First, a bit of a clarification and a rant. Not necessarily in that order.
Life ain’t all black and white. It’s possible to like parts of something, yet at the same time criticize other elements; just like the Curate’s Egg, there’s good and bad in all things. If you think otherwise, stop watching so much TV/reading crappy tabloids and grow up.
On to the specifics: there’s large parts of 4e D&D that are absolutely terrific. I’d struggle to find fault in two out of the three Core Books; they’re right up there as among the best RPG books I’ve seen, for a long time. The other one (the PHB) is considerably poorer, both in terms of layout and content. Even so, large chunks of it are great, but not in the same league as the MM and DMG. This is book which demands a restructured revision ASAP. Taking the game as a whole, 4e is an improvement over what’s gone before, though I’ve reservations when it comes to battlemat play – that’s when the game stops feeling like a role-playing game and turns into Chess With More Rules and your character stops being “the person you’re playing in your head” and turns into “that figure there”. It’s a disjoint my group isn’t used to, though we’re willing to work at it.
Here’s a word of advice for experienced gamers if you’ve yet to read 4e: don’t read the PHB first. Grab the DMG or Monster Manual and read those first. This is the first time I’ve read a Dungeon Master’s Guide straight through cover-to-cover. It’s the first time I’ve seen a DMG so well written that I kept thinking “Darn. How are all those RPG tips sites going to compete with this?”. Of course they’ll be just fine, but this really is a DMG that lives up to the name. It’s a Guide for Dungeon Masters both new and old. Brilliant stuff.
Likewise, I’d struggle to find fault with the Monster Manual. I’m happy to say that the complaints about it being just full of stats and no descriptions ain’t true. Sure, there’s less actual fluff than previous Monster Manuals, but what there is is all good. At first I missed the “Ecology” information, but then realized that I never used it anyhow. The locale for every creature is “wherever the heck the GM wants”! Snow ogres? You got ‘em! Troglodytes that live in trees? Yup! It’s a small change, but it reflects this Edition of D&D’s ethos of putting the Tools to Choose back in the hands of the GM.
Every single monster deserves it’s entry in this book. It’s like they’ve put together a “best of all the 3rd Edition MMs” and cut out the sub-par beasties which every edition picks up over time.
It might be silly, but my first impression of any Monster Manual comes from the very first critter. Sure it’s all alphabetical, but that very first Monster’s job is to set the tone for all the rest. As with the 3.5e Monster Manual, that pride of place goes to the Aboleth. Compare that to the lame-as-crap Abeil from the lame-as-crap MMII. See? First impressions count.
If I had to find fault in this Monster Manual it’s that there seems to be an awful lot of snakes (and snake-like beasties) for your money, and not a lot of low-level critters that a DM can use right at the start of the campaign. There’s only so many times Kobold and Goblin encounters are interesting, y’know In reality it’s less of an issue than first appears, as the DMG’s section on encounter building makes clear. Even so, I expect a slew of 3rd party Monster Guides with Low-level Critters Real Soon.
Highlighting just a few (of the many) good parts of the Monster Manual, I love the entries for Drakes and Humans in particular. The idea of Drakes nestling around the top of buildings and stealing shiny things is too good to pass up, and I’m going to throw a Needlefang Drake Swarm at my players the first chance I get. As with any other “monster”, Humans get an entry with several different stat-blocks. In this case, there’s stats ready for that ugly crowd of commoners (charmingly called “Human Rabble”) and their Charismatic leader, Bandits, Guards, Berserkers and a Mage. It hearkens back to Classic D&D’s treatment of Humans, and I love it. A part of the entry is up on the Wizard’s site for free download too if you want a sneak peek, though it’s just the Berserker and Mage. That’s a darned shame – if they had provided the full Human entry I’d have printed it off to keep in my PHB. Maybe I’ll do that anyhow With just the Human entry I can run a city-based adventure on the fly from start to finish without needing any other resource. Nice.
For me, other high points include the entry for Zombies and Skeletons, with Zombies in particular having much more of a schlock-horror treatment than previous D&D versions. The Zombie Weakness is pure Headshot, and will have players craving a Shotgun +1 While on the subject of crossing genres, the Kruthik entry (originally from the Miniatures Handbook) would make a passable substitute for Alien. I’d have preferred to see the Kython from the Book of Vile Darkness fill this role and merit entry in the first MM, but that’s just me. One curious omission in this Monster Manual is the total lack of Dinosaurs. I’d expect them to have pride of place in the new MMII as soon as that’s released. Fingers crossed.
Which leads us back to the Players Handbook. Let’s save that for another blogpost, eh?