During my Session/Encounter prep of late it has really struck me what an asset we have available to us in the Monster Manuals of ALL Editions.
Beyond the basics of monster selection. The Monster Manuals provide us with stats and descriptions, but also provides us with a monsters culture and behavior, some editions more so than others.
The 1st Edition Monster Manuals provided us with the core monsters of the D&D Cosmos. Their entries offer us representations of monsters some known to us some wickedly bizarre. For many these manuals might have offered the readers first consideration of a hierarchy in hell, of dragons of different colors and attacks. Its descriptions however tend to be more tactical and deal with resistances and vulnerabilities with brief references to behavior and culture but dealing more with managing combat than non-combat interactions.
2nd Edition really offered a change in direction. I think this was due to the fact that early on in the 2nd Edition life cycle Players and DMs purchased a binder ‘The Monstrous Compendium Volume One’ which entries were provided as 3-hole punched pages which could be removed during encounter prep or added to with subsequent releases. Both of which occurred. Several expansions for different settings were released and it was a great product. Later TSR produced a single volume hardbound Monstrous Compendium, containing the iconic threats of the D&D worlds.
What I like most about the 2nd Ed Era of Monster Manuals is that the write ups deal less with stats allowing stats to represent themselves. The Backgrounds and descriptions provide story seeds of monster societies, culture and behavior. When you read a monsters entry you take away an understanding of the threat you might face as a player and what you are representing as a DM. With 2nd Ed you could get inside of your monsters heads and deduce how they might act in non-combat situations as well as combat from concrete information. Also when a player rolled for “monster identification” you had substantial information to provide. I use the Monstrous Compendium to this day because of it’s exceptional entries.
3rd Edition retains some of the strengths of 2nd Ed but more so for iconic entries and PC accessible races than all monsters. 3rd edition moves strongly back to stat block entries. And expands the information contained in them adding saves, ability scores, skills and feats. 3rd Ed provides one to two paragraph descriptions and then jumps right into a ‘Combat’ entry for every threat followed by or containing further descriptions of feats, skills and attacks.
In my opinion 3rd Ed Monster entries aren’t that great of an asset from a “story / role-playing” and encounter/campaign construction/management perspective. It leaves a lot to interpretation which could just as easily be a feature and strength of the Edition had that been an objective. But in the end 3rd Editions Monster entries rolling with glutted stat blocks and jumbled descriptions must have left 4E designers looking for a solution.
The 4th Edition solution found was a “Monster Block” which contained all pertinent information in a single “block” entry. Reduced behavior to single and secondary ‘Roles’ which along with XP value controlled number appearing (society). Combat stats were reduced to powers with “Flat Math” diminishing and escalating with Level/Role/XP. Race and Culture were summed up in ‘Traits’ and ‘Ability Scores’ along with ‘Skills’ were tacked on at the bottom of the block. Brilliant! I will say it again…Brilliant!!
However 4E reduced all other pertinent Monster information to Skill Checks under ‘Lore’ entries which were grossly limited. Additional information concentrated on ‘Tactics’ and Encounter Groupings. This meant that many DMs could and would run Monsters with no knowledge of their backgrounds, culture, society and place in the cosmos. 4E reduced Monsters to Stat Blocks and inexperienced DMs ran them as Stat Blocks, little soulless killing machines. If a player were to ask about a monster if it wasn’t in the limited lore entry or a resistance, venerability or trait many DMs had nothing to offer. This hurt the “Role-Playing” aspect of D&D 4E more than any other mechanic of the Edition.
However 4E Essentials addressed this weakness in it’s Monster Vault releases. Both HORDES of ICONIC and THREATS to the NENTIR VALE. These Books provide History, Culture, Character Strengths and Weaknesses, and more. I am tempted to say that the efforts in the Monster Vault books were almost as successful if not more successful than the 2nd Edition Monstrous Compendium and Manual due to “4E Monster Blocks”. However I can’t, not just for nostalgia, cause I am actually not a huge fan of the 2E game as much as the era. But simply because the Monstrous Compendium and Manual is just so very good at telling the story of Monsters in every entry.
So why write all of this. Well, Wizards of the Coast is making reprints available of every edition. And whether you own originals or not this provides us with an opportunity to ask what value do these past editions offer us as players of any edition. And I think more than any other books. Monster Manuals retain their relevancy and usefulness. Each of them contains descriptive text to aid us in our crafting of stories, adventures and encounters. Each of them captures imagination and plants seeds which are unique in feeling and result from Edition to Edition.
Monster Manuals across Editions have individual and collective worth. When we choose to own them all and use them together as one on our shelves and in our hands we unleash the power they contain within and unlock the true potential of Dungeons & Dragons. A game which is strong enough and secure enough to revise, reinvent and recreate itself and it’s cosmology again and again. Testing and experimenting with mechanics and the representation of those mechanics. While those mechanics change and are met with praise or revolt. The Monsters and Threats of every edition rise to the challenge offered up by adventurers and are the threats all player’s face and come back to face time and again in every era of the game.
That’s the Power of the Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual! Adventurer’s WANTED.