Game Review: D&D 5th Edition Monster Manual

Monster Manual

I bet you’re getting tired of the Monster Manual image, right? Luckily for you, this will be the last time I use it! (Well, until I do another rambling about monsters that is!) In fact, this is the last entry for my “D&D Month.” While I’ll always jabber about RPGs every now and then, this month was something special for me. I can happily say I truly got back into RPGs this month. Sure, I on/off playtested D&D Next, did a couple Savage Worlds one-shots, played some Call of Cthulhu once every couple months, and ran Encounters for D&D, but I really want to actively play again. Maybe 5e inspired that in me or something else, I don’t know.

But, enough rambling, we’re here for a Bestiary of truly scary Beasties! I’m talking about the D&D 5th Edition Monster Manual of course! This book details all sorts of monster both very familiar and somewhat obscure. You’ll see some old favorites and some oddballs that exist in scattered parts of the multiverse. But, since it’s just a book about monsters, why should the fans care so much about the Monster Manual?

To begin, the book addresses the world of monsters! What are they? What purpose do they serve in the D&D game? And one thing that hasn’t been touched upon in recent versions, their environment. In fact, the introduction goes on about the various environments that monsters may dwell and tidbits on where they might be hiding. It’s certainly a lot more interesting than a 1 word – 1 sentence token tidbit on what a monster might prefer. Here, we even have a bundle of adventure seeds to inspire use of these crazy critters. Personally, I’ve always been fond of bringing ecology into the world of fantastical creatures.

Beyond the whos and whats of monster-kind, we have a break down of the crunchy stuff. While fluff is always a welcome portion of a table top RPG, we gotta dive into the mechanical bits to make sure it’s playable. Well, usable by the DM at least. The stat block is broken down into how big/small a creature is, what “type” of creature it is, its alignment, attack/hp/defense/abilities, and the reward/challenge that players get for facing it (typically in combat.) All around, it’s a pretty thorough breakdown. As someone who LOVES to craft homebrew, it makes things a little easier for designing with 5th edition in mind. But, I wish it was a bit more in depth. I’m by no means a professional designer and would have liked the gritty details in effort to better understand what I’m doing. But, since 5e is really good for improvising on the fly, this isn’t too big of a problem for me.

Now that we’ve gotten past the early stuff, it’s time for the real fun of this book… I’m talking about the monsters themselves! As the index will tell you, there’s a huge handful of wonderful creatures to choose from. From the Aarakocra to the Zombie, you have quite the expansive list. There’s a nice mixture of classic favorites and more obscure cult hits. While it’s neat to have the essentials like Mind Flayers, Beholders, Vampires, and the like; it’s awesome to see Yugoloths, Slaadi, and Modrons get spot light too! If you read my previous D&D posts, you can sense I’m a bit biased on that matter. For almost any occasion, this book has a monster for you to use in an encounter. And if it doesn’t have what you need, this book provides options to kitbash and create something else to fit your needs. Truly, this matches the toolbox aspect that D&D 5th edition is aiming for!

In terms of aesthetic, this book has much more consistency than the player’s handbook. Upon looking it over again, the PHB is kind of a mess in terms of art. There’s a lot of different styles colliding in a way that’s more acceptable for a 3rd party product using stock art. However, there’s one very striking style throughout the Monster Manual. Each monster looks bold and intimidating without the edgy comic book styling of Wayne A Reynolds. As many readers of mine know, I do not like the style of “WAR” as he’s known in some groups. This style seems much cleaner and more in line with how I’d imagine a traditional D&D style. Albeit, this is a traditional style that has been updates to the current decade. In a sense, I compare the art to 5th edition’s core rules. It has the classic feel, but it’s modernized as well.

In reference to the crunchier stuff, it took me a little while to figure out some of the level mechanics for monsters. One thing I enjoyed from 4th edition was the ease of encounter design. It’s still pretty easy to figure out encounters for 5th edition, but they upped the complexity a little bit. In a sense, it resembles the streamlined Pathfinder approach to encounters. All of the monsters themselves have atmospheric bits beyond the descriptive lore. For example, the demilich has a letter addressed from Acererak himself! Meanwhile, the vampire has the words of Count Strahd himself! Personally, I was hoping for the “Hail to thee of might and valor” letter myself, but no biggie.

As for the creatures themselves, some were written to be either way more powerful or weaker than I thought they should be. For example, the vampire would kill parties well below level 15 without too much trouble. To me, that feels more like a high level “Vampire Lord” (or lady), since there’s a big jump down to the vampire spawn. Meanwhile, lycanthropes aren’t that intimidating by comparison. I dunno how I could scare a Ravenloft party with the stats as written. Also, I remember Modrons being a bit more difficult and fortified in the past. Granted, this seems to be a carry over from 3rd edition’s write up. And really, shouldn’t a demilich be stronger than a regular lich? A demilich has sacrificed its body for more cosmic-oriented power, not because it went senile and hid in a cave! Also consider that liches are inherently more powerful than the strongest demons available in this book as well.

There’s a few other mechanical aspects that make me scratch my head as well. The Umber Hulk’s ability to dig through solid rock at a rate that sounds like something out of an old Warner Brothers’ cartoon kinda baffles me as well, but that’s mechanical fluff with no major consequences. Same goes for monsters that can petrify. Maybe it’s because I was raised on AD&D, but if you’re petrified, you’re stuck until you can be restored! One more thing I wanna get out is that I’m a biased Planescape fanboy, so I still hate their decisions with incubi/succubi… but, WizBro will never make me happy. Other than some other nitpicks that shouldn’t be too hard to fix on my own, I haven’t really seen too much in the MM that really irks me in terms of game mechanics.

That said, there is a lot that I like in terms of mechanics. Absurd monsters like Flumph have become interesting and viable options instead of just a mockery of the game. That’s right, they have become truly badass flying pita bread slices! (Although, paizo did a smashing job too.) And speaking of impossible, they made kobolds amazing! Yes, KOBOLDS! Tucker’s Kobolds can be unleashed in full force thanks to the fact that through the buddy system, they can unleash hell via advantage on their opponents. Now, imagine a swarm of those little devils! Not so funny now, eh? Plus, as I mentioned before, yugoloths/daemons are back! In fact, they made them significantly weaker than both demons and devils. This makes quite a bit of sense, since they hide from both and attempt to turn the two against each other. Another thing that makes me happy is dinosaurs. Although they’ve rarely come up, it’s good to see a big list of Jurassic giants ready to stomp around in your games! Plus, all of them are viable threats throughout most of the players’ levels, as it should be.

While lower leveled monsters have tons of variety to choose from, things will get more and more scarce as the levels climb. Granted, a lot of gamers won’t get to high levels that quickly (unless the DM makes it so), so there’s still plenty to choose from. But, at the moment, types of monsters get more and more thin as players become stronger. For the most part, it’s the “ubers” in the undead realm, dragons, and fiends/celestials for high level games. I’m sure there will be more to choose from later on, but that’s what we’re pretty much left with at the moment.

But, the few that make it to the top are incredible none the less. In fact, they have unique “Legendary mechanics” that further define them. This samples the “solos” of 4th edition while making them less problematic and metagamey from the DM’s perspective. These special powers allow them to brutally ravage an unlucky foe or allow them to make it all the more challenging for players to topple them. There is no more “Save versus Derp” spells shorting out a boss fight or relying on the boss landing one really lucky hit to worry about now! In fact, their legendary presence is so impacting, that they literally effect the realms around them. Carrion eaters and decaying trees may appear around a lich’s tower, while kobolds will swarm the areas around a dragon’s cave. All around, that’s some pretty awesome flavor to work with.

All in all, the Monster Manual is packed with a great look and great flavor. While I personally disagree on some choices for the monsters, they’re presented in an easy to use manner that’s all ready to go from the start. Almost everything in this book grabs you in one way or another!

I give the D&D 5th Edition Monster Manual a 8 freshly inked tomes out of 10!

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