Volo’s Guide: a D&D monster manual with personality and purpose

Volo's Guide to MonstersOut today in wide release, Volo’s Guide to Monsters isn’t your typical Dungeons & Dragons “monster manual.” But it is very much a monster manual.

A contradiction? Yes and no. (Sorry — the dueling character running commentary through the book may have left a mark; more on that in a bit.)

The new D&D supplement is meant to complement the “essential” core rules of the Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide and Monster Manual, and it is well worth the $49.95 retail cover price for the standard edition. (I know, I’m still adjusting to that price tag too, but that’s just what they cost these days, friends.) There’s also a limited-run special edition with a mind-flayer illustrated cover only available at hobby stores, out since Nov. 4. If you’re lucky, your friendly local gaming store may still have a few.

Volo's Guide to Monsters(Wizards of the Coast graciously provided a copy of the standard edition to Nerdvana for review.)

Following a preface by the eponymous Forgotten Realms meta-character Volothamp Geddarm, passive-aggressively annotated by archmage Elminster (a flavor-text-enhancing arrangement that continues in the margins throughout the tome), we get a chapter of “monster lore” entries featuring deep dives into the origins, behaviors and typical lairs of various iconic D&D monsters, “above and beyond what is written in the Monster Manual.” Here we learn the scandalous secrets of beholders, giants, gnolls, goblinoids, hags, kobolds, mind flayers, orcs and yuan-ti snake people.

In this latest incarnation of the game, the old model of a sourcebook for everything has taken a backseat to story — adventure paths about one a year (?), introducing new rules as they go (often in the form of free online supplements). That holds true here, with story taking a lead for the Guide to Monsters.

It’s hardly possible to open to a page in this chapter and not find an adventure hook — and that’s the way it always should be.

Volo’s Guide takes a page out of the old Dragon magazine’s “ecologies” series of articles that focused on a particular monster type per issue, only here you get more than a half-dozen in-depth explorations of classic dungeon denizens.

Just as Volo has headlined previous Forgotten Realms supplements, though it’s been a fair few years, older editions of D&D have had frequent, sometimes annual, numbered Monster Manual sequels. That hasn’t happened in 5th edition, but the new Volo’s Guide fills the niche nicely, and hints that more of volumes with this format may follow (“Where are dragons and githyanki? What, no fiends or undead?”) It gives us something to look forward to, while sating our appetites with a rich feast of lore on many of the D&D game’s most legendary foes.

Since the 3.5 Edition, most D&D monster manuals have been including support for player-character races. This new take on the format takes it a step further with the next chapter, offering rules for playing aasimar, firbolgs, goliaths, kenkus, lizardfolk, tabasi and tritons, with ample general notes for roleplaying a character more exotic than the average human, halfling, dwarf or elf (to name just a few). It’s just not excusable to only offer something for the Dungeon Master, at these prices.

Still, the DM gets more than his due in the third chapter, with a bestiary of nearly 100 new monsters, many themed to the first chapter’s lore and many making their first appearance in 5E, or their first appearance in a long time, anyway. (Froghemoth strikes back!)

But wait, there’s more! Volo’s Guide offers appendices full of “assorted beasts” as well as a trove of nonplayer-character stat blocks that some would say are worth the price of admission alone, plus a handy index list referencing monsters by type and challenge rating.

At 224 pages, Volo’s Guide to Monsters isn’t bulky, but it’s still bursting with rich plug-and-play content for the Dungeons & Dragons game. While Elminster and Volo are firmly rooted in the Forgotten Realms campaign setting, which seems to be the go-to D&D world these days, there’s nothing that can’t be easily adapted for any other published or homebrew setting.

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