Although Vampire: the Masquerade popularised the whole “you play the monsters” thing, there’s been a tradition of that in RPGs for a very long time. In the 1970s Tunnels & Trolls variant Monsters! Monsters! cast players as dungeon monsters fighting incursions of adventurers, and of course back in Dave Arneson’s original Blackmoor campaign that yielded the seed of what Gary Gygax would wrangle into a commercially viable game product you had Sir Fang, a vampire player character who was so gamewreckingly unbalanced (Dave Arneson wasn’t very good at rules, go figure) that the cleric class had to be invented specifically so a Van Helsing-type could put Fang back in his box (which is a coffin because vampire).
More generally, the immediate aftermath of the release of Dungeons & Dragons involved a big wave of people cooking up wild homebrew stuff. The nice thing about OD&D is that in those three little booklets it gave you fairly clear formats for coming up with new content – it’s easy enough to set your hand to making new monsters, spells, and player character races and classes.
Over OD&D‘s lifespan a range of odd variants of the game developed as a result of that, ranging from root and branch revisions of the entire game like Warlock, interpretations on how to resolve some of D&D‘s ambiguities like the Perrin Conventions, flat-out unauthorised third party supplements like The Arduin Grimoire, and that’s just taking into account material that saw publication: there were also uncountable local micro-variants of the game, not least because each gaming table running OD&D would inevitably develop its own house rules simply because the core books have some areas where there’s no one clear, unambiguous interpretation available. Offbeat character races and classes were a regular feature of these variants.
The proliferation of weird mutant strains of D&D has largely come back with the rise of variant OSR rules sets, and D&D 5th Edition seems to be in excellent health despite this. (Turns out that if you put out a high-quality product people will want to buy and use it, go figure.) Back in the day, though, it was a subject of concern to TSR – it seemed like you could sit down to play D&D with someone at a convention and have no real idea what the system would actually involve because it all depended on what interpretations the DM had made and what variant was in use. The big late-1970s/early 1980s revision and consolidation project which gave us the B/X, BECMI, and Advanced takes on D&D were motivated in part by a desire to establish some common ground and expectations and draw a line in the sand and say “on this side is D&D and on that side is something else which we’re not going to be actively supporting”.
This motivation is especially relevant when you are looking through the 1E Advanced Dungeons & Dragons core books, where – especially in the Dungeon Master’s Guide – Gary is very upfront about explaining this to you. Not only is it a major theme of the preamble, but it keeps coming up over the course of the book where he is explaining why AD&D makes the assumptions it makes and why it offers some options but not others.
One of Gary’s little lessons in the DMG is a discussion about playing monstrous characters, where he talks about how he wanted to encourage a human-centric setting and so in order to ensure that player characters reflect that the various nonhuman character options all consist of races that can expect to get on with (or at least tolerate) humans, and they all have level caps as a means of dissuading power gamers from taking them (an entirely toothless threat if you never expect a campaign to reach high levels anyway, especially given how amazing multiclassing was). Despite this firm position, nonetheless the idea of playing some offbeat creature remained exciting for people, and as time went by – especially after Gary left TSR – we had occasional flowerings of that idea.
The Complete Book of Humanoids
There were several stabs at the “play the monsters” idea during the era of AD&D 2nd Edition – perhaps the most extreme being the Council of Wyrms boxed set, which had you playing dragons – but perhaps the most diversified was The Complete Book of Humanoids, part of the series of “brown book” player-oriented supplements that the various other class and race splatbooks appeared in.
This was penned by Bill Slavicsek and offered you a slightly absurd number of character races you could play, along with notes on roleplaying monsters in a monster-averse society and kits appropriate to monster player characters.
It’s a nice collection of options, but I’ve never found it that inspiring. Oh, in principle flipping through it you keep thinking things like “haha, it’d be really hilarious to play a bullywug who talks like Kermit” or “ooh, they have a set of dinosaur races, we could do a dinosaur-themes game” or “wow, they actually included swanmays as an option”. At the same time, though, it feels like playing any of these things would be a bit of a short-lived gimmick. That Kermit bullywug would be funny for a few sessions, but I reckon after playing for a while everyone would start to forget to picture my character as a bullywug unless I very heavy-handedly emphasised that all the time, and either way it would just get old after a while.
On top of that, in the effort of providing a wide range of things you can be, some playability issues creep in. Your party might include anything from tiny pixies to 8-foot tall minor giants, as well as bizarre things like centaurs. Great. Now design a dungeon adventure where all of those characters have stuff to do. The 8-footers may find they can’t get into some places standing up but that’s fine, they can stoop, but for a centaur getting around is hard. Quick, thought experiment: how does a centaur get up or down a spiral staircase? Not a broad modern one, I am talking the sort of quite narrow one with a very tight turn to them that are hallmarks of medieval architecture. Answer: they can’t, nor can they really go anywhere your PCs can’t ride to on their horses. So as a GM you’re stuck either designing a horse-accessible dungeon – hope you’re ready for the PCs to all take their horses in and use cavalry tactics on the monsters! – or designing a dungeon where there’s potentially extensive parts the centaur PC can’t access.
There’s a long-running joke in Knights of the Dinner Table where Gordo keeps insisting on playing pixie-fairies in Hackmaster, with the result that his character ends up absurdly underpowered next to the rest of the party and they resent him because… well, primarily because the Black Hands are dicks, but also because Gordo’s character doesn’t contribute that much to the party and is too underpowered to really engage with the game usefully.
That actually isn’t how the pixie works here – here, they’re amazing, because they can go invisible plus they can polymorph themselves at will, which means that a) they can trivially evade the social downsides of being a pixie by polymorphing into a human whenever they like, and b) they can heal themselves 1D12 hit points whenever they like by polymorphing and c) they can go invisible and polymorph whenever they like from level 1 onwards. They don’t get to be wizards, but with powers that cool they don’t really need to be, especially when they can also do stuff like cause Confusion and cast Dispel Magic as an 8th level wizard and attack people whilst invisible with no penalty. At high levels they may get eclipsed, but at mid-levels they will likely hold their own and at first level they’re absurdly good compared to anyone else.
Closer to the Gordo mode is the tiniest of all creatures in this book, the “fremlin”. (It’s like a gremlin only it’s friendly, geddit?) This is explicitly presented as a comic relief sidekick character, thus rendering them entirely pointless as a player character option unless you are playing a campaign where people can have multiple player characters at once, because the number of people who want to play a pointless comic relief mascot is vanishingly small, and if you really want to do it you don’t really need game stats to do it because if the comic relief character is doing game-relevant stuff the real heroes could be doing then a) the comic relief is too prominent and b) the heroes aren’t pulling their weight.
But no, Slavicsek decides we need stats for the fremlin. Apparently, fremlins are completely immune to attacks from weapons which don’t have at least a +1 enchantment on them, which makes them absurdly good at low levels where you’re fighting masses of kobolds armed with sticks and stones because they’re completely immune to the random mooks and can distract them whilst the real heroes tackle the more dangerous foes. Slavicsek tries to avoid this by strongly affirming that fremlins are scaredy-cats who will try to avoid getting involved in fights if at all possible, but this isn’t as effective as he think because this is a game with mind control powers, so even if the fremlin’s player plays according to the roleplaying guidance, if the party mage casts the right spells the fremlin can be arm-twisted into getting involved in a fight anyway. Tactically speaking the best thing to do with a fremlin is trap them in a room with the enemy with no escape and wait it out; so long as nothing there is doing +1 damage, they can’t hurt the fremlin but the fremlin can hurt them, and if the fremlin can’t avoid the baddies they will have to fight them and will eventually grind them down.
Oh, and fremlins can also be level 10 wizards or illusionists, which means they can eventually get level 5 spells, so between all that teleporting, monster summoning, dead animating, elemental conjuring and so on and so forth they’ll eventually be able to do they are likely to handsomely make up for their cowardice at least until level 10 or so (longer if they multiclass with thief). For a comic relief character that’s really an awful lot of power.
In short, Slavicsek follows the precedent set by Gygax in terms of offering you the opportunity to play a nonhuman but then trying to make it sound like it will be terrible so most people play humans, except the only substantial stuff there seems to be the roleplaying pointers (which as I’ve pointed out can be quickly overruled when necessary by spells like Command or similar, even when people respect them) and level caps, which never become relevant if the campaign doesn’t last for quite a long time. In addition, a misguided attempt to give monster characters as many of the capabilities of their Monstrous Manual entries as possible straight away meant that the pixie became a god-character. Seriously, if you have a 2nd Edition game coming up and the intention is to not go much beyond level 10 or so, and if Complete Book of Humanoids is in play, do right by Gordo and give serious thought to playing a pixie, they’re amazing.
Volo’s Guide to Monsters
The first really substantial non-setting specific release for 5E does this much better. Don’t be fooled by the much-advertised commentary from Volo and Elminster of Forgotten Realms fame: it’s very unobtrusive and for the most part the material here can be dragged and dropped into more or less any reasonably traditionally-flavoured D&D setting.
Cleverly – and perhaps constrained by the extreme discipline they’ve shown in terms of tabletop RPG releases – Volo’s Guide is not one specific variety of monster-related supplement, but three in one. The first section offers in-depth looks at specific monsters or monster types, in a style reminiscent of those great 2E-era monster ecology books that were kicked off by the Van Richten’s Guide series for Ravenloft. Obviously, with the page count here they can’t go into quite that level of detail, but they do give it a good try and generally the ideas they wheel out here are really fun – I especially like the stuff about how beholders warp reality around them and what that actually means and how that manifests. These sections are great if you want an adventure where the society and culture of these adversaries are especially important.
The second section is basically 5E’s take on The Complete Book of Humanoids, offering a range of new player character racial options. These come in two types: races written up in the style of player character races from the Player’s Handbook, and notes on using some of the monster types earlier in this book as player character races (these arguably not needing a similarly in-depth writeup because they already got one in the first section which is even deeper than the entries here).
Some of the player character races here are new – there’s some cat people, for instance, which along with the lizardy types should be really useful for anyone wanting to do a 5E-based Elder Scrolls game (or for furries who want to drag the game into their Magical Realm). Others are old favourites. You don’t have every monster PC option from previous editions, and most people will have some options that they miss. (I particularly mourn the lack of swanmays, though on the other hand, I tend to think they make more sense as a variant druid class – or, for that matter, a straight druid with a swan aesthetic – than as a monster race, and indeed in 3E they were a prestige class.) At the same time, I think this is another instance of 5E’s concentration on quality over quality, since all of the entries here seem to have been given appropriate thought.
What’s particularly interesting about the selection here is that they all seem to fit within an adventuring party format much better than some of the selections in The Complete Book of Humanoids; you do have stuff like Firbolgs, though given that they are more Andre the Giant sized than mythological giant sized that’s not so much of an issue, but you don’t have things like centaurs (whose form factor makes them incredibly awkward in a dungeon) and you don’t have anything as offbeat as the pixies or the fremlins of Humanoids. All of the races presented here seem intended to potentially form the basis of a range of character concepts, rather than being stuff you’d only take if you wanted to play a comic relief character or something.
The last section is a monster collection, providing 5E updates of a range of old favourites (hooray for the froghemoth!) and new monsters besides. (These include Sea Spawn, who are basically Deep Ones without the “oh no, race mixing!” angle, along with a description of a Forgotten Realms equivalent of Innsmouth complete with offshore Kraken controlling the inhabitants.) This continues the excellent work done in the Monster Manual of taking a true “Big Tent” approach to monster descriptions, with the fluff provided being adeptly judged to provide both interesting twists from a tactical perspective, a sense of verisimilitude in their niche in the world, and ideas for the sort of stories and themes that a monster can best be used for. This approach is mirrored in the earlier portions of the book, in fact, and is really the secret of its success: regardless of what you’re attempting to do with D&D, this has useful material for you.
This is an excellent supplement and I particularly like the way it’s sort of three mini-supplements in one. Whereas in previous editions each segment might have been developed as its own supplement or series of supplements, with the end result being a bit of a mixed bag, here the truncated space means that only the strongest material makes the cut. We might not get a full Complete Book of Humanoids, Fiend Folio, and run of Van Richten’s Guides for 5E, but with material this strong I’m not sure we need that. If future 5E supplements are this diverse and useful, we can only hope that 5E is the perpetual “evergreen” edition that it has the potential to be, because this is one of the best value supplements I’ve ever seen for D&D.