It comes as no surprise that I’ve played a LOT of roleplaying games, in tabletop, online, and console versions. These days, a lot of my gaming happens in 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons, the latest version of the world’s best-known RPG. As a system, it’s got some good points, and it’s got some not-so-good points. It’s a usable to tell fun stories, even with its flaws. But one thing constantly irks me, and it’s something I’d like to talk to you all about: Monster design.
In a fantasy RPG like D&D, your characters are going to be spending a lot of time fighting monsters. Sure, there are the other “pillars of D&D” listed in the rulebooks, namely exploration and roleplaying interaction… but a lot of the game (especially at the organized play tables I run every week) boils down to combat. And the first rule of combat in an RPG is that it should be INTERESTING.
In many RPGs, the monsters are given a variety of exciting powers and things they can do. 13th Age bases many monster abilities on the even/oddness of a die roll, not just on whether it hits, so that cool things can happen even when the monster misses. 4th edition D&D had multiple defenses a monster could attack, as well as different named powers for most every critter in all 3 monster manuals. Many of White Wolf’s World of Darkness monsters have powers and effects related to larger metaphysical or magical themes. That’s what I like to call “interesting” monster design.
Other games – usually the early edition video game RPGs – tended to have monsters that were less interesting. A lot of this was due to limited memory size on the cartridges that contained the games, so you ran into a lot of “Palette Swapped” monsters. The first Final Fantasy on the NES had many of these. The first monster you’d face, the Imp, had 7 hit points and looked kind of brownish. Then the GrImp, a slightly stronger monster, had more HP, did a bit more damage, and used the same image, but palette-swapped to look more grey. It uses less memory on the cartridge, because they just need to use different color values for the same artwork, and it functions essentially the same, with slightly different stats. They did the same thing with Ogres and GrOgres, as well as many others. Even later games, like the Mortal Kombat series, did palette swaps with their ninja characters, to require less motion-capture.
In the hands of a good DM, limited palette-swapping becomes “reflavoring”. Many articles have been written on this. Say you’re running a game for kids, and somebody really wants to fight a mecha-zord-robot from their favorite power-fighters show… well, the Monster Manual doesn’t have mecha-zord-robot stats, but it does have an Iron Golem, which is a big metal robot-looking guy. Add in a ranged fire attack that you call a “laser” and suddenly you’ve got your mecha-dude. However, that level of work to make an interesting foe should be the exception, not the rule.
I feel like most of the monsters in 5th ed D&D are just boring palette swaps of one another, and it makes it really hard to run on-the-fly combats that are interesting. While they might have different names and slightly different stats, they all do pretty much the same thing with slightly different window dressing flavor. Part of this is the system itself… with only one defense value (AC), the number of attack types are more limited than they were in, say, 4th edition, when the same attack became very different if it was targeting AC, Will, Fortitude, or Reflex, which added layers of strategy to how parties would approach certain foes. Now, unless you’ve got a spellcaster monster, EVERY ATTACK targets armor class, which means that every combat puts the heavily armored fighters up front and everyone else hiding outside of range.
Let’s look briefly at some of the publicly available monster stats the free DM Basic Rules PDF offered by Wizards of the Coast. An Awakened Shrub, basically a magically moving houseplant, is pretty boring. It has a low AC (9) and can make a single melee attack at a creature next to it for 1 point of damage. It is CR (Challenge Rating) 0, meaning it should be a challenge to nobody. An Ape has a CR of 1/2, meaning 2 of them might challenge a level 1 party. Apes have an AC of 12, and can either make 2 attacks, either melee for 6 points of damage or a thrown rock attack for 6 points of damage farther away. At CR 1 we have a Brown Bear, which has an AC of 11 and can do 2 melee attacks for 8 and 11 damage, respectively. Let’s jump up a little, and look at, say, a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Ole Rexy is CR 8, has an AC of 13, and can make 2 melee attacks, for 33 (bit) & 22 (tail) damage, with a chance that a smaller character might get trapped in the T-Rex’s mouth, which does no extra damage, but removes the Rex’s ability to bite others. So that means that the only difference between a Jurassic Park nightmare and an cute walking bush is the amount it can hurt you and be hurt… oh, but the dancing bush doesn’t have a built-in mechanic to make itself less useful for little benefit.
Even when adventures call for variations on existing monsters, instead of providing mechanics that will support the variances in these monsters, published 5th edition adventures just call for using base monster stats. For example, in the current Elemental Evil story arc, there is a side quest that involves attacks from Ice Shield Orcs, a lost tribe who long ago made a deal with an ice demon of some sort for greater power. However, the adventure just tells you to use regular orc stats, despite the fact that the story reason for these creatures existing begs for resistance to cold damage, or some sort of extra cold power, or an aura of snowy storms that makes it hard to see. ANYTHING. But no, adventure as written just says to use a bunch of orcs.
In many other situations, the story will describe a cool fighting force, but then tell you to just use the stats for the generic Thug on these soldiers… or maybe even a Veteran. Thugs and Veterans are palette swaps of apes and bears, only they get fewer attacks and do less damage. Yawn.
Numbers of foes are another issue I have with monster design. Supposedly, the new “flat math” of 5th ed D&D allows for any monster to be a potential threat to a party of any level, just in greater numbers. So a 6th level party could still be challenged, by, say, 20 Apes. However, the math breaks down when you factor-in fun. While many stat choices seem relatively random, not at all following the Average Monster Stats By Level chart in the DMG, one thing that seems consistent is the to-hit values. What this means is that while hordes of low-level critters might slow a party down, they’re just going to do so boringly, because none of them will be able to hit the high-AC party (by level 6, I’ve seen fighters with AC values of 20+, while monsters typically wait till level 14-15 to get ACs that high). While 4th edition had “minions” who went down after one hit but had stats good enough to hit the party at least once before dying, 5th edition has done away with these in favor of much less-effective hordes of weaker creatures. The end result is bored players, slogging their way through multiple rounds of killing boring monsters that don’t really threaten them. And yes, there are “gang” rules in the DMG, but last I checked those were not allowed at organized play tables in the official D&D Adventurer’s League, so while they sort of fix the monster stat problems, they’re not available to me when I need them most.
What needs to be done to “fix” 5th ed? Much, in my opinion. However, it’d go a long way if monsters were flavored with more, well, flavoring. Give me cool powers that help define the monster. Give me story hooks that actually affect how I run the monster in a combat. Give me monster mechanics that make enemies feel unique. Give me SOMETHING besides another palette-swapped version of an orc or a bandit.