Looking over these monster entries remind me a bit of the Monstrous Compendium entries from 2e, where there was a lot of lore surrounding every creature. However, the problem with those entries is that they could end up feeling like lore for lore’s sake, rather than something immediately applicable to play. Subsequent editions have improved that focus, so that when the reigns are loosened a bit to bring back in the lore, it seems a lot more productive. It also probably helps that while these entries are all in even page multiples (which is super nice for reading) they are of variable length, so there’s no necessity to pad.
Also, while I’ll talk more about the art in general once I’m done, I have to say that it’s gorgeous and there’s a lot of it. There are only a handful of places in the book where you won’t find at least one great, colorful image on the pages you’ve opened to, and in many cases, you’ll see multiple pictures. It’s really good looking.
Aarakocra – I will always have a soft spot in my my heart for these bird men thanks to the Dragon article about using them as a playable race. The idea of dive bombing with javelins more than made up for the whole “claustrophobia – can’t go in dungeons” thing, and one of my favorite made-but-unused characters was an Aarakocra crewman on a pirate ship.
Nostalgia aside, this is a short entry – a single page without a lot of bells and whistles – but it offers a solid view into the nature of these entries. The stat block is pretty much by the numbers (no save bonuses at all) though there are a few interesting nuances. Their flight speed is 50, which is pretty darn fast, and their only listed language is Auran, so if they’re encountered, there will probably be a named translator. They’re CR 1/4, so they’re really “Normal people” in a very strange sort of way. They’re tactically flexible, with ranged and melee attacks, and combined with their superior mobility this suggests that while they’re no great challenge in a stand up fight (low AC, ok hit points), they could still be a dangerous adversary. 5e doesn’t have 4e’s ‘skirmisher’ category, but that’s definitely what these guys are. 
There’s also a sidebar about their ability to summon Air elementals which underscores that tactical assessment. If outgunned, they have every reason to withdraw and call allies.
The actual background ties them closely to the elemental plane of air, and puts forward that the places they select to live in the prime are places close to that home plane, an if they’re away from there, then they’re scouting for forces of elemental evil. That’s cool, and they could leave it there, but in the span of a few words, they scatter the entry with seeds.
See, the Aarakocra serve the Wind Dukes of Aaqa, who are members of an elemental race called vaati who, apparently, once ruled a multiversal empire, and warred with The Queen of Chaos, and they killer her greatest general (Mishka the Wolf Spider) by stabbing him with the Rod of Law, which broke into 7 pieces and scattered across the multiverse, and the Aarakora seek it to this day as The Rod of Seven Part.
Take a minute to look at that paragraph. It’s kind of amazing. First and foremost, this is full of nods for the lore geeks. For me, The Rod of Seven Parts was one of the artifacts in 1e D&D, the ones where they had blanks for powers that the DM was expected to fill in for their campaign , but for the truly hardcore, it’s the thing from Eldritch Wizardry. The rod has also appeared in adventures and novels, and I suspect at least some of this lore is in line with that.
But that’s unimportant. Nods to lore are great, but look at it in a purely functional way. In the span of a paragraph or so in the entry of a not-very-important monster, we’ve vastly expanded our game universe. We now know there are wind dukes, that they’re a mysterious race and used to have an empire, that there was (maybe still is) a Queen of Chaos who doesn’t like such things, and we find out about the Rod. That is a lot of stuff. Hell, I could put the book down right away, take just those seeds, and run a pretty good campaign. And that’s just the first monster.
And these guys don’t have arms separate from their wings.
Aboleth – Just as the Aarakocra ave shown us what can be done with a simple monster entry, the Aboleth gives us a good example of what “boss” monsters can look like, as they have legendary and lair actions.
If you don’t recall, Aboleths are large oozy tentacled fish-things which use telepathy and mind control to build up a collection of minions, and who have unpleasant disease attacks that do things like make you oozy too. They are as unpleasant as they sound.
Aboleths are always a weird critter (in several senses of the word) because their alphabetical positioning gives them great prominence, but they’re pretty much perpetual b-listers. I admit, I always steer clear of them because I don’t like using mind control against my PCs, especially since Aboleth mind control is largely open ended and their disease attacks are just brutal.
But the flipside is that their lore is awesome. As a species, they predate the gods, and pretty much ruled little private kingdoms around their respective puddles. The ascension of the gods drove them into the depths, and they still resent it, because they’re basically immortal and possessed of perfect recall. Again, this is just dripping with plot hooks. On some level, I am less drawn to using one as a boss monster than I am to using them as NPCs or an evil conspiracy once players are in the low teens.
Mechanically, the legendary actions are ok but hardly exciting. Make a perception check, make a tail attack or drain some hit points from a thrall. Enough to jazz up the fight.
But where it gets interesting is that this gets us a chance to see lair effects, and they seem much more interesting. As lair actions, the Aboleth can create illusions (something which dovetails well with their ability to see a target’s greatest desire), cause water to surge out an try to drown passersby or use water as a conduit for psychic attacks. These are all very cool and vivid, and in 4e terms, these are wonderful signature elements for the fight scene with the Aboleth. Players will learn to stay away from the water while the Aboleth and minions will try to force them into it (or they may already be in it, since the Aboleth is aquatic, after all).
But even more cool are the regional effects. When an Aboleth sets up camp, things within a mile radius get slimy, the water goes bad, and the Aboleth can send projections of itself forth via the water. Just as the legendary action frame out how the fight will go, these give a great frame to how the adventure will go. The signals of the Aboleth’s presence are plot hooks in and of themselves, so they can provide motivation, but they also color the adventure.
I am going to be curious how people receive these lair effects. In a strictly mechanical sense, they’re arbitrary, and they very much indicate that monsters operate by different rules than characters (something which may be hard for the 3e perspective to swallow). But adventure-wise, they basically give leeway to do the kinds of stuff that adventures have always done (make walls slimy!) without needing to come up with some sort of tortured explanation. I have to say, I really dig them and can’t wait to see more.
Ok, if I do that deep a dive on every monster, this review will never end, so they’re going to get a little more terse from here on out, now that I’ve talked about HOW this stuff is presented in addition to the actual presentation.
Angels provide our first example of a multiple creature – one description, then three monster entries (Deva, Planetar and Solars). The lore here is ok, but excepting an aside on fallen angels, it’s largely a straightforward job descriptions. They run the gamut of power, CR 10, 16 and 21 respectively. At CR 21,
Planetars Solars are one of the more potent creatures in the book, and have an AC of 21, so they’re pretty clearly serious about that.
Animated Objects are fun. If you want more generic animated object, the spell has guidelines (which I regret could not be reprinted here, presumably for space reasons) so this entry focuses on the classics – animated armor, flying swords and rugs of smothering.
Notably, their construct nature only explicitly means they don’t need air, food, drink or sleep. The other benefits of constructs are called out in the individual stat blocks, largely under condition and damage immunities. These are consistent enough that they could have made them blanket rules, but they’d probably have just had to put that information in the stat block anyway, so I think I’m liking this approach.
Ankheg is a classic I’m happy to see. CR 2, hunters of livestock, slow burrowers with an ok AC (which become crappy if you can flip them over), solid damage and acid spray? What’s not to love. They’re basically perfectly designed to make for a fun but challenging low level encounter between dungeon runs, possibly to help ingratiate the heroes with the townsfolk.
That said, it’s not an exciting entry. Like the Aarakocra entry, this is a single page monster, but it is much less rich in content (though the art is far less striking). It has some information that might be useful in an actual encounter, but even that is a little thin.
Azer on the other hand, are Aarakocra-comparable in their richness (and entry size). Flaming headed dwarves, sure, but they have a whole history outlined that tells us about the City of Brass and suggests a cold war between the Efreet and the Azer. More, we get just enough information about Azer reproduction and capabilities as smiths to suggest numerous plot hook. I admit, Azer have largely been an afterthought for me in past games, but now I absolutely want them to have a role in my Planescape game.
And that’s it for the A’s. Tomorrow we’ hopefully reach the D’s, the biggest block in the book.
- I’m not going to deconstruct every stat block this way, but I wanted to illustrate that the stat block are, while dry, still rich enough that you can draw some useful inferences from them. ↩