First Impressions Of Volo's Guide To Monsters: 9 Observations From A DM's Perspective (Both Good And Bad)
First let me say two things: I love Sir Volo; I've read all his books. My copy of Volo's Guide to the Sword Coast was so well used that it was held together with scotch tape and Cheeto dust. Second, I've been a DM for three quarters of my life so when I buy a new supplement I judge it on what it will add to my games.
I recently got Volo's Guide to Monsters as a Christmas present and I promptly ignored my family to read it through. Given my preoccupation with building campaigns I was excited for the possibilities of this new supplement for 5e D&D. I wanted to pass on my first impressions to other gamers and DMs. Here are some of the things that I am most excited about and some of my disappointment.
First, my disappointment:
1) A missed opportunity for sub races.
The introduction of 13 new playable races is great. That being said a supplement of this size surely could have spared some room for sub races. When I opened the book I went straight to the new playable races. Number 1, Aasimar: three sub races! Let me tell you how excited this got me, only to be let down hard. I know Aasimar are sexy and everyone and their drake wanted a fully fleshed out and playable Aasimar blessed by the good folk at WotC. But there are some of us, I bet a good number, who are just as excited about playing Hobgoblins and Lizardfolk. The complete lack of sub races for every other playable race was disheartening and I don't understand why. Take Hobgoblins, an advanced race with culture, art (if you disagree just look at the artwork in the monsters manual and tell me their armour isn't artistic), advanced education in magic and warfare, and a strong caste system. I can't imagine a race that evolved without sub races. If you don't accept that argument then look at the Yuan-ti, a race that has three distinct entries in the Monster Manual but only one is playable. If any of the entries deserved sub races it was them.
2) The entire Monstrous Adventurers section.
Don't get me wrong, I wanted these stats bad and I'm happy to have them. There are six races in this section, Bugbear, Goblin, Hobgoblin, Kobold, Orc, and Tuan-ti; each with only a quarter page of information. To me, it is a bit confusing why these specific races are singled out as monstrous while the other races that appear in the Monster Manual (Kenku and Lizardfolk) get their own section. I hate to throw around the “R” word, but I’m pretty sure Sir Volo segregated the races here based on perceived alignment. And we all know that not every Drow is Evil… I would have prefered to see more racial information on these six entries for those of us who are inclined to play them.
I was a little confused as to why the Goliath race was even in this supplement when it exists verbatim in the Elemental Evil supplement, and then why only Goliath, why not Aarakocra, Deep Gnomes, and Genasi as well? The one and a half pages that were used to regurgitate this information to us could have been put to better use, and as a customer I feel very slightly ripped-off.
These three things are rank with laziness and I expected more from such an esteemed scholar as Volo. Then again I shouldn't be completely surprised as the depth of his research into some of the more interesting cities on the Sword Coast was also lacking.
But let's talk about the exciting bits now.
1) Kenku, Hobgoblins, and Lizardfolk.
I don't think I really need to say much more. I've always liked them as a playable race and was happy to finally have the stats.
2) Three Sub Races of Aasimar.
So sexy. I was impressed with the thought and creativity of the sub races, they are: Protector, Scourge, and Fallen. Given the diversity of mythology around celestial creatures (i.e. Angels) I was pleased to learn that not all Aasimar are equal. What I like most about the subraces are that they lead to a deeper understanding of Aasimar as creatures overflowing with energy threatening to burst out of them. It adds a touch of tortured soul to a player that, if used well in role-playing, can bring a lot to the game aside from the immediate benefits that unleashing this energy provides.
3) Additional role-playing tips. Specifically: "Roleplaying a Kenku," "Lizardfolk speech," and Tabaxi Obsessions and Quirks. These little sidebars will add a lot to the many players who will inevitably play one of these three races.
4) The entire Monster Lore chapter is flavour town for a DM.
You can make entire campaigns based around the cultural knowledge found in these sections. Some of my favourites are:
The "Outside Combat" entry in the beholder section is great for a DM like me. When I create the villain and their lair I like to know how they would have built or acquired it and then build my encounter(s) appropriately. This small section allows for a richly developed beholder boss and its lair. As a note I generally start from the end and build my campaigns backwards using the villain’s motivations and methods to construct a story with continuity.
"Beholder Variants." For those well seasoned adventuring parties who know exactly what to expect and plan for when fighting a beholder… not anymore (insert evil chuckle here).
The "Giant Tongue" section. I love this not just because it can add a lot of flavour text for DM’s to use when building a campaign around giants but it will also add tiny moments of fun (and continuity) around encounters with giants. Imagine the PCs are spying on giants and you deliver an entire sentence in giant speech while giving the player who speaks giant Volo’s Guide to decipher it. Pure gold! Oh yeah, and Goliaths speak giant and any Goliath PC can use this to create their own interesting role-playing moments.
The "Roleplaying a Giant" section is long and full of great stuff to add to giant campaigns and adventures. Including the specific sections on each giant race's Ordening. I enjoyed reading it and will enjoy weaving it into my next campaign.
5) Goblin Love.
I've always felt that not enough attention is paid to the humble Goblin. Not only can you now play them but you also have detailed cultural knowledge for deeper stories. If you’ve got no love for goblins and you just use them as fodder for your PCs you can now create individual and detailed War Bands for smaller encounters or as part of a broader story line.
6) Cultural Lore for Monstrous Adventurers.
This is where Volo redeemed himself to me, regarding the short and disappointing Monstrous Adventurers section. Each of the races that can be a Monstrous Adventurer has a corresponding section in the Monster Lore chapter. So for those of us who want to play a Hobgoblin, Lizardfolk, or Yuan-ti, we have a tonne of additional cultural information for a truly deep character, even if you don't get a separate sub race.
If you were hoping for a recommendation to purchase or not, I won’t give you that. For my games, this supplement will add a lot. I have found in its pages more than enough information to build entire campaigns and add a lot of memorable moments to specific encounters and side quests. For my players, they get 13 new races to play and advice on playing most of them. I hope this helps to inform your decision on if you should buy it or not. Either way I wish you good gaming.
Bryan is a 30 something coach and gamer in Edmonton, AB Canada. All he wanted for Christmas was more games. He is looking forward to playing his newest board game, Evolution, with his friends and wife as soon as humanly possible. But maybe, just a few notes on the next side quest, maybe warring Goblin tribes, or a beholder…. yeah a beholder will do the trick.
I’ve played Dungeons and Dragons for 12 years, DM’ed various campaigns for the last 8, and while I’ve heard of alluring storylines and tested the waters of other systems (specifically, Classic WoD and Star Wars d20), I’ve always come back to D&D. I cut my teeth on D&D 3.5, with a party of 3 players, and a library of about 50 books between us (including all 5 Monster Manuals, and the Draconomicon). During the days of 3.5, there was so much reading material (in the form of splatbooks) that I grew to appreciate any rule book which helped to develop the narrative, state of the world, or flesh out a particular region. “Volo’s Guide to Monsters” is like a 5e narrative dream come true.
1. Cheeky Sidenotes Break up the Sections - Between the competing narratives of Volo and Elminster, it’s hard to not chuckle to yourself while perusing the pages of this manual-cum-Grimm-Tale. That’s not really a word, or a portmanteau, I just made it up. Anyway. Starting at the beginning (as all good stories do), you are introduced to two competing, slightly egotistical guides who help color what can otherwise be a procedural book for DM’s. Their notes, like stray fragments of parchment shoved between the pages, lend either a word of warning to adventurers, a funny tale, or a different perspective on the beast currently being discussed. It makes the whole book feel more like reading an adventure, than a rule book.
2. It Is So Much More Than a Monster Manual –
In addition to the Bestiary – a fabulous collection of macabre species, some new, some old, some resurrected from previous editions – there are two other sections to the book. Volo, Elminster, and Wizards of the Coast, took their time to really delve boots-first into the history, society, inner workings, and motivations of some of the most iconic creatures (and end-boss options) D&D has to offer. In the Monster Manual proper, only Dragons truly got the “full work up” with ecosystems, motivations, and more than just the stat block and standard 3-6 paragraph write up. I live in those paragraph write-ups. They help fuel my curiosity and creativity to uncover new ways to blend creature alliances, shape story hooks and future plot lines, and really enrich the world that my PC’s really live in.
3. New Playable Races -
I can neither confirm nor deny if I squealed loudly at the discovery of entire pages dedicated to new playable races, with their societies, quirks, and history all mapped out and ready to use in character creation. WoTC has been releasing a steady stream of Unearthed Arcana, monthly PDF’s with races, classes, and class sub-types, with the distinct disclaimer that they had not been play-tested, might not yet be balanced, and are to be used at the DM’s discretion. There were no repeats of any of the Unearthed Arcana races in Volo’s Guide, and while there was a small disclaimer regarding balance, I’m no stranger to making odd things work. (Did I ever mention the flying Halfling PC I gamed with, Flitz?) These races may not be for the faint of heart, or cautious DM, but I’ve already used a Firbolg Druid as an NPC, because OMG CUTE GIANT NATURE GUY. Okay, end squee.
4. More Artwork for Existing Monsters -
If you are a visual-centric person, sometimes a tome heavy in text and light on illuminations can feel like a chore. Stat blocks are easy to pick up, and plunk down into an adventure wherever you need it. But stat blocks all on their own don’t carry the gravitas that a professional picture can. I am a fan of obscuring most of the page, save the image, and showing it to my players, simply stating “This is what you see” and allowing their reactions to fuel the encounter (I don’t need a hype-man, they bring their own hype, man). I’m usually met with sounds of dread, horror, and the occasional shaking of boots. I have grown to appreciate, even enjoy, the temporary dismay of my players, as I know it’ll mean the victory will be all the sweeter for them.
5. New Monsters, Re-Skins, and Resurrections -
Originally, I was going to use my final point to mention one monster that truly got me excited to use them in my next session. Maybe Redcaps, tiny Evil Fey in all of their shin-kicking glory? Or Cave Fishers, the Underdark’s wolf spider/scorpion lovechild, with moonshine for blood. Or CAT PEOPLE. Because that’s OFFICIALLY a THING that I ENJOY. A LOT. (No, I did not exclusively play Khajit in Skyrim… I don’t know what you’re talking about…) There are a slew of monsters from previous editions, including some that haven’t seen the light of day since Second Edition, enough to get any fan fired up. But, I don’t have another 797 words available to truly touch on all my favorites, so this sampling will have to suffice.
Ultimately, I think Wizards of the Coast have been cranking out incredible supplemental materials since D&D 5e was first released, and I can absolutely appreciate the over-arching narrative they have created through their modules. However, all of those previous purchases were useful to me for the appendices, those little footnotes about new creatures, new items, and ways to help shape my own setting. They were crumbs cast from the loaf I was yearning for. Volo’s Guide to Monsters gave me the full course, with the trimmings, and I can contentedly say that I am satisfied. I can continue to hope, however, that this new narrative direction continues, as I’m bound to hunger for more knowledge again.
Angela Daurio has run out of words to type up a more complete biography. She is a Dungeons and Dragons 5e DM and player, with a soft spot for weird creatures, including her cats and her friends.
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.