Monthly Archives: September 2014

Discerning Dungeons

Ran Dungeon World last night, dealing with a little bit of the aftermath of the last session, a fight among poison gas, and bringing one of the groups that had been in the background much more strongly to the forefront. Despite a decent fight in the middle, it was a fairly low key session. Some of that was a consequence of really fantastic dice luck all around the table. I think I handed out maybe 2 points of failure XP over the course of the night, which is unprecedentedly low for this group.

Some of that was luck, but as I review it, part of it is a consequence of a technique I tried.

I have a very rocky relationship with Discern Realities as a move. When it works, it works well, and it can be a wonderful way to kickstart a slow scene, but it’s not always a good match for the actual situation in play. This issue comes up most often when issues of misinformation, deception and knowledge are in play, and I’ve tried a few different solutions to it.

Last night I opted to trust the move more, and pretty much forgo rolls in almost all information-gathering situations or situations where the characters information might be incomplete, opting instead to just answer. There were still one or two Discern Reality rolls, but they were appropriate to the situation.

Doing this went quite smoothly, which should be an argument in its favor, but I found it was not, at least for me. It reduced the overall number of rolls which, in turn, reduced the number of times things went wrong, which is rather critical to maintaining the pace of DW from my perspective.

Now, knowing that, I could probably compensate by upping the throttle on other rolls to offset it, but I’m leery of that solution. See, it’s worth noting that the other factor in play was that there were 6 players last night, which is a little on the high side. With a smaller group, it’s not hard to narrow down the focus of play and drive things forward with the dice, but a larger group is subject to action imbalances which I try to avoid. This is a big reason why I like informational rolls for a large group – when things go wrong, it’s often a lot easier to spread the repercussions around, especially because the players will often do the work for you.

This would also be less of an issue if I was not also looking to the dice for inspiration, but part of the appeal of Dungeon World is to enter with 25% of a plan and a confidence that the dice will fill in the gaps. That depends on a certain amount of frequency of rolling (especially out of combat) so I suspect I will keep my flawed understanding of information gathering. Not because it’s the right approach, but because it aligns with my needs at the table.

Representation and Understanding

The question of “What is the absolute least game necessary?” is a really interesting one to me, since the answer is a sort of progression.

The first answer is a mechanical one, and the answer is something like Risus, where everything boils down to a simple mechanical expression of an idea. The second answer is to go “no game!”, and just tell stories, but that gets it interesting wrong. “No game” only works on top of a set of assumptions, and the only questions is whether those assumptions are spoken or unspoken.

These assumptions might affect the form of activity (no cancellation, yes and, take turns) or it might involve assumptions about the content of the story (this is a Superman story, and we both know how Superman works). Ideally, it’s a bit of both.

That latter part is fascinating to consider, but difficult to discuss. If you’re a Superman nerd, then you may have already asked yourself “but which Superman?”. And that’s a valid question – if you’re thinking Man of Steel and I’m thinking Bruce Timm, then our shared understanding is rather lacking in understanding.

Thinking about it this way has undercut my understanding of why we have mechanics. Historically, I have thought as mechanics as primarily representational, and secondarily communication. To put that in concrete terms, we give superman a Strength stat of, say, 100. 100 strength means, say, “able to lift a skyscraper”. That 100 strength represents a specific value, and I can then use that to determine other relative values – If Superman has a 100 Strength, then Aquaman has a 50 strength, and can throw a car.[1]

This representation becomes value when I think of a new character and I think to myself “he can throw a truck, so he’s stronger than Aquaman, but not as Strong as Superman, let’s say Strength 60”. But then it gets taken in a very different direction when we invert the logic, and say “ok, I have spent 60 points on strength – how strong does that make me?”

If we go in the other direction, the reason we give Superman a 100 Strength is so that you can I can have a discussion as to how strong Superman is, and by assigning a value, we (hopefully) bring our understanding in line. Now, when we tell this story about Superman, we’re on the same page. In this context, the purpose of system is to reach understanding.

Now, the facile thing to say here would be to say “System doesn’t matter, understanding matters” but that would be very short sighted. There is a lot more to game design than just the representational slice, and system does lots of other things.

But if understanding is a conscious priority, it changes the role of system. It also lays bare a lot of the technical elements at work when someone says that a good GM is less reliant on system – in this particular context, a good GM is one who has a refined understanding of her player’s perspective and direction.

All of which comes back to the question of the least amount of game necessary. If the GM is (successfully) filling in the understanding step, then you may well need no further game. But that also may make you all more enthusiastic to engage what system you use because you can see it clearly. That is, you seek the system that can improve things for your great GM. Like a great craftsman, the GM doesn’t need all the fancy tools to do the work, but given the choice, the tools she will use are the best ones (for her).

Practically, this is on my mind as I have been thinking about whether or not dice modifiers are necessary at all. Imagine a system where you roll a single df. On a + things go well, on a 0 they go ok, on a – they go poorly.[2] Let’s say we have a game with Superman and Batman. If everyone involved has a shared understanding, then we don’t need to give them Strength stats – Superman is stronger, and even if he rolls poorly, that remains true. Batman is never going to smash a mountain with his fist, no matter who well he rolls. It is only a lack of understanding that demands stats.

So the question is, of course, how else to come to understanding?

  1. Technically, I want two or three values to get that relative value. Suppose Supes has that 100 strength and a normal person has a “1”. That suggests a different scheme than if a normal person has a “10”. It’s hard to understand a progression from a single point, but that’s a little tangential.  ↩
  2. Perhaps not by coincidence, Fred and I have both been experimenting with games with our very young children that are in this general space.  ↩

Speed as Scale

One of my favorite things about playing Silver Age Sentinels (a supers game) was that mobility came cheap. It was easy and inexpensive to make a hero who could be anywhere on the battlefield, which made combat feel wonderfully dynamic and fast moving. This pops into my mind as I watch Anime like Naruto and Bleach, where big jumps and disappearing and reappearing are just part of the color of the conflict, and I think about representing that.

I was thinking along those lines when I considered ninja vs. Godzilla fights. The ninja mobility makes it possible for them to fight a much larger opponent because they can zip in and hit, and the creature needs to actively try to hit them. if they were on the ground, at normal speed, the creature would incidentally crush them, but their mobility allows them to make a fight of it.[1]

That got me thinking that maybe the trick is not to represent that kind of mobility as speed, but rather, as scale. The ninja’s speed lets it operate at the same scale as the monster, making ti a fair-ish fight[2].

All well and good, but this lead to another interesting implication – if it’s scale, then it’s more of a passive ongoing effect, and perhaps that is better represented as a zone of control rather than movement per se. That is to say, a ninja (or whatever) has a functional space which they can move freely within. No rules or checks, they can just describe it.

If we were talking in Fate terms, let’s say the smallest version of this is tactical speed – the ninjas zone of control is, effectively, his zone and any adjacent zones. He can engage any enemy in any of those zones, describe himself vanishing and reappearing, jumping and all these things. Many of his adversaries have the same advantage, so a single exchange may take place across several zones.

But importantly, excepting the reach element, he’s not moving, not in the mechanical sense. He’s still anchored to his starting space unless he moves, in which case his zone of control changes.

Notably, this trivializes almost any boundary, but that’s probably apt, given the way that ninja jump, and it moves combat into the arena of overlapping zones rather than discrete ones.

The idea can scale up. A more badass ninja might have a bigger zone of control (however you choose to define it), limited only by the genre.

This is the sort of thing which, if I allowed, I would allow for everyone, especially since this is effectively foundational for a genre.

Anyway, just a wacky idea.

  1. Though whether they can do enough damage to hurt Godzilla is a whole other question.  ↩

  2. Depending on genre, the ninja operating at that scale may get an implicit combat advantage against non-ninja.  ↩

729 – Introduction

Ok, need to break from monsters for at least a day or two, so here’s a design distraction.

Ok, this is a design I’ve been working on. A conversation on G+ with William Nichols reminded me that I really need to get this down on paper. This has some obvious ancestors (The -World system – World of Dungeons in particular – and Fate) but also some obscure ones (most notably, a superhero game called Above the Earth. After the fact, I realized there’s a little bit of backwards Wushu in there too, which is a bit of unintentional humor). Basically, I don’t pretend to having an original thought anywhere in this, but that’s fine. Anyway, I’m calling it 729 for the moment, at least until it’s done.

I’ll do a fancier writeup later, but for now, let me lay down the bare bones. Core resolution is single roll apocalypse engine – roll 2d6, on a 6- it goes poorly, on a 10+ it goes well, and on a 7–9, the result is mixed. Obviously there will be guidelines and examples and such, but that’s the core. For the moment, assume there will be no moves per se. That might change with time, but for simplicity, there is only a roll, initiated by a question (usually “Can I…” or “What is…”).

The system also assumes the existence of bonus dice. That is, sometimes you might be rolling 3d6, 4d6 or even more. However many dice you roll, you keep the best two (though there may be exceptions later, but we’ll get to that). As an important corollary to that, there are no bonuses, so you’ll never be adding anything.

Your character “sheet” is just some true stuff about your character. This is pretty open ended – it might be a description, an aspect list, a class, or whatever. Largely depends on audience. One way or another, this is what is true about your character. When it’s relevant to a roll, you can describe its interaction with the roll, and grab a free bonus die. So if you’re a “ninja” and you do something sneaky, you describe that you do it “like a ninja” and get to roll 3d6 and call it a day.[1] The exact details of the descriptors don’t matter a lot, and this is intentional. That said, it completely works with Tinyfate.

With this, you are almost ready to start play. When play begins, each player grabs 10d6 (either the white ones you get in bulk, or use one of those chessex pools). This is their “effort” pool, and whether it represents willpower, luck, determination, divine will, experience, opportunity or narrative power is an intentionally unanswered question, especially as the answer may change from situation to situation.


In play, a character can spend dice from the effort pool to improve a roll. Dice spent in this way are lost. Physically toss them back into the reserve bowl that they came out of. But if a roll matters, then spend some effort on it. Best practice is that the use of effort must be tied into the fiction, but the reality is that this is loose – the only real bar is that they not simply be spend without comment. Something in play must reflect the effort[2].

Effort pool refreshes at the start of the session, or at a reasonable break point. GM may also give effort rewards according to whatever criteria she likes[3], or may offer it to players in return for making certain choices or accepting GM forces.

Now, this is an OK design. I could write it up into a nice pdf and it would see some use, but I wouldn’t be happy with it, because it has two serious flaws.

  1. The effort economy is awkward.
  2. What happens in a conflict?

The effort economy question is an interesting one. Accepting that it’s currently kind of arbitrary based on the GM, it’s functional, but very clunky. The question is what problem needs to be solved. I could easily come up with rules for GM reserve of dice, used to drive effects, and a whole economic cycle where dice go from players into the reserve, from he reserve to the GM, from the GM to players and so on. But any such system is going to complicate the system, perhaps unreasonably so. it is very easy for the economy to become such a fiddly mini game that it distracts from the game as a whole.

Which is why, for the moment, I’m sticking with clunky but functional. If the rest of the system was tuned, then I might see what I could do, but it would be super foolish to delve too far into it without addressing the other issue.

Conflict is a much more cumbersome issue. Now, arguably, this is also a problem that need not be resolved – it is totally possible to just say combat resolves just like everything else. Tune the granularity as you like – one roll per fight scene, one per clash of blades or somewhere in between. That works in the most technical sense, but I worry it could be flat in play.

Is that a problem? Well, what is the game? If conflicts are common, then it’s probably an issue. If they’re not? No bigger.

But that leads to the next question: What’s a conflict? I’ve been using the term interchangeable with combat, but that’s only because combat is the most obvious example of a conflict. But to consider how muddled the language is, look at the discussion of “social combat” in RPGs – it’s not combat, but the tools of combat get used for these conflicts because they’re what we have.

So I use the term conflict to abstract out the idea into a few identifiable bits, specifically these two things:
1. A situation which cannot be satisfactorily resolved in a single roll
2. An action where there are costs associated with outcomes.

There are other things which might make up a conflict[4], but these two are the two I always come back to.

The first one is a familiar bugbear, and it’s pat of the reason that wound systems were invented in the first place. While they may be refined in the details, at their heart, they still boiled down to “you may fail X times before actually failing” because failing after the first roll would be unfun.

And that is where the second one pops up. The most obvious cost associated with a conflict is “damage”. As noted above, within a single conflict, that is just a timer on how many die rolls it takes to resolve something. But the cost element means that that there is a measurable impact of winning with 5 good rolls and zero bad ones versus winning with 5 good rolls and 4 bad ones. The second fight would play differently, but it would also cost resources (damages) so that the character has fewer resources in the next conflict.

This is, I should add, why combat is so appealing as a model . It has the same currency (supplemented by things like poison and injury), something that is hard to translate over to other conflicts. It can be mimicked with fatigue or mental stress, but that is not always an intuitive match – the fact that we lost one argument on the internet rarely makes us any less capable of engaging in the next one (with some exceptions). This is one of the brilliant things about Mouseguard’s stats-based injury system, extended and explored further in to Torchbearer. By making multiple currencies, it becomes much more organic to translate them between different scenarios, and by making them effectively binary (you’re tired or you’re not), the logic of their applicability becomes obvious. This is good tech.

I look at all this and it suggests to me that if I want to add a system for conflicts, then I need a system for consequences. Simplest answer is to have effort stand in for damage, and that flags why I didn’t want to mess with the economy until I’d looked at conflict. It also worries me a little bit, since draining the effort pool seems like a good way to drain fun.

Thankfully, there are plenty of other possible mechanics to look into for handling this. I have not even touched the possibility of penalty or locked dice yet, and that just scratches the surface.

Anyway, I lay all this out now so that when I start talking about refining it in the future, you have the starting point.

  1. If you’re feeling like it, you can actually stop there to build a very simple Risus World hack. Start from this premise of competence (always rolling 2d6) then distribute 6d6 among 2 to 5 descriptors or cliches, so Barbarian 3d, Hairdresser 2d, Ninja 1d and now you have a character sheet. roll 2d6 + appropriate cliche when using it. Damage is taken from die pools, Done.  ↩
  2. And this is why the exact nature of effort is flexible. Cleverly taking advantage of the environment is just as valid as an anime-style I FIGHT HARDER FOR THE PEOPLE I LOVE!  ↩
  3. That probably sounds sloppy and arbitrary, but that’s because it is. GM rewards like this can be fun and functional, and it’s entirely possible to write the words around them so they don’t sound totally arbitrary, but that would be sleight of hand. It’s arbitrary. I’m ok owning up to that. But this is also a bit of a pain point, as we shall see.  ↩
  4. Th most obvious is “tactics”, the idea that different approaches can produce better or worse outcomes in the conflict. I recognize this is an important part of play, but I think that’s actually universal rather than a specific function of combat. That is, “tactics” are just a specific expression of “the fiction impacts the dice”. The irony that the system I’m using to illustrate this actually reduces tactics to pure color it not lost on me.  ↩

5e MM: Overview

So, that was a lot of monsters.

If you want the super short version of it all, it’s a great book, which is good, since it’s more or less required to run the new D&D, which deserves running.

Taking a longer view, I think it’s really telling that the book I ended up comparing this to in my head was the 1e Monster Manual. Some of that was nostalgia, certainly, but the more I read, the more it felt right. More tellingly, it was a favorable comparison. Not that is was necessarily better (though it is in some ways) but that it could stand next to it with pride.

Structurally, it takes notes from the whole history of Monster Manuals. Like the 2e version, it uses full pages to make the monsters easier to process, but it does not go quite as far in terms of volume of lore, which streamlines the writing process. The art is clearly of the 3e/4e era, leaning more 4e. It is not universally great, but there are no bad pieces, and more than enough great ones to make up for it. It takes the 4e idea[1]of focusing on the functional component of the monster – that is, how it’s played in an encounter, and makes good use of that.

The net result strikes a good balance, albeit one that is unevenly applied throughout the book.

Broadly, monsters fell into a few categories.

Story monsters enhanced the world in interesting ways, expanding the setting and introducing elements that suggest fun ways to play. The Aarakocra were the first and probably my favorite example of this. They’re not all equally interesting, but even a dull entry that enriches the world (like Hobgoblins) can fall into this.

Encounter monsters generally had a gimmick that would make for an interesting fight scene. The Troll is far and away the best example of this, but a few dangerous creatures like the Intellect Devourer or Medusa. also fall under the auspices of this.

Adventure Monsters offered everything needed for a self-contained adventure. These fall into two categories – first are the monsters that “bring along” all the support they need, like the blights or the wraith. The second are obvious mastermind villains, like Mind Flayers or Raksasha.

Utility Monsters were like somewhat less interesting encounter monsters. They don’t necessarily have a gimmick, but they’re clearly well designed to be inserted into a number of situations. Monsters with a little fun color, like the nothic fall into this category, as do the classic filler like zombies and skeletons.

Stunt monsters would be hard to use in an actual game, and if they were used, would be huge plot points. The Tarrasque is the most obvious example of this, but really everything over CR 20 probably falls under this, as do some of the weakest monsters (such as the tiny pixies and sprites).

Everything Else tended to be kind of boring. It would include a writeup that maybe tells you a little about the creature, but it would mostly be a vague description of environment and (for the worst offenders) a physical description of the monster we’re staring at a full color picture of. A lot of these entries are just extra word count saying “They’re bad”. The Troglodyte is the freshest example of this in my mind, though pretty much every mount could be an example as well.

Now, as critical as I am of “everything else”, bear in mind that their worst crime is being boring. The stat blocks are functional, sometimes even clever, and a good GM can find ways to hook these into a setting without too much hassle. In act, a few boring monsters is a necessity for a book like this, since it clearly lays out things for the GM to hook into. Still, there are probably a few more of these than would be ideal. It’s genuinely disappointing to go from a monster that fills you with ideas and possibilities to one that basically reads “Grrr. Argh.”

One additional axis on this issue is the humanoid question. I refer to this a lot, but it boils down to this: there are a lot of humanoid races in D&D, and they do not necessarily have a lot to distinguish them. Kobolds, Gobins, Orcs, Hobgoblins and Bugbears all have a certain amount of interchangeability to them, [2] to say nothing of the lizard men, bullywugs, troglodytes, kuo-toa and so many more. There are so many of them that every humanoid entry needs to do two things – it needs to make the case for why it’s interesting to let these guys in the book (because lots of great monsters aren’t) and to explain how these are memorably different from other creatures who could fulfill the same role.[3] Not every entry succeeds at this, but more do than don’t.

All in all, this makes this a very usable book. As I noted in speaking about the implied timeline of the world, there’s a lot of worldbuilding implicit in the material presented (not as much as, say, SSS’s Creature Catalog, but still a substantial amount) which helps the usability and also offers a boon to ambitious GMs.

I would also be remiss if I did not mention that it’s also just a lovely book. The 3e/4e fusion style of the PHB is still in use here, but further supplemented by marginalia notes (a technique I’m very fond of) to spice up the monster entries. They vary from flat jokes to useful insights, and offer plenty of opportunities for easter eggs.

As I said at the very outset, I’m frustrated by the lack of an index by CR, but the very interesting graph that the Escapist put together got me thinking. As is obvious, there’s a BIG spike around CR 2, and a general drop off of higher level monsters. That feels like a gap, albeit an expected one – of course the first MM skews low level, because that’s where players are right now. Presumably the inevitable MM2[4] will skew more towards the middle tier. But I’m not sure it’s as much of a problem as it seems.

Specifically, my feel so far in play is that the usable range of a given monster is much bigger than it used to be. I have not yet played enough high level stuff to figure out where the drop-offs are, but bounded accuracy cuts both ways, and a CR2 creature has the potential to hit even the highest level characters, so I’m very curious at which point some of them stop being dangerous. With some, like the intellect devourer, it wouldn’t surprise me if the answer is “never”.

None of which accounts for the impact of legendary creatures too, who are going to be more heavily represented at high levels. The legendary technology is fantastic, and I can’t wait to see it develop further, but I definitely cannot yet see all of its implications.

Anyway, the bottom line is that while this book is not flawless, it is never bad, consistently good, often great and occasionally fantastic. For what is ultimately a foundational book, that pretty darn good.

The Complete Review

Other Reviews
This is a pretty giant read, so if you are looking for something quicker but still comprehensive, I strongly endorse these reviews.

So, thank you all for wading through this. I enjoyed it a lot, but the big lesson is that I am NEVER EVER doing a monster-by-monster review again. It’s just too long!

  1. Which I feel is further built upon in 13th Age. I’ll talk about that when I give it a (much shorter) review.  ↩
  2. This suggestion may offend the hardcore nerd, who (like myself) can cite hit die differences from memory, but descriptively and functionally they have a lot of overlap, and a new player is going to have every reason to think they all run together unless they are given a reason to think otherwise.  ↩
  3. In theory, undead would have the same problem, since only a nerd distinguishes between them meaningfully. However, they have classically had a certain progression of power/danger, starting with skeletons and working up to vampires and liches. This provided some implicit differentiation. Humanoids, on the other hand, are largely clustered in the 1/8 to 1/2 range of CRs (2 for the ogre equivalents) so there’s no progression.  ↩
  4. This may sound like a bit of a condemnation, but I admit I’m less excited about a MM2 than I am about whatever products expand player options. This is partly because I did not leave the book feeling a lot was missing, but it’s also partly because I genuinely expect the best and most interesting monster design to show up in adventures.  ↩

5e MM- Sprite to Zombie and Beyond

Sprite – Ok, I’ll cop to it. I’m going to mix these guys up with pixies basically all the time. They look more like Tinkerbell than the pixie are, honestly. That said, aside from an ability to read emotional state (which seems almost entirely unpoetic) they’re just flying harassers.

Stirge – In an odd turn, this is only a half page entry, though the picture is pretty gross. This is a classic monster, so the only real curiosity is how they handle the drain. Simple answer: Keeps doing damage after it hits, until it’s bloated and flies away.

Succubus/Incubus – Super curious entry. It’s not a demon, and the incubus is the more cheesecake of the two. In fact, apparently, they are basically freely able to swap between succubus and incubus form, which is doubly awesome. They’re lieutenants to a variety of infernal baddies, though at CR 4, they’re no pushovers. They’ve got a powerful charm and their kiss is an energy drain attack, but they’re obviously more dangerous outside of the battlefield.

Tarrasque – This is basically a stunt entry. The tarrasque largely exists to establish the upper bounds of monster capability, and at CR 30, it performs admirably. Obviously, the thing is terrifying, with every trio we’ve seen so far. Legendary resistance (it can make 3 saves), legendary actions, swallow, big pile of immunities and, of course, gigantic damage output. All of which is awesome.

Thri-Kreen – another monster I was first exposed to on monster cards, I’ve always had a fondness for these insect-men. They do need to face “the humanoid question”, but being insects is a solid initial schtick, and the other elements which make them fit Dark Sun so well (exotic weapons and some psionics) round it out well.

Treant – I admit, I immediately checked the CR (9) to see if these things are the holy terrors I imagine them to be. Answer seems to be “almost”. Interesting lore in that they are all trees that have awakened, rather than a species in their own right. Curious implications to that.

Troglodyte – Or, as we know them, “Those humanoids who smell really bad”. Because yep, that’s still their combat schtick. In fact, it’s basically the only thing of any real note about them.

Troll – This entry is delightful. Yes, a big chunk of it is predictable, they’re big, they regenerate, sometimes you get crazy troll freaks whose regeneration has gone crazy (sadly, no stats for those) but these all pale besides the awesomeness of the “Loathsome Limbs” sidebar. Basically, if you do more than 15 points of slashing damage to a troll, you lop off a random limb. But, it being a troll, it will keep fighting. Basically, after all of these editions, they have explicitly put in the rules you need to run the scene from Three Hearts and Three Lions which defined the D&D troll. I profoundly raise a glass to this entry.

Umber Hulk – They’ve kept the insectoid look of recent editions, but otherwise this is the familiar monster – a burrowing bruiser who causes confusion if you look in its eyes. There’s some note about averting your eyes, but no real explanation what that means mechanically, though I would presume disadvantage.

Unicorn – Historically, this was one of the most boring critters out there. A magic horse that could teleport once a day, it was hard to take them too seriously. This perspective has been revised, and the Unicorn is now laid out as a hard core protector of the wilderness, with solid multiattack and spell casting abilities to supplement their healignand teleportation. More importantly, they’re now legendary creatures, which means legendary actions and regional effects. And the unicorn’s regional effects are great in a way that the good dragons kind of teased – they’re all things that make the forest a better, safer place. While mechanically interesting, the really cool thing is how much narrative weight the give to the presence of a unicorn in a forest. Beautifully done.

Vampires – In much the same way they have made Unicorns hew closer to their lore as potent magical beings, they have similarly tuned up the vampire (who did not need as much of a makeover). They’re still dangerous (CR 13), enough so that they’re pretty clearly laid out in the Dracula/Strahd school of design, with legendary actions, lairs, regional effects and so on (Strahd actually gets his own sidebar). This is a big V villain. And for all your lesser needs, Vampire spawn are a “mere” CR 5. Definitely a useful package.

Water Weird – Another very dungeoney monster, they’re interesting insofar as they tend neutral, but will tilt towards the water they inhabit (something which can make purify food and drink very situationally potent). They’re colorful – watery snakes, bound to guard sources of water – but there’s very little depth to them.

That said, there’s one interesting visual to these – they look a lot like larval Salamanders. In my head, this suggests some plane of water equivalent critters.

Wight – Ok, this is one of those cases where the art is kind of badass. The classic image of the hunched over figure is replaced by an armed and armored badass undead warrior, and the color supports that. These are warriors of undeath. And one mice touch – they have a life drain attack, but they also have more mundane attacks with weapons, so a fight with them is not just a touchiest.

Will o’ Wisp – Another super situational monster, I mostly go into this entry curious if it will be anything but a one trick pony. The answer? Not really. Well, ok, they have effectively a super coup de grace which is nasty, but otherwise they remain killer balls of light.

Wraith – If wights are soldiers, Wraiths are lieutenants, and I like that framing for them, since sit allows for smart undead villains at low levels. At CR5, a wraith makes a good background villain early on, limited only by the fact that their agendas are largely limited to “hate everything”. But with their ability to create specters, a single wraith is a great way to populate a dungeon and create a larger threat.

Wyvern – When you want something like a dragon that is not a dragon, the go with the time-tested brand; Wyvern! A little bit less necessary in modern play (they made more sense when dragons were less smoothly graded) but they make for a fun, tough fight, albeit on that is not as dangerous as, say, a manticore because despite their ability to fly, all their attacks are melee range, so flight is unlikely to be a real signature of a wyvern fight.

Xorn – Fun to say, fun to play! This entry could have been a pretty dull gimmick monster – they glide through earth and stone and are tough brawlers – but the color added a wonderful touch. Xorn can sense treasure, and that’s historically drawn them to adventurers, which in the past has meant “Jump out of a wall and try to eat some gold”. But as written, they;’re described as “beggars and thieves” and I am utterly delighted at the prospect of playing his huge, multi-armed, gigantically mawed terror as kind of furtively approaching the party petulantly whining to be fed and then attacking later in a sulk if it doesn’t get what it wants. This is a really small thing, but it enriches the monster in a way a surprise roll never will.

Yeti – Ok, I was not expecting this one. It’s basically an environmental hazard of the mountains. Regular Yeti are CR 3, Abominable yeti are CR 9, so there’s a bit of pre-structured minions and boss to it, but in and of themselves they’re only so interesting. The strong environmental tie can probably be used to make them interesting (a snowstorm, low visibility, survival scenario could work well for example) but the entry doesn’t offer a lot of help for this.

Yuan-Ti – We’ve gotten the occasional mention of these guys (though fewer than the illithids) but they are clearly poised to occupy a specific villainous role of the ancient corrupt race which allows all the horribly racists stuff form a Howard or Lovecraft story only with actual monsters, not “swarthy” people. I guess that’s a good thing, but I’m not exactly the best judge.

That said, there’s plenty of less squicky stuff to tap into in using the Yuan Ti – in part of their forsaking of humanity, they embraced a philosophy of detachment of emotion and (by extension) the self-delusion of purely rational thought. Which is to say, the Yuan-Ti are basically the magic world stand in for internet jerks, and used that way, they may be kind of awesome. In my head, the kind of broken common is now translating into forum post language, and it fits so well that it may be hard to keep Yuan Ti out of my game. LOL.

(Also, the fact that Yuan Ti are only worshiping their gods – who get a cool sidebar – until they can figure out how to eat them? Kind of awesome).

We get 3 stat blocks. The Abomination – full on snake men – are the main bad guys, at CR 7, they’ve got spells, shape changing and magic resistance align with a fair amount of physical whupass. Beneat them are the Malison, humanoids with snake parts. There are three different kinds (same general stats, different actions) and I infer from the stat blocks that they are snake heads, snake arms and snake torso. I suspect I could clarify this by checking a previous MM, but I don’t actually care a lot. The last, the pureblood, are the most human looking and least powerful (cr 1) but are powerful enough that I’m not sure I’d use them as mooks.

Once again, we have a clear hierarchy of monsters that makes encounter construction easy enough, and they’re richly developed enough to answer the “why these humanoids?” question so they’re definitely useful. One oddity – I seem to recall that at least some past versions had more of a tie with aberrations (these don’t) but that may just be my faulty memory.

Yugoloths – because once upon a time, someone went “Demons are chaotic evil, devils are lawful evil, wen need some neutral evil fiends!” and then gave them a terrible name (albeit one that was less terrible when talking about Tanar’ri and Baatezu). Their color is great (created by Asmodeus and a circle of hags, there are books out there with all their names, but there’re lost) and they serve a nice niche as evil mercenaries, but it’s not like there was a shortage of fiends that needed addressing, so these guys end up feeling a little generically evil. The ultraloths in particular are, while scary on paper, really dull. It hurts me a bit to say this, but in the absence of a Blood War, I’m not sure these guys bring a lot to the table. I mean, they’re useful monsters, as they’re all quite nasty, but they don’t add much.

Zombies – I was not expecting much front he lore for this one nor did I get it. Instead, I got exactly the utility undead that I expected, including scaled up version for undead ogres. The unexpected surprise at th bottom of the box is the zombie beholder. It’s CR 5, about a third of its eyestalks still work, and I can’t wait to use it.

That’s it for the actual monster entries, but the books ’s not done yet. Appendix A: Miscellaneous Creatures is full of stat blocks with either no or very little explanatory text. It most is composed of beasts, both regular and giant, and as such it is basically the reference included to make playing a druid a reasonable option, especially since the CR’s range from 0 to 7, making sure the druid always has options. It also includes oddities like awakened plants and animals with a single gimmick (like phase spreaders, giant fire beetles, death dogs, Worgs and blink dogs). There’s not a lot of art in this appendix, but those particular creatures are among those who get art (as do quippers, which I guess are sort of piraña). It also includes things like swarm and barding rules as sidebars. All in all, a high utility chapter.

Appendix B: Nonplayer Characters gives us stats for human (or humanoid) opposition ranging from Cultists (CR 1/8) to Gladiators (CR 5) to Archmages (cr 18). it includes notes that you can swap in different races, range spells and basically tweak these guys, but they provide a baseline to work with.

I am, I admit, not 100% sure how I feel about this section. It’s useful no question – there’s a lot of utility in being able to just pull people out of a hat and put them to use. But it’s very 4e in its handling of NPCs, and its one of those areas where the lack of scaling guidelines really shines through. I am hopeful that the DMG provides some guidance in this regard, and we end up with a hybrid system that has quick and dirty npcs (like these) as well as a way to flesh them out without making full PC character sheets for them. But time will tell.

That said, I cannot close without a mention of the index. Content-wise, it’s solid and functional, but the two pages contain my absolute favorite art of the entire book. Some of it, especially the last image of the book, is outright hilarious.

Inferred History of the World, Per the Monster Manual (and a little PHB)

Note 1: I’ll finish up the monsters. This is just a bit of a sidetrack

Note 2: The eras are totally me taking poetic license to keep things from just being one big list. 


Cthonic Era

  • Time of no gods. Aboleths rule the world. Presumed origin of other aberrant species.
  • Gods rise. They war against the ancient horrors, using weapons like the Kraken.
  • Gods win. Things sort out into less abberant kind of reality. Presumably the inner and outer planes shuffle into order, including the creation of numerous celestial and infernal races and creatures.
  • Asmodeus and his circle of hags create Books of Keeping (and the Yugoloths)
  • Primus casts a stone into Limbo. It becomes the Slaadi birthing stone.
  • Creation of the Couatals and the loss of their god.
  • Birth of Dragons signal the end of this era.

Lost Era

  • Giants are created
  • Dinosaurs roam
  • Vaati empire spreads across many worlds. Falls in conflict with the Queen of Chaos.
  • Now unknown humanoid races populate the world. May have been early humans, dwarves etc, or may have been other races entirely. Known or suggested races include Fomorians, precursor Gith, precursor Grimlocks, Kuo-Toa
  • An unknown humanoid race breeds Quaggoths. Psychic potential suggests they may have been of use against the Mind Flayers.
  • Naga created as a servitor race by unknown masters.
  • Divine conflict leads to creation of Hydras.
  • Fomorian empire rises, then falls. Fomorians flee to underdark.
  • Mind Flayer empire spreads, enslaving early humanoids. First Grimlocks created. Gith Rebellion (and subsequent schism) signals the beginning of the end for the Illithid.
  • Efreet and Azer construct City of Brass. Efreet attempt to enslave Azer (unsuccessfully)
  • Dragons and Giants go to war. Numerous monstrous weapons born of this conflict, including Behirs and Rocs.
  • Creation of Elves ends the era

Eldest Era

  • Elven expansion drive Quaggoth underground
  • Elven civil war drives Drow underground
  • Harpies emerge.
  • Emergence of young races[1] (humans, Halflings, goblinoids, orcs, maybe dwarves) ends the era.

Ancient Era

  • Tiefling empire rises, then falls to fiendish corruption
  • Vecna ascends to godhood. Acererak does not.
  • Arcane tinkering births monstrosities like the Bulette and Owlbear. Fiendish intervention adds more delights, like the Chimera, Merrow, Gnolls and Ettin.
  • Fall of the Yuan-Ti


  • Rise and fall of Gulthias
  • Whoever built pyramids

  1. This term is largely elven propaganda. Evidence indicates that humans were around as far back as the illithid empire (some became Grimlocks) and other races may be similarly ancient.  ↩

5e MM: Pegasus to Sphinxes

Pegasus – Oh boy, a mount. Excepting the fact that Pegasi are explicitly celestial in nature, this seems pretty bland.

Peryton – This is one of those crazy creatures out of folklore whose schtick (sometimes it has the shadow of a man) is creepier in the telling than in the actual encounter. The lore entry nicely updates the mythology and gives a bit of monstrous motivation, but it’s ultimately more interesting from a tactical perspective, as the statblock is full of aerial effects.

Piercer – These dudes are ugly. And they’re a classic gimmick monster, dropping from the ceiling on unexpecting foes. They’re pretty much one-and-done, since when they miss, they don’t have much else they can do. Its presence is a little weird, since I thought the darkmantle had effectively replaced them in the dungeon ecology, but I guess you can’t have too much death from above.

Pixie – Basically, tinkerbell. Fragile and small, they have enough magical power to be dangerous opponents – anything that can fly and stay invisible is a real hassle. As written, they’re more designed to be an active annoyance (something compounded by the fact that they don’t speak common) and some GMs will love this, others will probably just shrug and move along.

Pseudodragon – This entry is basically the familiar pipe dream. Telepathy, magic resistance (which confers to its partner) and a poisonous sting. Which is fine, but there it is.

Purple Worm – Another classic – Shai-halud of the underdark. They’re huge and tough, and can swallow folks whole, all while carving out new caverns and generally keeping the ecosystem moving.

Quaggoth – Basically these are the yeti of the underdark. Big, animal-ish humanoids and sometime brute squad for the drow, with the occasional psionic member of the tribe. They have some interesting history and ancient enmity with the elves which is at the root of their history (drove them underground, allied them with the Drow).

Rakshasa – Functionally, they have a lot in common with the Oni – smart, magically capable, shapeshifters and illusionists but generally tough. Specifically, the rakshasa, have more of an extraplanar vibe to them, compounded by the fact that when they die, they just come back in the 9 hells, albeit weeks or months later (at which point, a plane shift gets them back).
In 1e, the way to kill one of these was with a blessed crossbow bolt, and they were basically immune to all other non-magical damage. They’ve kept the immunity, but they found a new and interesting way to represent the weakness.

Remorhazes – Another largely tactical monster. The young ones (CR 5) and the adults (CR 11) are structured similarly (burrowing and dangerous heat) though the older ones are also capable of swallowing.

Revenant – A plot monster – the actual revenant itself is just a fairly tough undead who will NEVER STOP COMING. You may encounter one as part of another plot, where you may be helping it or trying to figure out how to stop it, which makes it pretty useful in a number of ways.

Roc – Nice backstory – the Rocs were created by the gods of the giants to give an airborne weapon against giants. They’ve gone their own way since then, but that tie gives things a nice bit of flavor. Beyond that, they’re flying brutes – lots of HP, lots of damage.

Roper – I actually really dig that they decided that these guys are what piercers grow up to be. Beyond that, they’re mostly gross and tactically fun – the tentacles and giant mouth make it easy to see how the fight would go.

Rust Monster – The true terror of the dungeon! Hit points? Health? Disease? None of those are nearly as frightening as losing gear. The mechanic is actually similar to what we saw with some oozes (weapon takes –1 when it hits, when it goes to –5 it’s destroyed) but this incarnation is actually much kinder than some in the past, as it only effects nonmagical gear. This is probably appropriate, since it’s a little more apt to have it be a low-level menace than the kind of thing that makes 20th level fighters cower (and, yes, flashing back to the cartoon in the 1e DMG).

Sahuagin – These are the real bad guys of the sea, which is what makes the Merrows seem a bit redundant (though I suppose they’re ogre-equivalent). Evil shark people are always a welcome addition to the mix, and their bits of lore (like their worship of the shark god) and the occaisional mutant who can pass as an aquatic elf.

Really, the only weird thing about this entry is that it hinges on the war between the Sahuagin and the Aquatic Elves as a big setting element, and this is the first time we’ve heard any mention of aquatic elves (and no mention of merfolk and merrow). It’s a bit of a shame. A lot of the monster entries have a story woven behind them that makes for a bigger sense of the world. The Sahuagin hint at that, but it feels like the pieces aren’t all in place.

Salamanders – Like the galeb duhr and the invisible stalker, this is one of the more colored elemental. And speaking of tying things together, the salamander’s origin ties back to the story of the Azer and the City of Brass. They come int two form – CR 1 first snakes, and CR 5 full salamanders, with humanoid torsos atop the trunk of a snake.

Satyr – This is a curious one – the actual satyr has little in the way of magic on its own. It is only in a sidebar that the Satyr’s pipes are mentioned, though they have all the magic that one might expect.

Scarecrow – Low level construct with horrific overtones. Honestly, the art conveys more than the text for this one. Practically, it’s a bit hard to use it’s ability to hide, motionless, except against NPCs. When the GM mentions that there’s a scarecrow, that kind of shows her hand.

Shadow – Fun, low level undead with a strength drain, I think my favorite part is that as they are created, the target’s shadow darkens and breaks free when it dies. Most delightfully, if the target is resurrected, the shadow is still running around out there, and knows that it’s “parent” is back. I admit, this kind of makes me totally willing to kill a PC with a shadow just t set up that dynamic.

Shambling Mound – This is a classic made much more interesting by its color text. It’s a huge, tough, slow moving “plant”, a danger which is easily avoided is you’re aware of it (and have room to run) but which has a profound impact on the local ecosystem.

Shield Guardian – Basically, this is canned muscle for a spellcaster – if you control the amulet, you control a CR7 brute with heavy armor, regeneration, a bit of magic and some protection capability.

Skeletons – lovely pluralized entry, with the baseline (CR 1/4), the big one (CR2) and the warhorse (CR 1/2). No real surprises, but a solidly useful entry.

Slaadi Another planescape favorite, there’s a wonderful bit of extra lore here, as the Spawning Stone of the Slaad was apparently created by Primus (lord of the Modrons) and cast into the chaos of Limbo, with the Slaadi as an (apparently) unexpected side effect of the process.

The slaad themselves are classics – Red, Blue, Green, Gray and Death. They’re all terrifying, though their challenge range is lower than I’d have expected (capping at 10 for the Death Slaad). And, of course, their ability to infect humanoids to create new Slaad creates an extra layer of creepy factor.

Specter – This one took an unexpected turn. Classically, specters are one of the nastiest forms of undead, just a step below vampires, largely because their energy drain (2 levels!) was so terrifying. This version is much less terrifying – it still has life drain (damage that reduces max HP rather than levels) but it’s a CR 1 creature that is more noteworthy for being a flying, incorporeal horror. In fact, there’s a whole sidebar on a poltergeist variant which is always invisible and adds telekinetic effects

For all that this is a step away from tradition, it feels like a good step. This is much more of a horror monster than the usual “grey guy with grabby hands” and it seems like it would be much more fun to run.

Sphinxes – 2 kinds of sphinxes (androsphinxes at CR 17 and Gynosphinxes at CR 11). Notably, none of them are “the one with boobs” for those flashing back to the MM 1. They’re basically created by gods, which gives them an interesting bit of extra backstory – they’re powerful enough to suggest a private relationship with that deity.

Their personal badassness is pronounced, but it’s their lair actions really shine. They allow the sphinx to mess with time, and shift conversations into wacky demiplanes, so the whole “move the talk onto a giant chessboard” is now mechanically supported.

5e MM: Mind Flayer through Owlbear

Mind Flayer – Like the Hags, the Mind Flayers show up in lots of other entries. They are the big bad behind a lot of terrible things, and while there’s only one stat block (one and a half, really) it’s a solid CR 7 enemy with some handy tricks – magic resistance, mind blast and, of course, brain eating. The lore is flavorful enough in its own right, but it’s really just part of the larger tapestry woven throughout the book. All in all, quite satisfying.

Minotaur – Another CR 3 brute, and at first glance it seems pretty straightforward with charge and berserker attacks, but the lore takes an entertaining turn when talking about the origins of minotaurs in mystery cults (which in turn provide a potential source for labyrinths) which offers some fantastic opportunities for minotaurs as plot drivers and as random brutes.

Modrons – I know some people might go “huh”, but for a planescape fan, this entry inspires a happy little dance, as evinced by my dancing which you quite thankfully cannot see. I am utterly incapable of viewing this entry in any kind of real critical fashion because its presence delights me so, right down to it’s art, which is not quite Diterlizzi, but clearly bears the marks of inspiration. We get statblocks for the first five modrons (monodrone, duodrone, tridrone, quadrone, pentadrone) ranging from CR 1/8 to CR 2 (Though the pentadrone seems a rather nasty CR 2, with 5 attacks and paralyzing gas) and enough color and lore to give guidance for how to play them and strongly implies the rest of their structure, right up to Primus.

Mummies – There’s some nice material regarding the source of mummies, with the important note that there is always a creator (because mummy status is explicitly a curse) and often some manner of trigger that causes it to rise. Like so many of the better monsters, the mummy has a built in story that makes it a plot waiting to happen much more than a creature sitting in a room waiting to fight.

The baseline mummy is CR3 with a fear-inspiring gaze attack and a rotting touch. Mechanically, if you blow the save, you reduce your HP maximum by 3d6 every 24 hours, and you can’t heal. Super nasty, and a good reason to have remove curse on hand. This is the mummy you’re going to find in a generic adventure encounter.

The Mummy Lord is closer to something from a horror movie. CR 15, with legendary and lair actions as well as regional effects which include a curse on anyone taking something from the mummy’s tomb. It’s easy to see this as the villain for an entire campaign region.

Myconid – I’m pretty sure there are people who feel about myconids (mushroom men) the same way I feel about modrons, so I wish them well of it. They’re a nice addition to the underdark (along with the flumphs, offering some good guys) full of mental communion and hallucination-filled dreams. They’re also pretty creepy, since their minions basically include pseudo-zombies animated by fungal spores.

Naga It’s almost a throwaway line, but the origin story of the naga (servants of an ancient race who view themselves as the natural heirs). The good (Guardian) and evil (Spirit) naga are magically potent (CR 10 and 8 respectively). They’re also pretty much immortal, coming back after a few days from anything short of a wish.

This tidbit is what makes the Bone Naga (undead naga, CR 4) more interesting. Basically, the Yuan Ti got sick of the Naga constantly coming back, and so came up with a ritual to break the cycle, creating undead Naga. All in all, these guys make for fun, smart opposition.

Nightmare – Another mount, not hugely interesting, since Nightmares are usually just adjuncts to the real bad guy. That said, the color surrounding their creation (the torture and sacrifice of a pegasus) is nicely vivid.

Nothic – I guess these guys came from the miniatures game, as I admit I did not recognize them when they showed up in Phandelver. That said, the lore for these guys is fun – Vecna effectively left traps on his own ascent to godhood, and wizards who follow in his path occasionally encounter them and are reduced to these monstrosities. They still pursue arcane knowledge, albeit in a twisted, semi-incoherent way. It’s a good story, and it gives a nice justification for these things to show up in interesting places.

Ogres – Ah, the classics. At CR 2, these guys are just brutes, but that’s exactly what they’re supposed to be. Nothing too exciting in their lore, but they don’t really need it. The entry also includes Half-Ogres (Ogrillion) which, I admit, serve rather less purpose. “Like ogres, but less so” is not much of a pitch. In other fiction, they’re a bit more interesting, emphasizing that they’re smarter opposition, but there’s none of this in the entry.

Oni – AKA Ogre Magi, these guys have always been nasties, and all of that translates appropriately into this stat block – shapeshifting, regeneration, gaseous form, cone of cold. The lore is flavorful, but mostly just feed into the means of playing these guys (which is to say, emphasizing that they’re pretty terrifying)

Oozes – Black pudding, gelatinous cubes, gray ooze and ochre jelly all fall under this entry. Black pudding are still the nastiest, but functionally they are quite similar in their play (climbing walls, attacking with pseudopods) with some specific things like weapon destruction. Gelatinous cubes play a little bit differently, as they still focus on moving and engulfing, but that is also well supported (though I admit, it feels like the cube was really the perfectly expressed 4e monster.)

Orcs – When we talk about classic humanoid monsters, the orc is pretty much the baseline, and this entry is decently in line with that. It draws a broad enough picture to give orcs a little social context and a mythos which pits them against the other races (and also justifies halfbreeds). Stat blocks are given for a classic orc, an orc warchief, an Eye of Gruumsh (blessed by the chief god of the ord) and the Orog, who is sort of an orc-plus (CR 2).

The Orog may seem like a weird addition, but it’ll be familiar to fans of Birthright – the Orogs were the orc replacement in that setting. Explicitly, Birthright humanoids were very clearly nations, and the Orog ranged in power, allowing them to fill gaps that would otherwise be filled by a wider range of humanoid races. The net result felt a lot more coherent, and the presence of the Orog makes it a little more possible to spin the Orc entry in that direction.

Otyugh – This entry is a lot more boring than I expected. Tentacles, telepathy, general badness, that seems like the it should be really unpleasant, but it just comes across as kind of meh.

Owlbear – The owlbear suffers unfairly from comparison to the 13th Age owlbear, who explicitly includes rules for ripping off arms and running off to eat them. Not that this owlbear is bad – it’s just a tough comparison. And it makes a decent effort – the lore is fun. especially regarding the challenges in training owlbears. The reference to rural communities having owlbear races is utterly delightful.