This book is finally going on sale as an individual title rather than as part of the gift set, as well as going up on D&D Beyond, so commentary is all over Twitter now. Today I’m getting into Chapter 2: Bestiary – the whole rest of the book, other than some fairly brief Appendices. As a reminder, this book has more than 250 monsters from Volo’s Guide to Monsters and Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, plus one (1) new creature. I think the orc stat blocks are just about the only thing cut from VGTM?
One new thing – character classes can show up as monster subtypes now, alongside (for instance) devil or mind flayer or… (mind flayer is a subtype for alhoon). Not every monster has a class subtype, but they want you to know what kinds of prerequisites the monster might fulfill, such as magic item attunement requirements.
I’m going to do as much side-by-side comparison as I can, but I’m absolutely not writing a changelog for 250+ monsters. The biggest change, of course, is the removal of lore chapters. For beholders, the Blood War, gith, hags, and mind flayers, I regret those absences and I’m glad to have hard copies for reference. When it comes to the chapters on player races and giants (sorry, giants), I can’t find it in me to miss those too much, because they’re nowhere near universal across current and probable-future D&D settings. On the gripping hand, I’d like setting books to actually cover how these headlining creatures and races fit in.
Black Abishai: This one lets me cover one of the biggest subtle changes right out of the gate. It’s almost exactly like the MTOF black abishai, except that the scimitar no longer deals slashing damage and the creature no longer has the Magic Weapons trait. The book as a whole tries to move away from traits and incorporate them into actions, because traits do complicate DM usage. In this case, they’ve replaced Magic Weapons + slashing damage with force damage. The idea is that fiends have resistance to nonmagical, non-silvered weapons, but need to be able to hurt each other, because… Blood War.
So what do they do?
Instead of bludgeoning, piercing, or slashing damage, fiends (some other stuff too, but fiends are a huge part of it) deal other types of damage, circumventing “resistance to bludgeoning, piercing, or slashing damage from nonmagical attacks that aren’t silvered.” For the black abishai and a lot of the stat blocks, it’s force damage. That’s only the scimitar – the bite attack splits piercing and acid damage.
There are meaningful knock-on effects here. The most obvious is that this cuts barbarians—other than the Totem Warrior (Bear)—off at the knees in encounters. They’ve shifted from resisting much of the incoming damage from most of likely enemies, to a lot of enemies bypassing their resistance to bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage that functionally doubles their hit points.
I can’t tell you if this is:
- Bringing the barbarian in line with an unrevealed design intent that they’ve been exceeding since 2014 (but Bear barbarians continue unchanged)
- Presaging a barbarian rework in 2024
- Statistical exaggeration on my part (I’m admittedly skeptical here, especially in the late game)
What I do know is that before 2024, if you’re playing a non-Bear barbarian, you’re suddenly getting a very different, much less powerful experience in many of the most exciting encounters of late tier 2 through the endgame.
I’m surprised that the subtype keyword system doesn’t find a way to make abishais also be draconic in nature. Just sayin’.
Blue Abishai: Oh, good, this one showcases the other main type of change in the book. I’ve already done the deep dive on changes to spellcasting NPCs, over in my personal blog. Blue abishais were previously 13th-level wizards, with a spell list to match; now they have a small handful of at-will spells and some 2/day each spells.
Also, they previously had a quarterstaff, which they had no business using in actual combat. The art still shows the quarterstaff, but it’s not a listed action anymore, because it was always a waste compared to their other options. MotM wants to stop showing you options that waste the DM’s time. Now they have a Lightning Strike attack to pair with their bite: single target, ranged attack, 8d8 lightning damage. It’s part of their Multiattack routine.
Previously, they could cast misty step, dimension door, and teleport; now they have a bonus action to teleport 30 feet, all day long. Good for getting clear so they can Lightning Strike anyone they want, or throw out a wall of force in the same round (as they couldn’t before, because… spells of 1st level or higher) to make their escape.
Green Abishai: The original version of this uses a longsword that it’s not great with, as well as a claw attack; or a claw attack and a spell from its Innate Spellcasting. The spellcasting hasn’t changed at all, but now its Multiattack is two Fiendish Claw attacks that each do more damage than before, or one Fiendish Claw and one spell from its Spellcasting. The Fiendish Claw trades piercing damage for force damage. With 8 more hit points and no change in CR, this is showing how MotM is aimed at getting monsters to reflect their CR targets a little better.
Ultimately, getting mid-to-late-game monsters to reflect their CR a bit better is a huge part of this book’s mission statement. The changes to spellcasting – no matter how reluctant I am to accept them in this form – are aimed at the same thing, with a few extra steps. That is to say, they want it to be easier and more obvious for DMs to make the tactical choices that result in monsters doing their intended amount of damage. I understand that goal, but it makes me wish for the more diverse NPC combat roles of 4e and their richer tactical experience.
Red Abishai: This creature discards its morningstar – the least effective of its previous set of attacks – for a much more effective claw attack and folding Incite Fanaticism into its Multiattack options. It was hard to justify spending its turn on that action before. Here we also see the Bite stick with piercing damage + massive fire damage, while the claw switches from slashing to force + fire.
Here on the third creature to change from B/P/S damage to force, my feeling is that having one natural attack deal piercing damage and another deal force is a really strange choice from a mechanics-as-narrative perspective. There’s no explanation for what force means in the narrative of their attacks, and it sounds strange in the context of the PH’s description of force:
Force is pure magical energy focused into a damaging form. Most effects that deal force damage are spells, including magic missile and spiritual weapon.
The second sentence of that quote is now explicitly false for the game as a whole, if still true for PC access to effects.
White Abishai: Keeping their claws and bite using slashing and piercing damage, respectively, and swapping the longsword to force is even more narratively confusing to me. The Magic Weapons trait previously helped all three of these, but now only the longsword does anything to other fiends? That’s really weird, because it’s still just a longsword: once a PC kills it, that longsword stops dealing force damage, for no obvious reason. If it were an inherent property of the creature, shouldn’t its natural weapons get something similar?
This places a very specific goal of function over narrative and setting logic in a way that I personally think is not great for the game.
Alhoon: Hey, they still get a full page of flavor text! That’s pretty cool. They’ve lost their immunity to nonmagical B/P/S attacks – I wonder why. They’ve traded the spells of a 12th-level wizard for Chilling Grasp (damage + healing for the alhoon; unlike chill touch it is both cold damage and a touch) or Arcane Bolt (substantial ranged force damage). Its 1/day spells are still some strong contenders. It also has a Negate Spell action that is like counterspell without upcasting, but that also refunds your spell slot or item charge to you. Getting this 3/day is pretty solid.
Alkilith: Oh hey, something from the short list of demons I’ve used in my homebrew campaign! The stat block is a very rare case of this book increasing its number of traits – for the most part the design is trying to incorporate monster traits into attacks.
The Abyssal Rift trait was previously described in its flavor text but easily overlooked. False Appearance also gets a lot more text clarifying its function. It has gained a climb speed and the Spider Climb trait (because it can climb any surface, even inverted climbs), and the Unusual Nature trait that means it doesn’t need to breath, eat, drink, or sleep. Its attacks were already acid-only damage.
Allip: Very slight changes here: Unusual Nature moved from the flavor text to the stat block, and Whispers of Madness became Whispers of Compulsion and gained another d8 of damage.
Amnizu: I would love to hear someone from the Design Team talk about their goals when it comes to crowd-control effects versus high saving throw bonuses and Legendary Resistances, because the amnizu has brutal bonuses to four out of six saving throws. Now, at 18th level, PC spellcasters almost certainly have spell save DCs of 19+, so the amnizu has a 50/50 shot, but still. (This is not a change from the MTOF amnizu, just something I’ve been thinking about a lot as my wife’s warlock creeps up in level.)
The amnizu lost a few of its spell options, but the real changes are in its actions: Disruptive Touch is gone, Taskmaster Whip lost 3d10 of its force damage, and Poison Mind is renamed to Blinding Rot. It’s using Taskmaster Whip twice rather than using it once and following it up with Disruptive Touch. Looks like it was stratospherically overtuned in the previous version, and this tones it down to CR 18 expectations. Twice 25 average damage, rather than 43 followed by 44. (Setting aside Blinding Rot/Poison Mind, as it’s the same damage. Forgetfulness being an optional part of the Multiattack rather than only a separate action is a big help.
Annis Hag: +15 hit points from 2 additional Hit Dice. That’s it.
Archdruid: As a high-level spellcaster, this stat block has changed greatly. They still have a few significant druid spells, and Spellcasting is now part of their Multiattack routine options. The rest of their action is a Staff attack that does strong poison damage and a Wildfire ranged spell attack that deals fire damage and blinds the target on a hit.
The new spell-replacement attacks that automatically impose a condition such as blinded on a hit, with no save, are a bit of a surprise. We’ve seen plenty of creatures that get to grapple and restrain you on a hit, so it’s really just blinded that’s new there.
Archer: I swear to God I had something for this.
Oh right: Archer is getting a thirteenth season, and I think that’s impressive.
The action timing of Archer’s Eye got easier for the DM to use, for which I am profoundly grateful; also they can now Multiattack with their shortswords. That’s it.
Armanite: Their hit points, claw damage, and Lightning Lance damage all got goosed up noticeably, and they pick up a knockdown effect for their Hooves. That’s a significant net increase in danger for a CR 7.
Astral Dreadnought: Its Bite and Claw attacks are now force damage rather than piercing and slashing damage, and the damage output of Psychic Projection got nudged up a bit.
…that gets us through the As. The book obviously has a long way left to go and I’m not covering it in this article. Nor am I expecting to cover every monster in an ongoing series focused on this book. Next time out, I’m going to focus on named, legendary opponents like Bael and Hutijin. The majority of the book’s changes are some variation on things I discussed in the five varieties of abishai.
At this point, the monsters in this book are a mixed bag for me. I’d be more excited if there were a way to build more varied tactics and teach the DM that intention. There’s not a clear way to write out that intent or apply it to enough emergent situations to be useful, but… something’s got to happen to make some of these CR 16+ creatures present the awe-inspiring threat they’re meant to.