The first major supplement for 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, Volo’s Guide to Monsters was a significant step in a long line of rulebooks and adventures from Wizards of the Coast. It brought tools for both players and Dungeon Masters, with chapters corresponding to the tools laid out in the core rulebooks: monster lore to the Dungeon Master’s Guide, playable race options to the Player’s Handbook, and monster and NPC stat blocks to the Monster Manual. Volo’s Guide to Monsters expands on the options of character races for players as well as adding new ones, finds its strength in its exploration of the lore of several dominant creature types, and rounds it out with 100 pages of stat blocks within its bestiary and lists of assorted beasts and NPCs.
A Supplement as much as a Rulebook
Presented with a commentary from its two contributors, namely Volothamp “Volo” Geddarm and Elminster Aumar, the Sage of Shadowdale, the work of Volo’s Guide to Monsters is written as canon to the Forgotten Realms setting, but are a cornerstone for any D&D setting in 5th Edition. That said, much of the lore and details in the book are specific to the setting, particularly in 5th Edition, so referencing it for a homebrewed campaign, or for use within another setting, such as Exandria or Eberron, will require some adaptation and adjustment. The history of monsters is closely tied to the history and mythology of the worlds they inhabit, so understanding the relationships are key to properly implementing them within their proper place.
The greatest tools for a creative Dungeon Master are found within the chapter on Monster Lore. Wizards of the Coast selected nine groups of creatures that they felt deserved more expansion and a greater depth of exploration, and made them the focus of this particular book. They chose these monsters due to their extensive details in Dungeons and Dragons, as well as their tendency to be used often in adventures and campaigns. These are monsters used by Dungeon Masters in all tiers of play, and are some of the most recognizable foes in all of fantasy. Within this book, the monsters that are given expanded lore include beholders, giants, gnolls, goblinoids, hags, kobolds, mind flayers, orcs, and yuan-ti.
Each of the nine monsters are relegated to their own section that offers more than just the stat blocks and short excerpts from their entries in the Monster Manual, with subsections delving into greater detail and explanation. They provide examples of monster’s tactics in combat and their tendencies out of combat, giving Dungeon Masters use of a monster beyond what mechanics they have in a fight. These sections look at how a monster acts and why, making them complex and compelling villains and adversaries. Each section breaks down and explores the relevant subraces, variants, and types of each monster group, such as the different types of giants. These are often supplemented by the additional stat blocks in the Bestiary chapter.
These sections make full use of Wizards’ love for tables and dice rolls to add customization and variety. They have tables to create settlements and party populations, with minions of varying difficulties. There are tables for physical features and personalities, to help make particular monsters memorable. Beyond that, many offer tables for giving a monster a more social or intelligent bend by giving bonds, flaws, and ideals to either choose from or roll for randomly. These all serve to make notable monsters memorable and to provide options for roleplay or negotiation if (or when, depending on your Dungeon Master) the opportunity arises, rather than just the inevitability of combat.
Each section has their own plethora of subtexts with relevant lore and history for each monster. These can focus on how relevant god(s) influence behavior, culture, and actions of the monsters within the world, whether through their beliefs or worship. They also provide a glimpse into the sorts of details that tie the monsters to the deep lore of the Forgotten Realms.
Another tool given to Dungeon Masters in this section is the addition of Lairs. Presented with rooms and chambers, the organization and structure of a stronghold of dungeon for each monster type is accessible as a usable dungeon or simply as inspiration for creating your own. There are examples of traps and treasure, and tables for populating it with lesser and greater minions. From the depths of the caverns that make up a kobold lair, to the nightmarish levels of a mind flayer colony, the opportunities afforded to Dungeon Masters in this section are seemingly endless.
The additional character races in Volo’s Guide to Monsters are designed as a supplement to those provided in the Player’s Handbook. These races are more rare within the Forgotten Realms, and as such, the details provided along with the character creation options are important. These include races mentioned in other rulebooks, such as aasimars in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, now given as a playable option. The accompanying lore is particularly useful for understanding how and where the exotic races fit into the grand scheme of the Forgotten Realms, whether they are utilized as NPCs or as player characters.
In addition to the more rare playable character races, Volo’s Guide to Monsters provides the first opportunity for monstrous character options in 5th Edition, beyond just the half orc race. Balance for the monstrous races is a little tricky, and sometimes even seems to punish the decision to take a monstrous race as a player character, such as the negative ability score modifiers for orcs and kobolds, and their racial abilities not necessarily balancing the detriment they endure.
Several of the races presented as character options in this book have been revisited in Unearthed Arcana, the playtest platform for Wizards of the Coast, and may see adjustments in future publications, such as how the goliath race saw small changes with the release of Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden.
This chapter serves as a supplement to the monsters provided in the Monster Manual, but also as an expansion to the monster lore provided in the first section of Volo’s Guide to Monsters. It has statistics and creature variants for those races/types predominantly to expand upon the themes and style of the book. It offers monsters with challenge ratings above and below those in the Monster Manual, giving greater versatility to Dungeon Masters looking to utilize them to their utmost. By granting statistics and mechanics for more than a small handful of creatures within their certain type, the writers have provided much more diversity and variation without the need for Dungeon Masters to labor over creating their own monster stat blocks.
The two appendices in the back of the book provide an additional selection of NPC stat blocks, particularly those for powerful and high-level magic users. These are particularly useful in rounding out higher tier adventures that are not monster-oriented, and provide options without needing to worry about creating custom balanced mages as either allies or enemies.
Volo’s Guide to Monsters is a massive resource for any adventure or campaign that is built around the influence or presence of any of the monsters or races highlighted in it. Whether it is a homebrewed adventure, or using the section on beholders to expand the villain and lair options for the villain Xanathar in Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, or referencing the lore section for giants while running Storm King’s Thunder or Against the Giants (adapted for 5th Edition in Tales from the Yawning Portal). The addition of character races and expanding the options for players is a great step at creating diversity in player options, and while there is not a wealth of background lore, there is certainly enough to begin creating characters with nuance and history. While not every possible creature group is addressed in exhaustive detail, the writers declared their intent (and delivered upon that promise) to explore other monsters in later products, continuing to explore the details and lore of the monsters and creatures of Dungeons and Dragons.
Volo’s Guide to Monsters is published by Wizards of the Coast.
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