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.

Some observations:

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.

20 thoughts on “My 5e thorough-read continues with the Monster Manual

  1. I just finished up a couple of small 5e arcs. With one group they started at level 1. I used a lot of the advice from “Storming the Wizards Castle” by Vincent Baker. Made some great dynamic play, figuring out problems plaguing the town. The other group I started at lv 5 and set them up with more site base adventures. Using Kevin Crawford’s “Dead Names” book to build my dungeons. Much more passive position for the DM, but when they are in a place of danger it kind of works.

    Both groups felt very episodic. Some sessions would be Continuity episodes, and some would be mystery or dungeon of the week.  If you follow the 5e Leveling curve its hard to avoid filler. 5e dnd moves fast enough though, so you never have to linger too long.

    In both groups picking/making monsters was the heart of the work. And not all monsters are made equal. Some are just big ole HP sponges, and others have annoying paralytic abilities that can ruin a player’s day if not used judiciously. And then when you find a monster that you like, you can only use them for a session or two before the fights become stale.

    My favorite were the Nothic.

    In any case, prepping adventures can be a full on level design workload, which your ymmv. This is no doubt why premade adventures are so popular in DnD.

  2. < ![CDATA[I just finished up a couple of small 5e arcs. With one group they started at level 1. I used a lot of the advice from "Storming the Wizards Castle" by Vincent Baker. Made some great dynamic play, figuring out problems plaguing the town. The other group I started at lv 5 and set them up with more site base adventures. Using Kevin Crawford's "Dead Names" book to build my dungeons. Much more passive position for the DM, but when they are in a place of danger it kind of works. Both groups felt very episodic. Some sessions would be Continuity episodes, and some would be mystery or dungeon of the week.  If you follow the 5e Leveling curve its hard to avoid filler. 5e dnd moves fast enough though, so you never have to linger too long. In both groups picking/making monsters was the heart of the work. And not all monsters are made equal. Some are just big ole HP sponges, and others have annoying paralytic abilities that can ruin a player's day if not used judiciously. And then when you find a monster that you like, you can only use them for a session or two before the fights become stale. My favorite were the Nothic. In any case, prepping adventures can be a full on level design workload, which your ymmv. This is no doubt why premade adventures are so popular in DnD.]]>

  3. The Nothic is a great low-level monster in 5e. A personal favorite.

    Have you read 13th Age’s Bestiary, Mark? I think it’s vastly superior to the 5e MM. Not only is it more mechanically inventive, but it is directed towards play. The Monster Manual reads like the back of a trading card. The Bestiary provides 3-4 page entries for each creature and includes advice on how to build battles with them, what treasures they might guard, or all sorts of other details that seem like they could actually come up at the table.

  4. < ![CDATA[The Nothic is a great low-level monster in 5e. A personal favorite. Have you read 13th Age’s Bestiary, Mark? I think it’s vastly superior to the 5e MM. Not only is it more mechanically inventive, but it is directed towards play. The Monster Manual reads like the back of a trading card. The Bestiary provides 3-4 page entries for each creature and includes advice on how to build battles with them, what treasures they might guard, or all sorts of other details that seem like they could actually come up at the table.]]>

  5. I’ve found ecosystem/culture can swing two different ways.

    In the bad way, it becomes minutae that never sees play, or, as you mention, makes the monsters into something that is hard to fit into play or clashes with play expectations (my whole post on how “monster” means a whole lot of different things: https://bankuei.wordpress.com/2014/10/28/conceptualizing-monsters/ ).

    In the good way, ecosystems can allow me to make a sandbox game where I can group monsters by environment, I can think about what they need and how they can affect each other, and that can make for interesting play (“The Green Dragon moved to the lake, the water is now poisoned, so the mer-people are moving further down, and have invaded this area instead…”).

    Ditto with culture – although culture really only makes sense if you’re going to treat a given monster group as a people and not simply as a threat. This ends up working backwards because a lot of time in order to justify why a certain group of monsters are usually a threat, they have to find language to basically make their CULTURE evil, which nearly always ends up mirroring the colonial genocide language of the 1800s (“Savage brutes that are primitive and uncontrolled… bloodthirsty!” etc.)

  6. Chris Chinn Yes! One thing I really prefer about fairy-tale monsters, mythology, and a lot of pre-Tolkien fantasy is that monsters are generally wholly unnatural. They’re usually unique entities that exist in violation of all natural laws. E.g., giants don’t breed and raise children, they’re spawned from the drops of blood of fallen titans, or whatever.

    The “ecology’ Thing that D&D does is a by-product of needing to fill pages in Dragon. And I find it sort of weird that no one who wrote any of those articles ever gave thought to what they were saying by giving “evil humanoids” actual cultures and habitats.

    That said, I do wonder if there is maybe a place for the concept of a species that exists because of an evil god or demon lord, and thus are flat-out anathema to all other life. But, like you say, I don’t know that this can done without invoking the genocidal language you mention above.

    But maybe not.

  7. < ![CDATA[Chris Chinn Yes! One thing I really prefer about fairy-tale monsters, mythology, and a lot of pre-Tolkien fantasy is that monsters are generally wholly unnatural. They’re usually unique entities that exist in violation of all natural laws. E.g., giants don’t breed and raise children, they’re spawned from the drops of blood of fallen titans, or whatever.
    The “ecology’ Thing that D&D does is a by-product of needing to fill pages in Dragon. And I find it sort of weird that no one who wrote any of those articles ever gave thought to what they were saying by giving “evil humanoids” actual cultures and habitats.
    That said, I do wonder if there is maybe a place for the concept of a species that exists because of an evil god or demon lord, and thus are flat-out anathema to all other life. But, like you say, I don’t know that this can done without invoking the genocidal language you mention above.
    But maybe not.]]>

  8. Mark Delsing The “Evil Species” only works if you take out sentience and/or remove the idea of having to raise families. “Goblins spawn more goblins by rolling in the blood of children under moonlight” etc. This would be why zombies are a classic go-to monster.

  9. < ![CDATA[Mark Delsing The "Evil Species" only works if you take out sentience and/or remove the idea of having to raise families. "Goblins spawn more goblins by rolling in the blood of children under moonlight" etc. This would be why zombies are a classic go-to monster.]]>

  10. Yugoloths featured in the first session of 5e I ran, two weeks back. Those seem very much to be a monster group made to fill a grid. Demons are chaotic evil and devils are lawful evil, so what are the neutral evil fiends? Here you go!

  11. < ![CDATA[Yugoloths featured in the first session of 5e I ran, two weeks back. Those seem very much to be a monster group made to fill a grid. Demons are chaotic evil and devils are lawful evil, so what are the neutral evil fiends? Here you go!]]>

  12. < ![CDATA[Sabe Jones Makes sense. Wikipedia reminded me that most of them were originally demons in 1e — "mezzodemon" = "mezzoloth" — but were renamed during the Great Satanic Panic of 2e.]]>