D&D 5E Let's talk about monster design philosophies, by way of examples.


The theory of having lots of actions and bonus actions and reactions and spell options is great. In practice, as a DM running a high-level campaign that I wrote, the big 2-4 hour temple assault battles with 6 different enemy types, terrain, weather, and 4 18th level PCs becomes a lot to keep track of. Most of the reactions like "does a bit of lightning damage when hit" or "apply disadvantage to one attack roll you can see within 30 ft" or "+5 AC against one melee attack" go by the wayside because I'm busy figuring out who's moving where and what spells they're casting next, and who can or cannot see what.

In a small fight in a dungeon with one enemy type, reactions aren't too bad... but for big battles, they need to be saved only for big monsters, and need to be around the power level of a legendary action to be worth tracking.

I've also started writing casters with a combat-focused spell list and a note that they may have other spells for use outside combat. I also divide the spell list up into categories like Damage, Buff, Crowd Control, Mobility, etc., to make it easier to scan and find the right option out of 6 pages of typed statblocks in front of me.

+1 to the suggestion of mobs for goblins above. Anything low level that shows up en masse (zombies, ghouls, etc.) should have a Mob statblock in the MM.

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I find the example of Queen Bargnot in the MCDC Flee, Mortals! preview interesting. In terms of mechanics she looks almost like a combination of a statblock and a combat encounter all in one.

The entire statblock is basically about bringing in Goblin Minions and using them in different ways, including three once per combat "Villain Actions" that do things like make all the Goblin Minions converge on a single PC that presumably has earned the Queen's ire (which synergizes with the Goblin Minions' Tiny Stabs trait).

I know Flee, Mortals! is heavily influenced by 4E, but not even 4E went this far in making a monster entirely focused on how they'd perform in a set piece combat encounter IMO. That's not to say I don't like the design, but it does make me question how exactly I feel about the role of mechanics in defining monsters and what they do in the game.


I'm realizing reading this that there are going to be competing aesthetics and that I have unstated design preferences that I didn't consider or mention.

Focusing on the case of goblins, goblins are PC race in my campaign. And even more so than normal then, I have a very strong preference that everything play by the same rules. I think this preference I inherited from 1e when monsters and characters very much didn't play by the same rules, and it sucked IMO. 3e's "everything plays by the same rules" so it doesn't matter what an NPC is conceived as, it only matters what happens in the narrative. I don't know or want to know whether an NPC is a mook, a monster, an NPC, a retainer, or what when I place them. I often am surprised by how players choose to react to scenes. I don't want a case of Schrodinger's stat block that depends on how the players treat the NPC. Moreover, I don't want goblins to have racial characteristics that they wouldn't have when PCs. If I am giving goblins "lair actions" then I feel PCs should have lair actions as well. If NPC goblins have special moves, then I feel PC goblins should have special moves, and so NPC goblins in my game are likely to have abilities that PC's could already have and are likely to be built as weaker versions of PCs.

For me, individual goblins don't need to be particularly interesting. What's more interesting is the types of goblins you might find and how they work together, especially as PC levels increase and the numbers of goblins encountered increased. Again, these preferences are probably defined by my play in 1e with its tactical wargaming roots, but typically my goblins will be a mix of skirmishers, heavy infantry, and crossbow wielders protecting support elements like clerics, witch doctors, and bards. These are likely to be built similar to human, dwarf, or elf militaries with differences defined by racial inclination and strengths. The goblins will be defined by group tactics and cunning use of terrain and less by individual prowess. At higher levels you'll likely to face off against worg mounted goblin cavalry wielding lances, flaming oil, composite shortbows and poisoned arrows and using their superior speed to avoid brutes and tempting the party to separate to chase them, at which point triple or quadruple teamed by wargs is a really bad place to be in.

All of this suggests a very different aesthetic of play compared to someone that wants to have Mob stat blocks in order to speed combat up.

In many ways, I thought 4e had the best approach - by clearly specifying the monster roles they helped construct easy encounters, and the minion/elite/solo thing was really useful.

I do think there's a bit of a problem in D&D in that the classic humanoids are all so very low level, which means there's not a great deal of room to move with them

4e dealt with that too, although it involves world building as well. The classic humanoid races were spread across a much wider range of levels and fit into different geography / ecosystems. Goblins were in the 1-4 range, but Gnolls were given a demonic connection and moved to 5-10th level. 30 levels left more room for fine tuning as well.

It was pretty smart as it gave at least 1 "civilization building" humanoid for every half tier, sometimes more. So early heroic you might encounter kobolds and goblins, later heroic gnolls with goblin minion slaves, etc.

Also, 4e didn't lean into it enough but I always thought it was a fun power fantasy that 5-10 levels later you were easily slashing or burning through 10 minions of a monster you had to work hard to defeat before. You could really take it to whatever level you wanted -- high Epic tier games with adult dragon minions of Tiamat that the Fighter rips apart because by then you are a demigod.


I want to talk about Big Guns -- specifically, the Biggest of Guns, the Tarrasque.

The MM Tarrasque is a CR 30 monster, intended to serve as a challenge to the highest level characters. it carries with it the whole game's history and should instill fear in the hearts of players at the very mention. But, does it? You can find its stats here.

The Tarrasque has a decent AC -- high enough to make the creature largely impregnable to low and mid level characters but not to the high level characters that are supposed to fight it. It has a metric tonne of hit points and damage immunity to nonmagical attacks (plus fire and poison), but at the levels a party will be encountering it those immunities are non issues. It has legendary resistance, of course, as well as magic resistance, which makes spells slightly less effective against it, but overall it is a giant bag of hit points that does a lot of damage. It's most interesting ability is its swallow ability, which isn't saying much. It gives up 4 attacks and a frightful presence in order to swallow an opponent, who is "released" if they do 60 points of damage to the tarrasque from the inside. It is a pretty boring creature, overall, with few effective strategies beyond bite/claw/claw/horn/tail.

The LevelUp version is an even bigger bag of hit points, being an Elite (aka Mythic) creature. This version keeps the underperforming swallow action but does add a Godzilla style breath weapon with a big area, high DC and big damage potential. It also moves the frightful presence (roar) ability to a legendary action, which I think is a good use of legendary action for the creature. In addition it can shake off an effect or cause flying enemies to fall as a legendary action. These actions that aren't just an extra attack make the LU tarrasque more dynamic but by extending the life of the battle --doubling hit points and adding a big regeneration while bloodied -- that dynamism is undermined.

So what to do with Big Gun monsters? What is the goal of such a creature, and how do we use design to achieve that goal?

The goal, I think, is to create a scenario in which the inexorable nature of the monster is at center stage. You don't fight the tarrasque in an open field -- you fight the tarrasque in a city as it is stomping buildings and threatening to undo civilization itself. Therefore the goal isn't simply to kill it, but to stop it before it does irreperable harm on a massive scale. The tarrasque is the apocalypse personified and it should mechanically reflect that.

One way to do this is to incentivize the tarrasque to attack civilization -- fortresses, temples, and armies -- rather than just beat on the PCs. I would redirect the LevelUp "bloodied regeneration" to something else. When the tarrasque damages a building, for example, it heals the amount of damage it does (remember, it is a siege monster). Now it has a reason to split up that multiattack a little bit. The PCs, seeing this, will want to force it to attack them, not infrastructure. Another thing I would do is to give it a damage threshold -- it is so big, so overwhelming that that attacks under a certain amount (I think 30 points is good for the tarrasque) don't even phase it. This is instead of its immunities, by the way, and isn't "DR" -- 29 points of damage does nothing but 31 points does 31 points. Force the PCs to use their biggest attacks against this biggest of foes and avoid letting them nickel and dime a mythic enemy to death.

What are your thoughts on Big Gun monsters in general and the tarrasque in particular?


4e Monster design was awesome, but the math was terrible. (In particular at the beginning, and it was starting to get decent by the end of the edition, but still...)

It was, however, really easy to make monsters. I could do it on-the-fly. It was also pretty easy to fix the math. One of the things I did was to halve all monster's HP and double or triple (sometimes more) their damage output.

Speaking of the Tarrasque (I agree with all of @Reynard's post above) - in 4e I rebuilt the Tarrasque and while I no longer have the statblock, I remember it being a truly epic battle, but unlike most high-level 4e fights, it was fast and furious.

In 5e, gimme 3 to 5 rounds of pure awesome controlled chaos.


What are your thoughts on Big Gun monsters in general and the tarrasque in particular?

It can't fly; it has no ranged attack. It therefore has really limited utility at the levels it would be encountered. You really have to work to get any utility out of it at all. I've never used it, and probably never would.

The 5e version in particular seems badly designed compared to every prior version. I really miss the 1e/2e teeth of sharpness, and 4e had a wise idea in giving it the ability to ground fliers near it IIRC.

Big Gun monsters in D&D have to be made in very particular ways. Whomever designed the Tarrasque originally didn't get that.

Regarding 5E monsters, I find their offensive output underpowered. I have a campaign with 3 players. The monsters work well out of the book for that group, which can quickly collapse if one PC goes down. I have another campaign with 5 players. For them, I need to power up monsters significantly. I've developed some simple math cheats -- for example, I tend to multiply the average damage by the tier of the PCs. So PCs in Tier 1 take the damage listed in the MM. But when they reach Tier 2, I double the average damage. In Tier 3, I triple it. That keeps monsters threatening for a large group.

Also, I've had a steep learning curve trying to figure out how to build satisfying encounters. How many monsters is too many, how many are too few, how to mix melee with ranged, how to use terrain, etc. It's an art. I'd like to see One D&D provide more tools for building set piece encounters.

It can't fly; it has no ranged attack. It therefore has really limited utility at the levels it would be encountered. You really have to work to get any utility out of it at all. I've never used it, and probably never would.

The 5e version in particular seems badly designed compared to every prior version. I really miss the 1e/2e teeth of sharpness, and 4e had a wise idea in giving it the ability to ground fliers near it IIRC.

Big Gun monsters in D&D have to be made in very particular ways. Whomever designed the Tarrasque originally didn't get that.
All it really needs is a ranged attack, and Regeneration it used to have.


Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
The 5E MM goblin can be viewed here at 5esrd.com and it's pretty basic: it has a melee attack, a ranged attack, and an ability to take the Disengage action as a bonus action. Since it has no other possible bonus action available to it, the goblin should never be standing still. Of course, it does not have any extra movement, so its movement won't amount to much unless the GM builds the encounter to reward mobility. This goblin is our baseline.

The LevelUp goblin can be found at A5Etol.com (which as of this writing is not loading for me so i can't link it.) The LevelUp goblin is nearly identical to the MM goblin except it can choose between Hide or Disengage as a bonus action -- and the goblin gets a bonus to Stealth rolls. This ostensibly makes the goblin more versatile, but it should be notes that again without additional movement even this requires the GM make sure the environment is set up to take special advantage of the ability. Moreover, the LevelUp goblin comes with an explicit number of variants that use different equipment and tactics (but retaining the Nimble Escape bonus action).
Actually the 5e MM goblin can hide as a bonus action too. The srd stat block you linked to even says so.


I put together a draft of a Tarrasque level threat for publication. If folks are interested I'll share the stat block here and we can talk about it from a design perspective.

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