The third rulebook for the Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition (D&D3E) core rules system has been released by Wizards of the Coast (WotC). The hardbound Dungeons & Dragons: Monster Manual (MM) contains detailed information on over 500 different creatures. The artwork on the outer cover depicts a Dragon scale tome with a locking mechanism featuring a large dragon's eye staring at the reader from the center of the book. Inside the book you'll find 224 pages of detailed statistical information, along with beautiful full color concept art for a majority of the creatures.

For many editions past, the Monster Manual and various compendiums have been easy to read references that helped the DMs create creatures for players to enjoy. The release of the 3rd Edition Monster Manual came with expectations that it would be of similar quality and layout of the previous two core rulebooks, the PHB and the DMG. It met those expectations in positive and negative ways.

The full color artwork is a very nice change from the black and white of past monster manuals and the artists have done a beautiful job of rendering most of the creatures. Some of the artwork within the tome has appeared in previous productions, on the web, and in Dragon Magazine. Although the quality of the art is not in question, the artists visions of certain creatures are. The illustration of the Tarrasque (page 174) is one example of an artist that captured the concept of a creature poorly. The Tarrasque, perhaps the most powerful, infamous monster of all time is represented as an almost cuddly reptile that resembles Bowser from Mario Brothers. The manual starts out with the traditional introductory chapter, which goes over all the different terms readers will encounter in the monster descriptions. Things such as creature size, type, hit dice and armor classes are all briefly covered to give readers a handy reference. All of the new special abilities, such as skills, feats and special attacks, are covered as well.

WotC has used an alphabetical layout similar to past incarnations. First you see a list of the creatures main statistics block covering: creature size and type (Undead, Construct, Plant, Beast, Magic Beast, etc.) hit dice, initiative, speed, armor class (broken down by elements so you can subtract Dex modifiers for a flat-footed creature), attacks, damage, face/reach, special attacks, special qualities, saves, abilities, skills, and feats. Then you see a list of the creatures secondary statistics block, covering climate/terrain, organization, challenge rating, treasure, alignment, and advancement.

Readers then get a text description of the creature describing in detail what it is. This is followed by a description of the creature's combat abilities. Also, if it applies, the creature's society and/or character information is covered as well. Not as much detail is given to the history and ecology of the monsters. Since the book does not use the one monster per page format, WotC has crammed this book near to bursting with monsters. To add even more monsters, those details have been trimmed down. The organization of the book is very confusing. Monster descriptions wander all over the place. It is very troublesome not having the creature's name at the top of every page, but others may enjoy the fact that a nosy player cannot merely look over his screen and see what he is up against. The 3rd Edition Monster Manual illustrations are haphazardly inserted, similar to a children's novel, with the text twisting and snaking its way around every corner, edge, fang and tentacle. If you were not familiar with the creatures from previous editions, you would have a hard time figuring the new MM out. Descriptions of some monsters end halfway through one page and the next monster description begins immediately thereafter, with a picture tossed ("smack" removed) into the middle of both descriptions. The layout is clearly designed to exercise the hunting skills of the reader. Unfortunately, most DM's will not be interested in creative searching when they need to look for stats on a monster in the middle of a game session.

Another irritating issue, although understandable, is that some creatures were re-classified and won't be found alphabetically. For example, if you try to find a Pixie in the "P" section, you will be destined for frustration, because it has been grouped under the heading "Sprite" (page 172). While this is understandable, it can be cumbersome to locate a creature alphabetically. Fortunately WotC did have the foresight to put in an alphabetical index or you might never have known the Pixie was in the book at all.

One of the biggest sections in this book is the 'D' section. Not only does it have the standard chromatic and metallic dragons, but it seems that the powers at WotC decided that while the Planescape names (Bateuzu and Tanari) were nice, those creatures should go under Demon and Devil. This is a great move and showcases a level of intelligence that the old TSR seemed unwilling to embrace. Most of the major types are here including the feared Pit Fiend and his demonic counter part, the massive Balor. The inclusion of a creature's basic ability scores is one of the biggest changes to the MM. These use the same format as character classes, strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom and charisma. In some special cases a monster will lack a specific stat, such as ghosts who have no strength stat since they lack the ability to manipulate physical objects. These statistics affect a creature in combat the same way as they affect the characters.

Monsters are assigned skills that have been purchased as class skills based on the creature's type and extra hit dice. Feats for the most part are drawn from those listed in chapter five of the player's handbook. There are a few unique feats, however, available only to a few creatures; they are: flyby attack, multiattack, multidexterity and multiweapon fighting.

Assuming you have a healthy party of four characters with equipment appropriate to their level, a monster's challenge rating is the level the party should be at to be able to survive a moderately challenging confrontation with a single creature. Some challenge ratings are given as fractions. A rating of 1/10 means a single party of four level-1 characters could defeat 10 of this type of reature. Again this assumes a good mix of character types of course. The challenge-rating list is a handy tool for players to use as a quick reference to see what kind of monsters they might face based on their character's level. While it isn't a precise tool, it is a good guide to give you an idea if you need to spend all your gold to get a magical weapon or not. Creatures in D&D 3E have the ability to increase their level. This translates into increases in several statistics. Each time a monster increases in level, it receives an added hit die, possible attack bonuses (determined by multiplying its total hit die * class modifier), saving throw increases, extra skill points and possible new feats.

Some creatures will also grow in physical size once they reach a certain number of hit dice. If it is possible for a creature to grow, it will be noted in parentheses next to the hit dice range that applies to the new size. Size increase can significantly affect a creature's combat abilities, since armor and attack modifiers are affected.

Some monsters can actually gain character classes in D&D 3E. A monster that gains a character class follows the multiclassing rules for normal characters in the players handbook. The monster never gains size increases for additional character class-level increases, but it could gain a size increase if it chooses to increase its monster level sometime in the future. These new rules allow for players to adventure as a monster in D&D 3E. While not all monsters are available, there are enough to make your adventuring options almost limitless. The possibilities are endless, and we will surely see hundreds of new monster-specific adventures popping up soon. The Dungeon Masters Guide (DMG) lists the recommended monsters to use as player characters in three different categories: easy (Goblins, Lizardfolk, and Minotaurs, to name a few), difficult (such as Half-Dragons, Werewolves, and Pixies), and very difficult (like Unicorns and Hill Giants).

WotC's design team has made it very apparent that only experienced game masters should include these monsters as character classes. There are literally thousands of things to take into consideration when building an adventure and monster races probably double the number of issues that need to be addressed in the adventure design process.

It used to be that the only tools needed to play D&D were dice, graph paper and pencils. Now add a calculator as a requirement for all DMs who are not math geniuses. This is because WotC's first take on the MM does not include experience points (XPs) in the monster's statistics. This is a major flaw, and will be a drag on gameplay. WotC did include a nice way for calculating XPs in the DMG, but, incredibly, they were not copied in the MM. As a result, DMs will need to go back and forth between two different books, just to figure out how much XPs a party of adventurers will get for slaying some foul beast. The last 31 pages of the book cover three different appendixes and a list of monsters sorted by challenge rating. Appendix One covers Animals and Appendix Two covers Vermin. The data listed is similar to the data listed for monsters in the body of the manual, but there are no concept images and the descriptions are very brief.

Appendix Three covers Template creatures. In the past, creatures like Vampires or Ghosts had their own monster entry in the body of the MM. These were a condition or affliction that a creature suffered from, not truly creature types. So if you have a Goblin that wants to undergo the necessary ritual to become a Lich, you simply look up the Lich template and add it to your Goblin's existing character sheet to create the new Template creature. The different Template creatures are: Celestial Creatures, Fiendish Creatures, Ghosts, Half Celestials, Half-Dragons, Half-Fiends, Lichs, Lycanthropes and Vampires. The template idea is a wonderful innovation by WotC, and the creatures created it are sure to add much to the game.

So far, WotC has done a great job of revamping D&D, and should be commended for their efforts. But if the Monster Manual proves anything at all, its that even a great company like WotC isnt immune from the occasional flounder. The MM is definately filled with excellent monsters, new and old, but the extremely poor layout gets in the way.

In conclusion, players may find themselves spending more time reading the MM than their Players Handbook, what with all the new features and classes added to the creatures in D&D 3. The new changes are all fascinating, and hours upon hours will be spent comparing the differences between the old creatures from past D&D systems and their newest incarnations.