Review – Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes
Wizards of the Coast continue their current run of guides as penned by some of their historical giants. Volo, Xanathar are names you might not know if you’re only familiar with the core rule books, but Mordenkainen should be a name familiar to even those with a passing knowledge. You might recall Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Mansion, Mordenkainen’s Sword, or Mordenkainen’s faithful hound, or even his Magnificent Emporium if you got into 4e in the same way I did (still some interesting magic items in there by the way, worth a read for the ideas).
Scattered with his rather ominous notes, the Tome of Foes discusses some of the greater conflicts in D&D history, the parties involved, and what horrors lurk beyond the world, awaiting those who would dare rise to the challenge. My copy arrived last week, here’s what I thought…
Monster Manual Plus
Volo’s Guide delved deep into some classic monsters, discussing their ecology, habits, their beliefs and their gods, and how these things shape and change them, offering variety and complexity and new ways to approach the same old monsters. It really felt like something new, some grand new approach to the monsters of the monster manual and ways in which they might be used to build campaigns.
Mordenkainen tries to do the same, although I found it a little less charming than Volo’s Guide. It resurrects a few classics, brings a few new concepts to the table, and even reshapes a few of the old favourites into something more terrifying for high level players to face. Take the Marut for example, an entity born of the plane of law and order, Mechanus, granted a single attribute that makes it truly outstanding compared to previous iterations. The Marut does not need to roll to hit. A creature who comprehends the fundamental forces at play in any situation simply decides that you are being hit! How delightfully sadistic.
Nestled into the second half of the book there is some excellent shadowfell content like the Sorrowsworn, Meazels, and I’m very glad to see the return of the Shadar-Kai, an old favourite of mine. Star Spawn and Oblex flesh out the ranks of the Far Realm and the horrors that wait beyond, the Oblex being created by a Make-A-Wish sponsored child and a terrifying new prospect for early campaigns.
If I may air one grievance it must be with the page of ogres. Swapping the weapons does not make for an interesting entry into books like these, even if those weapons do offer some interesting alternative tactics. The idea of putting a howdah on the back for goblins to sit on is yet further proof of the microphones you installed in my teeth Hasbro, I shan’t have my ideas stolen in my sleep.*
On the bright side, gun wielding hippos and turtlefolk…
Devils, demons, and elementals get a collection of greater terrors from beyond the level-cap, a classically questionable decision, as many folk aren’t so keen on giving gods an armour class and a pool of hit-points, but there’s no denying that these are some nightmarish obstacles to face, so if your grand finale simply must end in the blood of an ancient entity then have at it. This book is designed to give the level 15s something to chew on, after all.
The second half of the book, in which we find the Monster Manual style gathering of stat blocks is well worth a leaf through to find a few surprises. It is the first half I found a little dry. It reads more like a history book in so many ways, more involved in telling a story than encouraging and developing stories of our own.
The Blood War outlines both sides of the ongoing feud between the chaotic hordes of demons against the regimented and disciplined ranks of devils. It addresses the major players, their roles in the war, the influence they exert on their inferiors and the power they exert over mortals. There’s the story of the Gith, the former slaves of mind-flayers who divided under two different leaders after their insurrection and became to distinct races.
Then there are the chapters about some of the major playable races, elves, dwarves, halflings and gnomes, and their many variants like Drow, Eladrin, Deurgar, and Svirfneblin. We take a thorough look into their histories, lifespans, their wars, enemies, and gods, and what might call each to adventure, adding a few subraces here and there to lend a little diversity.
And yet I find so little inspiration there. Instead of wanting to pull ideas and concepts straight from the page and twist them to fit my own worlds, I find the content stifling. Maybe it’s because I know the stories already, too long spent pouring over wikis and Monster Manuals and the like, or maybe it’s because I have surpassed the need for such supportive content. But otherwise I’m left with a moderately sized catalogue of new creatures.
So far I have found plenty of diversity in the guides released by the Wizards team. Volo’s guide had all of the above along with some new player races. Xanathar’s Guide – still my least favourite I might add – came with a nice little bundle of spells and some nice ideas on character building, and I’m sure I’ll end up using the random name tables at some point.
Here is where I think Mordenkainen’s Tome has missed a trick. Where is the catalogue of dwarven and gith artifacts and weapons? Where are the unique elven and gnomish spells? Devils and demons of the blood war got some of the more interesting content in the advice on cult building and diversifying your tieflings, alongside the archdevils and demons in the second half, but that’s about as interesting as it gets for DMs or players.
Essentially the Tome of Foes is a Monster Manual with a story book attached. It’s interesting, sure, especially if you’re one of the horde of players new to the game with the dawn of a new edition and the wave of overdue popularity, but seasoned dungeon masters I would probably advise skipping this one unless you have the cash to spare, or if you’re finding your higher level players incredibly hard to challenge in 5e.
*And besides, my goblins had bolted chains in the back of their ogres for them to hold on to. Seeing the old scar tissue overgrowing a heavy iron bolt made my party squirm way more than your pretty basket ever could.