I got the 5th Edition Monster Manual a while back but it took me a fair bit to do a review, simply because it made me want to do something I rarely find myself wanting to do with monster collections: read the dang thing from cover to cover.
The way it did this really quite simple: it presents a bunch of monsters in such a way that you simultaneously love reading about them and really want to feature them in a game.
For the most part, the monster writeups in this iteration of the Manual combine the best of the 1E and 2E versions as far as fluff goes, with the best of 3E and 4E in terms of presentation of crunch. To address the latter part first, monster stat boxes are provided with all of the game mechanical information you need right there at your fingertips. 4E backed away from the lunacy of having every single monster have a stat block as detailed as a player character’s, and 5E in turn has backed away from the idea that even a PC statblock necessarily needs to be long and complex, so what you get are statblocks which convey information quickly, provide proper explanations of unique powers and capabilities, and are short enough and well-organised enough that you can rapidly find what you need to know.
As far as the fluff goes, the 5E designers have found a happy medium between the sense of wonder evoked by 1E’s short, pithy explanations and the sense of a monster’s place in the wider world provided by the ecology and sociology essays provided in the 2E Monstrous Compendium. Each monster has associated with its fluff writeup a series of bullet points getting across the flavour of the creature, providing awesome trivia and myths about them (more or less all of which can find interesting in-game applications in the hands of a competent DM), and where appropriate giving some idea of how they interact with others. There’s a heck of a lot of evil races who are connected somehow to the drow, the mind flayers, the Archdukes of Hell or the Demon Lords of the Abyss, for instance, and whilst presumably a lot of this is laying the groundwork for future official adventure paths like the current Tyranny of Dragons storyline at the same time it’s cool to know a lot of this stuff.
A lot of thought has been given to how to properly distinguish monsters which previously occupied very similar niches; now if you want to really grasp how goblins, hobgoblins, orcs and ogres differ, the fluff descriptions tease this out just as much as the statboxes do. Indeed, there seems to have been a general understanding that it isn’t enough to distinguish monsters purely on their statlines, but on the fluff associated with those statlines as well, which in turn suggests a “dream up the creature, then provide the stats” approach rather than “cook up the stats, then come up with some vague IC rationale for them”, which helps.
Although some used to terser monster listings may find that the bullet points presented here are an unwanted crutch for the imagination, I quite like them. The preamble in the book mentions that if you want to throw out the established lore on a monster and do something else it’s perfectly fine to do so, and having the lore available at least means that there’s more or less no monster in the book which I look at and go “how the fuck am I supposed to use this in a game?” – Flumphs are useful and significant now, folks.
Another nice thing about the lore presented here is how it supports 5E’s big tent approach. If you want to treat the monsters here as a series of very game-y challenges, you can, and challenge ratings are still provided to allow you to do just that. If you want to treat them as extras in a storytelling exercise, the manual suggests a whole range of stories to use them in. And if you want to treat them as occupants in a consistent, coherent game world, the lore is suitable for that as well. Care is taken to make sure that most of the lore is of a sort where there isn’t just one story you could tell about it, at which point it’s exhausted, but instead is the sort of well you could keep going back to and finding new spins on over and over again.
So, two core books down and 5E is looking pretty damn strong at the moment. It’s one decent Dungeon Master’s Guide away from becoming my favourite D&D, in fact, so let’s see how that does.