So this is what forty years of monsters looks like.
All told, I’ve been lucky enough to work on four of these books, including the 5th Edition Monster Manual on the far right, just delivered Friday into my trembling hands by my FedEx guy. (Yeah, I have “a” FedEx guy. I live in a very small city.)
Of the larger mass of titles in this collection that I wasn’t privileged enough to work on, I’ve read them all, starting with the AD&D Monster Manual in 1981 and with the AD&D Fiend Folio not far behind. And here’s why I like the underlying concept of the Monster Manual (by that name or any other of the many variant names of the many excellent creature books that have become part of the extended reality of the D&D game), and why it was such an enormous kick to be asked to edit the 5e MM:
Any good monster book actually needs to be two books in one, depending on who you are when you’re reading it. And for an editor, that’s a major challenge.
The second time you read a Monster Manual, it’s a reference book. It’s backstory and plot points, mechanics and numbers that can all be crunched in pursuit of the game. It’s cool art, and interesting campaign hooks, and “Holy frak, the players will never see that coming!” moments of devious epiphany.
But that’s only the second time you read it. Because the first time you read a Monster Manual, it’s the book that tells the story of the world of the game.
If you’re playing D&D, the Monster Manual is the book that really and truly brings the world of the game to life. If you’re playing D&D, the Monster Manual is the book that carries you into that world one page, one stat block, one alphabetical entry at a time. And most importantly, if you’re playing D&D, the Monster Manual — not the Dungeon Master’s Guide — is the book that ultimately convinces you to cross the table and start running games rather than just playing in them.
Once you’ve made that decision, the Dungeon Master’s Guide becomes the next book you buy and your primary resource for helping to shape and hone the world of your games. And just as with the Monster Manual, there have been many different versions of the Dungeon Master’s Guide that have been really freaking cool in their own ways. (Aside: I’ve read the 5e DMG, and it’s really freaking cool.)
But the DMG is a book you dig into only after you’ve made the decision to run a game — most often because the Monster Manual was the book that first made you say: “It’s not enough to just read this… I need to make it real.”
The work that’s gone into the 5th Edition Monster Manual — even with me coming late to the game and maintaining the periphal perspective on the project that is the editor’s lot — is amazing. The long list of people who worked on this book have a lot to be proud of. But what I’m most proud of for my own minimal contribution to the work is that somewhere out there, there’s a player who’s going to read this book, and who’s going to take its remarkable mix of fantasy world-building and mythology and mechanics and wonder and be inspired to make it real.
And I know what that’s going to feel like, because that’s what happened to me back in 1981. And I’ve been working to make the mythology and the wonder real ever since.