Dungeons & Do-Overs

Mordenkainen Presents: Monsters of the Multiverse is a new supplement for 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons full of old material. Specifically, it brings together information of two types: firstly, player character race writeups, and secondly, monster stats. These are derived from a wide range of sources; the back cover blurb highlights Volo’s Guide To Monsters and Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, but these are not the only sources tapped. (With this release, for example, the Elemental Evil Player’s Companion is rendered wholly redundant: the new character types from there are in here, and the extra spells from there ended up in Xanathar’s Book of Everything.)

That said, you don’t get all the material from Volo’s Guide and Mordenkainen’s Tome here. Oh, sure, all the PC races and monster stats are here – but the chapters providing setting-specific deep dives into various subjects relating to monster culture aren’t here, and a lot of the race and monster entries are condensed somewhat to remove similarly world-specific details.

There’s been much debate and no small amount of culture war snark over why Wizards would take this tack, but so far as I can tell it is more or less consistent with the shift they’ve made in the direction of 5E recently: whilst early 5E materials very much used the Forgotten Realms world as the default setting, and were written assuming you would use it (bar for some nice gestures like the inclusion of pantheons for other worlds in the back of the Player’s Handbook), Wizards’ exploration of that setting seems to have stalled at the Sword Coast. Instead, they’ve gone with a one-product-and-done approach, dipping into a wide range of settings with a single hardback (or, in the case of their upcoming Spelljammer release, a boxed set) before moving on to something else, leaving the third party writers on the DM’s Guild to meet any demand for follow-up material.

Not all of these one-off settings have been entirely to my taste – I have no desire to explore Strixhaven, for instance – but some of them have been pretty good, and I thought the recent Ravenloft book was very good indeed, and it seems to be working out for Wizards. It certainly lets them make use both of their own wider range of IP – witness the number of Magic: the Gathering worlds that have had D&D supplements – as well as do interesting collaborations (like with Critical Role or Rick and Morty) from time to time, and I suspect that whilst none of the setting books sell as well as the core (because core rulebooks almost always outsell supplements), any product which cracks open a brand-new setting will tend to sell better than one which further explores an existing one (especially if that setting is as vanilla-bland as the Forgotten Realms have become). That being the case, it makes complete sense that Wizards would want to help referees separate out the Forgotten Realms accretions from the core concepts of the creatures presented here.

These are not the only tweaks made. Notably, all of the additional PC races now use the new rules for non-human characters from Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, which shifts away from applying attribute bonuses to specific stats. In part this was brought in to shift away from the “some races are just smarter/stronger/whatever-er” than others and the unfortunate implications that approach suggested, but it also feels like a nice way to expand the range of character builds you can try out (why shouldn’t you be able to play an orc wizard as accomplished as any human one?), makes the genuinely unique features of races (like Kenku mimicry) carry more weight in distinguishing them, and also serves the overall “we’re not making too many assumptions about these species’ cultures because they will vary a lot from setting to setting” ethos of the book. One suspects that when the new revision of the Player’s Handbook comes out in a year or two, it’ll apply this approach to all the PC races.

Another significant change to the monster stats is a change in the way monsters with spellcasting are handled: rather than being given a full breakdown of spell slots and memorised spells, the stat blocks now provide a terser set of spells and guidance on how often they can be used. This is frankly helpful: it reduces decision paralysis and spell-consultation on the part of the referee, and therefore makes it easier to deploy those monsters on the spur of the moment. If you really want to closely track an entity’s spell usage in the same manner as PCs, you’re free to tweak the statlines to do that if you want, but most referees will be aware that this is often overkill in practice.

On the whole, Monsters of the Multiverse is a solid consolidation of Volo’s Guide and Mordenkainen’s Tome (and a few stray things from other sources on top of that), and since it has been cooked up with the coming revisions to the core books in mind, it should hopefully be a bit more future-proof than those two. If you already have those books, I wouldn’t call it a high priority unless you don’t have much use for the setting-specific material in them and you want to save a bit of shelf space (which was the case with me); if you don’t have them, I’d recommend this instead.

One last nostalgia note: as far as putting out a new monster supplement which is basically a tweaked version of two older, bulkier books goes, Wizards are actually being old school here. Back in the 2nd Edition AD&D days, the original monster book for 2E was the two-volume Monstrous Compendium, a chunky think sold in three-ring binders so that settings-specific appendices could be stored with the rest of your monsters in there. It was eventually an annoying and fiddly way to sell books, so TSR gave up on it and put out the hardback Monstrous Manual which replaced it. Some have accused 5E of being an attempt to hark back to 2E (when they are not talking about it harking back to 3E, or being a Trojan Horse for 4E-isms, or a corporate riff on vintage OD&D/1E/Basic), and usually those arguments are a little reductive, but the parallels here are a little amusing to me, having watched this dance play out before.

5 thoughts on “Dungeons & Do-Overs

  1. Reading this just after your post on the Star Trek game and campaign length, I think this could be an example of HasbroWizards accepting that the long campaign is not a universal any more: if you run a thing in this world, then a thing in that world, even if you have a metasetting that lets PCs travel between them, they’ll be outsiders rather than natives of the new world with backstory and connections and stuff. Whereas if you’re already thinking “OK, this arc of five or six adventures is over, we’ll generate new PCs and maybe switch GM” the barrier to moving the campaign to a different world is much lower.

    1. Hm,. you might have something there.

      In particular, they may have realised that if they can keep providing fresh settings for people to move onto, they can dampen people’s curiosity about exploring other RPGs.

      1. (reliability level: mostly uninformed speculation)

        I’m not sure how important that is – there are an awful lot of people who really are happy to stick with the same basic dungeon-bash-adjacent adventure framework for year after year. (Sean Punch of Steve Jackson Games said some years ago – I may misquote, blame me if it’s wrong not him – that D&D was 90% of the RPG market, other dungeon games were 90% of what was left, and everything else fits in that last 1%.)

        GURPS has had the problem for some time that it’s hard to publish adventures because there’s no single setting that a significant fraction of GURPS players is playing in. They’ll publish worlds (with adventure ideas), but most of them are one book and done. I’m sure HasbroWizards is taking this into account – but if the world is the adventure, if in effect it supplies the whole adventure path and you’re not necessarily expecting to get lots of source material with which to write your own adventures in it, that gives flexibility without complete fragmentation.

      2. I am not convinced that “other dungeon games” account for the other 90%. Call of Cthulhu seems to comfortably do well everywhere, and in some markets is in the D&D spot, for instance. It may be that that’s what it looks like if you’re looking at SJG’s numbers, but GURPS has been used for dungeon-type stuff for ages (because it inherited a lot of the design principles of The Fantasy Trip, which was kept out of print vindictively by the original publisher until Steve got the rights back), so it would not be surprising if the Dungeon Fantasy line did quite well. (Though I recall seeing somewhere that the Dungeon Fantasy Kickstarter didn’t do that great in terms of overall profit at the end of the process.)

        Then again I may be mentally lumping in stuff like Pathfinder in with D&D, and really that’s D&D’s main competition – not merely “other dungeon games”, but other games targeting that playstyle and with enough crossover of system principles to make shifting over easy. Pathfinder, of course, gained an audience with adventure paths before it was even a separate system (it was the brand name for adventure path publications before it was the brand name of a standalone RPG), so perhaps what you are describing is Wizards’ refinement of that model.

        In that case, shifting worlds from time to time might be helpful simply because the more you vary the background scenery, the less samey the adventures seem.

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