Friday, May 17, 2024

Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual 3.5

During the course of reading all these hundreds of rpg books, there's one idea that I've clung to with steadfast conviction - that it is nigh-impossible to make a bad monster book. Monster Manual 3.5 has put that assumption to the test.

It's not that it's bad per se. In many ways - organization, presentation, mechanics - it's better than the 3.0 book it's replacing. And every fault it has was present in the original. But maybe that's the problem. This is a book that got longer in the revision, but it didn't grow. It's just a list of one set of monster stats after another, with minimal flavor text (and the bulk of that just being a physical description) and little understanding of monster encounters as anything other than a physical brawl to the death. 

I partially forgave the 3.0 version for this fault, because it was a brand new edition and I felt like it was just giving a mechanical conversion for the players' assumed AD&D monster libraries, but by the time 3.5 came around, that excuse was getting pretty thin. A lot of 3.5 players were, in fact, d20 system natives, with little connection to the old lore and little access to the out of print books that would have explained (to choose a totally random example) that the Ravid was, in fact, cool as shit.

What 3.5 needed was not just an update to the original Monster Manual, but a new methodology for how D&D's monster books would be written. Unfortunately, that would only come with time.

Despite all that, I largely enjoyed this book. My notes are my usual random fare ("Behirs hate dragons - is this worldbuilding?") Looking for a pattern, I'd say that I had mixed feelings about the way this book supported "monsters as characters." I found the demihuman entries, which would essentially just reprint their PHB stats, to be terribly tedious, but I also desperately wanted to play a Vampire Monk/Shadowdancer . . . if it weren't for the punitive ECL modifier. I guess I like monster characters in theory, but MM3.5 has the quick and dirty version of Savage Species greatest fault - creatures are overstatted to make them a threat to a team of PCs, so when you reverse-engineer them to be player characters, you have to cost in all the extra boosts they get to not go down like chumps. 

Okay, the minotaur has 19 Strength, sounds good. Give me a +4 strength bonus, I'll slap it on my standard array's 15 and wind up with a cool, muscular cow-man. I'll leave the Constitution score up to chance and forgoe the racial hit die for normal class levels and we could maybe get this done with a +1 ECL.

Except, of course, you have to assume that the monster stats are for a completely average specimen, so the Minotaur PC stats have to give a +8 Strength adjustment and a +4 Constitution adjustment and six racial HD, so you wind up playing a level 8 character who is somehow both less interesting and mechanically worse than an equivalent PHB character. Damnit, WotC, I just want to play a guy with big horns and big muscles. What is so hard to understand about that? I can't speak for all of humanity (but I will, just watch me), but I'm positively certain that people want to play monsters because they're intrigued with the monster's concept, not because they want an exact match for the creature's MM stats. If you're going to provide stats for monster PCs, the least you could do is make them viable PC stats.

In any event, the lack of a 3.5 vampire class is a real missed opportunity. 

Moving on, several of the monster entries came with a second stat block, to show a version that had class levels or which had undergone the monster advancement process. I guess these were moderately useful, though only one is actually going to linger in my memory - the Truly Horrid Umber Hulk.

I like that a lot. More monsters should be named by a hyperventilating Victorian. 

And I've probably come to as good a place as any to wrap up. My conclusion - the 3.5 Monster Manual does what it needs to do, but it only does what it needs to do, and maybe that's something I can respect, but it's not something that I can bring myself to love.

Ukss Contribution: A rare bit of flavor - sometimes older female dragons will not want the hassle of raising another clutch of dragon babies and give their excess eggs to "nondraconic foster parents."

I have no idea what, precisely, is being imagined here. I'm guessing the dragons are being raised by powerful creatures of the dragon's alignment, like a sphinx or a lich or something, but all I can picture is an ordinary human family who has been thrust into a hilarious domestic comedy. "My Daughter, the Dragon" or somesuch.

As per my wont, I will be implementing my own half-assed interpretation into Ukss.


  1. RE: “nondraconic foster parents”

    See: the baby red dragon in this comic;