D&D Book Review: Volo’s Guide To Monsters (9/10)

I’ve been wanting to do book reviews on here for a bit. And, since I just got a new book and I’ve been bemoaning my famine of content, I guess it’s time to do this thing and see what I can do to make it work. In my mind, the perfect review is my 10 Point Review system, which is sadly not calibrated to reviewing D&D manuals. Yet. But that’s not the main point of this article. Hopefully, by the time I’m done here, I’ll have finished my metric. But let’s get into my thoughts and impressions of the book, hmm?

First, just holding the thing, this is the snazziest and most intimidating RPG manual I have EVER seen. The manuals in 5e so far have been colorful, with some Party vs Monster or similar action scene painted up, with characters that may or may not be recognizable spread across the covers. This book is black and silver. And they did something with the material, where the cover doesn’t… feel like other covers. Its cool, catches your fingers unexpectedly and has this weight to it that you don’t expect. The book looks and feels evil, which is amazing. And the ithillid on the cover looks frikkin sweet as well. Props to Hydro74. (it’s cool that WotC published it with a username, not a RL name. Not sure what it means, but it’s cool. It prompts me to google the name, which brings up a website with posters and stuff. I could see this as a sweet poster.)

Actually, on my googling of said poster, I learned that this was some hobby-shop pre-order exclusive edition. Which is doubly tripply sweet. And yes, the regular version has some stupid party vs some giant or something. So go preorder it. Not to support you local shop (which, you know, you should do…) but to get epic loot.

The book itself tries to build story by having 2 different loremasters (both from the Forgotten Realms setting… 🙁 ) writing commentary in he margins every once and a bit. I’m not really much for side commentary, especially when I’m supposed to remember who these  guys are and other notes they’ve made. One also seems to reference the other. Ore that’s what the first page seems to indicate. I’m probably going to ignore it for the rest of my initial perusal, but I figure I should mention it at the start. Maybe in some future read through I’ll find some good content in it. (Later Addendum: Elminster has a super annoying olde style writing style. I mean, they probably got Ed Greenwood in to do the bits of his character all authentic like (and, yes, he’s listed in the credits, but he also created the whole FR, so of course he’d be there), but its on the irritating side.)

With the side commentary out of the way, let’s hop right into chapter 1 and HOLY CRAP. Chapter 1 starts with THIRTEEEN PAGES on the Lore of Beholders. And apparently 8 other species will get a similar treatment. This is incredible. And I’m already squeeing at the idea of there being a section for kobolds, a party favorite. What cool tidbits do we learn of beholders here?

  • Apparently, beholders shape reality to such a degree, if a beholder dreams of another beholder, that second beholder actually appears from nothing! And then they fight it out to the death. Which sounds like an amazing moment for the party to suddenly appear, in the midst of a pair of beholders dueling.
  • It is canon that beholders have a counter plan for being attacked by dinosaurs.
  • Beholders remind me a lot of Marvel’s MODOK.
  • Hive Tyrants sound really, really scary.
  • “Death Tyrants are super paranoid about the cause of death dreamed into their existence, causing them to take crazy actions like having minions slay all frost giants in 100 miles”. There is a lot of potential there for a really cool campagin, where a Death Tyrant sets up some self fulling prophecy where the death he was dreamed in ends up being the party.
  • We have 2 pages of random tables. The first to create beholder variations, size, color, eye info, etc. The second page has personality traits, exactly like in the backgrounds of PCs in Chapter 4 of PHB.
  • We then have a page of battle tactics. I had to open my MM to confirm, but yes, the beholder has 120ft darkvision, which means it have 30 feet even on Drow. A fact which the super intelligent beholdrs know. So the party has to deal with super magics, vs a foe they can’t see, at a range that makes everything difficult. Rock on.
  • Apparently, the reason beholder eye beams are randomly rolled is because the beholder is smarter than us. Also, on the meta, it makes it easier to run.
  • Traps+Telekinesis=Most bang for your buck.
  • We then have a page dedicated to using the beholders powers as utility instead of combat, which is awesome. Most are pretty obvious, but each has a tidbit of detail to spark ideas.
  • Next is a page of variations. Don’t want to use disintegration against the party? Swap it out for chain lightning or eyebite. Definitely changes up the fight. I can imagine a fierce party of elven beholder-hunters, confident that their heritage would keep the charm eyestalk from being effective, when suddenly it pull out a banishment instead. Definitely something you’d want to foreshadow so as not to be a jerk, but substituting beholder spells feels like a great way to trip up old hand players who have the 10 spells memorized. Be super careful not to be a jerk about it! No reason to change out a power when a hero goes on a small quest to get an amulet of petrification immunity or something, just to swap the beam out. They put in the time, let them have their victory.
  • Description of beholder lairs is next, with a map! oh, man, this is a gorgeous map. And its a tricky one to picture, as its very height based. I may start building it in minecraft, because I want to truly know it. And its got all these minions and things….
  • There’s a room dedicated to gas spores?> With out mentioning exactly what they are? Hilarious! (For those not in the know, a gas spore is a floating fungus thing that looks almost, but not exactly, like a beholder with its back turned. Traditionally, it had 1 hp and went bang when a party jumped it, trying to ambush a real beholder. Then there was a chance the PCs would be infected by a nasty fungus. Brutal early D&D DM tricks.)
  • Okay, from reading this section, I want to run a beholder based campagin. I’ve never wanted to do that before, but I do now. This book is awesome.
  • Okay, this part on treasure confuses me a little. It lists these new treasure descriptors, (tool, clutter, gifts, hazards, trophy) with a few sentences on how to use them, but nothing on how to generate them. Maybe its later in the book? or maybe its how to use randomly generated treasure from normal sources? I like the ideal of different types of treasure from a monster perspective. That’s a powerful concept right there and fixes the “+1 sword in a chest” issues (ala Goblin Comics) And looking forward at the other descriptions, no one seems to use those descriptors.
  • On a personal level, I’m going to be folding those 5 descriptors into future encounters. They’re a crazy, powerful idea that needs embraced.
  • The next page has tables to randomly generate the mobs in a beholder’s lair. I wonder what the average CR is for these categories? (And I wonder if I care…)
  • The last bit in the beholder section is a page or so about the Xanathar guild, a Waterdeep(Forgotten Realms bias again) “thieves and slaver’s guild” that’s led by a beholder who sounds a LOT like MODOK. Seriously. It’s kinda cool, but I’m anti-FG, so I probably will never use it. But it is kinda cool and has a lot of story ideas if you play in that setting. Actually, it would make an interesting twist for one of our Daromir gangs, the Colligiate. Not that Paul reads these…. (Ever. The schmuck.

And that’s the end of thirteen pages of beholders. Holy crap, was that a lot to take away. And I was skimming sections for your benefit. Plenty of paragraphs to delve deeply into. I’m not going to go into the others, because then this would seem closer to plagurism than review, but I’m so stoked by this one monster breakdown, I don’t feel that I need to break the thoughts down for you. I know they’re going to be amazing and I’ll let you have your own thoughts on your own. But here is the list of remaining species:

  • Giants (a lot of this info looks like it may be in the Storm King’s Thunder Adventure)
  • Gnolls (I’m hoping we get options to have them not be demonic, but I’m not betting on it…)
  • Goblinoids (I felt hobgoblins in the MM felt lack luster, so hopefully this gives them a boost)
  • Hags (I’ve done nothing with hags. 3 kinds in the MM felt like a lot, but here we are with a ton of lore for them. Maybe after reading, I’ll feel more inclined to use them.)
  • Kobolds( YAY!!! We love kobolds and I can’t wait to check this section out! I know we’ll get a few more variations of our favorite minions. I hope we get a lot more utility out of them.)
  • Mind Flayers (why are they not called ithillids anymore? Spell-check refusing to adapt? I do have a place for Mind Flayers in TSI, so this may be very useful to have a direct reference, instead of wiki articles summarizing an older book.)
  • Orcs (WARGH!!! I wanted to use orcs as a villian mob in TSI, but they were cannon fodder. Maybe we’ll have some tougher options and better tactics.)
  • Yuan-ti (I’ve always wanted to do something with yuan-ti, but I never have. They’ve always been intriguing to me, for some reason. Maybe its the hot snake chicks.)

So if you want a ton of info on one of those races, this is the book that has it.

Okay, we’re 100 pages in to this book, time for the second chapter. And its options for players! Yay?

  • Aasimar
    • Didn’t we just use to call these Devas? or was that just a 4e thing? Oh, I guess lore wise, there’s a difference. Man I miss being a superhero in 4e. None of this low powered divinie being crap.
    • Some good roleplay points in the lore. Shame I’ve never been able to use player’s race for plot points.
    • Oh, great. Darkvision.
    • This would be a powerful race for my Naked D&D expirement idea.
    • WOW. This race has a daily power that lets them deal extra damage equal to thier level every turn with any attack or spell! Pull that trigger and your level 5 bard is suddenly dealing 2d8+5 damage with viscious mockery. And with how it’s worded, it applies in a lot more circumstances than any other bonus I know of. You could make a pretty baller invoker with this race.
  • Firbolg
    • I don’t know what it is, but it’s the first playable race with +2 wisdom. So that’s cool
    • Okay, there is almost NOTHING on this page telling me what a “Firbolg” is. There is nothing that lets me build a mental picture of what it is. There is one bit, hidden under the age category, that refers to them as “a humaniod related to the fey.” That’s it. That’s all we have to tie this species to the world. At the moment, I would not allow this race at my table. They could have used any word as a name and it wouldn’t change this race. I am sorely disappointed.
  • Goliaths
    • Yay! This was a common race at our table in 4e. Not much to say about it. Good solid race with no surprises.
  • Kenku
    • I’ve talked about how interesting Kenku are in 5e, with the restriction of not being able to speak language. The playable race keeps that idea. In fact, the lore for kenku looks almost copied and pasted, then expanded. I think it builds well upon the race in the PHB.
    • There is a handy sidebar about how to play a kenku without being lynched by the table. Even with this, I don’t think I’d let a player run a kenku unless I knew they knew what they’d be getting into and I thought they’d be able to do the concept justice. It’s nice to see it in here, though.
  • Lizardfolk
    • Lizardfolk have a quirk table, which is a thing THAT EVERY RACE SHOULD HAVE!!!
    • OMG, this quirk table is awesome.
    • I can see running a naked D&D game with a lizardfolk ending up a lot like Pitch Black, with the party relying on the competent survivor.
  • Tabaxi
    • Okay, Cat people. Not at all like the cat person race I made for a player recently, but its nice we have some options.
    • Oh, look. QUIRK TABLE!!
    • Hmm. There’s an odd sprint abillity that seems to add bookwork to the race. I don’t like that part. But its seperate from a Dash, so a Tabaxi Rogue could use an Action and a Bonus Action to move 180 feet in a round. That’s kinda nifty.
    • Wow. That’s some good built in skills. Stealth and Perception.
  • Tritons
    • Oh, hey, merfolk. I wonder how close they are to my TSI vision?
    • Hey, look, a QUIRK TABLE! Did I miss that for the other races? Okay, Assimar and ‘Firbolg’ have a table for generating some character direction. Nothing as fun as a Quirk Table, tho. Kenku don’t have one, but they are Quirk Incarnate. Goliaths got nothing.
    • Hmmm. It lacks the punch I’d like for an aquatic race. I’d do in a pinch, but I think I’ll still brew up my own.
  • Monstrous races
    • I guess by that title, they mean races from the Chapter 1 segments.
    • It looks like they do a much better job explaining the importance of inter-species relations than we had in 4e (although our introductions to races in 4e tended to be through the character builder, which was more about stats then lore)
    • Man, this book has a lot of nifty little tables that can make a crazy character super deep.
    • All of these six options are pretty awesome. We’ve been playing with the Kobold homebrewed with pretty much the same basic stats. Close enough to it, at least.
    • I wonder if these monstrous races have Quirk Tables in their long sections in Chapter 1 that I skipped for brevity? Entirely possible. If only there was a way to check…

So, in general, the race chapter is pretty decent. Plenty to pull from for future playing.

Chapter 3 is the bestiary, which is what I assumed this book would be about. I mean, I hoped for a bit of the other stuff, but I wanted some new monsters, specifically higher level monsters. I won’t ramble about everything here, as its basically a monster manual. But there are new options for combat, YAY!

7 new dinosaurs! I think that brings us up to 12. Suddenly running a Jurassic Park is viable. But how to run it without giving the game away? That’s the problem with trying to run awesome movies like that. The party either has to be kept in the dark as long as possible, or they have to be on board from the get go.

Although I’m running D&D for my little brother and his 13ish year old friends soon. Hmmm…… there is potential there. I could probably get away with very little obfuscation….

This fire newt warrior is the CUTEST thing I have ever seen. ANd on the next page, I am confronted with the Flail Snail, which is all its name could possibly live up to.

The three new kobolds were everything I wanted then to be.My Jurassic Park has Kobold wardens. (Actually, if I play my cards right, I can recycle the island for TSI!)

The shadow mastiff is pretty sick looking. It’s probably the best creature to try and derive the ‘shadow’ template from. (For another D&D project of mine.)

It’s nice to know we have cow and dolphin stat blocks now. I was worried.

We got a bunch of NPC statblocks, which is awesome. The ones in the MM weren’t doing it for me. More options for sudden foes is better.

So that’s the overview of the book, what you can expect if you buy a copy. And I recommend it. I think this is an amazing resource for DMs. But what’s its score out of 10? Well, let’s see!

  1. Did I like it? Yes, I did. Good volume. Glad I bought it. +1
  2. Is it useful for players? Yeah, but only if they want to run a monstrous PC. But it’s not a book that should be in every player’s library. +0
  3. Is it useful for DMs? Yes. It has a lot of statblocks that extend options to enrich combat, instead just another orc. I do wish it had a section on adding PC levels to monsters for better fights. Or something similar. Maybe staring at what they did with orcs and kobolds might help. +1
  4. Does it provide good prompts for stories and campaigns? Oh, Hades yes! This book made me put my “Why I’m going to stop playing D&D for other games” article on hold and write this monstrosity of a post. +1
  5. Is it system agnostic? This is a tough one, as it is a monster manual. But, considering it had 100 pages of lore before getting into monster statblocks, I’m going to give it +1. (Ask me to rate it again when we hit 6e!)
  6. Is it setting agnostic? Yes, actually. There were bits and pieces tying it into the Forgotten Realms, but that’s just where WotC is playing at the moment. Enough of what I read was usable in any setting that the book gets my +1
  7. Is there enough lore? Yes. Yes there is. A shortage of lore is not an issue in 5e. We have it in spades. +1
  8. Is the visual design worthy? Yes it is, but only because I (accidentally) got the super awesome version. If I didn’t know about the S.A.V., I may have gone either way, but for my copy, +1!
  9. Will you refer to this often? Man, this one gets situational. (And I notice this question skews towards core rule books. Although when the  DMG came out, I would have given it a +1, and now I’m not sure if I would…) I think I am going to give this a +1, because if you run a game with one of the 9 elaborated species as your focus, you’ll be in this book like mad. +1
  10. Is it well indexed? Oh, 5e, how you have burned us, making us ask… But yes, I think this is the best index. In addition to an alphabetical list in the front by the Table of Contents, the back index also has 2 lists, monsters by Challenge Rating, and Monsters by enviroment by challenge rating. Beautiful. +1

So with the score tallied, I give this book a 9/10. Pretty decent for a volume. Essential for DMs, players can give it a pass.

If you have any questions, about the book or my new-fangled RPG volume rating system, please ask me!


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  1. So this system of reviewing is very cool, but I’m not sure how you as a reviewer operate. 9/10 is “pretty decent for a volume”? I’d like to see other reviews of 5e books to get a baseline.

    1. After consideration, you have a point. With reviewing movies, the system naturally focuses on how ‘good’ the movie is. With this, I guess it focuses on how ‘useful’ I think it is? With my movie scale, anything above a 6 is a decent movie. 9+ is a really good movie. Perfect 10s happen rarely, but only on movies I truly love.

      But with the RPG variation, the focus is much skewed. If utility is indeed the goal of these manuals, then they should be engineered by their authors as being as close to 10s as possible. That’s how it should work. Sadly, it doesn’t always.

      So, without any data and baseline ratings, anything ‘good’ and up is probably a 9 and higher. (There’s not really a higher built into the numbers, but if you go and rate a bunch of things, you can quickly see that not all 10s are created equal, even though they are on the scale.) Something mediocre is, I dunno, 6-8? And anything 5 and below is really bad at what it does and probably isn’t worth buying.

      Also, the scale is mostly from the DM perspective. I don’t know if a casual player needs to pay any attention to anything other than the first 2 bits.

      And I’m going right now to do the rating for the other 5e books, cuz that was a good and useful point.

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