Dungeons & Dragons reincarnates the Monstrous Compendium for their new digital library
Lost amidst the excitement for the rebirth of the Dragonlance and Spelljammer settings for 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons was the return of another artifact from D&D’s past — the Monstrous Compendium. The first volume contains 10 Spelljammer-appropriate creatures available to download for free to anyone who registers an account on the official site or on the recently-acquired D&D Beyond. In light of that acquisition, the introduction of a new library feature at the official site seems like a curious choice, but perhaps it’s setting up a future integration point — D&D Beyond accounts are being turned into Wizards of the Coast accounts later this month.
The Monstrous Compendium is the first of multiple free offerings, with a Spelljammer intro adventure planned for release in July as well as future Monstrous Compendium volumes presumably focusing on other settings. I don’t think we should expect all of the library to be free, though — the description clearly states “an ever-expanding digital collection of goodies to unlock”, which sounds an awful lot like a payment/subscription service to me. What this would entail is impossible to say right now, but it may simply be replicating the existing subscription service at D&D Beyond. The impact on the DM’s Guild is also unknown, but I suspect official content available exclusively there will join the D&D Library as well.
The Monsterous Compendium’s binder enters the digital age
The original Monstrous Compendium was part of the core set of the 2nd edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons released in 1989, and eschewed the standard hardcover for a three-ring binder. The concept was that TSR (the original publisher of Dungeons & Dragons) would release packets of monsters that could be inserted into the binder, while also giving a DM more flexibility to assemble the monsters they needed for an adventure, or even to create their own with a blank template page.
While it was an excellent idea in theory, in practice it didn’t work out so well. With pages that were published with both a front and back, maintaining alphabetical organization became impossible as monsters were added. For example, if the original binder had a page with a bear on the front and a boar on the back, it would be hard to decide where to insert the next set’s page with a bee and a cat, and then the set after that you’d have to decide where to put the page with a betta and a blobfish. The overall quality wasn’t high enough to handle being added and removed from a binder frequently, either. Eventually an aptly-named Monstrous Manual — coming in at a whopping 384 pages! — was released in hardcover, and while a few more packs of hole-punched monsters were released, the experiment was ended.
The choice to name this new online offering “Monstrous Compendium” is surely a deliberate one. Like the original, you’ll be getting smaller thematic packs for your usage that won’t require a full investment like the various Monster Manuals (such as the forthcoming Mordenkainen’s Multiverse of Monsters), or in the case of volume one, no investment whatsoever — it’s currently unknown whether all volumes will be free or if it’s just the first one to get you hooked. Unlike the original, the creatures aren’t restricted to one or both sides of a page, so printing them out won’t allow you to replicate the binder interface fully.
In space no one can hear you roll for initiative
While the monsters in the compendium are all related to the Spelljammer setting, they encompass a wide range of Challenge Ratings, from the CR 1/8 Goon Balloon to the CR 16 Nightmare Beast. Most of them are unlikely to show up in a planetside campaign, but an inventive DM will surely devise ways for an Asteroid Spider to find itself atop a mountain, and creatures like the Nightmare Beast and the Eldritch Lich are just as menacing on the ground as in space.
It has already been stated by the D&D creators that the Monstrous Compendium monsters will not be replicated in the forthcoming Spelljammer sourcebook, so if you wish to use them you’ll need to grab them online. For those who prefer all their content in the standard hardcovers, I would imagine that in a couple years a new Monstrous Manual republishing the Compendium entries will be available on the shelf of your local gaming store. Until such time be sure to keep an eye on the D&D Library, as I’m sure it’ll be growing a lot faster and a lot sooner than we expect.
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