The next version of D&D is coming, and Monsters of the Multiverse is your first taste

Polygon - Tue Jan 18 14:00

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Mordenkainen stares into a crystal ball. Inside, a group of adventurers has a picnic. Image: Wizards of the Coast

Monsters of the Multiverse is designed to be ‘backward-compatible’ with 5th edition

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Dungeons & Dragons publisher Wizards of the Coast is currently walking a tightrope. The seminal tabletop role-playing game turns 50 in 2024, and developers are busy building the game’s next version to go on sale during that window. At the same time, D&D is more popular than ever, a jewel in Hasbro’s crown that — along with Magic: The Gathering — is raking in money hand over fist. So how will the developers navigate the void between the 5th edition and what comes next? The answer is: very, very carefully.

Our first hint at how that transition will be navigated is an upcoming book titled Mordenkainen Presents Monsters of the Multiverse, a confusing name for a confusing product that will be sold in a confusing way and — at least initially — at a conspicuously high price point. Let’s break down what’s going on here, and what it means for the future of D&D.

In September, head of D&D Ray Winninger let the cat out of the bag (of holding) during a video presentation.

“I know there’s been a lot of speculation of this, but I can actually reveal today that we have — earlier this year — began work on the next evolution of Dungeons & Dragons,” Winninger said. “New versions of the core rulebooks that will be coming out in 2024 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Dungeons & Dragons.”

Dungeons & Dragons 6th edition ... sorta

The standard cover of Mordenkainen Presents Monsters of the Multiverse shows the man himself riding a spectral unicorn. A one-eyed beast lurks in the shadows behind him. Image: Wizards of the Coast

It’s that “next evolution” bit that keeps tripping people up. Many have speculated, without evidence, that it will be the full-fledged 6th edition of the game. But there’s a downside to breaking ties with nearly a decade’s worth of products — adventures, settings, rulebooks, and licensed accessories, some of which are just now trickling out into the hands of a mainstream audience — and starting fresh. Just look to the various “edition wars” that have cropped up over the years when the franchise transitioned from 3rd edition, to 3.5, to 4th edition.

Instead, it appears that Wizards will be taking a far more incremental approach this time, weaving in changes both large and small while still maintaining a connection to what came before. Monsters of the Multiverse is just the first example of how that’s going to play out.

“We are working as we speak on revisions of the core rulebooks that will be backward-compatible,” said Jeremy Crawford, principal rules designer for D&D, during a press preview event last week. “That was in our mind as we worked on Monsters of the Multiverse. [...] So this book will be not only ready to go, but will be able to keep going for years to come.”

So what does backward compatibility mean in D&D? For Monsters of the Multiverse, it means tinkering with some of the math under the hood, and enshrining subtle changes that have been made since 2014 to adapt the game for a modern, increasingly more progressive, and now thoroughly mainstream audience. Honestly, outside of character creation, I’m not even sure most players will notice the differences.

Tasha’s Cauldron of Racial Essentialism

Monsters of the Multiverse, Crawford explained, is divided into two parts. The first half of the book includes 33 previously released player character races that have, until now, never been collected together into a single volume. Each of those races will be presented in a revised format, first seen in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything (2020), that formally separates ability score increases (Strength, Constitution, Wisdom, etc.) from character race.

“We really wanted to reinforce that all of the game’s races are just as flexible as humans when it comes to the range of culture and personality,” Crawford said.

The maneuver is an attempt to take the racist elements that D&D has been carrying around inside of it for the better part of four decades and yeet them directly into the sun. At the same time, it allows traditionalists to just keep doing it the way they’ve been doing it by using the legacy rules for character creation first published in the Player’s Handbook in 2014. If you and your players don’t think it’s broke, then you don’t have to fix it — but new books going forward aren’t going to encourage players to do it that way anymore.

Of course, Crawford was quick to point out that this is more than just a nod to contemporary criticisms of a really old game. There’s another big reason as well.

“Way back when we started working on [Monsters of the Multiverse], we have not liked how the choice of race in the game — whether you’re going to be a member of the human race, or one of the game’s many fantastical races — had often too much weight on the player’s choice of class,” Crawford said.

Essentially, if you’re trying to build the most effective ranger possible (or wizard, or monk, or artificer), there are some races that are less effective than others when using the older rules. Now players will be more able to “follow their bliss,” as Crawford put it, and not be “pigeonholed” into certain classes based solely on their choice of race.

Monster Manual 2, too

The second half of the book is a collection of more than 250 monsters, some of which are entirely new. But all of these monsters are being presented in a brand new way.

First, they’re no longer defined solely as residents of a particular plane of the D&D multiverse. Instead, they’re presented as much more vanilla types. Alignments — chaotic evil, true neutral, lawful good — have been filed off in some places as yet another nod to removing racial essentialism from the game. That has the benefit of opening up new opportunities for Dungeon Masters (DMs) to present classic enemies to their players in new and interesting ways. It will also give Wizards of the Coast more elbow room to expand its multiverse, either relaunching classic settings like Dragonlance and Spelljammer or unleashing entirely new settings built from scratch.

Wizards will make one more major change to monsters that has to do with something called “challenge rating.” Essentially, DMs can reference a monster’s challenge rating to determine if it’s a good fit for their players. Perhaps your party is short a few members that night. To compensate, you’ll want to swap out that ancient bronze dragon to something with a lower challenge rating. Or maybe you goofed up and doled out too many magical items in that last adventure, making your party grossly overpowered in the short term. Just pick a monster with a higher challenge rating and press on.

Trouble is, assigning a challenge rating is more of an art than a science for designers. On the flipside, sometimes it’s just difficult for DMs to run a monster “correctly” at the table. To solve both issues, Wizards is rejiggering monster stats and abilities, buffing some and nerfing others. Meanwhile, all of their challenge ratings will remain exactly the same.

Art showing a female wizard summoning a creature. Chains leap from a magical tome to bind it. Image: Wizards of the Coast

“We didn’t change any of the challenge ratings,” Crawford said, “because we wanted to make sure that DMs who were already using these monsters — and other products that are currently using those monsters — can still use them at the same challenge rating. But what we did is, we made sure every monster really earned its challenge rating.”

In the past, Crawford said, all that a monster had to do to “earn” its challenge rating was to have a singular “golden path” of actions — spells, melee attacks, legendary actions, etc. — that, if executed in the proper sequence by the DM, measured up to what the designers had in mind. In Monsters of the Multiverse (and, presumably, in every new D&D book going forward) that golden path will be a lot wider.

“We’ve now made it so that each of the monsters has multiple choice sequences that lead to the same [challenge rating],” Crawford said. “Almost any main combat path that the DM chooses through a monster, it’s going to deliver that challenge rating.” That will be especially true of higher-level monsters, according to Crawford.

How the book will be sold

Wizards of the Coast is not exempt from the ongoing global supply chain issues that are impacting everything from automobile manufacturers to local grocers. With Mordenkainen Presents Monsters of the Multiverse, however, it definitely sounds like the company got caught with its hand in the proverbial cookie jar.

Turns out, this book was supposed to have been available in time for the holidays. As such, Wizards elected to introduce it to the world as part of a deluxe three-volume set titled Dungeons & Dragons Rules Expansion Gift Set that costs $169.99. Along with a fancy slipcase and a Dungeon Master’s screen, Monsters of the Multiverse will be packaged alongside revised editions of Xanathar’s Guide to Everything and Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, two books that also function as expansions upon the core set of Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual.

It’s an approach to releasing new content that the company has not attempted before in 5th edition, and this time, it looks to have backfired, effectively gating off this new content for a period of time unless you’re willing to pay a premium. Like previous releases, this boxed set is also available in a collector’s edition with alternate cover art. Expect it to arrive at your friendly local game store and via online merchants like Amazon by Jan. 25.

So, in summary: Mordenkainen Presents Monsters of the Multiverse will debut as a physical product as part of the Dungeons & Dragons Rules Expansion Gift Set, which retails for $169.99. It will be released on Jan. 25. Pre-orders for the stand-alone book — and for digital platforms such as Fantasy Grounds, Roll20, and D&D Beyond – begin Jan. 18, with delivery set for May 17.