Saturday, July 30, 2022

Retrospective on the Monstrous Manual

Tarrasque as featured in
The Monstrous Manual
©️ 1993 TSR, Inc.
 I will start by saying that I am an inveterate teratophile; I cannot get enough of monsters. I love having huge stacks of them to read, daydreaming up adventures in which they might appear, and running test battles against them.

I realize that it isn't actually very useful to have too many monsters. You don't need more than a handful to make for a good game of D&D. Not to mention that building a new monster for a TSR-era edition of Dungeons & Dragons doesn't actually require very much work, You can put one together in about three minutes if you know what pages to look at.

A good book of monsters is more of a convenience, or a piece of art on the wall of your campaign.

And as a strange and perverse exception, I don't feel the same need for other systems. I have never gone out of my way to get books for my other most-played systems: Shadowrun, RIFTS, GURPS, Old World of Darkness. And to be sure, such things certainly exist. For some odd reason, though it is only D&D and its various clones that I really feel this impulse to collect.

I have spent so much time gazing at old monster books that I can usually pick a classic Dungeons &Dragons monster that will fit the level of an adventure, terrain, and theme off the top of my head without cracking a book. And this has created a problem.

I am forever creating adventures in my head based around the perfect monster, or that includes a monster that would be just right for a scenario, and a grab the game book I am using to find that I do not have the monster for it. And in moments, I am ripping through my whole OSR collection (like a fool) looking for a stat block for the critter. Often to no avail. At which point I grumble, grab one off the internet, or just restat the damn thing myself (which would have been quicker anyway.)

It has happened over and over again:

  • At one point I was planning a problem where gemstone miners needed a pest removed, Xorn would have been ideal. None but a very stripped-down xornling in Low Fantasy Gaming.
  • I was designing a module where I wanted an encounter with a water weird  in a dungeon full of steam machinery. Shockingly nowhere to be found.
  • I wanted to include clockwork horrors in my game, but did not have any book with them left after selling my D&D3e manuals.
  • I planned a dungeon recently full of monstrous birds that begged for a few Achaierai, but I didn't have any for anything except Pathfinder.

My encyclopedic knowledge of D&D monsters has been causing me frustrations. I decided that I needed a new monster book. In hardcopy because I cannot stand to use tablets while playing if it can be avoided. Hell, I had a "No electronics at the game table" rule until 2016.

Field Guide cover
At first I grabbed the Basic Fantasy RPG Field Guide of Creatures Malevolent and Benign, and the awe-inspiring Field Guide vol. 2. They are great books and FG1 is only $5 CAD in print. But they haven't helped me with the problem of wanting more classic D&D monsters in hardcopy.

When I set out to create my perfect version of AD&D for myself I bought the DTRPG reprints of the AD&D1e PHB and DMG, but I grabbed the AD&D2e Monstrous Manual from 1995 for monsters, it being the single densest collection of D&D monsters ever published in a single book in the TSR era. And it is massive.

I wanted to do a quick discussion of what is in the book for those who are curious, and why I chose it, along with my few gripes. If your want a discussion of the physical quality of the book, check out my article on the quality of the reprints here.

Sheer, Glorious Volume

Cover to the Monstrous Manual
©️ 1993 TSR, Inc.
The Monstrous Manual has monsters cribbed from the Monstrous Compendium volumes 1 and 2, the Monstrous Compendium version of the Fiend Folio, and selected monsters from their Ravenloft, Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk and Spelljammer collections. it is a curated volume with  a little over 600 entries ranging from the bog-standard to the strange and obscure.

Compressed Entries

While the Monstrous Manual used monsters taken from al lot of previous sources, many of them were not pure 1:1 copy/pastes. Many creatures got highly compressed. For example,, all non-predatory mammals got squashed into a table of stats for mammals, with a single paragraph description of each. Maybe two if they had special powers or treasures. The same was true of men, and the various subraces of gnome, elf, halflng, and dwarf.

In some cases, monsters from multiple sources were compressed together. For exaple the Orc entry also includes the Orogs from MC vol. 2.

This kept the page count down and got rid of ludicrous things like a full-page entry on ravens.

Monstrous Compendium Format

Monstrous Manual Reprint Cover
©️ 2018 Wizards of the Coast
The Monster Compendium and the Monstrous Manual had the (IMO) best format for presenting monsters: Each creature gets one page (unless we are talking about a huge category of monsters).  This includes a couple of paragraphs of physical description and fluff. 

Then it has a section on the creature's special powers, and the combat tactics that it is likely to use... something woefully neglected in most other editions. It really helps the DMs play the monsters as if they knew what they were doing in combat. 

If the creature lives in groups, has special lair preferences, etc., that is included in a Habitat/Society section, which includes things like how to stat out exceptional members of the group and leaders, what domesticated creatures they keep, ratio of non-combatants and children in a lair, and how they protect their home.

Finally there is an Ecology section that discusses things like if the creature has body parts of value, who will buy them, and how they are harvested, as well as any other special notes about the creature's impact on its environment that might be valuable to the players.

This is a tightly compressed, but information rich format that is almost always kept to one or two pages.

Saltwater Troll from the
Monstrous Manual
Art by Tony di terlizzi
©️ 1993 TSR, Inc.
More recent monster book formats have bothered me by being too generous, or far too sparse with their information. WotC turned me off of monster books starting with D&D3.5's Monster Manual IV where each monster entry seemed to take 4+ pages with little maps of lairs, in-voice stories, suggested adventure hooks, etc. It seemed like they were padding the books to sell you just a handful more monsters in an increasingly expensive and over-produced package. Which was an impression that was reinforced in 4th edition in pretty much all of its books.

D&D5e, I found, moved back to something similar to AD&D1e's approach with a three-paragraph format: one to describe the monster, one to talk about how it acts, and one to describe how it fits into the larger world. Which is nice, but it doesn't give the DM the same richness of AD&D2e's monsters.


The Art in the Monstrous Manual is beautiful color work, but it didn't drive the books price up nearly as much as some of the material that came out even for AD&D2.5 seemed to. I especially love the fey and humanoids illustrated  by Tony di Terlizzi who was one of my favorite TSR-era artists thanks to his work on Planescape and the Planescape: Blood Wars card game.

Not Fully Backward Compatible

This table is from For Gold & Glory
which is ©️2016 God-Emperor Games
And released under the OGL
If you plan on grabbing this for use with a B/X, BECMI, or AD&D1e game or retroclone, you should be aware that AD&D2e does have a couple of minor compatibility issues. 

First, not all treasure types are exactly like they were in AD&D. They are assigned differently, and in a couple of cases, mean different things. I covered that in depth in my recent dive in Treasure Types. You might just want to grab the table out of For Gold and Glory (right) as a reference.

Second, the Morale System is handled differently. It uses a d20 or 2d10 system rather than a percentile system (although the math is easy to convert.)

Finally, it does not offer XP by hit point like AD&D did. Instead it adds a flat amount based on the average that the old XP per Hit Die would have given. So in 1e terms you are seeing the XP listed for a creature with the mathematical average hp of that type, That won't make a big difference in the long run of your campaign. Like getting rid of the penny, at the end of the day things just average out.


The "how to use this book" section of the Monstrous Manual is anaemic and in the case of treasure types,  bit confusing.

Still No F$k!ng Achaierai!

Achaierai as it Appears in the AD&D Fiend Folio
©️ 1981 TSR, Inc.
Or clockwork horrors. This is a curated list. They didn't include everything. But some of their choices to include were a bit odd. There are still miniature giant space hamsters snuck in there. But as this is a frippery, after all. its not like i can't get the one or two monsters I am missing off of an online source and copy the essentials into my notes. But I do find a lot of the choices of what went in and what was left out a bid odd. Personally I would have favoured making sure the majority of the creatures from the original three AD&D1e books were included over ones from the AD&D2e settings.

And, of course the majority of demons and devils were left out. The Baateezu entry includes only Pit Fiends and Abishai. while the Tanar'ri entry seems to include only Balors and Marilith, so if you like Demons and Devils, you still are going to get some short shrift.

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