Did Volo hit the Mark?
Volo’s Guide to Monsters is essentially a core rulebook at this point, and there’s a reason they didn’t just call it “Monster Manual 2”. Volo has a lot more going on than just monster entries, though it has that in spades. With that being said, is it worth your money? Delve into the monster’s lair with us for a moment and we’ll go through everything you need to know.
What’s in the Book?
Volo’s Guide to Monsters tallies up at 224 pages, which is quite a bit shorter than the monster manual and even Mordenkainen’s Tomb of Foes that it closely resembles. I think it uses that space well but it’s a tad discouraging considering the price level. Most of the book is devoted to new monster entries and monster lore, but it manages to pack in some greatly appreciated new features. It includes:
- About 100 pages of in-depth monster lore.
- 7 “lair” adventure maps.
- 13 New player races.
- 127 new monsters/NPCs with lore and stat blocks.
This section dominates the first half of the book and it really represents how the authors were trying to make this more than just a monster manual. It focuses on 9 monster “groups” like beholders or orc clans, and really dives deep into their lore Far more than just a monster entry, these sections contain extremely detailed accounts of the monsters including example lair maps and the intricacies of their cultures. The content here is enough to make these monsters into entire side quests, or even as primary antagonists for entire campaigns.
I can feel the love put into these sections, the authors tried hard to make these creatures come to life and I feel like they largely succeeded.
7 Lair Adventure Maps
7 of the nine sections of deep monster lore contain “lair” maps. These lair maps are intended not for any specific adventure, but rather of examples of what sort of lair those monsters would dwell in. I absolutely love these maps; they take a ton of work out of setting up these themed encounters and they feel meaningful and rich due to the gallons of lore poured over them. The maps themselves are stylish and clean, with enough versatility to morph and fit your adventure’s narrative.
13 New Player Races
Up until this publication, players were largely confined to the races found in the player’s handbook. Now the menagerie of playable options has increased substantially, but at the time this was a breath of fresh air to the edition. I highly suspect that these options drove the lion’s share of sales for this book when it first came out.
Now though, the playable statistics for these races are a mere google search away. Races like the aasimar and the tabaxi are now so ubiquitous that they may as well be included in the core rules. The races are excellently designed (though I still shake my fist angrily at Yuan-ti purebloods) and are worth using and playing with. It’s odd though trying to justify them as a motivation to pick the book up considering how easily they can be found free elsewhere.
127 New Monsters/NPCs
127 is pretty darn close to the number of monsters in the original monster manual, so regardless of any other features, this book provides a ton of stat blocks and lore for you to play around with.
For the most part, Volo’s feels like a fleshing out more than an addition when it comes to monsters. A large percentage of the entries relate to the 9 monster “clans” that are covered throughout the extensive monster lore section of the book. You’re not stuck with a single beholder, instead, you have tiny beholders, bloodletting nightmare beholders, and beholder stats that range from low to high CR tiers. It’s refreshing to be capable of using thematic elements at any tier.
Quite a few of the entries are existing creatures from previous editions, now gaining their 5e stats and abilities. I was particularly happy to see the return of firenewts, as I hadn’t seen even a hint of these precious flaming boys since the 3rd edition.
Another prominent portion of the entries is devoted to essentially animals that were missed in the player’s handbook and the monster manual. Including more mundane but helpful things like stats for cows and dolphins, to the previously noticeably absent velociraptor. This more than anything gives me that feeling of “fleshing out” what was simply missing from the existing rosters. There’s not a huge amount of innovation with the monsters listed here, but they are almost unanimously monsters that you’re likely to need sooner or later.
Reinforcing this “fleshing out” is the abundance of straightforward NPC entries. Things like stats for a generic “bard” or a “war priest” are prevalent entries that you’ll almost certainly use. Numerous roleplaying opportunities can be filled out with this book, with prebuilt wizards centered on individual schools of magic, to somewhat trope typed but unarguably useful Kraken priests. Again, none of these entries are all that amazing or exciting on your own, but they’re inevitably useful tools to add to your DM toolbox.
Fundamentally, it’s clear that Volo’s was designed with DM utility in mind and was sold on the merits of its new playable races. These monsters aren’t often flashy, but they’ll be finding their way into your games as you scramble for a stat block that fits the situation.
What’s Good About the Book?
First and foremost, the playable races found here are excellent and have been solidly integrated into most if not all games of 5th edition D&D. These races are essential and have practically become part of the core rules.
The monster selection is made with full encounters and even entire campaigns in mind, integrating example lairs and extensive lore with monster entries that can populate all the needed threats from high to low. Very few of the entries are all that unique, but their utility and versatility will make them assets in all your future campaigns.
In particular, the monster “clans” that received the full lore treatment have enough content to make them into adventures all their own. I really appreciate the work that was done here so that I can be just a bit better of a DM.
What’s Bad About the Book?
It’s strange writing a review of this book so far after its publication. In the 4 years since the release of Volo’s, it has cemented itself as a fundamental and irreplaceable component of any 5th edition game, but I’m not so sure you need to buy it.
The playable races found in Volo’s are freely available essentially anywhere. Unless you need to integrate the rules like on D&D beyond, you should have no trouble just googling “firbolg” and finding everything you need to play one. Sadly, this was the book’s strongest selling point, now the only benefit is having those rules on paper.
While useful, most of the creatures found here aren’t terribly creative or interesting. Most of them are merely filling the gaps that needed filling or are ports from previous editions gaining their 5e treatment. Most of these stat blocks are pretty straightforward, and even if you can’t find these exact stats, similar builds are all over the place.
Volo’s Guide to Monsters is an important book for 5th edition D&D. Volo’s vastly expanded each player’s creative options when creating a character, while providing DM’s with a swiss army knife of resources to make their games easier. I can easily commend this book on its quality and content, it’s when I try recommending the book’s purchase that I hesitate.
Volo’s Guide to Everything would have been an automatic purchase 4 years ago, when the options and resources available to 5e playgroups was still rather limited. Now, with the playable races merely a click away, and with countless other NPC collections vying for your attention, I wonder if I can really recommend it.
If you remove the playable races as a factor, you’re purchasing about 120 monsters with several dungeon maps and about 100 pages of lore to back them up. If all you really want are the monster stat blocks, I’m sorry to say that’s not quite worth the purchase price, or at least the original price. For $50 you can get far more stat blocks of equal or higher quality from other official releases or from 3rd party developers. Though admittedly, it’s unlikely you’ll be needing to pay full price for Volo’s. After a quick look through most outlets, many places are selling this 4-year old book at a considerable discount, often down to $30 or even $25. At those prices, Volo’s starts looking like a reasonable purchase again.
Ultimately, you have the best Volo’s had to offer at your fingertips without buying the book, and as a DM you don’t NEED the rest of its contents. However, if you just want to read some fantastic monster lore, or just want a bunch of pre-made monster lairs, Volo’s is extremely well done, and is especially worth it at a discounted price.
Final Score: 7.5 out of 10
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Last updated: January 27, 2019
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