D&D 2E Looking back at the Monstrous Compendia: the MC appendices, Monstrous Manual, and more!

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
Yesterday, I received my print copies of Blood Spawn: Creatures of Light and Shadow and the Savage Coast Monstrous Compendium Appendix in the mail. These were the only two AD&D 2nd Edition "monster books" (for Birthright and the Savage Coast, the latter being a part of Mystara) that never got print releases, instead being put out as free downloads. Getting custom print copies was something I'd wanted to do for a while, and now that I have, it marks another completion of a check-box in my collection: that of the Monstrous Compendia series.

To celebrate my deepening addiction growing collection of D&D products from what I consider to be the most flavorful edition of the game, I've decided to start another "looking back" thread, in the same vein as my leatherette and limited series threads. This time, we'll be taking a look back at all of the Monstrous Compendiums...and a few more besides:
  1. FR7 Hall of Heroes
  2. MC1 Monstrous Compendium Volume One
  3. MC2 Monstrous Compendium Volume Two
  4. MC3 Monstrous Compendium Forgotten Realms Appendix
  5. MC4 Monstrous Compendium Dragonlance Appendix
  6. MC5 Monstrous Compendium Greyhawk Appendix
  7. MC6 Monstrous Compendium Kara-Tur Appendix
  8. MC7 Monstrous Compendium Spelljammer Appendix
  9. MC8 Monstrous Compendium Outer Planes Appendix
  10. MC9 Monstrous Compendium Spelljammer Appendix II
  11. MC10 Monstrous Compendium Ravenloft Appendix
  12. MC11 Monstrous Compendium Forgotten Realms Appendix II
  13. MC12 Monstrous Compendium Dark Sun Appendix: Terrors of the Desert
  14. MC13 Monstrous Compendium Al-Qadim Appendix
  15. MC14 Monstrous Compendium Fiend Folio Appendix
  16. REF6 Rogues' Gallery
  17. Monstrous Manual
  18. MC15 Monstrous Compendium Ravenloft Appendix II: Children of the Night
  19. DLR3 Unsung Heroes
  20. Monstrous Compendium Planescape Appendix
  21. Monstrous Compendium Mystara Appendix
  22. Monstrous Compendium Ravenloft Appendix III: Creatures of Darkness
  23. Monstrous Compendium Annual Volume One
  24. Monstrous Compendium Dark Sun Appendix II: Terrors Beyond Tyr
  25. Blood Enemies: Abominations of Cerilia
  26. Monstrous Compendium Planescape Appendix II
  27. Monstrous Compendium Annual Volume Two
  28. Monstrous Compendium Ravenloft Appendices I & II: A Chilling Collection of Ghastly Creatures
  29. Heroes' Lorebook
  30. Monstrous Compendium Savage Coast Appendix
  31. Monstrous Compendium Annual Volume Three
  32. Monstrous Compendium Planescape Appendix III
  33. Villains' Lorebook
  34. Monstrous Compendium Annual Volume Four
  35. Blood Spawn: Creatures of Light and Shadow
Now, you'll notice that I've thrown a couple titles in there that aren't Monstrous Compendium volumes. Notwithstanding the final entry on the list (which, as noted, is still a monster book), the others are books of specific NPCs. I've added them in here because they are, for the most part, formatted as though they were monster books, and still serve the same function of being new and interesting characters for your PCs to kill and loot meet and interact with. Given that there's at least one MC proper which introduces individual NPCs rather than generic monsters (hint: It's the second Ravenloft compendium), that seemed like fair game.

I'll reiterate from previous threads that these aren't meant to be full-on reviews, "let's reads," or even proper retrospectives. It's just me waxing nostalgic about each of these volumes, giving myself an excuse to pull them off the shelves and thumb through them again before commenting on whatever thoughts crossed my mind while I did so, and inviting all of you to join in and add your own comments. If history is any guide, I'll probably post a new look-back every week or so.

Now, on to the first of myriad marvelous monster memories!
 
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Alzrius

The EN World kitten
Confession time: I missed the three-ring binder era of AD&D 2E monsters...mostly.

As best I can remember, I got into Dungeons & Dragons thirty years ago this month, and while I started with the 1070 black boxed set and the D&D Rules Cyclopedia, I quickly made the jump to AD&D 2E. After all, it was “advanced,” not like that kiddie “basic” D&D I’d been playing around with. Given that, the Monstrous Manual was already out when I started buying my first set of the three Core Rulebooks.

Looking back now, that might have been for the best; there’s a reason why TSR stopped with the loose-leaf format. It was still around by that point, but the appearance of the perfect-bound Monstrous Manual was the writing on the wall that they were backtracking on not having their monster books be actual books. At this point we’re all familiar with how the purported “mix-and-match the pages to make your own custom monster book for your campaign” idea didn’t really work out, what with different monsters being on each side of the same page more often than not.

Having said that, I’m glad that I got started with the Monstrous Manual for another reason: it was a surfeit of riches compared to what MC1 Monstrous Compendium Volume One offered.

Don’t get me wrong, this first compendium was fairly substantial, being one hundred forty-four pages long. But for a book that was meant to be the opening offering of monsters for an entirely new edition of Dungeons & Dragons, some of the choices for what went into this volume were rather surprising.

For one thing, there’s a lot of monsters that aren’t here. Again, the first monster book is the one that presents the edition’s face to its fans, so you’d think that there’d be a lot of extremely iconic monsters in these pages. And to be fair, there are: you’ve got the beholder, the chromatic and metallic dragons, the mind flayer, and numerous classics from orcs to iron golems to medusas to wights.

But there’s several omissions that caught me by surprise, too. The drow, for instance, aren’t here. Sure, in 1989 we had only just gotten started with the Drizzt Do’Urden novels, but these guys were still the stars of several very popular modules up until that point, yet they don’t even merit a mention under the “elf” entry. There’s no sahuagin to be found. No planar creatures beyond the imp and quasit, the four basic elementals, and three of the four genies (they kept the dao, djinn, and efreet; alas, the poor marid!). The Tarrasque isn’t to be found either!

Now, in hindsight some of this was because these monsters were being saved for later. The drow were second-stringers, appearing in the MC2, and the planar monsters were being put in their own volume later (since TSR was apparently still trying to think of how to rename demons and devils). Even so, no rust monster, mimic, aboleth, etc...it makes the current me shake my head.

Of course, part of the reason for that is because quite a few of the monsters that are here are genuine head-scratchers. While (almost) nothing’s here that ended up on the list of very stupid monsters, a lot of these choices prompted me to snicker and wonder “what were they thinking?” Did the korred really need to be front-and-center in AD&D 2E’s debut monster book? Was the jackalwere really not something that could have waited until MC2? Or the mud-man?

And don’t even get me started on how many normal animals are here. I get that the paladin needs stats for his warhorse, and that every adventurer starts out killing giant rats, but an entire entry for “animal, herd” which covers camels, cattle, buffalos, antelopes, and sheep? Or the jackal having its own entry, apart from the entry on hyenas and hyaenodons? Really? And it’s not like these are exceptions; you get entries for bats, centipedes, hornets, owls, dogs, cats, and snakes; why did it have to be snakes?

It helps that a lot of these at least add giant versions, and a few fold in entries for magical creatures (e.g. blink dogs are in there with their non-blinking counterparts), but I still question the usefulness of these. There’s a difference between monsters that you need to have because they’re too cool to do without, and monsters that you think you need to have because the background creatures of the game world need to be represented (which isn’t to say that’s not a valid concern, but you don’t need to have stats for freakin’ cattle in the very first volume!).

I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit that there’s at least a few entries that straddle that line, however: those for (demi)human NPCs. Not only do we have monster entries for elves, gnomes, and halflings (yes, dwarves are missing; no, it’s not just my copy, as I checked around), but “Men” get four whole pages covering an astonishing twenty-four different entries! Again, the utility is blended with background information of questionable use; having entries for bandits, knights, and barbarians makes sense. Entries for “gentry,” “merchant sailors/fishermen,” and “pilgrims,” not so much.

Of course, I’m overlooking that the reason for a lot of these seemingly “useless” entries is at the back of the folio, with tables not only for summoned monsters, but also for every kind of terrain imaginable. Yes, it’s random encounter tables! I’d actually forgotten how much I missed these; the “implied setting” was much stronger back then, and these tables speak to it strongly; If you’re adventuring on a temperate plain, then if the DM’s 2d10 roll comes up as a 4, you’ve just met a brown bear! Far better than if they’d rolled a 3, and it’s a wyvern (10% chance of being a gold dragon instead!).

I have to make a special shout-out to the final page, where it gives brief descriptions of the various city/town encounters. A lot of these seem to be lifted almost verbatim from the 1E DMG, like how a ghast/ghoul – which you’ll encounter in a city at night, mind you – says that you’ll encounter them “near charnel houses, graveyards, etc. Ghasts number 2-8, while ghouls number 4-16.”

Gary Gygax may have been gone from TSR by the time MC1 was written, but his spirit lived on.

Please note my use of affiliate links in this post.
 
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Micah Sweet

Level Up & OSR Enthusiast
I absolutely loved all these "books"; the Monstrous Manual is bar none my favorite monster book in all of D&D. So exciting for more talk about them.

In addition to general mechanical utility and appearances in random encounter tables, I think its worth noting that a lot of the less "combat ready" monsters served the additional purpose of supporting the simulation and verisimilitude principals of old school, classic D&D. Those creatures were still part of the world, often a common part, and there was value in mechanical representation for them. Even 5e had a large section of normal animals, for example.
 

I absolutely loved all these "books"; the Monstrous Manual is bar none my favorite monster book in all of D&D. So exciting for more talk about them.

In addition to general mechanical utility and appearances in random encounter tables, I think its worth noting that a lot of the less "combat ready" monsters served the additional purpose of supporting the simulation and verisimilitude principals of old school, classic D&D. Those creatures were still part of the world, often a common part, and there was value in mechanical representation for them. Even 5e had a large section of normal animals, for example.
Absolutely, I still cherish my early edition Monstrous Manual (I have the white bordered version that came first). No D&D product produced has ever come close to what for me is the perfect monster book.
 


Despite being a huge Dragonlance fan, I don't know if I have ever seen MC4. Between the stat blocks in the modules, 1e Dragonlance Adventures, and the Tales of the Lance boxed set I mostly had what I would have needed. Now you make me want to take a look at it to see what's even in it..

DLR3 was a good book though. I used it quite a bit to come up with NPCs that weren't the Companions since I don't think I ever used them in any of my 2e DL campaigns. Are there any comparable books for other settings?
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
DLR3 was a good book though. I used it quite a bit to come up with NPCs that weren't the Companions since I don't think I ever used them in any of my 2e DL campaigns. Are there any comparable books for other settings?
Yep, and they're on the list in the first post! MC15 (the second Ravenloft monster book) is nothing but NPCs for the setting. Blood Enemies describes the awnsheghlien (twisted inheritors of the bloodline of the now-deceased god of evil, who have since conquered territories) in the Birthright campaign setting. And while it's not tied a particular campaign world, REF6 Rogues' Gallery is a book of specific characters.

A few instances of specific individuals turn up in some other books, such as the archomentals (i.e. the Princes of Elemental Evil, and their Good counterparts) in the third Planescape setting book, and the Faerie Queen and her daughter in the Blood Spawn book, but those are few and far between.
 

Gosh @Alzrius as one of the resident Sages here on all things D&D, I figured you were playing for at least since the early 80's!

Question - are all the monsters from MC1 Monstrous Compendium Volume One & Two within the Monstrous Manual?
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
Gosh @Alzrius as one of the resident Sages here on all things D&D, I figured you were playing for at least since the early 80's!
Unfortunately, I can't claim that degree of pedigree insofar as how long I've been playing, though I've certainly done my best to make up for my being a newbie compared to the real grognards! :D
Question - are all the monsters from MC1 Monstrous Compendium Volume One & Two within the Monstrous Manual?
I was going to mention this when I got to the Monstrous Manual (and probably still will), but the answer is no...though it comes very close.

Despite being a compilation of the creatures from MC1 and MC2 (along with a scattering of monsters from several other appendices), the Monstrous Manual reworked a lot; the art is all in color, and in many cases uses a different picture altogether from what was in the first two MCs. Likewise, a number of creatures that had separate entries in the first two books are merged together in the Monstrous Manual, which in more than one instance has some information truncated compared to the original; the satyr and korred are different entries in MC1, for instance, but are merged in the Monstrous Manual, and the result is that while all of the satyr's text is there, the information on the korred is cut way down. Things like that are very much the exception rather than the rule, but there's still several examples of it to be found in the MM.

As far as monsters who are excluded altogether though, there's at least one: the hyaenodon. In the MC1 it shares an entry with the basic hyena, but in the MM (where the hyena has been heavily truncated under the "Mammal" entry), the hyaenodon isn't referenced at all, save for a single mention under the gnoll entry, noting a percentage chance that gnolls might have some with them. (I recall being quite frustrated with their absence, since Yeenoghu's Gorellik's entry in DMGR4 Monster Mythology noted that he had hyaenodons with him, and since I got the MM long before MC1 it left me wondering what those were and where I could find them.)

There might be one or two other monsters missing, but to date the hyaenodon is the only one I can conclusively say isn't there.
 
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JEB

Legend
There might be one or two other monsters missing, but to date the hyaenodon is the only one I can conclusively say isn't there.
The ant swarm, from MC Vol. 2, also appears to be missing from the Monstrous Manual. (Only figured this out after an obsessive comparison of what constituted a "core" D&D monster a few years ago - a nice distraction from Covid.)
 

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