Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes: a Supplement for Everyone
Unlike its predecessors, Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes has managed to be useful and entertaining for both players and Dungeon Masters. Volo’s Guide to Monsters had a few playable race options, but was mostly (and unsurprisingly) a collection of monster stat blocks, which are more or less DM territory. Xanathar’s Guide to Everything included some spells, as well as some questionably useful tables for determining things (like character backstories) randomly, but was also a sort of Dungeon Master’s Guide Lite with a lot of rules fixes and expansion on DMG topics. The Tome of Foes is more like half and half as far as player-based content versus DM-based content, and it’s a welcome departure from what we’ve seen so far.
A Book Split in Halves
Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes is really more like two books. You have the first part, which is mostly lore and playable race options, and is very player-friendly. The second part consists of a massive quantity of stat blocks, most of which provide new variations on existing enemies, inspired by the stories in the first part; the second part is more for DM’s, because players typically have little use for stat blocks.
The separation here is a really great idea, and is something that Xanathar’s Guide didn’t pull off quite this well. If you aren’t interested in stat blocks, you can just stop reading at page 114 and go about your business; for players, there’s no need to pick through the entire book looking for player-oriented content.
Anyway, now that we’ve discussed the general organization of the book, let’s talk about what you’re getting when you buy this book, aside from a lot of glossy pages with cool artwork.
The First Part (Up To Page 114)
There’s a lot of content here, and it does tend to get mixed up, but the mixing is very well handled and creates a strong intuitive sense of where to find things. There’s even a frequently beneficial situation where you’re presented with the information you were hoping would be in the book somewhere, but you find it right after the content that engaged your interest.
The general format is to discuss the great cultural conflicts of the D&D multiverse, and then to present character and rules options that allow those conflicts to be mixed into the game. In most of the chapters of the book, this includes at least a few playable races or subraces, complete with tables for ideals, flaws, and the like.
Let’s take a look at Chapter 2, which is all about elves. You get elven history, philosophies, and intra-racial conflicts. Then you get lore on some less common and more interesting types of elves, like drow and eladrin. And then we go to the Shadowfell for more lore about the Raven Queen and the Shadar-kai.
And now, after you’ve been reading about all of this, and your brain has been ticking, and you’re thinking about how cool it would be to play a Shadar-kai or autumn eladrin or whatever… surprise! Here are character options for elf subraces that allow for all of the interesting elves from the elf lore to be brought into the game.
And we’re not talking bare bones minimum information on how to make these into playable characters. You get tables for character traits for the different seasons of eladrin. You get backstory ideas for elves. You even get backstory ideas for drow adventurers, which are really in demand, because all of the drow PC’s I have ever seen or heard of seem to have very thin reasons for abandoning the drow lifestyle and culture; essentially their backstory is identical to Drizzt’s, because he’s the one in the books.
Filling in Cultural Blanks
Chapter 5, which is all about halflings and gnomes, is almost entirely lore and not much mechanics. But, it’s the sort of lore that was really lacking from earlier rules. For example, you get a few paragraphs about halfling society and gnome society in the PHB, but not much more than that. And that’s something that’s been lacking, because everyone pretty much knows how dwarven society and thought works. And that goes for elves and the rest as well, for the most part. But halflings and gnomes are less obviously understood, and finding it here is most welcome.
We do know a bit more about halfling society, because we’ve all read Tolkien, but in point of fact very little of The Hobbit takes place in the Shire, and that goes for the Lord of the Rings books as well. In fact, we only see “normal Shire” at the beginning, because things are kind of wrecked there at the end. The Tome of Foes fills in a lot of the blanks, including a list of halfling deities which has been sorely missed. Now your halfling cleric doesn’t have to choose from the non-halfling pantheon.
Maybe I haven’t been reading the right books, but I really had no idea at all what gnome society would be like, but the Tome fills that in pretty well also, complete with gnome deities and tables for character traits that are specifically designed for gnome characters.
Lore Is Fun for Everybody
I think DM’s will probably get a little more pragmatic value out of the lore-intensive parts of the book, if only because it gives them a better idea of how to roleplay certain types of NPC, or to design a campaign or adventure around a particular epic and ongoing conflict. I know that there are some of these large-scale cultural conflicts going on further down in Undermountain (which is where my current campaign is headed), and I’m going to feel much better about portraying that after having read the lore.
Players also like lore, of course, and not just because it involves fun stories to read. If you like backstory, the Tome provides plenty of settings and reasons to set up your character’s past. A word of caution for players, though: don’t be that player who reads the lore in the book and then calls the DM out on something that he or she “got wrong” about something. It’s neither productive nor polite. It’s not even valid as a criticism, really, because DM’s have always been free to pick, choose, and adapt… so roll with it.
Traits, Flaws, and the Rest… by Race
This is another really fun thing for players to use, because the character traits (in which term I am also including flaws, bonds, and ideals) given in the PHB and other sources tend to focus on the character background as the primary means of deciding on traits. The Tome of Foes provides the possibility to choose traits based on race instead, which for certain races makes perfect sense.
The gnomes are a great example here, because it’s pretty intuitive to figure that a gnome sage might have a lot more gnome-like traits than sage-like traits. Again, this is a great idea for creating playable characters, and this book does it well.
Wrapping Up the First Part
To summarize what you’re getting when you buy the book:
- Playable character options for duergar, gith, deep gnomes, sea elves, eladrin, Shadar-kai, and a whole slew of tiefling variants based on which fiend is the progenitor.
- A lot of great story material about demons, devils, elves, dwarves, duergar, gith, halflings, gnomes, and probably a few more things that didn’t make this list.
- Tables of options for the races and subraces included, such as traits and reasons for becoming an adventurer.
The Second Part (Page 115 Onward)
This won’t take long to write about, because the last half of this book is about 140 pages of monster stat blocks, followed up with some lists organizing them as an appendix. I’ll hit the highlights, but I’m not going to come anywhere near a complete analysis of everything there.
The best thing about the stat blocks is that they provide the resources for far more options for certain types of enemies, including the enemies that you read about in the lore sections. So, if you were really inspired by duergar, and wanted them to figure largely in your adventure, you have nine more types of duergar to add to the standard boring duergar from the Monster Manual. You also get stat blocks for the male and female steeders that they ride around on. In short, now that you’ve been inspired by reading about the epic struggle between dwarves and duergar, you’ve also been handed an expanded list of enemies to enrich your future adventures. It’s exactly what you should expect from a Tome of Foes.
The stat blocks also include NPC versions of the expanded races and subraces, so if you need a quick build for a summer eladrin, you can find one without having to actually build one based on the player-character creation system.
You also get a lot of pretty great bonus stat blocks as well, like a fairly extensive list of demon lords, a better selection of yugoloths, and a rather comical selection of ogres (including the one that has goblins riding around on the top of it).
And, as mentioned, you get an appendix that sorts the enemies by type, by CR, and also by environment. In other words, it’s a very useful bestiary, and it’s not just a scattershot collection either: the enemies found in the Tome of Foes are selected to represent and broaden the opportunities for unusual and interesting enemies that appear in the lore, and which often have a very limited representation in the Monster Manual.
What Counts as “Canon”?
I’m feeling a need to comment on the topic of “canon”, especially since there’s a lot of lore and storytelling in this book. Generally, when you have a company like Wizards of the Coast who owns broad rights to a property like D&D, they have a certain inclination to publish books and other materials that purport to give the “official information” on various topics.
Maybe in other situations that actually works, and everyone has to accept that there are things which are true and things which are not, and things which are official and things which are fakery. But it doesn’t work in D&D, or at least it shouldn’t. And every DM has the prerogative to completely reject anything from the “official” materials that they don’t like.
I say this a lot, but if you’re the DM, the world is yours to order as you see fit. If you like what you’ve read in Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, and you want to integrate things into your campaign just as they are written, that’s great. If you want to change something, that’s also great; don’t let anyone tell you that your ability to create a world is somehow circumscribed because Wizards of the Coast put out this book of official lore and information.
The moral of the story, as always, is to use what you like and ignore or change what you don’t. Another thing I keep saying is that you shouldn’t ever let hardcover authors and designers kick you around… and for a book like this, that goes double. Be bold and creative, and make a great game… and make it yours.
Should You Buy This?
If you’re a player, and you want to have a lot of extra character options, your money would not be ill spent on this book. You’ll get new playable races, new subraces, and also things like character traits that are geared to races instead of just to backgrounds (as in the PHB). If you like reading stories about the sort of epic struggles that are going on in the multiverse, that’s a benefit as well.
If you’re a DM, and you want to learn about the aforementioned ongoing and epic struggles in the multiverse, and to be inspired by them to create campaigns and adventures, you should buy this book. Not only will you get the inspiration, but it will be backed up by new enemies with full stat blocks to populate the adventures you’ve been inspired to create. Even if you don’t get the itch to develop a drow-heavy Underdark campaign, or an underground war between dwarves and duergar, there’s still plenty of fun and novel stat blocks to spice up any adventure.
If you’re a member of a group, probably the person who likes reading the lore should buy the book, and let the rest of the group crib off of their copy to get the character options. It’s kind of like Xanathar’s Guide to Everything in that way… as long as at least one copy ends up being brought to the table, everything is fine. Of course, the DM will probably want a copy in order to have access to the wealth of stat blocks, so you might be able to get the DM to buy the book and then let the rest of the group borrow it, because we all know that shelling out money for all of the new books and such is really the DM’s responsibility.
After all, if players have to buy these books, how will they have money left to spend on dice?
All kidding aside, Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes is one of my favorite hardcovers to come out in the rules supplement or game augmentation category. Of course they sell it on Amazon and in chain bookstores like Barnes and Noble, but I suggest that you buy your copy from your friendly local game store. It might be a little more expensive, but you’ll be supporting local business and contributing to the health of the gaming community in your area… isn’t that worth a few dollars extra? You bet it is.