Lately it seems “Let’s Read” threads of various D&D books are becoming quite popular over on, so I though I would get in on the action, starting with the first Monster Manual for Fourth Edition. And after thinking about it for a while longer, I became convinced that you can’t discuss the first Monster Manual anymore without also looking at the Monster Vault.

Fourth Edition is one of my favorite editions of D&D1, even though it doesn’t get much love from the general public these days. So I’m going to write these posts assuming that the reader doesn’t have a lot of familiarity with that edition. This means we’ll start with a basic explanation of Fourth Edition’s philosophy on monsters.

One of 4e’s design goals, particularly in its early days, was a focus on gameable content. That means that every monster in the Monster Manual has to be something you can potentially fight. As a result, there are no harmless “fantasy wildlife” entries here, and almost no “always Good” monsters. In fact, some creatures that used to be “Always Good” in previous editions have been made more morally flexible, to increase the chance that Good-aligned adventurers might come into conflict with one. Harmless or always-Good creatures still exist, of course, but the thinking here is that if it’s not something you’re going to fight, it doesn’t need a full stat block. This is one of the things that got edition warriors in a tizzy, but I kinda liked it.

The space saved from this is used to present you with several different stat blocks for each entry. There is no “generic kobold”, for example, but rather a mix of them built for different purposes so that you can design all-kobold encounters with interesting tactical situations. They’ll still all feel like kobolds, though, because all of them are going to have a few “signature” traits that are common to all kobolds.

This brings up another major “philosophical” difference between this edition and others, in that you’re pretty much never expected to fight any given monster by itself. The CR system from Third and Fifth kinda leads you to think that way2, but here it’s a little easier to keep in mind that an “encounter” is a group of monsters with complementary abilities. Combat is a team sport!

Having said all that, I should point out a few bugs in the system that will be particularly relevant for this Let’s Read. Fourth Edition’s monster design system3 was a little miscalibrated up until the release of the Monster Manual 3. The main issue is that monster damage was too low, particularly for high-level monsters. Elites and Solos also had defenses that were a bit too high, which could extend combats past the point where they stopped being fun. Since we’re reading the very first Monster Manual, every single monster is going to have this problem, so I’m not going to mention it in each individual entry.

That’s where the Monster Vault comes in. It was released a couple of years after the first MM, as part of the D&D Essentials line4, and it basically updated all the most popular monsters from the early books to the new math. Presentation-wise, it featured improved stat-blocks that were easier to read at a glance along with larger and better-organized lore entries for each monster. The idea here was that if you were starting out with the Essentials books, you could get the Vault and skip the older monster books, and if you already had those you could buy the Vault as an update.

I’m going to read both of them in parallel! Whenever a monster features in both books, I’ll compare them and talk about the differences. Otherwise, I’m just going to discuss the monster as presented, but will kinda assume you’re going to apply the necessary fixes if you use any MM-only monster.

By the way, this is a list of quick fixes you can make to bring early monsters more or less in line with the “new monster math”:

  • Add +1/2 level to all of their rolled damage (so a level 10 or 11 monster would get +5 damage to all of its attacks).

  • Add +2 to all attacks for Brutes.

  • Reduce all defenses for Elite and Solo monsters by 2.

The first fix is courtesy of this Blog of Holding post, which also presents another, unofficial fix proposed by players who still think the resulting combats are too long: reduce base monster HP by 3 times the monster’s level. So a level 10 regular would have 30 fewer HP, an elite 60 fewer, and a solo 120 fewer.

And that’s all for the introduction. Tune in next time for our first baddie, the venerable Aboleth!

  1. My favorite edition of D&D, as I’ve written before, is GURPS Dungeon Fantasy. 

  2. Though obviously it allows you to design encounters against larger groups. It’s just less intuitive about it. 

  3. I feel it’s the best monster building system out of all editions of D&D. I would be glad to elaborate on this on a separate post. 

  4. Essentials was almost, but not entirely unlike a “D&D 4.5”. All of its books are still compatible with the originals, but follow some different design principles.