By Christopher Helton
This past week our weekly gaming group decided that it was time to start up a new game, playing the new edition of Dungeons & Dragons. We waited because I wanted the new Monster Manual in hand before we started playing. It was a fun first session, and two of the characters were knocking at death's door after an encounter with a handful of grimlocks. The characters did survive to be around when we game again next week, thanks to the new short rest mechanics (because I am sure that everyone reading this is concerned about whether or not they lived).
The reason that I wanted to wait for the Monster Manual to come out is because it is an important backbone of the Dungeons & Dragons game. You have to have monsters to fight, as the Rat Queens and Skullkickers comics have shown, otherwise the characters spend all of their time in a tavern getting drunk. Not that there's anything wrong with that because I know that our group spends a lot of time in taverns and brothels getting into trouble.
There are a couple of shortcomings to the book. Admittedly the book is already 40 some pages longer than the Player's Handbook, so what I am looking for would have made the Monster Manual an even bigger tome, but I think there are some important tools for the Dungeon Master that could have been in this book (particularly since we still have a bit of a wait for the Dungeon Master's Guide to come out). I would have liked to have seen guidelines/rules for customizing and creating new monsters in the Monster Manual. I know that they will be in the DMG, and there could be an argument made for them being DM tools, but I like rules material being centralized. Even some simple guidelines that referred to the DMG for more detail would have been nice. I also would have liked encounter tables for the monsters. I am sure that these will be in the Dungeon Master's Guide as well, but again it would be nice to not have to flip back and forth between two books during play.
That said, I don't otherwise have complaints with the Monster Manual. I like the art and layout of the book, the design of monsters is clean and easy to consult during play. I like the fact that each monster entry has story bits to them, allowing you to make monsters into more than just things that characters hit with their weapons. It is still a long way from the "monsters are people too" approach of the early editions of Runequest, but giving story ideas to the creatures is a step in the right direction for Dungeons & Dragons. The monsters in the Monster Manual also range from throughout the history of Dungeons & Dragons. From the first edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Fiend Folio comes the flumph and the slaad (although the slaad have developed a history within the game) and demons from the AD&D Monster Manual II make an appearance. Having old school monsters rub elbows with more current brethren shows off some of the depth and breadth of the game, as well as the history of Dungeons & Dragons.
I'm not going to give a monster by monster breakdown of what is in the book and whether or not each creature is "done right." As our group has already learned after one session of D&D how you approach the game, and how your characters approach fights, can make as much of a difference in the game as the stat blocks in the Monster Manual. This doesn't mean that the write-ups are pointless, it just means that the outcomes in the game are fluid, and have as much to do with preparation for a fight as they do with what is in the books.
Is the Monster Manual worth the $50 price of admission? I say yes, because there is some good stuff in here, however the thing is that you really can't play Dungeons & Dragons without monsters. Sure, there are some in free PDFs from Wizards of the Coast floating around the internet, and gaming bloggers have already begun creating and adapting their own monsters to the fifth edition rules, but without this core book you aren't going to have much of a D&D game. This book is required for Dungeon Masters, and will really fill out people's games. Hopefully, after the first of the year, once all of the core books are rolled out we will see an announcement from Wizards of the Coast saying that they are going to have an open license that will allow for publishers to do their own monster books for the game. Until then (if that happens), this is what we have.
Christopher Helton is a blogger, podcaster and tabletop RPG publisher who talks about games and other forms of geekery at the long-running Dorkland! blog. He is also the co-publisher at the ENnie Award winning Battlefield Press, Inc. You can find him on Twitter at @dorkland and on G+ at https://plus.google.com/+ChristopherHelton/ where he will talk your ear off about gaming and comics.