Thursday, December 18, 2014

D&D 5e: Monster Manual Quick Critiques

Let me start this article like I've started all my Quick Critiques...

I love 5th Edition. Everything about it so far has been a breath of fresh air. For me, it really has combined all of the best parts from AD&D, 3.x and 4e. It's not perfect, but in my opinion, its the best version of D&D in its 40 year lifespan.

That said, now I'm going to nit-pick the s#!t out of the Monster Manual (Buy it now!Have it in time for Christmas!) over stupid little stuff that likely doesn't matter to most people... It's just what I do, but at least I name it for what it is up front.

Iconic Monsters


The monster selection in the new Monster Manual is nearly flawless. It irritated me to no end that earlier iterations of D&D would spread the truly iconic monsters across the first two monster manuals to make the consumer pay for more than one book. This practice appears to have come to an end. The selection of creatures is nearly perfect... but there are a couple exceptions to which I will pick some nits because I can.

Made the Cut (but not sure why)

So they're the ones who started the SFM cult...
Source: Alphabeasts!
Empyrean - Never heard of it before yesterday. I suppose there needs to be a few high level peeps for upper tier play, but I would have probably saved the page count for something else.

Crawling Claw - This is an odd one to put in. There are a couple monster (which I'll get to) which could have better used the pages. I suppose this would be useful for a Horror campaign and they're trying to please as many people as possible... but...

Flumphs - Ok, I get that Order of the Stick brought these back into the geek consciousness. But do we really need to waste page count on a fan service in-joke?

Dude! I'm standing
right here!
Gricks and Grells - Seriously does anyone use these things? How many beaked, tentacled monsters starting with "G" do you really need?

Hook Horror - Some of the old Fiend Folio critters could probably be left to a free online supplement. I suppose these are "important" for Underdark campaigns, but they're a pretty ridiculous monster. This is one of the few original TSR action figures that's not hard to find because of how idiotic they were. I blame R. A. Salvatore. If Drizzt fights some stupid, obscure monster no one had ever used before, it suddenly becomes iconic. Drizzt needs to die already. Seriously, how old is he now? Just die.

Modrons - This is another unused monster thrown in for some Planescape fan service. I'd probably use Gricks and Grells a 100x more often than I'd ever use a Modron in a campaign. Modrons got 3 pages and Kobold only got one? The Hook Horror is looking at these guys thinking, "They think I'm stupid?!?"


Didn't Make the Cut

Barghest - Shape changing, spell casting demon dog? Hells, yeah! Of anything that was left out, this creature surprised me most. While it wasn't truly an iconic in the earlier editions, this is one of the coolest foes in the books. He gets bigger and beastlier by feeding on the life force of his victims. What could be better than that?

Not nearly as tasty as Black Pudding
Dire Bear - Really? No Dire Bear? I know 3.x went over the top with all the the "fiendish, dire <insert normal animal name>" creatures, but I always though Dire Wolves and Dire Bears were the true dire beasts that would always be there for me. It's easy enough to reskin an Owlbear or similar creature, but I was still a bit surprised by the omission.

Green Slime - Did I miss something or has Green Slime been removed from D&D in recent years? Is this a trademark infringement thing? I looked back to other Ooze entries in older manuals and it seems Green Slime is even missing in 3.x. Somehow, this makes me sad.

Monster groups - The new Monster Manual does have some variation in the humanoids, but I would have liked to see more "classed" variants. Goblin shaman? Kobold sorcerer? More Dwarf, Elf or Gnome NPC templates? Way better ideas than Modrons...

I'm sure there were a few other minor omissions... but in general, I'm extraordinarily pleased with the selection in the Monster Manual. Look for a 5e version Barghest here soon!

Artwork


A lot of people have raved about the Monster Manual art. From a design standpoint,it's a pretty book. The layout is clean and the small artistic elements sprinkled through out the pages make it pleasing to they eye... but as far as the monster portraits are concerned, it's somewhat of a mixed bag.

After reading all the other positive reviews, I expected the art to wow me, but after having paged through the book a few times now, nothing jumped out at me. Not a single illustration made me say, "Wow, cool." Given how pleased I was at [most of] the art in the Player's Handbook, I feel a bit of a let down that the Monster Manual doesn't seem to have that same oomph. The illustrations we decent, but not more so than any other monster books out there. I think my expectations may have been set too high based on all the rave reviews.

I've commented on the cover in the past, so I won't rehash that... though I'm still not liking the trend of every battle scene featuring screaming faces. This isn't just a D&D thing. It seems to trending across the whole hobby. Just shut your pie holes and swing your sword, people.

4e's awesome Owlbear
As far as the interior, the art is not bad, but it's not particularly memorable either. In a few cases (Giants, specifically come to mind), it's not particularly good either. The Fire Giant is awful and the other giant just don't work for me.

When I look back at Monster Vault: Threats to the Nentir Vale, I see some really excellent pieces in there. The 5e style is definitely different since 4th Edition had more of a comic-book illustration style, whereas 5th Edition is leaning toward a more earth-tone washed ink and water color style (for lack of a better description - I'm not an art guy). Despite how much I love the Player's Handbook artwork, whatever worked there doesn't seem to work for the Monster Manual. It is also a little inconsistent as some illustrations are colored pencil while others have a painted or near-photo realist look.

Pippy Gnollstockings
The other thing to note is that we were previewed some of the monster art a couple years ago as "works in progress" which apparently were used as a final cut despite how rough some of them were.

Owlbear - Looking at the 4e Monster Vault cover, the Owlbear was a force to be reckoned. It would tear our your innards and feed them to its fledglings. The Owlbear in the 5e MM is something you'd scratch under the chin and make "gitchy-goo" sounds.

Gnoll - That thing's head is all wrong for the body. It's like they just said "Let's sew the front half of a hyena to a big, mean looking bipedal body." It just doesn't work.

Giants - I just don't like any of them.

Dragons - The dragon artwork is actually pretty good. There are a few gems that really stand out, but overall, the book doesn't quite wow me as much as I expected.

There are others, but I don't want to write a huge post about things I don't like in the art. I also get that art is very subjective so many people will likely disagree with my assessments.

Layout and Design


On a positive note artistically, the design and layout is as good as it ever has been. WotC learned a lot from the layout of the 4th Edition stat blocks and it shows. The clean stat blocks and excellent creature fluff really puts this Monster Manual near to top in terms of content. The stat block could probably use a couple very minor tweaks so that the eye falls to the information used most, but all in all, there's not much to complain about here. Even with the mediocre art, the page design lifts this book into the top ranks of RPG accessories.There is barely a nit to be found.

Rules


One thing I did note is that the Monster Manual failed to explain some monster traits. While it mentions resistance and vulnerability, it doesn't tell the DM what these mean in game terms. While most of us already know, a new DM shouldn't have to go to the Player's Handbook to look the mechanics up. Monster mechanics should be detailed in the Monster Manual too.

Similarly, a little more detail on immunities would be nice. For instance, if a creature is immune to cold, it does not take cold damage, but would it also not be effected by movement penalty (i.e. - Ray of Frost)? More detail around monster traits is really called for so that even new DMs can make the best judgement calls based on circumstance.

These are minor considerations, but anything to further educate new players and DMs is critical to the success of the game. While the new edition is leaving a fair amount of latitude for DM rulings, the designers should offer advice to create consistency from one DM to another.

Final Thoughts


All things considered and despite my many nits picked, the Monster Manual is a solid offering the the 5th Edition line. It's not quite a home run, but probably a stand up triple with a couple RBIs.
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