The 4th Edition Monster Manual rocks! I’ve seen some complaints from other reviewers but I’m saying right now that I love it. Like the PHB the Monster Manual cuts out the chaff, leaving a non-nonsense affair full of crunchy monster goodness. If you were to take the AD&D Monstrous Manual strip away the lengthy fluff descriptions and replace the remaining whitespace with actual monster stats you’d get what we have here.
As a result, this book is exactly what it says it is. A book of monsters. Between this and the PHB we begin to see the overall design philosophy that guided the content for each of these books. The PHB is the main book, it has all the rules on how to play at all levels of play (in 3.x rules were split between the PHB and the DMG). The Monster Manual is a toolbox for DMs, a bag of tricks if you will, with the additional benefit of providing some optional races for PCs. Last the DMG is the book about the game; the nuts and bolts of design and implementation and some general D&D philosophy to aid newer players in crafting their own personal play style.
What does that mean for this book in particular? Well how about this: want to make a monster? Too bad! Not in here buddy. While the book has a glossary defining certain terms it doesn’t have info on advancing monsters, or creating new ones. This is a manual of monsters pure and simple. That other stuff, being the province of the Dungeon Master, is by necessity in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. To that I say amen! Even the glossary is pared down to a bare minimum. Where the 3.5 glossary read like a chapter in and of itself, with lengthy descriptions of types and sub-types and other nebulous things, the 4e glossary reads like…well…a glossary. Short sentences define each term with no lengthy descriptions cluttering up the page space.
I’d have to look a bit closer but it looks to me like WotC did there best to never split a monster over two pages that weren’t both facing. This is a huge boon as it means not having to flip a page to read the same stat block/ability. The concise, easy to read stat block for 4e also helps in this. Even complex monsters like Big T (a.k.a the tarrasque) and dragons take something like 3/4 a page length in their the eldest, and therefore most complex, variant. True to their promise 4e contains fully statted dragons of each age level for the 5 chromatic colors (no metallics here); a huge welcome change from all the build-a-dragons in 3.x.
Like classes from the PHB all monsters fill a specific role. They don’t use the same striker, controller, leader, defender breakdown that PC classes but each typically are an analog of one the forementioned roles. Monster roles include artillery (ranged combatants), brutes (big beefy hitters), controllers (buff other enemies), and soldiers (front line fighters with a high defense and decent attacks. There are other roles as well like the skirmisher and the lurker each of which seems to play with striker PC role if different ways. One of my favorite abilities of a lurker (the exact monster escape me at the moment) is a garotte wire that lets the monster make a grab to start strangling a PC, maintaining the grab without the PC escaping for several rounds automatically drops the PC to 0 hp. The same monster has additional ability that lets it use the grabbed PC as a body shied! Absolutely fun, devious stuff for a DM to use; maybe not against the beefy fighter, but an unsupecting Wizard? Ouch.
There are two meta-roles: the minion and the solo monster. All minions have 1 hp and deal a flat number of damage (no rolling), they’re designed to keep PCs occupies while remaining at least a marginal threat. They’re a cool concept designed to make even low-level PCs feel powerful. Solo beasties, like dragons, defy the general encounter principle of equal or higher monster to PC ratio by pitting the PCs against a single opponent. Solo opponents are fun and pretty brutal; as anyone who played in the White Dragon encounter on Game Day can attest.
This is another great edition to Fourth Edition that cleans up the sprawl of the previous edition. It does come at the cost of fluff, which I admit I do miss, but the greater gain in terms of mechanical depth is well worth that loss. This book has some recycled art which I think is kind of dumb; especially when it’s old art for the iconic drow; come on Wizards! You really telling me you couldn’t spring for another piece of drow art? There has to be tons of better art laying around the office that could have been used in place of the 3.x drow warrior art! A minor complaint, but a silly design choice given the overhaul of the system at large. If you plan on DMing, or want a leg up on your potential opponents, than pick up this puck and take a look.