Building Better Monsters Part 2: More Than the Sum of Its Parts

by Bauxtehude (Liam Gallagher) on April 19, 2011

In Building Better Monsters Part 1 we talked about the inspiration for monsters and how to identify the ideas that make up a monster design, mainly the monster’s form and its function. This time around we’re digging into the stat block. Every DM has read a stat block before but they’re worth paying close attention to. Stats are the functional manifestation of the monster, and stat blocks are the way that your ideas about monsterhood will be recorded. As such stat blocks are a sort of monster design fundamental, a rudiment for DMs.

You’ve come up with your own idea for a monster so it is time to realize these ideas mechanically. You want to have your design support your plans for your creature as elegantly as possible so that when you get to the table your creature behaves how it ought to with as little effort from you the DM as possible. You have an idea of what you want that monster to do, and good design will let you do that more easily. In order to put all the parts together gracefully a monster designer needs to have a good understanding of what all the parts at their disposal are so that they can put them together creatively.

So let’s open up the hood and look at the guts of one of these creatures. Behold, Goblin:

So looking at the stat block, at the very top we have the creature’s name, its level and its role. The level of a creature is a ballpark figure of how much of a challenge it should present to a party. It’s a ball park figure because the challenge of an encounter can be effected by an endless number of factors from how the DM is feeling that night to how many healing surges the PCs used in the pervious encounter. Beyond that, two creatures of the same level can have very different levels of threat to the party, but some indication is better than no indication.

The next thing is the monster’s role, this Goblin is a skirmisher. The monster roles are very similar to the PC roles (e.g., defender, striker) in that they give you a general impression of what that class can do. The monster roles are artillery, brute, controller, lurker, skirmisher and solider. Also there’s a sub role called leader that some monsters can have. These are of course pretty self explanatory and also significantly vague in order to encompass all monsters. Again the monster role is like its level, it gives the DM a general idea of what this creature does at a glance.

Skipping ahead slightly we have the XP value of the monster. These values are standardized by the level of the monster and it’s secondary role and help inform DMs of an XP budget they have with which to build an encounter in order to take some of the guess work out of encounter design that featured more prominently in past editions. PCs gain levels after they accumulate XP. Making the conversion between XP as points towards leveling a PC and XP as points to build an encounter from is a difficult task which will be covered in greater depth in Part 3 of this series.

Beyond the role we have secondary roles, these roles are minion, standard, elite and solo. What these secondary roles mean is one of the more contentious issues in monster design in D&D due to the fact that there is very little standardization between monsters of the same level and role, which I would argue is for the best. Though there are a few actual mechanical differences, generally speaking a minion is less threatening than a standard monster, is less threatening than an elite, is less threatening than a solo. If you poke through the Monster Manuals, the DMGs and various updates you will see constant and slight adjustments to the design philosophy behind the relationship between these secondary roles, the powers each role should have access, and how much XP they should be worth.

Roughly, four minions are worth a standard monster, two standard monsters are worth an elite, and five standard monsters are worth a solo. So 20 minions should be just as dangerous as one solo, right? Nope! Remember the conversion between secondary roles is not actually math, even though there are numbers involved. We’re talking about the approximate worth of very loosely defined figures. This is like trading Wayne Gretzky for Jimmy Carson.

Though this can be confusing, the best thing you can do is trust your own judgment when you build your monster. You can use the level, roles, and xp value of other monsters to help you get an idea how strong a monster in that level range is and then make adjustments where you see fit to see your vision to fruition.

The monster roles are defined in great depth on page 54 of the DMG, but briefly… Artillery shoot you. Brutes tend have high hit points and typically can deal heavy damage in melee. Controllers are like the PC controller role. Lurkers are like stealthy rogues and typically have a sneak attack mechanic of some sort. Skirmishers are hit and run monsters. Finally soldiers are the Conscore McSwordy of the monster world, things with high defenses.

The secondary roles hold their own distinctions however. Minions only ever get one hit point, though attacks that miss never hit them. Standard monsters are like minions but with a hit point pool. Elites typically have twice the hit points of a standard creature, +2 to saving throws and an action point. They are also often given encounter powers or recharge powers. Solos typically have 4 times as many hit points as standard monsters, 2 action points and a +5 to saving throws. They will also have encounter powers and various other tools to keep them selves for being stunned for half the encounter (more on that in Part 3).

Now remember, at this point you are designing your own monster, and so you can adhere to these roles and secondary roles as little or as much as you would like to. If you don’t think that your monster fits well into any of these forms than you can make up your own. You’ll encounter design challenges no mater what you do, so I would advise you to try as many things as possible to help develop your chops.

Below the monster name and role you have their size, origin, type and keyword. The specifics of this is layed out in the MM starting on page 4, but in brief… A monster’s size determines how big it is, monsters larger than medium occupy more than one square on the grid. The origin relates to where the monster is from within the D&D cosmology. These origins are things such as natural and elemental. The type describes what sort of thing the monster is, such as humanoid or beast. The keyword is another taxonomical sub-grouping such as Goblin, dragon or undead. Take hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, he would be a Medium natural humanoid (oiler king).

Under the naming conventions portion of the stat block you have the monster’s initiative, senses, hit points, defenses and speed. If the monster has any auras, resistances, immunities, vulnerabilities, bonuses to saving throws or action points they would be listed here. These are all basic 4e mechanics so I wont describe them now, though we will discuss their significance later.

Below that you will have the monster’s traits followed by their powers. Traits are constant and typically cannot be taken away from a monster. An example of a trait is Goblin Tactics which allows Goblins who are missed by a melee attack to shift as an immediate reaction. The powers are more or less what your monster can do in a fight. Powers can pretty much do what ever you want them to (or think your players will let you get away with). Powers can be a simple as a sword attack or they can cause PCs to
only be able to move east. You name it.

The anatomy of a power is one of the more complicated elements of 4e D&D as they govern the resolution of actions. Powers have a name, such as Spear, and they will have a range as well as an area of effect. The range is measured in squares, or simply said to be melee. If a melee attack can reach past adjacent squares it is said to have reach. The reach descriptor is followed by a number to tell you the range. Some times range is expressed as sight, meaning it goes for as far as you can see. The area of effect is only limited by your creativity, but typically the area with be expressed as a burst or a blast. The more monster stat blocks you read the more exotic ranges and areas of effect you will find, some of them are pretty whacky.

Powers will either be basic or not, which mostly relates to opportunity attacks and attacks that are granted by other creatures. Powers will have a keyword, such as weapon, or implement. Powers can target any defense you wish and if they do they will have an attack bonus. Powers cause things to take place depending upon how they are resolved, these are described by the line they occur on in the power. There can be a line for hit:, miss:, and effect:. Things appearing after hit: only take place is the attack hits and vice versa for miss:. Events that are described after effect: take place no matter what. Some powers have a requirement: or a trigger: which further stipulates the criteria that must be met in order for the power to be used. Of course you will see damage indicated on a lot of powers. Some times the damage is a flat number or a dice size plus another number. Damage is often typed as well, it can be fire damage or cold for example.

Beyond these things powers require actions to take place, this is noted on the first line of the power, as well as the frequency with which it can take place. The frequencies are the same as with PCs, as such they are at-will, encounter and daily. Monsters have an extra frequency though, which is recharge. On the top of the monster’s turn the DM rolls a d6 to see if the monster regains use of that power. The action type determines what action needs to be made by the monster from the economy of action of 4e in order to use that power. Actions are listed as free, opportunity, immediate, minor, move or standard.

The action economy is this. On each round (unless otherwise noted) a creature gets one standard action, one move action, one minor action and one immediate action which cannot be taken on the creature’s turn. In addition to this each creature gets one opportunity action for each other creature’s action, and as many free actions as the DM deems reasonable. The type of action you assign to your monster determines how much they can get done in a round of combat.

Beyond the action economy there is also the action effect continuum, which determines when things take place. The two most common action resolutions are until the end of your next turn and the classic (save ends). These, amongst until the start of your turn, until the end of the encounter and many others fit into this category and often have to deal with changes to defenses and ongoing damage, namely when these things end. You’ll also action continuum text that says when effects begin, such as at the start of your next turn, or when an ally becomes adjacent. You’ll also get effects within the continuum that sustain effects, the most common of which is sustain minor. These can be as complicated and convoluted as you wish. Until your 30th birthday is acceptable, though strange.

An important understanding is that powers and traits can effect the rest of the stat block in big ways, and many times it wont be obvious if a characteristic of a monster should be one thing or the other. Say my fire-breathing dolphin covers itself in flame so that creatures next to it get burned, a common mechanic. This in game effect could be an aura, it could be a trait, it could be a sustain: free power, or you could split up the duty of this effect across any combination of the above stat elements. Which is best? Whatever is easiest to run at the table for you and for your group, and if you’re considering publication, what would be most obvious to a stranger. Whatever is easiest for you depends on your skill set as a DM and what sort of resources you have access to.

Finally, on the stat block you have skills, ability score, languages, alignment and equipment. The equipment is what the monster happens to be carrying, the alignment describes the monster’s ethos, and languages describes what the monster speaks and understands. The ability scores represent the same things that they do with PCs, they are the base level attributes of the monster. They mostly come into play when the DM needs to make considerations of what the monster would be capable of beyond what is listed in its powers. Can this monster climb the wall? Look at its strength score and roll that up. If skills are listed for a monster that means they are considered to have training in that skill like a PC might.

Ok, big breath. That’s the stat block out of the way. Be sure to visit Dungeon’s Master next week for Building Better Monsters Part 3 and Part 4. In the next installment I’ll be discussing how you should actually arrive at what statistics your monster will use. Until then post your questions and comments about your monsters in progress.

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