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 ideaof 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,  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. 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 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
- First Impression
- Aarakocra to Azer
- Basilisk to Cyclops
- Darkmantle to Duergar
- Elemental to Fungi
- Galeb Duhr to Grimlock
- Hags to Invisible Stalker
- Jackalwere to Mimic
- Mind Flayer to Owlbear
- Pegasus to Sphinxes
- Sprite to Zombie and Appendices
- History of the World, as inferred from the MM & PHB
This is a pretty giant read, so if you are looking for something quicker but still comprehensive, I strongly endorse these reviews.
- Escapist – Source of the aforementioned graph.
- Critical Hits – Includes a link to the appendix the MM should have had, list of monsters by CR
- My review of the 5e PHB
- My review of the 5e Starter Set and basic rules
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!
- Which I feel is further built upon in 13th Age. I’ll talk about that when I give it a (much shorter) review. ↩
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩