Deities & Demigods and the Fiend Folio were released after I entered the hobby, I wasn't yet sufficiently aware of things like TSR's publication schedule to take notice of their imminent arrival. By 1983, when the Monster Manual II was released, though, I'd been a subscriber of Dragon for some time and paid close attention to Gary Gygax's columns, where he'd talk about upcoming releases for my favorite game. So, when the time came, I was phoning every hobby and book store in Baltimore County to find one that held a copy of this long awaited volume.
Why long awaited? In retrospect, it seems silly to admit this, but the fact that the Monster Manual II carried Gary Gygax's byline meant a lot to me back then. For me, he was the final authority on all things D&D and if he was putting out a new book of monsters -- or anything else really -- then of course I had to own it. There was also the fact that I've always had decidedly mixed feelings about the Fiend Folio. There are some excellent monsters in its pages, some of D&D's best, but there's also a lot of dross in there as well, some of it embarrassingly bad. So, the prospect of a new book of monsters wholly from the pen of EGG was utterly enthralling to me.
As it turned out, not all of the book's monsters were the work of Gary Gygax. At least some of them were created by Frank Mentzer and the (in)famous modrons were the work (at least in part) of Jeff Grubb, who's credited as a "design consultant" for the book. At the time, I didn't know any of this and I'm not sure I'd have believed it, since so much of the content of the Monster Manual II had previously appeared under Gary's byline, whether in the pages of his "From the Sorcerer's Scroll" column or in modules like The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth. Consequently, I attributed to this book a degree of authority I didn't to books like the Fiend Folio or the DDG.
It helped, too, that I actually liked a great many of the monsters included in the Monster Manual II. I was especially fond of the expanded treatment of Outer Planar creatures -- demons, devils, daemons, demodands, devas, planetars, solars, and, yes, modrons. All of these creatures expanded the scope of what a Dungeons & Dragons adventure could be about. These weren't (generally) the kinds of creatures you'd encounter in some underground labyrinth guarding some treasure. No, these were the kinds of creatures around which whole scenarios -- indeed, mini-campaigns -- could be constructed. They were epic and I loved them for that quality.
It's funny how distance makes things apparent that weren't at the time. In the case of the Monster Manual II, what I see now is that Gary Gygax, who'd been playing the game in one form or another for over a decade, was looking to move the game beyond the dungeon and even the wilderness and out into the Planes. So many of the monsters in this book were extraplanar in origin and geared toward higher-level play that I can't help but think that Gary had moved on and wanted something more, or at least something different, out of the game he co-created.
Many people who read his later game, Mythus, are perplexed by what they see as a "change" in Gygax's conception, as if it were wholly unprecedented. I don't think that's the case at all, especially if you look at books like the Monster Manual II and Unearthed Arcana, two volumes that frequently get taken to task by AD&D aficionados for their deviations from earlier Gygaxian works. I think the critics are right to note that these later works are quite different in content and tone from earlier ones, but I'm starting to feel that their deviations were organic ones, at least from Gygax's perspective. The represent a genuine shift in his own perspective and approach to AD&D. Taken in that light, I think they make a great deal more sense, regardless of whether one ultimately has any use for them or not.