As you probably know, Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes doesn’t go all that deep on player-side mechanics, just a few races and subraces, but that makes it ideal for this week’s article. If I have extra writing time, I may touch on a few monsters of note. This isn’t a review – Shawn has already written one of those. The short version of my review is that I am really into the lore, but I have Concerns about the direction that 5e monster design is going. We’ll get to that. Also, everything here had clear UA antecedents, so just expect to see a lot of links to UA breakdowns.
This book offers eight new tiefling subraces, as we’ve previously seen in UA’s That Old Black Magic and Fiendish Options. In keeping with what they’ve officially said about the length of their planning, design, and release cycles, the first public-facing portion of this was December of 2015. I expect most of my readers join me in mourning the rejection of abyssal tieflings from D&D canon – definitely one of 4e’s stranger legacies.
The eight subraces are, of course, the bloodlines of the other eight Lords out of the Nine. All of them include +2 Cha, +1 to something else for their ability score adjustment. Intelligence remains the most common by a narrow margin. The connection between stat and subrace theme is… fine? I mean, Dex and Intelligence work well for a lot of them, because the line between physical and mental agility and craftiness is so thin.
Baalzebul sticks with the last playtest version for its spells: thaumaturgy, ray of sickness and crown of badness. Who, me, beat a dead horse? Yes I will, thank you.
Dispater changes from thaumaturgy, disguise self, invisibility to thaumaturgy, disguise self, detect thoughts. Still pretty good, but without the straightforward combat application of invisibility. It’s still great for social interaction shenanigans, and that is very on-message for the Lord of the City of Dis.
Fierna sticks with friends, charm person, and suggestion. I’d like to think that a master manipulator like Fierna wouldn’t leave a trail of motivated enemies in her wake, the way friends does.
Glasya is unchanged from minor illusion, disguise self, and invisibility; fortunately this isn’t stepping on Dispater’s toes quite as much anymore.
Levistus is unchanged from ray of frost, armor of Agathys, and darkness. It’s cold, it’s dark, there are wolves… that’s Stygia for you. (The wolves are freezing-cold hellwolves, but whatever.)
Mammon is unchanged from mage hand, Tenser’s floating disk (once per short or long rest, rather than just long as all of the other subraces are) and arcane lock. It’s on-theme, but it’s pretty corner-case utility effects.
Mephistopheles is greatly changed, from mage hand, magic missile, and web to mage hand, burning hands, and flame blade. I have to wonder what motivated that change, other than wanting more fire and less “this is a common arcane spell.” That’s not reflected in a change to flavor text, other than the Cult of Mephistopheles changing to all fire-based spells.
Zariel is unchanged, with thaumaturgy, searing smite, and branding smite. I would love to see a fallen-angel-tiefling team up with a fallen aasimar.
I’m not going into detail on the cult features, even though they’re cool. What I particularly like about them is that they’re features PCs can acquire purely through story – all you have to do is barter with Hell. I’m sure it’s fine. Not all of the features are equally interesting or useful to PCs, but you’ve got a jumping-off point if you need to write different ones. These are at their most interesting when they’re telling a significantly different story from the tiefling subraces – when the Lord of the Nine’s bloodline-story contrasts with what they want their followers to do well.
We also get three new elf subraces: the eladrin, sea elves, and shadar-kai. Before I get into the mechanics, let me just say that I am head over heels for this lore section. Sure, it’s not as perfect a culture writeup as the Quenta Silmarillion, but I appreciate the ways that it thematically echoes and – at least in my view – honors that text. It accomplishes the job of making me want to tell or play in stories about elves. I’ve read decades of D&D lore on elves, starting with the Complete Book of Elves and the extra-regrettable Elves of Evermeet. For literally decades, they’ve steadily added “interest” to elven culture by giving elves unnecessary power-ups and emphasizing how they’re just better than any other race. MTOF, on the other hand, gets into their mindset, their weaknesses, and their bad decisions, making for a wildly more compelling text.
Sorry, one more thing to say on this, then I swear I’ll get to the mechanics. They’re tweaking the lore of Evermeet, at least from the last that I recall, and emphasizing how it is both a wondrous place and a super bad idea. It used to be part of this world, but the (mortal) elves used high magic to make it something more. It is partly the anti-Valinor and partly a twist on the Tower of Babel.
First up, eladrin. See the link above for what they had in the last draft. This time, they’re still strongly influenced by an internal seasonal attunement, which might or might not reflect the external season. They gain:
- +1 Cha
- Fey Step, a bonus-action 30-foot teleport, 1/short rest. Let me just say that this is already better for almost all classes combinations than the high elf’s Elven Weapon Training (which is useful for extremely few classes or subclasses) and one wizard cantrip (which admittedly gets really good for some classes once SCAG is on the table).
- But wait, there’s more! At 3rd level, they tack on a further effect to their Fey Step based on their current season.
- Autumn is a 1-minute charm effect to two creatures. This does something useful in more situations than the charmed option of an Archfey warlock’s Fey Presence feature, because of its 9 extra rounds of duration. Potentially fewer targets, but the message here is that Fey Presence leaves a lot to be desired.
- Winter is a single-target, touch-range (before the teleport), until-end-of-your-next-turn frighten effect. That’s… not super impressive, but it’s still a free add-on to a bonus-action teleport, so who cares?
- Spring lets you grant your teleport to an ally. Obviously great.
- Summer splashes fire damage around your teleport destination. Since we’re still talking about a bonus action, this is even reasonable to use as a 0-foot teleport, if you’re surrounded by weak targets.
- I’m surprised that they don’t speak, read, and write Sylvan, since being the most fey of all elves is their Deal.
More broadly useful than anything that high elves have going on. (So, um, please to rewrite the high elf subrace to be as cool as this, rather than nerfing eladrin.) Other than that comparison, I like the eladrin rules block just fine.
Sea elves… one of these days I’m going to have to make sea elves matter in a campaign that isn’t primarily aquatic. (Making them matter in an aquatic game is worthwhile, but also expected.)
- +1 Con.
- Sea Elf Weapon Training grants proficiency in spear, trident, light crossbow, and net. This is a painfully bad feature, unless you’ve embraced a revamp of the trident. If you’re not already proficient in spear and light crossbow, the game has definitely given you something better to do with your actions. Then there’s the net, which has disadvantage on every attack unless you’ve picked up Crossbow Expert.
- Child of the Sea grants a 30-ft swim speed and the ability to breathe both air and water. Sure, fine, no problem.
- Friend of the Sea lets you communicate with “any beast that has an innate swimming speed,” which is a workaround for the absence of an “aquatic” keyword or subtype.
- They speak, read, and write Aquan, since they have active cultural connections to the Elemental Plane of Water.
I never got attached to shadar-kai and their sort of pain-cult thing in previous editions, but I’m really digging the Raven Queen-centric writeup they get here. This is probably more related to previous iterations than I realize. Anyway.
- +1 Con.
- Resistance to necrotic damage. Well, that’s super useful and will save you from a lot of terribleness. (This is a big step up from the cantrips that they got in the UA draft.)
- Blessing of the Raven Queen gives you a 30-ft teleport as a bonus action, but only 1/long rest. That might be a lot less than Fey Step, but when it also grants resistance to all damage until the start of your next turn from 3rd level onward, it becomes straight-up amazing again.
Mechanically, shadar-kai are obviously great. They’re better than high elves by at least as great a margin as eladrin. Would play.
I also love the tables of elf and drow story hooks. Collections of story hooks never go out of style, but more than that, these bring the broad, flowery descriptions of the rest of the chapter down to the level of individuals.
The only subrace here is duergar, which are reprinted from the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide. Since I never covered SCAG in a breakdown, I might as well do it now. I’ve always had a soft spot for the underdogs of Clan Duergar.
- +1 Str.
- Superior Darkvision (120 ft) and Sunlight Sensitivity, telling an obvious parallel story to the drow. It would be a major breach of canon not to include these.
- Speak, read, and write Undercommon.
- Duergar Resilience grants advantage on saving throws against illusions and the charmed and paralyzed conditions. Super useful.
- Duergar Magic is noted as being psionic rather than arcane or divine. They get enlarge at 3rd level and invisibility at 5th. Interestingly, they can’t cast these in sunlight, though they don’t lose concentration on them from sunlight once cast. This is in keeping with several decades of duergar canon, so I’m for it.
If your party is willing to work around your Sunlight Sensitivity, duergar are great – just like drow. Also, their cultural story is very cool.
This section also has collections of tables for constructing random encounters with dwarf groups, designing dwarf clans, and creating adventures for dwarf characters. This is solidly useful content for any DM who isn’t going to just look up every canonical detail about each clan, and each dwarf in that clan.
I know there are vast depths of lore around the githyanki and githzerai, some of which Colin wrote about a while back. For a variety of reasons, I’ve never quite gotten a good gith-based storyline off the ground, but I expect that I’ll want to once I’ve read this chapter in full.
As we saw in the UA draft, the gith core race is particularly scant on meaningful features, while the githyanki and githzerai subraces carry a lot more weight.
- +1 Int.
- Medium size.
- 30-ft speed.
- You’re proficient in Common and Gith.
The githyanki are, depending on who you ask, from anywhere in the US, north of the Mason-Dixon, anywhere in New England and New York, or specifically the Bronx. The githsox and the githmets are their… hang on, sorry, I’m being informed that I do not have this exactly right.
- +2 Str.
- Tend toward lawful evil, as a matter of deep, deep canonical tradition.
- Decadent Mastery grants them one language, and one skill or tool proficiency of their choice, because they have all the time in the world.
- Martial Prodigy grants proficiency in light and medium armor, and with shortswords, longswords, and greatswords. I can appreciate that every githyanki has the proficiency necessary to wield a silver sword, but it’s a non-feature for a lot of classes – especially the classes that care about that +2 Str in the first place.
- Githyanki Psionics grants an invisible mage hand, followed by jump at 3rd level (1/long rest) and misty step at 5th (1/long rest). This is fine and on-message all around.
In short, it’s identical to the Unearthed Arcana draft. As for githzerai:
- +2 Wis.
- Lawful neutral.
- Mental Discipline grants them advantage on saves against getting charmed or frightened. Sure, no problem.
- Githzerai Psionics grants an invisible mage hand, followed by shield at 3rd level (1/long rest, but shield is a definitive early-game panic-button effect), and detect thoughts at 5th level (1/long rest).
I’m much happier with this version than the AC boost in the UA draft.
There’s also an extensive collection of tables for gith names, personality traits, and group compositions. I am already spoiled by the excellence of the story hook tables, and I’m sad they’re not included here. Oh well. I still like what I see overall for the gith.
Halflings and Gnomes
The only subrace listed here is a reprint of svirfneblin, from the Elemental Evil Player’s Companion. As with the duergar reprint, MTOF is a useless choice as your +1 source for the Adventurer’s League. It only has races (unlike SCAG and EEPC), and you can’t need more than one of those!
- +1 Dex.
- 120-foot darkvision, but no Sunlight Sensitivity.
- Stone Camouflage grants advantage on Stealth when you’re in rocky terrain or underground. That’s solidly useful for adventurers, whether negating the penalty for heavy armor or granting advantage.
- Proficient in Undercommon.
This has clear applications to many common adventuring situations, probably more universally useful than the forest or rock gnome subrace features. There’s nothing wrong with the forest or rock gnomes; deep gnomes are just a little easier to use well. (And the Svirfneblin Magic feat is unbelievably good, even if your Int bonus is nothing much.)
This chapter also has a great collection of personality traits sculpted to halflings and gnomes. The obligations of self-promotion being what they are, let me remind you that I have also published a collection of personality traits for halflings, gnomes, and a bunch of other races – and my tables include more options than theirs do.
As you probably know, MTOF introduces a lot of new stat blocks, weighted toward Tier 3 and 4 play – which in practice means that Challenge 7-11 are some of the bulkiest, because you want to field multiples in each encounter. Bounded accuracy keeps paying off at higher levels, is what I’m saying. I’m interested in the trends in WotC’s monster design, and I want to see if this book continues an anecdotally-observed trend toward lower-than-DMG-expected hit point totals. Let’s all open our Book of Common Dungeon Mastering to page 274, devoutly kneeling.
Okay, no, I don’t expect you to do that. For one thing, most of you aren’t Episcopalian, so the whole joke may not even work. Not, mind you, that that’s stopped me before. Instead, I’m going to note a few points where expected hit points pass particular round numbers.
- CR 3’s low-end hit point total is 101.
- CR 9 is the first to pass 200 hit points.
- CR 16 is the first to pass 300 hit points.
- CR 20’s top end of the hit point range is 400.
- CR 23 is the first to pass 500.
- CR 25 is the first to pass 600.
- CR 27 is the first to pass 700.
- CR 29 is the first to pass 800.
Yes, I am well aware that you can balance out defensive potential with attack potential, or with other kinds of defenses, and I’ve re-read the Effective Hit Points Based on Resistances and Immunities table on page 277. There are also times when a monster deals much less than its expected damage range, but does something like temporarily putting party members out of commission – thus lowering incoming damage and hugely disrupting PC plans (if your PCs, you know, plan). I’m seriously not covering every monster, but let’s look for some outstanding cases.
The three highest-Challenge creatures – Demogorgon, Orcus, and Zariel – have 406, 405, and 580 hit points, respectively. That’s a lot of hit points, until you look up CR 26. I’m a little surprised that they left room above Demogorgon on the power scale, but they could get back into the business of providing combat stats for gods other than Tiamat.
Okay, sure, but they’re so freighted with resistances, advantage on saves, legendary resistance, and so on that it’s all a reasonable part of the math. For the sake of argument, at least, I’ll agree. Let’s look at some purely brutish, lower-Challenge creatures: ogres. As it happens, all four ogre stat blocks are built on the fiction that this is an ogre (like, from the Monster Manual) with the same ability scores and Hit Dice. Therefore it has the same 59 hit points, even at Challenge 3 or 4. That’s a low hit point total for Challenge 2 (the chart suggests 86-100), so it just keeps on falling behind that target for the higher Challenges.
It turns out, though, that these ogres have some of the most interesting features I’ve seen them use for monsters. The ogre battering ram is a proper Soldier – great for locking down a position and absolutely forcing you to deal with it first. If this were a miniatures wargame, this would be in everyone’s warband. The ogre bolt launcher is, okay, not great at aiming, but I’m reminded of Sgt. Detritus the Troll of Discworld and his crossbow – when this ogre hits, it is a big deal. (Notably, it’s still only on the mark for expected damage output.) The ogre chain brute is a Controller, with an AoE chain attack and a Recharge 6 attack that deals damage and knocks the target unconscious. That’s a condition that doesn’t come up too often outside of sleep effects and raw damage. Finally, the ogre howdah’s numbers fall well short of even CR 2, but being a mount with mobile cover for a quartet of goblin archers could be terrifying. I worry that these creatures will be too fragile to get to show off their defining tricks, but other than that I love them and my players should just expect to see stuff like this.
For a more extreme shortage of hit points, check out the eidolon, a Challenge 12 with just 63 hit points. Of course, it’s intended to be paired with sacred statues, which have no CR of their own – they’re objects until the eidolon comes along. Each statue that the eidolon inhabits is another 95 hit points (that can’t damage the eidolon through overflow). This is a modest increase in complexity, but it presents a classic wrinkle on the animated statue.
My critiques of the races are, on the whole, minor. They’re fine, I like them, they’re worth playing; the flavor text is the more memorable part, though.
I think WotC is making a conscious decision to go lower on hit point totals, as they’re constantly resisting combat becoming slow and grindy. In particular, they expect multiple encounters each day, even though my sessions sometimes don’t work out that way. Some of this might be a lingering overreaction to the criticism of 4e’s combat. I keep hearing that enemies aren’t surviving long enough, though – that they’re dying before they even have a chance to use the signature actions that communicate their story. As a result, when it seems appropriate, I’m comfortable tacking on an extra 25-40% of a creature’s listed hit points, as with a modified air myrmidon that my PCs fought this past weekend.
Anyway. The monsters are interesting, even when some of their hit point and damage values seem weird. What’s important is that the monsters have cool, cinematic tricks to use, whether or not those add up to the right damage total. Overall, Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes has enough nooks and crannies of interesting content that I’m incredibly happy with it so far. Do be aware that it discards some relevant pieces of canon from earlier editions, as Todd Stewart (@TheRealShemeska) has been pointing out over in Twitter.