My 5e thorough-read continues with the Monster Manual
Reading the MM cover-to-cover is, for me, a mixed bag, as some entries are fairly evocative (Gith!) and spur on ideas, and some are a slog — Demons, Devils, and Dragons being the big ones for me, with lots and lots of mostly-similar stat blocks that cause my eyes to glaze over.
I noticed a lot of “monster families”, e.g., a whole slew of creatures that are all servants, creations, or enemies of the mind flayers; ones that all trace their origins to the demon lords or archdevils; etc. I assume this allows thematic campaigns and campaign arcs where PCs work their way up the chain to a given type of Big Bad. I haven’t read a MM in a long time, so I don’t know if this is more true in 5e than it was before, but it stood out to me. Part of me wants to geek out and create a giant chart or Venn diagram plotting out all of these MM relationships.
WotC are still big fans of giving monsters cultures and ecologies. I’m not sure why; I don’t know what’s gained by knowing how, say, fire giants raise their young — other than to plant the idea of a fire giant couple wondering why Gomjur hasn’t come home for Surturmas because some PCs killed the shit out of him.
Thankfully, this tendency feels somewhat dialed back this time around. E.g., gnolls are now demon-mutated hyenas, and they propagate via infection, and rakshasas are devils who simply spawn (as opposed to mating and having cute little rakshasa kittehs, as described in Dragon in the 3e days).
And while it’s awfully late to make this argument, I gotta say: so much redundancy! So many evil humanoid races, and dragons, and giants, and elementals, undead… Do we really need kuo-toa AND sahuagin AND merrow AND yadda AND etc.? And yugoloths? Why?
I mean, duh, I get it. Lots of this is simply decades of accretion, or variants for the sake of variants because Gary, and so forth. Still, I’d much rather have, e.g., basic stats for a “dragon”, and then maybe some tables with which to customize. Make every dragon unique!
Oh, and lastly: lair actions and environmental effects are the bomb. Kudos, WotC.
The main takeaway for me after reading the MM was an insight so obvious that it probably goes without saying: D&D is about monsters. C’mon, they get an entire book in the core rules (and multiple books in other editions). If you’re not running a D&D campaign that is focused on exploring the realms of, interacting with, and combating monsters, you are doing it wrong.*
I realized that I kind of forgot this. I kept imagining campaigns where the primary foes were other PC races (trying to deal with the whole problematic idea of “evil races”, which is still thorny), but reading the MM has me reconsidering that.
The “points of light” concept coined by 4e** is truly the essence of the game, I think. D&D is The Keep on the Borderlands. The greatest threat is not the kingdom next door; it’s the untamed wilds and haunted ruins beyond the keep walls. And sure, sometimes that world creeps behind the walls — wererats in the sewers, vampires in the castle — but to be an adventurer is to brave not just the unknown, but the nonhuman (and non-demi-human).
At least, that’s the D&D in which I am most interested.
* You can play D&D any way you like. I’m making a point here.
** High-level ideas like these are, IMO, 4e’s greatest gift to D&D.