Top FIVE Monster books

JeffB

Hero
Saw someone on MEWE put up a question about what are people's top 5 monster books (any system) and why.

I'll list my top 4- Those were easy picks, I'm still having a hard time deciding on # 5- once I do I'll circle back and throw out some details.

EDITED- No particular order. Still unsure of #5


1) Dragonlance Fifth Age Bestiary (SAGA)- I am not a big DL fan, but this is the first in-depth exposure to DL that actually interested me. STAN did a fantastic job despite indicating in the foreword he did not even want to write this book. It is written in the first person from the POV of Caramon Majere - whom IIRC was one of the Heroes of the Lance in the original trilogy. It gives a fresh perspective of many typical D&D creatures as the details are specific to Ansalon. The art is quite good as well-done like a sketchbook by Caramon or maybe his helper. This is in essence a small sized softcover coffee table type book that is also a great game resource.


2) 13th Age Bestiary- Where to begin. Everything in 13A is a different take on the games it was influenced by. But the Bestiary is NUTS. Take the D&D creature you know and re-write it from the ground up. expand it, give it in game mechanics that are unique and tie heavily to it's fiction, offer multiple versions of the creature/related creatures, describe it's lair, describe several adventure hooks/storylines revolving around the creature, describe ways to use it in a combat including what other kinds of creatures may use it, or it may use, or may ally with it. Got a problem creature that has always turned into an argument/discussion between players and GM? avoiding the Gaze attack of a Basilisk?- lets talk about that and provide some options. And THEN we get into things like the creatures and how they relate to ICONS, and the 13A setting. Like most 13A books, it has a very personal, and casual writing style/voice which is welcome change of pace from most D&D/PF products of the last 20 years.

3) Creatures of Barsaive (Earthdawn)-This a "lore text" about the creatures- It is the writings of an Ancient Dragon, as translated by a Famous Human Scribe from a newer age. While there are some creatures that will be fam to D&D players, most are uniquely Barsaivian and extremely well done. No filler monsters like so many D&D monster books.

4) Manual of Monsters- Dungeon World- Unlike the previous 3 which I love for their depth. Dungeon World is all about brevity in rules. This book is free and re-done to look like the AD&D monster manual, but utilizes DW's to the point fictional descriptions and a few tags/keywords. to utilize for play. It's a back to basics approach to the very core of what each monster is that I found very inspirational. Sometimes Less is More.

CHIMERA
Setting-Twisted Experiments
Solitary, Large Construct
Bite (d10+1 damage); 16 HP; 1 Armor; Reach

Well-known and categorized, the chimera is a perfected creature. From the codices of the Mage’s Guild to the famous pages of Cullaina’s Creature Compendium, there’s no confusion about what chimera means. Two parts lioness, one part serpent, head of a she-goat, and all the vicious magic one can muster. The actual ritual might vary, as might a detail or two—more creative sorcerers switch the flame breath for acid, perhaps. Used as a guardian, an assassin or merely an instrument of chaos unchained, it matters little. The chimera is the worst sort of abomination: an intentional affront to all natural life.

Instinct: To do as commanded
  • Belch forth flame
  • Run them over
  • Poison them


5) TBD

Though I hope it wouldn't need to be said-Please list away your top 5 and why if you care to.
 
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Enrico Poli1

Explorer
Honorable mention: 13th Age Bestiary, because unbridled creatività in monster design

5) Dragonlance Saga Bestiary
Because of art and first-person narration

4) MM 3e
Because of rationalization of the previous mess

3) MC Binder (AD&D 2e) including Dark Sun and Ravenloft Appendices
Because of the Binder form; because had monsters from all settings

2) MM 1e
The original, paragon for all subsequent instances

1) MM 5e
Stellar art; plus, managed to simplify 3e Monsters; plus, Legendary Monsters. Better then the original!
 
Others were good, but overall the Monstrous Compendium (2E) is the gold standard IMO. While the implementation wasn't as great as desired (the pages eventually broke out of the binder), a gigantic collection of monsters than can be added to with expansions, was an amazing concept before the digital age. In addition, the information was by far the most detailed for a "generic" monster book, giving information on their ecology, activity cycle, habitat, etc. This really helped DMs fully utilize them, integrating them into the world as more than just monsters to be killed.
 

Helldritch

Adventurer
I have to agree with Shiroiken, the 2nd MM in binder form was really great. All expansions could get in the 2 (3?) different binders and if a sheet was about to break you could photocopy it and easily replace it. I for my self had photocopied all the expansions and placed them in generic binders so as not to break/tear/damage my originals. But for the art, 3.x edition is even better. After that, some of the art was a bit childish. 5ed came back with good arts again. The Tome of Beast from Kobold press is worth mentioning.
 

Richards

Adventurer
1. Monstrous Manual, AD&D 2E. This, to me, has never been beaten as the potentially sole source of monsters for any given edition. Good layout, good spread of monsters, good artwork, lots of details about each. You could run a 2E campaign using only this book for your monster needs.

2. Monstrous Compendium series, AD&D 2E. As mentioned above, the 3-ring format was awesome and it had a great spread of monsters plus plenty of details about each. The only downside was after awhile it got difficult to find a given monster you were looking for - I'm sure I'm not the only one who built himself a spreadsheet so I could easily find where the monster I was looking for was hiding.

3. Monster Manual, D&D 3.5. The main monster sourcebook I use today, given I still play 3.5. Still a good spread of monsters, artwork ranging from very good to "what were they thinking?" - but it's sad that the ecological info was no longer present.

4. Deluxe Book of Templates, D&D 3.X (via the OGL). A force multiplier, adding all sorts of new options for the monster stats you already have.

5. The Tome of Horrors, D&D 3.X (via the OGL). Still the best (in some cases only) source for a lot of 3.X stats for a lot of monsters that predate 3.X that WotC was in no particular hurry to update to the new rules set.

I've only every played OD&D through 3.5, so anything that arrived after that wasn't even on my radar.

Johnathan
 
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Jediking

Explorer
I've only DM'd for 5e so only have about five books to choose from...

I did really enjoy Volo's for the ecological, social, and other explanations of different cultures to use as long-term adversaries. To be able to do a large arc around mind flayers and duergar (as one example) is great.


I am a big fan of the 3e themed books that include both monsters and adventure rules, like Stormwrack, Frostburn, and Sandstone. Even for someone who has never played 3 or 3.5 those are great resources and full of cool ideas that I would love to run. Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes comes closest in 5e, to my knowledge, to doing that with the Blood War, and I would like to see more options like that come out every 1-2 years.
 

DM Dave1

Adventurer
I played AD&D as a kid, missed 2nd-4th, and now am into 5th...

honorable mention: Fiend Folio (1E) and Volo's Guide to Monsters (5E)

5. Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes (5E)
Nice high level monsters. Solid deep dive into lore. Great artwork (looking at you, specifically, Jubilex about to betray Zuggtmoy).

4. Tome of Beasts (Kobold Press for 5e)
Pure volume play with 300+ monsters. Creative at that. Some are rather revolting, but they grow on you.

3. Monster Manual (1E)
Black and white line drawings FTW! Some serious, some comedic. Ah, sweet nostalgia.

2. Creature Codex (Kobold Press for 5e)
A better effort overall than it's predecessor.

1. Monster Manual (5e)
Great artwork, nice descriptions, classic monsters brought into the latest edition.
 
5. BECMI D&D's "Creature Catalogue"
4. Necromancer Games' "Tome of Horrors"
3. D&D 5e's "Monster Manual"
2. Iron Kingdom's "Monsternomicon"
1. D&D 4e's "Monster Manual"
 

Sacrosanct

Legend
Monstrous Manual 2e, for reasons given
Creature catelog B/X, not huge, but nicely done
Monster manual 1e, key details only, not two pages per monster
5e monster manual. Art is is really good, or really bad. Not a lot of middle ground. But the lore is nice
Palladium fantasy. I'm spacing on the exact name, but it was clear and crisp with really good art
 
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CleverNickName

Limit Break Dancing
I think my favorite was the old AC9: Creature Catalog, because it was the first supplement I ever bought with my own allowance money. I tried so hard to use every monster in it, and very nearly succeeded. The artwork wasn't very good (except for the cover), but I won't hold it against them this time.

My second, third, and fourth favorites are the "Monsters" chapters of the D&D Red Box Rules set, the D&D Expert Set, and the D&D Companion Set because of their clean and simple formatting, the easy-to-use stats, and the artwork of Larry Elmore.

Followed by the 3.5 Edition Monster Manual, because I'm a big fan of Jeremy Jarvis.
 

Aldarc

Hero
I'll just discuss two that have not been mentioned.

2) Open Grave: Secrets of the Undead (4e): 4e got a lot of undeserved flack about monster write-ups being light on lore and fluff, but that was far from the truth. Much like the next entry, I believe that 4e grasped the importance of providing GMs with guidance on how monsters are effectively used. However, I am giving this slot to Open Grave because I believe that it encapsulated one of the best parts of 4e's approach to monsters: it tried to rationalize three prior editions of oddball lore, in this case undead. It sought to explain why and how ghosts, zombies, wights, vampires, and the like were different. It sought to explain and expand the lore about how undeath ties into the wider (4e D&D) cosmology.

1) The Ninth World Bestiary (Numenera): This position could arguably belong to any of the Numenera books that include a healthy list of creature write-ups. Monte Cook grasps something critical about "monsters" in how almost every entry contains important gamemastery information such as the prime motivation for a creature ("hungers for flesh," "gather artifacts," to infect others," etc.), how it frequently likes to fight in combat or when and if it flees, whether communication with the creature is even possible, and possible plot hooks or GM Intrusions that a GM can use. The monsters are bizarre, alien, and creative. It's just enough information to use and inspire without cluttering the page with a lot of needless distraction, though it helps that what is required to create a monster in the Cypher System is exceedingly light.
 

DM Dave1

Adventurer
I played AD&D as a kid, missed 2nd-4th, and now am into 5th...

honorable mention: Fiend Folio (1E) and Volo's Guide to Monsters (5E)

5. Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes (5E)
Nice high level monsters. Solid deep dive into lore. Great artwork (looking at you, specifically, Jubilex about to betray Zuggtmoy).

4. Tome of Beasts (Kobold Press for 5e)
Pure volume play with 300+ monsters. Creative at that. Some are rather revolting, but they grow on you.

3. Monster Manual (1E)
Black and white line drawings FTW! Some serious, some comedic. Ah, sweet nostalgia.

2. Creature Codex (Kobold Press for 5e)
A better effort overall than it's predecessor.

1. Monster Manual (5e)
Great artwork, nice descriptions, classic monsters brought into the latest edition.
Future me, what do you think of this (which literally just met its funding goal moments ago)?

 

JeffB

Hero
So I am still working on #5- but here are the details of the 4 I mentioned in the first post (which I edited as well)

1) Dragonlance Fifth Age Bestiary (SAGA)- I am not a big DL fan, but this is the first in-depth exposure to DL that actually interested me. STAN did a fantastic job despite indicating in the foreword he did not even want to write this book. It is written in the first person from the POV of Caramon Majere - whom IIRC was one of the Heroes of the Lance in the original trilogy. It gives a fresh perspective of many typical D&D creatures as the details are specific to Ansalon. The art is quite good as well- the art is done like a sketchbook by Caramon or maybe his helper. This is in essence a small sized softcover coffee table type book that is also a great game resource.


2) 13th Age Bestiary- Where to begin. Everything in 13A is a different take on the games it was influenced by. But the Bestiary is NUTS. Take the D&D creature you know and re-write it from the ground up. expand it, give it in game mechanics that are unique and tie heavily to it's fiction, offer multiple versions of the creature/related creatures, describe it's lair, describe several adventure hooks/storylines revolving around the creature, describe ways to use it in a combat including what other kinds of creatures may use it, or it may use, or may ally with it. Got a problem creature that has always turned into an argument/discussion between players and GM? avoiding the Gaze attack of a Basilisk?- lets talk about that and provide some options. And THEN we get into things like the creatures and how they relate to ICONS, and the 13A setting. Like most 13A books, it has a very personal, and casual writing style/voice which is welcome change of pace from most D&D/PF products of the last 20 years.

3) Creatures of Barsaive (Earthdawn)-This a "lore text" about the creatures- It is the writings of an Ancient Dragon, as translated by a famous Human Scribe from a newer age. While there are some creatures that will be fam to D&D players, most are uniquely Barsaivian and extremely well done. No filler monsters like so many D&D monster books.

4) Manual of Monsters- Dungeon World- Unlike the previous 3 which I love for their depth. Dungeon World is all about brevity in rules. This book is free and re-done to look like the AD&D monster manual (no art), but utilizes DW's to the point fictional descriptions and a few tags/keywords. to utilize for play. It's a back to basics approach to the very core of what each monster is that I found very inspirational. Sometimes Less is More.

CHIMERA
Setting-Twisted Experiments
Solitary, Large Construct
Bite (d10+1 damage); 16 HP; 1 Armor; Reach

Well-known and categorized, the chimera is a perfected creature. From the codices of the Mage’s Guild to the famous pages of Cullaina’s Creature Compendium, there’s no confusion about what chimera means. Two parts lioness, one part serpent, head of a she-goat, and all the vicious magic one can muster. The actual ritual might vary, as might a detail or two—more creative sorcerers switch the flame breath for acid, perhaps. Used as a guardian, an assassin or merely an instrument of chaos unchained, it matters little. The chimera is the worst sort of abomination: an intentional affront to all natural life.

Instinct: To do as commanded
  • Belch forth flame
  • Run them over
  • Poison them


5) TBD-
 
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dave2008

Legend
That is tough, but I will go with:
  1. 1e Monster Manual
  2. 1e Deities and Demigods
  3. 1e Monster Manual 2
  4. 5e Monster Manual
  5. Sandy Peterson's Cthulhu Mythos for 5e
EDIT: I was reminded about the wonderful book: Monster Vault - Threats to the Nentir Vale. If I did this again, I would rank that #3. Technically probably #1, but nostalgia makes the 1e MM & DD my favorites.
 
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dave2008

Legend
I'll just discuss two that have not been mentioned.

2) Open Grave: Secrets of the Undead (4e): 4e got a lot of undeserved flack about monster write-ups being light on lore and fluff, but that was far from the truth. Much like the next entry, I believe that 4e grasped the importance of providing GMs with guidance on how monsters are effectively used. However, I am giving this slot to Open Grave because I believe that it encapsulated one of the best parts of 4e's approach to monsters: it tried to rationalize three prior editions of oddball lore, in this case undead. It sought to explain why and how ghosts, zombies, wights, vampires, and the like were different. It sought to explain and expand the lore about how undeath ties into the wider (4e D&D) cosmology.
Open grave was a really good book - good choice
 

Tyler Do'Urden

Soap Maker
Most of the really good 5e monster books have already been mentioned, but let me add a few that might be under your radar:

Sandy Petersen's Cthulhu Mythos 5e - OMG OMG OMG I can't rave about this book enough. If you like the mythos and run a 5e game that incorporates or is influenced by it, RUN out and buy a copy - it's the bible of adding the mythos to your game. Includes over 100 monsters, with all the classics, all with extensive lore and fantastic artwork, prepared to make snacks out of your party. Plus it includes ways of integrating world and mind shattering encounters with the elder gods and great old ones themselves for ultra high level parties - CR 21-30!

Faerie Fire - Tired of slime, tentacles and insanity? Here's the other end of the spectrum... a bizarre bestiary of fey creatures that's pure whimsy from the cover of a Lisa Frank notebook. Okay, so a book with faeries who like to settle conflicts with dance-offs and anthropomorphic crocodiles with keytaurs -might- not be everyone's cup of tea, but I thought it a very interesting departure from the norm, and another beautifully well produced work that might have to find a way into my campaign ones of these days (the fact that I love both this and the Cthulhu Mythos probably means that my table is not one for the timid...)

Here Be Dragons - Another completely different take... the creator of this book tried to faithfully recreate fantasy creatures as they were imagined by medieval writers and in folklore - and the results will eat your party's face. If you want to give a jaded group of gamers a whole new world of medieval fantasy to explore, this is one you'll want to have in your arsenal as well.
 

Celebrim

Legend
I don't know if I'm qualified, as outside of D&D, I haven't read many bestiaries. Usually outside of D&D there aren't needs for extensive monsters, and there is just a section of the GM guide to the system. And usually, I'm not actually a fan of bestiaries, because I'm so picky about what I use that for most monster books I find myself only wanting to use 5-10 pages of the whole book. But, noting that perhaps unfortunate D&D bias, here would be my favorites.

1) "Monster Manual II", TSR 1e AD&D - While the original 1e AD&D monster manual is a classic, it shows that it was written before the rules were finalized, and the editing and quality of the presentation is also lacking. MM2 in 1e AD&D is TSR at its finest: great art, great creativity, a ton of useful monsters, integration with rules in the DMG and Deities & Demigods, and much more credible high level foes and superior monster design compared to the original MM.

2) "The Bestiary: Predators", Betabunny Publishing (3e D&D OGL) - Although limited in scope, this is in some ways in my opinion the best monster tome ever published. It only covers real world animals, and only a slice of animals (large predators) at that, but it covers them in such glorious detail with an eye towards realism and clear experience with the reality of what DM's need to know. For example, it has detailed rules for determining the value of pelts, hides, and other animal body parts - which as any DM knows, would be an entirely welcome addition to any monster manual as I've never been in a campaign where the player's didn't decide to carve up a monster or otherwise cart it away to be sold. It's a shame that this book didn't reach a wider audience, as I certainly would have bought any follow ups.

3) "Tome of Horrors": Necromancer Games (3e D&D OGL) - Faithful conversions of the AD&D monsters to 3e stats. This tome was nigh essential for DMs like myself that had campaign setting continuity between 1e AD&D and 3e D&D, and was largely superior to any offering by WotC and certainly superior to later offerings by WoTC. Saved me so much effort.

4) "Monster Manual", WotC 3e D&D - I'm uncertain whether this or the 3e Player's Handbook was the best rulebook WotC put out in its whole run, but the combination of the two I think really made 3e D&D the blockbuster hit that it was. Not only did it have a great selection of classic monsters, but it really empowered DMs to make whatever the heck they wanted, with excellent guidelines about the expected math and how changes would effect the difficulty level. The accompanying article in Dragon magazine(?) explaining the design process was also great reading regarding the logic they'd put in place. I didn't agree with everything, and subjective CR is always subjective, but this book was an amazing accomplishment.

5) "Monstrous Compendium", TSR 2e D&D - There are a lot of things I hated about the 2e presentation. I disliked the full color art, as it was with a few exceptions evocative and less well drawn than the original pen art. I hated some of the arbitrary rebalancing of monsters. I hated that as cool as the concept of a single ever expanding tome was in theory, in practice it was a bit of nightmare as any school kid knows that three ring binders and their pages aren't durable. But there was a lot of cool things done here, including much more organized layouts to the monster entries that made looking things up easier, and a real focus on ecology and behavior of the monsters in question was I think very helpful.
 

Arilyn

Hero
1. 13th Age Bestiary: For all the reasons the OP mentioned. Read it cover to cover which I rarely do for monster books.

2. Ars Magica Bestiary: The critters in this book are approached with a thoroughly Medieval perspective. Drips with flavour.

3. PF Monster Manual 3: This one had some cool creatures that stood out a little more

4. Kobold Press Creature Codex: Just a welcome addition wirh monsters my players haven't seen before.

5. Pacesetter Chill: They put out a monster book that I can't remember name of, and I don't want to track it down in my currently unused pile. It's a great resource for any horror game. Used it extensively when I was GMing Buffy.
 

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