The Fives of Volo's Guide to Monsters

Book by book, I’m retreading, reanalyzing, and relearning old ground. Ensconced with a new mindset, my Dungeons & Dragons reread is well underway. This article delves into Volo’s Guide to Monsters, explaining the Fives of the first major Dungeon Master and monster expansions of fifth edition D&D.

The Fives of Volo’s Guide to Monsters are:
  • The five most interesting combatants
  • The five most compelling creatures
  • The five most gorgeous pieces of art
  • The five best slices of the Volo’s Guide to Monsters pie
  • The five worst slices of the Volo’s Guide to Monsters pie
Page numbers are present with everything I review and provide new ideas about. Monsters are bolded the first time they are mentioned, while actions and abilities are always italicized.

By this article’s conclusion, you will have a firm hold on the best pieces of Volo’s Guide to Monsters (called VGTM henceforth), and whether or not you should pick the book up. You should also step away with novel concepts developed from or alongside the book's content.

I’ll preface the Fives with this:

VGTM is well-worth the money for all Dungeon Masters and for players who want to play and immerse themselves in the lore of core “monstrous” races, but it contains a few duds that sap a small portion of its potential. More on that near this article’s end. Overall, it is an excellent addition for many D&D troves.

Onward, to the Fives!

Five Most Interesting Combatants in VGTM

These five creatures stand out as interesting combatants. Reasons vary, from wielding a plethora of actions to possessing unique traits and abilities that can be utilized to create cooler battles.

Number 1: Flail Snail (pg. 144)

Funky, somewhat comical, and surprisingly potent, the flail snail wields an array of abilities to scatter and scare parties of tier one and two play. Evolved with an Antimagic Shell, casters who don’t know this fact will consequently discover the flail snail is a devastating enemy, capable of reflecting spells and turning them into bursts of destruction.

In addition, the flail snail may attack with as many tentacles as it possesses (rules as written, the flail snail starts with five and must attack one target), which allows it to smack one PC into submission.

The powerful Antimagic Shell and interesting Flail Tentacles abilities engineer a fascinating foe, and its defensive and single-target potential elevate it to a top-five combatant in VGTM.

Consider the following to further spice up the flail snail in combat encounters:
  1. Allow its Shell Defense action to be a reaction instead, allowing it to emerge as a bonus action on its turn.
  2. Grant it additional tentacles depending on the size of the group and allow them to attack more than one target.
  3. Pair it up with brutes and snipers like ogres and gnolls to turn the flail snail into a truly deadly encounter. A creature of elemental earth, perhaps these ogres or gnolls are under the employ of a greedy elementalist or a domineering galeb duhr.

Number 2: Orc Variants (pgs. 183-185)

Wizards of the Coast decided to vary up the action economy and orc power level with their set of orcs in VGTM. Despite their terrible chapter in the book (more on that soon), their stat blocks are inspiring and powerful in the hands of a proper tactician AND a novice DM.

There are five orc variants in VGTM (not including the tanarukk), and four of the five are interesting foes to face and craft an encounter around. Here’s the run down of why they’re great.

Three of the four variants carry the Aggressive ability, a bonus action that allows movement toward a foe. Love it, movement options are usually limited for monsters.

Orc Blades of Ilneval boast an extra damage die on longsword hits and, similar to a dragon’s breath, have a rechargeable ability called Illneval’s Command that allows them to, as an action, command up to three orcs within 120’ feet to make an attack with their reactions. Intermonster play is excellent, I use it in my games, and WOTC should use it more too, more of this, WOTC! To be fair, the original orc war chief in the Monster Manual has a similar ability, granting nearby allies advantage, but I think the addition of reactions to the orc's allies is far superior. This orc also has Aggressive.

Orc Claws of Luthic know a few powerful spells, have the Aggressive ability, but most importantly, once they are below half hit points (something I call Bloodied, a condition from fourth edition D&D), they double the number of claw attacks they make. That means if they’re below half life (usually 22 hit points), they can make four attacks on a turn. Paired with an evoker or sniper from the back and bolstered by their own spells, these orcs stand as horrifying foes on the front lines of a battlefield. The ferocity of foes increasing as a battle progresses is a killer piece of drama, and I’m glad these orcs capitalize on it.

Orc Nurtured Ones of Yurtrus are Aggressive, suicidal siege weapons capable of inflicting massive damage and the Poisoned condition upon foes with their special Corrupted Carrier/Corrupted Vengeance ability/action. Upon death or suicide, they explode and shower the battlefield in their diseased bits. Before a battle truly begins, they can be sent in to weaken enemies, a tactic any intelligent foe will gladly utilize.

Finally, Orc Red Fangs of Shargaas act as orc rogues, armed with Cunning Action, a massive sneak attack in Hand of Shargaas (two extra damage dice when it hits with a weapon), the ability to see in magical darkness, an action that allows them to cast darkness, and essentially an assassinate on the first round of combat. Carving out a space to annihilate foes from is their specialty, and in conjunction with the other orc variants, they can inflict massive harm on even a powerful tier two party.

Altogether, these orc variants, if used together with all their special abilities and actions in tow, will gormandize many unprepared groups. I’m a fan of these oft-used variants of fourth edition, and these orcs seem like a return to that concept. I’d deeply enjoy a book filled cover-to-cover with these for goblins, kobolds, orcs, gnolls, vampires, liches, dragons, kuo-toa, elementals, and more. Or a book with set archetypes that could be applied to creatures like this. Maybe that’s an idea for another day.

If you’re lacking ideas for using these orc variants in combat, I have you covered:
  1. Pair an Orc Blade of Ilneval with three Orc Red Fangs of Shargaas. Using the Orc Blade’s command action, each of the Orc Red Fangs can eviscerate opponents as a reaction, and still attack again on their turn!
  2. Orcs often use giant bats to their advantage, especially Orc Red Fangs of Shargaas. Arm the giant bats with Orc Nurtured Ones of Yurtrus in their stringy digits. As a battle begins, they can torpedo the poison bombs upon foes and render them Poisoned and injured.
  3. Start Orc Claws of Luthic off at half hit points, Bloodied and inflicting double damage already; as a surprise, though, grant them the Relentless Endurance ability, allowing them to stand back up after they’re killed/knocked out, ensuring they’ll likely get a few sets of swipes out before they fall or are captured.

Number 3: Gauth (pg. 125)

One of the more interesting beholder variations, the gauth adds an element of foreboding danger, especially to parties rich in magic items. Its Stunning Gaze might freeze an unaware group, and its Death Throes might catch a struggling one off guard in a battle's ultimate moments. Alongside its potent Eye Rays, the gauth is truly as terrifying as it looks.

Try out these situations with the gauth:
  1. The gauth targets the character with the most powerful or most used magic item, sensing its value. If the gauth thinks it cannot win the battle, it will try to steal the item with its tentacles and float away.
  2. Three gazers accompany the gauth. They carry its valuables on their tiny eyestalks, mewling in the gauth’s wake. They’ll die for it, taking any projectiles sent its way and activating any magic items the gauth might be saving for safe eating when it grows hungry.
  3. As suggested with other beholders, vary the gauth’s eye rays. Perhaps the gauth is angelic in appearance shoots radiant beams. Or maybe its creature of noise and deals thunder damage and deafens/stuns foes with sonic shots.

Number 4: Catoblepas (pg. 129)

An odd amalgamation of multiple beasts, the catoblepas will violently change the battlescape when they enter the fray. These monsters are terrifying mounts for your big bad evil villains, whether they are a blackguard, sinister archmage, or even a goblin warlord. Capable of launching an instakilling Death Ray from its eyes, the catoblepas can also inflict the Stunned condition on foes with a hit from its massive tail. With a plethora of deadly abilities raveled into this beast, there are many ways to use it to great effect.

Here are a few ways to insert these pyretic beasts into your D&D combats:
  1. Before it charges into combat to release its Stench, always launch a long-range Death Ray. Perhaps, if the catoblepas has a rider, the rider can somehow impose disadvantage on this crucial save, weakening the party before the combat ever begins.
  2. Consider granting a lone catoblepas an extra ability once it is Bloodied (below half hit points): it instantly recharges its Death Ray ability and uses it on the creature who Bloodied it, friend or enemy!
  3. Death trap dungeons are excellent locales for these stinking beasts, place one or two within in a surprising vantage point, somewhere with an eye-wide slit designed by a fiendish mastermind to devastate foes. Reaching the catoblepas should be difficult, it might get off multiple Death Rays and other traps may be revealed.

Number 5: Korred (pg. 168)

Masters of stone manipulation, combat possibilities for the korred are endless. They’re peculiar, lesser known creatures who thrive in hand-crafted arenas and have the potential to seriously surprise a second or third tier adventuring party. While on the ground, they deal substantially more damage, which is quite the unique trait, and they’re able to summon a variety of earthy beasts, force foes to dance, and literally meld into stone.

Be vile when wielding korreds in combat:
  1. Hide korreds in stone walls. When the party passes by, korred flank the group and approach from the front, trapping them!
  2. Team up a korred with a flail snail, gorgon, or pod of earth elementals. In conjunction, these earthen masters can quake a battlefield, and the flavor is perfect!
  3. Hint toward their weakness when raised off the ground, but ensure the korred do all they can to remain on stone.

Five Most Compelling Creatures in VGTM

These five monsters are the entries I found evoked the most ideas in my mind.

Number 1: Neogi (pgs. 179-180)

It’s difficult to pinpoint, but there is something evocative about alien eel-spiders out to get rich and steal away innocents across myriad realms. In VGTM, the neogi are not dissected, which leaves plenty of room to fill in the details and steal away from previous editions (like from Lords of Madness), but their art, relatively simple motivation, sinister abilities, and wicked aesthetic cement them as one of the book’s most compelling, open-ended creatures.

Did I mention they sail plane-hopping spider ships?

Unconvinced? Let me spurn your neogitivity:
  1. Neogi are the sole-survivors of one of your world’s moons, bringing with them a host of alien abilities, technology, and unhuman motives.
  2. An unsteady alliance of neogi and illithid form and forge a fleet of flying ships. This fleet conquers a swath of territory and gazes over even more civilized lands.
  3. A semi-normalized neogi oversees a local crime syndicate, although she has a taste for poor dragonborn children, fresh from the egg. Her enslaving eyes ensure no one backstabs her, though she oft does unto others what cannot be done to her.

Number 2: Yuan-Ti (pgs. 92-102)

The entirety of the yuan-ti chapter enraptured me, even though the race is adjacent to my complete disdain for the way orcs are depicted. While yuan-ti originate from gods, those gods do not drive every action, desire, or motivation, which is key.

Yuan-ti instead are literal snakefolk attempting to slither into governments across the globe, only to manipulate and swallow these supple folk from the inside. Not to mention yuan-ti can evolve into higher forms of their kind, which is an interesting facet and path for a yuan-ti villain to take in a campaign. A villain who began as a yuan-ti malison can, by the campaign’s climax, hiss at the party as a yuan-ti anathema!

Here are a few cool ideas that sprang to mind while reading about yuan-ti in VGTM:
  1. Secretly, the chiefs of every major government are yuan-ti. However, they’ve grown decadent and no longer wish to forward the agenda of yuan-ti civilization, preferring to rule their lessers from great palaces and lofty mansions.
  2. A yuan-ti anathema was cursed to slowly devolve into the most basic form of yuan-ti until she enacts a prophecy passed down by Dendar the Night Serpent.
  3. One of the PC’s family members falls prey to the thoughts and ideals of yuan-ti and performs the rites to become one of the snakefolk. How does the PC react?

Number 3: Alhoon (pgs. 172-173)

A mix of wizard, hag, lich, and mind flayer, the alhoon is peak monster mashing in D&D. The alhoon originated as group of nine illithids who sought immortality without the necessity of lichdom, so they crafted a ritual that turned them into timeless entities. All who followed called themselves by the cabal’s name: alhoons. This ritual involves the forging of a magic item called a periapt of mind trapping that stores the souls of those consumed by the alhoon. This item alone provides plenty of plot threads, for those who wield it can communicate with the souls of the unliving.

These select three ideas popped into my head while reading the alhoon section:
  1. The original Alhoon emerge from a void, armed with a fleet of nautiloids and unhuman monstrosities.
  2. A nefarious cabal of nine illithids calling themselves the Emergent Alhoon breaks into the Material Plane, each illithid practicing a different school of magic—including dunamancy.
  3. A rare storm giant illithid becomes an alhoon through freakdom and chance, still from her cloud castle she terrorizes, studies, and consumes.

Number 4: Neolithid (pg. 181)

An illithid abomination spawned from a tiny tadpole consuming all others in a free-for-all that catapults the winner into a purple worm sized psionic beast? Really, need I say more? This is the pinnacle of wicked & monstrous.

This concept is incredible and conjures myriad stories and possibilities in my mind:
  1. A neolithid manages to break into and destroy multiple mind flayer colonies, leading to the largest neolithid ever burrowing through the Underdark.
  2. A powerful psion manages to dominate a neolithid. With the abomination, he plans to attack a nearby elder brain.
  3. Some crazed mind flayer discovers a method of halting the maturing process of neolithids, allowing it to raise a small flock of medium-sized, equally psionic and terrifying neolithids.

Number 5: Vegepygmies (pgs. 196-197)

Speechless, hissing plant people who can raise the dead, including the corpses of beasts and monsters are compelling creatures in my eyes, and I use vegepygmies any time I can. From the Cursed Jungles of Yatar to my current Rise of the Giants campaign, they show up—and it’s mostly thanks to their entry in VGTM. They’re deadly and certainly mysterious. Their D&D-canonicity says they might have emerged from a crashed vessel in the Barrier Peaks. It beckons me to answer where they emerged from in Eldar.

I’ve used vegepygmies a few times, here are some of the more interesting concepts I conjured:
  1. A vegepygmy chief who leads because he found, infected, and raised a thorny tyrannosaurus rex.
  2. Caverns laced with russet mold that grows vegepygmies. As the party explores this dungeon, these wailing little moldfolk drop from ceilings and step from the walls. It’s creepy and maddening.
  3. Vegepygmy who use blowguns and russet mold darts to harass and eventually finish off targets as their velociraptor thornies tear them apart.

Five Most Gorgeous Monsters in VGTM

Here are my five favorite art pieces in VGTM, in ascending order.

Number 1: Vegepygmy (pgs. 196-197)

The howling rictus on the vegepygmy’s unnerving face and the terrifying cuteness of its thorny companion enrapture me. How about you?

Some vegepygmy may grow thorns on their bodies as their bestial pets do, an extra bit of flair.

Number 2: Firenewts (pgs. 142-143)

The near-translucent orange slime-skin and the innocent look across the firenewt’s face: priceless.

Do you want to personalize your firenewt? Let me help:
  1. Not all firenewts need to be orange, go wild. Neon green, blood red, and burning sun blue will all do!
  2. Some firenewts can be larger and hulking, perhaps even crawling on the ground. Emphasize their enlarged features.
  3. Some firenewts are warlocks of Imix, perhaps a spectre of smoke follows behind them in battle, clouding the field and frightening foes.

Number 3: Yuan-Ti Anathema (pg. 202)

Hissing with all its heads, the yuan-ti anathema inspires fear into any player or DM who gazes upon it.

Remember, not all yuan-ti need be fashioned after cobras. Search for spicier serpents!

Number 4: Draegloth (pg. 141)

Slightly hulked over, the draegloth’s menacing glare and rippling musculature reminds any onlooker it's a foe to be frightened of.

Number 5: Froghemoth (pg. 145)

Slightly silly, scaled way up, and horrifying in its own way, the froghemoth is my favorite piece of art from VGTM. Its prehensile tongue, sinewy eyestalk, and undulant tentacles, altogether they form a foe that sends shivers down my spine and inspiration straight to my mind.

Not every froghemoth is identical:
  1. Instead of four tentacles, this froghemoth has one massive band surging from its belly.
  2. Your special froghemoth is the "god" of a bullywug tribe and armored in the bones of fallen foes.
  3. Twisted by a mad mage, this froghemoth has no legs. Instead, its lower body is that of a slug. All other features remain the same.

Five Best Slices of VGTM

These five pieces are my favorite parts of VGTM, again in ascending order.

Number 1: Beholder Roll Tables (pgs. 8-9)

Beholders are one of my favorite D&D creatures, with all their concomitant variations. I also love roll tables. A combination of both, stretched over multiple pages? I’m in one of the Seven Heavens, thank you, VGTM!

Canonically creatures crafted in dreamscapes, random features and flamboyant appearances fit beholders quite well. With the roll tables in VGTM, you can mold infinite combinations of beholders, each with a unique personality, appearance, motive, and, of course, name. When I first read VGTM, I crumped as I reached this chapter. The same thing occurred on my second perusing.

These roll tables highlight one of VGTM’s biggest strengths: its ability to endlessly inspire DMs while crafting their stories and worlds. I think that’s why they rank high on my list of personal favorite items in the book.

Number 2: Nautiloids (pgs. 78-79)

Described as massive, tentacled conch shells flying propelling through the sky and across the planes, nautiloids are soaring ships created by illithids. Reading about them inspired me in myriad manners. Do they exist in my world? If so, where are they now? How many are there? Do illithids still control them? Perhaps a darker force has them...How are they powered?

A nautiloid from second edition D&D.

Again, this is VGTM at its best: providing thought-provoking chunks to mull over and inspire us. A nautiloid might form the basis for an entire adventure as a dungeon, sought-after artifact, or home-base for an enemy faction. I recently introduced nautiloids into my world. When the players realized the magnitude, the scale of the enemy before them, the red slaad Arkzel perched at the bow of the huge nautiloid, they were excited and floored.

Their exultation is all thanks to VGTM.

Number 3: Yuan-Ti Society (pgs. 92-102)

Again, the portrayal of yuan-ti in VGTM oozes inspiration and compelling questions. Are the yuan-ti manipulating the governments of my world? If so, what’s the end goal? Do their gods play a role? How isolated is their culture? Are people aware of the snakefolk? If yes, why aren’t they dealt with?

The questions are endless and if you think long enough, you might end up with a world slithering with yuan-ti in every corner. Tread carefully.

Number 4: Lizardfolk Playable Race (pgs. 111-113)

After my reread, I immediately fleshed out the lizardfolk of Eldar—their entry in VGTM fulfilled its task. These are truly alien creatures in my world, creatures from a frozen moon. VGTM (and Dune) inspired me to put aliens into my world, and I cannot thank it enough for that.

Lizardfolk from the fifth edition Monster Manual.

When a book causes you to enact major change in your world because of a short passage, you know it must be a tad riveting. I think WOTC did a great job communicating the coldness, the out-of-touch nature of the lizardfolk, especially with the bit about how they speak. They don’t say “I am cold.” They say “this wind brings cold.” Minutia, but interesting.

Most of the playable races in VGTM are interesting, with strata beyond them being monstrous or bestial in appearance. I've incorporated all of them into my world and enjoy when players choose to play them. Except firbolgs, I've never liked them and their portrayal in VGTM is a tad awkward.

Number 5: NPCs Section (Appendix B)

Arguably the most versatile and useful slice of VGTM, the NPCs section in Appendix B provides a host of moldable characters to place in our games at a moment’s notice, stats fleshed out and ready to go. Being able to snatch a statted out NPC is a god-send, especially since many of them are of higher-power levels. With these blocks and a bit of imagination, you can create limitless allies, enemies, and patrons of the party.

The section includes a wizard of every core subclass, as well as warlocks of the Great Old One, Fiend, and Archfey Pacts, and a variety of martial creatures. The art of this section is also superb, notably the staves of the schools of magic.

Five Worst Slices of VGTM

Here they are, the five worst chunks of VGTM, from the best of the worst to the absolute worst.

Number 1: The Orc Section (pgs. 82-91)

In recent times, lots of folks across the TTRPG/D&D space have debated over the typical portrayal of orcs in fantasy works. This chapter in VGTM explores the lore behind the canon D&D orc in the Forgotten Realms, depicting their culture and society in exquisite detail. I hate it. After reading the chapter, I set down the book, uninspired, and had to take a walk.

The chapter can quite literally be described as “This orc god wants this type of travesty enacted, these orcs do it for them because they want to please said god.”

That’s it. That’s orcs, stereotypically. They commit evil for their gods and because it's all they've ever known.

I’m all for innately evil creatures, I don’t think they fit the bill. Gnolls? Should be fiends. Rakshasa? Already fiends. Goblins? They have more compelling reasons to act as they do. Orcs? Their gods want them to pillage, so they pillage, and continue pillaging. That's too boring and uninspiring.

I wish more Obould Many-Arrows existed, orcs who fought against type. Those are interesting stories, and blatantly evil orcs who will be evil regardless of other situations shaping their lives are utterly dreadful.

Orcs against type, like those in Eberron, are how I prefer them.

After further contemplation on this section, I diverged the orcs in my world. Thousands of years after their creation, a schism occurred between their kind. Some followed Luthic and remained true to the wilds and upholding nature and benign values. Others charged off with Gruumsh and began a war path for an unforgivable wrong against their people.

If anything, I can say VGTM's orcs gave me the inspiration to mold my orcs as a unique species, a decent, farraginous bunch of traits from many settings and my own mind.

Number 2: Xvarts (pgs. 199-200)

Ugly, unnerving, and with a strangely convoluted backstory that will not be added to the vast canon of my own world, xvarts are my least favorite monster in VGTM. Every time I near “X” in VGTM, I purposely skip straight to the yuan-ti and avoid these blue monsters. Succinctly, they are replications of a little blue devil god that steal stuff and try to please their god by giving said stuff to him.

Number 3: Animals, So Few

I adore and consistently use the animal section in the Monster Manual. When VGTM hit, I expected oodles more beasties to choose from, but unfortunately I was mistaken. VGTM only includes a few variants of cattle, nothing else. I would have loved to see more wild beasts, potential mounts, and their accompanying art (more on lack of beast art in a moment).

I understand it's possible to reflavor almost any of the animals of the Monster Manual, but I would like more D&D art and stat blocks to reflect on!

Number 4: Volo’s and Elminister’s Notes

While I enjoy the concept of the supposed authors of this adventurous work leaving scrawling throughout it, scarcely did these notes spurt a laugh, excitement, or intrigue out of me. There are a few I can remember, but none match the scraps in the Monster Manual. The longer ones seemed to drag and the short ones from Elminister carried an air of smug superiority, which I understand is how the Sage of Shadowdale sometimes acts. 

Regardless, none of the notes hooked me.

Number 5: NO DINO ART

Where’s the dinosaur art, Wizards of the Coast? Almost every other creature gets art, but not the dinosaurs? I know I can merely search “dimetrodon” on Google and receive a result, but I want to describe this sail-backed, large reptile, flip the book, and show my players a piece of art in the recognizable D&D style. 

Dino racing from Tomb of Annihilation.

With no dinosaur art in VGTM, despite seven dinos living inside, I cannot pursue this fantasy.

Actionable Advice

  • Volo’s Guide to Monsters is a great book for Dungeon Masters searching to expand on the lore of certain monsters in their world, or build on their menagerie with official foes
  • Volo’s Guide to Monsters is not a book written for players, though those who wish to play and learn more about certain monstrous playable races may find use in the book
  • The book contains heaps of inspiration for adventures of all types
  • The book showcases a few new types of abilities and explores foes that are, in general, more compelling than the base D&D monster set
  • Rip the monster actions and abilities from Volo’s Guide to Monsters and layer them atop existing monsters or foes of your own design
  • Volo's Guide to Monsters is at its best when providing roll tables, new abilities, and evocative plot threads for Dungeon Masters to wield in their games
Thus concludes my review of Volo’s Guide to Monsters, a monster book expansion for the world’s greatest roleplaying game: Dungeons & Dragons fifth edition.

Let me know if it helped you decide whether or not to grab the book, conjure new ideas, or inspire fascinating story beats in your world or campaign.

What’s next? Do I go back to the Player’s Handbook, take a trip to Ravenloft, or try and halt the apocalypse? We’ll see in due time.

Until the next encounter, stay creative!

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  1. Great content and advice, spot on for any DM out there beginner or seasoned, keep up the outstanding work!

    1. Of course, thanks. I'll be continuing my series of D&D 5e "reviews" in this style, as long as people seem to enjoy it. Next up is likely the Player's Handbook, though Xanathar's or Princes of the Apocalypse may make an appearance. We shall find out...together!