Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Retrospective: Monster Manual II

The Monster Manual II is the first AD&D hardcover volume that I waited in great anticipation for. Though both 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.

19 comments:

  1. I always like reading the description of the Solar. Its powers were so ridiculously powerful (detect anything at will, dispell anything by gaze) that it was almost a parody of a D&D encounter.

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  2. I have fond memories of this book, too. It was the first AD&D I held in my hands.

    This was in 1989 or nearabouts. The Finnish translation of Mentzer color-box D&D had been published in 1988, and it was all I had played. (I had the translated RuneQuest, too, but didn't play it at the time.) I went to the nearby bookstore with my friends to see if there was anything interesting, and, yes, there was this English-language monster book for _Advanced_ Dungeons and Dragons. I remember leafing through the book and looking at the strange monsters in awe.

    I didn't buy it, which I regretted for many years until I finally got my own copy. I think I thought that adding these monsters to our D&D games would've been too much of a hassle and I might have had some problems with the English language at that point. We did play Shadowrun and 2nd ed. AD&D shortly afterwards, so in retrospect I could've bought that book.

    I got the MMII ten years later, but never really played AD&D after that. Nowadays, I'd play LotFP, if I wanted an old-school game.

    The first AD&D book I bought was the Dungeoneer's Survival Guide. It was a good addition to D&D, though I remember deducing the AD&D rules from it and it wasn't very easy.

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  3. That's an interesting point about Gary's possible motivations behind the MM2. I was definitely too young when this came out to notice such subtleties, though... I was too busy being excited about the beasties inside. Anything from the outer planes was totally my cup of tea.

    The big disappointment about the book for me was the art. The hastily compiled chicken scratches in there came nowhere close to the wonderful and evocative stuff that graced the original MM. TSR really dropped the ball on that one. It was my first sign that they were losing their craftsmanship.

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  4. "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."

    From a UK perspective I had a lot more interest in the Fiend Folio than in MM2, as many of the monsters were taken from the Fiend Factory column that appeared in White Dwarf magazine. On reflection, I like both the books about the same and wouldn't be without them as legacy publications. In use though, I think there's only enough decent content in the pair to make 1 good monster book really.

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  5. Some of the tidbits on the implied society of other-planar beings were intriguing, but on the whole all the outer planar creatures in the MM2 never really did it for me. It wasn't until I read the Planescape setting, and saw its glorious DiTerlizzi drawings, that I really started to like them.

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  6. Agree on almost all counts. For me, the MMII seems much more more "present" than the FF. Not totally sure why: I think the differing art styles, Gygax byline, and greater cohesion and interconnectedness of MMII (monsters referencing other monsters) may have something to do with it.

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  7. I think that the Solar was there as a stick to punish or force players to follow their )good) alignment. Or else...

    I loved the deadliness of the MM2 creatures. They added a new element to encounters to counter act all of the power creep that was happening on the player character's side with all the new classes, spells, magic items, and skill-err weapon and non-weapon proficiencies that came into play.

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  8. I suppose it marks me as a grognard that I found Planescape's approach to the planes (aesthetically and in other respects) abhorrent. Modrons are not cute. Solars are not European male models. Slaadi do not look like Frog and Toad.

    Get off my lawn, too.

    On other topics, let's not forget the tarrasque, the monster which is an epic adventure in itself.

    On the other hand, there were some FF-worthy clunkers in MM2: pseudo-undead, anyone?

    And as for the mighty solar -- back in the late '80s when two other friends and I had too much time on our hands and not enough people to actually play an rpg, we organized a seven round, single elimination AD&D tournament, with the 80 toughest non-deity beings we could cull from official TSR sources, and 48 of our toughest PCs/NPCs from a decade's worth of xD&D. Two of us would play the opponents, and one of us would GM. Battles took place in a large, featureless arena, with randomized starting positions. (We had, perhaps, watched March Madness, WWF, and the classic Trek episode "Arena" a few too many times.) We only finished such a tournament twice, but both times the solar emerged victorious.

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  9. On the other hand, there were some FF-worthy clunkers in MM2: pseudo-undead, anyone?

    They're the creation of Frank Mentzer, as are the minimals.

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  10. "I loved the deadliness of the MM2 creatures. They added a new element to encounters to counter act all of the power creep that was happening on the player character's side with all the new classes, spells, magic items, and skill-err weapon and non-weapon proficiencies that came into play."

    This would make some sense, except that Unearthed Arcana, DSG, and WSG were a good 2 - 3 years in the future at the time MM2 was released...

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  11. My retrospective: it is boring. Seriously. There are a lot of monsters in it, but the mark of a good monster book is how many monsters I use from it - and in the case of the MM2, this amounts to green hags, guardian daemons and... let me get back to you. I am sure there were two or three more.

    MM1 is a wonderful monster book. It has its often-neglected creatures (like the elusive masher), but it is well-rounded, and I can use a sifnificant chunk of it in a campaign. What makes MM2 different? I can't entirely tell. The Holloway art is not very good, and as superficial as it is, that may be a factor. But I think many MM2 monsters are also missing something that is there in the MM1. They don't strike me as really memorable for some reason.

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  12. It was late fall, my Junior year in high school, 1983, that a kid named Rodney brought that to 11th grade English. I had dabbled with the game, and had found the original MM to be quite fun in 1981. But hadn't given it that much attention otherwise. But I remember this one. Not that the monsters did much for me, not that I understood the game any better. But I remember that cover. It could be that we were studying Beowulf at that time, but somehow it clicked, and from there I began my love of all things Medieval and European folklore. Oh, and I also learned enough about the game that years later, I would be at least halfway dangerous when it came to getting into playing D&D.

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  13. Much like the Fiend Folio, this has been a book I found to be a better read than to use in my games. A few of the monsters have made it to my table rarely (such as in my Night Below campaign that featured a lot of monsters from MM@). But yeah, no monster book gets as much use in my games as MM1.

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  14. Melan, I think you are crediting the MM2 unduly -- the guardian daemon is from the FF. (Hello from Thasaidon on the old NG Boards, btw -- I enjoy your pieces in Fight On!)

    Now I'll admit Holloway, while a rewarding artist for depicting adventurers, is at best serviceable as a monster illustrator. When there is only one picture to serve as a "definitive" image, it's best not to assign the task to TSR's most naturalistic draftsman. But now, with a copy before me, I see lots of usable monsters.

    The aurumvorax is a great critter -- I had an enormously fat archdruid NPC who shape changed into one during ritual level advancement combat, giving one of my players seeking his level a hell of time.

    Barghests have a built-in backstory that suggests possible adventures to build around them -- an intelligent, evil dog (or goblin cheif) is actually a barghest, with unexpected powers.

    The Cat Lord suggests all sorts of minor animal deities.

    Daemons, devas, dao & marids, grues, modrons, the two hags, the many new devils, demons, giants, and faerie creatures all dramatically expand existing monster types.

    Shades, shadow mastiffs, and shadow dragons imply the Shadow Plane. Para-elementals, one quasi-elemental, and the time elementals.

    Some nice high-powered monsters of legend overlooked in the MM -- the kraken and phoenix (and, as I mentioned, and more obscurely on the legend scale, the tarrasque).

    I've gotten lots of gaming mileage from this book.

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  15. Melan,

    I agree. MM1 just has that 'it' factor that I've not seen anywhere in any other similar work. Even later edition versions of D&D (MM2 included). I think part of it goes to the roots. Later versions of D&D were versions of the game. The early game (including MM1 wwhich seems to be a sort of cross over between ODD and ADD) was very, shall we say, 'organic'. It was a work in progress. It was based, not on a game - it was the game - but on literature, myth, folklore, history, movies, TV shows, whatever. The original art seemed to want to convey this, and also make sure it happened 'in the setting' (so you get so many pictures of creepy-crawlies in dungeon settings). I dunno. It's just what I've noticed as well, and perhaps that's why.

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  16. I mean, it's a little unfair to compare anything to MMI -- that's the book with all the classic monsters from myth & literature. Everything after that is made-up stuff to expand the publishing business, which can't possibly compare to thousands of years of cultural imagination.

    The only thing that has a higher "imagination density" is probably the two-page roster of core monsters in OD&D Vol-2.

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  17. You're right Delta. That's sort of what I was getting at. Later MMs or similar works were mostly monsters made up for the game. Or they were simply more of what was in the original. But the original, that was where you first were introduced with 'ever think about fighting a werewolf? Well here's your chance! A dragon? A gargoyle? An Orc?' There's something there that just can't be duplicated.

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  18. I actually liked Fiend Folio better than MMII. I dunno why, but I liked the weirder, more bizarre, and outright scary creatures in the FF.

    My main gripe with MMII is so many monsters are a reprint from various modules and Dragon magazine articles. I don't dislike the MMII, but between MMI, MMII, and FF, it was my least favorite.

    I did like the daemonds and devils - especially how it detailed out the 9 hells. The demons were mainly a reprint of 'Tsojcanth' with better artwork.

    MMI > FF > MMII IMHO. :)

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  19. I really loved this book. I can't believe people think the FF or even the original MM was "better".

    I always loved Gary's takes on the Planes and Spheres. I think there are some subtleties that others miss. For instance, Deva's aren't angels, even the terms Planetars and Solars come from Theosophy. I wish Gary had continued to flesh out the beasts that appeared in the Gord books. When I asked him about Maelvis, he said since he didn't write it down in detail, he had forgotten it over the years.

    One other thing people miss about the Solar was that the forces of good were more powerful but less numerous. In other words, there were probably only a limited number of them, something that's become forgotten over the years.

    I thought the minimals were neat and I'd love to see a bunch of pixies and sprites with an army of minimals.

    While I can accept some criticism of Holloway, I felt he did a good and consistent job, and if you compare it to the very mixed art job in MM1, it's much more proficient. Heck, some of the art in MM1 lacks some basics of anatomy and perspective. I'm sorry, but MM1 is very dated and between the mixed style it has (it was a transitory book before AD&D was totally codified), and the mixed art, I think people are seeing this through idealized nostalgia at least in part. Yes, it's true the books had a lot of monsters from other works--I was even surprised S3 critters were chosen since they were originally foreign beasts from another planet/alternate universe--but that's the case of many of the old books, even MM, PHB, DMG (this stuff was always being taken from Dragon articles).

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