If you’re reading this as a subscriber or follower of the blog, I decided to dub this and future reviews on products, services, and trinkets as “Death By Review”. If you’re a new person, disregard the previous sentence and welcome to our review on Wizards of the Coast’s latest offering: Volo’s Guide to Monsters.
Not just another Monster Manual
While Volo’s Guide does consist new monster stat blocks within its 224 pages, just like the Sword Coast Adventure’s Guide, this guide offers more insight for DMs on the daily lives and inner thoughts of D&D’s most beloved monsters like beholders, mind flayers, and goblins. I enjoyed the splicing of Forgotten Realms lore, like bringing Volo and Elminster to give their insights on this tome of knowledge. Players and Dungeon Masters have been clamoring for more materials, especially materials that would reduce DM prep time. Creating custom monsters, especially using the guidelines from the Dungeon Master’s Guide can be tedious and time-consuming, especially when you’re concerned about game balance and providing an adequate challenge for the party without outright overwhelming. It’s a difficult task for DMs, but the encounter calculation had many flaws within it that made the encounter building experience a chore for new and old DMs. Even with the suggestions offered in their Encounter Unearthed Arcana article, which actually helped make it easier to fill in mobs to fight against the party, all of these were only part of the larger problem concerning the encounter calculation.
But monster preparation and construction has always been something many DMs dread, which is why many enjoy adventure modules since the difficulty has already been factored into it. Volo’s Guide offers more opportunities for DMs to flesh out the personalities of iconic monsters like beholders and mind flayers.
Monster Lore – Breathing life into the monsters
One of the lessons I learned, and one many people learned in the early days of D&D came from Tracy and Laura Hickman when they created the Ravenloft setting. One of the things that players and DMs will notice over time is when you start asking the intrinsic question of “why is this monster here?” Once you start answering the question, a plethora of other questions erupt and subsequently it leads to developing either the most intricate monster background ever conceived or it shatters the illusion of the game. There is not much of a middle ground. The first chapter the most iconic monsters across D&D’s history and touches on aspects like culture, lair layouts, behaviors, plans, motivations, and even gives them tables for traits and flaws like characters. Some of these iconic monsters often cover arcs within a campaign narrative, some become the Big Bad Evil Guy (BBEG) even.
More mature or seasoned players want depth to their villains and enemies, of course there’s little depth for why a wolf is within a wooded area. But why is there a pack of lizardfolk out here? What brought them out here? Who is there a leader? What is its favorite color?
These sort of questions bring depth not only to just player characters but even to the monsters and villains they face. The world is not entire black and white, there are shades of grey, and even monsters have their own motivations and drives. Granted they often times conflict with other civilizations which makes them feel like the aggressors or instigators. Some of these monsters have a legacy of being cruel and despicable, but some are simply creatures living their lives like any other being in a world.
There details for lairs and societies, they cover things like mind flayer reproduction and the evolution of its kind through the elder brain. We get more details about the Ordening for all of giantkind, the religious practices and beliefs of the Yuan-ti, and the hierarchical lifestyle of goblinoids. We learn more about the origins of Gnolls and what sort of structure lies within their tribes or packs. There are plenty of details and material for a DM to bring an entire city or region fleshed out with the information presented within this chapter. Coincidently, that helps especially with Mind Flayer colonies in the Underdark, giving more life when they delve deeper in adventures like Out of the Abyss.
New Playable Races – Many classic returns & monstrous characters
Players love having options, while the offerings for class archetypes are scarce on official platforms, there are hundreds of offerings when you include homebrew content, especially in the DMsGuild and other online forums. Races are one of the options that has gotten some attention since the races in the Player’s Handbook simply follow the stereotypical fantasy genre races. Players and even some DMs have wanted to tell other stories, sometimes as goblin characters. There are plenty of such adventures across Twitch and various other D&D shows.
Volo’s Guide not only officially gives the Aasimar rules within a supplement, they even go so far as to include subraces. Something even the tiefling has not officially received yet (other than through an Unearthed Arcana article). The Aasimar in this guide covers two ideas of the race, one more focused on combat with the other focused on mobility but there’s a third option about a corrupted aasimar. I was fairly impressed with the inclusion of a fallen aasimar as an option. It adds plenty of roleplaying opportunities for the player and with the rest of the group, especially if the character wishes to be redeemed or cleansed of their sins.
The firbolg was teased rather early before the guide’s release, older veterans of the game will recall this race as the sort of inquisitive yet gentle giant race. Think something along the veins of “Where the Wild Things Are” but with greater focus on community like a hobbit. In fact, their depiction is similar to an oversized hobbit on some occasions. The firbolg interact peacefully with elves and often times have elven names, their communities are also secluded which allows them to act as caretakers to forests and woods. There are some wonderful pieces of lore and it felt quite nostalgic that Wizards has the opportunity to bring back monsters that newer generations of players never knew existed.
The kenku make a return as a playable race for players, I enjoyed the Japanese inspired lore that the race originated from and still hold a special place in my non-existent heart.
The tabaxi are another race from D&D’s past, a feline race that typically are depicted as humanoid looking jaguars and leopards. They were first introduced from 1st-Edition and the Fiend Folio, the Forgotten Realms incorporated this race in a remote region of the world which was lore more difficult to find even referencing this race. But ultimately, Wizards believes that its a good opportunity for new players to experience creatures and monsters from D&D’s colorful past. A cat folk race is something many fantasy setting includes as an archetype sooner or later, often times later but it’s a fun inclusion that develops topographical regions that some D&D games ignore, like jungle settings for example.
Variety is Always Good, especially with Monsters
A DM loves to have options, especially when it comes to customization options for enemy monsters. One of the neat features from 4th Edition (it was done in previous editions too but was more prevalent of a practice in 4th) was the variation of monster roles. You didn’t just have a normal goblin, you can have skirmishers, trappers, tricksters, tinkerers, alchemists, bosses, and elites. These gave DMs a powerful tool in tailoring encounters and monster mobs to be unique and not simply a generic experience. Volo’s Guide revisits this practice with some of the iconic monsters, such as illithids, beholders, and goblins to name a few. Again, one of the biggest difficulties with DMing a D&D game involves prep time, anything that would help alleviate or reduce this time spent is considered a boon for the DM.
Overall, it’s a feature that has been long desired from the community and to see it brought out in this product is welcome sight that reinforces Wizards’ desire to listening to the community. It still has ways to go, but it’s a step in the right direction. I feel that this only a precursor to possibilities in future products.
More NPC stats – Monsters are good but the best monsters are people
While having new monster stat blocks are wonderful and great, the greatest monsters are ultimately those who wear a face and talk like anyone else. I enjoyed that the guide offered stats for NPCs from each of the primary character classes along with certain archetypes like swashbucklers, war priests, warlords, and even archdruids. Again the key is to give the DM more options and reduce the amount of prep time. One of the few features from 4th Edition was the encounter building system implemented, along with the compendiums of monsters that could used to fill in the slots based on their roles and their “XP” costs. But that’s another issue and topic for discussion elsewhere.
Improved Organization – About time!
So one of the greater faults with the organization of the 5th Edition Monster Manual was the way things were organized. Yes the monsters within the Table of Contents were listed Alphabetically, but there was nothing else. By the time the Dungeon Master’s Guide was released, monsters were organized by environment and challenge rating within those said environments. It was a great idea to help flesh out ecosystems of monsters within a region based on topography. BUT one of the criticisms for the monster organizations was always the lack of organization by Challenge Ratings, just simply every monster available organized by their challenge ratings with corresponding page numbers at the very least. The reason this type of organization was necessary came from the fact that sometimes you needed a challenge rating 5 monster, it could possibly be a caged creature or an ally for the enemy. Not to mention, the few summon spells within 5th Edition specify creatures based on their CRs, it’s hard to find the creatures by challenge ratings if there is no table to do so.
I am very happy to inform the masses that Wizards finally got the hint! We have an index for the monsters organized by challenge rating. It was really one of the first things I looked for while going through the guide and was very pleased when I saw it. What does this mean for Wizards and the consumer? Well for one thing, they’re listening to us. Many online forums like Reddit have a strong influence and snapshot of the moods and feelings of the D&D community, Facebook and Twitter offer a wider snapshot that encompasses individuals (like myself) who are truly expressive with our opinions.
Final Thoughts & Impressions
Now the harder questions: Does Volo’s Guide warrant a purchase? Is there value with what is given and depicted within the product?
I honestly believe that the product is worth a purchase, here’s why: Wizards wants to still make books and still create products worth it to the consumers and the community. The amount of product being released within this past year (2016) has the impression that Wizards wants to grow the ruleset more. They are taking conservative steps after learning their previous lessons with overextending themselves on product without careful thought on its influence in the game. Also Wizards has learned from their competitors what sells best for the player base, Paizo’s success with their Adventure Path products emphasized the need for DMs to reduce prep time for their games. Wizards has followed through with that business model with the (as of this article) 5 published adventure modules.
Wizards is aware that there are still some rules adjustments and additions that players wish to see in this wonderful game, meaning that in the future we may see a possible Player’s Handbook Vol 2. It’s not just a speculation, if you have read the Revised Ranger v.2 Unearthed Arcana article, that particular build was under consideration for a possible printing in a future product should the playtest feedback prove favorable and desired. I even wrote my own review on the Revised Ranger (actually several times in fact.) Volo’s Guide is a window to the direction that Wizards wants to take their products, which are not just tomes filled with tables and charts but depth and character that pulls the readers deeper into the game. The guide is great for players and DMs, more so for the latter. The new races would definitely freshen up the gameplays, I would love to see a Fallen Aasimar in a Curse of Strahd game.
Wizards has spent the latter half of 2016 marketing their products in an unprecedented manner, especially with Storm King’s Thunder but Volo’s Guide received exclusivity with a unique alternative cover that had collectors and fans dashing to their local hobby stores to preorder and reserve their copies of the one-time printing. Even if you don’t want the alternative cover, the marketing strategy gave business back to hobby stores again which was always something that the company wanted.
Volo’s Guide to Monsters is officially released on November 15th, 2016. It’s a strong tool on expanding the game and offering more insight for both DMs and players.
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