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

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
And I have to disagree with Alzrius. The dumbest monster in here is definitely the sull. At least the ascallion and vurgens have an aquatic niche.
I realized early on that if I indulged my desire to talk about each monster that I had an interest in, these posts would each be several thousand words long. Like, the ascallion's whole deal is that the mama fish keeps her babies in her mouth, letting them out to hunt and welcoming them back afterward like an aircraft carrier launching fighters...except the analogy I immediately thought of was Big Bertha from Super Mario Bros. 3:


The Big Bertha is a rather large variety of Cheep-Cheep who happens to be a mother. She always carries a child Cheep-Cheep in her mouth. Occasionally, she stops to open her mouth and let her baby swim out and then quickly back inside before resuming her movement. The same attacks that work on Blooper will work on Big Bertha, but you have to be very careful if you try to get up close and smack her with your tail.

And the term you're looking for isn't acid test, it's traction:


There's a lot of stuff from later MCs that definitely lacked traction.
Ooh, good catch, there!
 
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Micah Sweet

Level Up & OSR Enthusiast
I realized early on that if I indulged my desire to talk about each monster that I had an interest in, these posts would each be several thousand words long. Like, the ascallion's whole deal is that the mama fish keeps her babies in her mouth, letting them out to hunt and welcoming them back afterward like an aircraft carrier launching fighters...except the analogy I immediately thought of was Big Bertha from Super Mario Bros. 3:


The Big Bertha is a rather large variety of Cheep-Cheep who happens to be a mother. She always carries a child Cheep-Cheep in her mouth. Occasionally, she stops to open her mouth and let her baby swim out and then quickly back inside before resuming her movement. The same attacks that work on Blooper will work on Big Bertha, but you have to be very careful if you try to get up close and smack her with your tail.


Ooh, good catch, there!
Ok, that's how I'm thinking of them from now on.
 

TGryph

Explorer
I have all the loose leaf compendiums except those dealing with Dark Sun and Spelljammer ( I didn't care for those settings at the time). And yeah...the loose leaf pages were, in theory, a good idea, they just didn't hold up. By that time, I had so many AD&D books, I couldn't easily tote them to my game, so I would just remove the pages I needed for the session and take those. Even taking the time to add the hole reinforcements (yes I did...to ALL the pages) just delayed the inevitable. So when the Monstrous Manual came out, even though it was for all intents and purposes a reprint for me, I snapped it up. By then, I had pared my game back to the core books, and things went much smoother.

I still have everything, half in the original binder and the other half in a plain black one, and still look though them every now and then..very carefully.

TGryph
 



Alzrius

The EN World kitten
Welp, I screwed up.

A bit of backstory for how this happened: when I started this retrospective, I only intended to look at the Monstrous Compendia, including only those AD&D 2E monster books which weren't technically part of that line (i.e. the Monstrous Manual and Blood Spawn). However, the second Ravenloft appendix (that is, MC15) was part of the MCs, but also a "bestiary" of specific individuals, which was something I'd always been quite fond of. Using that as a pretext, I decided to fold NPC folios into this look-back, since there weren't many of them and there are one or two of those which I really enjoy.

However, on reviewing the list of titles I'd set for myself, I realized that I'd missed a few. Specifically, three character galleries from the Forgotten Realms: FR7 Hall of Heroes, the Heroes' Lorebook, and the Villains' Lorebook. Now, normally folding in a few extra titles after I've started one of these is no big deal: in my limited series retrospective, I added the last three products in when I was roughly halfway through the whole thing. Shouldn't be a big deal here, right?

Except, if you look at the list in the OP, you might have noticed that the listed products are arranged by date. Now, for the Heroes' Lorebook and Villains' Lorebook, that's not a big deal; they're both late 90s products. But FR7 isn't; it came out in February of 1989, literally the same month as the AD&D 2E PHB...and a few months before MC1 actually released. And while FR7 has a lot of 1E-isms, it's still given the trade dress of a 2E product, so by my own rules I have to give it a look.

As such, I'll be taking this opportunity to talk about the "first" product in this retrospective, and a book of NPCs that technically predates even AD&D 2E's debut monster book: FR7 Hall of Heroes.

...all of which is a very long lead-in for my not having much to say about this particular book. At least, unto itself.

Certainly, it's notable as a historical artifact in the progression of D&D in general, and the Realms in particular. While not the first time we got a book of NPCs (as far as I know, that was The Rogues Gallery for AD&D 1E, which came out in 1980), it was the first time we got a book dedicated (near-)totally to characters from D&D novels. While there'd been sporadic "official" conversions of literary characters for quite some time (e.g. the "Giants in the Earth" columns in Dragon magazine), D&D's own novels getting their own game supplement was a watershed moment.

While I can only speculate if this was done in some sort of attempt to create crossover appeal between TSR's novel fans and the people who actually played D&D (though I'd guess that most of the latter were already part of the former), I can't help but notice that this is a James Lowder product, and that he was quite involved in TSR's novel division for quite some time. Was this his brainchild? Did it help to bring the (Forgotten Realms) novels into greater prominence? We may never know, though if Mr. Lowder himself happens to read this, I'm sure we'd all appreciate any insights he might have to offer. <hint hint>

As it stands, Shannon Appelcline's history on this book's sales page notes that there were only seven Realms novels published when this book came out, though it includes the major NPCs for the forthcoming Avatar Trilogy (aka the books that kicked off the Time of Troubles, the first of many Realms-Shaking Events that marked an edition change...save only for 2E to 3E, as I've noted before). Interestingly, there are also characters from a novel set in Kara-Tur...which was never published. That, alone, makes this of interest to collectors, as it makes FR7 the only place to find out about these characters who were all queued up to get their own outing...and then were mothballed (though, as Appelcline helpfully notes, they do make appearances in OA6 Ronin Challenge and OA7 Test of the Samurai).

That said, don't expect those characters – or any of the characters here – to be AD&D 2E characters, despite the logo on the front of the book. Yeah, remember those "1E-isms" that I mentioned? Turns out that means "literally everything except the cover." Stat blocks are formatted entirely in 1E, with things like movement being noted in inches, characters having a "psionic ability" listing (even if they have no psionics, which most don't), and lots of references to classes like assassins and cavaliers.

They even have Drizzt Do'Urden's nemesis Artemis Entreri being listed as having levels in the assassin class, which would come back to bite them hard when the Avatar Crisis saw them killing off literally everyone with assassin levels, and Salvatore got a phone call telling him that he therefore needed to have Entreri die. Allegedly, Salvatore got around this by telling them "he's not an assassin, he's a dual-classed fighter/thief who kills people for money." Being the company that invented rules-lawyering, TSR allowed Entreri to live. But this book proves that they were fudging the rules!

I think the single biggest takeaway here, however, is that this is an early indication of just how quickly TSR started leaning on the Forgotten Realms as their flagship campaign setting. The original Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting was barely eighteen months old by that point, and while (as I noted before) Ed Greenwood had been sowing the seeds of popular interest with his Dragon articles for years, it's astonishing just how fast the world was becoming TSR's golden child. While it might not be entirely fair to characterize FR7 as a glimpse into just how big the setting would become, I think that the clues were there.

Of course, at the time I didn't know any of that. Truth to tell, I hadn't even heard of this product until well after the aforementioned lorebooks of heroes and villains had come out, so in my eyes this book was already obsolete. And to a very large degree that's true, at least from any contemporary stance of practicality; there's some minor value if you want to chart the power-growth of characters like The Simbul or Elminster (26th-level and with no special "Chosen of Mystra" powers was the weakest that guy's stat would ever be), and of course it has those characters from the unpublished Kara-Tur novel, but otherwise? It's kind of hard to see the point.

Of course, I suspect a lot of people thought that even at the time this came out. See, the way I figure it, giving game stats to literary characters – particularly when the canon puts them within the world your PCs are gaming in – is one of those things that I think highlights the differences between simulationism and game-ism. From a game-ist standpoint, having novel characters (at least, when they're high-level and are known for saving the world when it's in trouble) exist in the game world tends to overshadow the PCs. I can't tell you how many letters I recall reading in early issues of Dragon where people expressed a mad hate-on for Elminster and his ilk. Apparently it's pretty hard to feel like big damn heroes when there's a more powerful good guy with a history of heroism waiting in the wings.

And yet, from a simulationist standpoint I can see this book being extremely engaging. If you read the novels and played D&D, then what you had here was a way of using the latter to understand the former. I've long been a proponent of the idea that being able to appreciate something on multiple levels at once (what I call "modes of engagement") is one of the key ways to heighten enjoyment. A fantasy novel is a fantasy novel, but when you can also look at it via the objective metric of the game rules – and, for that matter, look at how it alters and integrates with a wider body of lore – then it's not just a fantasy novel anymore.

In other words, that's why "canon" is important to (a lot of) fans in general, and gamers in particular. It's also why I shake my head whenever anyone talks about a supplement, adventure, or sourcebook only in context of "what can you use in your game?" and eschews any other way of approaching them. There is (or should be, at least to my mind) more to it than that, hence why I frown at what I think is the pejorative tone in the "lonely fun" expression so often thrown at books like this nowadays.

That's really FR7 in a nutshell. It's notable not so much for what it was, but what it represents.

Please note my use of affiliate links in this post.
 
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Alzrius

The EN World kitten
Before getting into the nitty-gritty of the MC4 Monstrous Compendium Dragonlance Appendix, I feel like I need to issue a public service announcement.

While I suspect that most AD&D 2nd Edition aficionados know this, TSR didn't switch to the binder format for its monster compendiums with the expectation that gamers would supply the binders; rather, they issued two of their own, which came with certain MCs. However, while the first binder came with MC1, the second binder was not released with MC2, but rather with MC4. And yet, they caused quite a bit of confusion by having the box that MC4 came in (which I don't actually have, having bought a copy of just the binder, pages, and tabbed illustrations, which sort of puts an asterisk on my "I've finally collected them all!" achievement, since I held out for the wrap-around covers in all of the other MCs, and even got the box for MC1) be different from what's actually on the cover of the second binder found within.

To be as unambiguous as possible, here's what the box looks like:

add-2e-core-mc4.jpg


Whereas here's what the actual binder looks like:

add-2e-core-mc4-binder.jpg


You can see why a lot of people would be confused once this was out of print and became something found only on the secondary market (since used copies didn't have the box more often than not). Fun fact, the guys I bought this from, who were themselves a professional used-TTRPG outfit, actually didn't realize that this binder didn't come with MC2. I mean, compared to the well-documented issues with the three-ring binder format itself (though, as I mentioned before, I think that format ultimately contributed a great deal to the expansive entries of the monsters), this particular point of confusion is something of an afterthought, but it can still drive casual collectors absolutely nuts.

So having judged the covers thoroughly, what can be said about the actual contents of this book?

Without going into a polemical about the difficulties involved with playing in the Dragonlance setting – get too close to the War of the Lance and it feels like you're reenacting the novels; get too far away from it and it stops feeling like Dragonlance – this is a supplement that seems to typify the difficulties involved with making a campaign-specific monster book for AD&D, which in a way is the same issue as the one outlined above: if you tie the monsters too strongly to the setting, then they lose any wider appeal, but if you make them too generic, then campaign-enthusiasts will have little use for it.

By any measure, that's a hard row to hoe, and yet somehow this book manages to feel like it not only failed to walk that tightrope, but couldn't pull off even one of those options, let alone both.

To this, I attribute what @Orius correctly noted in the link he dug up to an old WotC article about monsters that have traction. As I figure it, a campaign-specific monster book is actually shooting for two different kinds of traction. There's the traditional kind, where the monster is just so damn cool on its own that it transcends any issues of campaign specificity, and then there's the kind of traction where the monster seems to exemplify (some of) the best parts of the campaign world itself.

Dragonlance has none of the former, and in all honesty only the draconians have ever reached the latter level of traction. And to be fair, having full-on write-ups of the five different draconians (well, six, but the "proto"-draconian traags don't really count), is pretty damn awesome. Since Spelljammer had already firmly established itself by the time I got into the game, I was well aware that draconians (I'd read the Chronicles and Legends trilogy by that time) didn't need to be confined to Krynn; there was even an in-character quote about them in the campaign worlds section of CGR1 The Complete Spacefarer's Handbook, so for that reason alone I wanted this MC quite badly for a long while.

But really, the draconians are about as good as it gets here. True, this is the 2nd Edition debut of a few other winners, such as the death knight, but this book far and away missed more than it hit.

Part of the reason for this is because the monsters vacillate wildly between extremely Krynn-specific, and being generic to the point of being anodyne. As an example of the latter, remember the "insect swarm" entry from the Monstrous Manual that @Voadam noted in an earlier post? That's from here, along with yawn-inducers such as the giant anemone, a couple new spiders, and stags (in their wild, giant, and White Stag varieties; that last one is a unique creature that seems like it just wandered in out of an Arthurian legend).

Even beyond animals and vermin, there are any number of monsters which are just rather "meh" in nature. The slig tells us right out of the gate that they're distant cousins to goblins and hobgoblins; did we really need yet another goblinoid monster to round out their ranks? The kalothagh is said to be an aquatic manticore, and yet it just looks like a twelve-foot long blowfish with larger spines (hence why it has a parenthetical second name of "prickleback"). The horax is an oversized centipede, except with only twelve legs and a tougher carapace, etc.

At the other end of the spectrum are the entries for which the MC tries desperately to inject Dragonlance elements to existing creatures. And by "existing creatures" I mean humans and demihumans. I kid you not, "Man (of Krynn)" gets four pages, covering four different groups (the ice folk, Knights of Solamnia, plainsmen, and "rebels"; did that last one really need to be there?), while dwarves and elves get six pages each (dedicating one page to each sub-race). Even tinker gnomes and kender get full-page entries, though in this case it's a bit more justifiable having them in a monster book, since I suspect that most groups quickly learned to kill both on sight.

I should point out that this MC actually predated the formal release of Dragonlance's campaign setting boxed set, Tales of the Lance, by more than two years. That's worth noting, because it helps to explain why the (demi)human entries in this book seem to be player-facing information that was slipped into a monster book. The "Man (of Krynn)" entry, for instance, lists the class progression for the different Knights of Solamnia and how to advance in the Knighthood. The demihuman listings all have their class restrictions and level limits listed, as well as their ability score modifiers and associated minimum and maximum values allowed. Apparently this book was supposed to be a stopgap way of playing on Krynn if you didn't want to wait for the boxed set's debut (and didn't just want to keep using AD&D 1E's Dragonlance Adventures hardcover).

If that sounds uncharitable of me, I'll point to how several other entries here also act as backdoor ways of slipping setting information in...or at least, doing so in a manner above and beyond what you'd expect for a monster book. The dreamwraith not only includes the new spell used to create them, but also includes an additional section on the Dragon Orbs (saying the quiet part loud about how the entire entry is to explain what Lorac did to Silvanesti in game terms). The "dragon, othlorx" is an entire page reiterating what happened to those dragons who sat out the War of the Lance (in what seems like a reiteration of what was presented about the dragons of Taladas from Time of the Dragon). Even the fireshadow has two paragraphs (making up the end of its "Combat" section) dedicated to telling us all about...the Hammer of Kharas? Huh?

It's this split focus that showcases the weakness of most of the monsters here. Some are generic. Some are very Dragonlance-specific. Neither are very interesting. It's enough to make the cynic in me wonder if this was packaged with the second binder because even TSR didn't think this would be a strong seller otherwise.

Please note my use of affiliate links in this post.
 
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Orius

Legend
MC4 is kind of a "meh" entry. As you mentioned, I'm pretty sure it was partially a conversion guide for Dragonlance, hence all the material for PCs. This wasn't that long after the publication of Dragonlance Adventures. But I had Tales of the Lance long before I even took a good look at this MC*, and even though the box recommends this MC, it has sufficient coverage of the most useful stuff in here. Sure this has the draconians, but they're pretty solidly Dragonlance. The most portable setting specific monster here IMO is probably the thanoi, which are a decent adversary for polar regions.

There are some general purpose monsters in here, but most of them just aren't as interesting as some of the material from MCs 5, 11, or 14, or the later softback Mystara appendix. Of course MCs 1 & 2 are the staples, and MC 3 falls somewhere in between the core selection and optional stuff. The death knight probably gets in here because of Lord Soth, but it later made the cut for the MM (not much from this one did). I wouldn't call this one completely worthless, but it is the least important of the standard fantasy MCs.

*I did see at least part of MC4 during my first experiences with D&D -- I distinctly remember the entries for the Silvanesti and Qualinesti -- but of course I had no real knowledge of the rules at the time.
 
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Considering its somewhat controversial reputation, it wasn't until Fifth Age and SAGA for Dragonlance to actually get a good collection of strongly thematic monsters. That's why the SAGA and 3rd Edition Bestiaries are the far superior monster collections for Krynn campaigns.
 

Voadam

Legend
Draconians are definitely the Dragonlance stars with Death Knights and supporting Skeleton Warriors becoming identified as iconic for the setting with Lord Soth.

The 1e modules had some new monsters besides the draconians but they were usually a bit weird, like the various spectral minions and fetch from DL 8 Dragons of War. Dragonlance adventures had Thanoi which seemed like a good minotaur complement on Krynn, and Shadowpeople which was just weird, possibly Dragonlance Yazirians from Star Frontiers with different color fur and culture?

I had 1e Dragonlance Adventures, 1e DL8 Dragons of War, and had read the two original trilogies and the anthology trilogy when this had come out, so I was not comprehensive on dragonlance (not having most of the modules) but felt I had a good core basis in it. The over a hundred novels in the line were mostly a later 2e thing and I probably read another dozen eventually (shout out to Weasel's Luck as a standout).

Flipping through my friend's copy of MC4 it was part the Dragonlance iconics, (Draconians, Death Knight, Skeleton Warrior, the Dragonlance races including ogres, the thanoi can almost squeak in here) part carryover weird stuff (dreamwraiths, spectral minions, fetch, shadowpeople), and part some different weirdness: The Disir, the two giant Undead Beasts, and the coolest thing I had not seen yet even though it did not quite fit with Dragonlance, the Yagol (feral jungle mindflayers of Krynn?).

So a few neat new weird things, but not enough to really tip me into wanting MC4 hardcore at the time. I was pretty fine with sticking with my 1e Dragonlance Adventures and my 1e monster books. I am glad I have MC4 now though in PDF.
 


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