Best Monster Manual Ever?

04-PRODUCT-INFO_Tabletop_Hero_MMI picked up the new D&D Monster Manual shortly after it was released. The quality of the book is striking, from the physical appearance to the content inside. There is quite a lot to like about this, the second major rulebook for 5th Edition. Reviews all over the blogosphere have been overwhelmingly positive, and deservedly so. The amazing cover, meticulous graphic design, and sturdy heft of the book make it look and feel wonderful in your hands. The interior art ranges from simply good to bedazzlingly perfect, and the book strikes a balance between pleasantly fluffy and satisfyingly crunchy. It is a fine follow-up to the Player’s Handbook, and bodes well for quality of the upcoming Dungeon Master’s Guide.

But is it the best Monster Manual ever? If you had asked me this question the first night I read it, I wouldn’t have hesitated at all before answering a resounding “YES!” However, after the new has worn off slightly, I am not as certain. It might not be a fair question. Does the 5th ed Monster Manual need to be the greatest one of all time? Not really. I think it is a contender, but a few offerings from the past might actually be better, or, at least, just as good.

For the purposes of this comparison, I am only referring to official material from TSR or WotC, released for any version of “core” Dungeons & Dragons. No other game systems, or setting specific stuff. (Sorry, Ravenloft Monstrous Compendium.) I should also disclose that I have no experience at all with D&D 3.0 or 3.5. Fans of those tomes, please don’t get upset when I don’t mention them.

monster_manualLet’s get the obvious out of the way. The first edition Monster Manual for AD&D is the gold standard. All subsequent collections owe too much to the original for it to not be considered as the best. The 1E Monster Manual is iconic and deserves a place in the discussion. However, as the first in a line of continuous revisions, it falls short when compared objectively to its descendants. The art, layout, and overall weirdness of old school AD&D make it less useful at the table. That doesn’t make it less important, but the book isn’t even close to perfect. For similar reasons, the Fiend Folio is out of the discussion, even though I love it so much.

Most of my D&D playing years took place in 2nd edition. The first “Monster Manual” for 2E AD&D was the Monstrous Compendium. The brilliance of this release was that it was a three-ring binder full of one-sheet descriptions of monsters. For a guy like me who was (is) a little OCD about organizing game components, the Monstrous Compendium was the greatest thing ever. Bigger art, more descriptive text, and slick Jeff Easley cover art made this a huge improvement over previous offerings. The expandable, customizable nature of the MC was its greatest strength; you could keep all your monsters in one place, or just use the ones you needed for a particular adventure. Only two things mar the otherwise flawless nature of the Monstrous Compendium: the page holes tore easily, and monsters would often be printed back to back, ruining the otherwise glorious alphabetical order once multiple supplements had been obtained.

Skipping forward almost two decades, we move to the 4th Edition era. The finest offering from this edition was the last: Monster Vault: Threats to the Nentir Vale. While I dearly love the original Monster Vault, its successor is a superior product. The larger format of the book was welcome, and the included map and token sheets were even better than those that came with the first Monster Vault. But the best part was the wonderful design of the monsters inside. 4E had really hit its stride when this was released, and the creatures in this book married theme to mechanics in a way few other Monster Manuals have managed to replicate. Additionally, the book was dripping with lore and adventure ideas. I especially loved the one of a kind monsters contained within. Threats to the Nentir Vale is the high water mark for 4th Edition, and a serious contender for “best ever”.

3headredSo how does the 5th edition Monster Manual stack to these three? Let’s compare them in reverse order.

Threats to the Nentir Vale and the 5E MM are clearly very, very different products. The former was released near the end of 4th Edition’s lifespan, and it is clear that the designers really had a good understanding of what 4E offered. Remember all of the issues with the monsters in early 4th edition? They were quite a mess. Both Monster Vaults fixed many of these issues, and the monsters were amazing as a result.

In contrast, the newest Monster Manual is one of the first 5E products to hit the shelves. It is certainly a useful tome, but it doesn’t quite have the level of razzle dazzle I was expecting. The Player’s Handbook was a showstopper, but the MM seems a bit lacking. The designs of the monsters are a bit too generic, some seeming to be just collections of statistics without distinguishing characteristics. Orcs and goblins feel nearly the same mechanically, and that’s a pity. I’d also like to see more variety among the iconic monster varieties; we have dozens of dragons represented, but only two bugbears, for example. The monsters inside the 5E Manual are perfectly usable, but not particularly imaginative.

mcvol1Let’s move back next to the 2nd Edition Monstrous Compendium. Obviously the 5E MM blows its ancestor out of the water from an artistic standpoint. The illustrations are painted, and in full color to boot, eclipsing the black and white line art of the MC. Moving beyond that, there is a roughly equal amount of lore and background in the two. The layouts are quite similar, in fact.

The biggest advantage the 2E binder has over the 5E tome is tabletop usability. Using the binder system, I could put the monsters in any order I liked. As a bound book, the 5E Monster Manual cannot be altered in this way. That wouldn’t be an issue if the entries were arranged alphabetically. But they aren’t. There is a monsters section, a “Miscellaneous Creatures” section, and an NPC section. I don’t care for the pulling out of NPCs, but can understand the difference between them and monsters, at least. But I cannot understand why “Miscellaneous Creatures” are listed separately. Is a Giant Spider a monster or a creature? Who knows? It has caused delays in my games already, and probably will continue to do so.

MonsterManualADnDFinally, let’s compare the original AD&D Monster Manual to its 5th Edition descendant. These two seem to have the closest relationship. The new book truly feels like a remake of the old one; not a terrible “re-imagining”, but a thoughtful remake using modern technology and the benefit of nearly four decades of RPG development. If the 5E MM were the first such book you had ever seen, you would walk away from it with the same feeling of wide-eyed awe that some of us did when we gleefully devoured the 1E version years ago. I consider this to be the most important aspect of the Monster Manual: to inspire Dungeon Masters to populate great adventures with fantastical foes. By this measure, the 5th Edition Monster Manual is a success.

So is the 5th Edition Monster Manual the best one ever released? It’s an impossible question to answer. Just as I couldn’t choose which of my sons I love the best, I cannot decide which Monster Manual is the greatest. Threats to the Nentir Vale has amazing mechanics, the Monstrous Compendium is a neatnik’s dream, and the first Monster Manual is a nostalgic favorite. The 5E MM has advantages and disadvantages over all three of these, and deserves to be mentioned in any discussion of which is the best. Despite a few nagging bits here and there, the new Monster Manual is a magnificent book, and will surely provide many hours of enjoyment at D&D tables for years to come.



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A Boy, a Dad, and the Player’s Handbook

Excerpts_PHBAs I was perusing my shiny new copy of the Player’s Handbook in my easy chair a few weeks ago, my thirteen year old son asked me a question. “Hey Dad, does that have the rules for making a barbarian instead of a fighter?” Nodding, I flipped back a few pages, opening the book to the well-rendered portrait of an impressive barbarian accompanying the class description, and handed it over to him. Curling up on the couch, he started reading.

At first, he was a bit distracted by whatever was on the TV screen at the time. Within a few moments, he had assumed a more comfortable pose, the Player’s Handbook on his lap, turned away from the TV. I watched him closely. As he read, his eyes widened, nose inching ever closer to the pages of the book. The TV was forgotten; he was enthralled by the fantastic tome, oblivious to the world around him. He only came out of his trance long enough to share the most incredulous bits. “Dad! Did you see this? The path of the totem! You can be like a bear!” He was only distracted from his reading by the arrival of supper.

basic13thWatching this unfold in my living room was a special moment. I got my wife’s attention, pointing at our boy. “That right there on the couch is me twenty-something years ago,” I whispered to her. And it’s true. I was very much the same at his age, spending time playing video games, reading comic books, and devouring Dungeons & Dragons material. In my case, it was the Red Box Basic Set. In his case, Fifth Edition. In most respects, the experience was the same. The sense of wonder has always been D&D’s biggest appeal to me, and the latest version of the world’s greatest role-playing game provides this in spades.

I will always and forever be a fan of 4th Edition D&D. It was what got me back into the game after so many years away. I love battle maps, my collection of dozens of miniatures, and my Dwarven Forge set. I love the complexity of the characters, and the ease of balancing encounters for the DM. My favorite part of 4E was the capability of making showstopping final combats with a whole variety of wicked foes, masses of minions, and crazy environmental effects. Some of my favorite D&D memories were made during 4E.

But as I watched my son reading the Player’s Handbook that night, I thought back to the 2+ years we played 4th edition. I cannot recall him ever picking up a rulebook. He rarely even used the three pages of power cards for his Essentials paladin. The tight, complex ruleset that tickled my intellect was irrelevant to him. He just wanted to go to cool places, to act heroic, to swing his sword at the bad guys. I believe to some extent, 4th Edition was an obstacle to what he really wanted from Dungeons & Dragons.

157997_IconicPartyRedDragon_DarenBaderIf the amount of time he has spent reading the Player’s Handbook the past few weeks is any indication, 5th Edition is just right for him. The entire system is easier to learn and master. Characters have plenty of options, but are still unique from one another. The quotes from D&D novels he’s read, the fluff embedded throughout the book, and the gorgeous, evocative art throughout have led my son to take the PHB with him on long trips in the car, to read before bed, or when he gets home from school. He’s eating it up, and I am thrilled, incredibly pleased, that he is getting such enjoyment from something that I have loved for years and years.

Do I have concerns about Fifth Edition from a DM perspective? Yes. Balancing encounters is unintuitive, for one. I also feel there should be more options for variety in monsters like kobolds, orcs, and the like. Shouldn’t there be stronger or at least different goblins, troglodytes, and lizardfolk, just as there are elves, dwarves, and humans? I have some concerns about feats, as well. Some of them look like must-haves. I worry that feats will lead to overpowered characters. Perhaps the upcoming Dungeon Master’s Guide and Monster Manual will alleviate some of these concerns.

But any misgivings I have about Fifth Edition are easy to overlook when I think of my son. We talk about D&D every day on the drive to school. One of the players in my new campaign wants to run a session soon, so I am making a character myself. We have talked about classes, abilities, which god to serve, what weapons to use, the background story, places we’ve been, even down to hairstyles of our characters. His excitement and enthusiasm are contagious, and it’s hard to worry about feats and balanced encounters when we talk about the fun stuff, the stuff that D&D is really about.

The Three Pillars that 5th Edition has been designed around are exactly right. My kid wants to go to cool places, to act heroic, and to swing a sword at bad guys. That’s exploration, interaction, and combat, right there. Each is equally important, well-supported by the mechanics of the game. The rules are no longer a barrier to entry, something emphasizing one aspect of the Three Pillars over the other. My son is loving it, I am loving it, and it even looks like I will have two campaigns going on at the same time before long. The new Player’s Handbook is an amazing book, and I am thrilled to see what is to come from Dungeons & Dragons in the future.

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Fifth Time is the Charm


It has been a long, long time since I have posted. After reviewing a couple D&D Classics releases this past winter, this blog went silent. In April, I made a half-hearted attempt at a post entitled “D&Doldrums”. It was almost as boring to write as it would have been to read. And so, almost five months went by.

As the news of 5th edition’s release drew near, my anticipation grew by leaps and bounds. I picked up the new Starter Set on release day, downloaded the Basic Rules, and consumed them. Much has been said by many more experienced reviewers than I, so I won’t go into too much detail. Suffice it to say that I think the Starter Set is a fantastic bargain, and the Basic Rules are a solid starting place for anyone who is interested in D&D. Both products are exactly what they need to be.

As a longtime fan of the old school D&D Basic rules, I feel the new Basic Rules are robust enough for many, many hours of adventuring. I am still looking forward to the Player’s Handbook, since the basic four classes are a bit restrictive for most players. More choices for races and classes are good, though I personally won’t allow all of the PHB options in my campaigns, unless the player makes a very strong case for it, of course.

wallpaper_Illo 2A lack of monsters is a bit of a problem, but with a little creativity and some reskinning, you can do quite a lot with just the options in the Starter Set. New monsters are supposed to be added to the Basic Rules once the PHB is released. Hopefully it will be enough to last until the Monster Manual hits later this year.

But products and rule sets alone don’t get me excited enough to write. Actually sitting down to play D&D with people, though, that will do it. This past weekend, I had one of the best gaming sessions of my entire life. One of my best friends who I have known since junior high (and played plenty of D&D with before) is one player, and he brought his 11 year old daughter, a first timer, as well. My son, now thirteen, was thrilled to play, and another great friend I’ve played games with since college rounded out the group.

Each of the players took the time to develop an interesting backstory. I initially chose Dragonlance as the setting, which had me all gooey inside. However, due to some Krynn-unfriendly class choices (two players wanted to convert their wizard and cleric to warlock and druid after the PHB hit), and a desire to use the upcoming Tyranny of Dragons material, I decided a swap to Forgotten Realms was in order. I am looking for a good primer on the setting as it currently exists, so let me know if you are aware of anything.

unnamedDuring play, it became clear we had a great mix of player types. A good balance between power gamers and story tellers is great for a DM; I delegated initiative tracking and mapping to the power gamer, while the story teller thrived when I asked him “tell me what that looks like” after a critical hit. The younger players provided a level of joy and humor to the game that made it much more fun. It was an amazing experience from start to finish, and we are all excited to play again soon!

So, to conclude, I guess the message is: I am back! The new edition of Dungeons & Dragons is for the most part, exactly what I am looking for. Using theater of the mind as much as possible, I can concentrate on reacting to the players and improvising more. But sometimes I want to get out the poster map or Dwarven Forge tiles and minis for a set piece encounter, and the rules allow this seamlessly. (I am interested in a few more options for gridded combat, presumably in the Dungeon Master’s Guide to come.) I hope to keep the new group up and running for a long time to come. It’s a great time to be a D&D fan!

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D&D Classics Review: The Grand Duchy of Karameikos

gaz1It’s a quiet time for the D&D fan. 4th Edition is done, but the new version of the game (whatever it might be called) is months away. Coupled with this lull in activity is a sense of nostalgia due to the 40th anniversary. These two factors have caused me to turn my eye to the digital offerings at D&D Classics. Having the chance to purchase a few titles from the glory days of my youth is certainly worth a few bucks. Today, I am taking a look back at GAZ1 The Grand Duchy of Karameikos, a book I absolutely loved when it was released. Does this first Gazetteer hold up to the modern eye?

The first thing that struck me about reading through GAZ1 after all these years was the sheer amount of text. There are extensive sections without any illustrations, charts, maps, or anything of the sort. The first 25 pages are walls of three column text. It’s a lot to get through, in all honesty. The Player’s Background takes readers on a brief tour of the map of Karameikos before launching an interesting section for character creation. Players roll dice to randomly determine social standing, ancestry, and their home town. There are even special charts for the three demihuman races Basic D&D supports.

gaz1npcsRules for skills are also included in this section. At the time, I thought skills were a fantastic addition to the game, and never played without them. While I appreciate the inclusion, which added some depth to Basic, the three page rules here don’t really go into the depth that such a system requires. There is lots of room for interpretation, a bit more than what I am used to after the much stricter skill system in 4th Edition.

The overwhelming majority of GAZ1 is devoted to fluff, with a vast array of details giving background information to your campaign. A timeline of the region’s history is very helpful. A section devoted to politics includes an interesting sample story hook. One of the largest portions of the book details Karameikan society. And I mean, DETAILS, including social ranks, religion, military forces, the legal system, even fashion trends and a calendar. There is almost as much text describing Karameikan dress as there was about the skill system earlier in the book. The economy and major geographic regions, as well as information about communities scattered through the land, are also detailed. The end result is a very well thought out and highly realistic setting.

The largest section of the book is devoted to NPCs. There are dozens of characters in this listing, from the Duke himself all the way to suggested big bad evil guy, Baron Ludwig von Hendricks. For each person, paragraphs about history, personality, appearance, DMing notes, and game statistics are provided. There is a tremendous wealth of useful information here, and it would be easy to find an NPC for almost any need in your campaign.

gaz1heraldryGAZ1 closes with more crunchy elements. A list of suggested monsters is supplemented by two new creatures, the chevall (horse/centaur shapeshifter) and the nosferatu (variant vampire). A few final, very helpful pages with DM advice round out the book. I particularly liked the short adventure starters, arrayed in a nice progression from Basic to Master level. This is the sort of thing I craved when I was younger. Often, getting a good hook was the hardest part of making a new adventure.

So, does The Grandy Duchy of Karameikos hold up more than two decades later? For the most part, yes. The sheer amount of edition-free fluff makes it a good read no matter what game system you are using. But it really doesn’t do much as a supplement for Basic D&D. Later entries in the GAZ series would tend towards more crunch, but this first release is disappointing if you are looking for rules-heavy content. It is interesting from a historical perspective, and would be a solid campaign setting for any edition, even 4E or Next. But there’s not a lot of new ground broken here; Karameikos is the very definition of generic medieval fantasy, albeit one that is well designed. It’s certainly not nearly as unique as Dark Sun or Spelljammer. Unless you have a strong nostalgia for GAZ1, I’d suggest waiting to spend your digital dollars for more unique Gazetteers to come in the future.

Help support The Learning DM by purchasing D&D Classics here!

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Dragonlance Finally Available Digitally!


In 2012, Wizards announced that they would go back to releasing select items from the back catalog digitally again. As an old school D&D fan, I found this news quite exciting. I immediately made a wish list of favorites I wanted to see at Two items on this list, the original Dragonlance modules and the Mystara Gazetteer series, were nowhere to be found in all of 2013.

I was thoroughly tickled, then, when both of these series were included with the first new releases of the year. It looks like one Dragonlance module and one Gazetteer will be available for download each week, if the current trends hold. I have so far downloaded DL1 Dragons of Despair and GAZ1 The Grand Duchy of Karameikos. I thought I would share my initial thoughts on reading these iconic though dated classics through the eye of a post-4E Dungeon Master. I will cover Dragons of Despair in this post, with The Grand Duchy of Karameikos to come later.


First off, a caveat: I never actually played through the DL series, either as a player or a DM. I did pick up a copy of DL5, Dragons of Mystery, which was basically a sourcebook, during the heyday of my Dragonlance reading frenzy. I had always supposed that the adventures followed very closely with the events of the Chronicles trilogy. This supposition was backed up by research in the past decade or so. Many people across the community have been unkind to the DL series, painting the picture that it is as railroad-y as adventures get.

I was honestly surprised then, by my first readthrough. It is true that the major events from the first half of Dragons of Autumn Twilight are here. The party encounters Goldmoon and Riverwind at some point, and they are driven by the dragonarmies to the ruined city of Xak Tsaroth. But that is basically the only real railroading going on here. There is a lot of room for exploration, flexible encounters, and really more to do here than you might expect from reading the novel.

The city of Xak Tsaroth itself is an enormous dungeon, filled with hordes of draconians, potential gully dwarf allies, and of course a mighty black dragon. It is an interesting setting, different than the standard dungeon, yet it still has that vintage crawl feel. I particularly appreciated the design of Onyx, the dragon, who interacts with the party from the beginning instead of merely waiting in her lair to be slain.

tassReading through DL1 was very enjoyable for me as a fan of the Dragonlance saga. While it is clearly a story-driven adventure, there is a good amount of leeway for the DM and freedom for the players. I am considering running the series myself, with a mixed group of some who have, and some who haven’t read the books. I think those who are familiar with the story would enjoy seeing it as a “what if” tale, especially if we used new characters. Those new to the setting would surely appreciate the epic nature of the saga. I am very much looking forward to picking up further releases in the series.

One last comment: it is quite shocking to see the stats for eight different PCs all fit on one page (front and back). It was originally a page intended to be cut out and passed to the players. Imagine being able to note a PCs relevant stats and abilities all on one small piece of paper, with only equipment and a background paragraph on the reverse side! How things have changed.

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I Deserve a Break Today

breaktodayAs I write this post, it has been almost two and a half years since I began this blog. For a good portion of this time, I’ve been running a regular D&D campaign. In early 2011, our group started with five PCs and myself as the DM running 4th Edition Essentials. After six months or so, we lost a player, and the campaign changed from a brisk weekly pace to a more leisurely monthly schedule. Subsequently, another player quit, and a lengthy hiatus was the result. However, in the summer of 2012, two new players came on board, and we’ve been playing regularly since.

Several months ago, after completing Madness at Gardmore Abbey, we switched to D&D Next. I was hoping the more compact rules would be a good fit for our campaign, and they certainly were. I had a blast taking my players through White Plume Mountain and the original Ravenloft. After one more session in a few weeks, the players will hopefully defeat Strahd and free the land of Barovia from his tyrannical hand, for at least a while.

After that, we are taking an extended break. For the first time in what seems like quite a while, I won’t be actively running a D&D campaign of any sort.

busy-calendarThere are many reasons for taking a break. I’ve been frustrated by coordinating a free night for a group of five busy adults (and one preteen) once per month. Every time, it seems as if I choose a night, everyone agrees, and then the conflicts start. Typically, several dozen emails are involved in making the arrangements. That’s a sign, I think, that it is not important enough to all my players, and perhaps time to move on. In any event, I am weary of the struggle to simply find a good time to play each month.

Another issue has been the state of the D&D Next playtest. I am generally pleased with the way the new version of D&D is shaping up, but wading through a sea of PDFs and paper printouts is an obstacle. Running a one shot adventure with the test documents is fine, but it’s not easy to do a campaign this way. We are really feeling the lack of well organized books to use at the table. If we can take time off right now, and come back in full force when the books are released (next year, I presume), things should be better.

IKRPGOther role playing systems are also calling to us. This summer, we played a session of the Iron Kingdoms RPG, based on the world of the Warmachine and Hordes tabletop miniatures game, which we also play and enjoy. It was quite fun, especially for me, as I had the chance to be a player and not a GM. One of my regular players has expressed an interest in running an IKRPG campaign, which is quite exciting. Another player wants to run Castles and Crusades, an old-school AD&D clone. I am not sure whether these games will ever get off the ground or not, but I am happy to step away from the DM seat and let someone else take over for a while.

Perhaps the greatest factor in my decision to take a break from the campaign is the simple fact that other interests are taking my attention. A look at the publication dates here on my blog shows that I have been posting less and less over time, particularly in 2013, and this corresponds with my increasing apathy towards D&D in general. I would rather spend my time painting miniatures, playing video games, or a whole host of other hobbies and activities. With the “between editions” lull in exciting D&D material, there are just too many other new, shiny things I’d rather be doing.

the-endWith any extended break, there is always the question: is this just a break, or is it the end entirely? Back in my college days, I played what I thought would be my last D&D game ever. It wasn’t, but if you had asked me five years ago, I would have told you I was done with D&D forever at the age of 23. This time, though, it’s different. I don’t think it will be another 15 years before I run another D&D campaign, especially with a 12 year old son who is still very interested in role playing. I plan to follow the D&D Next news over the next months, and hopefully, sometime in 2014, I will don my DM hat, grab some index cards and a handful of dice, and start telling stories with my players once again.

In the meantime, expect less D&D related content here at the Learning DM. I will probably focus more on the other RPGs we play, board gaming, and that sort of thing. I do enjoy writing about what I have been playing, whether it’s D&D, Warhammer, Magic the Gathering, or even Pokemon. Well, not Pokemon so much. (Though I do love my Froakie.)

Perhaps now will have time to paint all my Reaper Bones Kickstarter minis, and get my new Dwarven Forge tiles dry brushed…

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What I Learned from White Plume Mountain

dnd_products_dndacc_s-series_pic3_enIn my group’s monthly sessions this summer, I’ve been running White Plume Mountain. It can be found in the recent premium hardcover adventure compilation Dungeons of Dread. Back in the day, I was mainly reading the Basic D&D material, so I never got to experience White Plume Mountain before. Looking over it as a D&D Next DM, I thought it would be lots of fun to run, and to see what my players came up with. I thought I would share some tips for running your Next playtest characters through the crazy dungeon of the enigmatic wizard Keraptis.

The first problem I needed to overcome was the level of the adventure. My PCs are 10th level, and that is the upper end of the recommended range. Next characters feel more hardy than 1E characters anyway, so I knew I’d have to adjust some things here and there. Thankfully, the playtest packet includes Next versions of the monsters in White Plume Mountain. These are just a bit too low level, though. I generally adjusted hit points up by 10-20, and added one or two to AC and to hit. This tweak seemed to work fairly well.

D&D Next allows for quick, easy combat, and many of the potential fights in White Plume Mountain are simple enough to be run in the “theater of the mind”. Minis alone worked just fine for the kelpie fight and would probably be sufficient for others as well. However, sometimes, you just want to bust out a cool map and throw some plastic monsters on it. Looking through the adventure, I identified the following as encounters that could possibly merit a full on map:

  • Flesh Golems (if the riddle was failed)
  • Ctenmiir the vampire
  • Burket and Snarla
  • Sir Bluto and his fighter minions

imagesI purchased the printable maps for White Plume Mountain available on DriveThruRPG (a steal at 50 cents). I printed out the maps for the rooms above, plus a few other areas that might be hard to visualize, like the mud geyser room. Even with the printed maps, however, the fact is, White Plume Mountain is rather plain. Keeping in mind it was designed when I was still wearing Underoos and watching Superfriends, I decided to throw in some interesting environmental effects and terrain a la 4th edition.

Probably the best instance of this was the encounter with the vampire Ctenmiir. I had worried ahead of time about the mud geyser room. The obvious solution my players took, one I foresaw, was to use fly to avoid the geysers entirely. But the room was so interesting, I tried to use it anyway. My goal was to move the fight from the rather boring small, enclosed coffin room outside to the dangerous, cinematic geysers. I figured the darkness would be a good incentive to move the players outside. To discourage dispel magic, I tossed in an environmental effect of swarms of flies that disrupted spellcasting concentration unless a skill check was made. A secondary effect was the nerf the casters a bit, and give the melee folks time to shine. I figured between the flies and the difficulty of dispelling the magical darkness, they’d want to move the fight outside. Flying around in a geyser-filled room, chasing a vampire who summoned giant bat minions, sounded like a good thing to me.

In reality, my players were determined to stay in the coffin room. It took several rounds of fighting in the dark, but eventually one of the wizards managed to maintain concentration and successfully dispel the darkness. A turn undead and a couple solid hits from the fighter later, and the vampire was toast. While it wasn’t quite what I had planned, it was still very tense and a memorable fight, so I have to consider it a success.

downloadAnother really neat encounter in White Plume Mountain was the room with the globes. I was trying to come up with a way to make this more exciting, maybe use a prop somehow. It finally occurred to me to use plastic easter eggs to represent the globes. Inside each, I placed a short description of the contents, folded up fortune cookie style. For the globes with creatures, I put in tokens from my Monster Vault set. A few glass beads and other random trinkets represented gems and jewelry. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a ring on hand, nor time to “arts and crafts” one, for the talking ring. (This ring was fun, and I allowed the fighter to use the ring’s wish to allow the ring to work outside the room… at my discretion, of course). My players really enjoyed opening the eggs, alternating between fear and greed in grand procession as they cracked them all. This just reinforces what I already knew: props are awesome, and DMs need to use them more.

Another piece of advice I have for DMs who will be running White Plume Mountain is to have a few extra riddles on hand. My players actually got out of the dungeon unexpectedly (more on that in a moment), and had passed the sphinx peacefully the first time through. I googled “fantasy riddles” and ended up with this list from the old PC game Betrayal at Krondor. My players failed two riddles, and would have been attacked by the sphinx had they not answered the third at the last possible moment. You can never have enough riddles, so consider printing a list or bookmarking that site.

white-plume-mountainThe three wing setup of White Plume Mountain is ideal for my group, with enough in each wing to last our typical two to three hour session. I gleefully admit I railroaded my players into saving Blackrazor and the Ziggurat for last. That room screams “final encounter” all over it. I am hoping to assemble a 3D ziggurat to use, and I’ve ordered a pack of cheap crab toys from Amazon to take the place of the giant crayfish. I’m still looking for other minis to use as well. I think the ogre mage alone in a small room afterwards would be anticlimactic, so he will make an appearance in the ziggurat along with the monsters. I am quite excited about the next session, and hope to have some pictures of the ziggurat here at The Learning DM soon.

One final note: if at all possible, end a session of White Plume Mountain with the giant crab encounter. A huge, dangerous beast, a magical, intelligent trident, and being shot out of a volcano in a hastily-created bubble of force combine to make an excellent end to an evening of gaming. White Plume Mountain is a strange place, but it has made for some truly enjoyable experiences for myself and my players. The D&D Next playtest works quite well with the classic module, and I look forward to trying out the other famous adventures in Dungeons of Dread in the near future.

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