Nick Wanserski: Volo’s Guide To Monsters is the second supplemental rulebook published by Wizards Of The Coast for 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. A bestiary featuring new monsters and player character races, Volo’s Guide focuses on depth over breadth through detailed examination of the ecology, religion, and social hierarchy of select monsters. The book is written as a first-person account by longtime Dungeons & Dragons personality Volothamp Geddarm, a traveling scholar, semi-competent wizard, and shameless self-promoter. Danette, since you actually play 5th edition, is this book going to be helpful to your campaign?
Danette Chavez: Well, I appreciate that it’s not just a reference guide. I think I’ve mentioned in the past that I’m a lapsed player, but even when my DM brother was regularly holding court for us in our kitchen, I have to admit I was mystified by a lot of the particulars. Looking over the materials as an adult, I’m impressed that he could tell a cogent story so easily. I’m not sure I’m ready to launch my own campaign, but Volo’s Guide and all of the recent buzz around Dungeons & Dragons (yes, thanks to Stranger Things, but only in part) has certainly tempted me. There are tons of new or expanded stats—which are really just the bare bones—but there are also some truly elaborate entries (we’ll talk about them later, but: kobolds!) that can help new players execute a campaign from top to bottom, or from turret to dungeon, in the relevant parlance. I think it also delves deep enough to maintain the interest of those who have dozens of campaigns under their belts (regardless of which edition they’re playing). I forget—do you strictly play 3rd Edition?
NW: I’m playing Pathfinder, the unofficial D&D 3.75th edition. But I think you hit on it perfectly: What I’ve enjoyed about Volo’s is that it understands how role-playing game source books, at their best, serve two distinct purposes. As a direct campaign aid, it provides more mechanical ingredients like monsters, player characters, and treasure. Secondly it serves as an idle reading companion—something to flip through and explore and pick out the appealing ideas. Even without actively playing a 5th Edition campaign, there’s a lot in here that I will happily slice out and reassemble in my Frankenstein’s monster of a campaign.
DC: Yeah, it definitely invites the lookie-loo as much as the seasoned DM who’s trying to spice up a new adventure. There are the usual monsters, who get more in-depth backstories here. That’s followed by separate sections for beasties and, of course, character races, plus a couple of appendices. It feels familiar to me—I grew up playing 3rd Edition, but kind of dropped the habit as my siblings and I graduated high school and began to move away. 5th Edition has bridged the gap for me, but it probably helps that I have friends who have continued to play all these years.
NW: There is a comforting sameness to the format for sure, which traces all the way back to 1st Edition. It’s a common joke about role-playing aficionados that the whole complexity of human behavior gets reduced down to a series of charts. Volo’s Guide has an emphasis on expanding and drilling down on familiar character races, making that quality abundant here. I’m torn between appreciation and befuddlement that an entire section on ideas for role-playing a hag culminates with a d6 chart on “Hag Flaws.” I rolled a 6. I cannot resist a clever riddle.
DC: You’re right about the prevalence of that joke, which is also a misconception, right? The charts should facilitate play, but sometimes you just get someone who’s a stickler for these drilled-down facts. And yet, I’m far more used to people focusing on the storytelling aspect of the game.
NW: Yeah, it’s the rare game master who would actually adhere to these in a strenuous way. The format is formality, or at best, a time saver if you’re pulling something together on the fly and need some quick structure. So while I joke, I am grateful that the book has provided such a thoughtful look at its own monsters. Especially such staples as orcs, goblins, and kobolds that often get lumped together as a dull monolith. You know, antagonists A, B, and C. By dedicating a section in monster lore to kobold communities, for instance—featuring such cool things as a full-page kobold layer map, then dedicating a part of the bestiary to specialized kobold characters like the inventor, or dragonshield—it provides a lot of personality to an otherwise easily forgettable monster.
DC: For some reason, I always liked kobolds. I think it’s because I thought they looked like dogs. But whatever the reason, I was happy to see them get their due. The new info goes beyond the more commonly known characteristics like cowardice to include a mythology and several gorgeous illustrations. And we have a greater understanding of why they hate gnomes, which again, can only help to enliven what’s perhaps the lowest-tech of games.
Going back to what you said about the monster manual’s history, Volo has his own tradition of publishing supplements to previous manuals, in addition to the Fiend Folios that accompanied them. I’d heard of them, but never picked one up before. All my D&D materials have come to me by way of family members or friends who were recently seized by the Kondo effect, and they didn’t include anything like Volo’s Guide To All Things Magical, or Lands Unfamiliar. We could probably never have too much info in this game, but there’s something about getting this insight from a fellow adventurer that makes it even more appealing. Having an insider provide you with the info makes it appear more viable, but given what we know about the “author,” it also becomes more questionable. Wizards Of The Coast really steers into the skid by having Volo bicker with another well-known Forgotten Realms character, Elminster Aumar.
So how helpful can these books be, both in and out of the game? That is, we know Volo isn’t a reliable narrator, but does that extend to any of the stats? Or is that just “color”?
NW: “House rules” is such an ubiquitous concept with pen and paper games. You’re always tweaking little things in response to how you actually play, or have time for, or enjoy. I think having this information come from an unreliable narrator, as you so perfectly framed it, is a good way to sanctify these house rules. The dungeon master can further adapt the monster behaviors or abilities as they see fit and simply claim Volo gathered from too small a sample source to get a correct assessment, assuming the dungeon master feels the need to justify changes at all. Because ultimately, I think the best benefit of a source book like this is it gets the brain going and really allows you to imagine even more intricate or unique monster ecologies.
What are your thoughts on the illustration? I’m ridiculously hyper-critical of fantasy art, to the annoyance of those who play with me. And while Wizards Of The Coast displays a very high base line of technical competency for all its illustrations, very little of it is evocative or attention-grabbing to me. This isn’t specific to Volo’s, but I wish more publishers would start crediting artists underneath the interior illustrations. They’re listed at the beginning of the book, but I like to easily identify who did what. I do very much like the books cover. I like the dramatic lighting and sense of scale reinforced by the tight perspective. The brushstrokes are a little more gestural and impressionistic as well, which is a nice change from the kind of digital fuzz a lot of the interior work disappears under. But of course, this is incredibly subjective.
DC: I’m afraid I’m a terrible artist, so my reactions to the illustrations are really just “Wow, scary!” or “Gorgeous!” Which is all to say that I’m not sure I’d recognize all the elements of an established form, let alone a shift away from them. But does there need to be, I wonder?
In any case, the artwork clears the same bar as ever, which was, as you’ve noted, set by previous monster manuals, field guides, etc. I like to think of Wizard’s stable of talented artists—including Tyler Jacobson, who did the cover—as police sketch artists sometimes. You know, because they’re trying to match the descriptions provided by someone else. They’re very detailed descriptions, which make just perusing the manuals and supplemental guides such fun even without playing. And they’ve been brought to 2-D life as reliably as ever here. There are a few surprises, like the maps and lair layouts, which are all very cool.
There’s also that variant cover provided by Hydro74, which was only available in a limited pressing. At a D&D event at The Meltdown in Los Angeles, I got to see the illustration up close—and in red paint. It’s so striking, and I think represents a departure from the “house style.” My first thought was Cthulhu, of course, but what did you think?
NW: I’m especially into Hydro74’s alternate cover, which is a two-tone black and gray illustration of a Mind Flayer against a patterned background. It’s evocative of the early days of Dungeons & Dragons pen and ink interior illustrations found in books like the original Fiend Folio. They weren’t nearly as polished as the contemporary art, but had an earnest strangeness that I tend to get sentimental about. Trends in contemporary fantasy illustration tend to focus on manufacturing a realistic physiology for these creatures, like how a shoulder joint for a second set of arms will rest against a torso. It’s a cool little visual puzzle to solve, but in the case of something like the Beholder sub-types listed here—which are apparently created from each other’s dreams—it’s like, go nuts, man. Get super goofy with it.
That tangent notwithstanding, the illustrations aren’t the only visual element worth mentioning. The layout is clean, with a slight paper texture and dramatic, but legible font. Information is highlighted for easy reference. There aren’t any surprises—the layout, like the illustrations, is kind of the standard for fantasy role-playing games from the last decade, but it feels warm and inviting to flip through, without sacrificing clarity. Has anything else jumped out at you that we haven’t touched on yet? And if you were to make a character from the races introduced in here, what would it be?
DC: Well, we haven’t talked about the giant needle in the haystack—namely, giants. They came back with a vengeance—and rune magic—in Storm King’s Thunder, the newest D&D adventure. Not sure if you’ve had the chance to play that yet, but if not, I think you’d like it. It’s really easy to navigate, thanks to the inclusion of rosters and omission of if-thens. In fact, I’d probably recommend it more for its ease of use than innovation. Volo’s Guide has a refresher on these behemoths, who you can actually invite into your game (but only as NPCs). I was really hoping there would be some kind of giant-naming chart—as in, something you use to create your giant name, not just an oversized graphic—but, alas, that only applies to the Yuan-ti, who are also back in the spotlight. This was an exciting development for a friend of mine, but I never knew much about them, having never really encountered any (that I can recall). You can role-play one, but I’d rather play a tabaxi or aasimar. I mean, come on—a cat person or someone descended from ethereal beings? They just strike me as being much more fun than a human-eating snake, or human-snake hybrid eater of humans and snakes, or other human-snake hybrids. Which newly available race would you play?
NW: As a person who enjoys role-playing, in part, for the chance to be unequivocally good in a way that’s difficult to embody in real life, I understand the appeal for playing an aasimar. And the tabaxi, who view money as a mere tool to be used in finding the real treasure—a good story—is a great character trait. In fact, I give the writers credit for crafting really compelling narratives around all the races. The kenku are crow-people who I wouldn’t normally be super excited about. But presented here as a tribe living under a curse that cost them their wings, their voice, and their creativity paints an evocative picture that would be fun to explore as a character. As for giants, what Volo’s lacks in name charts, it makes up for in some really interesting giant classes. Frost giants who have become mutated berserkers through a profane ritual of troll-eating, and Storm Giants who stave off death by becoming acts of nature, are just two of the clever alternatives to standard giant-type stat-blocks. Which brings me back to my earlier point: I’m enjoying Volo’s more for the ideas introduced than the mechanical aspect. As nice as a larger bestiary is, or playable character races are, the concepts are what gets me excited to meet back up with my friends and roll some dice.
DC: The idea of being categorically good in the face of seemingly insurmountable evil is probably just going to become more appealing now that we have an idea of what we’re in for over the next four years. Who knows, maybe the election will do more for Dungeons & Dragons than Stranger Things did!
Jokes aside, I’m glad we found some common ground over Volo’s Guide, since it seems like we have very different D&D experiences. Also, it’s pretty obvious that you need to make your way to Chicago to join the rest of the AVC in a campaign against the deplorable Trumpzilla.