Monsters Monsters Everywhere: Reviewing the Monster Manuals
Ah, monsters. There’s something about things that crawl, slither and skulk that I love about D&D gaming. I know there’s folks out there who love sprawling cities and argue that the most dangerous critter in the game is the Human, but give me a goblin horde any day. After all, you know where you are with monsters.
Thats one of the strengths behind D&D. Im going to take a look at Monster Manuals I to IV, with the Fiend Folio thrown in for good measure. As youll see, some are great and deserve a place on your bookshelves. Others.. well, the less said, the better.
Starting right at the top of the tree, Monster Manual I is an essential cornerstone of the game. If its core D&D, youll find it there. It includes all of the monsters from the SRD, plus the ones that remain Wizards sole property – most notably the Mind Flayer, Beholder, Githyanki and Githzerai. Those four merit price of entrance alone. Weve enough dragons to populate a small island (theres an idea) and all of the expected humanoids, giants, aberrations and dungeon fodder. If you only buy one Monster Manual, it goes without saying that this is it.
There are very few duffs in the book. Only the delver, destrachan, digester, ethereal filcher and ethereal marauder do nothing for me. Its a testament to the quality of the book that this list is so short. Wed be better without them and some of the more obvious omissions culled across from MM II. More on those later though.
Layout-wise, this is the book that defined the style for all of the rest up until MM IV. Its clean, but it can sometimes be awkward to find stat details in the heat of combat. I for one think the changes that came in with MM IV are a good thing, and Id love to see the SRD update to the new layout style.
One of the oft-ignored sections of the book is the most important. The back of the book is devoted to creating your own monsters and modifying existing critters. Its an essential and under-rated read.
On to Monster Manual II, and things slide downhill rapidly. In contrast to the five unusable monsters in MM I, this monster manual feels like its only got five that are usable! Its a shoddy grab-bag of monsters that should have been included first-time round (Galeb Duhr, Jermlaine, Darktentacles), downright wrong (Loxo, Chaos Roc, Rukarazyll) and a tiny number of new cool monsters – mainly the Moon- critters. These alone though arent worth the cover price, so its worth avoiding unless youre a completest. This is the single least-used and least-usable Monster Manual out there. Its a big disappointment all round.
Thankfully though, its all uphill from hereon. Fiend Folio is a much better product that pulls no punches. Unlike the other Monster Manuals this one is designed with a clear goal of providing higher-level challenges, mainly of the demonic and fiendish varieties. Its not a book for everyone and every style of play, but it if you like your Evil Evil, then this one deserves its place on your bookshelf. I can find a use for all but a handful of critters in this book. That probably says more about me :)
I didnt have high hopes for Monster Manual III after the debacle that was MM II. I expected fewer monsters from D&Ds past, and more poorly constructed new monsters. Thankfully I was right, and wrong – in that order. The originality factor is high in this book, with few of the cobbled together hashes of MM II. Oddly enough, this is the first book since MM I with a cool monster as the first one you see with the Ambush Drake. It definitely beats the Abeil (wasp people? Oh, please no!) and Abrian (Fiend Folios emus with arms. I kid you not). Call me old fashioned, but the first monster always sets the tone of the entire book. Get it right, and its plain sailing from there.
There are just one or two blasts from the past in MM III, and theyre all welcome additions. Im glad to see the Caraytid Column and Fossegrim in there in particular. There are some creatures in MM III that you could base an entire campaign around – most notably the Half-Illithid template, Formians and Ethergaunts – so theres plenty of game ideas in here. Highly recommended.
The latest release in the Monster Manual franchise is the most controversial, for several reasons. People either love or hate the new statblock style. Personally, I prefer it because its much easier to work with in-game, though it can be confusing if youre switching several books so you have to work with two statblock styles and the same time. This book also has far fewer monsters than any other Manual, though theyre all covered in much more detail so the page count remains muchly the same. Horses for courses.
Most unusually, this is the first Monster Manual that contains monsters that arent new. Here youll find Dwarves, Elves, Orcs and others; this time around we have fully stated out monsters with class levels. Combined with monster lair maps and tactics these entries are basically re-usable ready-to-run mini-adventures. I love them, and would like to see more of the same.
The difference between MM II and MM IV is an exercise in quality versus quantity, with Monster Manual IV being a clear winner. I hope that Monster Manual V is in the same vein.
Phew! Next time, Ill take a look at bestiaries from companies other than Wizards.