A successful Dungeons & Dragons game depends on a couple things. The first is that you need some players who are willing to go out and adventure in the dangerous world around them. The second is that the world itself offers them interesting things to head out and encounter. A new supplement by Tyler Kamstra offered through the Dungeon Master’s Guild—a storefront for user-generated content for Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition—gives both Dungeon Masters and players some brand new tools for achieving both of those goals: monstrous races.
I’m not the biggest fan of the use of “race” in D&D when species is generally more appropriate and the concept of “race” has a long, bad history in fantasy in general and this game in particular. While official books from Wizards of the Coast have given guidelines for creating players from “monstrous” species like orcs, lizardfolk, and firbolgs, Kamstra’s “Monstrous Races” offers guidelines for playing as species that are far from humanoids. Do you want to play as an adventurous carrion crawler, the dungeon-dwelling monster that eats rotten flesh? There’s some guidelines here. Want to experience what it would be like to save a village as an owlbear, a fusion between an owl and a bear? You can do that.
As a regular 5th Edition DM, I can see places where the work being done in Kamstra’s supplement will be very helpful, particularly in the “design notes” sections that work through the translation from “monster” to “character.” While I would be very hesitant to implement this book in my own game for various reasons, “Monstrous Races” is a really great place to start if you are a player or a Dungeon Master who is looking for ways to adapt “monstrous” traits into a more streamlined game.
Want to experience what it would be like to save a village as an owlbear, a fusion between an owl and a bear? You can do that.
That said, there are reasons that cloakers (fake ceiling monsters that fall down and trap adventurers) and giant owls (er, uh, giant owls) aren’t “official” player races in D&D. It is a storied game with a lot of history and official worldbuilding attached to it, and while the rules implementations in this supplement are interesting, it might also be worth playing a game without those assumptions if you want to play as monsters.
Dungeon World or World of Dungeons are both medieval-y games where mechanics are (mostly) decoupled from species, and therefore might allow for much more interesting player-generated fictions around monstrosity. And for a different take, Buried Without Ceremony’s Monsterhearts takes monstrousness seriously, puts it in a contemporary setting, and is built all around bridging the gap between monstrousness and the social world. It’s like Buffy.
In any case, “Monstrous Races” is an interesting supplement, and as Cecilia D'Anastasio wrote over at Kotaku, at least it gives us playable purple worms.