Back to pencil and paper gaming (D&D 4E Monster Manual Impressions)

On a drunken tangent I decided to order the latest Dungeons and Dragons rules, along with a handful of supplements. I have to admit that at the time I ordered I was not as drunk as I may have wished, and it really was not much of a tangent. I am a lifelong RPG fan, mostly of the D&D and AD&D variants, but it has been years since I actually played the game. That would be back in the AD&D 1st Edition rules days, with maybe some D&D Rules Cyclopedia (i.e. Basic, Expert, Champions, Masters, and Immortals – 1991) mixed in during college.

I have always enjoyed reading the rules and various supplements. At the very least I used to do a decent job keeping up with the changes. Even if I did not play I would purchase the occasional Dragon Magazine to see what was going on in the world of AD&D. I am even proud to say that I made a decent amount of money by buying materials, reading them, storing the stacks of goodies away for a later date, and eventually selling “rare” merchandise on eBay.

Most of that buying and flipping on eBay ended shortly after the release of the 3E rules. I pickup up the core books, some Forgotten Realm supplements, and that was basically that for a long period of time. To be honest 3.5E came and went, and until recently I had no idea that Dragon Magazine was digital only, and that a new hope – 4E – was now upon us.

While I am in no hurry to play regularly or join a group, I am trying to talk my kids into playing. Their only experience with the game comes from the old campy cartoons – yes, like every good gamer born in the early 70’s, I have those fun cartoons on DVD. D&D to the kids is watching me playing some WoW [I know, technically not D&D], and playing a handful of video games such as Champions of Norrath for the PS2. I think the kids need to be educated, and D&D could be an interesting family game night experience. My wife said she was willing to try if I could explain things and keep it fairly simple. If I can convert her to being a fan of Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings then there may be some hope down this avenue of pencil and paper gaming.

I decided to place an order from Amazon for the Dungeons and Dragons Core Rulebook Gift Set, 4th Edition and a handful of supplements that I will discuss later. Maybe. Depends on how much this holds my interests with other competition for my time – mainly football season is about to start. For what it is worth, this core gift set is actually $3.09 cheaper than ordering the three core books individually; go figure.

I am not going to profess that I am a game rules/mechanics expert, or even a decent reviewer of D&D books, but I plan to write a few observations on some of this new 4E material. We can see where this takes us.

4E Monster Manual Initial Impressions
Don’t ask me why, but I decided to pick up the 4E Monster Manual (MM) first. My initial impressions are pretty simple. What happened to treasure types, and why are there so few lower level monsters?

I assume treasure listings are located in the Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG), and I can also assume that I can actually read the Player’s Handbook (PHB) to learn some of the mechanics and what the various statistics box listings mean. To be fair, the MM does contain a four-page glossary of terms, so help is probably only a few minutes away.

After getting past the mechanics stuff, my very next impression was that some of the descriptions were really brief? What happened to the detailed monster descriptions? I may be in the minority, but I really enjoyed the “ecology of” series in Dragon Magazine.

I then took a second pass at the book at realized that some of the monster listings, in fact I would say a majority of the monster listings were fairly deep and well described. Maybe not to the ”ecology of” level of detail, but certainly enough for a DM to run with things. For example, there are seven pages dedicated to goblins and their ilk. Most of the descriptions also have a DC to determine if the characters learn some interesting information about the creature at hand. Of course since I am unfamiliar with 4E, I have no idea what DC means. Some of the descriptions state that a Nature, Religion, Arcana, or Dungeoneering check is needed to gain this information. I am sure I will figure it out at some point. For example, if you run into a Zombie, a successful Religion check of DC 15 will let your character learn “Most zombies are created using a foul ritual. Once roused, a zombie obeys its creator and wants nothing more than to kill and consumer the living.”

The MM also contains a four-page section on racial traits that allows DM to build out NPCs, and I suppose for players to give something different (i.e. humanoid monsters) as go.

I was disappointed in the four-page [that looks like a theme] monsters by level section. I suppose it is useful, but the old encounter tables would have been a nice addition.

This is really a minor quibble, but I was very surprised by the lack of low level monsters.  As I am writing this article I do not have the MM in front of me, but at most there were 15 1st level monsters, many of which were not unique (i.e. three different types of kobolds)  and less than 20 2nd level entries.  It just seems like a lack of low level variety, but I am sure additional supplements will be released that will help fill in the gaps.  I can always revert back to some of my older materials, but I bet it will be a major undertaking to convert from pre 4E to 4E equivalents.

For first impressions I was neither impressed nor disappointed. The MM seems to be a utilitarian rule book that serves its purpose – detailing monsters.

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3 thoughts on “Back to pencil and paper gaming (D&D 4E Monster Manual Impressions)”

  1. Hey JC,

    I have the first 250 issues of Dragon Magazine on CD. :-) Got them for my self as a Christmas Present last year. I used to love reading that mag as a kid. The first issues have been very interesting, as D&D had already matured a bit by the time I got into it.

    When I bought all of my materials and supplements, I focused on the 1st edition only. From what I understand, the current version makes D&D more of a paper-based dungeon crawl than an RPG. I really like the story-telling aspect of 1st AD&D, and consequently, I am a big fan of Gary Gygax’s work. The new stuff appears to be too action-oriented for my tastes.

    I still haven’t tried to play it with my kids yet. I’m not sure if I will. (We did play the boardgame Descent a few times this winter, which was pretty cool – and kind of D&D “lite”.) Like you, I really like reading through the materials. At the very least, I’ll use it for inspiration.

    I’m looking forward to more of your posts on the subject!

    Kevin

  2. I still have the Dragon Magazine CD – one of the many things I purchased and kept. And tons and tons of 1st E books and supplements.

    I went for 4E for a couple of reasons, which I plan to expand on more later – I was curious, I wanted the current rules, a I think the d20 rules will be easier for the kids to pick up.

    I have read what you mention – 4E is strong on action and short on role playing (the story). I just don’t get this – everyone can decide to make the game or any other RPG more or less story intensive. The rules are just the framework.

    I think you see a lot about 4E being a off like MMORP/WoW type game because the rules have changed a lot and because 4E probably was influenced by the current popularity of WoW. I think that is a good thing, but it does not mean that 4E is less worthy of an RPG. It is just different from previous versions.

    Of course if you have played the game long enough many people said the same thing about 2E vs 1E. Not sure about 3E and 3.5E, but I bet if you google enough you will find the same type of comparisons.

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