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.