TLDR: If you’re running 5E, you need to buy this book.
When I heard that the next book in the 5E lineup was Volo’s Guide to Monsters, I was a little disappointed. I’ve never been much of a Forgotten Realms fan, and Volo’s Guide sounded like it was going to be a fluff piece with articles similar to the old Dragon Magazine “Ecology” pieces. While that’s great for magazine content, I didn’t get too excited about the prospect of a $45 book with minimal new information.
Fortunately for me, Wizards really outdid themselves in packaging a variety of things in this book that make it a very valuable addition to my growing 5E collection.
Volo’s Guide starts with the following disclaimer in small, easily missed print, under the cover attribution:
Disclaimer: Wizards of the Coast does not vouch for, guarantee, or provide any promise regarding the validity of the information provided in this volume by Volothamp Geddarm. Do not trust Volo. Do not go on quests offered by Volo. Do not listen to Volo. Avoid being seen with him for risk of guilt by association. If Volo appears in your campaign, your DM is undoubtedly trying to kill your character in a manner that can be blamed on your own actions. The DM is probably trying to do that anyway, but with Volo’s appearance, you know for sure. We’re not convinced that Elminster’s commentary is all that trustworthy either, but he turned us into flumphs last time we mentioned him in one of these disclaimers.
I enjoy the fact that wizards is having fun with this volume, and it made me enjoy getting into the book a bit more than if I hadn’t noticed it. I also appreciate Wizards sold a special limited edition FLGS cover for only $5 more (pictured above) to help the local shops get a leg up.
The book is broken into three parts: Monster Lore, Character Races, and a Bestiary.
Monster Lore, the first 100 pages of the book, is what I had expected, but some crunch where I otherwise expected fluff for lifestyles of Beholders, Giants, Gnolls, Goblinoids, Hags, Kobolds, Mindflayers, Orcs and Yuan-Ti.
Examples of neat details that might constitute crunch include beholder charts detailing size, shape, texture, and a great random name generator, with tactics, variant eyestalk abilities, minions, treasure and a lair map. History, mindset, and biological function is laid out in a depth previously unvisited in text as far as I’m aware, allowing the GM a deeper background on this favorite of monsters.
The Chapters going forth are what I’d call asymmetrical, being that they don’t follow a routine pattern. Chapters on Giants have more details about origins, their habitat and personality traits. Gnolls have details on tactics, random traits and features, and tables to help build a gnollish warband. Mind Flayers have some magic items listed that are specific to their culture. Yuan-ti have a variety of charts detailing their variable physiology.
Each race detailed has a map of their typical lair, which gives some great examples where the trappings of the race might be otherwise somewhat mysterious (Mind-Flayers in particular).
Overall, these chapters are well written and flesh out the background of these common and popular monsters. Is it essential? No. Is it helpful? Yes. My fear had been that for $45.00 I was going to get that, and that be it. Fortunately, it goes on.
Now we start to hit things I can work with, and things that people invariably try to do on their own with varying degrees of success. I happen to currently be playing a kobold priest of Kurtulmak in our Out of the Abyss game, and have been playing a kobold trapper race variant my GM got off the internet somewhere. I yearned for canon guidance on what a kobold PC should look like. Fortunately, Volo delivers.
Races detailed are Aasimar, Firbolgs, Goliaths, Kenku, Lizardfolk, Tabaxi, and Tritons with a separate section for “Monstrous Adventurers” giving blocks for the already detailed bugbear, goblin, hobgoblin, kobold, orc and yuan-ti pureblood.
I’ve always been a guy that likes the idea of playing the monster as a PC, and this opens doors for me.
This, by far, seals the deal for this book being a must-have for the dedicated 5E player. 100 pages of new and classic monsters that were conspicuously absent from the Monster Manual. A few personal favorites include:
- Flail Snail!
- Several new Variant classed giants, very cool
- Shadow mastiff
- Spawn of Kyuss (Greyhawk?)
- Xvarts (Eric Mona must have been involved in this)
- Yeth Hound
- Many more!
Also a number of “Beasts” (including a rot grub swarm) and 21 new stock NPCs which are sure to prove super useful on an ongoing basis (in particular, it appears a mage of each spell casting school, archers, archdruid, war priest and so on). Not mentioned in my list are also special “classed” versions of various orcs, yuan-ti, hobgoblins, and so on, as well as some subcategories of other races like beholders that will prove useful in putting on games that utilize those species. This is where the book proves out its crunchiness but give me stat blocks that I can use to have a more interesting game.
Wizards has done a good job of bringing a little more than just the basics to each book it has published. Each adventure module has had a few spells and a few more general stat blocks that make each book tempting to pick up. This book, as a sourcebook, doubles down on that principle making there elements that you just can’t afford to miss. This book has extended value for the GM of your group, but remains optional for the player short of playing a racial variant. That said, I think anyone who picks it up is going to find it’s a great addition to their collection.
All Praise Kurtulmak!
I work for our county school system in the Technology department, which generally means troubleshooting software and hardware throughout the schools. I’m based in the high school of my particular district, so I tend to get to know the media center staff pretty well, as they are in charge of laptop carts and have a good amount of desktops in the library itself.
The media specialist called me over the other day to show me a book he was discarding because according to its card sleeve, it hadn’t been checked out since 1991. The book is The Dungeon Master: The Disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III by William Dear. The media specialist had no idea I even played dungeons and dragons, I assumed he called me over to laugh at the obscurity of the books he was discarding. He was genuinely surprised when I told him I was a pretty big fan of role-playing games, and mentioned his only experience with RPGs was playing Rifts with a friend in college. He then offered me the book, as they were going to get rid of it anyway, which I happily excepted.
That is when I started doing a bit of research. I had never heard of James Dallas Egbert III, but I had heard that in the early 80s, D&D was wrongly associated with the Occult and Devil-worship. It turns out the two are interrelated. The synopsis is this: a brilliant but troubled teen goes missing. Anxious parents hire a private investigator to track him down. The teen plays D&D and was known to explore the steam-tunnels underneath his university. The private investigator prematurely and incorrectly reports to the press that perhaps he was playing a “live-action” version of D&D and got lost. In actuality, JDE III did go to the steam tunnels, but he went to commit suicide. The attempt failed, and he hid out with some friends around town until those friends asked him to leave, fearing repercussions from law enforcement. He fled to New Orleans, where the P.I. caught up with him. JDE III made the P.I. promise not to reveal the truth of his story. JDE III ended his own life in 1980, and the P.I. kept his promise to the boy until 1984 when this book came out.
In the meantime, the novel and movie Mazes & Monsters came out (featuring a young Tom Hanks) in which a boy has a psychotic breakdown while playing a thinly veiled version of D&D. Also, Patricia Pulling started an organization B.A.D.D. (Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons) after she lost her own D&D playing son to suicide. B.A.D.D. circulated a bunch of propaganda including a petition from a former player about the evils of D&D. After reading it, other than the first and last few paragraphs, it reads like a love letter to D&D. It reminded me exactly why I got in to the game, and recalled many afternoons and late nights of adventuring that were all in the theatre of the mind. Studies were done by the Center for Disease Control and the American Association of Suicidology (I did not realize that was a thing) that debunked B.A.D.D.’s claims. Arguably, the height of the panic culminated in this 60 minutes interview featuring Gary Gygax himself.
I found it fascinating to explore this dark time in D&D’s history. I’m glad that while D&D still has some social stigma in some circles, we’ve come a long way to acceptance.