Written by Nick Monitto
It has fallen into my lap to review the “Monster Manual” from the 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game. Or really, it would be more accurately said that I leapt at the opportunity when it came about! Why the strong enthusiasm? Well, let me set the table for you here…
I was introduced to Role-Playing Games as a young kid, many years ago, as the 1970’s were sliding into the 80’s. Over the following decades, I have played different ones from a variety of companies. But my favorite time and products have always been the ones of D&D and AD&D from my start through the end of 1st Edition.
Coming into that 1st Edition a bit after it had launched was a big advantage for an impatient child- right away I was able to get the core books along with some modules & accessories. I can only imagine what it was like back in 1977: the long-awaited debut of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game came with the introduction of this “Monster Manual”, and then there would be a year’s wait for even just the second guide book!
And yet, as odd as it may seem, I can see a sort of logic behind putting that volume out first. With three books that they knew would be separated in their publishing, there was no perfect way to go. If they’d done the “Players Handbook” first, players could put together a party of eager characters standing at the starting line… without the full guidance on how to take them forward. If they’d done the “Dungeon Masters Guide” first, the one destined to run the game could have learned plenty about what they would do… without any characters to take through something. The “Monster Manual” by itself did not really go beyond either of those cases, but it was a fun and fascinating exhibition of what was to come!
So if I may wrap up this introductory wandering with a kind of mission statement: I will declare that I am an unapologetic fanboy of 1E AD&D. It was, and remains, my favorite, so I have always tried to see the good in the game and its products. But when it comes to reviewing things from it (or anything else, of course), I will strive to be objective. If I’m going to lead you to read and try something new with a positive review, I want you to feel like I did it fairly.
Now, with all of that in place, I am going to start the review itself by raving happily about this book! As I commented above, I would have been frustrated back in the day if I had bought this book and then had to wait a year to make characters that could fight these monsters. But I still would have spent every single day in between leafing through the book, devouring the artwork and the details of these fantastic creatures.
For people who play the later editions of Dungeons & Dragons, or other ‘modern construction’ games, early AD&D can seem like something of an odd bird. When I try to make a quick comparison, I’ve come to describe it with a bit of a contradiction: 1st edition can simultaneously be simpler and more complex than whatever current game you may compare it to. Now, I put no values or judgments on the ideas of “simple” and “complex” there. Neither one is better or worse than the other. Many of the things that make 1st Edition more complicated are the things ingrained in me, and they have become like reflex. But I can understand when the questions and confusions come about.
Looking at the overall layout of the book, I first find signs of the simpler side. If you read a Monster Manual (or the like) from recent games, you’ll probably find each creature getting a page or more apiece in their write-ups. Many paragraphs are devoted to each one, the books going into vast detail about every monster. Coming away from that, this “Monster Manual” is Hemingway’esque in its brevity. Over the 97 pages which are descriptions, it covers 203 different monster types. If you factor in all of the variations from sub groups (types of Dragons, for example), it grows to more than 325 monsters listed there! And yet, with all of that, it’s not a heavy read or a bulky book.
The most archetypal of the creatures will get a page or so of introduction, and then quick descriptions of each variety. Some will have a single entry where the differences are only apparent in the statistic blocks. This isn’t the place to find big layouts on the most obscure monsters; many are described in a matter of a few sentences. The stat blocks are where the most important information sits, and with that the game takes a swing back to the complex.
These stat blocks give you pretty much all the information you’d need to use these monsters in an AD&D game. They cover essential combat basics like Armor Class, Hit Dice, and Damage. They also list movement, magic resistance, and special abilities (including psionics, for those who wanted to include them). But it doesn’t stop there: for the ones who are building encounter areas, the stats also go into details like how common or rare a monster is, and how likely it is to be in its lair. There is even a suggested treasure type code (referring to a matrix in the back) to give an idea of just what might be found when it is in that lair.
Most of the listings are for creatures in general, but there are a few unique entries. You’ll find a few legendary examples like the Demon Prince Demogorgon, the Arch-devil Asmodeus, or the mighty dragons Tiamat and Bahamut. An adventuring party would not, of course, encounter these foes under most circumstances, but sometimes a Dungeon Master wants to be prepared with something extraordinary, right?
The artwork found inside is what you would expect of the time, as well. Nearly every monster gets a small picture alongside its stat block, to give you an idea of what you’re facing. Some larger pictures are sprinkled throughout, classic ones that I’ve remembered through the years like ‘that one where the spider is about to pounce’! This book includes work from some of TSR’s early greats: David C. Sutherland III, D. A. Trampier, Tom Wham, and Jean Wells. These are some of the folks whose work is set firmly in my memory when I think of early gaming.
And the cover itself, by Sutherland, is a fantastical art piece in its own right. It shows a wide variety of creatures from those up in the skies to the ones lurking underneath the ground. This wraparound image tactic would be continued through the next several hardcover books (until they changed to the orange binding format), but this particular example is one of the best and most elaborate.
For anyone who wants to run a 1st Edition AD&D game, this is without question an essential book. Even if you are using published modules which give the basic stats on included monsters, you really should have this for more reference. For people playing a later edition, or a different fantasy-based game, I’d also recommend this. Although the stats would not be exactly corresponding, they can be adapted to some systems without too much effort. In such a case, you could take these ideas for creatures into your game world and plot them out any way you wished to. And if nothing else, I would say it stands well on its own merits as a piece of RPG history. Just reading it for the sake of reading it gives you a window into Gary Gygax’s vision for the creatures of his game.
I can understand that some people won’t see it as a ‘sit down and read’ kind of book. It’s like an encyclopedia in many ways, and it doesn’t have the near-storytelling quality of newer monster books. But in its time, that wasn’t really its purpose. It was supposed to be that encyclopedia kind of thing, and it did it well. The Dungeon Masters Guide gave you a little of the storytelling aspect, taking you on a journey through the creation of an adventure/a campaign/a world, giving you the help and guidance you needed along the way. The Players Handbook was probably the most story-like of any of them, working your way through was like creating and building the story of your character, each time you created someone new.
So even if you don’t want it as a casual reading book, I would still recommend having it with your game reference books. If you are currently an old-school gamer, or formerly were and now diving back in, or if you’re looking to learn what the early days were like, I say that this belongs on your gaming bookshelf.