I’ve had this book since GenCon Indy actually, having received a shiny new, pre-release copy from the ever-excellent Trevor Kidd, one of my favorite people and recently elevated magister lord to the circle of Brand-omancers at Wizards of the Coast. Why I’ve waited a bit to post a review has two simple explanations: 1) it’s release day! and 2) more art is out and available online, so I can make with the linky-link without scanning anything. So without further ado:
The 5e Monster Manual is a fabulous book. It’s weighty, well-assembled, and has a certain heft that feels appropriate for the world’s most popular roleplaying game. I love the texture too.
The cover features a brilliant illustration by my good friend Raymond Swanland of a beholder (many of whose eyes are pointing directly at you, the reader, which is a nice touch). And . . . wait . . . is that . . .? I think it is.
5e Monster Manual cover, by Raymond Swanland
A woman. Of indiscriminate ethnicity. Wearing headgear reminiscent of a turban. With no visible cleavage. And not touched up.
OMG it’s happening.
WotC’s artistic aesthetic is evolving.
(Shh. Don’t tell anyone.)
The dwarf fighter is pretty cool too.
Also, I’m totally going to interpret the lightning-blasting statue in the background as the Grim Statue, which features into my novel Downshadow. So there. :p
The interior of the book is an experience as well.
The background color is the off-white, faded hue of scrolls kept carefully preserved in a mostly-airtight scroll case in the grip of a skeleton impaled through the chest by a spike at the bottom of a cleverly disguised pit trap.
The illustrations are those of a widely traveled multi-class bard/ranger and gourmand who has borne witness to the awesome terror of these beasts and set down their glory in color. Some are sharp and distinct, some blurry (demons, invisible stalker) because that’s how they look when you’re standing against them, sword trembling in your hand, hoping not to die. All are mature and look like they’re drawn for hardened adventurers—the cartoony aesthetic that often prevailed in previous Monster Manuals (ahem, 4e) is gone. There are also little sketches of many of the creatures that highlight a specific spot or show an alternative view from a different angle, things like that. See the Piercer for the best example (no art online of it yet, but when you check out the book, you’ll see what I mean).
And IMO, the art generally doesn’t have sexist/racist problems, as it has in some past products. The Pixie, the Harpy, and the Succubus are probably the most risque of the images in this book, and they’re fairly tame.
Pixie, 5e Monster Manual
(Do we need to see that much of her belly? I for one don’t, but hey, YMMV.)
This book also sees a return to what I *loved* about Monster Manuals of the past, which is to put in all manner of information about the various ecologies, motivations, habitats, origins, etc., of the monsters. For a while there, D&D had a tendency to boil monsters down almost entirely to what they could do in combat, and this provides a vast amount of flavorful context, all attached to short phrases that make it easy to remember. For instance:
“Obsessive Collectors. Red dragons value wealth above all else, and their treasure hoards are legendary. They covet anything of monetary value, and can often judge the worth of a bauble to within a copper piece at a glance. A red dragon has a special affection for treasure claimed from powerful enemies it has slain, exhibiting that treasure to prove its superiority.” (5e Monster Manual p 99, Red Dragon entry)
It goes on, but the point is that you don’t have to remember all those details—you can just stick the mnemonic “obsessive collectors” in your mind, and it will remind you of those things.
There are also the occasional little green boxed text that tell you about examples of the creatures in WotC’s various campaign worlds, much how in the PHB there are examples of heroes from those worlds. It’s a nice flavorful touch that inspires ideas and stirs the creativity.
This is great monster design, and I’m so glad to see WotC embrace it.
Also, the statblocks are simplified, straight-forward, and easy to figure out on the fly. Basic statistics, some notes about interacting with them (in combat and otherwise), a list of actions and reactions that monsters can take, and you’re good.
I look forward to running some of these beasties.
MY THREE FAVORITE MONSTROUS BITS
Because three is a powerful number, I picked my three favorite monsters from the Monster Manual to highlight:
Death Knight, 5e Monster Manual
1) Death Knight
Man, I love these guys. The narrative construct surrounding them—the hero fallen from grace through his or her own folly—is fascinating and limitlessly compelling to me. They’re also fun to throw at players, and the 5e Death Knight does not disappoint in that regard (giant fireball, BOOM!). Also, it’s Lord Soth, who is the sample character in the little paragraph. How metal is that?
Succubus, 5e Monster Manual
Incubus, 5e Monster Manual
2) Succubus and Incubus
So these creatures are pretty classic and OMG SHE HAS CLOTHES ON.
And LOOK HOW HOT THAT DUDE IS.
This is an example of WotC doing art right. It’s tasteful, obviously a bit sexualized without being porn, and it’s equal opportunity for the male and female gazes. Beautiful.
Kraken, 5e Monster Manual
Release it! This thing is radically warped and weirded out from its previous iterations, but I still love it. Check out that art.
Shadow, 5 Monster Manual
OK, I lied. FOUR favorites. I love this art. Just check that out.
3 TPK MOMENTS!
It’s not all fun and games until the monsters win initiative. There are a few things I’m not entirely sold on about the Monster Manual, and I think they’re a source of some good discussion and thought. Here are three of my concerns:
1) Dracolich and Shadow Dragon are both dragon templates you can add to any dragon
The Dracolich (a concept created by Ed Greenwood for the Forgotten Realms) used to be its own sort of monster, until gradually it became a template in 3e (much like lichdom could be slapped on to any character you built), so it’s not surprising to see that it’s still a template in 5e. All good there.
The Shadow Dragon, on the other hand, was its own sort of creature in 3e (a subterranean dweller, which is odd because there aren’t really that many shadows where there’s no light and—ok, let’s just roll with it), and now it’s been redefined to be any dragon that has basked too long in the chilling world of shadow just on the other side of the mirror.
(Which mirror? The mirror of shadows, duh.) Thus allowing shadowstuff to infuse it.
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I wrote a third of The Shadowfell: Gloomwrought and Beyond campaign setting, so I know all about 4e’s Shadowfell (the evolution of the demiplane of shadow), and while I personally think it is awesome, I can understand how this might throw some people.
2) No nymph.
What? No NYMPH?
Meh, maybe MM2.
Modrons compilation, 5e Monster Manual
3) The Modrons look really cartoony/bizarre.
I’m not a fan of modrons myself, have never used them in a game, and probably never will, but I know others whose tastes vary. Their inclusion in the Monster Manual isn’t a thing. But why did they have to look like a Tim Burton acid trip? I’ll post them here, and you can decide for yourself.
If you’re playing this game, buy this thing.
If you’re just a fan of fantasy, check this out. Even if you never play D&D 5e, it’s still a cool book to look through and read—the flavor makes it a fun read just in general.
So what are you waiting for? Here’s the Amazon link:
Buy me, or I will eye-ray you!