D&D 5E Above and beyond the printed text, OR how 5E monsters don't need new abilities, just a dynamic battlefield


No rule is inviolate
This came up in last session's game, so thought I'd share a bit of DM advice. There's been much debate over how few abilities many monsters have in the Monster Manual. While that may be true, if you're not keen on re-writing your MM, just spruce up your battles on the fly with a dynamic, changing battlefield. And, most importantly, treat pre-written material as a coloring book meant for you to add more than just the outlines provided by the author.

The Encounter

My players were running Against the Giants and came across a room described as a single arrogant Hill Giant who would only yell for help if 50% hp or less, chatting with some young hill giant admirers. Pretty minimal and vague. It's meant to be a filler room, not your most memorable encounter of the day.

And yet... I figured what's so special about this guy having admirers. On the fly I described him being a particularly handsome specimen of hill giant, strong chin and with long, flowing locks of hair that he shook around gloriously as he moved to impress his teenage admirers by smashing interlopers.

In combat, as one PC threw a fiery globe, I described the giant whipping his beautiful hair out of the way so it didn't get burned. The PC muttered he was going after the hair on every attack.

When the giant first missed with his club, it was because he paused to run his fingers through his hair to straighten it. As one PC hacked away with an axe, a groupie cried out "No, not the hair!" When the giant hit 50% hp, he sputtered that he was cursed by evil magic, that's why things aren't going good. When the next attack was going to hit him, a groupie cried out and leaped in front of the attack. Another threw herself in front of the next attack, grappling with the poor PC's polearm, desperate to save her single source of inspiration in this foul place. She then broke a bottle and went at him with the shard, Roadhouse style, while the other grabbed a chair and smashed it against the back of the PC.

When the giant finally went down, it was described by the player as making sure the hair went too. The groupies lost it, wailing and gnashing teeth. One crawled on his knees towards his idol, decrying that the PCs had "slain a gawd whose like shan't be seen in this world ever again." A player translated this as "so in Hill Giant, that probably was "you kill Gronk, ruin hair."

The Point

(1) The Hill Giant didn't have any special added abilities. The groupies were his special abilities, triggered by a dynamic changing battlefield simply described as "something happens at 50% hp."
(2) His hair because a source of inspiration for describing the battle rather than "you hit or miss."
(3) A routine encounter was spruced up by coloring in the blanks. I fully endorse that the original writers of these fantastic adventures, with word limits, did what they could to give DMs a coloring book, fully hoping they'd paint something special into encounters above and beyond the printed text.

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Love it!

Something on a more mechanical aspect would be to utilize standard actions more. Grappling and Shove can have a pretty big impact on a battle, depending on the exact situation (a flyer grabbing a PC and flying up is rather scary). In a mixed combat, a weaker enemy can use the Help action to give advantage to a more powerful enemy. At lower levels, giving humanoids access to standard equipment can give some interesting options to control the terrain, such as ball bearings, caltrops, or even oil.


No rule is inviolate
We did both in Level Up. Rewrote every MM monster and introduced 'world actions' into the initiative order. Together, they can transform battles.
Just got my books delivered yesterday!

And even after decades I still work to transform my game. Look forward to digging in for some new ideas.

Dungeon Delver's Guide

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