I finally got a chance to look over the third core rulebook for 4e, the Monster Manual.
On the whole, I like it. At first glance, there seem to be fewer creatures here than in the 3e version, but an actual count shows the numbers are pretty close to even. And whereas a lot of the 3e creatures were things like normal animals or rarely-used (in most campaigns) aquatic monsters, the 4e book for the most part doesn’t include these. It also doesn’t include a bunch of templates (those are in the Dungeon Master’s Guide).
What does it include? Well, most of the iconic monsters I could think of off the bat, from aboleth to zombie. Beholders, drow, mind flayers, displacer beasts, demons and devils, the Tarrasque and Orcus. There are a lot of monsters in here that could see wide use in a lot of campaigns. Less chaff, more substance.
That’s not to say that everything’s here. There’s no nymph (although there’s a dryad), no centaur, no bullywug, no mephit, no blink dog, no couatl. There are angels, but nothing that looks like the solar. There are hill giants and fire giants and storm giants, but no cloud giants or stone giants. There are dragons, but only the five evil chromatic varieties. (Although the dragon entry mentions at least twenty-five varieties in five separate families — chromatic, metallic, catastrophic, planar, and scourge. The catastrophic dragons seem to be the Oriental Adventures sorts, based on earthquakes and typhoons and other natural disasters. Planar dragons cover the extraplanar equivalents, like shadow, Abyssal, and fey dragons. And scourge dragons are the linnorms from earlier editions.)
I’ve heard that the designers chose to focus on monsters that were likely to be enemies for the players. Since the game presumes the players will be generally good-aligned, most of the monsters are evil ones. This might hold some weight; with the exception of those angels, the only really “good” creature is the unicorn, which is, in 4e, an unaligned fey creature, and whose inclusion might also be explained by the fact that it’s a mount. (Along the same lines, the riding horse made it in — but oddly, the pegasus didn’t.)
There’s a pretty small number of real animals included. Riding and warhorses are here, and a couple of animals the party might fight: a cave bear, a crocodile, and a wolf. There are some magical, giant, or dire versions around, too: the above, plus boars and panthers, spiders and scorpions, beetles and the inevitable dire rats. On the whole, I approve of the decision to use the space for more fantastic threats, but I would have liked at least one or two more: either a lion or a tiger, and a guard dog. I can make do with modifying the fey panther for the large cat and the gray wolf for the guard dog, though.
Almost every creature entry offers at least two stat blocks. The boar entry, for instance, includes a level 6 dire boar and a level 15 thunderfury boar. This seems helpful. Many of the humanoids include several different types all around the same level, which is less helpful, but still okay. There’s no more than one entry to a page, which makes things easy, at the expense of having some wasted space. The book mostly does a good job of filling this space with artwork, but it does become obvious in places.
Along with the old standbys, the book offers up a couple of new or obscure old creatures. Things like the boneclaw, the grick, the kruthik, and the shadar-kai. I find these hit-or-miss. I’d have preferred some of those things I mentioned above that were left out, honestly, but I suppose I can’t fault Wizards of the Coast for slipping a couple of these in. It’s still at least as good as the 3e version in my estimation, and far better than the 2e Monstrous Compendium.
There’s an appendix at the end that gives a couple of monster race writeups in a similar vein as the PHB. There’s also a note that they were balanced as monsters, not as player characters. And that “[they] can be used as guidelines for creating [PC] versions of these creatures, within reason.” I do have to recommend that any DM intending to offer them as PCs look things over and make some changes; in particular, the drow darkness ability becomes pretty broken when the drow is a rogue, and any creature with Oversized, which can wield weapons a size larger (which get bigger damage dice, just like in 3e) as though they were its size, has potential issues, especially as a two-weapon ranger. A bugbear with +2 Strength and +2 Dexterity, dual-wielding 1d12 bastard swords, is pretty scary even without its once-per-encounter Sneak Attack-like racial power.
There’s a glossary. And there was much rejoicing.
Finally, there’s a 4-page list of monsters by level and by monster role, which should make creating encounters very easy. Unfortunately, since it has page numbers, the designers seem to have decided that it also serves as an index, which is only true to an extent.
The entries themselves are very lean. There’s only a little bit of descriptive fluff — certainly no more essays about a creature’s society and culture. On one hand, I sometimes enjoyed reading that stuff; on the other hand, I usually ignored it when it was time to build a world, and put my own monster societies in place anyway. So it doesn’t really affect me, in the end, and it gives more space for those stat blocks. I can live with that.
The artwork is on the whole really good. I think all monsters are depicted; some have multiple pictures. There’s not exactly a lot of splash-page action-scene art, but it gets the job done.
Overall, I think this’ll prove to be a very useful verion of the MM. I’m not sure yet whether it’ll be the best version, but it’s a pretty high quality as a whole. 4e has really impressed me in that regard, despite some of its problems.