Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes Review

Transcribed by Bigby, stolen by Shemeshka, dictated by Mordenkainen, and drawing from the many worlds of the multiverse, the Tome of Foes has arrived! Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes is, of course, the latest supplement for Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition, following in the footsteps of Volo’s Guide to Monsters and Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. It has lore, character options, and foes aplenty for us to check out, so let’s get started! I’ll be taking us through chapter by chapter, seeing what Mordenkainen has left for us to read, and comparing the final product to the various bits of Unearthed Arcana that got it started!

Chapter 1: The Blood War

The first section of the Tome gets us right into one of the messier and more infamous multiversal brawls in the lore of D&D: the Blood War between the devils of the Nine Hells and the demons of the Abyss. Setting the theme for the first five chapters of the Tome, there’s a lot of lore here, talking about how the two evil planes of existence operate, how the devilish and demonic pecking orders function, the actual environment of both planes, and Mordenkainen’s theory of the Balance that keeps the multiverse from being devoured by one or the other. Sidebars are sprinkled throughout with some additional interesting facts such as names of infernal legions, details on mercenary fiends, and what exactly Tiamat and Lloth are up to.

From a DM’s perspective this chapter is really about providing campaign ideas and roleplaying aids, a pattern that will persist through Chapters 2-5 as well. All of the information about the Blood War itself, the Lords of the Nine, and the Princes of the Abyss is here to provide DMs with an idea of how their players might get tangled up in the multiversal conflict; there are many points where adventuring parties are brought up by mentioning what a given being or faction would employ them for. Once Zariel or Graz’zt or whomever gets involved, the DM can turn to this section to help figure out how they’ll behave. Infernal Warlocks or Tieflings of various origins can also look here to pick a particular patron/ancestor/nemesis. While a fair bit of this information is going to be familiar to D&D veterans who have come across the Blood War and related planes of existence in older editions, even for them I think it’s a good refresher, and for newer folk it’s a potential goldmine.

Mechanically speaking this chapter starts the trend of ‘Tome of Foes is several Unearthed Arcanas stacked on top of one another in a trench coat (padded out with lots of lore and standing on a bestiary)’. In this case the Fiendish Options return, bringing us Infernal Cults, Demonic Boons, and a wide variety of Tieflings. As an added bonus for the DMs there are also some additional rules for cambions of a specifically infernal or abyssal bent.

I didn’t go into nitty-gritty detail when I reviewed the Fiendish Options because there is a lot: 8 new Tiefling subraces, 9 Infernal Cults, and 7 (plus change) Demonic Boons. I looked through, and the changes to the Tiefling material is minor: Dispater Tieflings have detect thoughts as part of their Legacy spells instead of invisibility, and Mephistopheles Tieflings have burnings hands instead of magic missile. I’m not going to through the Cults and the Boons with a fine tooth comb at this juncture, but a casual read sees them as mostly the same.

The chapter also has random tables, something that will be included in the following chapters as well. In this case there are tables for customizing a unique devil or demon, and for creating fiendish cults (such as their goals, resources, organization, and what hardships they face).

Chapter 2: Elves

The Tome’s second section steps away from plane-spanning never-ending war to focus on Elves as a species in many different facets. A lot of attention in this chapter is focused on what makes elves the D&D elves we’re familiar with: their creation from the blood of Corellon, their relationships with him and the other various members of their pantheon, the descent from those initial primal elves to the various types of elves in the modern era, the elven life cycle, and other such things. Several varieties of elves, their societies, and their environs receive special attention, such as the Eladrin and the Feywild, the Drow, and the Shadar-Kai and the Shadowfell. The chapter also posits that all elves, regardless of world and whether they know it or not, are descended from Corellon, essentially stating that every D&D setting is connected in one multiverse. That has some interesting implications for a number of different settings, which may or may not sit well with some people.

Even with the shadar-kai being in the Tome, and with them being Elves in 5th Edition, I was pretty surprised to see a decently sized section devoted to the Raven Queen. Readers who are nodding in recognition, however, should read more closely; this isn’t the Raven Queen we got to know in 4th Edition. Instead of being the formerly mortal goddess of death who overthrew the previous deity of the dead, this RQ is a former elven queen who explicitly failed in her attempt to achieve godhood but still became invested with great power, now focused on collecting souls and reflecting on their memories. Personally I think I favor the 4th Edition version for her upstart place in the pantheon. but it’s an interesting read and she remains a fascinating character to deal with.

For player options this chapter sees three elven subraces from Unearthed Arcana return. First are the Eladrin (check that link for Chapter 4’s Gith as well), elves of the Feywild who shift with the seasons. While the +1 to Charisma and the seasonal traits/flaws remain the same, much else has changed. The Eladrin can now only change what season they associate with at the end of a long rest. and they no longer receive Shifting Seasons Cantrips. Instead Fey Step is where the different seasons have a mechanical impact, tacking on an extra effect starting at 3rd level: Autumn can Charm, Winter can Frighten, Spring can teleport a willing creature instead of the Eladrin, and Summer provides a burst of fire damage. Any of these that require a saving throw use a DC based off of the Eladrin’s Charisma.

The Sea Elf and Shadar-Kai both made it from the Elf Subraces article. The Sea Elf is virtually unchanged aside from Friend of the Sea no longer being restricted to Small or smaller creatures, a solid upgrade. The Shadar-Kai . . . have changed a lot. They receive +1 Consititution instead of +1 Charisma, and Necrotic Resistance instead of a bonus Cantrip. Blessing of the Raven Queen’s distance has been extended to 30′ instead of 15′, doesn’t grant its resistance to damage until third level, and now only recharges after a long rest.

The Sea Elf was good before and it’s good now, not much to say there. The Eladrin changes are interesting; I quite liked the cantrips, but making each season’s Fey Step pop a little more is an equally good option. I honestly think the Shadar-Kai took  a step backwards, though. The Constitution change is fine, but while the Necrotic Resistance also makes sense given where they come from it’s . . . kind of dull. While the increase in distance for BotRQ is nice, only being able to use it once per long rest is kind of a drag, especially next to the Eladrin’s Fey Step still recharging after a short rest. Plus: still no proficiency with any of the quirky weapons the Shadar-Kai were known for.

The tables at the end of this chapter include Elven Trinkets, separate adventure hook options for drow and non-drow elves, and some details about Drow Houses.

Chapter 3: Dwarves and Duergar

As with the Elves, so too does it go with the dwarves in all their varieties, including their dark cousins known as duergar. This chapter focuses a lot on dwarven society, such as the clan, the stronghold, the values. While Chapter 2 spent a lot of time on what an elf is, Chapter 3 seems to more value what dwarves do. Makes sense, giving the strange nature of the elves and the driven nature of dwarves.

Actual dwarves receive the most pagecount in the chapter, and while they aren’t quite as multiversal as the elves there are still words devoted to talking about the differences in dwarves between the worlds of Greyhawk, the Forgotten Realms, and Dragonlance. Both the dwarven and duergar pantheons are explored, interactions with common dwarven nemeses such as dragons and giants are detailed, and how dwarven society views adventurers is explained. Duergar society also gets its time in the spotlight, however, from their enslavement by the mindflayers to their rejection by other dwarves once they were free to the current tenets they live by.

The crunchy bit for this chapter, in terms of character creation anyway, is the Duergar subrace. I’ve double-checked, and it definitely looks like this is the only subrace in the Tome that didn’t get a previous showing in an Unearthed Arcana or elsewhere (although it did, apparently, show up in the SCAG. Thanks, Reader Moose! – Ed.) . Duergar receive +1 Strength, Superior Darkvision, Advantage vs illusions, charm effects, and paralysis, and Duergar Magic that grants a once-per-long-rest use of enlarge/reduce (restricted to target: self and only capable of using enlarge) and invisibility at 3rd and 5th level respectively. They also have Sunlight Sensitivity, which inflicts Disadvantage on attacks and perception checks if the Duergar or the object of their efforts is in direct sunlight. Overall? Seems pretty solid!

The dwarves have a lot of tables to their name: a few to determine the makeup, leadership, allies, purpose, and special circumstances of traveling groups of dwarves, to start. They also have tables to create the basic details of a dwarven clan, as well as separate ones to determine dwarven adventurer story hooks and some uniquely dwarven quirks. These are all then followed by their Duergar counterparts!

Chapter 4: Gith and Their Endless War

The story of the Gith is right up there with the Blood War in terms of exposure: slaves to the mind flayers, the gith eventually revolted and freed themselves, but split along ideological lines to become the Githyanki and the Githzerai. Most of the chapter is focused on the mutual history followed by the details of each individual subrace, addressing such things as hierarchy, custom, leadership, typical activities, and reasons for either to venture out onto the multiverse. There are also some interesting item bits, specifically in the Githyanki section detailing such things as their astral vehicles, the trademark githyanki silver sword, and their red dragon steeds.

If, as a DM or player, you’re familiar with older versions of the Gith you should be just fine without having to read this section for the lore. A few minor details got switched around, but by and large what you already know will do you just fine. For newcomers or just people looking to find out what all the Gith fuss is about the chapter does provide an exceptional resource.

By now I’ve also definitely noticed that, while Mordenkainen clearly spent quite a bit of time hopping around the multiverse, the Tome of Foes is not a Manual of the Planes-style book. The Gith section is a great example of that: little of the Astral Sea beyond Tu’narath is detailed in the ‘yanki pages, and what little can be said of Limbo involves the fortresses of the ‘zerai. This kind of thing reappears through the Tome; places like Gehenna, Arvandor, Bytopia, and Sigil are brought up, but aren’t explored in detail. Maybe they’re hanging on to that stuff in hopes of filling a ‘Manual’-style supplement down the road.

The basic characteristics of the Gith have remained the same. The Githyanki are also mostly the same, but Martial Prodigy now also grants proficiency with shortswords, longswords, and greatswords, putting that +2 Strength to use regardless of class or build. While the Githzerai also only change one feature, it’s a more drastic change. Monastic Training, which granted +1 AC when wearing light or no armor, is gone. Instead the githzerai have Mental Discipline, granting them advantage on saving throws against the charmed and frightened conditions. I think I get why; the Training likely made the ‘zerai a little too appealing for prospective monk players.

In addition to the four tables for personality traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws the Gith have a few extra: physical traits and name options for both types of Gith, as well as several tables each for creating Githyanki Raiding Parties and Githzerai Groups (which include group composition, leader, allies, and purpose/goals). These are particularly useful for the DM who wants to keep a Gith group of NPCs coherent and encounter-viable.

Chapter 5: Halflings and Gnomes

The Halflings and Gnomes struck me as a somewhat strange choice to be included in the Tome, but the way they are presented makes sense: while the subjects of the first four chapters are defined, at least in some way, by a longstanding and inescapable conflict the Halflings and Gnomes are presented as the opposite, races that have largely managed to avoid getting pulled wholesale into any species-wide conflagration.

The halfling section focuses a lot on what makes a halfling a halfling: the typical personalities and ways of looking at the world, their superstitions, their penchant for stories, and their somewhat insular communities. The section also goes into quite a bit of detail about Halfling deities and mythology, touches about how halflings differ from the Realms to Krynn to Athas, and discusses how exactly a race known for being homebodies keeps on producing a steady stream of adventurers.

The gnome section also touches upon deities, including the home of the gnomish pantheon in Bytopia’s Golden Hills, and what drives gnomes to the adventuring life. The primary focus of their section is the different subraces, however. The Tome talks about the alchemists and artificers of the rock gnomes (including a sidebar-tip-of-the-hat to the tinker gnomes of Krynn), the illusions and animal friends of the forest gnomes, and the hidden enclaves of the deep gnomes.

Halflings are to the Tome of Foes as Rangers are to the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide: they’re the only entry that doesn’t have a mechanical contribution to the book, in that they’re the only race that doesn’t have a new subrace. They do have some new tables, though, the usual four along with some reasons for adventuring.

Gnomes have the usual tables, but also have the somewhat surprising return of the Deep Gnomes/Svirfneblin, last originally seen in the Elemental Evil Player’s Companion. and most recently in the SCAG (thanks again Moose! – Ed.). The deep gnome is pretty much exactly the same, and was probably included here to bring the subrace back into the light (bit of irony, there) as the EEPC is increasingly old and probably forgotten by many. There is one subtle but perhaps dramatic change: Stone Camouflage, which grants Advantage for Dexterity (Stealth) checks, now explicitly works ‘underground’ in addition to the original ‘rocky terrain’. No more losing your stealth because you’re sneaking through a mushroom forest!

Chapter 6: Bestiary

By my count there are 140 new monsters to fight! That takes up most of the book (142 of its 256 pages) which, this being a ‘Tome of Foes’, makes perfect sense. The majority of the monsters within follow the theme of Mordenkainen being a multiplanar traveler: fiends of the Abyss and the Nine Hells, creatures of the Feywild and Shadowfell, beings from the various Elemental Planes, spawn from beyond the stars, and others of the like feature heavily. As with other chapters, however, it’s not entirely restricted to beings who have to come to the Material Plane from somewhere else. There a good number of options that could show up in an unlucky adventurer’s rhetorical back yard easily enough. You’ll probably get the most use out of the Tome of Foes as a DM if your campaign at least has influences from beyond the mortal realm, however; a book that includes this many ties to the multiverse sort of eggs you on to explore it.

Still, there’s a lot of variety, a fair number of built-in adventure ideas, and a good spread of challenge from the CR 1/8 Young Kruthik to the CR 26 Orcus. I think pretty much any DM will be able to find something they want to use in this chapter.

The Book Itself

The Tome of Foes is a gorgeous book. I got my hands on a copy with the alternate cover by Vance Kelly (that thankfully avoided the trouble many of those alternate cover copies ran into), and while I’m not usually one for the alternate cover gimmick it IS very nice. But it’s the internal stuff that matters most, of course, since it’s what everybody is going to get. The art in the first five chapters is great, providing little snapshots of each chapter’s subjects, and the monster art in the sixth is equally excellent (although some of the fiends are a little nauseating to look at, isn’t that right Mr. Sibriex?). What particularly stand out are a couple of two-page spreads that, frankly, WotC should probably consider selling as posters some day.

Scattered throughout are the now customary in-universe notes, this time written in the elegant hand of Mordenkainen himself. These provide opinions, perspectives, perhaps some extra facts, and a glimpse into what the wizard is really like; none is more interesting than the very beginning, where we also receive a note from Mordenkainen’s apprentice Qort and the yugoloth he paid to steal the Tome of Foes in the first place.

Also, it’s a nice touch that the book is dedicated to William O’Connor, longtime respected D&D artist, who contributed to the Tome and passed away during its creation.

In Conclusion

Is the Tome of Foes worth getting? I’d say yes! It maintains the high standard of quality we’ve gotten used to with 5th Edition supplements and provides plenty of new material for the DM and the players while also providing a ton of lore for fans of four of the original races from the Player’s Handbook to draw inspiration from. It also continues to show that the Unearthed Arcana model works; while I might not personally agree with all of the decisions made along the way, overall exposing material to the player base and then listening to them leads to improvements.

There are some interesting gaps, of course, which might provide hints at future products. Some PHB races have been left out in the cold (the dragonborn come to mind as potentially the one with the most that could be written of them), and not every infamous archdevil and demon prince received a stat block here. There’s also the fact, mentioned above, that many other planes of existence were merely touched up, and could be further explored.

I also have some thoughts about what the material (or lack of material) for certain settings could mean . . . but that’s speculation I’ll put into the comments.

Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes is currently available at your Friendly Local Gaming Store, and will become available everywhere else on May 29th (when the Fantasy Grounds link becomes available, we’ll post it here). You can also hear some of the Tome’s contents in action by checking out the Podcast of Foes!

See what Mordenkainen has to tell you, even if it wasn’t his idea in the first place, and be mindful of the Balance!

4 thoughts on “Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes Review”

  1. Wild speculation time!

    Alright, so this might be wishful thinking (no, I know it’s wishful thinking) but . . . the treatment of the Eberron and Dark Sun settings in this book was strange.

    While much of 5th Edition’s material has been Forgotten Realms-centric, other settings like Greyhawk, Dragonlance, Dark Sun, and Eberron have gotten pretty equal treatment when it comes to things like gods being mentioned in Cleric Domains, or things like the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide’s ‘Class Options in Other Worlds’ appendix (although Dark Sun missed out on that last). That’s not entirely the case here. Now, I don’t think it could be expected for every possible opportunity to feature every setting to be seized upon, nor should it, but the gaps are interesting.

    Eberron is mentioned all of twice so far as I can find it, in one of Mordenkainen’s notes pondering the decline of humanity after the Last War and in a brief snippet about the drow scorpion god Vulkoor that spends some of its words pondering his possible relationship to Lloth and the greater multiversal drow pantheon. Although the dwarven section and the halfling section go into some depth about the place of their respective races in various settings, Eberron does not come up despite things like the Dragonmarked Houses, nor do the elven or gnomish sections address it.

    Dark Sun gets much the same. There’s a sidebar note from a seer-gone-mad who seemingly caught a glimpse of Athas. The previously mentioned sidebar about halflings in other settings does mention that the halflings of Athas are, ahem, Cannibal Halflings. That’s it, again, despite the pretty distinct and often drastic differences between Athasians and their multiversal counterparts.

    Could be a matter of page count. Could be that WotC didn’t want to mention either setting too much because some pretty key material still languishes in Unearthed Arcana status (various Eberron character options, the psionic Mystic, the Artificer). Could be nothing!

    Could be that something else is in the works. I certainly hope so.

    Like

  2. Duergar and Deep Gnomes both show up in the Sword Coast Adventures Guide as playable sub-races. Stone’s Camouflage in that book works like the EEPC’s version. It’s strange that they would print 2 different version of the same ability (EEPC never got a physical release so it’s not as “official” as printed material, so it it wasn’t printed in the SCAG the rules in MToF would take precedence)

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