The supplements for D&D 5e have been, from my perspective, a rather mixed bag. On the one hand, the first supplement was Volo’s Guide to Monsters, a delightful book that expanded upon the Monster Manual‘s initial offerings and divulged some interesting lore about the monsters in interesting and engaging chunks, heavily featuring new player races and monstrous races. The second supplement, Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, by contrast, felt clunkier than its predecessor, chocked full of new elements for character customisation and various optional rules. Not to say that Xanathar’s was bad, by any means, but as a book, it left a lot to be desired. It seemed almost like a ‘do-over’ of the Player’s Handbook, adding in small editions to rules and a few extra magic items and spells that just seemed to be added as an after-thought to aid the original core-books.
Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes is the third supplement for D&D 5e and it follows in the same path of Volo’s Guide for Monsters: a book focusing on a combination of lore for the D&D multiverse whilst expanding the Monster Manual with a plethora of interesting creatures for Dungeon Masters to snap up for their games. Compared to Volo’s, Mordenkainen’s reaches new heights of mastery. Its longer than Volo’s, for a start, but also strikes a perfect balance between integral information to a D&D world’s lore and spectacular displays of monstrous beasts to challenge even the trickiest of player characters. On the whole, it’s a solid entry, probably the best supplement in the collection, though for all its shine and polish, the only spotted areas appear to be in the fine details and player related features.
CHARACTER, PERSONALITY AND PRESENCE
If there’s one thing I’ve really appreciated about the previous D&D supplements is the effort Wizards of the Coast have made to make it seem not only accessible but fun to read and Mordenkainen’s is no exception. Each book features the name of a famous character in D&D mythos, from curious curator of knowledge Volothamp, to the alien mind of Xanathar, and these characters provide notes on the content of the book at various points. It’s a trick I’ve only seen before in the expanded Star Wars books, featuring comments from characters in the universe observing the details within its pages. Its an engaging and alleviating distraction from the walls of text and adds a spark of humour, depth and, overall, personality to the content. Mordenkainen’s Tome, as most would expect, features narration from Mordenkainen himself, and whilst his wise (if arrogant) words aren’t as charming as Volo’s, or as hilarious as Xanathar’s comments, Mordenkainen’s segments paint the picture of an interesting figure in the D&D multiverse, which should provide inspiration for many a future DM.
MAKING THE ORIGINAL RACES MORE INTERESTING
The first section of the book is dedicated to documenting the great cosmic struggles of the average D&D world and the histories of some of the great races within it. If anything, I was highly surprised to see details on races from the original Player’s Handbook featured within but I’m really glad for the inclusion. Chapters 2, 3 and 5 and dedicated to the various off-shoots of Elves, Dwarves and Small-folk (Halflings and Gnomes) and the first thing I thought when reading these segments was how necessary they really seemed in the grand schemes. The chapters contextualised brief snippets from the Player’s Handbook and gave further depth to some of the core races in ways I’d never even considered I’d wanted. In the case of the Elves, their weighty backstory in the form of accidental birth, chance at Godliness and ultimate curse for betrayal redefine the history a DM might expect and re-clarifies that the story of Elves is one great tragedy: a race of people torn between a loving but absent father and a present but horrific mother, the story of Corellon of Lolth. Obviously, it’s an optional past for a DM to implement but one that’s really well developed and yet really helps with initial world building in the simple ways in a way that Volo’s just didn’t provide. It’s kind of odd that a book about monstrous societies came before developing the actual societies of the core races, but that’s just an odd observation on my part. Learning more the fantasy races and their cultures was one of the most pleasing experiences from this book, being able to sit down and built new settlements whilst taking into account what makes each of the races so important and different from one another. Plus, some new race options of Duregar, Eladrin and Shadar-Kai are a definite way to get player minded readers engaged.
THE BIG PICTURE
Chapters 1 and 4 deal with the cosmic side of things, focusing on the Blood War between Devils and Demons and the Civil War that broke the Gith into two separate peoples. This segment reads a lot more like the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide, rather than Volo’s histories of monsters, in terms of building generic multiverse settings. Whilst the Gith segment is a solid expansion of one of the more fascinating races that cameo-ed in the Monster’s Manual (and a welcome one at that), the Blood War documented between Devils and Demons and the described structure of both the Hells and the Abyss is probably the most ‘important’ part of the book. It redefines the conflict of Good and Evil, juxtaposing it with a Law and Chaos bent and makes important clarifications about the cosmic design. The differences between Devils and Demons was something of a sticking point for me getting into D&D, mainly because in popular culture, you get used to the words being so interchangeable. The segment within Mordenkainen’s provides proper explanations that the Monster Manual only skims the top of and further develops the cosmic notions of a D&D world for high-level play: an undercurrent of tyrannous Devils, battling a horde of frenzied Demons.
The final segment of the book, and, let’s face it, probably the main reason every DM wanted to buy it, is the monster segment at the back, which I’m pleased to say, is simply breathtaking. If there was a problem with the Monster Manual and Volo’s creatures, it was that there were only a few real high-level threats. It tied our hands as a DM, so to speak, leaving our only options with using the monster building system in the Dungeon Master’s Guide to create new original stats (which I love doing but, honestly, that’s a LOT of work) or using the same old Dragons, Liches, maybe a Tarrasque at the end (if you hated your party that much). Mordenkainen’s fixes this gap, whilst still fitting in a whole menagerie of other monsters. There are, in total, 139 new monsters included in the volume and the number of monsters that are CR 20 or above has increased by more than double its previous number, with Devil and Demon lords now stepping into the fray, further cementing the ‘importance’ of the Devils and Demons section earlier on. Its a fantastic display of monsters with a lot of choice that I’m eager to try out in my campaigns.
If there is a weakness to Mordenkainen’s Tome, it’s in the details. Though there are some new player races and race variants including in Mordenkainen’s, they’re scattered around the book unevenly and are few and far between, mainly focusing on Elves and Tieflings. Chaotic Evil has always been a weird alignment in D&D and its in segments focused to this that ultimately become the Tome’s Achilles Heel. Lolth and Drow society as a whole STILL does not make sense as a Chaotic Evil society, despite the fact everyone is oppressed and forced into ritualistic displays of worship, whilst still trying to take over the surface. Orcus wanting to create ‘peace’ in the universe through un-death sabotages his own chaotic nature by seeking to be the new order. I will admit, all of this is a nitpick but it was something that settled in my mind as I was reading: alignment is weird and still makes games infinitely more confusing than they should be. Ah well, at least there’s Yeenoghu. He’s always good at showing what true chaotic evil is.
In short, Mordenkainen’s is a brilliant book chocked full of great things. Even if you’re not a lore-master or have your own idea on a history for these races, the Monsters half of the book is more than worth your time and despite a few nit-picks here and there, I’d find it hard not to recommend Mordenkainen’s to anyone who wanted to get into more D&D. It’s currently the best of the supplementary material, easy to read and with more content than either of the previous supplements, though DMs will definitely get the most out of it.
Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes is on sale on Amazon for £30.82 at the moment or $27.97 for American audiences which, honestly, is a steal. Whilst it’s not necessary, it is the most solid addition to the game and I highly recommend it to any DM’s who want to get more monsters and setting ideas for their next roleplaying experience.