Be it multiversal lore book or monster manual… or both?!?
The tagline on the front cover of Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes says discover the truth about the great conflicts of the D&D multiverse in this supplement for the world’s greatest roleplaying game but that only tells half the story of what the latest book from D&D is.
Yes, it’s a lore book that covers (among other topics) the eternal war between devils and demons, the enmity between dwarves and their underground duergar brethren, and the battles between Gith kinds, told from the perspective of that famous Greyhawk wizard turned multiversal tourist, Mordenkainen*.
*Mordenkainen was actually Dungeon & Dragon’s co-creator Gary Gygax’s character, if you didn’t know
It’s also essentially half of a monster manual, much like Volo’s Guide to Monsters is. I suppose if you own both books you’ve actually got the D&D 5E version of Monster Manual II.
You can watch the video review or read the blog version below. Don’t forget the image gallery at the end of this post!
Let’s take a deeper look into the Tome, shall we?
- Cover Price: $49.95
- 256 pages
- 6 chapters
- 12 new playable subrace options
- 4 new playable races (for 5E, anyway)
- 140 monster stat blocks
- 36 creatures CR 15 or higher
- 1 Astral Dreadnaught (change of underwear not included)
- 1 appendix
The lore takes up just under half of Mordenkainen’s, spanning a wide variety of subjects in the following chapters:
- The Blood War
- Dwarves and Duergar
- Gith and Their Endless War
- Halflings and Gnomes
The Blood War
Learn possibly more than you wanted to know (for your peace of mind) about the eternal war between the demons of the Abyss and the devils of the Nine Hells, including major personalities involved, related cults, plus demon and devil customization tables.
There are also nine teifling subraces introduced for players, one for each of the nine devil lords.
Mordenkainen’s brings us rich lore on surface elves plus their cousins in the Underdark, the Feywild and the Shadowfell.
This chapter’s topics include (but are not limited to) their cosmic and material history, deities, phases of aging from childhood to elderhood, and their culture(s) and outlook on life.
The Tome introduces three new elf subraces are introduced: Eladrin (feywild natives), Sea elf and Shadar-kai (Shadowfell natives). There are also tables for generating random details for a PC or NPC elf.
Although it caused a minor controversy when first announced, the elven blessing of Correlon isn’t heavy-handed in the way its presented, yet it also seems obvious this is a supportive statement on gender issues as it is described as a “miracle” rather than an ability (the current D&D team has not been bashful in it’s support of said issues). I only touch on this because it was the subject of some discussion before the book released.
Dwarves and Duergar
Ah, the dwarves. Those short, stubborn mountain delving-addicted fellows and their underground gray brethren the duergar. What can be said about them and their ongoing conflict in 5E that hasn’t already been said? Oh, look, it’s all right here in Mordenkainen’s.
In this chapter you’ll find the deep roots of the war (see what they did there?), plus cultural and religious info on dwarves and duergar and their clannish societies. There’s also a nice section on dwarves of the multiverse (Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance). It’s interesting and somewhat odd that there isn’t a similar section in the book for elves and gnomes, yet there is for halflings. An editorial oversight?
Duergar (described as a “dark mirror” of dwarven clans) also receive 5E love with rules on making duergar characters, complete with the requisite (and let’s be honest, beloved by many) random tables to help flesh one out.
Gith and Their Endless War
In addition to the The Blood War chapter, my guess is this section will be of the most interest to longtime D&D players eager for official 5E information on those extraplanar races the githzerai and the githyanki.
Both races were first introduced in 1981’s Fiend Folio with the githyanki actually making the cover (flabby elbows and all, eww). Since then, the Gith have had a definite fan base within the world of D&D over multiple editions.
This chapter gives a history of their conflict in addition cultural info on both Gith factions, and introduces the both the githyanki and githzerai as playable races for in 5E, complete with random tables for names, personality traits, ideals, bonds and flaws.
Halflings and Gnomes
There’s no dramatic, ongoing conflict between halflings and gnomes but by goodness they get a chapter, too! Describing their generally low key nature as survival trait in the greater dangerous multiverse, Mordenkainen’s also provides personality, cultural and religious info on both subraces. Wait, they’re shorter than average so is that sub-subraces? I digress.
Halflings also receive a “Halflings of the Multiverse” section much like dwarves, and Dark Sun (!) is also mentioned plus some random tables for character customization.
Guidance is offered for deep gnome characters (including a new feat for deep gnomes), and gnomes in general get some random character creation tables.
The Bestiary (monster stats and info) makes up over half of the book (in fact there are 140 monsters stat blocks… I counted!). While not all of them are new to D&D in general, I believe all of the monsters listed here are new to Fifth Edition with the exception of the demon lords, who appeared in the Out of the Abyss campaign book.
Given the focus of Mordenkainen’s, the monsters listed here tend to be exotic at best and downright brain-twisting or diabolical (or both!) at worst. Various drow, duergar and derro are the more mundane listings, with plenty of aberrations, demons, devils, monstrosities and more to wreak havoc on your peace of mind, and your players’…
As a DM, I like having monster stats like these because many of my players are D&D veterans from several editions back. As soon as I drop a monster on them, they immediately beginning searching their internal memory database to see if they know what it is and what strengths and weaknesses it has. They’re not exactly metagaming (usually!), it’s just human nature.
Yet with more unusual monsters like these I’ve got a better chance of truly surprising them, truly challenging them, and truly creating that unsettling sense of uh oh, what the heck is THIS thing and do we stand or run?
When I talked with Jeremy Crawford and Kate Welch about Mordenkainen’s stat blocks, they said they wanted to make sure to provide higher CR monsters to give DMs and players a resource for higher level adventures. That’s not empty talk: Out of 140 total stat blocks, there are 68 creatures CR 10 or higher, 34 CR 15 or higher, 20 CR 20 or higher, and 4 CR 25 or higher! So tell your parties to bring their A game and pack a lunch, these baddies aren’t going down easy.
The book includes a helpful appendix in the back with the lists of monsters broken down in different ways including type, challenge rating and environment. Very handy, but I’d still like a complete book index (see below).
This is a nice book, both in presentation and in usefulness. It seems especially applicable to DMs and groups looking to add something diabolical or exotic to their games yet there is enough lore on more mundane subjects for it to have some application for just about everyone.
It’s another somewhat risky release on behalf of the D&D team in that it defies easy categorization. Is it a lore book? Is it a monster manual? Is it about demons and devils, or is it about elves and halflings and dwarves? The end result could easily have been confusing and unfocused but the risk paid off and Mordenkainen’s covers a lot of ground in a well defined way while managing to be both a lore resource and monster manual lite all in one package. Although I buy each new D&D release for review purposes, as a DM I’m glad to have this in my box of tools.
Like with other D&D 5E books, Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes looks great from the cover and interior art and overall layout and design. Whatever the D&D team has done to get that part of their production process cooking, they definitely need to let those chefs stay in the kitchen.
My main continuing gripe with the D&D 5E releases does indeed continue here: still no index. Aaaaargh! Since when have indexes for a resource / reference book fallen out of favor? Well, okay, there’s sort of an index at the beginning. But it’s not a subject index, just an index of monster listings. Look, this isn’t a PDF or some other electronic version I can hit CTRL-F and search instantly. It’s a real, hardcover reference book that has a real, hardcover reference book price. Give me an index!
Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes: Should You Buy It?
Here’s my standard approach: Given the different types of RPG gamer (even within the fairly closed system of D&D), the current needs of any given DM or player, and the subject of a book itself I tend not to give an up or down recommendation.
At the risk of being obvious, I’ll also point out this is not a core rule book and not required to play D&D.
With that said:
If you are hungry for more lore in general to enrich your D&D 5E experience, Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes is absolutely for you.
If you are particularly interested in one or more of the lore sections (demons, devils, elves, dwarves, gith, halflings, etc.) this book could very well be for you but keep in mind it’s not dedicated to just one subject. Although the chapters are fairly in-depth and comprehensive, it’s still limited to one chapter per category. Depending on your individual wants, it might be like like buying a blister pack of several action figures to get just one or two you want.
If you want more Sword Coast and/or Forgotten Realms lore, Mordenkainen’s probably isn’t for you. Although many of the of the subjects, races and monsters can be encountered in or are an essential part of Faerûn, this is a multiversal source book that applies to many settings and planes.
If you want more official yet unusual monster stat blacks to surprise and challenge your players with (or to study voraciously if you’re a player), Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes is absolutely for you.
If you want more “regular” monsters that fit in well with generic high fantasy D&D setting or the current default of the Forgotten Realms, this might not be the book for you. The stat blocks are cool, yet as already mentioned they lean towards the diabolical and/or exotic and just plain strange not to mention higher level in many cases.
If you’re a completionist who makes sure to get a copy of every official D&D book release, then great googly mooglies what do you need my review for? Go get your copy if you haven’t already!