Reviews

The detail in the devils–Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes review

Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes is more than a standout explanation of planar conflicts; it’s a culmination of Wizard’s philosophy of design, providing us with a book that functions as compelling lore, new character options, and a wealth of monsters to fill out our game worlds. This shapes the vision of everything that WotC has learned about how to present a supplement book. Whereas the Swordcoast Adventurer’s Guide was a confused release, not sure of which direction to take itself, the Tome of Foes is a great read that will help give your campaigns detail.

On top of its utilitarian uses. While this book is far less useful for players, who mostly have a few races to add to their repertoire, a DM who knows what he or she is doing will find a treasure trove of adventure ideas that can start on the small scale and balloon out into full scale planar war.

I don’t have any hesitation in saying this is my favorite new release for Fifth Edition. It devotes itself completely to the weird, horrific, and fantastical aspects of the D&D lore. Dancing around these pages, you are guaranteed to stumble upon small concepts that could inspire a character, adventure, or entire campaign. More importantly, it leverages the weight of D&D’s history into some of its best moments, and presents you with the height of what we can achieve with high fantasy: a look into morality and war through the lens of the impossible.

The Lore section of this book takes up about half of the pagecount, and stretches across the vastness of the planes. It describes the conflicts between races and powers that shape the course of the cosmos from behind the scenes, while giving greater context to the gods and their opponents. This section is overflowing with adventure opportunities, provided you know what you are doing. As much as I love everything here, there are few direct adventure hooks, and I get the impression that less experienced DMs will need some guidance to get the most out of this material. When I look at something like the Blood War or the feud between the Gith factions, I have dozens of ideas of how I would use these to inform, bolster, or base a campaign. For someone who has been doing this for less often, they could have used more support jumping into these adventures.

The vast majority of lore and new rules connect directly to the Blood War, an eternal struggle in which each party is both vile and necessary. The Devils of the Nine Hells vie endlessly to stop Demons from destroying reality, and the Demons are trying to stop the Devils from ruling it. Each side is willing to do anything to win, which means making harsh choices (sometimes ones the players may have to allow them to make). If either side wins the war, everyone else loses, and the moment you learn this you are doomed forever. (Of course, the person who tells us this, Mordenkainen, is an arms dealer, so his opinion may well be skewed.) The factions are given intense detail, outlining the major players as well as their goals and methods, and the makeup of their armies. The Demons are not presented quite as well as the Devils on first read, however. A casual read makes the Devils sounds like they are in the right in battling to protect reality from the Demons. However, the Demons have a function just as important in stopping the devils from ruling all creation. Instead, they sound more like crazed destroyers, which…granted…is completely accurate. The difference in methods makes them perfectly juxtaposed against one another: two forces serving the same function for completely different reasons and ends.

This section definitely gets the most attention, giving us write-ups of the most important and powerful personalities in the nine hells and pandemonium. These were quick and to the point, but not lacking in flavor. I found myself constantly coming up with story hooks every few pages.  The demon and devil creation tables were particularly exciting, especially for creating a horrific enemy. Dragons are frightening, but do they bleed wasps and have a second mouth that is constantly mumbling? I don’t think so. The only part I found lacking was the dearth of maps explaining the relationship between these areas and their rulers. It is not wholly necessary, especially because they are somewhat large and abstract, but the occasional description of specific locations in or boundaries of the war left me wishing that we had a visual representation of this conflict from a more macro scale.

If there is any flaw here, is it how much of the book is dedicated directly to the Blood War. Most of the new rules and monsters connect directly to this conflict, and it does make the book feel weighted away from the others. That said, you most certainly have enough to run full games based around any of these conflicts, and I highly encourage that you consider doing so.

However, we get a treat that I did not expect but found myself enjoying profoundly: the life and times of the Githyanki and Githzerai. Two factions of what was once one race, they disagree on how to conduct themselves now that they have wrested themselves from the control of the Illithids. These conflicts take them to far places outside of reality, where entities of cosmic horror reside and sanity is under threat at all times. Players may join in these factions or attempt to reconcile them, and attempting to do either would be fodder for excellent adventures. The Githyanki are pirates and marauders, utilizing their newfound freedom to take everything they can for themselves. Ruled over by a lich-queen, they venture into the void to grasp more power for themselves. The Githzerai are fiercely self-controlled, seeking to create order out of the chaos of the universe. They live on the corpse of an enormous being deep within the astral plane, where fierce control of the mind requires you to stem the tide of concepts turning into reality and reshaping itself around you.

I won’t belabor this review by delving into every new concept, but suffice to say the sections on Dwarf/Duergar and Elf/Drow vendettas are similarly well crafted. They devote plenty of time explaining the races longstanding vendettas against one another and, more importantly, their cultural outlooks towards one another. Whereas the Drow and Duergar always seemed like an interesting addition intended as a nod to previous editions, they now see some genuine love, and the view we get into their cultures away from the fighting. It’s in taking small moments to tell us about their outlooks that these people become more real and sympathetic. This book manages to make dark dwarves and Devils themselves into sympathetic characters, and careful attention paid to these details will make your game truly stand out. Even if you only use these elements for antagonists, you will create more compelling stories with more human characters; ones that players may even agree with when they learn the reasoning behind their horrific actions.

For those of you who were also anticipating her, The Raven Queen is in here, and she’s awesome. She no longer has the status as a true goddess, but the way the writing fleshed her out makes her one of my favorite parts of the lore. Rather than being a strange figure with an inscrutable fixation on death, she is a mighty being caught between life and death, empowering adventurers to find mysterious items for her, or driving those who venture into her realm unwelcome into madness. Her castle is a collection of memories, which she will take from travelers for a price. Some who fail her missions find that they are compelled to complete them, even after death. The writers at Wizards clearly took this opportunity to stretch their wings a little bit and make the setting weird, and I could not be happier about it. It makes me anticipate all the more an upcoming Planescape or Darksun book, but sadly the hints Wotc have been dropping lately indicate we will have to slog through yet another adventure on the Sword Coast.

Some elves are bound to the Raven Queen and Shadowfell directly, cursed to live forever serving her mysterious desires

After this roiling chaos, the lore section rounds out with something far less : the home lives of gnomes and halflings. We receive more on their hopes, cultures, and dreams, to let your characters to be more than the short people of the party. It seems out of place as compared to the wars with grander scales, and I will be coming back to this section less often, but I like the ideas presented here. The book goes out of its way to give greater context to even the less exotic races, and I hope this trend continues into future books.

As far as new rules go, you will find a collection of new races and subraces as well as ways to inject diabolical cults directly into your games. If Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes falls short anywhere, it is with regards to player options. Now, the book is clearly intended to be more for Dungeon Masters, so this is not entirely a weakness, but it does reduce the reasons a player might have to pick this up. In fact, I think you will get more out of the adventures if you don’t know this lore to begin with, but that may be a matter of personal preference. For those who agree with me, it makes it even more unwise to pick this one up.

Mostly, they will be able to access it for new racial options. The Tieflings get a major boost in subraces, owing to the book’s focus on Demons and Devils. Each new subrace is based on their fell ancestry, changing the loadout of special spells as well as some small changes. These are many variations on a singular theme, but I actually like this change. It makes the race more attractive for different builds, no longer relegating you to a few spells you might not find useful. Moreover, it gives you a way to connect to the wider lore, giving you an ancestor with personality and goals to inform your choices or just add flavor once you have made a tactical choice.

For other races we have Duergar (reprinted from Volo’s but with greater context), Sea Elves, Eladrin (able to change the boost to their teleport ability by choosing their Court once per day), Shadow elves loyal to the Raven Queen, and Svirfblenin. The only brand new races presented here are the Githyanki and Githzerai, with minor psionics and some interesting twists to set them apart from one another.

As far as new player options go, that is about it. The selections are sparse, and could have been supplemented by some new magic items or spells, but the focus of the book is as a monster manual and source of lore primarily, so I am hardpressed to call this a bad decision except in that it limits the attractiveness of the product to players. Especially given the recent release of Xanathar’s Guide to Everything players are far from out of options.

We also receive some writeups of cults owing their loyalty to different Demons or Devils. The cultists have access to some minor abilities and signature spells to go along with their specialized goals. While these abilities are not huge boosts in power, they help provide flavor enemies that is aligned not just to an entity, but to an ideology. These powers are dangerous but also vile. You would only use these to inflict pain or damage, and they are not for heroes to use, unless those heroes enjoy the idea of draining life out of their own allies or making people explode with sudden pustules.

That all done, the rest of the book functions as a bestiary of all the fell, weird, and unnatural oddities at home in the Dungeons and Dragons universe. Well, 140 of them, at least. This section goes out into the beyond, providing you with demons and devils, entities of cosmic horror, and terrifying denizens of the planes. Devils, mutated trolls, entities of numerous planes, and more. The trolls were particularly exciting; given that trolls have regenerative abilities, this section contains examples of what happens when a troll recovers from different types of catastrophic injury, and the unnatural abomination that emerges.

Something else that I appreciate is that the monsters appear to have a decent spread among high and low challenge ratings. You can find threats at any level in this game, especially if you choose to run something at epic level. There are demons and devils abounding who can pose a genuine threat to even a max level party.

I am in love with the horror theme that Wizards has accepted with this book, but I should caution that it is not appropriate for younger children. There is very little here that is explicitly violent, and nothing sexual, but the gore implied by many of these monsters and their dark depictions are likely to frighten the very young. Some of these monsters are truly twisted, like the bag of flesh whose muscles are distended by the chains that bind it, dripping blood and bile from the wounds left behind, with filthy bones poking out from its twisted body. Frankly, I am surprised that Hasbro gave Wizards of the Coast the creative freedom to release this book, but it’s a sign of just how far we have come from the days of the satanic panic.

For those of you considering purchasing the Roll20 version, it has some benefits and flaws that are worth considering. More easy to search and use individual pieces like monsters or races, but more difficult to navigate as a whole. This book was not designed like a wiki but it is presented like one, and even navigating to the book itself in Roll20 is a surprisingly painful process. Once you get there, the monsters are ordered by environment type, creature type, and name, but not by challenge rating, which I would have appreciated. The book itself has access to these, but you cannot see that list in the Roll20 version. That aside, the searchable, modifiable version definitely has its advantages for someone running the game.

Calvin Traeger also contributed to this report.

90

Excellent

Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes

Review Guidelines

Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes takes us to some of the most fascinating and exotic conflicts in D&D’s lore, and does so with style. Full of campaign potential, unique foes, and surprisingly deep moral questions, this will set the stage for games for years if not decades. Its focus on the blood war takes up a surprising amount of space, but even that aside the listing of new monsters makes this book not only an endearing look at the lore but highly useful source for powerful foes.

John Farrell is a Judicial Law Clerk living in Philadelphia, Pa and lead editor on the upcoming Dragon: Rekindled RPG. He has been playing board games and RPGs for as long as he can remember, and coupled with tenacity and weirdness loves the work he does with Gamingtrend and sharing that passion with all of you.
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