralizes single-target debilitating effects like stun or hold person. In a tweet on the topic, Mike Mearls stated that the intent is to make damage the primary way to defeat an opponent while “save or suck” effects are more of a gamble. Against legendary monsters, that gamble isn’t likely to pay off.

Legendary monsters also get a set of legendary actions they can perform in between the turns of their opponents. Usually these actions are tied to a point pool that resets between turns. Different abilities take a different amount of points. This aids in ensuring legendary monsters keep up with the action economy of a full group of PCs.

The third tool legendary monsters receive are lairs. Lairs are the environments in which PCs will face such a legendary threat and the very lair itself has an additional set of actions it can take. A lich’s lair, for example, can help the lich restore spells, tie its health to an opponent, or call spirits to attack a foe. These actions are on top of the lich’s normal set of actions and its legendary actions.

All three of these sets of legendary features make for some truly dangerous enemies. How they hold up at the table in high level play is still yet to be seen. The power of high-level PCs is notorious for breaking outside the typical boundaries of monster design. Both the third and fourth editions of D&D had trouble balancing encounter design at high levels and this wasn’t fully understood until we actually ran high level games at the table.

Will legendary resistance be enough to prevent legendary monsters from becoming incapacitated by status effects? What other tricks will high level PCs pull out that might otherwise negate the threat of a legendary monster? Without running them, it’s hard to tell for sure.

On paper, though, legendary monsters appear quite powerful indeed.

Non-Playing Characters

One fantastic addition to this monster manual is the inclusion of a hand-full of NPC stat blocks. There are twenty one such NPCs ranging from challenge 0 (the commoner) to challenge 12 (the archmage). If anything, I wish this section was twice as long. NPC villains come up quite often in a lot of campaigns and finding suitable stat blocks for NPCs can be hard to do. The NPCs in this section are all extremely useful, and unexpected for a monster manual. I just wish there were more of them.

That’s All Great, but How Do They Run?

A pretty book full of monsters isn’t that useful if combat during the game sucks. The real test of this book is how well these monsters run at the table. After running or playing about two dozen games using these monsters, all signs continue to point towards “awesome.” Monsters are easy to run, have enough interesting effects to make them unique, and combat continues to run fast and furious. Where a single 4e game session might be limited to two battles in three hours, one can run a half dozen battles and skirmishes in the same time, even when these battles contain a mix of monsters. The speed of these battles doesn’t reduce their potential lethality.

Again, most of our experiences, at this point, are low level. We can’t know for sure how well these monsters will run at mid and higher levels until we see them in action.

Physical Design

Overall the Monster Manual looks fantastic. The design makes it feel both modern and classic at the same time with a subtle page design and beautiful artwork. The designers chose to use floating stat blocks so each page isn’t uniform when compared to another. Demons, for example, have all of their descriptions in one section and all of their stat blocks in another. It’s not a problem to use at the table this way and it lets them pack in some wonderful full-page and half-page art along with the oodles monsters.

In an article on the D&D website, Mike Mearls mentioned that they had increased the size of the Monster Manual by 32 pages. This resulted in the book’s cover being wrapped over the spine by about 1/8 of an inch. It’s not a big deal and an easy compromise to make for an extra 32 pages of material for no extra cost.

Second, some of the entries have a printing error that separates the drop shadow of text from the text itself. This makes the text of some of the headers and stat blocks fuzzy to look at. It’s still fully legible but the error is still quite visible. In the copy used for this review I counted four pages with this problem. A minor issue that doesn’t effect the use of the book at all.

The Missing Index by Challenge Score

Of all the quibbles, there is only one that constitutes a serious omission—the lack of a monster list sorted by challenge score. Given D&D’s flatter math it’s less important for a DM to choose monsters of a CR equal to the level of the PCs but an index of monsters by challenge score would still be a very handy chart to know what sort of monsters are roughly within the range of capability of the party.

If you bothered to read down this far, we have a special treat for you. We can complain about the missing “monster by challenge” index or we can do something about it. Here is a monster by challenge score index you can download, print, trim, and stick right in your own copy of the Monster Manual. Thanks to Ari Marmell for his Excel version used to generate my list.

A Fantastic and Critical Book for the 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons

Overall the Monster Manual holds a strong place on the shelf for this new edition of D&D. Though we’ve had almost two years to playtest this version of the game, opening the book surprises us with such a huge range of monsters we can use over the years. The book looks great, has some fantastic inspiring descriptions, beautiful artwork, and well-designed monsters to help our PCs look awesome. I cannot recommend it enough.

The Monster Manual releases September 19th in select game stores and September 30th everywhere else. A complimentary copy of the book was provided to the author for review purposes.

Comments

  1. Great review, thanks for the index!

  2. Loving all the reviews and updates on 5th edition materials. Keep ’em coming.

  3. Thanks for the index. Great review! Can’t wait to see some of these baddies in action!

  4. Alessandro Guarita says:

    Very good review. And thank you for the monster list 🙂

  5. Thank you very much for the monsters-by-CR list (just what I needed) and for the thoughtful review. I’m really looking forward to this book’s release date.

  6. that knight looks like lord soth in the dragonlance series

  7. Cannot wait for this. I like that there are so many CR 5 and lower monsters, but at the same time, that leaves it wide open for MM 2 down the line.

  8. 3.5 MM is 317 pages. 350 is only 10% more.

  9. Do we get any info on monster upgrading/advancement or adding NPC/PC levels?

  10. Thanks for the review and the excitement. Makes me really want to pick this up ASAP.

    And especially thanks for the list. I was going to intro my group (playing AD&D) to 5E with Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh and needed to know if some monsters were included. Happily, they are. 🙂

  11. No info on certain monsters being available as pc’s and how to handle that?

  12. Are there more beasts not already covered in the free DM Basic Rules PDF? Because I don’t feel like the druid’s wildshape ability is quite broken enough yet… [/sarcasm]

    • Maybe I’m missing something because I haven’t seen a druid in play yet, but how is being able to change into a max CR 1 creature, and losing access to your spells and magical items, at all broken?

      • Moon Druid path is not max CR 1… it’s max CR 1/3 of your druid level. At level 10, it’s not just beasts, but also 4 pretty powerful CR 5 elementals. At level 18, you can cast spells in wildshape form, and at level 20 you can wildshape an infinite # of times, as a BONUS action. So every round you can spend a bonus action to turn into a CR 5 or 6 creature with around 100HP, do your attack(s), and then see if they can do at least 100 points of damage to you to touch your actual druid HP before you re-up and shift forms again, resetting your beast HP to 100ish.

        Also, many beast forms (and elemental forms) have features that are near impossible for PCs to get normally. For instance, the Beast form attacks that auto-grapple (croc, constrictor snake, & giant versions of both) also Restrain. Elementals are immune to many conditions & some damage types. You lose a bit on to-hit vs, say, a lvl 20 fighter, but the infinite temp HP makes up for it.

  13. I don’t understand the comment about the cover wrapping around the spine…?

    • I think this means that the spine isn’t all black-with-red-flame-logo, and that a thin sliver of the front (and rear?) cover art is visible when the book is shelved.

      I’m not sure that this is caused by the last-minute page-count change: my two copies of the PHB both show the same thing, and that book was not resized late in production as far as I know.

  14. Jackson_Williams says:

    Really good review. I can’t wait to get my hands on the book I’ve heard so much about!
    Also, this is a staple for 5e more so than 4e, because adventures like Hoard of the Dragon Queen require you to refer to the MM for monster stats, which never happened in 4e save random encounters, which are not compulsory in adventures m

  15. Absolutely want to echo the other commenters: Fantastic review!

    I’ve also heard some of the talk about not having as much variety with monsters past CR/Level 5 or 6. (Something The Escapist mentioned in their review.) I don’t think this is such a problem either. Just like you mention in your “ogre” example — monsters are more dangerous in 5e, and they remain so over a much longer period. This is VERY different from previous editions like 3.x/Pathfinder and 4e…and it’s something many other reviewers tend to overlook… Kudos to you for not making that same mistake. 🙂

Trackbacks

  1. […] Monster Manual Index Sorted by Challenge Rating – found in a detailed review of the 5th Edition Monster Manual at Critical Hits. […]

  2. […] Death Knight – from Critical Hits, with a great review of the MM too […]

  3. […] Critical Hits – Includes a link to the appendix the MM should have had, list of monsters by CR […]

  4. […] Thankfully the gaming community has already addressed this oversight. Miek Shea of SlyFlourish has created an index of Monsters by CR. Thanks to Mike for taking care of this so quickly and sharing with the gaming community. You can read Mike’s review of the Monster Manual at Critical Hits. […]

  5. […] Monster Manual Index Sorted by Challenge Rating – found in a detailed review of the 5th Edition Monster Manual at Critical Hits. […]

  6. […] year. While a few posts have brought up the the fact that this table has been missing such as at Critical Hits and that others have stepped in to create tools before the release of the PDF , the omission of […]