A Walk Through the Planes – Part 2.5: Monster Manual II




I mentioned not too long ago that I planned on returning to the Monster Manual II at some point, and given how weirdly foundational it is to the planes I figured it makes more sense to takes  look at it sooner rather than later. It’s a strange work, in that as I said it laid much of the foundation down for what Dungeons & Dragons‘ planes would look like, but at the same time that’s not really the book’s focus, and I’m not sure if that’s how it’s remembered (honestly, it seems pretty forgotten period). After all, it has page after page of dinosaur descriptions, and in all of my roleplaying I think I’ve come across one, maybe two dinosaurs in those hundreds of hours. The planes make a strong appearance here, but so do, well, worms, and faeries, and elves. It’s an important book, but unless you’re me in middle school, probably not something you’ll want to read straight through—and even then your eyes will glaze over once you hit those dinosaurs. 

Which isn’t to say that all of planar creatures originated here. Demons first appeared in Eldritch Wizardy before Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was even created, while devils popped up in the first Monster Manual (as did many other dinosaurs because I guess Gary Gygax was really into prehistoric lizards?). Some of the weirder planar denizens then arrived in the British-designed Fiend Folio, an altogether goofier volume of monsters that became infamous for its inclusion of the flumph, the flail snail, and the adherer, all of which are… let’s not beat around the bush here, they’re quite stupid, and not even in a good way. These planar monsters were the githyanki, the githzerai, and the slaad, all of which were the creations of future science fiction author Charles Stross (as was the death knight—dude just knew how to make a quality foe). Each of these races have complicated and interesting backstories, and became major trademarked players in the longterm life of the game, but in this they’re the publication’s outliers. The Fiend Folio is less about iconic monsters and more about being weird and British, which is something I’m usually pretty happy with but when it comes to D&D the tone just doesn’t really mesh. 


Monster Manual II received quite a bit of criticism when it came out two years later in 1983, though not for the same reason as the Fiend Folio—no one captured the early tone of D&D like Gygax did, as Gygax essentially was the early tone of D&D. Here, the main issue was that the volume focused too much on high-level monsters that in most cases would single-handedly party wipe even a group of experienced adventurers. Given that this volume includes the single most powerful entity yet included in the game, the Solar, as well as the infamous tarrasque, numerous arch-devils, and demon lords, there’s something to this complaint. All of these adversaries are ludicrously powerful and not something most parties would try to fight. That there are so many of these uber-powerful monsters means that from a gameplay perspective dozens of these pages are worthless. From a world-building perspective though, it’s a glorious tome, and this remains my favorite book from first edition AD&D, which like most of Gygax’s early work is filled with more ideas than it knows what to do with. 

Not the most creatively designed fiend, but Anthraxus is still looking sharp.

At times it feels like half of Monster Manual II, or at least half of what’s worth reading the book, comes in the D section. Chief among these are large expansions to the demons and devils, but equally noteworthy are the daemons, demodands, and devas. While a pair of daemons appeared in the Fiend Folio, there they seemed disjointed and random (they literally feel like a typographical error), whereas Gygax makes each of these creatures from the lower planes feel like part of its own strange society. We learn that daemons roam Gehenna, Tartarus, and Hades, and have fortresses and their own hierarchies. None of these creatures feel like stat blocks, either, and instead of just learning that Anthraxus is powerful and can cast a lot of lethal spells, we learn that:

Anthraxus is the most powerful daemon on the Lower Planes, but his position is challenged by other unique daemonic beings, the chief of which are Bubonis, Cholerix, Typhus, and Diptherius, along with other unknown or unrecorded by scholars.

Anthraxus appears as a tall man in a rotting grey suit and cape. His head is that of a ram deformed by disease; his mouth foams and the wool pulls away from the skin in handfuls. There are boils and blisters over his exposed skin, and his flesh is pulled taut over his bones. 

Yes, this is just a handful of sentences—by Planescape standards it’s spartan and lacking—and none of these other entities mentioned would ever crop up again. But the hint of a greater world here is what’s so powerful, the sense of entire existences beyond what players can yet know of. Hundreds of thousands of words have been spent glorifying Hidetaka Miyazaki’s storytelling in the Soulsborne games, much of which comes from item descriptions. This volume, however, is where we see that same narrative methodology from D&D, a well-known huge influence on him. Gygax drops hints here and there, but most of the overarching narrative is left in the reader’s imaginations, which is absolutely perfect for a story-based game.

For the past 20-something year I’ve thought Graz’zt only had one arm in this drawing.
But after staring at it for this article, I guess he has two and one is just weird?


Nowhere in the book is this stronger than with the demons and devils, whose fragmentary descriptions can be puzzled together into a somewhat cohesive whole. Learning that Graz’zt is a “dedicated foe of both Demogorgon and Orcus” tells us little on its own, but between reading his description here, theirs in the Monster Manual, and that of the other demons, and the composite gives not just Graz’zt but the Abyss as a plane quite a bit of personality. Then we read about how Pazuzu doesn’t compete with the other demon lords and again the society gains complexity, hinting at hidden politics beyond the ken of the mortal writers who put this book together. Why can he planeshift in ways other demons can’t? Hints arrive both in gameplay terms and descriptions, and the result is that these entries tangle together until it feels like there’s a tangible ecosystem at work, it’s just not understood by those on the Prime Material Plane yet.

With the devils, we learn a lot more about Hell’s hierarchy, and fascinatingly enough much of this contradicts what was contained in the Monster Manual. There, Baalzebub controlled layers seven and eight of Hell, while here we learn Mephistopheles is the ruler of the eighth layer. Then there’s the fact that Asmodeus’ daughter is Mammon’s consort, and that while Mammon rules the third layer he and Dispater in fact support Mephistopheles more than Asmodeus… and suddenly the complicated web of Hell comes to life. Several of the dukes it mentions would never make another appearance, while even some of the archdukes would be deposed by the game’s next edition and Tiamat herself would no longer rule a layer before long. Yet all of this is told through these fragmentary sentences scattered amongst half a dozen pages. Ed Greenwood’s essay on the Hells builds off of this material (he was shown an early draft of the book by Gygax), but I actually find the Monster Manual II‘s version of the hierarchy more interesting. I appreciate Greenwood’s actual descriptions of the layers, which immediately became canon, but the hints peppered into Gygax’s descriptions here are what really set my imagination alight. 


And then last of the lower planes’ fiends (at least, for now…) are the demodands, later rebranded into the greheleths, a much-unloved group derived from Charles Vance’s fiction. I’m weirdly fond of them, perhaps because they’re so weird and neglected, and have actually brought them into my D&D campaigns, which probably makes me a rarity. They’re kind of a mess and not much of a society, but I don’t know, they’re goofy in a way I appreciate. Like djinn’s, they tend to get stored into bottles a lot, which for some reason entertains me more than it should.

The original cat lord isn’t as alluring, but I still sure did want to be him.

The other huge addition to the planar cosmology here are the modrons, who were created by Francois Marcela-Froideval and fleshed out by the eventual Manual of the Planes author Jeff Grubb. What’s amazing is how, aside from far superior artwork, the modrons as set down here in 1983 really didn’t change much between their first description and their starring role in Planescape. I obsessed over these modron pages as a child, finding these alien beings fascinating because of how developed they seemed even with such paltry details. I could imagine what Nirvana looked like as inhabited by all of these creatures, and wanted to visit this logically illogical plane of existence. As such, I wasn’t surprised when they became a major player in Planescape, as I’m sure others felt similarly, and my attachment to them also made me particularly disappointed when they were left behind by future editions of the game. 


In addition to grandly enriching the demoniac hordes and adding modrons to the mix, we also got our first glimpse of angels, who make an appearance here as the solar, planetar, and devas. They are unsurprisingly not quite as interesting as the fiends, but still a worthy inclusion. And then there’s strange one-offs, like the Cat Lord and and the Hollyphant, who became iconic to me, if no one else. Likewise, there’s the addition of para-elementals, and more than a handful of new residents to the elemental planes, some of whom we weirdly haven’t seen since. Of the book’s 250 monsters, probably only 80-100 or so are actually from outside the prime material plane (I’m sorry, for once I’m not going to bother to count them), but that’s still quite a few additions, for comparison roughly the size of one of the full Planescape Monstrous Appendix books. The real makeup of these planes is still more than a bit muddled (the important concept of petitioners is yet to be found), but there is finally an inkling that these places are worth exploring as much as anywhere else. As of MMII, they’re no longer barren or monolithic, rather they’re filled with varying populations and perhaps as much reason to adventure there as the Prime, even if these locations aren’t fleshed out at all otherwise.

If you do have Planescape’s books, there’s not much of a reason to go back and read through the original Monster Manual II. Most of what it says was either repeated and expanded later, or completely changed to better fit the more composed multiverse to come. But for a kid wondering what else Dungeons & Dragons had to offer, the book was extraordinary, and all those semi-meaningless charts of devil relationships and modron armies made me think that there might be books detailing, say, Neabaz, the herald of Baalzebul, if only I could lay my hands on them. That, I think, was what made the book so strong—not just the new monsters, but the way it made it feel like the Planes were worlds unto themselves rather than just alternate locations for dungeons and adventuring from the prime material plane. It would take a long time for this to really come into its own, but even the seed of it was something to be excited about. 

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