In which our intrepid hero compares a couple of recent purchases.

With the release of 4e only a couple of months away, the savvier local games stores are starting to discount a lot of their D&D3.5 stock. I’ve taken this opportunity to catch up on a few hardbacks I’d missed.

Although they’re not exactly new, they’re new to me, and I’d like to air some thoughts about them. On the top of the pile are Monster Manual IV and Monster Manual V.

Firstly, however—this is something that’s bothered me for years about (A)D&D—why is it whenever anyone comes up with a cool concept for an undead encounter, they have to go and stat it up as a completely new monster?

If you can do ghosts as templates with variable powers, how difficult would it be for other types? It seems to me that you could get away lumping incorporeal undead together, and merely have a handful of iconic corporeal types: shambling corpses (skeletons/zombies), ghouls, vampires, liches, flesh golems and other composite undead (why are they constructs in the first place?), and animated body parts.

(And whilst I’m at it, why have fey gotten such short shrift in 3e/3.5? Were they deliberately condemned to their niche as short-lived punching bags to briefly annoy PCs?)

But to the products at hand…

Monster Manual IV seriously lacks cool. Clockroaches are cute, as are Skiurids (death squirrels from the Plane of Shadow!), Spawn of Tiamat and Zerns, but there really isn’t much in Monster Manual IV that makes my eyes light up, not like, say, Fiend Folio or Monster Manual II.

The whole book seems as if an overworked design team just didn’t have their hearts in it, filling pages to meet a deadline so they could continue other projects they they all had more interest in.

Case in point: the Lolth-touched template. It makes the base creature a bit tougher, a bit stealthier and changes its alignment to chaotic evil. It does not, however, endow it with any additional Lolthy flavour, and seriously, you’d expect a servant of the Demon Queen of Spiders to at least have some sort of themed abilities. Not so.

Many other entries are simply statted-out humanoids with class levels. If WotC RPG R&D figure that GMs need fully statted-out NPCs in case of emergency, then they should release an updated 3.5-edition Enemies and Allies. On the other hand, if you’re incapable of adding class levels to a humanoid, or you couldn’t be bothered statting up NPCs before the game, then you probably shouldn’t be GMing D&D in the first place.

Monster Manual V does, however, pick up the pace. Dalmosh, the Abyssal caretaker of the Flesh Mountains, simply oozes coolness all over the page. Dragons of the Great Game and the Mind Flayers of Thoon (think illithids meet the Far Realm) are both very cool as well, if somewhat verbose. God-blooded Creatures aren’t too shabby, and neither are Shaedlings (aside from the pretentious spelling), Tirbanas or Ushemoi.

There are still some lame monsters in there, but they don’t dominate the book. Although there are some simple class-level adds, the designers showed a lot more restraint this time around, and they also held back on the Monster Manual III-style sample encounters.

Again, Monster Manual V doesn’t quite rank up there with Fiend Folio for sheer mace-to-the-head coolness, but at least it’s adequate. It feels like the designers put more effort in this time, and I’m happier with my cash expenditure as a result.

In short, if you’re only going to buy one of the later Monster Manuals, get Monster Manual V; sadly, Monster Manual IV is only really for completists like myself.