Saturday, April 8, 2023

(D&D3e) Monster Manual

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.


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.

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