At Gencon, WOTC had some advanced copies of the Monster Manual, and they were kind enough to provide me with one. I won’t be sharing any images or anything from it (which is a shame, because the art is amazing) but I may have a few words to say about it.
Before anything else, I’m going to get my one big complaint about the Monster Manual out of the way so I can get on to the enthusiasm.
It is annoying that there is no table of monsters by Challenge Rating (CR). When I actually sat down to use it in play, I quickly discovered that I had no real way to go “I want to put together a challenge for a party of 3rd level characters. What are my options?”.
This is frustrating. And just as people have already done with the spells-by-class, sometime after release an enterprising soul will no doubt put this information into a google spreadsheet, but it is not a good thing when we are driven to data entry. I sincerely hope that when this book hits the market and WOTC puts up electronic support docs (which they have been really great about so far) this might be on their list.
There’s a smaller annoyance that the encounter construction rules are held off for the DMG, but that is more a matter of impatience than a real problem. it does suggest that the DMG is going to be more than just the book of hacks, but given that it’s also going to have the rules for magic items, I guess that’s no surprise.
The exterior of this book is designed in the same fashion as the PHB, including the lovely mix of gloss and matte finish on the back that makes the PHB so pleasant to pick up. The fire/banner on the spine is thankfully the same size as the PHB, despite the MM being a thicker book (352 pages, vs the PHB’s 316), but this is accomplished by leaving a bit of space to the sides of the image (some of which is necessary, and would probably not merit mention if I were not already looking).
The cover illustration is less painted than the PHB, but it has a clear sense of action and (surprisingly for a monster book) has characters placed more prominently, albeit running from a quite terrifying looking beholder.
Like the PHB, the range of colors of this piece is rather limited, but where the PHB was lots of red, this is lots of blue-grey. It struck me that if this was intentional, it’s a good trick to differentiate the three core books at a glance. Is it red? PHB. Grey-blue? Monster manual. So, of course, I went online to check out the preview images for the DMG and I guess it looks kind of purplish? Different, I guess, but probably not different enough to suggest the intent that I was looking for.
The trade dress and presentation is identical to the PHB, so I won’t go over that territory again. That said, the interior once again contains the full image used on the cover, which reveals something that maybe I don’t get, lacking any real training in the arts. There seems to be a point that draws the eye, which is basically the lightning strike in the middle of the piece. Looked at as a whole, that is the first thing you see, not the Beholder. Once put on the book, the cover centers on the beholder, and that works, but from that perspective, the lightning (which is close to the spine) distracts more than anything else. It also means we have a situation similar to the PHB where the image on the back cover is something interesting rendered dull by having no color contrast with anything around it.
But lest that sound too picky, let me restate: The Beholder on the cover looks scary as all heck. If it’s not going to be a dragon, then the Beholder is probably the second best choice.
The non-monster content in this book is pretty brief. Title, Credits, Contents, 8 pages of rules and 2 pages of (delightfully illustrated) index. And since most of the rules revolve around how to read a stat block, that seems just about right.
It actually opens with a nicely evocative introduction and explanation of the book which includes an acknowledgment that capturing the history and nature of the game is a “warts and all” kind of process. That may sound critical, but it actually warms my heart, because the simple reality is that monster books are weird, and full of crazy stuff that sometimes makes no sense, and that’s part of the fun.
The section on how to use this book is straightforward enough, but the small bit on “what is a monster” is a nice up front acknowledgment that not everything in these pages is necessarily monstrous, but that they are providing stats for things which potentially can be fought or killed. There might be a bit of an implicit comment in there, but they seem decently straightfaced about it.
The next section is roughly a page about where monsters dwell. It’s nice because while it starts with dungeons and the Underdark, it also includes wilderness, towns & cities, underwater and even the outer planes, offering a handful of colorful examples of dangerous places. This is evocative, and one could absolutely mine it for ideas, but I think it serves a rather different purpose.
4e was very focused on the return to the dungeon, and was at its best when an environment could be represented by a bounded, gridded surface. It was not monomaniacal in this focus – there was still lots of other fun stuff – but it spoke to what the game was good at. This description is basically planting a little bit of a flag in the ground and saying “Dungeons are important, sure, but it’s about the broader sense of wonder. This game might be more about the fact that the dungeon is in the skull of a dead god than the specifics of a particular encounter.
After this we get into the actual stat block information, opening with size. I admit it’s pretty weird that a game which has otherwise moved away from grids describes size in terms of squares. It would be funny if it weren’t actually kind of a pain, because it’s not actually informative in some contexts. Setting aside the fact that it makes horses (and centaurs) square, it means I don’t have a context for how big something oddly shaped like, say, a carrion crawler really is. I guess they did this in the PHB too, but I cared less at the time since I wasn’t trying to actually imagine the monsters just then.
There’s a nice sidebar here about modifying creatures that suggests that we’ll be seeing variants and templates in this book. This intrigues me. Variants are straightforward enough, but templates are a whole other thing – are they talking 3e style templates, where I could turn a kobold into a killing machine by making him vampiric, fiery and arcane? Or something else? I am not sure what to hope for – the old templates were neat, but they totally went weird places, and not always in a good way. We shall see.
Types are general monster categories (Beasts, Constructs, Dragons and so on) and while they have short descriptions, in practice these are keywords to hang other mechanics off of. Clerics and turn undead. Druids can transform into beasts. These categories also can have tags, which are effectively subcategories, so goblin might be a tag on humanoid. These just extend the keyword functionality, so that your dagger of goblin-slaying knows what to slay.
Alignment in the stat blocks is explicitly called out as the default, with the DM free to tweak it as needed. This is nice, and goes hand in hand with the fact that some alignment entries may reflect tendencies (or no tendency at all) rather than just assigning a value. This isn’t something that makes a big difference from scene to scene, but it explicitly opens a door into a more nuanced playspace for players who want less clear cut alignment in their opposition.
Armor Class is what it sounds like, but I admit this is the one thing I skipped ahead on, and checked if the game put its money where its mouth is regarding AC, and it seems it did. The Tarrasque has a 30 and a few powerful extraplanar beings have low 20s, but by and large, ACs remain under 20. So, clearly, there is something to this whole bounded accuracy thing.
Hit points are similarly straightforward, save for one fun gimmick – hit die now correlates directly to size. Tiny creatures roll d4, gargantuan ones d20. I admit, I dig this a lot – a large number of rules to reflect the nuance of size have been stripped out of the game (and rightly so) but this rule provides a simple way to reflect the potency of big creatures (and the relative fragility of pixies and the like) without a lot of extra bookkeeping. Very nice.
Speed is as expected, with notes on other modes of movement (flight, burrowing and so on). No maneuverability classes for flyers, and that’s just as well. I did not need that particular throwback.
Creatures have stats, as they did in 3e, and it’s definitely a convenience (since it allows easy inference of values for ad hocrolls), but this also reveals something very interesting and telling about stats – they seem bounded in a manner similar to armor. That is, the highest stats I’ve seen are 30s, and those are for things like the strength of the Kraken or Tarrasque (Storm Giants are a 29). Scores over 20 are more common for strength than they are for AC, but that feels right, since it’s largely things like the Elephant having a 22 strength. That should be superhuman, but importantly, it’s not vastly superhuman. Bears have a 19 strength, for example – your fighter may literally end up stronger than a bear.
I love this for the simple reason that this actually supports the idea that stats other than 18s might matter. In a universe where a bear has a 19 strength, starting with a 15 or 16 feels a lot less crappy than it does in one where you know your only path to success as a fighter revolves around finding a girdle of giant strength.
The saving throw section is interesting because, as described, it’s not about the bonus but is rather about any modifiers the creature may have. What it says is that in the absence of any information, monster saves are always Stat + Proficiency. This is a little nasty, since it means monsters are better at saves than characters (who only get proficiency for a couple saves). In fact, it was nasty enough that I looked ahead at the monster entries, and I admit to some confusion. Some monsters list some of their saves, and when they do , they’re in keeping with that rule (stat + Prof), but what’s weird is that they don’t list all of their saves in those situations, and I have no idea what that means. For a quick illustration, look at the Beholder, whose save entry is “Int +8, Wis +7, Cha +8”. Those numbers are correct for stat+prof, but I don’t know why the others aren’t mentioned. Is it implicitly supposed to not be getting proficiency with the ones not listed? That seems at odds with this paragraph (and the fact that many monsters list no saves, as this describes), so I’m definitely confused.
EDIT: I misunderstood something in my read of the saving throws section. Good clarification is in the comments.
Speaking of proficiency bonuses, yes, monsters use them too, and they use the same table as characters, albeit extended up to level 30 (interesting, that). This is relevant for saves, skills (yes, monsters have skills) and attacks, but I appreciate it most as a multitool. When in doubt, if a monster is doing something appropriate to its monster-ness, it’s good to have a general bonus to apply.
Monster senses are what one might expect. Blindsight, darkvision, tremorsense and truesight. If anything, the list seems short. Languages are also self-explanatory, though there’s a nice note about telepathy here.
Challenge Rating was the part I was most curious to see, but it turns out it works almost like it previously did. The baseline is similar – 4 characters of level X compares to CR X – but the difference seems to be resources. Where previously it seemed to say that an equivalent CR encounter should burn about 20% of your resources, 5e seems to suggest it’s a bit tougher than that, with the yardstick being “not deadly”.
To me, at least, that suggests the cost may be rather more than 20%. It’s also consistent with my general sense of CRs being more potent at lower levels, as well as my sense that it’s not quite so precise a game of resource management anymore.
Also, if there’s an underlying math to the XP reward by CR, I admit it eludes me. But more is better, and that’s what counts.
Now we start getting into the special stuff. Spellcasting and powers, distinguishing innate spellcasting from actual magic use, which largely follows the casting rules that players use. There’s a fascinating little note about psionics – it’s just a tag on other spellcasting abilities with no mechanical impact (except removing the need for material components) but I know many of us are curious what’s behind that door.
We also get the basics of attacks, including multiattacks and ammunition. There’s a very interesting distinction made between a “creature” and a “target” which is apparently relevant for some attacks, but I’ll have to see the critters to really get that one (though I assume it’s related to property damage).
There are also sraightforward rules for powers limited by X/day or Recharge X (roll as d6 at star of cycle, if you roll X, power recharges). I admit, I’m curious if any monsters have exclusive recharge values (so death ray recharges on a 3–4, flame blast on a 5–6) but I guess I’ll have to see.
There are also some notes about equipment, but I breezed by them because the next section looks really interesting. It’s about Legendary creatures, and it looks to describe legendary actions and lair actions. These had been obliquely mentioned in the PHB (largely as things you could not replicate with spells), so I was super curious.
Legendary actions are, apparently, a limited set of actions that a legendary creature can take outside of their normal turn, explicitly after another character has taken a turn. This seemed interesting, but hard to envision, so I looked at a few legendary critters to get a sense of it. A dragon, for example might have three legendary actions – make a perception check, attack with his tail and buffet with his wings. He takes his action during the fight, then Mindy the Mighty whacks the dragon with his sword. At the end of Mindy’s turn, the Dragon might opt to buffet Mark, knocking him away. Next, Sam the Swift plants a few arrows in the creature. At the end of her turn, the Dragon can take another legendary action – it can make a tail attack or take a perception check, but it can’t do another wing buffet until it’s taken another turn
Obviously, this is very powerful. Any kind of extra action can substantially impact a fight, so at first glance, this seems very whoah. But the trick is in the timing. This is not – in total – many more actions than creatures like ancient dragons got in past editions, but previously they were all front loaded, so the dragon’s turn was just a big explosion of dice rolling which was lethal, but sometimes cumbersome. Spreading these things out throughout the fight keeps the dragon dangerous, but prevents that moment of “ok, it’s the dragon’s turn, I’m going to get drinks”. And as a bonus, by spreading it out throughout the fight, it makes the initiative order still feel dynamic because even if it’s a party up against a single enemy, the action remains in motion.
All in all? Great tech. And flexible. For all that it’s applied to huge creatures, there’s nothing to keep it from being used at lower levels to reflect interesting and dangerous adversaries, especially if the legendary actions aren’t attacks. This is tech I really look forward to seeing deployed in interesting ways.
And speaking of tech, I am even more intrigued by the legendary’s creature’s lair, which has two elements: Lair Actions and Regional Effects.
As described, they sound quite dry. On initiative count 20, the legendary creature can use some magical feature of its lair, presumably to do something cool. Hard to say exactly what those look like from this description, but I’m flashing back to Vesicant (one of my favorite Dungeon adventures) and thinking about how it might apply, and the prospect intrigues.
Regional effects seem to be a mechanization of something that was already part of the color of some creatures – when a Green Dragon sets up camp, its corrupts the forest, etc. Again, hard to see what’s exciting about them from this description, but I’m curious to see some examples.
And, I should not (to look ahead a bit) having seen examples of lair actions and regional effects, all I can say is HOLY CRAP, AWESOME. But for that, we need to actually get to the monsters, and that is something for tomorrow.
Now, all that said, it’s worth noting what’s missing from these rules – standard elements. There is no page of rules for comon effects like regeneration or specific flavors of damage resistance, no default skills for particular creature types, not even default rules for types (like undead being immune to charm or sleep).
If you’re used to the 3e manner of creating monsters, this seems unintuitive and wasteful. Standardizing monster abilities allows you to streamline monster creation and balance by just cranking out templates, and without that standardization, each monster needs to have everything written in from scratch. That’s a lot more work.
However, one could make the case that the downside of the template model is that it can be a little bit dull – the value of consistency makes it hard to make a monster that deviates from the norm. If monsters are built as one-offs, then you need to make each one interesting, and while that’s more work, it can produce unexpected results (hopefully, in a good way).
Which approach is better is largely a matter of taste, but the absence of standardization is a really interesting decision and an explicit step away from 3e and, arguably, an explicit step towards the 2e model (one could argue that it’s in the direction of 4e, but 4e had its own flavors of standardization).
Still getting my head around the implications of this, but this is something that I’m going to keep in my back pocket as I read through the monsters and look at recurring patterns to see just how standard or non-standard this really is.
- I know there’s actually a preview of some DMG content up online, but I have not yet looked, and won’t until I finish the MM. Because reasons. ↩
- Huh. In fact, no dragons on any of the core 3 books (unless there’s one on the back cover of the DMG). That’s a curious choice. ↩
- And here I note: The first D&D product I ever bought for myself was a copy of the Monster Manual at Waldenbooks. I had gotten the red box as a gift, but knew that there was also an “advanced” dungeons and dragons, and I wanted to get me some of that. But having no idea where to begin, I bought the one that looked cool. And I loved it. ↩
- Yes, maybe I’m reading a bit too much into it, but this is definitely in line with my play so far too. ↩