The Monster Manual. Dungeons & Dragons is pretty hot right now. Thanks to Stranger Things and Critical Role taking the stage, the tabletop role-playing game has levelled up to 20! There's never been a better time to get into D&D 5e (fifth edition), with a near-limitless wealth of variety on offer.
When it comes to playing D&D, the core roles around the table get split into two groups. The party of players, and the Dungeon Master. The story itself revolves around the players - the heroes that live and breathe the adventure. But D&D cannot function without a DM. Their role is to act as a link between narrative and the player's choices. You'll take on the role of every single NPC (non-playable character) in the world you create, both goodies and baddies.
And when it comes to running foes (or allies), there's one key tool every Dungeon Master needs by their side. The Monster Manual. Let's take a look at what it is, how it works, and how it could help you DM your next D&D session…
Heroes Beware: Here Be Spoilers
When getting into D&D, there are three books worth considering. The Player's Handbook, The Dungeon Master's Guide, and the Monster Manual. (I've already reviewed the PHB - click here to read more!) Now, if you're a party member, and have no intentions of ever taking on the role of DMing, then you won't need the Monster Manual. In fact, I'll go one step further: if you're a player, you should never read this book. Why? Because it's rammed with spoilers!
The Monster Manual is a hardback tome, a wealth of knowledge for budding (and experienced) DMs. In it are a menagerie of monsters that DMs can introduce into their one shots or campaigns. Each monster has a stat block breakdown, and actions that it can take in combat. How it functions; its strengths and weaknesses. If you're a player and reading this, then it's like getting your hands to the answers for an exam. Sure, it might help you out. It might even save your character's life. But when you toast your success after the battle, it will feel like a hollow victory.
D&D is supposed to be about role-playing your character, who might not know a creature's vulnerabilities or immunities. Like reading any kind of spoilers, you'll wish you hadn't, the second you read them. So please: exert that will power, and avoid it at all costs, if you're a player!
If you're a DM, though: welcome to the fun bit.
Rhetorical Questions: How Do You Want To Run This
The Monster Manual is 350 pages of evil, wicked monstrosities, all manner of which you can - and will - chuck at your players. (Sometimes, the party might even ally with the monsters!) This book alone won't help you with every single facet of being a Dungeon Master. The Monster Manual will, however, assist you tenfold when it comes to running combat. And let's face it: chances are there's always at least one situation per session where you utter, "Roll for initiative!" right?
The first eight pages act as a gentle introduction into how to use the book. For starters, it asks rhetorical questions such as "Where do monsters dwell?", which straight away helps ignite your imagination. Not every combat in D&D has to occur in a dungeon. In fact, combat can occur anywhere! In the wilderness, in towns and cities, underwater, in the Underdark, in other planes of existence…
The introduction offers suggestions to what monsters might lurk in which terrains. It's unlikely, for example, that you're going to fight sharks in a village tavern. Of course, the beauty of running a D&D session is that you are in charge. This is your world, and what you say, goes. If you want to put sharks in an urban, land location, you can. But the book reminds you that dispelling your party's belief in the world could cause them to feel removed from the world-building you've put in.
(It's worth noting that you can sometimes use this - creatures being somewhere they're not supposed to be - as a plot point. The mystery for the players could be trying to figure out why Creature X is not in Location Y. Again, the choice is yours.)
These first eight pages hold so many key definitions, which will help make the rest of the book make sense. There's break-downs about things like alignment, Armour Class (AC), Hit Points (HP), and Speed. With the latter, it also explains how certain type of movement works. Explaining the differences between burrowing, climbing, flying and swimming is handy for a mechanical purpose. This is especially vital depending on the terrain of the combat you're running.
It's Like An A-Z Monster Encyclopaedia
When it comes to the monsters themselves, they're listed in alphabetical order (from Aarakocra to Zombies). There's a Contents page listing all these, alongside their page numbers. Each creature has lore written about it, and artwork of what it looks like. Again, this is super-useful for you, when deciding whether this is the right creature for any given particular scenario. The artwork is evocative. The monsters full of expression, whether that be mischief or malice. I find showing the party a glimpse of these pictures, mid-combat, makes them even more determined to overcome the creature!
The important information you'll need during combat, though, is in a stat box. To the uninitiated, the details in these boxes might be pure jargon. (That's why it's important not to gloss over the introduction!) But once you know what you're looking at, there's a lot of amazing details here, helping you run this creature during combat. I'll use the Goblin stat box (from page 166) as an example, since it's a classic low-level monster.
Underneath its name, it states what kind of creature it is, its size, plus its alignment. This could be handy for being the target of Ranger's favourite foes, for example. Knowing its alignment might help you better roleplay the creature. Size is handy for knowing how much space it takes in combat, with regards to being in melee range. In the next section down, it states its AC, and any armour it might be wearing. (Players might want to loot this, if they overcome it in battle!) Players need to attack the creature with a number that exceeds its AC.
What Do All These Numbers Mean
Then it states its Hit Points. This reads as 7 (2d6). The number in brackets means you can roll 2d6 and use that as the Goblin's Hit Points. Or, you can take the average outcome of this (7). This is great, because if the party's fighting six goblins, you could pre-roll HP for them all, getting six different outcomes. You might get one that's a bit of a brute, and another that's a runt! That definitely lends itself towards the immersion of the fight, and helps lessen the meta knowledge around the table. There's also its speed (and type of movement), which is how far it can travel each turn during combat.
Underneath that is it's core six stat block. These are STR/DEX/CON/INT/WIS/CHA, exactly like your own. Likewise, there's a number, and a +/- modifier in brackets. This is the number the DM will pay attention to for any kind of attacks made on it by the players. (A spellcaster might make the Goblin make an WIS Saving Throw, for example. In this case, the DM rolls a d20, -1, to get the outcome.)
Next up are any Skills the creature might have. Think of this like the players' characters having proficiency in some of the 18 skills. Goblins are pretty stealthy, hence their buff of +6 here. So if ever you want to run the Goblins as attempting to sneak around, they roll a Stealth Check and add +6 to the d20 roll.
The Senses list tends to include anything to do with how a creature uses its five senses. The most common is Darkvision (which some of the party might have, too). These are all detailed in the introduction.
Languages states whether the creature talks, and what languages it understands. This is crucial for roleplaying. Some monsters might not talk (or understand) the same language as the party. Therefore, they won't be able to attempt liaising or negotiating with them.
The Challenging Thing About Building A Fair C/R Encounter
The Challenge number in the Monster Manual is one of the most important to consider here. This Challenge Rating (C/R), in theory, states how tough this creature is to take on in combat. The lowest C/R is 1/8 (one eighth), increasing to 1/4, 1/2, and then 1, 2, 3, and so on. This number means that a well-rested party (of, say, four adventurers, the average party size) should be able to take on a creature with a C/R equal to their party level. For example, a party of four Level 2 adventurers should defeat a creature with a C/R of 2 (like a Mimic), without any characters dying.
There is a point of DMing that becomes maths. This boils down to how hard, easy, or deadly you want a fight to be for the party. Each C/R also comes with XP (experience points). It goes without saying that the harder the creature you overcome, the more XP the party earns. Defeating one Goblin earns the party 50XP (divided by the number of players in the party). However, when you add multiple creatures into a combat, the difficulty ratchets up due to action economy in the fight. Adjusting an encounter in this manner isn't explained here. In fact, it directs you towards the Dungeon Master's Guide for this.
While alphabetising the monsters makes them easier to locate in the book, they're not listed in Challenge Rating (C/R). This is a bit frustrating, because the C/R is often the key information you'll want to look at, in a pinch. There is a list of the monsters in this book, ordered by C/R… in the Dungeon Master's Guide. There's also a list of the monsters in this book, ordered by their typical terrain, and in C/R order! Oh, but that's in the DMG, too. An innocent mistake or a rather convenient decision, by Wizards of the Coast?
How These Monsters Fight Back
Going back to the box, there's also a list of actions the creature can make on its turn. Some of these are non-violent actions (like the Goblin's Nimble Escape, for example). Others are attacks. It states the weapon the creature uses, and then the type of attack (melee or ranged), and the modifier. For example, the Goblin's scimitar has a +4 to hit, it's a melee attack (so a 5ft reach), and it only attempts this on one target. The +4 is what you add to a d20 Attack Roll, and this number has to meet or beat the target's AC to then deal damage.
The 'Hit' information is how much damage it deals, upon beating the AC. Again, there's an average number, and a number in brackets, like the creature's HP. The scimitar deals 5 (1d6+2) slashing damage. I always roll for damage, rather than taking the average. Where's the fun in that? The damage type is important, in case of any kind of Vulnerabilities, Resistances, or Immunities.
What are those, you ask? Some creatures take different forms of damage in varying ways. In this box, it will state if the creature is vulnerable to certain damage types (in which it takes double damage). If it's resistant to, say, slashing damage, it takes half the slashing damage dealt. If it's immune to a damage type then it takes zero damage dealt. It's down to you as the DM how best to explain this to your party.
Some creatures will have more than one attack option in their box. You, as the DM, decide which of the attacks it takes on its turn, and which party member it targets. Some will state the creature has a 'multi-attack', meaning it gets to attack more than once on its turn. (Like a Ranger or a Fighter at Level 5.) Others have Limited Usage abilities, in which they get to do a cool action X many times per day. Some have a Recharge ability, which regenerates for a second use on its next turn if it rolls a certain number.
Some of the higher-level creatures get considered as Legendary, with Legendary Actions. Some of these get magnified if the party take this creature on in its lair (on its home turf, so so speak.) Such creatures have far larger boxes than the Goblin, as you can imagine!
Two Appendices: Not All Monsters Have Fangs And Claws…
At the end of the Monster Manual, there's 25 or so pages of Miscellaneous Creatures. These are not so much monsters, per se, but rather more ordinary creatures that the party might come up against. A Black Bear, for example, or a Giant Crocodile. These have their own C/R, actions, and stat blocks, but not so much any lore or background on the creature. (It's assumed that you and the party know of these creatures anyway.)
The Monster Manual ends with another appendix, this time focusing of Non-Playable Characters. These are roles such as Bandits, Commoners, Assassins, Gladiators, Spies or Nobles (among many). The point is, these characters aren't monsters, as such. But rather, they are abilities that you might well have your party fight. The Big Bad doesn't have to be a Mind Flayer. It might be Half-Orc Knight that the party have grown to love to hate. As such, there are stats here for you to add to humanoid NPCs.
Final Thoughts On… The Monster Manual
For new DMs cutting their teeth behind the DM screen, the Monster Manual is a must. You can't run combat without it. When push comes to shove, there's more than enough nasties in the Monster Manual for you to DM plenty of one shots and longer adventures. You could create a whole campaign, spanning actual years with your players, and never repeat the same monster twice. (Believe me, I've done this!) With awe-inspiring artwork and broad variety of monsters, you're spoiled for choice! (It's worth noting that not every monster in D&D is in the Monster Manual. Others are spread out across different books. But there's loads to get your started, here.)
The artwork sets the tone so well. Monsters tend to get their own dedicated page, with a drawing of them taking up at least a third (if not more) of the page space. Some monsters, or categories of monsters, get more than one page to themselves. Hags, for example, get four pages (with three different types explained). For certain monsters, there's separate boxouts offering variant alternatives to the creature. This is great if you have a loose idea for a monster in mind, but want to personalise the experience somewhat.
I won't dodge the topic: you'll want to segue this in alongside the Dungeon Master's Guide to help you run the game. The Monster Manual is more of an encyclopaedia of baddies. The DMG provides more rules and suggested answers to scenarios (and building said scenarios). To be fair, having both of those combined into one book would be overwhelming. Not to mention it would weight a tonne. This book alone is heavy… strapping it to your chest would increase your AC by +1!
You've got to think of the Monster Manual not as a book, but more as a game, itself. Especially when considering the price. As the DM, you'll use the Monster Manual every session; it will be in constant arm's reach. It will be your reading material between sessions. As the DM, it will become your greatest ally, and your party's favourite nemesis. It's worth it's weight in gold (pieces)…