Review: Mordekainen’s Tome of Foes

Reviews

Mordekainen’s back! Everybody’s favourite wizard brings us world lore, racial lore, and a nice selection of monsters to charm and slaughter (or die of, to be honest).

The book looks pretty much standard for the fifth edition: hardcover, gloss varnish, pretty artwork. I actually like the cover art of the standard edition (by Jason Rainville) more than the special edition by Vance Kelly.

So, what’s inside the book that promises that we’ll discover the truth about the great conflicts of the universe?

There are six chapters full of goodies, and the review will discuss them all, because that’s more fun:

  1. The Blood War: description of the eternal war between devils and demons;
  2. Elves: sub-races, gods, day-to-day living;
  3. Dwarves and Duergar: the war, dwarven and duergar ways of living, duergar characters;
  4. Gith and Their Endless War: long-awaited lore and rules for Githyanki and Githzerai;
  5. Halflings and Gnomes: lots of lore about the small races;
  6. Bestiary: 140 monster stat blocks, with the emphasis on demonic and devilish creatures.

TL;DR: A quality supplement. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the racial lore, as I’m a bit sentimental about the amount of write-up that used to accompany bestiary entries in AD&D. I like the new monsters, especially those above CR10 – it’s always nice to have something that will challenge players who got too cocky.

Chapter 1: The Blood War

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The war between Lawful Evil Nine Hells and the Chaotic Evil Abyss is eternal – at least when looked at from a humanoid perspective. It’s ranging everywhere from Lower Planes, to Material Plane, to anywhere possible, really. Put a demon and a devil in one room, and the hilarity (also known as bitter struggle for dominance) will ensue. The book gives rather short description of the history of The Blood War itself – and I’m glad it kind of skips over it; I’ve read way too many pages on the lives and wars of Phoenix Kings to ever enjoy the dry, over-detailed chronicles of any world, including the one I’m living in.

So, as I much prefer the social history (especially in combination with military), I was happy to see the different points of view on the war, and its consequences on mortals. The books lists and describes each of the archdevils ruling the Nine Hells (Asmodeus, Zariel, Dispater, Mammon, Fierna and Belial, Levistus, Glasya, Baalzebul, and Mephistopheles), as well as their diabolical cults (no more generic cultists! Give them new abilities and signature spells!). There’s also an interesting snippet on the gender of devils, and how they’re used to taking any form that gives them an edge in an encounter.

Rules-wise, there are new options for tieflings – they can now be connected to any of the Lords of the Nine Hells, which brings their own perks, although they’re just variants for ability score increases and known spells. Anyway, more options for character creation are just something I love, so I’m not complaining. Also, tables for devil customisation: honorifics (‘the Perciever’, ‘Chainer of Demons’, ‘the Shatterer’ etc.), personality traits, ideals, bonds and flaws.

Next section covers demons and their spread over the planes. Again, we get to meet demon lords (Baphomet, Demogorgon, Fraz-Urb’luu, Graz’zt, Juiblex, Orcus, Yeenoghu, Zuggtmoy) and their cultists, and the boons they can impart on their followers (+8 to Constitution, anyone? Just pledge your undying loyalty to Juiblex and kiss your mental ability scores goodbye). The chapter closes in the demon customisation tables: personality traits, ideals, bonds (just one! I am a perfect product of creation, destined to one day shape the cosmos to my whims. Everything I do verifies my destiny), flaws and unusual demon features, like belching flies, snake hair, bleeding wasps (yeah, really?). Also, fiendish cult random generation tables.

Overall, a solid 30 pages. Incredibly useful if you want to incorporate the Capital ‘E’ Evil to your campaign.

 

Chapter 2: Elves

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Elves! The race I could never get behind (I have a list of issues with long-lived races, or rather their progression/development speed). However, reading the lore on the sub-races and the childhood/adolescence of the elves in society, I was actually fascinated with the whole idea of souls going away and returning. I don’t know if I missed it previously, but the reincarnation actually explains a lot about the elves (and my issues with them). I think there’s quite a good couple of pages of lore there. Even better is the following thorough description of the elven philosophy, especially its long-term part, as well as discussion on the elven adventurers.

A short piece on elven magic (including rather unique mythals – like the one in Myth Drannon – and bladesongs) is quickly followed by the elven pantheon, The Seldarine, which is a nice addition. In true D&D style, there’s a table with deities, their alignments, provinces, domains and symbols. The more known deities are also described in more detail: Corellon Larethian (really, it’s hard to find a more iconic elven deity), Hanali Celanic (god of beauty and love), Labelas Enoreth (god of time, history and memory – a rare nod towards the ‘ancient’ aspect of the elves), Rillifane Rallathil (god of nature and beasts), Sehanine Moonbow (god of mysteries, travel and death), and Deep Sashelas (god of sea and knowledge). A couple of paragraphs on elven ‘paradises’, Arvandor and more achievable Evermeet, conclude the god-oriented part.

Let’s carry on: there are goodies ahead of us. A piece on Eladrin and the Feywild (yes, there are stats for the season-aligned eladrin, and they’re more or less playable), followed by way longer description of Drows, complete with societal descriptions and the drow pantheon (of course that includes Eilistraee, the only good diety of drows). More interestingly, the next section covers the Raven Queen and the Shadar-kai, her elven followers from Shadowfell.

The tables at the end of chapter cover new character creation options: rules and traits of the eladrin (separate for each season), the sea elves (water-breathing!), and the shadar-kai (come with necrotic damage resistance and built-in short-ranges teleport). Couple extra tables cover elf-specific trinkets and adventure hooks (separate for drow and non-drow adventurers). Pretty good options in those!

 

Chapter 3: Dwarves and Duergar

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Yes, there are more dynamic, action-filled artworks in this section of the book. But this one has a dog, so…

We start the chapter on dwarves and duergar with the description of their conflict, as promised by Mordekainen. It’s not too long – more of an overview, really, just enough to give you an understanding of the reasons behind the still simmering (blazing?) hatred.

Afterwards we’re faced with the main tenets of the dwarven life: path to perfection, the legacy of the clans, the stability of the stronghold. They make up the pillars of the dwarven society and psychology, and I have to admit, they’re rather well-written as well. I really appreciate that the book creators decided to discuss the different variants of the dwarves in more than one setting: there are dwarves of Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance. We’re introduced to dwarven deities (yes, there’s more than just Moradin – I can make this joke, as I only even bothered to know Moradin, and I’m not happy with my own ignorance). Next sections cover the standard dwarven enemies (dragons, giants, orcs and duergar), clans and dwarven adventurers.

Duergar, the evil dwarves, get their own section of the book. It’s more of an dark mirror image than the opposite: there are still the main tenets (Our pockets are never full, Our fight is never done, Our resolve is never shaken), but it all lacks the feeling of society, happiness or satisfaction. With just two deities (Deep Duerra and Laduguer), duergar feel the least developed in this matter, but it’s rather fitting. There’a a section on psionic talents of duergar, as well as duergar adventurers, which includes some tips on roleplaying such characters. Also, rules for creating duergar characters (120ft darkvision, some magic and resistances + sunlight sensitivity).

The Dwarf Tables  include random generators for dwarves on the move (caravans, patrols, travellers etc.), duergar raiding parties, for clans, adventurer story hooks and quirks (my favourite is duergar The outside world is a giant cave, and nothing will convince you otherwise).

 

Chapter 4: Gith and Their Endless War

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If you’re, like me, fans of Planescape: Torment, you’ve probably waited for the appearance of Gith in D&D 5E. I mean – who doesn’t want to see more Dak’kons? By the way, he was brilliantly voiced in Polish edition of the game, and I loved Gith ever since.

It’s comes as no surprise that this chapter starts with the description of conflict between githyanki (lawful evil) and githzerai (lawful neutral). Both are motivated by their intense hatred of mind flayers (centuries of slavery do that to people), but their choices and ways differ considerably. While githyanki are merciless raiders, githzerai are more mind-oriented pacifists.

A section aboyt githyanki covers their goddess-queen Vlaakith, the history of the servitude to illithids, description of their society, the order of knights, skyships, and the city of Tu’narath, githyanki capital on the Astral Plane.

Githzerai, described here as strong-minded philosophers and austere ascetics,  revere their great heroes more than they hate everything that’s not them. Their fortresses are located in the Chaos Plane of Limbo, where githzerai learned to manipulate the Chaos to their own uses. They wage the war against githyanki and the mind flayers, although it’s rather through precise attacks instead of full-blown assault.

The chapter covers long-awaited (again, at least by me) rules for creating gith characters, both sub-races having access to some psionics and either extra proficiencies (githyanki) or advantage on saving throws against being charmed or frightened (githzerai). Extra tables cover gith names, personality traits, ideals, bonds and flaws, as well as githyanki raiding parties and githzerai groups.

 

Chapter 5: Halflings and Gnomes

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Often overlooked, but thoroughly enjoyable, smaller races have been described here in pretty much the same amount of detail. What makes them stand apart is that they are not enrolled in any great conflict – they’re actively avoiding it by trying to go unnoticed. They live peaceful lives, making desserts and gizmos.

Section of halflings covers their daily living and psychological make-up. A nice addition is the small boxed-out with halfling superstitions – a cool way of adding a bit of extra flavour to you characters or NPCs. They vary from wearing flowers on your hat to ward off evil faeries, to rules regarding planting turnips. All in all, delightful. There are also the deities, all of them described in detail (Yondalla, Arvoreen, Sheela Peryroyl, Charlamaine, Cyrrollalee, Brandobaris and Urogalan). We get some text on the halfling adventurers as well, and the descriptions of halflings in the multiverse. The usual tables cover personality traits, ideals, bonds, flaws and reasons for adventuring.

Gnomes are presented as ingenious toymakers, lovers of life, easily fascinated with various ideas and peoples. There’s a section about each of the sub-races (rock, forest and deep gnomes), as well as about the gnome gods – again, with detailed information on all of them: Garl Glittergold, Baervan Wildwanderer, Baravar Cloakshadow, Callarduran Smoothhands, Flandal Steelskin, Gaerdal Ironhand, Nebelun, Segojan and Urdlen. There are also The Golden Hills, the home of the gnome gods. Usual section on adventurers and their love of travels.

Rules-wise, there are notes on creating svirfneblin (deep gnomes), and the gnome tables (classic choice of personality traits, ideals, bonds and flaws).

 

Chapter 6: Bestiary

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After a long trip we’ve arrived to the all-new pile of monsters. There are entries complementing all previous chapters – a lot of fiendish and demonic monsters, drows, shadar-kai, duergar and gith. The challenge rating varies between 1/8 (young kruthik) and 26 (Demogorgon, Orcus and Zariel). With 140 stat blocks, that makes a nice selection of opponents.

As I intend to write a separate article on the monsters in this bestiary (there’s so many cool entries to discover), I’m just going to add that the chapter ends in useful tables, grouping the monsters by creature type, challenge rating and environment.

 

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All of the illustrations are taken from the Mordekainen’s Tome of Foes and/or the promotional images, and are obviously not mine.

Vox Machina: Origins, issue 3 – The plot thickens

Reviews

There’s a lot of plot threads sort of converging in this scene. Usually when that happens not everyone survives.

Why write reviews when you can just quote Scanlan?

So, the third volume came out today, and though I have next to no time whatsoever for writing a blog lately (toy business is kind of hectic before Christmas), I couldn’t skip this one. Writen, as before, by the illustrious Matt Colville, the third issue takes on the incredibly heavy duty of bringing all of the characters together. As might have been expected – with paranoid twins, prone to anger Grog and generally detached Scanlan – this does not go smoothly.

Ab ovo, though. Drawn by Olivia Samson and coloured by Chris Northrop, this is still one of the prettiest things I’m reading these days. But what stood out even more this time for me is the amazing work of Chris Kawagiwa, who was expertly handling the layouts. I do not know who decided to use the grid to show the placement of the character (especially those behind the secret doors), but it’s genius.

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The beginning of the story covers the poisoned swamp plot from the third side, as Keyleth and Tiberius (plus their party) are working for the Clasp to uncover the reasons why the mob is losing their profits. Which doesn’t actually go exactly as one might anticipated. Anyway, the Clasp is evil (in case somebody thinks that thieves’ guilds are full of bleeding-heart Robin Hoods), shaking down your employer may not be the best idea, and the race goes to the most motivated. I can’t wait to see how it goes in the next issue.

To not spoil to much, we cut to bickering twins in the sewers, amazing idea of disguising ourselves as ourselves, but poorer, Kiki rolling well on Perception (Keen Senses), Tiberius having the most amazing conversation with a dog, and Scanlan being an incredible bard.

The amount of puns, jokes, and splendid interpretations of usefulness of a bard in a fight (oh, boy. I need more of this), make this comic book worth every minute spent on reading and re-reading. The plot brings together all of the characters (minus Pike and Percy, which is a still a disappointment), playing off various strengths and weaknesses, and finally introducing the villain to the PCs.

In short, I’m seriously impressed. Third issue is great, even if slightly darker than the previous ones (although the series started with an infant sacrifice…). I thought it might be just sentiment for the Critical Role, but then it became apparent it’s just a quality piece of entertainment.

Let me just finish off with this golden piece of Scanlan:

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Review: Xanathar’s Guide to Everything

Reviews

Character options! Improved backgrounds! Magic item creation rules! New spells! Myriad of traps!

If 5E D&D was lacking something, it was definitely more options. Devised as a system with a new player-friendly learning curve, it didn’t overwhelm with choices. For someone like me, who spent their games mostly in Pathfinder or Shadowrun, it was rather underwhelming in this regards. The current edition’s publishing strategy, focusing on campaigns and adventures, has made life of many (mostly first-time) GMs easier, and this is definitely a good thing.

However, not being a first-time GM and loving making choices, I was struggling for a long time with fifth edition. I felt it’s too constricting and too vague at the same time.

And then cue Xanathar.

The greedy, conceited, rich, and powerful beholder (and his goldfish) has collected some of the best lore and items and for whatever reason is happy to share it.

Character options

The most important part of the book is the first section with new character subclasses. Most of them we’ve seen already in Unearthed Arcana, but they’ve all seen some rework (major, like the War Mage, or minor, like the Forge Cleric). Included in the book are:

  • Barbarian: Path of the Ancestral Guardian, Path of the Storm Herald, Path of the Zealot
  • Bard: College of Glamour, College of Swords, College of Whispers
  • Cleric: Forge Domain, Grave Domain
  • Druid: Circle of Dreams, Circle of the Shepherd
  • Fighter: Arcane Archer, Cavalier, Samurai
  • Monk: Way of the Drunken Master, Way of the Kensei, Way of the Sun Soul
  • Paladin: Oath of Conquest, Oath of Redemption
  • Ranger: Gloom Stalker, Horizon Walker, Monster Slayer
  • Rogue: Inquisitive, Mastermind, Scout, Swashbuckler
  • Sorcerer: Divine Soul, Shadow Magic, Storm Sorcery
  • Warlock: The Celestial, The Hexblade
  • Wizard: War Magic

My personal favourite is definitely the Forge domain for cleric (which is incidentally the character I’m playing in the current campaign) – combines fun flavour abilities (magically creating mundane equipment from coins or scrap metal) and pretty good boons (nice AC boosts and fire resistance). Ranger’s gloom stalker is maybe not outright broken, but definitely powerful (especially in our campaign, where GM has brought upon us the eternal night – our ranger is virtually invisible at all times).

What’s more, new subclasses are not the only way the standard classes become enriched by this book. The authors added some background detail tables as well: each class can now roll on three class-specific tables, i.e. a druid can now roll for a treasured item, a guiding aspect, and a mentor. Obviously, these will not be of a great help to well-established characters, but they definitely help in creation of new ones. If the first-level fighter knows he’s wearing a heraldic sign of a phoenix, he was taught combat by a street fighter, and his combat style is rather on a cunning side, that’s already a good start for a three-dimensional character.

On a side note, druid’s section includes one of the most useful things I’ve seen in this type of books: a list of beast shapes separated by climate and in ascending order of CR. If you’ve ever wondered which beast shapes your desert-themed druid should know, look no further.

 

Backgrounds

A second section is made of plethora of tables which allow you to randomly (or semi-randomly) generate the origins of your character (or an NPC, for that matter). Again, useful not only for new characters; even an existing one can add some extra details to their story.

The first set of tables covers the parentage (especially for half-elves, half-orcs and tieflings), birthplace, siblings, family status etc., including childhood memories (dependent on character’s Charisma – my Cha 7 cleric definitely did not roll well for childhood friendships!).

Further down you’ll find reasons why your character followed a chosen background (as in: your PC became a charlatan because after a charlatan fleeced their family, they decided to learn the trade so they would never be fooled by such deception again) or a chosen class (i.e. when your warlock was faced with a terrible crisis, they prayed to any being who would listen, and the creature that answered became their patron). There’s six options for each background and class – enough to cover a multitude of campaigns.

Next section covers life events, like useful contacts, rivals, tragedies or magical (or just plainly weird) events your character had experienced before starting the campaign. They may have committed a crime, fought in a battle, spent some time on a fey court, or gotten married – it’s all up to you (or the dice roll). Anyhow, the tables are chock-full of plot hooks and ideas that can be expanded into interesting origin stories.

Supplemental tables allow to roll for races, alignment, classes or causes of death – helpful in creating allies, rivals or family members.

Racial feats make a really nice addition – we’ve seen them in Unearthed Arcana, but they’ve been considerably reworked. Definitely something worth considering!

All in all – dead useful tool. Even experienced players may be inspired by questions asked and answers given; and if something doesn’t fit the established character, just change it or drop it. It’s all optional.

 

DM’s Tools

Third part consist extra tools for the Dungeon Master, i.e. rules for falling, sleeping (in armour or without etc.), adamantine weapons, tying knots. There’s also a great section on tool proficiencies: no more wondering why the hell you’d take cook utensils proficiency – it actually can give you an edge now, like spotting poison or helping recover hit points on a short rest. And the DC to cook a decent meal is only 10; not what I’ve found in a real life.

Spellcasters among us will find useful the next couple of pages, devoted to identifying spells and using templates on a grid for AoE spells. There’s a lot of useful diagrams there – no longer need to discuss if 1/3 of a base of the mini covered is enough to get hit by a fireball. The answer is yes, by the way.

Highly detailed (and insightful) rules for encounter building cover a fair amount of pages and include encounter tables for different environments and tiers of play. As usual, not all of the encounters have to end in combat; there’s a fair amount of these which can introduce a quest giver or just some role-play opportunities.

For the dungeon delvers and dungeon builders, there’s a section on traps, and it’s on the longer side. Includes rules and examples for both simple traps (like bear traps) and the complex ones (like a Sphere of Crushing Doom). Delightful to read. And, always useful advice: Traps are most effective when their presence comes as a surprise, not when they appear so often that the characters spend all their effort watching out for the next one. Classic quality > quantity.

Downtime revisited is a section I was particularly interested in, and it finally introduces some proper rules for magic item creation (I’ve mentioned playing a forge cleric, right? She’s a guild artisan on a quest to create her masterwork and finish the apprenticeship; magic item creation rules are vital for any progression of her personal story). Introduction of rivals is an interesting development as well – it gives the DM a framework for creating NPCs that oppose the PCs while not being the villains; every good story needs some antagonists. In short, there are rules for the following downtime activities:

  • buying a magical item
  • carousing
  • crafting an item (mundane or magical)
  • crime
  • gambling
  • pit fighting
  • relaxation
  • religious service
  • research
  • scribing a spell scroll
  • selling a magical item
  • training
  • work

Next section covers awarding magical items – includes guidelines for the DM as to how often should the magic item become available to keep the balance of the game intact. Of course, like everything in RPGs, if it doesn’t suit your world and your campaign, change it. Anyway, now I know our third-level party should have around 8 magical items total while we’ve got none. I expect to be showered with magic in the next couple of sessions; so maybe that’s why players shouldn’t be allowed to read the DM’s chapters.

After that comes a great part of this book: common magical items. While the main books weren’t too generous with those, Xanathar’s Guide helps a lot. There’s 48 mostly hilarious common magical items; none of them is able to break the balance of the game, but they all will be highly appreciated by industrious players. From the Armour of Gleaming (never gets dirty) through Heward’s Handy Spice Pouch (yes, generates spices) to Wand of Smiles (forces target to smile if they fail a saving throw), these items are just wonderful and I need them all. A handy table of all magical items from this book and DMG will help with keeping track of the magical item allocation and attunement.

 

Spells

As usual, new supplement brings some more spells; in this case they’re mostly low-level spells as shown before in Unearted Arcana. I’m delighted to see them, especially as they allow for more versatility and flavour. A cleric, for example, gets an access to a 1st level spell Ceremony, that allows to perform marriage or funeral rites within the mechanics. And my personal favourite, divine version of Mordekeinen’s Magnificent Mansion: 7th level conjuration spell, Temple of the gods, which creates a real temple with a Protection from Good/Evil built into it (no expensive material components, casting time of 1hr, 24hr duration; can be made permanent with repeated castings). I’m enamoured.

The award for the biggest haul goes to the arcane casters, though. A sorcerer gets 55 new spells (or newly acquired access to existing spells, due to new subclasses), while clerics get 7 and paladins get 3. A bit uneven, but I can see the reasoning behind it.

 

Appendixes

Appendix A is something that might be definitely useful for a large group of the DMs: rules for Shared Campaigns. For all of those interested in campaigns like the ones in the Adventurers League, this section will be invaluable, as it covers rules for creating adventures, awarding treasures and co-DMing.

Appendix B is a life saviour for all of us who just cannot come up with a character’s name on the spot. Table after table with names for different races and cultures will be probably the most often photocopied part of the book. Super handy and super useful. Just roll a d% in an appropriate table and make a note of how you’ve named that NPC; your players probably will.

 

Overall

Is Xanathar’s Guide to Everything the best of the supplements published so far for 5E D&D? For me, definitely yes. Character options, lots of inspiration in the background section, finally useful tools proficiencies, and the revised downtime rules are enough fro me to call this a great book. Everything else is just icing and cherries – I’m delighted to see it, but I would be happy with just the cake.

This book definitely fills a massive gap in 5E; for me the game has just been given a second life. So many new options to try out!

So, when can I expect even more?