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Something I’ve said quite often on Twitter and the forums I visit is that 5th edition feels a lot like 2nd edition to me – not in the way the mechanics work, but in the way it feels to play. There’s less emphasis on having a rule for every situation than there was in the later days of 3rd edition (and certainly in 4th) – instead, the focus seems to be on keeping the game moving, on everybody having fun and telling cool stories, and in allowing yourself to embrace weird, truly fantastic things.
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Volo’s Guide To Monsters is a book I’ve looked forward to since it was announced, precisely because it’s a throwback to 2nd edition. The Volo’s Guides of 2nd edition were some of my favourite books when I first started playing D&D, even though they didn’t contain any rules information. They were pure fluff1, nothing but world-building, guidebooks to parts of the Forgotten Realms written by a character who existed inside the realms and annotated by Elminster himself, and I loved them. (I’ve talked previously about how much I miss the giant campaign setting boxed sets TSR used to produce, and the Volo’s Guides occupy the same space in my love for this game.)
The other thing I’ve always loved – something I suspect any GM who chooses D&D over other systems loves – is monsters. I own pretty much every book of monsters produced for both 2nd and 3rd editions – even when the 3rd edition books started being filled with monsters nobody would ever actually use, I still bought them – but I always wanted something less focused on numbers and abilities and more akin to the Ecology of… articles that used to show up in Dragon Magazine. Something that lay somewhere between the Volo’s Guides and a monster manual. Something like Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, but for D&D.
And now, finally, after 22 years of playing D&D, WoTC have obliged me.
As you may be able to tell, I’ve been looking forward to this book for a very long time.
So, how is it? I’ll cut right to the chase – I love it. It’s not perfect, but then that’s more due to my own preferences for what could have been included than for any other reason. It’s certainly a very high-quality book, leagues above the majority of the splat books that Wizards produced for 3rd edition.
The joy of this is that it’s a book you can sit down and read – it’s not just a collection of numbers and tables. There’s charm and heart to it, and that makes it fun. Elminster’s annotations and notes are always entertaining (“VOLO’S GUIDE TO FLEEING ANGRY MOBS” is a hilarious little detail that I hope one day becomes a real thing, as ridiculous as it would be), and there’s a real sense that the writers were passionate about this project.
I’ve already mentioned the Ecology of… articles from Dragon Magazine. They were mostly fluff, but they were always a great source of inspiration for me and helped me to build some really fun, memorable encounters and adventures. Once Dragon Magazine went away Wizards published a few more of these articles online – and third party publishers started to produce similar content in their splat books – but they soon dried up, and I was sad to see them go. (As, it seems, plenty of other people were, too – ‘Ecology of…’ posts pop up on r/dndbehindthescreen and r/UnearthedArcana fairly regularly).
The first chapter of Volo’s Guide is essentially a return to those articles, though with a little more emphasis on interesting ways to use the monsters in combat. This is what I initially thought would be my favourite chapter in the book. It’s just a shame that there are only 9 monsters talked about in this chapter, though of course that makes sense – they have to save space here so they can pack the rest of the book with more monsters. The selection is decent too – there are iconic D&D monsters like beholders, mind flayers, and kobolds, as well as a couple of interesting choices in Yuan-ti (which are criminally underused) and hags. (And, while the section on kobolds is good, one of the most useful things you should read if you’re planning to use them is Tucker’s Kobolds).
One of the most exciting parts of this chapter for me was the entry on the mind flayers’ Nautiloids – the ships they use to navigate the astral plane. These are very cool, and with them and the mention of githyanki in the book’s introduction, I’m hoping we’re going to see Planescape get some more attention soon.
The rest are a little disappointing, though; Orcs and Goblinoids have been written about hundreds of times, and the chapter doesn’t really do anything new or exciting with them (though the section on Orc superstitions is interesting). And adding Giants seems a little redundant when Storm King’s Thunder just gave us so much stuff about Giants, though I suppose it makes sense to include them here from a cross-marketing perspective. (That said, I thought the section on giant language was fascinating. It may not be immediately useful in your game, but it’s the real meaty kind of fluff that I love, even though I encourage people not to go to this level of detail in their own worldbuilding unless absolutely necessary). I am glad that they didn’t do anything on dragons – as fun as it would be, do we really need more information about them at this point? – and (as I mentioned) they tease that they’ll include githyanki in a future release, but I want them now. NOW, DAMN IT.
Something that will definitely be useful in your game, though? Let’s take a second – just a second – to talk about the maps peppered throughout this book. They’re great, and I really didn’t expect to find anything like them here. Some of the lair designs are really interesting and give a nice visual reinforcement of the ideas being talked about in the text – plus, they’re just gorgeous. If you’ve looked at The Wheelhouse, you’ll be able to see that this is the kind of product I really like – it’s not just a bunch of monsters and their stats, but a toolbox to make your game better.
The races chapter is good and gives some interesting new options. Aasimar bore me, to be quite frank, but given that Tieflings were in the PHB it makes sense to include a good-themed alternative here. It’s nice to see Kenku getting some love again (though I’m not sure about the specification that they lack any and all creativity – somebody roleplaying that with any kind of seriousness is going to butt heads with the party the second they get in trouble), and I really enjoyed the Firbolgs and Tabaxi (the latter of which are a throwback to Maztica, a setting I used to love). Tritons are an odd choice, but it might be a nice option for anybody wanting to run an entirely underwater campaign. And, like with Aasimar, I’m bored of Lizardfolk by this point.
This post is getting long, so I won’t go into too much detail about the monsters listed in the final chapter – really you should buy the book and explore them for yourselves. Instead, I’ll just give you my top 5 [or 6, whatever], with as little explanation and context as I can get away with, because I’m a dick like that:
- Banderhobb – Between this and the section on hags, you could build an awesome adventure. In fact, I might do just that. Watch this space.
- Boggles and Darklings – The feywild has so much potential for weirdness and darkness. It’s nice to see some of that coming out here.
- Deep Scion – These things are weird horrific, and I love them. I don’t actually know if they’re from an older edition or not, but I don’t care. I’m using them as soon as possible.
- Neogi – Holy shit, Spelljammer is getting some love now? You have no idea how excited that makes me. If you don’t know what Spelljammer is, you need to Google it right now. It’s batshit crazy, and it’s one of my all-time favourite D&D settings. It’s seriously weird. It’s ’90s weird.
- Tlincalli – More Maztica critters getting me excited. Scorpion folk are a weird concept, and one that I’ve always loved (one of the first races I ever created – in about 1995, when I was 9 years old – was essentially a were-scorpion that could also take a hybrid form. It was fun, and that character died in a very messy way).
Honourable mentions: It’s nice to see Barghests, Cave Fishers, and Elder Brains here. I really felt their absence in the Monster Manual, and though they were printed in some of the adventures Wizards have published it’s nice to have them all in one place.
There’s a lot to like about this book. You may have noticed that I get really excited every time WoTC bring back something from an old setting; some of my best memories of playing D&D come from Spelljammer, Dark Sun, and Planescape campaigns, and it’s great to see that those properties haven’t been forgotten. The relaunch of Ravenloft seems to be going well, so I hope that we’ll start to see some of the weirder, more esoteric settings getting a supplement or two thrown their way in the future.
You can buy Volo’s Guide To Monsters from Amazon, or direct from your favourite local gaming store.
Footnotes [er…footnote. Singular.]
1 For those who don’t know, “fluff” isn’t me making any kind of value judgement. It’s a way of differentiating rules content (“crunch”) from world-building/lore/etc. (“fluff”). Similarly, “splat books” just means source books that exist as optional material that isn’t part of the core rules.