Product Reviews: Dungeons & Dragons Essentials: Monster Vault

This is me, eating my damn words.

Some time ago, I stated that I had no interest in Essentials. That was before I learned what was actually coming out for it. Tile sets? I can use those. THREE tile sets? Okay, I can certainly use those.

Monster Vault? Don’t need it!

… But then, Wizards does something smart- Yeah, I was shocked too!- and put up previews of the Monster Vault entries on their website, which had the effect of sparking my interest. Once I got a new job, I preordered this, and The City tile set, which, as I said in my previous entry, just got delivered by Tardis.

So, how is it? Kind of a mixed bag, but we’ll get to that.

The Monster Vault is a boxed set in the Essentials line, and has a few components to it: A book of monsters, some creature counters, and a short adventure.

The tokens are a good offering, all told, as they have multiple copies of some creatures (but, it should be said, not others…), can be flipped over to indicate that the creature has become bloodied (is at half its maximum HP) and there are empty rings that can be added to Large creatures to make them Huge. Sadly, there are no such rings that can be added to Medium creatures to make them Large, something of a missed opportunity if you ask me. Still, this alone makes the set a good starting purchase, but more on that later.

The adventure, Cairn of the Winter King, is a short but decent-looking romp that has some good hooks (including the characters getting their own small keep in Fallcrest as a reward). It’s for 4th level characters, and seems to be a good jumping-off point, if nothing else. Note to Wizards: Barring anything you printed in Dungeon (which I haven’t read since you hijacked it…), we still lack a good replacement for Keep on the Shadowfell as an opening adventure.

As a side note, the adventure uses Essentials rules, but since those, near as I can tell, are perfectly compatible with vanilla 4e, this isn’t a problem, really.

And that brings me to the book, which is a mixed blessing indeed. Good news? Lots of it, actually! All creature types have fluff entries now, that grant FAR more insight as to who and what these things are than Monster Manual 1 OR 2 did. There are many iconic creature types included, and there are, effectively, no reprints, as every creature is either not a duplicate, or has new powers. Bad news? There’s no new creature types, so if you already own MM1, you’ve seen the types they offer here. Humanoids like the Dwarf and Dragonborn get the shaft, with maybe two low-level entries for each (welcome if you DO own MM1, 2, 3, Chromatic Draconomicion, etc., unwelcome if you DON’T…), while Humans and, illogically, GNOMES get far more (“Do you have a LAIR? I have a LAIR!”), and some of the organization is confusing, including Animals getting a single, nearly unmarked entry in the back, and Elves, Drow AND Eladrin all getting one entry…

… But unless a product is wholly wretched or borderline useless (Like The Plane Above!), we here at Long Exile Gaming tend to use the phrase “The good outweighs the bad,” and it rings true here. Yes, much of the art is recycled, yes, there’s nothing really new here (say what you will of 3.5e and its often bizarre Monster Manuals, at least they went out of their way to create new and bizarre creatures. I suppose the statement might be “Which do you want more; Useful, or interesting?”), but the book goes a LONG way towards improving the monsters, with making Dragons a genuine threat (they gain a free action before their normal action, such as the Red Dragons being able to bite or claw before their turn comes around), bug fixing annoying powers (The Gargoyle’s Stone Form no longer grants regeneration, but rather, temporary hit points- Note to people who don’t follow the game religiously, this is a HUGE change, and one that fixes the power without completely nerfing it), and overall making the monsters interesting to use, if not really new.

Overall, if you’re looking for more monsters, you can’t go wrong with Monster Vault. Moreover, if you’re just starting out, this is a must have: You can use it for vanilla 4e or Essentials, and in the former case, it can be used to not only replace the Monster Manual, but also replaces purchases of miniatures to boot! Overall, I like this box, and I think you might too. Just in time for the holidays, too…

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