The multiverse of Dungeons and Dragons is constantly embroiled in conflict, but there are those that have lasted longer than most and have become embedded within the histories and mythology of the various Realms. Some rare few have made those conflicts their focus of study, among them being the great wizard Mordenkainen. In Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, patterned as a compilation of the notes and musings of the great wizard published for use within the world, the first five chapters explore some of the great conflicts across the multiverse, the lore, and the creatures central to each of them. Then, the second half of the book is an extensive bestiary, fulfilling its intended role as a comprehensive supplement to both the Monster Manual and Volo’s Guide to Monsters.
Central to this publication is the Philosophy of Balance, of which Mordenkainen is a devotee, an idea that guides the focus on the great conflicts of the multiverse, which brings a unique sense of inspiration for both the monsters contained and the expansion of the lore provided in Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes.
The Blood War
The great conflict between the hordes of the Abyss and the legions of the Nine Hells is an ever-changing dance of shifting battlelines and offenses that has endured for thousands of years. The Blood War rages from the reaches of the Abyss to Avernus by way of the winding River Styx and back again as both sides battle for supremacy and victory. Nearly always fought within the Abyss and the Nine Hells, the battles between demons and devils do spill over to the Material Planes, though far less frequently.
From the reaches of the Nine Hells come devils and the merciless Lords of Nine, all sworn to Asmodeus himself. From the perspective of the devils, the legions of the Nine Hells are on the front lines to repel and resist the demons’ war on all creation, that through their efforts chaos and destruction are held at bay. The subsection dedicated to the Nine Hells and devils brings detailed accounts of the rulers of the Nine Layers and aspects of their respective domains, over which the Lord of the Nine presides, in a hierarchy of order, law, ambition, and scheming. Cults to the different Devil Lords and archdevils are explored, as well as the expanded options for tiefling subraces beyond that of the Player’s Handbook, creating variants which reflect the different layers of the Nine Hells to which a tiefling might trace their lineage.
Opposite the legions of the Nine Hells are demons and the Princes of the Abyss. Where devils survive within structure and a rank and file hierarchy built on control, demons are agents of chaos, power, and destruction. Demons wage a war that is fighting against a cosmic order that refuses to acknowledge their superiority, as they reach for power and destruction. The Princes of the Abyss, unknowable and terrifyingly powerful, are nearly absolute manifestations of the ideal that every demon sees itself as the rightful inheritor of the cosmos, though the Princes often have the power to make that a possible reality. Some rulers in the Abyss are known and named,such as Orcus and Baphomet. Some are worshiped as deities. And many more lie beyond the threshold of knowing in the reaches of the Abyss. This subsection includes Demonic Boons for those who might find favor or swear service to a demon, gifting abilities, spells, and other boons in exchange for fickle gifts. There are demon tables for traits and features, as well as options for creating original demonic cults.
While not to the same cosmic scale as the Blood War, the mythology and conflicts of the elves is no less bloody, tragic, or filled with depth. This chapter explores everything the lore of the elves, culture, character options, and more for both players and Dungeon Masters looking to further incorporate elves and their culture into adventures or characters.
Beginning with the creation mythology of the elves, from the conflict between Corellon and Gruumsh, to the forming of the first primal elves, the weaving of the tales of Lolth, to the banishment of the elves from Arvandor, and their scattering to the Fey realm and the Material Planes. Subsections explore the respective broken pantheons which were established after Lolth was cast into the Abyss and the elves given mortal forms were sent to walk the Material Planes as recompense for their defiance of Corellon’s will. From the Seldarine who reside with Corellon in Arvandor, to the Dark Seldarine in their servitude to Lolth, details regarding the members of both pantheons are revealed within the scope of the greater cosmology.
There is a section dedicated to the lives of elves, lives of passion and reverie. It explores aging and maturing, the seasons of growth that are more complex, meaningful, and formative than for many of the other races. This leads into elf culture and society, as well as the relationships with adventuring and magic. There are dedicated sections to the eladrin and the Feywild, the elves that remained behind in a realm of chaos and whimsy, leaning into passion more than the simple morality of good and evil; and another looking to the drow, the dark elves whose societies of darkness, blood, and poison serve as reflections of Lolth and their devotion to the Spider Queen. Within the twisted mockeries of elven societies, the drow matriarchies reflect the cruelty of their goddess, and the hierarchical rule of the drow houses are complex and wrought with scheming and marked with blood and death. Another section is dedicated to the Raven Queen and the shadar-kai, which is a treasure trove of lore and history for the mysterious entity within the scope of 5th Edition. In it, Dungeon Masters are given a glimpse into the history and origins of the Raven Queen, shrouded in lore and mystery. There are details about her domain and the Fortress of Memories within the Shadowfell, as well as information regarding the shadar-kai, the immortal servants of the Matron of Ravens. For those bold or foolhardy enough to throw in their lot with the Raven Queen, or desperate enough to venture into her domain, this section is invaluable.
All the information is bookended with options for incorporating it into a campaign, specifically for player characters. The new elven subraces are presented for player characters, as well as choices such as personality and traits, along with tables for story hooks for drow and non-drow characters alike.
Dwarves and Duergar
Once united in their devotion to their creator Moradin, dwarves and duergar are now a people divided, locked in a tragic struggle founded on resentment and bitterness. The history of the conflict began when an obsession of Clan Duergar forced them to delve deeper into the earth desperately searching for great treasure. In reality, it was a plot manipulated by the elder brain at the center of an illithid colony deep in the Underdark, leading to terrible experiments, a pact with Asmodeus, and the eventual escape of the surviving duergar back to the surface, only to be labeled heretics by the followers of Moradin.
This section goes beyond the history of the proud dwarves, providing details about dwarf religion and clan structure, family, even to details and aspects of dwarven strongholds. It explores the importance of clan and family within the structure of dwarf society, the role of the individual within that society, the views dwarves might take on magic and why, and much more. Beyond that, duergar are given their due, with their own subsection detailing the tenets that uphold duergar ideals, the history of duergar deities Laduguer and Deep Duerra, duergar strongholds, and their enduring hatred for their subjugation at the hands of the illithids.
Similarly to the chapter on Elves, the final section regarding Dwarves and Duergar is dedicated to incorporating the information into a campaign. This is particularly useful regarding duergar characters, with character creation options and tables for characters and NPCs, both dwarven and duergar.
Gith and Their Endless War
A race that rose up and overthrew their mind flayer overlords, the gith societies split as a result of their opposing views on how to stratify and create their civilizations, with the warrior githyanki settled under their dread lich-queen Vlaakith in the Astral Sea, and the tranquiline githzerai making their home in the plane of Limbo. Following the explanation of the history of the gith up to the schism, this chapter explores both societies in detail.
Regarding the githyanki, significant points of interest are explored, from their devotion to their queen and her endless challenge of maintaining a peerless marauding force while not creating challenges to her rule, to their dominance as warriors from the backs of red dragons and their airships that raid across the Astral Sea and into the Material Plane.
Conversely, the section on the githzerai looks to their perceived purpose in resisting the efforts of the githyanki, githzerai communities, and the fortress-like monasteries from where they stage their journeys and forays where they preach the philosophy of Zerthimon.
Supplementing the history and lore of the gith people are character creation options for both githyanki and githzerai, with tables for both characters and NPCs, including names, traits, features, and more.
Halflings and Gnomes
The exception to the races caught in the wars of the multiverse, these are two of the races that survive by being unassuming and largely unnoticed within the scope of the world, especially by those seeking power through aggression. This chapter explores the similarities and notable differences between halflings and gnomes, as well as aspects of the different subraces and societies for both sorts of small folk, their respective deities, and hooks for which the simple, peace-loving folk might leave home to become adventurers. This chapter also provides the character creation options for deep gnome, or svirfneblin, characters and how they differ from other gnomes, information and character options that were previously only found in Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide.
More than half of the 256 pages of Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes is dedicated to this section, with almost 100 monsters and stat blocks for 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons. There are several creatures and monsters returning from previous editions, with some even tracing their history back to the Fiend Folio first published in 1981. Many of the monsters in the Bestiary section expand upon those found in the Monster Manual and give more options within a specific category or type, such as the additional drow and duergar options, and the creatures from the Underdark to expand options for particular settings or environments. Many are thematic and expand upon the content of the first half of the book, such as the creatures on both sides of the Blood War and the creatures that inhabit the Shadowfell. This gives Dungeon Masters the lore surrounding the races and conflicts of the multiverse as well as the respective creatures and monsters to supplement it in a campaign, such as the inclusion of powerful demons and devils for utilization in a campaign centered around the Blood War.
Wizards of the Coast included a useful Appendix at the back of the book, creating monster lists that organize monsters by Creature Type, by Challenge Rating, and by Environment, providing a convenient way to build out locations or encounters, whether to supplement primary monsters or enemies, especially being able to reference it in order to adjust based on difficulty or setting. As with all of the organization done by Wizards of the Coast, the options they provide are suggestions, and by no means rules that require strict adherence. They are provided as a resource that can be heavily relied on, referenced, or even ignored. That is the beauty of D&D, but the information and resources provided in this book are valuable as both foundational for campaigns and characters or as references to support from the periphery.
The history of the wizard Mordenkainen is long and thorough when it comes to Dungeons and Dragons, even as a character hailing from the Greyhawk setting his influence on the Forgotten Realms is by no means insignificant, and his name is synonymous with some of the greatest spellcasters the game has known. Beyond just the recognition his name brings with regards to spells like Mordenkainen’s magnificent mansion and Mordenkainen’s faithful hound, his adherence to the Philosophy of Balance brings the rather obscure (at least within 5th Edition) thread of thinking into focus, which is wonderful as it is a great starting point of inspiration for a supplement to 5e. The depth and opportunity afforded to Dungeon Masters is truly unique as it highlights the conflicts of the multiverse, those tied to the Material Plane and those that traverse the planes, and then expanding out the relevant monsters and lore for each.
There are two primary reasons to pick up your own copy of Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, both of which are equally viable and not necessarily mutually exclusive. Its use as a simple supplement with stat blocks and monster information, building on the likes of the Monster Manual and Volo’s Guide to Monsters, alone makes it a valuable resource in any DM’s library. It becomes even more evident when looking at the relationships between topics, such as the foundation of the Monster Manual, the expansion of lore in Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes for creatures such as the duergar and gith who both faced subjugation at the hands of the illithid, and supplemented by the section regarding mind flayers in Volo’s Guide to Monsters that brings everything full circle for campaigns and characters relying on those interactions and histories. The three books in conjunction make for an unparalleled resource regarding several large themes and topics within the scope of (traditional) 5th Edition.
Beyond that, the lore within Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes works as valuable inspiration and reference material for campaigns and characters either directly tied to the races or conflicts detailed in the first chapters of the book. The offerings of details about culture, society, history, religion, and lore all help to expand a cultural and society background for player characters and campaigns beyond the superficial details, adding valuable nuance and depth.
This is a book I have used to build short adventures and individual encounters. It has supplemented campaigns and provided additional resources to already established or predetermined encounters with particular monsters or enemies. It serves as inspiration for larger endeavors surrounding or based directly upon the large conflicts explored within, as well as serving to expand upon backstories for specific characters. It has become a constant reference and resource for my games as a player and Dungeon Master, and has a firm place within my library of Dungeons and Dragons.
Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes is published by Wizards of the Coast.
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