Wizards of the Coast released the D&D Fifth Edition Monster Manual today. The book gives dungeon masters not just statistics for various baddies and monsters for players to fight, but also a deep well of story ideas.
Owing in part to Fifth Edition's streamlined approach to mechanics, this edition's Monster Manual spends much less space and energy explaining each creature's statistics. In some cases, creatures' stat blocks take up as little as a quarter of a page, a sharp reduction from how their presentation in the third and fourth edition Monster Manuals.
Instead of using that compression to cram in more foes, the writers behind the 5E Monster Manual used the space to inject nuggets of story that could serve as the foundation for whole adventures — or even entire campaigns.
Take the blights, for example. The three creatures — the twig blight, needle blight and vine blight — amount to varieties of animated plants. Previous iterations of the Monster Manual might have noted the creatures' connections to each other and that they might be created through dark magic, but that would be the end of the background story. Dungeon masters would be left to fill in the blanks.
In contrast, the newest Monster Manual includes half a page of history on where the blights came from. They originated from the blood of a particularly malevolent vampire named Gulthias. After a hunter jammed a stake through Gulthias's heart, Gulthias's blood mixed with the wood and generated a new form of evil plant life known as a Gulthias tree. The tree corrupted flora around it, killing some plants and transforming others into blights. Later, a deranged druid took the Gulthias tree sapling and replanted it elsewhere, where it could be nurtured.
A dungeon master is free to ignore that story and focus on the blights' combat stats, but the backstory seeds ideas and suggests a progression: a merchant goes missing on a forest path. A local governor sends the adventurers to investigate. They find the merchant's body. Then, twig blights ambush them. Pressing deeper into the forest, the adventurers find a darkening wood. Needle and vine blights assault them, and the vine blight even speaks. The party flees back to town, where they learn that there must be a Gulthias tree at the heart of the darkness. They'll need an enchanted axe to hack down the tree, which means going on a separate quest. Then, once they destroy the Gulthias tree, other questions emerge. Who planted it? And why?
The writers took a similar approach throughout the 352-page book. They took pains to describe the hobgoblin and kobold hierarchies, as well as the general societal structure for lizardmen, giants and bullywugs. In many cases, they included additional stat blocks for more advanced versions of the monsters, such as hobgoblin captains and hobgoblin warlords.
In total, the writers' approach means that this version of the bestiary is a far greater resource than a simple collection of stats. Flipping through will give dungeon masters ideas on how to flesh out their campaigns or create new ones from scratch. It may be Wizards' best Monster Manual ever.