Volothamp Geddarm is a fictional figure with what might be the most fantasy-ass fantasy name of all time. Better known as Volo, this character from Dungeons & Dragons’s Forgotten Realms has always existed as a kind of encyclopedic mouthpiece for the various creatures, people, and places all over the world. Imagine that Ken Jennings was a drunk, really cared about being able to name all the animals of the zoo, and was the sole grantor of Michelin stars across the world. That’s Volo.
From a practical perspective, Volo has always been a way for the designers of the Forgotten Realms campaign setting to talk about that world from a subjective perspective. It’s very easy to write adventures and worlds where the state of things is very cut and dried: the castle is here, the doorway is there, and that wizard has a wand of fireballing you to death. In the best top-down design work in role-playing games, designers give individual Dungeon Masters a small toolbox and let them work from there. The brilliance of some prewritten adventures (like my personal favorite “The Village of Hommlet”) is that they give the DM a set of situations and scenarios that set bounds to what the players can do. Within that framework, players can do anything they want, and the DM always has the ability to reign them in with the tools that the adventure gave them.
As a character, Volo is brilliant because he is a device through which the designers of the Forgotten Realms can give Dungeon Masters a set of bounds. Instead of merely providing a list of taverns, the writer of a Volo’s Guide to X can list taverns, the people Volo met there, and things Volo thinks he knows about those taverns. That “thinks he knows” is crucial, because having Volo write the guide means that he can be wrong. From a design perspective, Volo is a way of giving DMs a toolbox that they don’t have to be completely adherent to. Whatever Volo thinks or writes can be slightly off the mark. Maybe he only saw a tavern during the daytime. Maybe he cut some corners. Nesting world design within the subjective opinions of an expansive, world-trotting character with a penchant for embellishment solves a lot of problems and generally makes the job of being a DM a little more fun.
The new Volo’s Guide to Monsters is the newest sourcebook for The Voloverse, ahem, I mean Dungeons & Dragons. Following up on the Monster Manual for the 5th Edition of the game, Volo’s Guide is a huge smattering of monsters that can be slotted or adapted into any Dungeons & Dragons game. While the pages below don’t have much of Volo’s signature sassiness (or his buddy Elminster’s “corrections”), I can confirm that his marginalia graces the whole thing. Scroll on down to check out some orc gods and giant social structures from Volo’s newest guide, and feel free to click on each image in order to open up a larger version and take a closer look.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, was released last year. It’s available on Steam.