For a lot of Dungeons & Dragons players, the Monster Manual was the magical book that hooked them. It’s traditionally a tome of magic and wonder for young players, filled with strange beasts that defy description and written to appeal to the kind of kid that obsessively categorizes dinosaurs and devours tomes of mythology. The Monster Manual for D&D‘s 5th Edition is a grand old book in that tradition, mixing game usefulness and a healthy respect for the mystery and purpose of its own contents. It’s a bestiary in the grandest sense, and while it occasionally stumbles on rules, it innovates or succeeds in key ways that make the book more usable and valuable than many of its predecessors.
The book is just as high quality as the Player’s Handbook was before it, with just as good a binding and paper stock as you’d expect. The cover suffers from some small wrapping onto the spine, but it looks like that’s because the decision must have gotten made to stuff in another fold of monsters. Some complaints will be made about the look of the books on the shelf getting disrupted, but nobody’s going to value that over the added content. Only time will tell if the overstuffing means we see binding issues with the Monster Manual, but for the rough month I had with the book I saw none.
The art and layout are generally gorgeous, with the beautifully handpainted style of 5th Edition taking the fore on many pages. Plenty of full page or half page splashes of art are included, giving the material the kind of space that it needs to thrive. There are a few stinkers in the artwork (I’m looking at you, fat Owlbear), but mostly they’re great. The layout of the book is superb, with easy cues in the bottom right corners letting you know immediately which section of the book you’re in. Monster stat blocks have all the usability of 4th Edition monsters, and sections that direct you outside the book for information are relegated only to monsters with spellcasting powers. The painfully lacking part of the layout was the decision not to include a “Monsters by Challenge” index. While it’s a void that will inevitably be filled by fan supplements, it’s odd and obnoxious that something the vast majority of DMs will print out and insert wasn’t included. That said, the existing index of every stat block in the book by name is both complete and useful.
Packed with fascinating story and inspiring ideas, there’s little to find fault with in most of the written words in the Monster Manual. The rules for monsters, meanwhile, are for the most part clearly written and decipherable, but occasionally complex wording can be frustrating. The monster stat blocks are a little strange to veterans of Dungeons & Dragons past, only bothering to note a monster’s skill or saving throw if they’re actually proficient in it. It’s a little disconcerting at first, as most monsters aren’t necessarily proficient in a specific save, so when you go looking for a monster’s Dexterity save and don’t even find the save line, you’ll often do a double take before you realize you just have to rely on the creature’s modifier. It takes a little rules knowhow to get used to the stat blocks and use the monsters.
The new system for choosing when a monster is a suitable opponent for players is called Challenge, a number indicating at what level the monster should be difficult, but not a deadly fight, to a fresh party of four adventurers. It’s clear that while there’s a mechanical basis for the Challenge numbers that monsters are assigned, there’s as much art as science in whatever alchemy spits out that number. The monsters chosen for this book are also overwhelmingly skewed towards the lower quarter of the Challenge spectrum, covering thoroughly levels one to five before a variety cutoff that severely limits the kinds of enemies that higher level parties will face. If you consider this and the other two core rulebooks a complete game then the creatures available to you for high level adventuring will sorely disappoint you. It’s mostly dragons and creatures from the outer planes like angels and fiends.
That’s not to say that what monsters are in this book – and to be clear there are a hell of a lot of them – are by any means uninteresting. There’s a lot of variety, with the best of the old books represented: A cross-section of both fan favorites from older editions and forgotten oddities. Each individual monster is dripping with fascinating details and seeds for adventures, with text accompanying every entry that alludes to worlds of adventures yet to be had and cues the DM on how the creature fits into the roleplaying aspect of the game. Even the opening of the book is loaded with adventure seeds, telling prospective dungeon masters about the kinds of environments that they might find monsters in. Beasts and Monsters have odd descriptions about the sort of ecologies that form around them. Intelligent creatures have notes on their gods and societies – loose descriptions that can be easily slotted into any fantasy world the DM chooses to run their campaign in but that mostly fit the D&D norm. Many of the intelligent beasts and humanoid enemies also have a handful of statistics blocks available, like a soldier, shaman, and chief for Orcs. Notably, though the Forgotten Realms are D&D‘s new default, they don’t stand out as particularly prominent in this book.
The books two appendices also bear mentioning. The first is a trove of ‘normal’ animals that occur in the D&D world, from natural things like bears and elk to giant spiders and blink dogs. They’re monsters that didn’t require a full page of description and it’s good to see them presented in a format that respects page space. The second appendix is a surprise, but very useful, and contains a bevy of statistics for nonplayer characters – from bandits and archmages to priests and nobles. Like the beasts appendix, it’s a concise and useful chunk of the book.
The majority of entries in the Monster Manual have great rules, quick and easy to understand, but with many showing quirky exceptions and abilities that bely the mechanical simplicity 5th Edition otherwise exhibits. Take as an example the fiends – be they Demons, Devils, Rakshasa, Succu/Incubi, or Yugoloths – all show a variety that makes the different classes of creature really stand out from each other. While in previous editions it felt like a Pit Fiend and a Balor were, a few differences aside, much the same beast, the designers made sure that many monsters really occupied their own mechanical niches – especially at higher Challenge levels. The book also often includes variants for monsters in sidebars, like trolls whose body parts maintain their own motivations after being severed or classic Demons that can summon reinforcements from the Abyss on a whim. There are even a few of the old 3rd Edition D&D-style templates floating around, allowing DMs to make their enemies Half-Dragons or the like.
There are, though, a few uninspired wastes of a page in the book. Take, for example, the entry for the Cyclops and compare it to the entry for the Hill Giant. They’re very nearly the same creature, with hit point totals very close to each other and quite literally the same two attacks doing nearly identical amounts of damage, but the Cyclops isn’t very good at hitting things with ranged attacks. Aside from some remarkably similar descriptive text, that’s about it. And, of course, the 33 pages spent on Dragons will thrill only a few dedicated fans, since some dragons differ very little mechanically from the each other. The legendary details provided for each dragon do somewhat make up for that sameness.
Monsters have some variance in their statistics that’s obviously tied to Challenge, like hit points and proficiency bonuses, and those numbers go pretty high over the course of Challenges 1-24. However, the developer promise that target numbers wouldn’t too egregiously inflate has certainly been honored. Even the most potent dragons tend to have an Armor Class and target numbers for saving throws that hover around the low 20s, meaning a well armed and powerful warrior will be able to score a few hits each round. That said, the saving throw numbers to avoid the nasty abilities and spells of the higher level monsters are rather unattainable even with their reduced range, and there’s little opportunity for players who have bad saves in those categories to avoid those powers. Many players are just going to have to resign themselves to a life of eating dragon breath or petrification – which isn’t a particularly appealing fate nor fun gameplay.
There are clear outliers that show how the Challenge system is as much art as science. Take, for example, the petrifying Cockatrice at a lowly Challenge 2, which can peck you for a small amount of damage and a chance to turn you to stone. Its petrification is limited to a 24 hour period, though, so since the Cockatrice deals a small amount of damage with each attack even if it “bests” the party it’ll probably be an embarrassing rather than deadly encounter. The Bugbear, meanwhile, also clocks in at Challenge 2 but deals such potent damage that it will likely leave a similar party of Characters on the ground and dying. There’s a certain frustration with the Challenge system being guidelines, but also a certain attractiveness.
If you’re used to the regimented rules of what constituted a fair fight in 4th Edition D&D, you’re going to be surprised and possibly unhappy. On the other hand, that approach combined with the limited range of Armor Class and saving throw DCs means those naturalistic players who love to think of the fantasy world as having its own rules separate from the rules of the game will enjoy the idea that though a Manticore is a potent foe suitable for third level adventurers, clever strategies could bring it down.
Carrying on the legacy of 4th Edition’s Solo monsters are the much less problematically named Legendary monsters. Legendary monsters are those creatures with such fearsome reputations and potent abilities that they have always been used as cornerstones of the D&D adventures they appear in. They’re things like fully grown dragons, Beholders, Sphinxes, or even The Kraken. Legendary monsters have wonderful unique mechanics that give them extra actions, neatly solving the problem exhibited in older D&D editions, where a dragon’s flurry of attacks (Remember Bite/Claw/Claw/Wing/Wing/Tail/Crush?) slew a character in a round. Those powers are instead spread through the round, after their enemies act. Legendary monsters also get a few opportunities to automatically pass saving throws, avoiding the 3rd and 4th edition problem of a single “Save or Suck” spell ending the career of a potent villain.
Legendary creatures are tied to their Lairs, and they have powerful Lair Actions – like a white dragon that causes a shower of ice stalactites to fall upon its foes. In play, they’re glorious, making players wary of engaging the most formidable creatures and making those climactic battles fantastically fun when they do appear. Likewise, powerful monsters also have Region Effects, the ways in which they warp the surrounding countryside to their will by their presence. Alongside the wonderful descriptions of how the monsters live, they give a real life to the D&D game world without acting as a prescriptivist description of the game’s setting.
The Monster Manual is a satisfying book, and while there are multiple valid criticisms to levy against it – from mechanical oddities and range of foes, to its refusal to pin down just how hard any given creature is – there’s little to actively dislike about it. Its consistent implementation of mechanics just barely glimpsed in the D&D Starter Set and Player’s Handbook should give most players confidence that Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition is going to provide interesting play and deliver on its core principles.
Bottom Line: A trove of fascinating creatures and fun reading, the Monster Manual makes D&D 5th feel like a complete game and game world.
Recommendation: Those who doubted the system based on the Player’s Handbook alone may just be convinced by the Monster Manual‘s charms.[rating=4.5]
Designed by Chris Perkins, Mike Mearls, and Jeremy Crawford; additional development by Chris Sims, Rodney Thompson, Peter Lee, Robert J. Schwalb, Rodney Thompson, and Peter Lee. For Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition. Published by Wizards of the Coast. Released September 2014. A copy was provided by Wizards of the Coast for review.