A Tale of Two Monster Manuals — 1977 AD&D and 2014 5e D&D

Reading Time: 10 minutes

Released in 1977, the AD&D Monster Manual was one of the most recognizable RPG books with two-thirds of its front cover filled with a red dragon, a unicorn and centaur… and even stranger creatures in the subterranean realm making up the lower third of the front cover. My players usually dreaded seeing me pull the thin book out because it usually signified a special monster encounter versus one of the more common types (skeleton, orc, kobold, etc.) with easy to remember statistics. With over 350 monsters to choose from, there was always an opportunity to introduce players to a new nasty. Unfortunately, most players I knew owned a copy, and it made it sometimes difficult to pull surprises — as a DM, I’d often describe a creature’s appearance if I didn’t expect the low level characters had encountered one, but sometimes a player would still recognize it.

There may have been earlier advertisements for the MM, but the earliest I can find is this December 1977 advertisement from Dragon magazine shown below.

Dragon ad - MM

At $9.95, it was considered a supplement to the D&D rules and the first book released in the AD&D trilogy that included the Players Handbook (1978) and the Dungeon Masters Guide (1979). (Yes, the possessive apostrophes were missing in both books.) The book’s interior content was black-and-white only and consisted of a mix of creature images from a small group of artists with varying styles. Some creatures were extremely intricate (such as the Lizard Man, page 62) while others were almost too cartoonish (such as Larva, page 59) to take seriously.

All monsters came with a statistics column followed by a paragraph or two of descriptive text — a few monsters, such as dragons and giants, came with lengthier details while others such as the Axe Beak consisted of 2-3 sentences. Monsters did not have the six Ability Scores (Str, Dex, Con, Int, Wis, Cha) but the stats column did provide help for DMs by providing details such as Treasure Type (a letter that corresponded to a table in the back of the MM that provided gold/silver/magic item distributions), AC, damage per attack, and a number stating how many of a creature would typically appear together. Details about magic and special abilities would be found in the text description. One bit of info, however, was not to be found — XP. Instead of XP, the experience earned for defeating a monster was based on its hit dice. A monster’s stat column did include the number of hit dice, but the DMG was needed because a table titled Experience Point Value of Monsters (page 85) was needed. This gave you a base XP along with bonus XP to add for special abilities and exceptional abilities. This was typical of AD&D — lots of charts for a DM to consult for something that (IMO) should have been included in the MM.

Original AD&D Monster Manual Stat Block

Still, the Monster Manual was a fun and useful book. I remember having it confiscated in 7th or 8th grade (memory fails me here) and being told to never bring it to school again. Yeah, right. Reading my AD&D books (and Dragon magazine) probably did more to keep me out of trouble than any other activities, not to mention giving me some exceptional reading skills and helping increase my reading speed.

Note: It was my parents who provided me with the DMG, but I purchased the MM all on my own. My parents fully supported me playing AD&D and even though they didn’t understand much of it, they never freaked or prohibited me from enjoying the game. I think back and laugh at all the hysteria and craziness that D&D faced in the early 80s. My parents were a bit more understanding and able to distinguish fiction from reality, and they trusted me. Thanks, Mom and Dad.

AD&D MM Cover

I enjoyed being a DM for my friends, and I’m looking forward to taking the reins again. The Monster Manual was a great source of inspiration for many adventures — I’d pick the right Big Bad, create a dungeon or castle or other location, and then scatter lesser creatures around as needed. When I reached for the MM, my players knew something was coming… or around the corner… or hidden just beneath the water’s surface. The DMG and MM were all I needed (plus a few hours or more of prep time) to give my players a good adventure, and now it’s looking like I’m going to once again have a chance to create new adventures as the 5th edition books are two-thirds released. My original AD&D Monster Manual has sat proudly on my shelf, and now it has a neighbor… the new 5th edition D&D Monster Manual.

Side by Side

First, look at that cover. I’d have lunch with any of those creatures on the cover of the 1977 Monster Manual before I’d set foot in a room with that beholder.  The ol’ Owlbear looks downright cuddly, doesn’t it?

That beholder on the cover is a great place to start when discussing the 5th edition Monster Manual (5eMM) and its layout and presentation. With the original MM, the Beholder received one-quarter of a page for its stats and text. The 5eMM Beholder? Almost three full pages! The new 5eMM consists of 352 pages… 3x the original MM. And Wizards of the Coast has over 400 monsters packed into these pages. More pages (and not that many more creatures than the original MM) means much more detail for the included monsters. Many monsters such as dragons, giants, genies, golems, and lycanthropes cover four or five pages… sometimes more. Large sections like these contain individual creatures (such as Young Blue Dragon, Adult Blue Dragon, and Ancient Blue Dragon, for example) but also contain background information for the DM to assist with “understanding” a family of creatures. Details to be found can include information on a creature’s lair, its demeanor, and even some history of its race. Special powers are provided, matching details such as Feats found in the new 5e Player’s Handbook. Understanding the difference in giants and how they came about (as well as how they will interact) is enjoyable to read, but also quite helpful when thinking about options for adventure design. A number of creature sections even include suggestions for playing them — an example would be a player bitten by a weartiger and how the curse would affect attributes as well as alignment issues.

One step down from these lengthy detailed creature categories are those single creatures that get a full page or more. Examples include two of my favorites — the Lich and Mind Flayer. These creatures are fleshed out a bit more with details about their origin and how they might be used in an encounter. For the Mind Flayer, for example, not only are its “dietary” needs explained but also its behavior when when it runs into a strong party. These more detailed unique creature write-ups often come with additional sidebars that provide variants. The Mind Flayer comes with a spell-casting version and the Lich offers up details on how a player could feasibly pursue this cursed existence, but it also offers up background on the Lich’s lair and the special magical abilities it offers (again, similar to Feats).

Speaking of lairs, many major creatures in the 5eMM come with details on how DMs can manage their lairs. One interesting concept that’s blended in with the concept of a living, breathing lair involves a creature’s Regional Effects. These sections provide DMs with help in surrounding the Big Bad with lesser creatures but also offers up variations such as weather control (with the Kraken, for example) or illusory effects such as sounds or smells. Did you know that an ancient red dragon’s lair can cause small earthquakes within six miles of the lair? And players are going to get really creeped out around a vampire’s lair with all the fog and the slightly noticeable increase in rats and wolves.

No matter whether you’re looking at a big bad like a Death Slaad or a minor nuisance like a Skeleton, one of the things I most appreciate with the new 5eMM is the consistency of creature stats and combat info. Unlike the original MM, all creatures in the 5eMM are provided with the six standard Ability Scores… including modifiers. The basics are still there — AC, Hit Points (not Hit Dice), and Speed, along with vulnerabilities, immunities, languages, and senses. Each creature also comes with a Challenge Rating — this ranges from 0 to 30. XP is derived from the Challenge value using one simple chart on page 9 of the 5eMM. I also like how the Challenge Rating is explained in terms of party level. While there may still be a little voodoo involved with properly balancing a creature versus party, the basic idea is that a four-member party should be able to handle a creature with a Challenge value equal to the party’s level average. Four level 6 heroes should be able to take on a single creature of Challenge 6. I’ve used the word “should” twice now… keep that in mind.

Note: Wizards of the Coast has a link now where you can download a PDF that organizes the creatures by Challenge value. At first I wondered why this wasn’t included in the 5eMM, but it makes sense that it should be in the 5eDMG (and as I understand it, it will be) and not duplicated in the 5eMM.

Actions and Legendary Actions are also provided in a creature’s stat block. These contain quick-read details for DMs on the special abilities of a creature. Stats, Ability Scores, Challenge value, Actions, and more are all included in a simple sidebar/box that will make it fast and easy for DMs to find what he or she needs. You can check out an example of how the new 5eMM is designed by downloading the Kobold sample page here. I’m including a screen grab of the stat block below as an example of how the information for all creatures is displayed.

New 5e Monster Manual Stat Block – Kobold

Note: Not all DMs use them, but I’m a big believer in digital. For that reason, snapping a photo of various creature’s stat blocks and storing them on a tablet will make my job so much easier than thumbing through the 5eMM. I’ll probably have my game notes displayed on my laptop and use my tablet (as a 2nd display using the iDisplay app) to hold creature stat blocks and maps that I can move between with a simple swipe of the screen.

Looking at the 5eMM as a whole, it’s a beautiful book. The page layouts consist of colors and fonts that aren’t obnoxious or distracting, and the pages don’t feel cramped. The use of sidebars (boxes) to break out unique information is nice but not overly used. Scattered here and there are small slips of paper with quotes and other random musings involving many of the creatures… some are fun to read (but not comical) and others contain eye-opening and thought provoking statements. Be on the lookout for my favorites that include pithy sayings by X the Mystic and his/her Rules of Dungeon Survival.

I’m not 100% familiar with every monster ever created for D&D, so I have no real way of pointing at a creature in the book and saying it’s completely new… but probably over 25% of the creatures found in this 5eMM are new to me. The Slaadi are decidedly creepy, and I was forming a lot of ideas in my head as I read the descriptions of these creatures — the Death Slaad (page 278) is so frightening with its shape changing ability that it just screams “pick me!” More familiar creatures, however, have been given new life (so to speak) with their updated imagery — the Wraith and Wight have been around for a long time, but their new images have reminded me just how terrifying they can be in the right DM’s hands. (Even the Oozes — Black Pudding, Gelatinous Cube, Gray Ooze, and Ochre Jelly — demand new respect after reading the lengthier background details on that nasty family.)

The book is finished up with Appendix A that contains “normal” creatures such as wildlife and other familiar predators (Winter Wolf and Lion are examples). And Appendix B provides stats on NPCs — specifically those that bandits, cultists, gladiators, priests, and more. Just like the other creatures in the book, these are all given the same stat blocks but with briefer descriptions.

As with the 5e Player’s Handbook, I am quite impressed with the work put into this new Monster Manual. WotC definitely put a lot of thought into the right mix of creatures to include — after finishing the book (yeah, I read it cover to cover — took a few days) I cannot point to a single inclusion that doesn’t make sense. Combine the selected creatures with the amazing artwork and what appears to be some well-balanced stats and Challenge values, and I believe that DMs are going to find the new MM not just handy for running encounters but also for generating plenty of adventure ideas.

First the 5e Player’s Handbook was released… and now the 5e Monster Manual. Of course, I’m counting the days until the 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide hits the shelves. The recent news that WotC wants a few more weeks to polish the third book and give it another review (tentative release date is now Nov 28, 2014 for certain WotC resellers and Dec 9 for all others)… that doesn’t bother me one bit. Given that the DMG will be the book I use most once I start back as a DM (right now I’m only playing, not DMing, with the Adventurers League and the Encounters sessions) I’m happy to hear that WotC is listening to feedback from the release of the Player’s Handbook (and probably the MM) and maybe doing some minor tweaking.

This new look and feel of the 5e rules for both players and creatures has won me over, and I’ve not yet even seen the book that will probably be my primary resource. I want less grind, more fun… and based on what I’ve seen so far in the PH and MM, I cannot imagine the DMG drifting too far from this same format and the ease of both reading and implementation.

Best of luck, WotC, with the upcoming release of the new Dungeon Master’s Guide… and nice job with the new Monster Manual and Player’s Handbook. You’re on a roll…


Read my thoughts on the 1978 PH and the new 5e PH.

Read my thoughts on the 1970s/80s D&D Basic Set and the 2014 D&D Starter Set.

My adventure reports for D&D Encounters
Session 1Session 2Session 3Session 4Session 5

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