Author Archives: Rob Donoghue

5e MM: Darkmantle through Duergar

Darkmantle – The very least of the D’s, you can tell it’s slightly embarrassed to be here, and hopes you won’t notice that you just read the much cooler and tougher Cloaker a few pages back. It looks like a stalactite and falls on head and tries to eat it.

Death Knight – opposite the Darkmantle, this entry has virtually no lore, just a few rules notes and the story of Lord Soth. Not sure how I feel about that. On one hand, Soth is pretty darn iconic. On the other, I kind of want a little ringwraith action.

However they fit in the setting, they’re pretty terrifying. CR 17, magic resistance, great stats and powerful spellcasting (plus, of course, immortal until redeemed, an idea I have a hard time really getting behind). And, of course, they look awesome.

Demilich gets two pages, a non-trivial amount of which is dedicated to Acererak, which I can’t argue with. Where Soth is a great example of an idea that preceded him, Acererak is basically the reason this category exists.

Appropriately, the Demilich is terrifying, with brutal legendary actions, lair actions and Lair traits. With nothing but these moves, you could easily construct some sort of horrific tomb. But I want to call out one ability in particular: Legendary Resistance. It’s a little ability, usable 3 times per day, that lets the Demilich turn a failed saving throw into a success.

This may seem small at first glance, but this is actually pretty huge. This is basically a wrench in the works for any “surefire” plan. I know, as a player, I have set up the occasional guaranteed win scenario if we can just get a particular effect off (like a hold, a knockdown or whatever). Those seem harder in 5e (fewer “save or die” effects) but players are clever, and this is a nice insurance policy to guarantee that you’re not going to get an easy win.

Demons 12 pages long, with the monster entries not beginning until 4 pages in. A good breakdown on how they work, cosmologically speaking, as well as entries on the major Demon Lords before moving into the demons themselves.

So, I loved the demon section of the original MM, and I am totally steeped in Planescape lore, so I absolutely looked at this through those two lenses. The lack of statblocks for the Demon Lords is, while understandable, a little sad. Those statblocks were pretty awesome. The actual Demon Lords listed are exactly who they should be – the MM1 classics (Baphoment, Demogorgon, Jubilex, Orcus and Yeenoghu) along with the other big two – Graz’zt and Lloth.[1]

The demons themselves are typed from 1 to 6, though some types have more than demon. For example, Barlgura, Shadow Demons and Vrocks are all Type I, Balor & Goristo are both Type VI and so on. This is a nice compromise between the classic numbering as the fact that it stopped working as soon as the MM2 was published. I’m particularly happy to see the Shadow Demon make the initial cut.

The Demons themselves range from CR 1/8 (manes) to 19 (Balor) so they’re pretty useful for the duration of a campaign. It includes rules on some classic ideas, like taking Quasit’s as familiars, Demonic amulets containing their essences, bound demons and demonic possession and demons summoning more demons during a fight.

Speaking as a player who is totally happy to refer to them as Tanar’ri, I’m pretty happy with the handling of demons.

Devils The Baatezu, the opposite side of the coin. Rigid, structured and tyrannical, they get similar page count and presentation to demons. One oddity is that there are fewer archdevils than abyssal lords because the 9 hells has only, well, 9 layers, where the abyss is infinite. But those 9 archdevils are pretty badass, and it’s kind of a shame that we don’t get blurbs for them. What we do get is a very neat table of the 9 hells listing the layer, it’s name, it’s archduke/duchess and (most interestingly) it’s previous rulers. Lots of familiar names on this like, but Tiamat’s presence on the “previous rulers” of Avernus list intrigues me, and I’m curious if the Dragon entry is going to give me any more information on this.

In fact, without the archdevils in the mix, the color is all pretty flat. The demon entries are largely descriptions of creatures we’re about to see awesome pictures of, with only the shallowest of details. The rules are fine – Imp familiars, devils summoning devils and such, but this entry seems more promise than delivery.

This disappointment may be part of why the art seems uneven. Some entries are fantastic, like Bone Devils and Eriynes, and none are bad, but some are almost generically devilish.

Dinosaurs This section is disappointingly unillustrated, with 6 dinosaurs and 2 (small) pictures all jammed onto two pages. This section is largely going to be of interest to druids, since I think these may be the most powerful beasts in the book, with the T. Rex weighing in at CR 8.

Displacer Beast Back to looking a bit more panthery, this has got a pretty cool image, well integrated into the layout. The rules for displacement are nicely straightforward (disadvantage on attacks, disrupted when someone lands a real hit). They’ve got a bit of unseelie history to explain their blink dog antagonism (blink dogs appear in the beast appendix).

Doppelganger Sneaky, shapeshifting humanoids, I’m always curious to see how tough these things are (CR 3, which seems higher than I remember from the ones in the starter set adventures). No real surprises here, though there’s a reference to Changelings as Doppelganger children who eventually rejoin their kin. That sounds like it has weird implications for the playable race, but I’m willing to wait and see.

Dracolich Oh ho, so this is the first template we’ve seen. This is a template applied to a ancient or adult dragons. Type changes to Undead, they get resistance to necrotic, immunity to poison, a number of condition immunities and magic resistance. Otherwise it still has the powers and capabilities it had (including breath weapon, which is an interesting departure).

One curious note in the lore is that the process of becoming a dracolich requires an aide – someone to complete the ritual for the dragon. Putting a pin in that for plot purposes.

Shadow Dragon This is another template for a dragon that has spent too much time in the Shadowfell and has become infused by it. This is a more mechanically signifigant change than dracolich as the dragon becomes a living shadow, changes its damage type and also gets a new breath weapon (as well as senstivity to sunlight)

Dragons This is the big one. 17 and a half pages on the chromatic dragons alone. Some of this is going to be stat blocks at various ages (Wyrmling, Young, Adult and ancient) but I am really curious to see if they vividly distinguish between the dragons beyond terrain and breath weapons.

We open with some generalizations (including the data point that Tiamat is a lesser god, opposite Bahamut, and resentful of Asmodeus) which are all reasonably on point. Greedy, Egotistical and dangerous. Good enough. Also a sidebar that covers draconic spellcasting (since it’s not in the actual stat blocks before we move on to the Black Dragon.

It’s age CRs are 2, 7, 14 and 21 respectively, which seems to suggest an intent to align draconic age groups with the tiers of play. They pick up Legendary actions as an adult which continue into their ancient age.

The black dragon lore is ok – live in swamps, lots of description of what they look like (redundant with the art), some tactics, and notes that Lizard men and kobolds serve it. There’s a note that its presence can spawn shambling mounds, which is neat, but feels more like a regional effect.

The Lair actions and regional effects are a little more colorful, but I admit to wondering how they interact with age. It seems like the effects should be more pronounced for an ancient dragon than for a wyrmling, but that entry doesn’t seem to reflect that.

This pattern repeats for the other colors. Each entry is ok, but feels padded for the amount of information it conveys, with the Lair proving the most interesting part of the entry. This is a vague criticism of the “it could be better” variety, but the reality is that there is definitely enough information to use each of these dragons in fun and interesting ways.

Dragons, Metallic Ok, so beign good and shapeshifting are interesting, but this really caught my curiosity with “Good dragons can recognize humanoid bloodlines by smell” which is really a lovely touch for millenia-old creatures. We also get a little more information on Bahamut, including confirmation of his status as a lesser god.

The Metallic dragon entries are actually shorter than the Chromatic ones, but that works out to their favor, since it forced the writers to get right to the cool parts. Combined with the fact that they’re not necessarily framed as antagonists, the metallic dragons are largely more interesting, with more playable hooks. Even their preferences for loot are more fun.

The Lair actions remain interesting, but the regional effects are particularly colorful because unlike effects we’ve seen to date, these are largely beneficial. They are ways in which the dragon makes a place better. I admit, that’s pretty cool. And some (like the silver dragon’s ability to shape clouds like stone) suggest great play opportunitities.

Dragon Turtle – Not a lot of depth to these guys, but they’re big, scary and dangerous, and smart and motivated enough to be used in a variety of ways.

Drider – Not sure what to say about these. Their story hasn’t changed (failed the Spider Queen, were horribly transformed as a result) then went off to sulk. Not bad for creepy cannon fodder, but like a lot of Drow stuff, it feels like a little thought could have made them richer.

Dryad – Right off the bad, this intrigued me with the proposition that some dryads are fae who get bound to trees as punishment for loving a mortal. They’ve got a lot of interesting powers, but very little offensive capability. Even their charm is no longer the career ender it once was. There are only a few tweaks on the concept, but they’re the kind that make me want to use a Dryad in a game.

Duergar – Eventually I expect we’ll get PC racial options for these guys, but in the meantime, these deep dwarves are lawful evil slave-keepers (with a nod to illithid in their history) who can grow or turn invisible. Their enlarge effect is pretty nasty, doubling damage dice (substantially upgrading on the spell of the same name). Like the drow, they are subject to the ongoing influence of evil gods and demons, which I suppose is a tacit acknowledgment that having them be evil “just because” is pretty flat. That’s kind of fine as a plot point, but it’s weird as a racial characteristic (rather than, say, a national one)

Anyway, that’s it for the D’s. Damn.

  1. Graz’zt was the dude in the The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth , had an entry in the original MM2, and has shown up in subsequent stuff. Lloth, of course, is the Queen of the Demonweb pits, and it is always interesting to see where they place her in the cosmos – God or Demon.  ↩

5e MM: Basilisk through Cyclops

Further progress through the Monster Manual.

Basilisk – This one’s a pretty generic entry but funny in that the color really boils down to “yeah, you can use these guys anywhere, don’t sweat it.” While that’s not inspiring, full points for practicality. Rules for petrification are nasty, but it does take 2 saves rather than one, which is nice (especially because at CR 3, the heroes fightiing it are unlikely to have Greater Restoration on hand). Very nice touch that they take bites off statues and their guts return it to flesh for digesting (which is why their digestive juices are useful in potions of stone to flesh, and why in turn the GM may have a nice plot solution to petrified characters).

Behir – I admit, I never really noticed Behir’s until 4e where they were pretty scary non-dragons. They’ve got lightning breath and a swallow attack which is interesting. Swallowed characters are blinded and restrained, which is less nasty than it sounds, since their penalties largely overlap, and neither penalty would keep you from continuing to attack (with disadvantage) from within the creature, but the 6d6 acid damage you’re taking every round, that is probably a losing proposition if you don’t have help.

The lore is a little flat – Behir were created by giants to fight dragons, so they avoid and fight dragons. That’s fine, but I wish a few more words had been put into the implications of that and less into listing various inaccessible terrains a Behir can occupy.

Beholder – this is a big entry. Page and a half on the critters in general, then three big entries for the Beholder, the Death Tyrant (sort of a Beholder Lich) and the Spectator (a lesser beholder). As monsters they are, of course, quite terrifying. The eye rays attacks are random, and thank goodness for that, because otherwise it would be pretty much be non stop charm and disintegrate [1]all the time.

For folks who have watched the various versions of Beholder art throughout the editions may appreciate the nod which says that individual beholder appearances can vary greatly, so that every editions’ beholder art is still valid. In fact, this data point feeds strongly into the beholder’s superiority/inferiority complex (though it may make life harder for Spelljammer fans, since these beholders don’t play nicely together.

There are some wonderful notes about Beholder lairs that boil down to this: They can fly and have a disintegration ray, so they pretty much carve their lairs into whatever the hell they want, and what they usually want are lots of vertical shafts, because why would you make life easier for inferior walkers?

Unsurprisingly, Beholder’s get legendary actions, which lets them get in even MORE eye blasts. So, yeah, have fun with that.

That said, the beholder lair actions and regional effects are awesome. In the lair, eyes can just appear in walls and take a shot at you, or grow grasping tentacles. Creatures within a mile of the lair feel like they’re being watched and generally weird stuff happens. For the Death Tyrant, it’s even creepier – if you know about the Tyrant and sleep near it, it may eyeblast you through your dreams. Just nasty.

Blights – Evil plant things. This actually feels like a very unsatisfying entry. I seem to recall the lore around these things calls back to a 3e adventure (they’re sourced in a tree tainted with Vampiric blood) and the idea is that when one of these trees sprouts in a forest, it spreads its corrupting influence and animate the blights – unpleasant animated plants of a variety of sizes.

In theory, this is pretty cool, since it basically turns a forest into a low level dungeon, but in practice, it’s missing key information about the tree itself. This is disappointing because, as presented, a Gulthias Tree would be a fantastic creature to hang some regional and lair effects off of, but as is, it’s just a big blank.

Bugbears – If you’ve played any of the adventure in the starter set, you know that Bugbears are pretty nasty. There’s a little bit of cultural information about them which largely frames them as adjuncts to goblin and hobgoblin culture. And that’s fine – I don’t need a lot of depth in by Bugbears, because they largely hit stuff very hard.

Bulette – LAND SHARK!!!! Ok, honestly, the lore is not hugely exciting on this one, and if anything, I actually miss the 4e focus on “stuff that can happen in a fight” with this guy, because Bulette’s are kind of awesome to fight, but I can never say anything too unpleasant about Bulette’s.

Bullywugs – I have always suspected that it was the D&D cartoon which moved these guys from C listers to B listers, and this version is pretty much in keeping with that. They’re swamp dwellers who are giant jerks (in interesting ways) and who leverage their ability to speak to amphibians to stay aware of everything in their domain.

Bullywugs aren’t hugely exciting in their own right (and they no longer have the aura of corruption that I recall from 4e) but they are welll constructed. This entry pretty much gives you all you need to lay out how the bulk of a swamp adventure would go, starting with outlying creatures and patrols all the way into diplomacy and negotiation in the village. That’s a really well constructed entry.

Cambion The art on the Cambion does kind of emphasize the whole “Like tieflings, but more metal”, which is probably appropriate for a half-human/half-fiend. This entry is actually a lot less interesting that I’d hope – there’s a passing reference to Graz’zt as a parent of many cambions, but otherwise it’s a lot of emphasis on “They’re bad! Really, they’re bad!”. I get that may be necessary to deter some players from trying to play one, but it’s kind of a waste for a monster who is really well designed to be a low-level master villain.

Carrion Crawler Classic monster with a nasty ass picture. Lore is mostly behavioral, which is fine, though there’s some weirdness. There’s a whole chunk about how crawlers will patient follow from a distance for hours, waiting for an opportunity. Which is cool, but in the absence of a stealth skill may well be a less than great strategy.

Notably, the crawler only gets one tentacle attack per round, which is (as I recall) substantially less dangerous than past versions who could get a lot of attacks.

Centaur – The image is pretty badass, but I admit my first thought was “That looks like a World of Warcraft centaur!” and I’m not sure what I think of that. There’s some cultural lore here (they’re largely nomadic, and those that aren’t are largely those who couldn’t keep up) but I admit it’s not super exciting.

Chimera – Lore attributes their origin to Demogorgon, which is why they’re just evil evil evil (as it emphasizes). Combat-wise, these are interesting because they get lots of attacks, but lore-wise it’s a miss. Emphasizing the creatures conflicted nature would be interesting if they had any ability to communicate or if there were any way for that to come up in play.

Chuul – In the first major callback in the book, Chull are unpleasant looking servitors of the ancient Aboleth empire. They’re fairly nasty in an encounter, but much more interesting in the contexts they can be found in. Since they’re immortal and loyal, they serve a similar role to constructs and undead, endlessly guarding places and things that mattered in times long forgotten. If you encounter a Chuul, it is almost certainly part of a larger story.

CloakerThis is one of those really very D&D monsters. Looks like a leather cloak when dormant, looks like a fangy flying manta ray when it’s trying to eat your face. And it’s nasty – this is a CR 8 monster. it has a moan that causes fear, it can generate mirror images of itself, and it latches onto enemies to eat them (and transfer damage to them).

Basically, it makes no goddamned sense at all. But it’s wonderfully, D&D.

Cockatrice – This may be the shortest entry in the book (though the art is great). Basically, these things would be largely harmless ugly chickens if they didn’t a) have a poisonous bite that will turn the target to stone and b) mindlessly attack anything presenting even the smallest threat. They’re not terribly tough (but with 27 hit points, they aren’t getting one-shotted) so I fully expect them to be more fun as an almost environmental hazard than true stand-up fights.

Couatl – Lawful good feathered serpents, pretty powerful and useful plot-wise for the fact that most have been given some manner of divine task, possibly generation ago. Interesting and fun and at CR 4, they are a good way to introduce an epic feel at lower levels,

Crawling Claw – And undead hand that crawls around and tries to kill people. It is CR 0 – with 2 hit points and negligible damage, this is not a monster that is going to do well in a stand up fight. In fact, it has no stealth skill either, so basically, it exists for purely plot reasons. And the plot reasons are fun – it’s full of vivid stuff like the fact that one made from a living murdered hand will re-attach – but it’s largely useful as a plot driver.

Cyclops- at CR 6, these make good intermediate muscle since they don’t do much but hit hard. And that’s just as well – their entry is pretty dull and is mostly full of reasons to not give much of a crap about cyclops unless some bigger bad is using them as minion.

Yeah, not ready to get to the D’s quite yet.

  1. Thankfully, it’s a non-jerky form of disintegrate. Save or take 10d8 damage. If that damage kills you, you’re turned to powder. It’s actually less lethal than the death ray, which does 10d10 (and if it takes you to 0, you die, no death saves). In fact, the more useful application of disintegration is to destroy objects, which get no save. This raises the interesting question of whether the GM is supposed to pick the beholder’s targets before or after rolling effects.  ↩

5e MM – The A’s

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. [1]

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.

AarakocraThat said, I do have to complain about the art. It’s a great picture, but to me, aarakocra will always be these guys here.

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.

  1. 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.  ↩

5e Monster Manual – Before the Monsters

mmAt 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[1], 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[2], 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[3].

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.[4]

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.

  1. 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.  ↩
  2. 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.  ↩
  3. 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.  ↩
  4. Yes, maybe I’m reading a bit too much into it, but this is definitely in line with my play so far too.  ↩

Thundertree Post Mortem

We ended up using last nights’ Dungeon World Slot to run D&D. We thought we were going to be down more people than we were, and there was a lot of 5e curiosity, so we decided to make some characters ant take a swing at it. We had more folks show up than planned, so it got a little bit crazy, but we worked through fast and dirty chargen for 6 characters, and bumped them to 3rd level because there was some interest in seeing how the characters played once they were into their subclass.

Table was: Human Cleric of Knowledge, Half elf Bard, Tiefling Draconic Sorcerer, Dwarf Paladin of Vengeance, Dwarf rogue thief and a half orc monk. A few things have slipped my memory since we were juggling a lot. I opted to run them through the Thundertree portions of Lost Mine of Phandelven, so spoilers ahead.

Chargen was educational. Rolling up characteristics is fun for one shots, but it’s very much a shotgun approach, and rarely tells much of a story. I admit that when the time comes to run a real campaign, we’re going to take a bit more time on chargen (or do some of it offline) so backgrounds and details are not just pulled from thin air.

it also revealed that for all that this is streamlined, there can still be a lot to write down and keep track of (a good argument for starting at level 1). If they’re reasonably priced, I will almost certainly buy the spell decks when they come out to spare myself a lot of photocopying. It also pretty much guarantees I’ll be redoing the character sheets playbook style, for my own ease of use.

So, Thundertree is an abandoned town with zombies, twig blights, giant spiders, cultists and a green dragon. When I read the adventure, it seemed like it was WAY too nasty, since a group might be as low as 2nd level when they encountered it. But we had a larger-than-normal group at 3rd, so it seemed like maybe this was about right.

It was not.

Part of it was that the group was a little bit haphazard in their approach to the town, so there were a few early attacks (by blights and spiders) while they were separated. The spiders, in particular, were quite nasty. They would have dropped our monk in the first round if he hadn’t used the half-orc death denial ability to stay standing. They cut a deal with the druid to get rid of the dragon, talked with the cultists and agreed to join them to talk to the dragon, but the cultists then tried to feed them to him.

The dragon was a nasty fight for a couple reasons,some fair, some not. It did not get surprise (because they were ready for betrayal) but it dominated the initiative roll by virtue of everyone else sucking very hard. That meant it got to open with a breath weapon attack before the party could spread out. That caught 4 characters. I ended up rolling the damage dice because if I took the average (42) that would have been enough to insta-kill the sorcerer, which seemed douchey. They got lucky and I rolled a 39, so they Sorcerer and Monk were merely dropped, but the Paladin and Rogue stayed standing (barely), largely by virtue of it being a poision attack and them being dwarves. Much of the rest of the round involved getting the injured ones back on their feet and scrambling away. The monk engaged got in some hits, but not many, and all three of the Sorcerer’s Scorching Rays failed to hit.

It looked bad, and the second round could have gone very badly indeed, because the dragon successfully recharged his breath weapon, and two of the characters (the cleric and paladin) were tied up recovering their downed allies. Thankfully, the bard had thrown a Tasha’s hideous laughter on the leader of the chanting cultists, so the dragon used its breath weapon on them, feeling disrespected. That bought the party the round they needed.

Because THIS round (thanks to the Cleric’s bless), the paladin got off a smite, the Monk got off a successful trip, the rogue got off a sneak attack, and the sorcerer hit with all 3 rays. All told, they did over 60 damage in one round, and at 68, the thing turns tail and runs, so with the small amount of damage it had on it, it made a break for it (and got away clean).

Hard fought success, absolutely, but also educational. I think they could have done much better if they’d had time to plan, and if they had been the ones initiating the conflict, it would have been less frantic. But if it had gone one round longer, it would have turned ugly again, as the breath weapon had recharged again (though a claw-claw-bite could also probably have taken out a target or two as well). If it had not been inclined to run away, I think the party would have lost, since they’d largely burned their whammies. But it might have been close, depending on breath weapon luck. Design-wise, I think my biggest concern is that possibility for a one-hit-instakill on the sorcerer. That could have been a real funkiller.

But here’s the key – we started a little after 7:30, did chargen from scratch for 6 players, 3 of whom had not even seen 5e yet, and had 3 fights, 2 social encounters, some exploration and plenty of scenery chewing. We wrapped up by 11:00. That’s a little slower than dungeon world (especially on the chargen) but it’s a good clip for D&D. Everyone is pretty gung ho for more D&D, enough that the question of when DW is going to wrap up has been floated. That’s a good sign.

5e PHB Roundup

If it’s not clear by now, I was very happy with the 5e PHB. I’ve played one session so far, and I want to play more. It is only great restraint that keep some from just going on a mad chargen kick.

But if you want the deeper dive, here it all is.

And if you really want to dive deeper: Reviews of Starter Set and Basic Rules

5e PHB: Appendix and Layout

The appendices of the PHB are pretty straightforward, but useful. The section on conditions is nice – I liked that method of standardizing conditions in 4e very much, so it’s good to see it get use. It is also one of the only places in the ebook to use line art, but it does so to wonderful effect. These pages have some of my favorite art in the game, and they sand out nicely in contrast with the rest of the art.

The Gods of the Multiverse section is primarily there to give clerics some choices, and I support that, but it also does a few interesting things.

  • It suggests that other domains – at the very least, death – will be in the DMG
  • By including the ‘real world’ pantheons, they gave some tools to GMs looking to build their own campaign worlds. It’s not a LOT of support, but the absence of anything but setting gods would have felt a little flat.
  • Dragonlance gets a place of prominence along with the big three settings, and I’d be very surprised if that is not deeply meaningful. Absence of Mina from the list of Dragonlance gods may also suggest a rollback (which would rock)
  • One very interesting and notable absence: The Raven Queen. And, in fact, Nerull is back among the Greyhawk gods as the god of death (Nerull being the god whose mantle she stole). On one hand, this is a shame, as this was one of the few pieces of really vibrant color in 4e, but on the other hand, it’s cool to consider that it might actually happen, perhaps in a mega-adventure akin to the Planescape classic Dead Gods[1]

I am not sure what I think about the Planes of Existence section. I am a die hard Planescape fan, and I genuinely can’t tell if the overall configuration has changed or if it’s the same and it was just explained poorly. I’m sympathetic – the idea that the inner and outer planes don’t actually overlap is a bit of a brain bender, and I think that’s still the case, but the big diagram makes me nervous. That said, the explicit mention of Sigil and the Gate Towns is pretty welcome to my eyes.

Appendix D gives us low level monsters, a lot of which are a useful reference fro the druid’s shapeshifting abilities. They look neat, but largely very basic, and don’t offer a lot of insight into challenge construction, or what a given CR actually means.

Appendix E, Inspirational reading, may be my favorite thing in the book. As someone who was absolutely swept away by the list in the original books, this is a welcome sight, and nicely updated for the modern day. It’s actually a wonderful mix of past an present, and knowing it’s there makes me smile.

The index is competent, though the font is tiny. I get the needs of space, but reading it makes me feel old. That’s followed by some character sheet blanks for copying, and that’s the book.

Now that I’ve reached the end, let me talk a little bit about the book itself. I talked a lot about the exterior, and the interior deserves similar treatment.

  • Layout-wise the book feels closest to a 3e book to me, albeit with 4e influences in terms of the style, color and presentation of art. This is a great choice. As much as I like calling back to older editions in the design, I don’t want to go that far back in the layout.
  • As I noted with the cover, there’s a tendency towards painted art, which I really like the feel of. Contrast the spellcasting on page 205 (illustrator-y) with page 206 (a painting). This is no sleight to Wayne Reynold’s style. It’s fantastic, but it has become synonymous with Pathfinder, so it’s good that D&D looks different.
  • I don’t have the keen eye for fonts that some do. These look like the 4e fonts (myriad and minion, maybe?) and if they’re not, they’re close.
  • The page numbers are kind of light, as is the footer text tellign you what chapter you’re in. Mild annoyance.
  • The lower right hand corner of the pages is color coded to distinguish the four sections (chargen, rules, magic and appendix) and it bleeds to the page edge, so you can easily flip to a section. This would be awesome, but the light footer makes the next step in navigation awkward.
  • A subtle touch – table background colors vary based on the section you’re in.
  • There are some very nice touches slipped in, like each class having a unique icon.
  • Every layout person who I’ve shown the book to has wanted to see their indesign files. Their attention to detail in the layout suggests they either have some super ninja tricks, or they took a lot of time on it. Either way, it’s just very well done.
  • I am amused that it ends with a badger.
  • The diversity in the art is pretty impressive, but importantly, it’s also awesome. The non-white-dude illustrations are also really great illustrations, and that’s super important.
  • There are a handful of art pieces that fall flat (one of the elves has a freaky-ass face) but the majority range from good to great, with a handful of wow.
  • The raciest picture in the book is probably the druid on page 67. That’s good to see.

  1. Only good, I hope. That may sound snarky, and it is, a little. Dead Gods had problems. But more, adventures that revolve around an NPC doing something (in this case, becoming the Raven Queen) tend to be the very worst kind. To this day, I still own no Iron Kingdoms stuff – despite the fact that I know it’s great – because the Witchfire trilogy of adventures was so bad.  ↩

5e PHB – Uh oh, it’s Magic

As I’ve noted before, I like the spell slot system, at least on paper. I really look forward to testing it out more, since I think it’s hard to fully judge until I’ve played some at higher levels, but it looks super sweet.

Shorthand for those of use just joining us: A caster may cast a number of spells of a given level per day. A level 5 wizard can, for example, cast 4 level one spells, 3 level two spells and 2 level three spells. The cast also has a certain number of spells prepared. What those spells are and how they’re prepared varies by class, but the bottom line is that every caster has a list of available spells.

Where this gets weird for traditionalists is that they can use those daily casts to cast any spell they have prepared, so long as the slot if high enough level (so you can use a level 5 casting to cast magic missile, but you can’t use a level 1 casting to cast fireball). Because of this versatility, the daily spell castings are referred to as “slots”, because you slot the spell into the space. If you come out of 3e think of it this way: every class has different ways to prepare spells (prayer, study, or intrinsic knowledge) but everyone casts spells like a sorcerer. With a few caveats.

One important result of this is that spell level is a more fluid concept. Spells have a minimum level, but they can be cast at any level above that. And many spells get more potent if you cast them at higher levels. This is how the system handles spells which used to scale with your level. Consider the classic fireball, which did 1d6 damage per level. When you got it, it did 5d6, but in the hands of a 20th level caster, it did 20d6. That’s some crazy scaling.

In 5e, fireball is a 3rd level spell, and it does 8d6 damage. If you use a 4th level spell slot to cast it, it does 9d6. A 5th level spell slot does 10d6 and so on. You get more punch up front, but less massively swingy scaling.

An important upshot of this is that this greatly expands the range of spells you can prepare, so there are no dead zones. Consider that level 5 wizard. With an 18 intelligence, he can prepare 9 spells. Any 9 spells. They could all be the highest level he can cast (though that would be dumb) or they could all be first level, and that would be rock solid. For reference, the sorcerer of the same level knows only 6 spells, but has some other tricks to make up for it. The 18 wisdom, level 5 cleric can also prepare 9, but also has 6 more spells pre-prepared based on his deity.[1]

“But what about utility spells?” you might ask. If my wizard has only 9 slots, do I really want to use one on identify or detect magic? This is where the ritual magic rules come into play. If you know ritual magic (Bards, Clerics, Druids and Wizards do, Rangers, Paladins, Warlocks & Sorcerers do not, though there’s a feat that allows it) then spells marked as “ritual” can be cast by taking an additional 10 minutes. If you do this, it does not use up the slot. However, unless you’re a wizard, you need to have the spell prepared to ritually cast it. If you’re a wizard, you need only have it in your spellbook, and have the book on hand. I suspect that, in practice, this will offer a subtle and potent bonus to wizards which is not reflected in their raw numbers.

The other thing worth noting is that cantrips are pretty sweet. They’re only available to some casters (Bard[2], Cleric, Druid, Sorcer, Warlock and Wizard) and you basically know a small number of them, but the ones you know, you can always cast, without using up spell slots. This is neat in two big ways. First, some light utility has moved into the Cantrips, and every class has a “do minor magic stuff” cantrip, effectively granting all casters their equivalent of prestidigitation. A lot of colorful spells that were fun but never worth spending a slot on are now cantrips.

Second, there are combat cantrips. They’re not hugely powerful, usually doing weapon-equivalent damage with no stat modifier but some other effect. Notably, their base damage does scale up a little with levels, adding a die at every tier, so they always remain useful. The net result is that your caster always can do something magical, and there is no trying to melee with a dagger because you’re our of spells. As a caster, I find this a relief.

Actually casting spells is pretty straightforward, with the one qualifier that this is the one area where proficiency works differently than you might expect. Casters get proficiency with a spell focus (staff, holy symbol, whatever) and they add a proficiency bonus to their spell attacks, but that bonus is entirely unrelated to the focus, at least as written. Proficiency with a focus means you can use the focus un lieu of trivial material components.

Other stuff is familiar – saving throws, attack shapes, stuff like that. But it’s notably to call out the rules for concentration. Lots of spells are sustained by concentration, and taking damage can break concentration, and that’s all well and good, but it’s important to note that you can only concentrate on one spell at a time. This matters a lot because almost every spell with a duration is based on concentration, so stacking buffs is MUCH harder now.

The spells themselves are interesting. Casting time is often in actions and duration is usually in real units of time (noting that a round is about 6 seconds). Spells have intrinsic levels and types (2nd level transmutation, for example) and the choice to include level is curious, because it means that it will always be the same level for all classes. That is, no spell is a level 1 druid spell but a level 3 ranger spell. This is probably the right choice the way they’ve structured the spell tables, but it’s curious.

The master list of spells is by class – all the bard spells by level, cleric spells by level and so on. I do wish they had the table that inverted this (spells by level, with casters) but I suspect the internet will provide it in time. When it does, I think that’s going to offer some very interesting insights, because I think decisions about who can cast what spells was a very big part of class design.

Highlights as I flip through the spells:

  • Aid, curiously, increases hit points. it does not grant temporary hit points. Fun distinction, and notably its 8 hour duration doesn’t depend on concentration.
  • Alter Self is a transmutation, not an illusion, and it can grant cool effects like aquatic adaptation or body weaponry. That is super stylish.
  • Animal Shapes! This is a level 8 spell that basically lets you transform as many willing targets as you can see as if they were druids using wild shape, including the hit point recovery. Not only is this mechanically badass (instant army of bear), it means you can literally turn a (willing) troop of soldiers into ravens, all fly into the enemy stronghold, and THEN turn into bears. And then sharks. And then wolves.
  • Kind of sad Arcane Gate is not a ritual
  • Aura of Life is what I always wished protection from energy drain was
  • Banishing Smite has an interesting mechanic. Bonus damage, and if it reduced HP below 50, banish the target (if native to this plane, it shunts them off for a while). That’s a nice threshold, and like other fight-ending spells, they’ve done a nice job of making it more valuable later in the fight.
  • Man, I just want to say – the abjurations seem consistently badass. The next DW character I try to convert will be Urv, our wizard, and he’s totally goign to be an abjurer.
  • Nice language with barkskin – “Target’s AC can’t be less than 16” – that instantly clears up a huge number of combination questions.
  • Bestow Curse is delightfully unpleasant
  • A single Bigby’s hand spell with multiple uses. Love it.
  • Blink is a little weird – I’m not 100% clear on its utility
  • Branding Smite! This spell is awesome, but also it is notably only a Paladin thing (as I suspect may largely be true of the smiting spells, which is fantastic)
  • Clone! Super useful.
  • Conjure Barrage and Conjure Volley first seemed liek they were just there to look awesome (which they do) but then I got to Cordon of Arrows and realized that these were actually ranger signature spells (like the smites are for Paladins) and I admit I really dig that. The Ranger has gained a few points in my eyes.
  • The various creature conjuration spells make me REALLY want to read up on CRs because they seem low, but I know they’re not.
  • Continual Flame is still a nice improvement on continual light.
  • Counterspell is actually made nicely useful by the spell slot system, and mechanical easy with reactions.
  • Death Ward is pretty badass and nicely multipurpose
  • Demiplane is pretty slick, specifically in the way it can open doors into new places or known places. Lots of fun implications to that for a paranoid wizard.
  • Disguise self is the illusionary counterpart to alter self, and it’s nice to see them divided.
  • Druidcraft is prestidigitation for Druids, and I’m glad they have it
  • Enhance Ability folds all the various stat buffs that were such a pain in 3e and puts them under one spell. All the effects are useful, but none of them (excepting the temporary HP from Bear’s Endurance) are directly combat applicable, which is nice.
  • Expeditious retreat is handy, but since it uses a bonus action, it’s not quite the uber-powerhouse it once was, which is nice.
  • Faerie Fire is a rogue’s best friend
  • I am delighted that Find Familiar has actually incorporated the reality that the familiar can literally not be there until you remember you have one. Similar for the Paladin’s steed[3]
  • I know some people feel like Gate is abusable, but, man, its a level 9 spell. Anyone you’re summoning with it is either no threat to begin with, or is going to have a name you cannot easily acquire
  • Folding explosive runes into glyph of warding makes a lot of sense to me
  • I have always likes Guards and Wards, so its presence delights me
  • Haste having one round of downtime when it ends is a nice touch.
  • Heroism is nicely potent, like, enough so that i would actually cast it. Immune to fear is nice, but “gains temporary HP equal to your casting modifier each round” is awesome. They don’t stack, but the fact that they constant replenish is pretty sweet.
  • Man, you can really spot the Warlock spells when you hit them. Looking at you, Hunger of Hadar.
  • Hunter’s mark is now a spell? FASCINATING
  • Magic Circle is another great spell that I am sad is not a ritual
  • Nystul’s Magic Aura is now a bit more multipurpose
  • Phantasmal force kind of lays out the underlying model for illusions. The visible component can be spotted as false with an investigation check, or simply by interacting with it. If there’s a mental component, that calls for an intelligence save, and subjects the target to potential damage. Notably, the maximum damage the illusion can do directly is pretty constrained, which is nice – no illusionary decaptiations.
  • Polymorph uses similar mechanics to the druid, and I support that. it also seems to fold “self” and “other” into one spell
  • Rary’s telepathic bond is basically the team communicator spell, so it’s a shame it’s so high level.
  • Shapechange is similarly druidic in its mechanics, but since the CR cap is your level, that seems terrifying.
  • Oh, I LOVE Shillelagh. It’s a cantrip, and lets you use your casting stat rather than strength for attack with it (which are magic, and do d8). Not super potent, but fun, and appropriate for a cantrip.
  • Sleep, as noted, affects a number of hit points of creatures, which makes it much more interesting to apply tactically (rather than just open with it)
  • I was a little puzzled by True Polymorph until i realized it does not actually have a CR cap. So far as I can tell, this means that Tarrasques are on the table.
  • Vicious Mockery is a great cantrip as long as i don’t think about Kender.
  • Oh, man, Wish. Nice mechanical boundaries, but room for leeway.
  • Witch Bolt. Yeah, that’s Warlocky (though not exclusive to Warlocks)

The appendices are cool enough to merit their own post (along with some layout thoughts) so that’s probably enough for today.

  1. Notably, this also makes spell cards viable as a product. Historically, they worked poorly because most casters prepared spells multiple times, and that would require a second deck of cards. Now you only need cards fro your prepared spells (and possibly your spellbook) and there will be no duplication. And more, because there’s very little scaling or variability to spells, you don’t get the 4e problem with power cards where the cards required too much cross-referencing to be as efficient as one might hope.  ↩

  2. The bard is a curious presence on this list of what are otherwise the “pure” spellcasting classes. I had not really thought about it, but they seem to have gone all-in on the Bard as a caster this edition, allowing spells as high as 9th level. The class is definitely constrained by their spell list, with precious few attack spells, but it’s important to remember that they are still a magcal powerhouse.  ↩

  3. And I do like the grace of making something that’s historically a class ability into a spell. The ranger and paladin spells have surprised me with their quality and flavor, improving both classes in my mind.  ↩

D&D PHB: Rules Stuff

The next section of the PHB gets into the actual rules, a lot of which already got covered between the starter set and the basic rules, but let’s run through the high points:

Doing Stuff

  • Wisdom is explicitly perception but not explicitly willpower as written, but I suspect the saving throws still indicate that it is.
  • Charisma is totally decoupled from appearance
  • Basically everything is a d20 roll plus ability modifier with the possibility of other factors impacting the outcome, notably proficiency bonuses and advantage/disadvantage.[1]
  • Speaking of which, Advantage/Disadvantage remains the most delightful mechanic in this new edition.
  • Proficiency bonus is a close second. It’s flexible and establishes the spine of the game, in terms of difficulties.
  • Speaking of which, difficulties are fixed and simple, capping out at 30 for nearly impossible (which is pretty reasonable. 20 in a stat (+5), plus max proficiency bonus (+6) still needs an amazing roll to hit that (or a lot of help, like skill specialization, blessings, advantage and so on). It’ll be important to internalize these, especially that 15 is, effectively, the default.
  • And if one were to decide that failing by 5 or less is a 7–9 result, well, no harm in that, eh?
  • There is also no mention of multiple difficulty levels (get x if you hit a 15, Y if you get a 20) but I think that’s for the best. That always seems cool, but is actually kind of counterproductive in a lot of situations.
  • Skills are a subset of stats, which is interesting in its implications, but does simplify things for actual rolling.
  • Passive checks are a nice touch and effectively manifest the idea of taking 10. That raises the question of where taking 20 went, but with a little thought, I don’t think I want it. With the non-scaling difficulties, it would become pretty lame if 20 minutes work guarantees you a near impossible result.
  • Teamwork is simple – just provides advantage.
  • Group checks require half the group to succeed (round down). I like the clarity of this – it may not apply in every situation, but in matters of stealth and perception, it’s good to have a clear rule of thumb.
  • The halfling on page 176? I am totally good with her. Slightly oversized head is fine, but the absence of bug legs makes her much less troublesome to me.
  • Stats are well articulated, but not awash in surprises.
  • Encumbrance is nicely simple, though of course there are optional rules. Jumping distances have already fallen out of my brain.
  • Saving throws still provide little guidance for secondary (strength, intelligence and charisma) saves. Other rules have offered some insight – strength saves have come up against push effects, intelligence saves against illusions, but the lack of clarity is irksome.


  • Travel, movement, all perfectly workmanlike, but unexciting. There are inklings of cool stuff for overland travel (navigation, tracking, foraging and such) but those are just teases for the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Bah,
  • The food and water rules aren’t bad, but this is all making me miss Dungeon World’s abstraction of it.
  • Social interaction leans heavily on roleplaying, either descriptively (say what you do) or actively (acting it out) and NPCs react accordingly. Ability checks are given slightly short shrift in this regard, but the do get mentioned.
  • Short and Long Rest remain great concepts, but the short rest now being a meal (and hour) rather than a pause (a few minutes) makes is an oddity. The old short rest was effectively a marker for a transition between scenes. The new short rest is long enough to be a scene in its own right. Dunno if that’s good or bad, but I admit I will probably still include a “pause” in my own thinking, to hold the space of the old short rest.
  • Healing during rests is pretty straightforward once you get used to the idea that “hit dice” are now a pool of literal dice which can be tapped for healing, rather like a slow version of Omega World.
  • I really like the “Between Adventures” section. In addition to calling out lifestyle expenses, there is a very birthright-esque list of things you can do in your downtime (craft, make a living, Recuperate, Research, or train in a new tool or language). There is room here to expand these rules, but they provide a solid baseline for “you are going to be in Waterdeep for 30 days before your ship leaves – what do you do?”[2]


  • Talked about this before, but the move and act economy seems pretty tidy, with a default limit on “free” actions (one bonus, one reaction) which end runs certain 4e abuses.
  • The whole system leans heavily on common sense rulings. I’m super good with that.
  • I like that you can implicitly move through the space of a huge creature, though it’s difficult terrain. That feels much more dynamic than the “OH GOD, WE’VE MOVED INTO REACH” fights with big dudes in 4e.
  • In fact, things like reach and flanking feel much more ad hoc (there is not, in fact, any entry for flanking in the index, and reach only comes up in weapon properties). This is notably important for Rogues, since sneak attack now depends on having advantage however you achieve it rather than a specific position. One one hand, they no longer get the easy, static sneak attach chains from putting their mini in just the right place, but on the other hand, they’re going to be driven to do a lot more cool stuff to try to get advantage.[3]
  • Searching is implicitly quite fast, as it’s a combat action. Interesting.
  • Readying an action still seems overly restrictive in its language, but put through the common sense filter of the rest of the rules, it works out ok.
  • 20’s always hit. Important for mass attacks, but also an important reminder of the potency of disadvantage – a penalty won’t save you from a natural 20, but a disadvantage might.
  • 1 is also always a miss, no other fiddly bits.
  • It’s kind of funny to see 3 paragraphs of simple ranged attacks rather than 9 pages of elaborate line of sight rules. Funny and delightful.
  • Opportunity attacks are still there to keep you from rushing past armed foes willy-nilly, but they’re simpler.
  • Two weapon fighting does not make me angry
  • Grappling and pushing rules also largely bounce off my skull, but they seem innocuous enough
  • Cover is noteworthy since it provides modifiers, not advantage, but it is thankfully pretty simple – +2, +5 or hell no.
  • Hit points, damage and healing are all nicely tidy. There’s a sidebar which kind of obliquely references the bloodied status from 4e, but it is otherwise missing. This is, I have to say, kind of a shame.
  • Not super happy to see the boring-as-hell death saves system, but I get why it’s there (that is, to be nice)
  • More limited version of the 4e knockout rules. When you deliver the deathblow in melee, you can knock them out. Upside: no worrying about subdual damage or the like. Downside – I recall 4e being a bit more liberal in this, which allowed for somewhat more ethical outcomes, like turning defeated foes over to the authorities without worrying about the DM screwing you for keeping them alive.
  • Rounded out with temporary hit points (which don’t stack) mounts and underwater combat. That last may seem a little silly, but I vividly remember that section in my 1e book, with its elaborate rules for how different spells behaved underwater (lightning bolt became a fireball! Ice Storm floated!) and it’s kind of nice to see if broken down into 4 short paragraphs.

Ok, that’s the fact pass through the rules. The earlier reviews have more detail, if that’s your thing. It’s a good point to stop because the next section is magic. Literally and figuratively.

  1. I have wholeheartedly adopted the Dungeon World shorthand for this, where the value of the stat is written out and the value of the bonus is abbreviated and capitalized. SO if I have an 18 dexterity with a +4 modifier, then I have a dexterity of 18 and a DEX of +4.  ↩

  2. Tip to GMs – plan for this downtime at the end of sessions, or to be resolved by email or otherwise between sessions. You don’t want to start sessions with it, because that’s a dull bookeeping exercise when you should be getting your action on.  ↩

  3. This is something I hope the DMG addresses – the DM can, nominally, grant advantage when the situation dictates, but exactly how that is interpreted is left fuzzy. How the DM handles that relates directly to the tone of the game – a game where advantage comes from strictly tactical consideration will feel very different than one where the DM grants advantage for an awesome description. There’s no right answer, but it’ll be important to get everyone on the same page.  ↩

A quick 5e test

Out of curiosity, I took one of the characters from my current Dungeon World game, Fred’s fighter Dogan, to see what he’d look like in 5e.  Here he is in DW:dw7

Basically, Dogan is tough and outputs a lot of damage.  The two notable things which may be tricky to replicate are his signature weapon and his multiclass trick (though I’m less attached to the latter).  Starting at level 1, he might look like this:



I used the optional human rules to give him a starting feat and skill. I made the skill healing, since I was not going to address the druid move elsewhere.  I also tweaked the Martial Adept feat to give one move and 2 dice rather than 2 moves and 1 die, partly because that seems more fun, and partly because the push attack is the only reason I took the feat at all (and I note, this reveals it’s kind of a cheaty backdoor into a wide range of feats). Notably, he did NOT get Bellringer out the door, which would be a dealbreaker.  Were I running this, I would absolutely be using Earthdawn style “grow with you” magic items, and I’d probably just gift him with it.

Anyway, I bumped him to 7 and he looks more like:

5e7That’s badass, but it definitely suggests (to me) that 1:1 conversion is not the way to go to capture the feel of a DW character.  But I’m hesitant to go full 2:1.  Also, Remarkable Athlete feels kind of lame as an ability.

Anyway, excepting the things which were obviously going to be problems (druid multiclass and the specifics of the signature weapon) I think the feel came across – this is still a dude who just soaks up and deals out damage, so it’s largely there.  And it has me wondering about a weapon-bearer Martial Archetype.