Review: Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition Monster Manual

The D&D 5th Edition Monster Manual is not 100% perfect, but it’s 1,000% totally f%$^ing gorgeous! Honestly, it’s so very, very close to 100% perfect. Wizards really did bring the art budget to bear on this book, providing more than just snazzy profile pix of all the monsters, but also neat pre-finalized artwork and concept sketches that often show the creatures in cool stances or doing interesting (sometimes downright silly) things, which helps make them come alive.

There’s a couple things missing — better indexing of the monsters by various things (Challenge, Terrain), ecology “stat blocks” like previous editions (organization, morale) — but some of these exist in the Dungeon Master’s Guide or in electronic form, so at worse we’re looking at a couple small missteps.

Rating: Content 4/5 and Form 5/5.

Read on for the full review!

Monster Manual Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Content (4/5)

With 153 entries, and many featuring multiple statblocks per entry (goblins have the Goblin and the Goblin Boss; Dragons have all of the chromatic and metallic dragons at four different ages) you get an awful lot of monsters in this book. I’m not great at the mathz (English major and all) but I count something like 432 individual stablocks. That’s like 1/10 of the number of times I’ve played D&D, probably, but that’s still significant.

Outside of statblocks, most monsters take up multiple pages, which means you get a pretty in-depth look at how the creature exists in the D&D world (always pretty setting-agnostic, but occasionally with a slipped-in reference to the Forgotten Realms), as well as story hooks and lair information. That’s a lot of content.

Monster Ecologies

Taking a deeper-dive into the information, one finds that there’s a few traits that don’t show up in the statblocks: these are the more “story-oriented” details, and there’s nothing in the statblocks that sum up any organizational ecology notes like in the Monster Manuals and Monstrous Manuals and Monster Compendiums of yesteryear. While I could complain about nostalgia and all that, take a look at the Hobgoblin as featured in the HackMaster: Hacklopedia of Beasts (2011):

The Hacklopedia of Beasts Hobgoblin

Click me to cast Enlarge Image!

Not only is it gorgeous, but you also get:

  1. A picture of the creature’s tracks,
  2. It’s typical homelands/ranging grounds,
  3. A size comparison to humans (i.e. adventurers A.K.A. prey) and
  4. Not one but TWO ecology-type blocks of info.

The Yield is especially cool for a monster-hunting campaign. Just sayin’.

All that info can be way too specific for some people, but when you have the legacy of D&D behind you, it’s not like this information hasn’t already been detailed somewhere before (raise your hands if you read one of the thirty-thousand Monster Ecology articles in DRAGON/DUNGEON mags or on the D&D website over the past 30-odd years), requires zero rules-mechanics updates or conversion work, and can be formatted to fit in a small area of the page if you do some layout wizardry. Compare to a typical Monster Manual entry:

Tarrasque

The dreaded Tarrasque!

Don’t get the wrong impression here: that Tarrasque looks bad ass! The concept art tells you volumes about the creature through art. The statblock is tight and contained. The descriptive text, though short, is both concise and frankly GOOD; it makes you want to go find one of these suckers and see if you can murder it and take its stuff! I’m just saying that they could’ve done a little more with some of that white-space and added a little extra world-building at little cost.

Building Monsters

Okay, so there’s a teensy-eensy missing, but overall the thing looks great. End of review? Hardly. Let’s actually look at some monster stats, and compare them to the rules in the Dungeon Master’s Guide to see how things stack up if you want to build monsters that fit with the designer’s own rules and regulations.

After a brief message from our friendly title-page dragon:

Monster Manual

Greetings from the Monster Manual!

Okay, let’s tackle some statistics!

The Goblin is a Challenge 1/4 creature. Doing out the math from the DMG (p. 274-ish), I came up with Defensive Challenge of 1: 7 hit points, but bumped up due to a higher-than-average AC of 15, and then another two bumps from the Nimble Escape ability, or so the table on p. 280 would have me believe. Goblins have an Offensive Challenge of 1 as well, since they deal out the lowly amount of 5 damage on average, but receive two bumps from Nimble Escape, again. Well, that averages out to a Challenge of 1, not 1/4. Not 1/2, but 1. Hmmm.

What’s the Earth Elemental got going on? Well, he gets a Defensive Challenge boost from multiple Damage Resistances (bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing from nonmagical attacks), so you multiply hit points by 1.5 (assuming a target Challenge of 5) and you get an effective Defensive Challenge of 8. His Offensive Challenge is strictly made up of his attacks, so that’s a rating of 5. Do the math and you get 6.5, but the Earth Elemental has a Challenge rating of 5. Hmmm, again.

Fine, let’s go ultimate-whackadoodle, as I like to say, and check out the Tarrasque, one of the scariest French-looking words I know. He’s got a ridiculous amount of immunities, Legendary Resistance, Magic Resistance…by my calculations, the Tarrasque operates at an effective 935 hit points and AC 27. That’s WAAAY off the charts, by nearly 100 hit points and 8 points of Armor Class. Offensively, we’re looking at a Challenge of 28 (deals about 224 damage/round if you use Swallow in place of Bite, and the +19 to hit bumps it up from 25 to 28). So I guess Challenge 30 makes sense (you’d get 29 mathematically, but considering how far past the charts for Challenge 30 the Tarrasque is in terms of defense, I think 30’s fair).

On the one hand, we aren’t quite meeting expectations with the Challenge rating calculations in the DMG. But on the other hand, we’re not exactly far off on any of these: goblins are worse by 2, earth elementals are worse by 1, and the Tarrasque is about as close to dead-on as we can expect. The DMG tells us that this is as much art as science, and when you look at just how low a goblin’s hit points are, that seems fine, and the earth elemental is — if nothing else — a little bland in terms of combat, and extremely stupid.

Let’s just say the stats are like a B+: they admitted the faults inherent in this system, and while it can be easily broken to a horrible degree, you’d have to pretty much intend to abuse the advice and ignore all existing monsters in order to muck things up too badly.

D&D’s New Sexiness

The new sexy in this edition of the game comes in the form of three things that you absolutely need to keep your eyes on and revisit time and time again as a reminder of how to make 5th edition D&D more tactical, more set-piece battle-ready, more “fantastical” in terms of environments and situations, and generally, just the best of all previous editions. Here they are.

The Introduction

The intro to the book does a fantastic job of providing excellent story hooks and encounter locations for monsters. It’s such a short section, but literally every sentence in there is jam-packed with “Hey DM! D&D may have a legacy so long it seems like ‘generic fantasy’ but here’s a bazillion ideas on what makes D&D adventure-ready, mysterious, and most of all, fun!” You get locales, lairs, and some very evocative ideas.

Lair Actions

Several creatures known for being territorial and carving out nasty lairs get a set of actions called Lair Actions. These show up in the descriptive part of the monster’s entry, because they are made up of three parts:

  1. A description of the types of places that the creature lairs in, usually with enough ideas to develop your own maps.
  2. A set of Lair Actions that occur on initiative count 20 (losing ties) and don’t eat into the creature’s normal actions. The Lair Actions are crazy terrain-based effects, or additional magical abilities that the creature can access due to how their nature suffuses the location of the lair.
  3. A set of Regional Effects that usually cause far-ranging, thematically pertinent changes to the natural terrain and landscape surrounding the creature’s lair.

Aboleths, beholders, dragons, kraken, liches, vampires and more all get lair write-ups, Lair Actions, and Regional Effects. That’s a lot of world-building material that immediately turns into adventuring possibilities, and whether you plan out your campaigns or settings long in advance, or if you go week-to-week, it’s not hard to use this information to really show off the mood and feel of certain powerful creatures. Moreover, you can use these sorts of ideas to beef up individualized NPCs or custom monsters, giving them that extra oomph.

Legendary Actions

Many of the most powerful creatures gain Legendary Actions, which is usually three extra actions the creature can take at the end of another character’s round, and they regenerate each round. It’s kind of like extra reactions, but they are usually more devastating than an opportunity attack, or involve additional means for the creature to gain a significant tactical benefit before taking their turn. For example, a vampire can make a move, or perform a couple different types of attacks (biting is one, and kinda makes a lot of sense for a dude with long canine teeth, I’d say).

In every case, the creature’s Legendary Actions have to be mixed up; you can’t use the same Legendary Action twice in a row. This forces the DM to mix things up and use the variety of actions — not all of which are going to be damaging attacks — to create more tactical combat encounters and feature more movement across the battlefield.

Buffagoat

What?

A short sidebar on page 317 explains how to re-skin statistics to represent a variety of new monsters. It’s great advice, but one of the examples is getting buffalo by way of using the stats for a Giant Goat.

Yeah, a Giant Goat. Awesome.

Seriously, you gotta see this:

…you can use the panther statistics to represent a jaguar, the giant goat statistics to represent a buffalo, and the hawk statistics to represent a falcon.

That’s right, buffagoat. It’s a thing.

Give me your monies.

Monster Manual

Monster Manual

Form (5/5)

5th Edition hit the deck running with some lovely hardcover books that are filled to the brim with artwork, and has some seriously professional binding. The Monster Manual is the biggest of the three core rulebooks (at least, I’m fairly certain it is), and looks great. Layout and all that is clean, it’s easy to find stuff at a glance — which is hugely important with monster statblocks — and the individual pieces of artwork themselves are phenomenal.

One of my biggest complaints about most RPGs is the lack of “pictures for everything,” and that complaint is absolutely NOT here: there’s a picture for everything. Every monster gets its main profile pic in full, glorious color, and there’s always neat concept-style artwork, plus there’s the occasional half-page or 3/4 page set-piece showing monsters in weird settings, or a kuo-toa summoning what looks like a a dapperly dressed Cthulhu, and so on.

Kuo-toa summoning ritual

I’m pretty sure Cthulhu is holding a wine glass.

I could go on and on — there’s silly sketches, awesome little “here’s how this thing moves” sketches — but the point is that D&D came back with a crazy art budget, slapped it all together in a gorgeous format, and matched it with ideas and rules that scream ADVENTURE! and FUN! when it comes to building evocative, dangerous monster encounters.

Resources

Errata for the Monster Manual and Dungeon Master’s Guide.

Index of Monsters by Challenge Rating:

Index of Monsters by Type.

Donjon’s 5e Monster List, a sortable, filterable (are these real words?) web-based table.

Code Red Monsters, an RPGNet thread that identifies monsters with special abilities that might “massage” their Challenge Rating a little more than you might notice at first glance.

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neuronphaser is an editor, eCommerce consultant, web producer, and analyst living in sunny Hollywood, CA. He's been playing tabletop RPGs of all kinds since 1985.

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