Saturday, 25 February 2017

My Advice for Running D&D 5e Monsters?

Run 4e Monsters...

No, seriously.

I, like many, bounced off Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition, because I found the rules overly complex for what they were trying to do, and moving ever further away from roleplaying and back into wargaming. Now, there's nothing wrong with wargaming, and there is definitely a place for it (a place that I enjoy as well!) but for me that isn't in my roleplaying.

(Images from Wizards.)
Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition reverted a lot of those changes, and brought the game to a point simpler than 3rd Edition, which meant I was once more interested. Whilst I have many (many) gripes remaining about D&D as a whole, I have gotten almost 3 years of mileage out of 5e, and I can see a lot of merits in it.

But, in those 3 years I have noticed one thing: the Monster Manual is flat... It's, honestly, very bland. When you boil each monster down, they are merely sliders on the same variables. This one has more HP, that one has a higher damage die, etc. The descriptions given often work well to tell you where the monster may be found, and generally what it is like, but they fail miserably with the one key note that is vital to D&D (given that it's a game about braving dungeons and fighting dragons).

There are no TACTICS.
(Image from Wizards.)
We know where a monster may lair, and what it looks like. We know who probably made it, and where it comes from. We know, sometimes, how it communicates with its fellows, and which monsters it hates.

But we don't know what it does. When it is cornered, how does it fight? We can see that it might claw an opponent, but when and why? Does it just run at the opponent and claw them until it is dead? Does it claw, then run away, then growl, or something else? It might. We can say that it does. But there is nothing in the book to suggest what it should be doing.

This, ultimately, leads to pretty static fights. Unless the GM does a lot of prep before hand, most fights will likely end the same - with monsters moving in, and the two sides grinding down until one has lost.
(Image from Wizards.)
Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition did not have this problem!

4e, when you crack open the Monster Manual, is filled with monsters that are accompanied by tactics. Each entry tells you not only what they can do in a fight, but how, and in what order. For most of them, this is just a small paragraph. This means, when you need a monster, or you don't want to prep much, you can open it up, turn to the monster entry, read very quickly, and have an interesting, game changing, way to run that monster.

Here is a cross example between the two books:

Whilst running Curse of Strahd, I needed to use 8 Gargoyles in an encounter in Castle Ravenloft itself (those of you who have played it will know the bit I mean). I read the entry in the 5e MM, and all I came up with was a straight forward fight. There was nothing particularly interesting there.

Then, I had the idea to read the 4e MM, and that spawned an idea of the Gargoyles flanking the PCs, some engaging in melee, and others grappling them to lift them to the ceiling (which is quite high up in this bit) and dashing them onto the floor to kill them. This utilised their abilities which the PCs couldn't match - flight - as well as adding their cruel natures into the mix. This change in tactics was inspired by their flyby ability. I didn't have to change the 5e entry at all, I just had to think about them differently.
(Image from Wizards.)
Note, even, that this tactic isn't the one in the MM. All that happened was thinking about the tactics, rather than the abilities, got me thinking about encounter design differently.

Now, whenever I need a set-piece combat, I turn to the Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition Monster Manual first. I encourage you to, as well.

It has come to my attention that Matthew Colville, a GM who does YouTube videos on how to run Dungeons & Dragons has talked about very similar topics on the following video. His videos tend to be awesome, and this one is no different. He's also a great author, and you should check out his books here and here!

Have you used this method before? Which monsters did you reverse engineer in this way? Which monsters do you think could be improved in 5e?

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