In November, Wizards of the Coast unleashed Volo’s Guide to Monsters, a combination monster ecology lorebook, bestiary, and, just for fun, they tossed a chapter on new player races in. Since I’m perpetually behind the times (I like call myself a late adopter), I have only recently come to possess a copy of this tome. My first impressions follow:
- Monster Ecologies are a Good Thing. Somewhere along the way, D&D monster stat blocks got so big, there often wasn’t room for much more than a perfunctory few sentences describing said beasts and their habitats. As a GM, I hate this. It divorces the creatures from their worlds, making them just another sack of hit points to be eliminated and looted. The Fifth Edition Monster Manual took a step in the right direction, giving more description for creatures than the last two editions, but I wanted more still… I wanted a book more like the 13th Age Bestiary (Pelgrane Press) for the 13th Age RPG, or the Hacklopedia of Beasts (Kenzer and Co.) for Hackmaster. A book with detailed notes on the ecology, habitat, diet, personality, and foibles of the creatures included. A book rife with plot hooks for me to hang adventures on. The first third or so of Volo’s guide gave me just that. A smattering of iconic D&D creatures, such as beholders and illithids, got excellently written sections that really help a GM bring them to life.
- More Monsters are a Great Thing. While I think the Fifth Edition Monster Manual is a thing of physical beauty, I personally find that too many of the creatures included are a bit… bland. I understand that the new edition is going to have all the standard beasts in it, but I found the treatment of a lot of them made them rather dull in play, especially low challenge staples, such as ogres. Volo’s Guide expands the monster options by about a hundred, which isn’t too shabby. The included monsters are a pretty good mix of semi-iconic creatures that likely got cut from the Monster Manual, such as the barghest, variants of extant creatures, and a few brand new critters. The design of some of them is still a little dull, but the trade-off is that they are all easy to put into play and use to their fullest, which isn’t something I’d say about a lot of D&D 3/3.5/4/PFRPG monsters, so I’ll happily take them.
- More NPCs is the Best Thing. The twelve pages of generic NPCs at the end of Volo’s Guide are a godsend. While I love making NPCs, and think I do a cracking good job of it, *Shameless Plug Alert: Please take a look at any of our Fifth Edition compatible taverns or 5e NPCs: Bullies and Brutes to see what I mean /Shameless Plug* sometimes I just want a spellcaster of Challenge x, or a roguish pirate, or whatever. My ideal world would see the release of a D&D NPC book along the lines of PFRPG’s NPC Codex, though I’d prefer that the NPCs offer a decent challenge… Paizo’s inability to/disinterest in creating NPCs that can challenge an average party of their CR is a topic for another day… This section will see a lot of use by me, since my games tend to more urban/political strife than dungeoneering.
- There are PC races in with my GM material!? While I imagine that WotC included some player material in this book in order to shift more units, I have to admit that I wish they hadn’t. It isn’t that the races included are intrinsically bad, though most suffer from the same blandness inflicted upon the “non-standard” Player’s Handbook races such as the Dragonborn and Half-orc, I just don’t see the need for them… though admittedly, I prefer my games to be more human oriented… I might feel differently if these races were included in the 5e SRD, but they aren’t, so I can’t even use them for Dire Rugrat purposes without rewriting any non-SRD material.
- There Just Isn’t Enough of Any One Thing. While overall I think that Volo’s Guide to Monsters is a good, and borderline great, book, none of the sections is given enough room to breathe. The Monster Lore section is wonderful, but where are the demons? The devils (I love me some infernals)? The dragons? The rust monsters (another favourite)? I want a monster lore book that is the size of the Monster Manual, with each monster type getting, say, 12 pages of lore and a few more pages at the end of their section with some variants of the type. While I would personally cut the races of Chapter 2 in favour of more lore or more monsters, I would still be happier with them if they got more room for description and roleplaying tips. Considering there are over a dozen races, the 17 pages they are alotted is woefully inadequate. Finally, while Chapter 3 (and appendices A and B) are awesome, I really appreciate more support for creature types that were neglected in the Monster Manual (yes, I’m talking about fey and NPCs), I would rather they were packaged in a Monster Manual 2 and Peoples Manual (or whatever they would name it), rather than feeling like they were stuffed at the end of a lore book.
So there you have it. While there is a lot of whining at the end, it is more a result of wanting more of each of the things Volo’s Guide to Monsters offers rather than a complaint about the material. Overall, I would give the book an A- grade (or… um 4.5 stars rounded up), with a hope that when or if we see another book of this type, that it focuses pretty much exclusively on the lore and roleplaying aspects of monsters.
What are your thoughts? Am I totally off base? Let me know in the comments!