Monster Roles in D&D 5e
Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition has a mechanic in which if you damage someone who is unconscious they will slip closer to death by automatically failing a death saving throw, and three death saves and your character is dead. When as a DM do you decide that the enemy is going to make that attack or move on to the next threatening target? For this, the 4th edition of D&D had some basic guidelines. I am going to take those guidelines and expand on them.
Building the Encounter
When we talked about Monster Roles in 4th Edition D&D it was part of building an encounter— You wanted your encounter to be well-rounded, interesting, and a challenge. So you would load up the front lines with brutes and use artillery from behind to pound on the players, all while having a controller slowing the party down, and maybe toss in a couple of skirmishers to swing in and do the big damage to the party is bursts. In 5th edition we do not have the monster roles to work with so building an engaging encounter is about more than creating a balances fight of roles to push your party to the brink, in 5e a horde of goblins can be more threatening to a party than a dragon.
When we look at building encounters with how dangerous even the smallest mook is, it allows you the freedom to create a challenge that fits the story perfectly. And, if we are looking at taking advantage of that flexibility we want to make sure that the combat makes sense and is realistic. We need to look at would these creatures work together, how would they work together, why are they working together, and who is calling the shots? We also need to take a look at where we are and what the monster’s motivations are. Having a black dragon swoop down and terrorize a farmers bazaar in a desert town might not make as much as sense as using a blue dragon unless our story dictates otherwise.
Balancing the Encounter
The Dungeon Master’s Guide has some resource on how to balance the XP budget for an encounter that I have found to be a decent way to start, but for my party, it tends to be a little on the weak side if I follow. Learning how to adjust the encounter budget is a skill that is learned over time, but there are plenty of guides on this already our there for you to check out.
Sly Flourish’s Guide on Encounter Building for 5e – In this Mike Shea goes into great detail on how looks at action economy, evaluating and adjusting the difficulty of monsters, and really just diving into the numbers of encounter building.
Unearthed Arcana Encounter Building – This guide is from Wizards of the Coast adding more tips and advice that expands on the D&D 5e model for designing an encounter.
Kobold Fight Club – Kobold fight club is a great place to do the quick and dirty math to see how challenging your encounter is. I will often start here and then make adjustments from there based on my party.
Now comes the time in which we look at our monsters/enemies act in combat, and what their strategy is. For this, I am going to steal heavily from 4th edition while adding some of my own preferences in with it.
Artillery – These guys rain arrows, spells, boulders down on the heroes from a distance. They often have some kind of cover and will tend to hit all of the heroes evenly until a threat stands out. Do the adventures have their own archer or spellcaster bombarding them? That will be their first target. These monsters are often mobile and have tricks for getting out of melee range, and are the most likely to run away should their lines break.
Tactics: Shoot and Run. Stay behind the meat shields. They take aim then cover, if things get too hot they disperse. Once an enemy has fallen move onto the next.
Brute – Having a brute in the frontline is a great way to keep the melee character from getting to your leader, artillery, controllers, or any of the more fragile of your enemy team. These guys are big, brawny, slow, and often dumb. This is your ogre that leads the charge. They are often easy for the heroes to hit, but they take a lot of damage to drop, and they deliver a brutal amount of damage back. Brutes tend to like to go toe to toe with whoever is doing the most damage.
Tactics: Wade into the heroes. Hit them hard. Take the hit. Fight to the Death. Once an enemy has fallen move onto the next.
Controller – These guys operate a little like artillery in the way that they stay back away from the heavy hitters and stick behind the soldiers and brutes. But where the artillery is high damage output, these guys tend to set up zones, do area busts, and cast spells that affect the heroes ability to fight them. So the example of a wizard sitting on the back lines flinging webs and fireballs is the perfect example of a controller.
Tactics: These guys will do what it takes to stay alive. They will take out the biggest threat first and move along trying to knock everyone out before finishing them off. They will attempt to retreat when the tide turns.
Lurker – Lurkers hide on the sidelines and wait patiently for the heroes to fall into their traps and when they decide to make their move it is often a deadly affair. This doesn’t mean they are all hiding in the shadows or in a bog. They could just be that innocent bystander watching the bar fight, waiting with their poison-tipped dagger for their opportunity for maximum effect. They are also that black dragon submerged in the swamp waiting to rise out and cover the party with their breath weapons
Tactics: They look for the perfect target and strike with their most powerful attack once. This is a one hit pony, after that attack they act like skirmishers, attempting to get out of the fight and set up their devastating attack again if they can, or slip away to come back and fight another day.
Minion – Where I tend to think of zombies in the Romero sense of the word, they could also fall into the minion category. Minions are single purpose creatures who are acting on behalf of someone or something else. A necromancer who summons a horde of zombies or skeleton has absolute control over these creatures.
Tactics: They are commanded by their ‘Master’ and will do whatever it takes to follow through with those orders. When those orders are complete they will stand motionless until a new order is issued.
Skirmisher – These guys are the masters of getting in and getting out. They typically move quick and have abilities that allow them to escape trouble. Goblins and Monks tend to fit this role very easily. They get in to do their damage and then try to get away from the enemy before they get hit back. While they tend to not want to fight to the death the high level of riskiness they tend to take also shortens their lives. I like to play these guys as a little bit of risk seekers, they will often push the limits of what is physically possible for them.
Tactics: Move in Move out. High-Risk High Reward. If things look dire they will run if they can, they will attack enemies on the ground if there isn’t a better target for them to focus on.
Solider – These are your heavily armored units that are built to hold up the heroes while the other faster-moving attackers move in and out. They are tanks and act accordingly. They move up to the hero that looks like it will be the biggest threat and goes toe to toe with them. These creatures tend to have a higher AC then brutes but less hit points and do less damage. But, they are fearless and will fight to the death and follow orders to the “T”
Tactics: These guys are going to be you most tactical piece on the board when it comes to melee. They are going to follow orders and not retreat until called back by the leaders. They will knock opponents out and move on forward neutralizing as many threats as they can.
Leader – Commanding the armies and keeping them going—That is what these guys do best. These sometimes take the forms of healers, but sometimes their powers are unique in that they give other allies of their some kind of advantage. While it is possible that a leader will wade into the mix of things they are more likely to stay back and command the other units.
Tactics: Keep their troops up. Call out orders. Stay out of danger. Will call a retreat is needed, will attempt to escape if things look poor.
Mindless – The Mindless are just that, mindless. There is no strategy and there is only one thing that drives them, and whatever it is they will get to it. For this, the perfect example is going to be a zombie. It mindlessly dredges forward, not retreating, attempting to eat the flesh to the heroes. These enemies don’t use much in the way of tactics. The danger comes in when they knock someone out. They typically don’t have a reason to move on to the next person until they are done with their meal. So much like a Lurker, they will attack a hero who is down, forcing them to fail death saves and slip closer to death.
Tactics: Keep moving towards the goal. Will attack a downed enemy. Fights to the death.
Solo – These are the big bads. These are your beholders, red dragons, and demon lords. It doesn’t mean that they will fight alone all the time, but they are a viable threat whether they have help or not. Solos should have the ability to last a couple of rounds of combat while putting a major smackdown on the heroes.
Tactics: Maximize Legendary actions and lair actions. They move confidently and while some will fight to the death others will use their powers to retreat to be a thorn in the heroes side once again. They will not think twice about throwing their allies to the heroes as a distraction. They also tend to be smart and know how to work on taking out the target that is causing them the most trouble.
What Role Does my Monster Play?
Well, there are some obvious ones such a ogres are brutes, zombies are mindless, Hobgoblins are soldiers. Then there are some the might be two or more things such as an Illithid or Beholder, either of those creatures could be a leader and/or a controller, depending on the situation in how you use them in the scene you are creating.
For the most part, it is decided on the scene and how you are using the creatures to their role, but you can look at the way the creators act normally. So while there may be some orc leaders, they are mostly going to fall into the solider or brute category, but there could also be archers who are artillery, war priests that are controllers, and scouts who are skirmishers. Another good guide is looking at their intelligence. Zombies have a 3, that is about as low as you can get, oozes, black puddings, and gelatinous cubes all have 1’s. They are clearly mindless. An Arcanaloth however, is highly intelligent (20) and is a spell caster so easily falls into the controller category, but could also be a leader, depending on what your story allows for.
So how do I build the perfect encounter?
I think this is up to you as the DM, how you want the scene to feel, and the strengths of your players. For me I like to have a good mix of at least 2 to 3 different roles in a combat, even if I toss a solo at my character I like to add in a couple skirmishers or minions to keep my players on their toes, but this may not be the best avenue for your players or story.
I would love to hear what you think and how you approach encounter building and the tactics of your monsters.