Sunday, April 30, 2023
Saturday, April 29, 2023
Dungeons and Dragons has traditionally been bad at depicting religion. This should come as no surprise to those who have been following the series, but it's necessary to restate it, in order to put Defenders of the Faith (Rich Redmond and James Wyatt) into context. There was no way it was ever going to be "good," because in order to be a good roleplaying book about adventurers who wield the powers of the gods, it would have to ask difficult questions about spirituality and tradition and community and metaphysics. It would have to depict people who surrendered themselves to powers beyond death and who act as a vessel for a mystery beyond words. And it could never do that, because D&D Clerics are mostly just Heal Technicians. Their religion is basically just medieval Catholicism, stripped of all purpose, complexity, and substance, distorted by a pop-culture mirror that ensures it can never rise even to the realm of the controversial. An order of sacred knights guards their Holy Grail - a chalice which caught the blood of a solar avingion as it dueled a tanar'ri. Because the paradox of the crucifixion, the holy inversion, where love defeats power, is too subtle a concept. Better to just be literal.
And I'm being something like 80% non-sarcastic here. You could maybe have a roleplaying game that dug deep into Christian theology and made it a key aspect of gameplay, but it wouldn't be Dungeons and Dragons. It probably wouldn't even be fun. And maybe that's just my bias as an atheist showing, but I'm pretty sure that the hypothetical audience for Aquinas: The Epistolary RPG of Scholastic Monasticism would not consider "fun" to be an appropriate goal. There's a spectrum here, is what I'm saying. D&D as a whole gets its place on the spectrum wrong, probably since at least the early 80s, when the Cleric class went from "thinly-veiled Van Helsing knockoff" to "key part of the campaign world's religious expression," but the worst thing you can say about Defenders of the Faith is that it doesn't move the needle significantly in either direction.
The book works well when it's ticking along inside its wheelhouse. It describes the way a "church" works - with its Services and Rituals, Expenses and Income, Charity and Advertising, and Adventurer Support and Adventuring Priests (because, oh yeah, this is an adventure game) - and if you're dealing with the deities that quite clearly take after European Jesus, it works. Pelor, Hieroneous, Saint Cuthbert - okay, this makes sense. You could probably even make Hextor work as Confederate Jesus (though, it's hurt by the fact that people in D&D world self-identify as evil, and Wizards of the Coast was not prepared to take the artistic and political risk of making a Lawful Evil religion that identified as good and valued an outward appearance of chivalry . . . you know, like the Confederacy).
However, what the fuck is supposed to be going on with the "Church of Nerull?" It's kind of a universal worldbuilding question to ask, "what are the parishioners getting out of this church," but for a neutral evil religion that explicitly only cares about cruelty and personal advancement, the question is doubly important. Are the followers propriating the God of the Undead? Are they bargaining with him to be undead themselves? Isn't that what the priests are doing? Is there a lay congregation that is hoping to one day get divine powers for themselves? How often are they successful? What's the bait on this particular hook?
These aren't impossible questions to answer. Most specific D&D settings even try to take a stab at it (with varying degrees of success), but it's incredibly out of place in this book. It couldn't even really handle the Chaotic Good and Chaotic Neutral religions. A God of Thieves is a fine concept, but what does religion even mean to a thief? Whatever it is, it probably has more to do with the tenuousness of their lives and their precarious liberty in the face of a law that wants to destroy them, and less about going to consult a priest and tithe their income to a church (even if the shrines are usually secret). You could probably take inspiration from the Mafia's weird relationship to Catholicism and talk about a thieves' guild that devoutly attended the church of Hieroneous, but that's what I mean when I say D&D is bad at religion - there is absolutely nothing in its narrative or mechanical framework that could handle that all-too-human paradox.
The Cleric class winds up having the same basic problem as the Wizard class - it's too broad a concept. It's not quite as bad, because "magic user who gains their powers from pacts with otherworldly beings" is technically a narrower niche than "magic user," but not by much. From a historical perspective, it's actually really odd to even make that split at all. So if you arrange Clerics on a line from "theurgists who serve the community in a capacity resembling medieval clergy" to "diabolists and necromancers, aesthetically indistinguishable from a dark wizard" Defenders of the Faith does well with the first type, but for the second, Tome and Blood would probably be the better resource.
Overall, this was a fine book. I enjoyed reading it. But ideally, I'm building my fantasy world in a way that renders it largely obsolete.
Ukss Contribution: I'm going to do something I don't ordinarily like to do and pick something the book explicitly says not to do. "A Paladin with scores of scrolls stuck through her belt and bandoliers of dozens of potions just looks silly."
Speak for yourself, Defenders of the Faith. Speak for yourself.
Thursday, April 27, 2023
>>Code: Ragnarok>>Operations Budget: Unlimited>>Permissible Weapons: Unlimited>>Permissible Casualties:>>Local Inhabitants: 100%>>Associate Personnel: 100%>>Enlightened Operatives: 100%
Chilling, but awesome. Say what you will about the Technocracy, but they're willing to put it all on the line when it counts . . . and that's really not something you should be saying about sci-fi fascists, so something had to give. You can only keep one half of the characterization, which half do you choose? I know what choice my younger self made, and I don't know. I'm still quite a big fan of awesome things, but I'm also more highly motivated to take a hard stance against fascists, so I refer you back to the bulk of my output for the year 2020 (oh, shit, has it really been that long) wherein I have complicated feelings about Mage: the Ascension.
Overall, Time of Thin Blood was almost all upside for me (except the damned FONTS!!! The narrator saying "It has been pleasant . . . to imagine you squinting with your weak eyes at my terrible handwriting" isn't really cute when it happens to you in real life). It's probably more enjoyable as a piece of fiction than as a campaign guide, but basing campaigns off of enjoyable fiction is something like half the hobby.
Ukss Contribution: The "Hemetic" flaw. Take it and you're so disgusted by blood that you can't keep it down unless you're maddened by hunger. Pretty awkward for a vampire. I probably won't introduce the flaw as a general thing, but it might be fun to have an NPC vampire who's afflicted with it.
Tuesday, April 25, 2023
Tome and Blood (Bruce R. Cordell and Skip Williams) puts me at war with myself. My favorite part of any fantasy setting is its magical elements, and many of my favorite characters in both fiction and gaming have been spellcasters. But the D&D Wizard (and to a lesser, but similar extent, the Sorcerer) are some of my least favorite classes, purely from a design perspective.
I'm currently making an effort to soften my pop-culture opinions, so I can acknowledge that there is a certain strategy to playing them, one that many D&D players find appealing. Manage your limited resources, think ahead and plan your spell loadout based on your anticipated challenges, collect new and more powerful spells. It's something of a puzzle, and puzzles can be satisfying to solve. However, if you're like me and you don't enjoy the puzzle, then all that's left is a class that is aggressively bland.
No, that's not right. The Wizard is hegemonically bland. It is the imperialist monarch of bland, leading an ever-expanding empire of bland, that threatens to swallow up everything non-bland about D&D and convert it to bland. And I am here to identify the source of this all-encompassing blandness and place the blame exactly where it belongs: on Specialist Wizards.
Or, more accurately, on what the mechanics of Specialist Wizards say about the construction of the D&D world. A Specialist Wizard gets one extra memorized spell per spell level per day from their chosen school of magic and they are forbidden from using one or more other schools of magic. Which means that every specialist is just shy of being a generalist. They don't need to follow a theme. They don't get any special benefit or drawback from the magic they wield. They don't even really need to do more than take their school's best spell at every spell level and then just continue to be a regular Wizard. And the schools themselves . . . blech.
Necromancy? Okay. Illusion? Okay. Enchantment and Divination? Yeah, those are still something. But Conjuration? Abjuration? Transmutation? Those aren't even a theme. They're just verbs that summarize things more interesting magic can do.
I wish I could say that Tome and Blood avoided the speedbumps, but it really didn't. It hit every single one. It gave us advice about what spells to learn that included "some fight it, but eventually, every sorcerer and wizard picks magic missile." And it broke down the different possible specialties with suggestions about which schools to skip, and somehow it always seemed to come back to Divination, Illusion, and Necromancy. Better to lose three full schools than even one of Conjuration, Evocation, or Transmutation. It's just a bad divide.
The strategy advice also wound up breaking 3rd edition's already tenuous game balance, though perhaps that wouldn't be obvious for some time to come. It suggested making scrolls of your less commonly-used spells and wands to let you keep casting once your daily spell roster was used up. We can now officially say goodbye to the Rogue. It was nice knowing you.
Wizards bug me, is what I'm saying. Having a "magic user" class in a fantasy game is as bad as having a "fighter" class in an action-adventure game. Give me classes that approach the game's fundamental activities in a unique and interesting way.
For all my griping, you might be forgiven for thinking I disliked Tome and Blood, but really I only disliked pages 4-9, 20-21 (maybe, if you have to ask what the difference is between Spellcraft and Knowledge [Arcana], that's a clue that you have one skill too many), and 81-83. That's only 10% of the book, pretty consistent with the series' track record. Once Tome and Blood gets past the questionable mechanics of the Wizard (and to a lesser extent, Sorcerer) class, and into actual fantasy flavor, it has a lot going for it.
Certainly, from a world-building perspective, this book's Prestige Classes are the best in the series. I especially enjoyed the transhumanist ones like the Dragon Disciple, which allowed a sorcerer to turn into a dragon-human hybrid, the Acolyte of the Skin, who replaced their own natural skin with the flayed hide of a demon, and the Elemental Savant, who demonstrated such profound elemental mastery that they became an elemental creature.
Mechanically, they have their flaws, what with the Dragon Disciple gaining abilities best suited to a front-line fighter, the Acolyte of the Skin losing five caster levels for some flavorful, but limited use abilities, and the Elemental Savant only benefiting from using elemental attack spells (though that's just as much a problem of the spell list as anything else). Given the edition's notorious caster/non-caster divide, it's probably a good thing that many of the Prestige Classes are weaker than just taking 10 levels of Wizard, which makes it a real shame that they won't see much use . . . due to being weaker than taking 10 levels of Wizard.
The rest of the book is also solid, if not quite as inspired. I liked all of the magical organizations, even if they were a little basic (though we covered this ground with Sword and Fist - the basic stuff needs to be written down somewhere, so why not here). My favorite was the Arcane Order, but only for an absolutely ridiculous reason - their leader is named "Japheth Arcane." That made me laugh ("No, no, you see it's the 'Arcane' Order, as in the Order that follows a guy named 'Arcane.' The fact that it does arcane stuff is just a coincidence.")
Overall, I'd say that this is probably my least favorite book in the series so far. Its high points were among the highest, but I feel like when all was said and done, the wrong side won my internal war. After reading the book about Wizards and Sorcerers, I was more convinced than ever that their cool stuff should be divided up and given to the game's other classes. "Magic" is simply too broad a niche.
Ukss Contribution: I really liked Phantom Ink, the special alchemical ink that could be made to only show up under certain predefined lighting conditions. Writing a note that's only visible in moonlight is pure Tolkien, and I'm here for it.
We've made the attempt to move beyond the obvious "book of spells" concept. In fact, of this book's many words, only half are devoted to game systems and new powers. While this no doubt put the book into the "that sucks, I wish it had kewl powerz" column for many people, those who are looking for storytelling hooks for their chronicles shouldn't be disappointed.
Several princes have come to rely on this, much to their undoing, as either the prince becomes preposterously indebted to the Tremere or other Kindred resent his heavy-handed tactics and refuse to attend meeting. This power invariably erodes the power of princes who rely on it, though some are too short-sighted to understand it.
Sunday, April 23, 2023
Thursday, April 20, 2023
Sometimes, you'll just be reading a fun little book about rogues and bards, then BAM! Nine pages worth of musical instruments. It wasn't an entirely terrible experience, but it did kill the book's momentum. It's that weird overlap between rpg-books and encyclopedias. Maybe more useful in 2001, when Song and Silence (David Noonan and John D Rateliff) was published, but kind of obsolete these days, when anyone can just google "unusual bard instruments" and find dozens of listicles and forum posts that cover all this same ground. Song and Silence does redeem itself a bit by giving its example instruments unique rpg mechanics (for example, playing bardic music through a masterwork alphorn allows you to inspire people several miles away), but at the same time, they had to know that some of these instruments would never see use. You're giving me the option to play a bard that specializes in the harpsichord? Gee, thanks, that'll be really useful in all the encounters that take place inside a noble's parlor (but nowhere else on the estate). That's a great use of my skill points.
But that's only 10 percent of the book. And then you've also got the 10 percent devoted to expanding the trap creation rules, which perhaps should have been something for a DM-facing book instead of a character class guide. But the other 80 percent is solid.
The highlight, for me, was the magic items. You've got a sword that loves singing, a bottle that breaks when you say the command word (it's no more durable than a regular bottle, but it does mean that you can use a steel flask instead of a fragile glass vial to deliver your contact poison), and a possum pouch that will graft to your skin. Not sure it was necessary to make the Jumping Caltrops as cute as they were (when deployed they "immediately try to scurry under the interloper's feet"), but I appreciate the whimsy.
The actual most useful part of the book was another GM-facing section where it talked about different types of thieves' guilds and bardic colleges. Players could get some use out of it if they wanted to have "renegade fantasy mafioso" as part of their background, but mostly it's just a section full of adventure hooks and setting background. I might find fault with it for being a little obvious, but that's just the thing with the musical instruments all over again - when you can't rely on two decades' worth of archived conversations and think-pieces, it can be useful to have the obvious written down.
Now, for the part that is less useful in retrospect, but which was my primary draw for buying the book all those years ago - the prestige classes. They're all pretty decent, but they seem trapped in an early-3rd edition mentality where they haven't quite worked out what a prestige class is supposed to be. So you've got a couple that should just be builds for the base class, like the thief-acrobat, dungeon delver, and most egregious of all, the virtuoso bard (it's the prestige class you take if you're a bard who wants to specialize in music, though, strangely, the best virtuoso build might be a wizard who dips one level into rogue to meet the skill requirements). And then there are the classes that have a good central idea, but make questionable mechanical choices - the spymaster is just generally worse at being a spy than 10 levels of rogue or bard would be, thanks to its requirement that you spend 2 skill points per level in buying craft, knowledge, or profession skills for your cover identities. I get what they were going for, but it's actually a problem that's solved by the Jack of All Trades feat, printed for the first time in this very book, and which would have felt like a power boost to get for free.
But there are some gems. The Temple-Raiders of Olidammara are exactly what a prestige class should be. They're sacred thieves who specialize in robbing the temples of rival gods. I'd quibble that they should get "+1 in spellcasting class" instead of their own limited spell progression, but they're a fun character concept that can't be built, even approximately, with the base class, and they add something interesting to the world's lore.
Likewise, the Fangs of Lolth explore some intriguing design space. They're rogues who pick up a cursed magic item that grafts to their skin and gradually turns them into weird spider-creatures.It's probably too specific of a concept to really merit one of the book's limited prestige class slots because, seriously, there's no way there's ever going to be two of these guys in the same campaign (and even in successive campaigns it would feel weird to have a different player going through the exact same arc, again), but I like the idea of a spell or magic item whose effects are so profound that they become your class progression.
Overall, I liked this book, but I'm wondering if maybe I'm reading the series in a bad order. This is the second one of these thin class guides that's felt like it was a solution in search of a problem, like they were going to do a book about all the core classes, whether they had ideas or not. I shouldn't complain, though, because I know that books like this used to be an important revenue stream for rpgs, back before big full-color prestige books became the norm. And besides, there's still plenty of time for amazing things to grow out of the seeds planted here. Onward! Towards 3.5!
Ukss Contribution: We learn something quite shocking about elf-run thieves guilds. Sometimes, they "case a location for decades." It's a detail meant to demonstrate the patience born of their long lives, but I couldn't help thinking that maybe they needed to work on upping their throughput. But the more I lingered on the idea, the more it charmed me - immortal thieves, planning heists that can be measured against the rise and fall of nations. What sort of treasure is worth that kind of effort? What sort of treasure even stays in one place long enough to make decades of planning useful? And what sort of defenses would make decades of planning necessary? It's an intriguing idea for a campaign, and thus a worthy challenge to put in a campaign setting.
Monday, April 17, 2023
Thursday, April 13, 2023
As a collector and an amateur critic, my thoughts often return to the subjects of sophistication and the cultivation of taste. Get deep enough into any hobby, fandom, or interest and your opinions start to become . . . alienating. You stand in front of Rothko and are moved to tears by its power and beauty, but when it comes time to explain it to your dad, words fail you. Or you find yourself delighted when a new game is "Souls-hard," and have a hard time believing people might want a difficulty slider. Or you claim with a straight face that James Joyce's Ulysses is your favorite novel.
Or, to choose a more pertinent example, you're an rpg blogger who has read 400 books over the past 5 years and your first question when encountering a new one is "does this adequately justify its existence?" What kind of question is that to ask? How is that in any way a sensible way to relate to a new piece of art?
Nonetheless, I keep doing it. If you've ever wondered about the seemingly whimsical criteria by which I judge these books, that's a big part of it - I like it when a book justifies its existence to my satisfaction, never mind that the more books I read, the harder it is for that to happen.
It's very difficult to describe this phenomenon without sounding like a snob ("I guess I just like art that's not accessible to novices"), but I don't think it's actually snobbishness (I say, fully aware that I'm exonerating myself from such a charge). I think it's a matter of practice. You engage with a form of art often enough and long enough, then certain aspects of that engagement become . . . easier. You encounter a new work and that inevitably raises questions, and the work captures your attention for exactly as long as it takes to answer those questions. So when you ask and answer a particular question often enough, it can no longer hold your attention for long. Sophistication, then, is a preference for works that force you to ask the questions that arise once you know all the obvious answers.
I'm torn between the perspective that sophistication is value neutral, because it is largely a function of time and exposure and the perspective that sophistication is a tribute to the power of art. Shunning sophistication as mere snobbery seems to me like you're denying the ability of art to expand your perspective. If sophistication is not a meaningful distinction, then the obvious is the only thing that can exist. But, of course, there's a trap for the critic too - how might you bring yourself to reconnect with the obvious, because the entry points, the simple questions and easy answers, are inevitably what drew you to the art in the first place (and if I had a definition of "snobbishness" it would probably be "the belief that you can skip the obvious without losing anything of value")?
Which is a long-winded way of saying that Sword and Fist, by Jason Carl, is basic as hell, but I don't want to hold that against it. This is actually a book from my "old collection" (defined here as the books I bought primarily to use, before I started identifying as a collector). I've had it since practically its date of publication, and I have no memory of being jaded about it the first time around. Insomuch as I have any memory of this book at all, I seem to recall being impressed by the versatility of the 3rd edition rules, and I loved that for the first time in my D&D career, I could play characters like the Drunken Master and actually feel like the rules supported me.
But that's just a (possibly confabulated) memory of an opinion. My opinion this time is a) the Drunken Master prestige class is pretty cool; and b) wow, they didn't anticipate any of 3rd edition's flaws, like, at all. They're out here talking about giving up your iterative attacks in order to take a movement action like it's a tactical decision and not a serious design flaw. And yeah, sure, I'll consider the possibility of "wizard, sorcerer, cleric, and druid Ravagers," because "their ability to cause terror in their foes is a very useful defensive measure" and there's nothing that you could possibly get with your eight skipped caster levels that will match using an Aura of Terror as a supernatural ability three times per day (also, the only thing the Aura does is impose a slight penalty to savings throws, which is maybe useful for a spellcaster, but not worth giving up spellcasting for, and definitely not worth relying on as a defense, but also, Ravagers get no class abilities that call for a savings throw until level 10, so that's kind of a weird design).
But look, it's easy to be snarky, and in all honesty, what I'm complaining about is really the caster classes and not anything in this book. I actually really like the magic level of this book. Join the elite warrior order of the god of slaughter and learn to use supernatural fear as a weapon. Give up your name to become a Ghostwalker and so long as your enemies don't know who you are, you can feign your death and walk through walls. Get the capstone ability for the Ninja of the Crescent Moon class and you become this sneaky little guy, constantly taking 10 on stealth checks, regardless of the circumstances (which is just hilarious to imagine). Nothing in this book is worth giving up 10 caster levels for, but I could see how 5 Fighter feats might be a good trade-off. And I would definitely play in a world where this was all magic was - neat little tricks that supplement skill, rather than replace it.
But that's not the 3rd edition we got, so there was a certain sense of doom reading Sword and Fist. This is a book that's dedicated to the Fighter and the Monk, two of the game's lowest tier classes, and nothing from this book is even going to slow that assessment down.
On the other hand, that's a pretty unreasonable thing to expect from a book so early in the edition's life cycle. If you give Sword and Fist a mulligan on D&D3's mechanical problems, then it serves an admirable niche - it demonstrates various ways you can adapt the new system. It shows you how to build a knight or a swashbuckling duelist, and though it will eventually prove unwise to blur the lines between a prestige class and a character build (and, in fact, this book advises players to build towards the prestige classes they'll eventually want to take - one of the big complaints about the edition as a whole), it does feel good to see these different Fighter concepts have distinct mechanical expressions.
I'm pretty sure I found it terribly impressive, back in the day, even if I now think it's basic as hell.
Ukss Contribution: Mercurial swords. They're hollow swords with a reservoir of mercury inside them. I guess the operating principle is that the mercury sloshes around as you swing the sword and adds momentum to your hits. It's absolutely off-the-wall nonsense, but it perfectly illustrates the distinction I was making between "basic" and "sophisticated."
"Basic" asks an obvious question: what if there were a sword that was better than a normal sword? And it gives you an obvious answer: a magic sword.
"Sophisticated" takes that one step further: how can you represent the magical action of a magic sword, to make it visibly better than a normal sword? And it gives you a less obvious answer: by taking an off-the-wall nonsense idea and saying that the people of this fantasy world have figured out a way to make it work.
Monday, April 10, 2023
Order mages practice magic in ways the Banishers find unacceptable, and in return, order mages find the slaughter of their own by Banishers unacceptable. Both sides are responsible for atrocities committed against the other, and neither side is likely to change their point of view.
Saturday, April 8, 2023
I don't know how I feel about the 3rd edition Monster Manual (Skip Williams, Jonathan Tweet, Monte Cook). It's a monster book, and monster books have an airtight formula that's nearly impossible to screw up, but it's also part of a lineage of monster books that are largely better written and better curated, and what am I supposed to do with that?
This isn't purely an objective assessment. I took a moment to review the 1st edition Monster Manual and everywhere the 3e book is weak, the 1e book is weaker. Its descriptions are shorter, its fights are less interesting, mechanically, it has less variety and less worldbuilding. But the 1st edition book was also noticeably amateurish . . . and believe it or not, I'm counting that as a strength. You read the 1st edition Monster Manual and it feels like you're peeking at the sketchbook of some imaginative nerd, whereas the 3rd edition book is a slick, professional product . . . that shows little evolution in gameplay and mechanics. Like, in 1st edition, if you see a nymph disrobe, you've got to save or die, because D&D was designed as a game for horny teenage boys who were afraid of sex, but the 3rd edition nymph has the exact same ability except she deliberately evokes it a maximum of once every 10 minutes and can do it even when her clothes are on. What the fuck is that even supposed to be? Don't get me wrong, I am not sitting here longing for the way things used to be. The D&D nymph has always been a poorly designed encounter, but "she's so hott teh nekkid, it burns" is at least an idea. What we have here is the memory of an idea.
It's a sensation I felt most acutely with my beloved Ravid. There's absolutely no reason a creature this weird and niche should have been made core. I can only assume that Monte Cook was pressed for time and still had the text for Planescape Monstrous Compendium Appendix III saved on his computer. However, upon making the decision to include this positive-energy, object-animating worm creature, it is kind of unforgiveable that they omitted all of the original creature's personality and motives.
From PSMC III:
The ravid, composed of life-giving energy, is creation incarnate. In its wake, things simply come to life. That makes it one of the most volatile and dangerous creatures a body's likely to come across. . . Most of them see the multiverse as a sad, lonely expanse that needs to be filled with life, and take it upon themselves to bestow this great gift upon as many objects as they can . . . Folks encountering a ravid may never actually see the creature itself, but instead find themselves in a desolate area where everything is alive.
And that's only an excerpt from its two-page description. It gets other cool abilities like instantly healing the damage it deals with its attacks, mutually annihilating itself and any undead it comes into contact with, and casually creating new elementals when there are no nearby objects to animate.
Now, from the MM (3e):
Ravids are extraplanar creatures embodying positive energy. These bizarre entities imbue creatures with energy by their touch and animate lifeless objects around them . . . Ravids that make their way to the Material Plane wander about aimlessly, followed by the objects to which they've given life.
I've omitted some text there, too, but not nearly as much, and the stuff I'm skipping is not nearly as good as the stuff I skipped the first time around. It sort of exemplifies the book's largest fault - it took things that are weird and unique and dramatically cut them down. The facts are there, but not the feeling, or most of the story hooks. And the only reason I can think of for this vandalism is that they really wanted to hit that 500-monster milestone they advertised on the back of the book (for comparison, the 2nd edition Monstrous Manual had 300 creatures in 165% of the page count).
I'm wondering if maybe it's an artifact of the edition change. Wizards of the Coast had this huge back catalogue and could safely assume that players returning from previous editions would have access to all the flavor they needed, so they just decided to cram in as many mechanical conversions as possible, so that, no matter what was going on in your old campaign, you could convert it to the 3rd edition rules.
I don't want to be too harsh on this book, though. It does have its strengths. While it's not exactly a revolution in monster design, there is clearly at least some thought put into the numbers. We get challenge ratings for the first time, and you can use this book for your characters' entire career. And there's a lot of variety - powered by minimalist descriptions, sure, but for most creatures, minimal is enough. Not every monster is going to be a metaphysical mystery like the ravid.
It also introduces bold new concepts like monster levels and templates, which will one day contribute heavily to 3rd edition's reputation for decadence. But I like decadence, so I'm looking forward to these mechanics raging out of control.
Overall, my opinion of the 3rd edition Monster Manual is shaped by my opinion of 3rd edition as a whole. The edition is going to be wild and alive in a way that even better-designed editions will struggle to match, and if this early book can sometimes feel perfunctory, I can at least appreciate it as a necessary jump-start that contributes to the edition's building momentum. Make of that what you will.
Ukss Contribution: "Bronze dragons are inquisitive and enjoy polymorphing into small friendly animals to observe adventurers." Cute. I'm not sure why you'd make this the behavior of an entire species, rather than a personality quirk for a specific NPC, but that's really more of an issue with D&D as a whole - it takes singular creatures from myth and legend and makes them part of a class (see: the medusa). I am under no such constraint, so Ukss will just have a single inquisitive shapeshifting dragon, but maybe it will be even cuter.