Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition Monster Manual Review


Company: Wizards of the Coast

Launch Price: $49.95

Release Date: September 30th

Wizards of the Coast may perhaps be taking a gamble in releasing each of the three core guide books in their 5th Edition release of Dungeons & Dragons at separate times. It’s not a new maneuver in the company’s storied history of releasing new editions of their Tabletop RPG staple, but some of the methods in determining what makes an appearance in which book has already taken at least a minor toll on the ease of entry into play. The 5th Edition Monster Manual is a wonderous book with many fascinating creatures, but will a key function slated for a later book release hinder its effectiveness now?

Note: This review will provide a score based on its text functionality and appearance, in addition to how it works in live play.

5th Edition Monster Manual – Artistry

The team behind the illustrations and beautiful works of art behind the Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition’s monsters (led by Art Directors Kate Irwin, Dan Gelon, Jon Schindehette, Mari Kolkowsky, Melissa Rapier and Shauna Narciso alongside Graphic Designers Bree Heiss, Emi Tanji and Barry Craig) did a fantastic job in crafting these creatures. Many of the monsters within this manual have made appearances in previous iterations of the game’s d20-based system, but the sense you get while flipping through the book is that they fit stylistically together.

Furthermore, when it comes down to entire species of monsters, the 5th Edition Monster Manual does a great job of illustrating the intricate details and characteristics of each version of a monster. The stark differences shown in not only appearance, but in stance and personality complement the flavor text that explains how a creature’s mind works. One of the better examples of this is with the Giants section, which paints 6 different pictures of what a Giant can actually look like. You can see in the drawings how they exude both their stats and their alignments, as well as what it means to be a Fire Giant over a Frost Giant.

Everything about the artistic design of the 5th Edition Monster Manual in on point, with an ostentatious layout that makes it feel like a book ripped from a Dungeons & Dragons world itself. The letters marked above the page number and at the beginning of each new letter section provide an easy gauge of where to flip towards to find the monster you’re looking for. Scrawled in the backgrounds, for many creatures, are concept sketches that mark lesser-known features about the monster. There are even notes left by fictional NPC’s that provide a glimpse into how certain folks view such monsters in their world. As much as the text fills you into the story, the illustrative work poured into the Monster Manual may be some of Wizards of the Coast’s best efforts.

Text & Functionality

As much as the 5th Edition Monster Manual does a congenial job in showing you the world of astonishing creatures, the flavor and descriptive text does a serviceable job, too. Each monster from Aarakocra to Zombie is written with a thoroughly explanative description that tells you more than enough about whatever creature you need. Physical traits, pack mentalities, how legendary creatures act in their lairs; each monster section fills you into exactly what it is and where to find it living in a DM’s world.

The team who designed the layout of the 5th Edition Monster Manual did an excellent job in balancing beauty with efficiency.

As part of the new “variant” system that Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition provides, the Monster Manual too adds variant and “bonus” text boxes for certain creatures. They serve to be quite helpful for powering up encounters for a group encountering repeat monsters, or adding more story lore for creatures by expounding on mythical and religious origins. Some of them even provide possible bonus gear and mythical items, while others may offer a radically different type of creature altogether. For example, a normal soldier-like Thri-Kreen pictured below could also employ advanced combat or psionics, thus changing their dynamic completely. It’s a great feature to have for dungeon masters, who are always looking to get one step ahead of their playing group.

Finally, the last refuge of the 5th Edition Monster Manual text is the stat box itself. Not only do you see the ability scores, combat functionalities and skills of each beast, but also carefully crafted descriptions of passive advantages and disadvantages creatures encounter living their normal lives. Saving throws and attacks are explained in full detail as to better guide DMs in planning, as well as portray exactly what a monster does when using multiple attacks in one turn. When it comes to describing how monsters act in conjunction with their surroundings, the focus on story lore and world building finally matches the intricate details historically served for monster combat in books of systems within the past decade and beyond.

More from Reviews

That said, when flipping through the 5th Edition Monster Manual I did notice a glaring omission. The most notable departure has to be the lack of a Challenge Rating index system written in the book itself; nowhere in the Monster Manual are monsters grouped by level or difficulty rating. It has been a staple feature since the turn of the new century. Wizards of the Coast has noted on the product page that it will be included with the Dungeon Master’s Guide, but it seems absolutely shortsighted not to include it here. The fact that such a PDF was added for free on the WotC website itself after the fact (only after concerned outcry from fans) shows just how much Wizards dropped the ball on this one.

In Play; Monsters!

As part of the review process for the 5th Edition Monster Manual, I have been DM’ing a few sessions with my group by generating a small campaign of our own. Starting out in a large town, the monster encounters in the early going were drawn upon mostly from an appendix of NPC’s. By sectioning themselves within their own aspect of the Monster Manual instead of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, Wizards actually took one step backwards while also taking one step forwards. It was handy to draw upon a town’s denizens easily without having to resort to another book entirely (one that’s not even released at press time). Same goes for animals in nature, providing more answers to possible player questions in an instant.

The Monster Manual stands to be the best combination of simplicity and depth for what’s available right now for Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition.

The players loved the jumps in different monster types, especially varied at lower level. The Monster Manual seems to balance out the number of monsters to situate in all climates, while encouraging various abilities over disastrous damage. At low levels, monsters at their challenge rating were not insurmountable with a party of 4. However, depending on the makeup of a party, the amount of creatures that gain multiple attacks at even very low levels can spell party member deaths if the dice are hot in the DM’s favor. It shouldn’t be too difficult for those crafting the game’s narrative to offer varying monsters that rely more on ranged attacks, but the do feel weaker in comparison. It’s a balancing act that will get better to maneuver with time.

Because of the layout of the book, the 5th Edition Monster Manual bunches groups of a monster “species” together in order to better specify group dynamics. Text describing the sensibilities of each level and different sub-creation for a monster group comes first, while monster blocks come second. This structure works wonderfully when it comes to having battles ready at a whim. For example, 3 Lizardfolk hiding in the swamp may just be loyal servants to a Lizard King, one that players may not even encounter in their journey. However, because groups are always so unpredictable, having the stat box of the king at the ready in the Lizardfolk section right near the common enemy means that the DM doesn’t have to flip back and forth through pages to know the combat info necessary for all involved.

It calls back to my praises of the artistry of the creatures; the team who designed the layout of the 5th Edition Monster Manual did an excellent job in balancing beauty with efficiency. Regardless if I look up on what makes a Hippogriff tick, if I flip to a picture of the majestic bird I can know what it looks like, as well as how tough it is to fight. This is the case for the majority of monsters in Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition, and can’t necessarily be said in the most recent editions of the fabled tabletop RPG series. It serves both the DM prepping for their next session, while entertaining players and casual readers who want to look at brilliant works of art.


The Monster Manual stands to be the best combination of simplicity and depth for what’s available right now for Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition. Enchanted creatures are drawn with explicit detail, each telling its own story without a need for words. However, should a DM need to know the ins and outs of those who inhabit their lands in great detail, the strength of the description are met in parallel effort. Because of how the book was designed, the culmination of these two worlds together serve to better campaigns and adventures at the local playing table nearest you. Including a challenge rating index seems like a no-brainer, and the lack of such a chart is quite disappointing, as the 5th Edition Monster Manual looks to excel in most other ways. Remember, the creators simply show you what’s possible. It’s up to the group’s imagination in order to bring the fantasy to life.

(A copy of this gaming product was provided to GameSided for the purpose of this review.)