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Saturday, May 19, 2018

Dungeons & Dragons - Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes Review

You can buy Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes here.

I’m very interested in this one, because it deals with devils and gith, two of my favorite things in D&D.

I’ll be comparing the stuff I learned making my guides, especially my guide to devils. I think I can learn a lot from seeing the company's official take on something that I attempted to assemble.

This review is loaded with spoilers! Before I start, let me just talk about whether or not this book is worth getting, so you can bail out pre-spoilers if you like.

The Good

What's good about this book? The vast majority of it! The blood war details are fun. We get a rundown of the nine major archdevils. Each of them has a clearly defined role, something I think was sorely needed. They gave full details on Zariel, who has long been a mysterious entity in D&D lore despite ruling the most accessible layer of the Nine Hells.

The elf chapter is probably my favorite section of the whole book. They cooked up a heck of a lot of fun ideas that will actually help you flesh out your character, especially when it comes to trancing during a long rest.

The gith section is great, particularly the information on the ruler of the githzerai. They did a great job of making him as interesting as the lich queen who rules the githyanki.

There are tons and tons of monsters, and a lot of them are really cool. Many of them are planar monsters, but most can fit into your game even if your group sticks to the Material Plane. There are monsters from many old products and settings, a really nice variety.

The art continues to get better. There's a high level of quality across the board. In previous releases, there were some issues with images coming out too dark or being covered partly by graphics - that's been almost entirely fixed. I don't know if it's the type of paper they chose or what, but the art looks really clear and vibrant. They even had a couple of two-page spreads in here.

The Bad

If you're a player, I'm not sure how much you will want this thing. It's got a bunch of really cool races for you to use like gith, tiefling variants, and shadar kai, but after that, it depends on if you're interested in lore.

I think the elf section is phenomenal, and the githzerai section is great, too. The halfling section and the dwarf section weren't especially thrilling. I did like the discussion of gnomes using clockwork devices in their day-to-day lives.

The blood war section is good, but, for whatever reason, there's never all that much discussion about details of the blood war in D&D books. You'll get a broad overview, but for the most part you don't get a lot of nitty gritty stuff (aside from the 2e Hellbound boxed set, obviously!).

I don't think there's too many duds in this book. I didn't like the new take on the sorrowsworn, and I've never liked monsters like the steel predator, kruthiks, or the gray render, but those are few and far between.

As far as the art goes, my main complaint would be that they re-used some images from previous releases. Not a big deal, right? The problem is that they used old art for two-page spreads! Seriously! One piece of art is from Out of the Abyss, and the other is from Tomb of Annihilation. What is the deal with that?

We could have gotten a massive spread featuring Lolth and Corellon, or the city of Tu'Narath, or a massive Blood War scene! Why did they do this? Boggles the mind.

Overall: I think this is my favorite book so far. There's some little things here and there to quietly complain to yourself about, but really this is a great supplement. It's absolutely loaded with ideas and monsters!

Details

Alright, now let's go over some of the interesting stuff in this book in excruciating detail! Spoilers from here on out! I'm blowing the spoiler whistle right now.

The preface page alone is loaded with info.

Shemeshka says that Mordenkainen magically forced Bigby to write most of this book, and questions why Mordenkainen wants to preserve the balance between good and evil.

Then “Qort”, an apprentice of Mordenkainen’s, explains that he convinced Shemeshka to steal the book so that it could be seen by others. Qort says the book shows Mordenkainen’s initial thoughts on preserving the Balance.

The Blood War

I'm not a big fan of what the 5e bearded devil looks like, but that is a pretty cool picture.

We learn that almost all of the battles in the Blood War take place in the Abyss and the Nine Hells. I love this. In 2e, most Blood War battles happened in other planes, which felt kind of lame to me.

Fighting occurs all along the Styx, but mainly on Avernus, the first layer of the Nine Hells. That's pretty cool. In older editions, there was a ton of focus on the Plain of 1,000 Portals in the Abyss, so it's nice to see the spotlight over on the devil side of things.

The demons invade Avernus because it is easily accessible from the Abyss

Lords of the Nine: I wrote a big old book on this topic so I am really keen on seeing what the 5e devils are actually like!!

Asmodeus: They added some stuff to his origin. In ancient times, the angels of law and good accused Asmodeus of terrible crimes. Thus came the Trial of asmodeus. The judge was Primus.

At one point in the trial, the angel Zariel started a brawl. Primus did not make an official judgment. He ordered Asmodeus to forever carry the ruby rod, which grants his underlings the right to enter into contracts with mortals but unleashes an inescapable punishment on any devil who breaches such a contract.

“His most recent recruit is Zariel, a former angel.” That’s different. In older books, Zariel had been in hell for thousands of years. She had been overthrown by the pit fiend, Bel, and thrown in prison.

There's also this note about Asmodeus: “His supposed daughter, Glasya, is thought by some to be a godlike entity of unknown origin.” Really? Huh.

Zariel: She had been an angel tasked with monitoring the blood war. She led a band of mortals in an attack on the devils, and was found unconscious under a pile of dead bodies. Asmodeus turned her into an archdevil. Later in the book, we get art of her. She's pretty cool-looking.

  • Tiamat: So, why is she confined to hell? The book posits a theory: She killed a mighty, forgotten giant god who cursed her with their dying breath. The curse brought an end to the war. If Tiamat returned to the world, the war between dragons and giants would renew.

Dispater: He's an arms dealer. He made an impenetrable suit of adamantine armor that foils spells and keeps him safe. He wants to solve every mystery of the cosmos. His imps scout material plane for secrets… does this put him in opposition with Vecna?

In this book, there are A LOT of creatures who are looking for secrets. It's a little weird.

Mammon: They came up with a strong, unique concept.. Lawful evil souls not bound to any devil are brought to Minaurous, where they are recorded and distributed.

It looks like in 5e, there are no "soul shells". When you appear in the Nine Hells, you appear as either a lemure or a nupperibo.

Fierna and Belial: Belial runs Hell’s judicial system and Fierna handles filling the soul quota.Fierna stole the secret of how to travel freely between the Nine Hells and the material plane from the archlich, Vecna. How did she do that? Through Kas?

Levistus: He's still frozen in a glacier! Geryon is there in Stygia, too. His devils fight Levistus’s devils. It is believed that Stygia was once a mortal world drawn into hell. Their inhabitants, facing annihilation, pledged their souls to Asmodeus to escape annihilation. “The archmage Tzunk has researched the topic extensively but has yet to find any evidence that truly confirms the account.”

Hey.. last I heard, Tzunk's severed head was sitting in the River Styx.

Glasya: Malbolge is the prison of the Nine Hells. There's a story about how she had been buying souls with counterfeit currency via a technicality, offending Mammon. Asmodeus punished her by making her an archdevil.

Baalzebul: Poor Baalzebul has been getting bullied by Asmodeus for many editions. Guess what? It's over now! Well, sort of. He's his old handsome self again, but if he speaks a single lie, he's going to be a big slug for one full year.

Mephistopheles: He harvests the souls of wizards and sages. Of all the archdevils, Mephistopheles has been the one with the least development. I really like the idea that he’s all about magic, and that he specializes in acquiring the souls of spellcasters, who he puts to work doing mundane research.

4e Tiefling

Tieflings: A quick note about tiefling art. You may or may not remember the outcry over the depiction of tieflings in 4th edition. In 2nd edition, they had weird little traits, like they didn’t cast a shadow, or they had black eyes. In 4e, they got thick horns, tan-pink skin, and huge, thick tails. 5e toned it down a bit, but the look remains.

2e tiefling
If you look around on the internet, people love making tiefling characters and they love drawing them - and almost nobody draws them the way they look on page 22 of this book. To me that means that they people don’t want tieflings to look the way they do, and their official appearance should be altered to reflect that. I mean… Strix doesn’t look like that, right?

Princes of the Abyss: When demons go to the Material Plane, the land becomes warped by their abyssal energy. If the land is sufficiently affected, a portal opens. If the abyssal infestation gains hold, the portal becomes permanent. Then… a demon lord can come through! It leads an army to strip the world of life and lays siege to it. If not stopped, the world becomes another layer of the Abyss.

I think that's a great idea! Entire worlds getting sucked into the Abyss.

Elves

This section is really great. We learn that when an elf goes into a trance, they can see visions of their life or even of their past life.

Elves have immortal souls.They die, go to Arvandor, and are reborn. As kids, they remember their past lives, revisiting moments in their trance, over and over

The Mysteries of Arvandor: When Corellon mentally calls out a number of chosen elves (up to 1,000) and brings them into his body. Those who return from this experience are ever transformed. They were able to assume a new form, shapeless, for a time and share a telepathic connection with the others.

I think that might be my favorite thing in the whole book? Why does Corellon do this? How strong is the telepathic connection?

Raven Queen: She takes on many forms, including a shadow that claws at innermost thoughts, a pale and regal elf, or "a shambling tangle of slick roots and sticks."

She was an elf queen. When Corellon and Lolth were in conflict, she tried to use the souls and magic of her people to become a deity. The followers who aided her became the shadar-kai. During the ritual, some of them tried to siphon power into themselves. It ruined the ritual and the Raven Queen was sucked into the Shadowfell. The traitors became nagpas.

Sometimes she will ask a soul to perform a task for her - acquire an item.. “...pawns in an inscrutable game, the rules of which are known to only her and the Lady of Pain.”

So... they changed the Raven Queen a bit. For me, this is an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" type of situation. People loved her the way she was. I don't really see the benefit of tying her to the elves like this. But, in the end, it doesn't matter all that much. They always leave space for you to run her how you like.

It's a bit odd to me, though, because she was so popular. Depicting her as a walking nest just doesn't feel right to me. I think the "walking nest" should be an entirely different entity altogether. It's not a bad idea, but to me it doesn't fit the Raven Queen that so many know and love.

Gith

Good stuff here, especially the githzerai section. They went out of their way to get art depicting both Vlaakith and Menyar-Ag. Menyar is very cool, and I don't remember reading much about him prior to this. He's semi-dead yet immensely powerful.

Also, githyanki hatch from eggs!

Monsters
Astral Dreadnoughts: Awesome! I have hardly ever heard of anyone fighting one of these in any edition, but they are really cool. They were created by Tharizdun! Did not know that.

Boneclaw: A wizard who tries and fails to become a lich might become a boneclaw. Their soul bonds to some other evildoer nearby and it serves them. This thing can actually attack creatures who enter its reach.
Old Cadaver Collector art
Cadaver Collector: This is one of those monsters that had art that was so awesome in a previous edition that they should just re-use it. These creatures wander Acheron and collect dead bodies. Where do they bring them, though?

Demons: A lot of the demons they decided to include are weird ones from 2e - the dybbuk, the maurezhi, and others. I thought the molydeus was relegated to the dustbin of history, but it’s right here in ye olde Tome of Foes.

Sibriex: I love the sibriex! It feels like there’s a lot of cool things you can do with them. There’s an awesome flesh-warping chart, in case you want to let a sibriex “improve” your character. My favorite: your eyes become beacons, emitting a 15-foot cone of dim light

Demon Lords: They reprinted the demon lords from Out of the Abyss with the same artwork! I wish they would have included some more demon lords like Lolth, Malcanthet and Pazuzu.

Hellfire Engine: I LOVED the hellfire engine from 3e. It was a clockwork/hellfire giant that rampaged across the battlefield. The 5e version is more of a steamroller, which might sound crappy, but the art is so badass that i accept it 100%!
Abishai: Tiamat’s devils! I really like the way they look in this edition. The artist incorporated the unique appearance of each type of chromatic dragon.

Merregon: Legion devils! They took away their 4e pool of hit points deal, which is a bummer, but very hard to implement in 5e. The description says that they have metal masks bolted to their heads. The mask bears nothing except for the name of their commander and the layer of the Nine Hells it serves, but the art shows the mask has the face of… a baby. Very weird!

Narzugon: Hell knights! I love hell knights. The art for these is very good! It has a power I didn’t expect: It can heal one creature up to 100 hit points. I guess it's their lay on hands dealie. Also, they use a magic item called “infernal tack” to summon and control their steeds. Very cool!

Then we get stats of a few archdevils...

Bael: There’s a million cool dukes and duchesses out there. How did they decide which of them to feature for this book? Bael is pretty dull, as far as villains go, but he makes for a good brutish heavy to fight your group. Plus, his art is very cool.

Geryon: Maybe my favorite “rogue” archdevil, Geryon is now back in Hell and fighting to regain control of Stygia. There’s even a mention that he’s back in (citadel) Coldsteel, from A Paladin in Hell!

Hurijin: This is another one where I wonder why they picked him. To me, Baalphegor is a much more interesting choice, if you’re going to pick someone from the court of Mephistopheles. Again, though, the art for him is really awesome and that goes a long way.

Moloch: Another of my favorite dukes!! He’s been through a lot. Currently, he is transformed into an imp whenever he enters the Nine Hells. “Rumors suggest that he can be found in Sigil…”

Titivilus: I’m pretty sure 3 of these 5 dukes all came from those two “Infernal Aristocracy” articles from Dragon Magazine right before 4e started. I like all these, but I wish they would have shined the spotlight on some more under-developed archdevils in this book.

Giff: I really love the art of the giff. A lot of times, the head is too big and it looks like somebody wearing a hippo mask. This one looks really great! Checking out the statblock, we see that the giff have a… uhhhh. Fragmentation grenade.

Gith: In the githzerai section, you get a glimpse of how mutability is handled in 5e. It’s a regional effect for the anarch. It takes 10 minutes to stabilize a 5-mile radius!

Marut: If I remember right, these guys had elephant heads in 2e. Now they are clockwork eyeball things. They are “inevitables”. It says that they “enforce contracts forged in the Hall of Concordance in the city of Sigil.”

Nagpa: Nagpas are basically the skekzis from the Dark Crystal. In this edition, they dwell in the Shadowfell, enemies of the Raven Queen.

Ogre: There are some really fun ogre types, including the ogre battering ram and the ogre howdah.
4e Sorrowsworn

Sorrowsworn: I don’t like what they did here. In 4e, sorrowsworn were super-shadar-kai, freaky gothic agents of the Raven Queen. In 5e, they are “emotion given form”. Naked monster-people with spike-arms. One type of sorrowsworn, “the wretched”, is a two-legged football with teeth. I think that the 4e sorrowsworn had a bit of a weird look, but this is way out there. Ready? Here's the 5e sorrowsworn:

What the hell, man. 

Star Spawn: There is a sidebar on Elder Evils. There’s a big list of them. They include: Dendar (from Tomb of Annihilation), Kyuss (from Age of Worms), Tharizdun (from Greyhawk), and the Queen of Chaos (from the Rod of Seven Parts!).

Merrenoloth: These are the creatures that have boats on the River Styx. The art on this is easily the best art of a merrenoloth ever. They kept the “grim reaper” flavor but gave it its own look. They handled all of the things the boat can do through lair actions (the boat is its lair) and regional effects.

That's it! This book is right now about $30 on amazon. Definitely worth it!

10 comments:

Some guy said...

Remember Baalzebul will get turned into a Slug if he lies to a Devil. He can lie his ass off to any other being.

Some guy said...

As for how they decided which dukes to put in the book. The 1e Monster Manual 2 is your answer. With the exception of Geryon who was Monster Manual 1 and Zariel who is new, all the Archdevils there are from the Monster Manuel 2. The only dukes from the Monster Manual 2 who did not get in are Amon and Glasya. Amon presumably did not get in because he is a minion of Geryon, while Glasya did not get in cause she is an Archduchess now.

Hils said...

Excellent, as always. What a great blog this is, and always soooo helpful and full of immersive ideas and info. Husband and I always enjoy spending time here.

Mike Bridges said...

Good stuff! This stuff about Qort, Bigby, Mordy and Shemeska begs further investigation...

Anonymous said...

this book would be a good place for some serious Race Feats

Benji said...

There's a few things about this book that are weird you might Not have thought about.

First the demon lords here have weaker stats than out of the byss. Don't know why. So they aren't just reprints, they are nerds.

Second it's supposed toa nearly work, so tzhunk could still be alive except zariel is a ruler and has deposed bel. When is this set?

Thirdly it Gives differing information on races in the multiverse. If I was a new reader now, I'd know about athas halflings but not dwarves. I'd know how dwarves differed between Greyhawk, Krynn and faerun but would assume that elves were similar across all three settings.

Odd

Benji said...

*nerfs

*supposed to be an early work

Don't type while holding children

aguirre said...

to me always looked like every 100 HP is a round taking a beat by the players.

Anonymous said...

The demonlords have had a total balance pass actually. Some are the same, some are slightly weakened... some lost a huge amount of their power.

Personally I will be keeping the stronger forms. Demon lords can be threatening beasts...

Ken Bowen said...

Thanks for the review. I think Zariel is my favorite archdevil from the book, and I definitely want to play a Conquest Paladin who serves her. But for now I am almost always the DM so it might end up being an NPC paladin instead.