The 4th edition Monster Manual, written by Mike Mearls, Stephen Schubert, and James Wyatt is 287 pages of character-crunching goodness. It contains 489 monsters, many of which are brand new and first introduced here in the 4th edition book.

This book is by far the best, and at the same time the worst, of the three core books.

One Entry – One Monster

For the first time in the history of dnd, a monster compendium has been released that treats every entry as a separate entry. Usually, there are quite a number of entries where two or more (usually more) monsters share a table to display their stats with a generic description followed by a paragraph detailing differences between the monsters in the combined entry. That has always been my biggest complaint in the past and I applaud Wizards for adopting this new one entry, one monster format.

Monster Groups

Monsters are listed alphabetically as always. When there are more than one monster comprising a group, a group description is given first, followed by an individual stat block and tactics section for each member of the group. This is rounded off with lore, that a character may know given a successful skill check, and an encounter group section, listing various encounter groups including these monster.

Tactics Section

This is a wonderful addition to the Monster Manual. Each entry has a paragraph or two describing the standard tactics used by this monster. Even the best DM can get tired or lazy and start running each encounter just like the last with only the AC and HP changing from battle to battle. The tactics section is a quick reminder of how this particular monster approaches combat and how it should be handled.

Monster Lore

New characters enter the wilderness with only a basic knowledge of the most common monsters and perhaps rumors and wild tales regarding a few more. As they adventure, they learn more and more about a wide range of monsters. How do you track and separate player knowledge and character knowledge? Should every new character know how best to deal with every monster just because her previous (level 20) character has run into everything under the sun? There are various ways of dealing with this. Monster Lore is an excellent method. Characters roll a skill check to determine what they know about the creature. There are a number of responses based on the difficulty of the check. You can use this exclusively in which case you may run into situations where a character knows everything about dealing with Ogres one minute and then fail the check ten minutes later and forget that knowledge at the next encounter. A little common sense mixed with this method gives a nice balance. It separates player knowledge and character knowledge nicely and gives some motivation to have the group diversify their skills a bit.

Encounter Groups

Brilliant idea! So many DMs determine encounters randomly and then have a number of that type of monster come charging out. That’s fine. And in many cases, very appropriate. But often there are reasons for there to be a mix of monsters in an encounter. The encounter groups section lists a number of encounters that group various monsters together based on their backgrounds and interactability to form more interesting encounters.

Combat Roles

Fourth edition rules introduced combat roles. Each monster is categorized as: Artillery, Brute, Controller, Lurker, Skirmisher, or Soldier. The role determines the basic strategy for that role type (enhanced by the tactics section for each individual monster) and also effects the hit points for the creature. In addition to roles, there are three modifiers: Minion, Elite, and Solo. Minions are merely fodder to be thrown in front of the troops to keep the characters busy while the “real” monsters pick on individual targets. Elite monsters are… Elite. They are enhanced versions of the standard monster with twice the hit points and other enhanced abilities. Solo monster are even more powerful. One solo creature is considered to be equivalent to five standard creatures of the same level. As the name implies, solo monsters tend to be encountered by themselves. Lastly, there are leaders that have some special abilities that aid the entire monster group when the leader is close.

Attacks

Every entry lists a number of attacks available to that creature during combat. Many have auras as well that are listed at the top of each stat block. Icons in front of each attack indicate what type of attack it is and the tactics section details how the creatures tends to use its various attacks.

Other Stats

In addition to those stats already listed, every entry also details the following: HP, Defenses (AC, Reflex, Fort, and Will), Abilities, Skills, Initiative, Perception, Saves, Immunities, Resistances, and Vulnerabilities, Size, Speed, Origin, Group, and various other information about the creature.

Why This Is The Best

Every entry is separate and individual. These descriptions are the most complete of all the monster compendiums. The tactics and lore sections help DMs prepare and run the encounters. The encounter sections help make encounters more diverse and interesting. The information presented is complete, well laid out, and useful. There is a considerable volume of material yet things aren’t crammed together to save space. Of the three core books, I consider this to represent the greatest improvement over previous editions.

Why This Is The Worst

The complete and utter lack of editing is horrifying! Clearly, they ran it through a spell-checker and probably had grammar-checking enabled. But beyond that little or no effort at all was spent verifying the numbers. Anyone who has gone to college remembers the outrageous prices for math and science books. That price is almost solely because of the inordinate amount of time required to verify that the information is correct at least 99% of the time. D&D books are even more expensive per page. I expect them to maintain the same level of exactitude.

The first thing I did when deciding to embrace 4th edition was to start creating databases. That way I can make modifications that are permanent and not sift through a book full of sticky notes that try to document my house rules. Secondly, I can automate tasks and save time. And if I move to a virtual desktop game, having things in electronic form will save me a tremendous amount of time, energy, and typing.

There are very clear rules defining how hit points are calculated for monsters. (See DMG 4e, p184-185 and 175-183). Naturally, having everything in my databases already, I set it up to calculate hit points (among other things) manually. I expected some discrepancies. What I found was incompetence. Over 10% of the entries calculated hit points incorrectly. And most of the time it was clear why. Numerous transposition errors (204 hit points instead of 240), entries calculated as if they were elite while they are listed as non-elite (or vice versa). Solo monsters above level ten are supposed to be calculated differently than solo monsters level ten or less. Often this was ignored. Some groups were wrong in exactly the same way as if they were following some unpublished rule. Or more likely, they were following a rule that was changed prior to finalization but these creatures’ hit points were never re-calculated under the new rules.

Some of these problems can arise from failure on the printer’s part. But the volume of errors and the obvious reasons for some of them make it very very clear that the book was assembled and maintained as a text document instead of as a database. Databases can have errors too. But they fail in systematic ways and routines to print out entries from databases will print them out in the exact same format every time. Numerous entries in this book have items in the stat blocks listed in the wrong order or switched with other items. That simply cannot happen with a database-driven product. It is, however, very common in pseudo-databases maintained as text documents.

So who cares how it was maintained? In my opinion, we all should. By choosing a poor method for maintaining the data, they have produced a product riddled with erroneous data. Beyond being a poor method, it is more cumbersome and time-consuming to maintain which directly affects the production costs and thereby the retail cost. Beyond that, it speaks volumes about how the product is perceived by those in control. They clearly have no respect for the game or its players if they can’t be concerned with the quality of the product.

I have always felt that the owners, be it TSR, Wizards, or Hasbro, has envisioned their target market as being a bunch of pimply-faced, adolescent, outcasts that will play casually for a while and then move on in which case there was no reason to focus on quality. In my experience the average D&Der is more likely to be a potbellied, middle-aged, balding, long-term enthusiast with a substantial investment in the game, ranging from many hundreds to many thousands of dollars. The first group may indeed be less concerned with quality control. I am convinced though, that that group does not represent the main demographic. Us old folks want quality! Especially at these prices.

I have assembled a list of errors that I hope to make available in the downloads section. Before I do that, I want to verify that such a posting does not constitute a copyright violation. In either case, I will be submitting it to Wizards of the Coast in the hopes that they may correct things in future printings.

Last Words

After all that, I would like to say that I still love the 4th edition Monster Manual. It is a substantial improvement over its predecessors. It really doesn’t deserve to carry the brunt of my attack. But of the three books, it represents quantifiable data whereas the other two books are a little more esoteric.

Even if you aren’t running 4e, the 4th edition Monster Manual still is a great addition. It doesn’t take a lot of work to convert monsters on the fly from 4e to 3.5 or earlier. The additional tactics section and such, imo, make it entirely worthwhile, errors and all.