Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
This could have been the worst collection of monsters to see print, it would eventually find a place on my shelf. However, I would say I had high hopes for the Monster Manual II. It was released less than a year before the 3.5 revision so surely Wizards of the Coast designers already understood some of the problems 3.0 had.
At a Glance
The cover is weird. Photo-realistic membranes and fangs look like a curse has brought the book to life. However, the orange orb they surround looks inorganic, even a little mechanical. It is not one of the better full cover prints, but it does evoke an emotion. It gives me the willies.
The overall quality of the interior art is high. Almost every illustration conveys the relative power of the creatures and a few ways they can probably kill you. For example, victims of the Flesh Jelly are embarrassed to death.
From an artistic point of view, the Jahi uses misdirection well to hide a monster in plain sight. The piercings and tattoos on the smiling lady’s face draw the eye away from the eel-like ghosts around her neck. Not only is this creative composition, it fits with the abilities of this incorporeal undead.
One final mention goes to the Monster of Legend. This minotaur is clearly more dangerous and more intelligent than the average minotaur, with extra horns and stoic posture. It brings to life one of the more abstract templates in the book.
High Level Monsters
Something that was missing from the core Monster Manual was a variety of high level challenges. After 16th level, players had little to fight but dragons, NPCs with character levels, and mid-level monsters with templates. Monster Manual II introduces almost 30 creatures of a variety of types with Challenge Ratings that range from 16 to 28.
Monster Manual II houses many classic fantasy monsters and recognizable Dungeons & Dragons beasts of the past. Is a campaign run using only the core Monster Manual really complete without the banshee or phoenix? And where would the underdark be without Hook Horrors, a monster with a history that dates back to 1st edition and that played a prominent role in the Dark Elf trilogy.
The more Monster Manual sequels were released, the stranger some of the entries got. At least the Monster Manual II was there for those important monsters that did quite make the core Monster Manual cut.
It makes sense that the first Monster Manual would need more low level creatures because it is the first monster book players and Dungeon Masters use. And although it is missing some pretty iconic creatures, it needed some room for creatures with Dungeons & Dragons flavour. However, it failed as a core rulebook because it did not offer what any player would need at any level. But if you were to combine the first and second Monster Manuals, you would have a selection of monsters of varying type, size, and challenge rating that can truly be considered core.
Also, Monster Manual II is better supported and more often referenced that any other non-core book. Many of its monsters have been made into D&D Miniatures and received ecology articles in Dragon magazine. Other sourcebooks talk about Monster Manual II like you are expected to own it. A lot like a core rulebook.
Not 3.5 Core
The problem with a book that is practically a core rulebook is that it is as important as a core rulebook without being treated like a core rulebook. MM II monsters are not open game content, which means more than it may seem. These monsters are not in the SRD or in DM tools. Game designers can only support these monsters in official Wizards of the Coast releases, which are no longer forthcoming. Some MM II monsters do have D&D Miniatures but 3rd party companies can not make them. So DMs that want a full Abeil city have to customize or improvise to get these bee people on their tabletop.
Its importance in the 3.x sourcebook library makes it more frustrating that it is not a 3.5 sourcebook. Gamers are hobbyists and hobbyists tend to suffer obsessive compulsive tendencies with their hobbies. Despite being fairly compatible without raising a finger, fitting in visually, and with an errata Is available to download for free, it’s a 3rd edition book in a 3.5 library, something that is harder to get over than it maybe should be.
Repetition among Monsters
If you love animal-like and big-like monsters, this is your dream book. If you accept the occasional animal-like and bug-like monster but feel that turning everyday critters into big bad beasties is lazy design, brace yourself. A lot of MM II entries are visually derivative, with descriptions even pointing out the specific Earth creature the monster resembles. Although there exist some fascinating animals and insects in our world, a little more creativity would have been appreciated. No sourcebook needs two giant sharks and a giant whale.
The other sin of repetition is in the monsters’ abilities. Too many are given the improved grab, with many of them given swallow whole or constrict as combo abilities. Having the same ability repeated like that means different combats will feel the same even with a variety of monsters. Improved grab is a particularly annoying ability to see so often because it is tied to grapple.
A lot of MM II’s content can be found elsewhere. The entire introduction is lifted from the first Monster Manual even though that is a core rulebook and therefore something you should already own. Most of the templates were reprinted in Savage Species. Some of the monsters were also reprinted elsewhere, like the Thri-Kreen in the Expanded Psionics Handbook.
Darktentacles may suffer from improved grab/constrict, but it still has enough other abilities that make it a fun monster to use. It’s tremorsense and high sneaking skills make it a nice pop-up encounter, like the swamp has come alive.
Speaking of terrain brought to life, the corpse gathered is a fantastic epic threat. Instead of fighting a graveyard full of undead, PCs can fight a graveyard. This gargantuan creature tosses undead minions out of the mud on its back, all while trying to suck PCs into an early grave.
Legendary Animals are a very intriguing concept. Not just advanced versions of animals or more grizzled like dire animals, these are rare specimens with a greater purpose in the universe.
Linnorm are prehistoric dragons from an age before dragons came in all the colours of the rainbow. They are ancient and nearly abandoned by evolution, so obviously the few a PC might encounter are epic threats.
The Razor Boar and Scorpionfolk may not stand out for their design, they do stand out for their inclusion. These creatures appear at the end of the book, out of alphabetical order, with a sidebar explaining why. They originally appeared in Necromancer Games’ The Creature Collection. These OGL creatures from a 3rd party source were reprinted as part of a community building initiative by Wizards of the Coast. This was possibly the highest profile advertisement any 3rd party OGL material ever received.
This book was purchased after moving to Windsor. As of this writing, I have not had a chance to use it. But I have big plans.
Get over it. Whatever stigma you have against owning this book, I had as well. Once I got the chance to flip through the pages I saw how valuable the Monster Manual II is to DMs. I not only expect to use MM II monsters in many of encounters when I return to active gaming, I can see myself altering my entire world to include some of the races with detailed societies.
If You Liked This Book…
Date Released: September 2002
Date Reviewed: March 2009