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Review of Monster Manual 3 by Wizards of the Coast

Why then, can one desire too much of a good thing?” ~ Rosalind (Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act IV)

It’s hard to believe!  Here we are just TWO YEARS into 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons and we already have a THIRD MONSTER MANUAL out on the store shelves!  Surprising?  You bet it is, particularly when you consider that there has never been a faster (and daresay, aggressive?) release schedule for “official” content in the history of Dungeons & Dragons.
MM3 cover art
It took TSR, the original creator of AD&D, 6 years from initial release to get three Monster Manuals out.  Admittedly, we only saw a Monster Manual II in that edition’s generation, as Fiend Folio was technically the second monster manual released.  And Second Edition never saw three monster manuals, managing to only publish one, the Monstrous Manual, during its 11 year run before Third Edition was released.  There were several short mini-monster manuals that came out during 2nd Edition, however, but none of them could truly be called a full-blown monster manual.

Now Third Edition had a fairly strong publishing schedule, churning out Monster Manual II just two years after initial release, a new Fiend Folio at three years, and finally Monster Manual III by the fourth year.  And Wizards of the Coast did not stop with Monster Manual III – they continued right along into Monster Manual IV at Year 6, and Monster Manual V at Year 7 of Third Edition.  Although, technically speaking, by Monster Manual III, WotC had converted 3rd Edition to 3.5, which meant MMIII was really the first monster manual in 3.5 – but who really wants to quibble over editions like that?

So here we are, with three official monster manuals, all released in the first two years of 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, which cannot help but beg the question: “Is this too much of a good thing?

Monster Manual 3
  • Authors:  Mike Mearls, Greg Bilsland, Robert J. Schwalb
  • Cover Illustrator: Jesper Ejsing
  • Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
  • Year: 2010
  • Media: Hardbound (224 pages)
  • Retail Cost: $34.95 ($20.97 from Amazon)

Monster Manual 3 is a book of 300 “new” official creatures for use with 4E Dungeons & Dragons.  The monsters range over every possible Ennounter Level of all three Tiers, and even include three “boss” monsters for the very highest levels of play: Imix (Level 32), Ogrémoch (Level 34), and Lolth (Level 35).  Each monster entry contains a wide range of descriptive information, lore, and possible encounter groups, as well as a completely refurbished statistic block, with a new “easy to use” format.
rotgrub attack
The Production Quality of Monster Manual 3 is exceptional, both in its layout and in design.  The book features an introductory section on how to use the new statistic block, including rules for handling such things as Resistences and Vulnerabilities, Power Effects and Aftereffects, and other important encounter concepts.  The artwork in Monster Manual 3 consists of older pieces which had previously appeared in earlier Monster Manual editions and other sourcebooks (i.e. Book of Vile Darkness), as well as a number of stunning brand new works which range from breathtaking to downright nauseating – i.e. Rotgrubs!  But the latter comment is meant in a “good” way, because after seeing the picture of a rotgrub attack in mid-progress, very few Dungeon Masters will be able to stifle a reflexive cringe when they drop a swarm of these voracious flesh-eating worms on their hapless adventurers.  Frankly, I was not offended that some previous artwork was reused from previous books in the new Monster Manual 3.  There was plenty of eye-popping illustrations in this manual, and the Authors did a fine job of mixing in some great old “eye-candy” to enhance their new release.

It should be noted that there are a number of new layout and content changes in this newest Monster Manual which differ considerably from the previous 4E releases.  The first and most important would have to be the aforementioned “new and improved” Statistic Block.  Without a doubt, it is a massive improvement from the previous statistic block format, with the monster’s traits, powers, and abilities organized into tidy sections.  This new level of organization is very logical, and really does make the new stat blocks “easy to use”.

The second noteworthy change is the presentation of the monsters’ non-stat block content.  While the Lore entry remains an integral part of the various creatures’ descriptions, each monster is introduced with a mini-short story, sometimes containing an adventure hook, and sometimes containing a bit of nostalgia.  The Cloaker introduction definitely fits the latter category, and will likely bring a smile, most likely grim, to the faces of veteran D&D Players:

A popular tale at the Black Dragon Inn recounts the death of Sticky Fingers Malone, a notorious rogue and thief.  A veteran spelunker and tomb robber, Sticky Fingers had the reputation for letting his companions do battle while he skulked about scooping up valuables.  Of course, eventually Sticky Fingers paid for his selfish behavior.

While delving in the Lost Caverns of the Tsojcanth, old Fingers spotted a rich leather cloak hanging from a peg.  While his allies fought off fire bats, Sticky Fingers plucked the cloak from the hook and threw it over his shoulders.  To his shock, the cloak came alive and enveloped him, killing Sticky Fingers before his allies could help.

Of course, the Lost Caverns of the Tsojcanth was the classic AD&D adventure where the cloaker made its debut, and many D&D gamers will remember that particular encounter from the famous adventure module.  Of course, LCotT’s Author, the late Gary Gygax, was a master of adapting creatures from all manner of fantasy and science-fiction stories, and the Cloaker is one of those DM-favored monsters which almost every Player has had an encounter with, in one Character incarnation or another.

[Editor’s Note: By the way, if you really want a good creepy Cloaker tale, go back to Fritz Leiber’s Fafrd & Grey Mouser short story The Sunken Land, which was almost certainly Mr. Gygax’s inspiration for the original beastie.]

Another big change to the monster entries in Monster Manual 3 was how the Authors dealt with sample encounters – there are none!  The “shopping list” sample encounters have been done away with in Monster Manual 3, and replaced with a short paragraph or two explaining to Dungeon Masters what other creatures are likely to team up with each monster, and the relationships they might have.  Wizards of the Coast released a sample of this sort of content with its June 11th excerpt, about the Rot Grub:


Rot grubs are too indiscriminate in the carnage they spread to have allies, but other creatures sometimes make use of them. Kobolds brave and stupid enough to hunt these creatures sometimes keep them in small, ceramic containers that they hurl at intruders.  Bugbears keep pits filled with rot grubs to dispose of corpses and make their traps more deadly.

I like this change, although admittedly, I may be in the minority.  By preference, I like to have some “fun facts” about the nature and habits of a monster, and then decide for myself what sort of encounter I want to create.  Sure, the pre-made sample encounters made things easier for new 4E Dungeon Masters, but it also stifled creativity to a certain extent.  Neophyte 4E still have two big monster manuals stuffed with ready-to-play sample encounters, and that’s plenty to work with to gain confidence in the art of Dungeon Mastering this latest edition of D&D.

And finally, before discussing the “good” and the “not-so-good” creature entries in Monster Manual 3, a word or two should be said about the Lore sections.  There is a ton of great information now in the Lore descriptions for each monster, and like the mini-short story introductions and the encounter write-ups, often has adventure hook and possible plot ideas which can be woven into an adventure or even into the entire campaign.  The Authors did not skimp on these sections, and some of the Lore sections are long, quite complex, and contain a lot of good reading.

So what kind of monsters are you going to find in Monster Manual 3?  Well, as was promised by Greg Bilsland and Mike Mearls in a number of pre-release articles, there’s a whole lot of “classic” D&D monsters re-envisioned for 4E.  Cloakers and rot grubs have already been mentioned, and these critters have certainly been around for quite a few years, but you can add to the list such worthies as shadows, mimics, intellect devourers, su-monsters, jackalweres, derro – frankly, the list of “old” monsters getting a “4E facelift” is too long to detail here.

And new Player races are also getting “monsterized”, and the Authors have included creature versions of shardminds, wilden, and minotaur, and given each monster type a wide range of roles to act as foes in encounters.  Even thri-kreen, which will be a new Player Race in the Dark Sun Setting, are given monster stat blocks for Heroic Level encounters, where they can be used in lurker, skirmisher, and controller roles.
Themed Monsters are also quite prevalent in Monster Manual 3, and the Authors made sure to include some creature sets which could be utilized in everything from a single adventure to a massive campaign arc.  There are new Chosen of Yeenoghu, cthonic followers of the primordial Ogrémoch and fire cultists of primordial ImixLolth has new Drow to worship Her, and Vecna got some new, rather bizarre adherents.  And speaking of Lolth – the entry for the Demon Queen of Spiders is accompanied by the infamous High Priestess Eclavdra, which some will remember “fondly” from Vault of the Drow adventure!

And for those wanting REALLY new monsters in their Monster Manual 3, there are a few of those as well.  The Authors introduce several new denizens to threaten heroes of all levels, such as the spying crystalline Nerra, various horrific Star Spawn (e.g. Emissaries of Caiphon), Catastrophic Dragons, and the power-hungry Forsaken.

Steady now, Readers.  We are not talking about the undead Forsaken from MMORPG World of Warcraft fame.  D&D 4E already gets plenty of flak from the “edition warriors” for being to MMO-like without the Authors making that gaff.  Instead, the Forsaken in the Monster Manual 3 are new monster race of quasi-immortals, born from the essences of dying gods during the Dawn War.  The fanatically seek to feed their craving for more god-power by plotting for ways to slay one or more of the remaining gods!

However, in speaking of WoW, I must admit I thought the Volcanic Catastrophic Dragon bears a bit too much of a resemblance to the Dragon Aspect Deathwing, the new big-bad-boss from the upcoming WoW expansion, CataclysmCatastrophicCataclysmic?  Well if you are going to borrow, borrow from a successful franchise.
cata cata
Still, I really do like a lot of the new monsters in MM3, save one -the Nagpa.  These gluttinous humanoid vultures might as well have been called skeksis (ala The Dark Crystal).  I can guarantee there would be shrill bird-like imitations of “after the gelfling” sounding from around my gaming table the moment I tried to use them in an encounter!

Overall Grade: A

All minor reservations aside, I cannot deny that the new Monster Manual 3 is one heck of a good sourcebook from Wizards of the Coast.  Not only do you get a ton of new monsters, with an updated and very user-friendly statistic block, but there is a wonderful nostalgia-factor of having so many old AD&D Monster Manual favorites updated to current 4E stats.

Some might argue, they do not need to buy this book, as their DDI Subscription will give them access to all the stat blocks in a few weeks.  While this is essentially true, what will be lost is the rich descriptions, monster Lore, and Encounter recommendations which are only accessible from owning a copy of Monster Manual 3.  The writing is sharp, and contains plenty of adventure hooks, which are needed to be able to use most of these monsters well and appropriately in an encounter -and frankly, some of the new monsters will be a complete mystery without the fluff text to make sense of them.  In the final analysis, Monster Manual 3 is a worthy addition to the growing line of official D&D 4E products, and should be high on every Dungeon Masters’ wish list of new books to pick up this summer.

So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!

Grade Card

  • Presentation: A
  • - Design: A
  • - Illustrations: A+
  • Content: A
  • - Crunch: A
  • - Fluff: A
  • Value: A

Illustrations courtesy of DDI Subscription and Wizards of the Coast, except Cataclysm Screen saver which is courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment.

About The Author

Michael is an Adept of a Secret Order of Dungeon Masters, and dwells in a hidden realm with his two evil cat-familiars, deep within the Vale of Wolverines, called by some "Michigan". He has been esoterically conjuring D&D Campaigns for nearly a Third of a Century, and has been known to cast ritual blogs concerning Dungeons & Dragons every few days with some regularity. Michael has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, and writes reviews of D&D and other Role-Playing Game products on EN World News.


16 Responses to “Review of Monster Manual 3 by Wizards of the Coast”

  1. Joseph says:

    Don’t forget that 2nd Edition had the Monstrous Compendiums instead of Monster Manuals, for many years. The first four (!) of them were released in 1989, and three more in 1990.
    .-= Joseph´s last blog ..d-infinity =-.

  2. anarkeith says:

    I picked this book up last week and have enjoyed it was well. However, I do have a concern about repurposed art. When the art reused is an established part of the traditional identity of a creature, I’m OK with it being reused. But, WotC do this a bit too much for my taste overall. (The following observation applies more to other situations where WotC have reused art.) When the artwork does not accurately reflect the text description I suspect WotC are cost-cutting, and for my money I’d like to see new art produced in these circumstances.
    .-= anarkeith´s last blog ..No Dice =-.

  3. Matt James says:

    Outstanding review. In depth and complete. I as well agree with your ratings. Keep up the good work!
    .-= Matt James´s last blog ..Five Things You Should Never Say to Your D&D Party =-.

  4. Dean says:

    Actually, the Nagpa is not a new monster, but was in fact a monster from the Expert D&D adventure: X4 Master of the Desert Nomads.

    Now, whether or not THAT incarnation was inspired by the Dark Crystal (which came out a year before X4 did)….

  5. @Dean – Learn something new every day – never played Expert, but I still think that the Nagpa has awful lot in common with the skeksis – in fact I noticed after posting the blog that the illustration of the nagpa has a small purplish dark crystal near his left foot.

    @Joseph – yes, but as I mentioned in my introduction, I didn’t consider the mini-soft bound books to be quite the same as a full blown hardbound book.

    @Anarkeith – I have to agree with your point there, but I didn’t see too many illustrations which did not match the monster descriptions. But as you point out, it has been a problem in other releases, and something to watch for when doing a review.

  6. Nerra are not new either. You can find them in 3e Fiend Folio.
    .-= Michael V. Drejer´s last blog ..maialideth: @RobertsonGames yeah, I’m not going to argue that anymore, I don’t have the head for it today. =-.

  7. @Michael – LOL maybe there were no new monsters afterall – just alot of remakes! Although the writeup for the Nerra in MM3 was very much in line with the “Secrets of the Astral Sea” cosmology, which is why I thought they were new content. Oh well.

  8. Dire Bare says:

    You may not want to “count” the various loose-leaf and softcover Monstrous Compendium Appendices as full-blown Monster Manuals, but the success of rapid release monster books started with late 2nd Edition, IMO. With over four loose-leaf, four “Annuals” and one to three more appendices per campaign setting, a complete 2nd Edition Monstrous Compendium would be freakin’ huge! Lots of monsters! Monster books during 3rd Edition, both official and third-party d20 books, seemed to always sell well, and I think that proved that gamers appetites for new monsters is tough to satiate! I think WotC could publish a full-blown hardcover MM every year during the lifetime of 4th Ed and not run into serious diminishing returns.

  9. Blacksteel says:

    Good review- I like to see some information like this before I buy a book.

    There were a lot of obscure beasties in those D&D Expert and later Compendium books. it’s funny that they are showing up more now.

    Old-school nitpick – 2nd edition monsters came in a 3-ring binder first, with those monstrous compendiums being packs of hole-punched sheets to add to the binder. It was only later that they switched to the bound hardback Monstrous Manual. Besides the MC packs the campaign settings also came with monster pages to add to your collection, From the Ashes and Forgotten Realms in particular.
    .-= Blacksteel´s last blog ..Necessary Evil – Session 7 – Other Peoples’ Hostages =-.

  10. Russ says:

    Cloakers actually first appeared in Secret of the Slavers’ Stockade (A2), not Lost Caverns.

  11. Billy says:

    Good review! A few minor corrections though:
    - Vecna’s “new, rather bizarre adherents” (the ‘enigma’ ones, at least) appeared in 2008’s H2: Thunderspire Labyrinth;
    - Star spawn (albeit different examples thereof) appeared in last year’s MM2;
    - In 3.5E, remember that Monster Manual III wasn’t really the first one. They revised MM I (and added quite a few monsters to it, as well). Additionally, 3E’s Fiend Folio was published just prior to 3.5E’s release, and includes a note saying that it’s intended to be compatible with 3.5E, so technically it could be considered one of the 3.5E Monster Manuals, too. This means that of the seven total Monster Manuals published during the 3E era, only MM II and the original version of MM I were incompatible with 3.5E.
    - I happen to like volcanic dragons. Thanks for ruining them for me. ;)
    Yeah, I’m nitpicking. Sorry. I really did like the review!

  12. A. Scott Bay says:

    The adventure hooks and encounter suggestions (rather than blocks of pre-built encounters) makes this sound like a potentially good buy. I skipped the MM2 and sold my MM1, so I hadn’t even considered MM3. At the very least I’m looking forward to evaluating it for myself. Thanks for the review!

  13. newbiedm says:

    Fantastic review.
    Rather than writing one myself, I’ll just link to yours! Well done!

  14. @newbiedm – Thanks, I appreciate the good word, and glad you liked it!

  15. [...] in closing, yes, the MM3 is a must have.  But why take my word for it?  Here’s a fantastic review from Neuroglyph Games. Tagged: 4e D&D, d&d, DM Tools, Gaming, review Posted in: 4e D&D, Gaming ← [...]

  16. [...] Neuroglyph has an excellent write up with a review and some concerns about Monster Manual 3 for 4th Edition D&D. Check it out right here. [...]

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