If magic could be said to be the heart of fantasy role-playing, then monsters are surely some other, similarly-vital, organ. Perhaps the lungs, since evocative descriptions of fierce and terrible creatures breathe fun and vitality into the game world. Sure, you can have a game where you just fight other human(oid) NPCs, but does going up against the local Bandit King really compare to facing down a mighty demon, or a fearsome dragon? Monsters are an integral part of the game, and the new Monster Manual for Fourth Edition Dungeons & Dragons aims to deliver that aspect of the world’s favorite RPG.
From a technical standpoint, the PDF of the MM does very well for itself. The book has been given full bookmarks to each individual monster entry, though not for sub-entries (e.g. you’ll be able to go straight to “Angel,” but not “Angel of Valor,”), with the bookmarks being nested for convenience. The table of contents is not hyperlinked, but interestingly several hyperlinks do turn up throughout the book, almost always as entries that are “see page XX.”
It’s worth mentioning that the book’s artwork is quite eye-catching. While some illustrations are of “okay” quality, several are truly stellar in depicting a monster. All of the artwork is in full color, which is a good point, but it’s worth noting that that might be a barrier towards printing. Unfortunately, no printer-friendly option is included, so you might want to simply purchase the print book if you want to print large sections of the PDF and are worried about ink consumption.
The book presents a large number of monsters, most of which will be familiar to longtime fans of the D&D game. You’ll find classics such as the Tarrasque and the beholder here, along with older monsters that were forgotten in previous editions of the game, such as the berbalang and the galeb duhr. There are also several new critters making their debut, such as the balhannoth and the kruthik. Unfortunately, canny-eyed readers will also note that there are some monsters that would normally be a shoe-in for the Monster Manual that didn’t seem to make the cut this time around. If you’re a fan of metallic dragons, or frost and stone giants, then this book will disappoint you.
The rules for the monsters are fairly slick in what’s presented. The rules for things such as monster types, combat roles, and special attacks make the monsters streamlined and easy to use; it’s also fairly simple to improve monsters, or create your own now, though it will still take some intuition to design creatures that work well in their chosen role. Many of the monster entries here have different versions of the same creature, giving you several different options right from the start. It’s also worth noting that there is a little more fluff text than what a lot of people seem to be saying, mostly because the fluff text has been “crunchified” by placing it under the Lore sections for each monster, meaning characters must make a skill check, with higher DCs revealing more information about the monster. That said, this is still the least amount of fluff we’ve ever seen for most monsters, so DMs who want to flesh these creatures out more are largely going to be on their own.
Ultimately, this book does a good job in bringing the monsters of D&D up to speed with the new edition. The creatures are easy to use and design for, but a lot of baggage that you might have otherwise enjoyed has been thrown out in the process. The PDF itself has most, but not all, of the bells and whistles you’d expect a high-class PDF book to have. The work here, mechanically, artistically, and technically, is not without flaws, but these imperfections pale in the face of what it does right. The book stands up very well as one of the Core Rulebooks for the new edition of the archetypal fantasy role-playing game.