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Thoughts on the 5th edition D&D Monster Manual art

S. Ben Melhuish • Sunday, November 23, 2014, updated Monday, September 2, 2019 • filed under shelves

I wasn’t going to do a deep analysis of the new D&D Monster Manual’s art, like I did for the Player’s Handbook. And I guess I didn’t, if only because this article isn’t as long as that one.

(Update, Sept. 14, 2015: Anna Kreider has done a similar, and better, analysis, Representation in D&D 5E Core Books: “better than the rest” unfortunately still falls short, with a somewhat less positive overall view. Her followups go far beyond this: Numbers Aren’t the Whole Story and Smurfettes and Sexy Corpses focus on the ways in which the art is highly problematic, in ways I either didn’t see or didn’t emphasize. I strongly recommend reading them.)

Methodology

Briefly: I considered all the color illustrations in the Monster Manual, including those on the cover. If the illustration included multiple creatures, I generally analyzed each separately. Similarly to the PHB analysis, I coded each creature by several criteria:

  • By color as depicted, which I judged to be light, dark, or “intermediate”; examples are the banshee, azer, and basilisk, respectively. Creatures with multiple pictures were generally coded with the same color, though some were different (for example, I thought the beholder on p. 26 was dark, while the one on p. 28 was intermediate). I did not consider the textual description.
  • By alignment, as given in the creature’s stat block, focusing solely on the good, neutral, or evil component.
  • I paid extra attention to creatures with a torso, in particular those which have human-like skin (regardless of its color); I discounted those with fur, scales, feathers, or the like. For undead, I did not include skeletal ones (such as the lich), but did include incorporeal ones if their torsos looked as they did in life (such as the specter). I also included creatures whose torsos were completely covered but which I could deduce would otherwise qualify (such as an orc wearing armor).1 For those that do have torsos, I considered the following extra characteristics:
    • The sex of the creature, based on secondary sexual characteristics. A surprising number of the portraits were at least a little ambiguous (for example, due to shading); I judged these to be unclear.
    • Whether the creature is a “charmer” — described as having charm-like powers.

I also noted creatures’ stances (active or posed) and challenge, but ended up not factoring them into this discussion. Finally, for creatures with torsos, I noted the amount of skin showing, with the idea of correlating this with the creature’s sex; it turned out there were no significant differences between males and females, and thus I have left it out.

Basic analysis

Color

There are 73 light, 84 intermediate, and 125 dark creatures.

light
26% (73)
intermediate
30% (84)
dark
44% (125)

Alignment

There are 29 good creatures, 49 neutral ones, and 145 evil ones, as befits a book of heroes’ adversaries. In addition, 46 are unaligned, and 13 can vary.

good
10%
neutral
17% (49)
evil
51% (145)
unaligned
16% (46)
var.
5%

Sex

Of the creatures with torsos, 64 are male, 19 are female, and 30 are unclear.

male
57% (64)
female
17% (19)
unclear
27% (30)

Charmers

There are eight creatures with charm-like powers; I’ll treat them individually below.

Correlations

The only correlation I found to be particularly interesting, aside from the charmers, was color vs. alignment.

Color vs. alignment

Good, neutral, unaligned, and variably-aligned creatures are depicted roughly equally as light, intermediate, or dark, with some small variations.

good light
41% (12)
intermediate
31% (9)
dark
28% (8)
neutral light
37% (18)
intermediate
24% (12)
dark
39% (19)
unaligned light
33% (15)
intermediate
43% (20)
dark
24% (11)
variable light
31% (4)
intermediate
38% (5)
dark
31% (4)

Evil creatures, however, are far more likely to be portrayed as dark.

evil light
17% (24)
intermediate
26% (38)
dark
57% (83)

Given that half of the depicted creatures are evil, it’s worth noting that evil creatures account for 33% of light portraits and 66% of dark portraits.

(Update, Dec. 1, 2015: Just as a note, the ratios for creatures with torsos are roughly the same as the overall ratio, with the significant exception that there were almost no unaligned such creatures.)

Charmers

The eight charmers (creatures with torsos and charm-like powers) are the dryad, harpy, lamia, satyr (as an option), succubus/incubus (a single creature, though depicted in both forms), vampire, yuan-ti malison, and yuan-ti pureblood (the latter two of which I’m treating as separate creatures). The medusa does not have any charm-like powers, but is described as “ravishing”; I will include it in this discussion.

The succubus/incubus is listed under exactly that heading, is described as being able to take either form, and is depicted in both forms. The vampire, yuan-ti malison, and yuan-ti pureblood are not described as being of a specific sex; they are depicted as male, male, and female respectively. Surprisingly, though the harpy, lamia, and medusa are depicted female, in line with their mythological origins, they are not described as being of a specific sex. Only the dryad and satyr are described with an intrinsic sex (female and male, respectively). All told (not including the medusa, but counting the succubus and incubus separately), this is four male and five female charmers, as depicted by their artwork.

At first glance, this seems equitable. Recall, however, that 64 portraits are male and 19 female. This means that less than 10% of males are charmers, while over 25% of females are — based on the Monster Manual’s artwork, a party of adventurers would be well advised to prepare anti-charm abilities whenever they encounter a female creature.

The “reality” wouldn’t be quite so straightforward, given that many of the male-depicted creatures could just as easily be female (orcs, to pick just one example), and that many of the female-depicted charmers could be male. Further, there is a mythological basis for most of these creatures, largely biased towards female charmers, and it certainly makes sense to depict a creature based on its mythological origins, even if the creature’s description pulls back from that to some degree. The fact remains, however, that the artwork of charmers is heavily skewed.

Further thoughts and conclusions

Charmers aside, I don’t feel concerned about the overall sex imbalance of portraits here as I did with that in the Player’s Handbook: these are not archetypes and exemplars, these are (mostly) foes.

The color imbalance is somewhat more troubling — dark skin tends to be evil, even more than the overall (reasonable) skew towards evil creatures in the book. This same problem crops up in the works of Tolkien, Howard, and Lovecraft, to use three somewhat-modern examples2.

As with the charmers, there is some mythological and perhaps even pre-mythological basis for this. We humans are diurnal creatures; the night is not our element, and it follows that creatures of the night — creatures of the dark — are instinctively feared.

And yet, as with the charmers, the designers had a chance to break free of this trope, but didn’t. If they had done so, would it have made the monsters less resonant, less immediately recognizable? Perhaps; perhaps the designers thought so; but I hope not, on both counts.

Overall, I believe that like the Player’s Handbook, this is an improvement over 3rd edition’s artwork. The designers clearly took some initial steps forward, and just as clearly have more work ahead of them in the future.

If you would like to discuss this analysis, please feel free to contact me via email or my main or gaming Twitter accounts.


  1. Overall, most creatures with torsos are human-shaped, as one might expect, with a few exceptions (such as the centaur and the yuan-ti halfbreed malison). [return]
  2. All three of them are cited in the 5th edition Player’s Handbook’s Appendix E, as well as its inspiration, Gary Gygax’s famous Appendix N in the original Dungeon Master’s Guide. [return]