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Thursday, November 17, 2016

Dungeons & Dragons - Volo's Guide to Monsters Review

Today I'm going to dole out a review of Volo's Guide to Monsters, a new D&D 5th edition book that has a pile of monster stats and new character races in it.

You can buy Volo's Guide to Monsters on amazon here.

You can buy the lair maps very cheap right here. I love the hag maps and the mind flayer lair.

There is also a limited edition cover. Those are only available in game stores.

I'm going to go over the good stuff, then the bad stuff, and at the end I'll give my overall view.

Short Version: It will be very helpful for any DM to own, but this book won't change your life or anything like that.

The Good

This book is broken up into three chapters:
  1. Monster Lore: We get huge amounts of information on classic D&D monsters. 
  2. Character Races: You can now make aasimar, firbolgs, tabaxi, orcs and more.
  3. Monsters: Tons of new monsters and variations on existing monsters.
New Ideas

This book takes the previous lore from old editions and adds to it. I love that. Here's some of the stuff I liked the most:

Beholder Dreams: They took a weird turn with the beholders. Beholders now dream other beholders into existence. In other editions, they barfed up an egg to make new beholders. This is fine with me, but it feels a little vague. I would have liked a few more examples of how it works.

Goblin Society: I love the goblin caste system and I think people could really expand on it and do some fun things.

Here are the goblin castes:
  • Lashers: Trained in battle
  • Hunters: Wolf riders
  • Gatherers: Get berries
  • Pariahs: Do hard labor, cleaning, menial tasks. Oversee slaves, if there are any.
Mind Flayer Thralls: I loved the section discussing how mind flayers create thralls and how you can "de-program" a thrall. It involves a lot of very high-powered spells.

They also did a fantastic job of giving an overall view of how mind flayers live. They serve their Elder Brain and each of them is a repository of knowledge that the Elder Brain can draw from.

Raxivort, God of the Xvarts: They update/revise the story of Raxivort. In 2e, Raxivort is the god of the Xvarts who tried to steal from Graz'zt. He was hiding in Graz'zt's city of Zelatar.

Now we learn this stuff:
  • He stole the Infinity Spindle from Graz'zt, which made Raxivort a god.
  • Raxivort created a realm in Pandemonium called The Black Sewers.
  • Graz'zt got revenge by telling many dangerous creatures that Raxivort had the spindle.
  • Raxivort created Xvarts - doubles of himself - so he could hide among them.
  • He wandered the planes, spawning more xvarts.
That's really great.

Full of Fun Details

If you dig through the book, there are all sorts of fun things that can add to your games, especially on the monster-making charts.

Here are some of my favorites:
  • Gnoll with a vestigial twin embedded on its back.
  • Bugbears form gangs. Their god will enchant severed heads of mighty slain foes. 
  • Some hags turn into other types of hags over the years.
  • Mind Flayer Flaw: "I have a memory that is not mine."
  • Orcs don't have romantic relationships. "Mating is a mundane necessity of life."
  • The Hierophants of Annihilation: 7 bodaks who serve Orcus.
Spellcaster Stats: I love that they made stats for wizard specialists. There's an abjurer, a conjurer, an enchanter, etc. That is really clever and incredibly useful.

The Cow of Doom: Check out page 207. We get cow stats. I know they are meant to be stats for bison, rothe and etc., but you know a lot of people are going to use these stats for regular milking cows, too.

A cow has 15 hit points, +6 to hit and 7 damage! There are going to be quite a few level one characters who will be killed by a cow. That just cracks me up. +6 to hit! When they charge, they do an extra +7 damage!

DMs the world over will entice the heroes with a drunken bar bet involving cow tipping that goes horribly, horribly wrong.

Nods to Other Settings

Mind Flayer Nautiloid
 The book has a lot of fun little easter eggs and mentions.

Tzunk, the guy who had the codex of the infinite planes and attacked the city of brass, has a quote in this book.

Spelljammer: There are repeated spelljammer mentions. There is a lot of discussion about nautiloids, which are mind flayer ships right out of the Spelljammer boxed set. There's also talk of Neogi mindspiders, the neogi ships. That is greatly appreciated!

The neogi are really underused, in my opinion. Way back when, I played in a Spelljammer campaign where there was a recurring villain who was a neogi. I love how they have umber hulk bodyguards and they're slavers - they are easy bad guys that anyone would love to hate.

Planescape: We even get cranium rat stats, who are heavily associated with Planescape. I would have liked one more stat block for a massive horde of cranium rats, but this was a really awesome surprise.

Linking Monsters to Major NPCs

In this book, they go out of their way to link most monsters to a certain deity or demon lord. I think that's cool because it helps people get familiar with the different D&D entities and it gives the monster another dimension that makes them more interesting.

Some examples:
  • The kenku once served a powerful entity, possibly Graz'zt or the Wind Dukes of Aaqa.
  • Orcus is linked to bodaks and devourers.
  • Babau sprang up from the blood of Graz'zt when he fought the archdevil Glasya.

Maybe the best thing of all about this book is that in chapter one, there are a bunch of sample lairs. The lair  maps by Jared Blando are really, really detailed. I liked them so much that I bought two of them. You have a complete mind flayer settlement in this book all ready to be used.

As always with 5e, you are going to have to dig through this book to populate and detail your mind flayer lair, but the map is great and the monsters seem really cool. Elder Brains really don't get a lot of attention in D&D. I guess it's because they are a very high level threat.

The Bad

I don't have too many major beefs with this book. It's more of an overall "eh" feeling in regards to some of the content. 

The Races

I didn't really care for the character races. There's only two that are interesting to me: The aasimar and the goliath. It's so weird, this feels like an end-of-the-edition pile of character races. In 4e they really rolled out crops of cool races in clumps.

Bottom line, I don't know too many people who want to play a triton.

The Art

I think a lot of people will disagree with me on this. A lot of the art is professional, but it doesn't grab me, if that makes sense. In any other edition of D&D, there would be a few artists that would really stop you in your tracks. In this edition, there's not.

I do like some of the art. The yuan-ti abomination and broodguard are really good creations. The abomination here looks a million times better than that abomination that had a 4e mini with the cobra hood.

The mind flayer art is good, the gnoll art is good and I love the gnoll witherling.

Whoever did the Shoosuva worked a miracle. I never liked the shoosuva but that picture is awesome.

I guess part of the problem is that a lot of the monsters in this book are goofy looking, so it's hard to get a cool picture out of them. 

Poor Monster Selection


This book is full of what I consider to be goofball monsters. Nilbogs, boggles, redcaps, catoblepas, grung, flail snail, etc. I decided to sit down and look through older monster manuals to make a list of monsters that I'd have preferred to be in this book.

11/22/16: Somehow in my slavering frenzy, I missed this note right on page 5: 

"You might be wondering why certain monsters were chosen above theirs. Where are dragons and githyanki? What, no fiends or undead? We hope to tackle other monsters in other products over time."

While doing so, I realized something. This book has:
  • Very few undead.
  • No dragons. 
  • No devils.
  • Just a couple of demons.
  • Very few planar creatures.
The more I thought about it, I decided there is a good chance that those monsters are being "saved" for their own books. If you remember, in 4e, that's what they did and it seemed to work really well. In 4e, we got:
  • Open Grave: Book of undead, awesome book.
  • Draconomicon: Two books! One full of chromatic dragons, the other metallic. There are a million types of dragons in D&D worth putting in a 5e book.
  • Demonomicon: A book full of demons. Fantastic book, there is so much demon stuff out there that they could have made three more Demonomicons and they would all be awesome.
  • Plane Above & Plane Below: Two great planar books full of planar monsters.
Devils? As for devils, they always get the short end of the stick. They are really cool, but demons are a little more fun. That said, the 3e Fiendish Codex II (which has nothing but devils) is IMO one of the best 3e books ever made.

Devils are awesome and they are perfect villains. It is entirely possible we'll see a devil book at some point. The city of Dis alone could fill a book.

So, after having all of those thoughts tenderizing my brain, I realized that if you take all those monster types out, it is really hard to fill a second monster manual.

The monsters that I came up with after you take out demons, devils, dragons, etc. is a very underwhelming list. Here's what I got:
  • Spellweavers
  • Umber hulk variants
  • More drow stuff
  • Oozes - This is a big one. They should have done a whole section on oozes in this book.
  • More golems - There are a million types of cool golems in previous editions worth updating.
  • Eldritch giants and other giant types.
  • Other hydra types - If you're not going to have dragons in the book, why not some hydras?
  • Gargoyle variants - Runic gargoyles, Obsidian gargoyles, etc.
After close examination, if they held off on certain monster types for future products, then I think they did the best they could with the crop that was left over.


Volo's Guide to Monsters is a decent book that I think will help DMs, especially those who run homebrew stuff. You can take those dungeon maps in chapter one and go nuts. In general there's just a ton of material that you can inject into your game.

This book is definitely worth getting. If you keep in mind that there are not any dragons in this thing, then I think you'll be satisfied.

I collected all of the pdf previews of this book here.


Benji said...

I think they pretty much say at the start of one of the chapters they are saving certain types for other books.

I agree on some of the art. I love luecrotta from previous editions but there's no way I'm showing that picture to my players - it'll underwhelm them. Same artist who failed to deliver on peryton in the monster manual. I'll be sticking to my 3e art for that.

UE said...

I am a huge fan of this book, I even feel like the races presented were the ones I most wanted to see. Allowing me to easily build monsterous NPCs for organised humanoid groups that often require a bit of variation.
Not that I couldn't do it before with general statblock messing about, but it is just a nice option.

I loved stuff like the kenku, lizardfolk and such for players too.

My only gripe with the book is, it has been two years... It should have been a full sized book and there are more monster variants that could have gone in to pad it out to that full size. As it is, it is a third of a bestiary in monster content. And while I enjoy the focus and approach a full 320 page book is what was needed with this slow release schedule.

Unknown said...

After flipping through this book for the last day now, I have a theory about the design of this book. A lot of the new monster stats in this book, as well as portions of the lore added, seem to be aimed towards existing per-published campaigns, heavily focusing on Out of the Abyss and Storm King's Thunder. The lore section for giants is huge, and each kind of giant got one variant. Guard Drakes from Tyranny of Dragons got reprinted and expanded on. The fiends in the book seem to all be demonic in origin, and there's a lot of references towards demon lords. Also, in Out of the Abyss there was suppose to be a chapter themed around Illithid and the Elder Brain(I think it had something to do with Orcus) that got cut out.

jburgos said...

This book, despite your review, is one of the most exciting and solid supplements for the game to date. It is a great mix of lore on iconic monsters, a player handbook (2) and a Monster Manual (2). I really hope to see more of these type of books, in fact, its teased in chapter 1 that other iconic monsters will receive similar treatment in the future. The fact that it comes with a LE cover, (yeah, I own both) tells me that this book promises to be one of the best sellers.

A solid hit.

Sean said...

Benji: You are right.. It's right there on page 5. Yeesh, I must be blind. I'm going to make a note in this review, thank you for pointing this out. The art isn't bad, it's just forgettable. Thank you!

UE: I agree that this piecemeal approach is a little weird. It feels like they are continuously experimenting with how to handle sourcebook like the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide and this. While I am happy to convert old stuff, it's annoying to get a monster book and find a catoblepas in it. Thanks!

Austin Parker: You are right! That is very interesting.. I think they had plans for some kind of novel that involved Orcus and mind flayers but it didn't happen for some reason. Thanks!

jburgos: Hey, I hope it is a hit. I don't hate this book.. I want D&D to succeed big time. I'm glad you like it and I hope everyone likes it. Thanks!