Author Archives: David Hartlage

For D&D Travel, Steer Clear Of Rolls Versus Random Punishment

Dungeons & Dragons brings fun from many sources: from acting the roles of characters, from creating stories with friends, and from making choices and seeing their consequences in the game world. This post focuses on that last source of fun: Seeing choices play out, and sometimes surprise us, thanks to D&D’s volatile mix of rules, dice, and the hidden information behind the DM screen.

The choices players make during character creation lead to consequences throughout a character’s career. Every saving throw plays out the consequences of a choice made days or even years ago. But when choices quickly lead to consequences, D&D proves most engrossing. When my choice to play an agile rogue lets me dodge an explosive rune, I feel satisfied, but when I figure a way to trigger the trap from a distance, I feel pleased and engaged.

I once complained how casting the foresight made D&D less fun for me. Foresight erases the effect of a lot of the games choices. I thought gaining advantage on everything would prove fun, but it made the game less entertaining. Rather than making numerous small choices during a session to gain an edge, the wizard makes one choice to cast foresight and the rest matter less.

Originally, players rolling a D&D character faced no choices except for class. Now, players typically control every aspect of character building and most players talk about rolling a character in the same way we talk about dialing a phone. Most players like control over character creation, but that control also tempts designers to create situations that engage numbers on character sheets more than the choices players make in the moment.

Years ago, I played an adventure where the party floated on a raft down river with canyon walls on each side. As we floated, unreachable monsters atop the walls hurled down rocks and we made checks to avoid damage. The situation blocked any choices, so we could only ride along and take our licks.

The adventure’s designer surely hoped for a tense scene with plenty of action as characters race down a river dodging perils. On a movie screen, the sequence might have worked, but at the table it played as string of random punishments—an unwelcome chore.

To be fair, character-building choices factored into the outcome of the scene, but those choices came long ago when we chose how dexterous to make our characters. In a game, the most entertaining choices come in the moment. Character design choices come in second, often a distant second.

Surely some readers see the river raft scene as obviously flawed, but adventures by well-meaning authors include similar roll versus random damage sequences, especially when the party must cross from point A to B. That includes many adventures that I’ve played at conventions. Again, I understand the authors aims. After all, on the cinema screens in their imaginations, the sequences work, and besides authors learn by imitating adventure written by other pros who set similar patterns. Fourth-edition skill challenges often fit that pattern. “I learned it from you.” Sure, skill challenges offered choices, but typically with the obviously correct options of picking the skills with the highest options. Only small children find such decisions compelling.

The roll-versus-random-punishment dynamic often makes travel sequences fall flat. Suppose the party in Aglarond uncovers a lead that prompts a trip to Battledale. The DM decides to make the trip interesting and give a sense of distance by rolling for random encounters along the way. That approach creates a roll-versus-punishment sequence with only one choice: Quit (y/N)? So the party trudges on hoping to resume their story in Battledale soon.

Some might argue my point by recommending better ways to handle the travel sequence. Perfect! None of those better ways include the roll-versus-damage dynamic. They bring choices and the story to the journey, or they cut past the journey.

The 5 Unwritten Goals of the One D&D Rules Update

Six months before then D&D head Ray Winninger announced an new set of Dungeons & Dragons core books for 2024, I predicted the update. I based my prediction on a declaration from the D&D team, which made their top priority “making D&D as welcoming and inclusive as possible.”

To reach that goal, Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything featured a new way to distribute ability scores. “This option emphasizes that each person in the game is an individual with capabilities all their own.” New books portrayed “all the peoples of D&D in relatable ways, making it clear that they are as free as humans to decide who they are and what they do.”

But the 2014 core books still showed an outdated approach, so when the D&D team wrote, “Our priority is to make things right,” predicting new core books seemed easy. I wrote, “By the end of 2022, Wizards of the Coast will release a new version of the Player’s Handbook that revisits the old ability score adjustments in favor of the more flexible version.”

The rest of my prediction proved wrong, because I expected a speedy, modest update that simply added Tasha’s rules for ability scores and replaced some troublesome spells, class features, and so on with the improved versions already printed in newer books.

Wandering Troubadour by Rudy Siswanto

Given fifth edition’s continuing growth, such a careful update seemed sensible. New editions fuel a surge of sales as a game’s existing fans replace their books, but they also lose players who choose not to leave their game mastery and their investment in old books. The worst case of a new edition follows the path of fourth edition, where as much as half of the player base split to play Pathfinder, a game that felt more like D&D to its fans. Hypothetically, a disastrous One D&D release could strangle D&D’s burgeoning growth. In D&D management’s nightmare, Matt Mercer dislikes One D&D and opts to stream Critical Role games based on his own fifth edition offshoot called Mattfinder.

Nonetheless, the One D&D playtest packets suggest changes that resemble a new edition. What explains the bolder update that has players using the word “sixth,” even if no one on the D&D team dares?

Some gamers say a major update will sell more books, and that might be true for a replacement to a stagnant edition. A mature roleplaying game with shelves of rule expansions can intimidate potential players, because they feel like they could never catch up. A new edition feels more welcoming. But fifth edition avoided flooding game store shelves with new rules, opting for adventures and settings instead. Besides, the edition continues to gain players at an unprecedented rate.

Anyway, a careful refresh would have led millions of gamers to replace the books already on their shelves, vaulting a trio of D&D books to the top of Amazon’s bestseller lists. Such an update would skip One D&D’s 18-month playtest or any risk of slowing sales as some gamers spend 18 months avoiding purchases ahead of the new release.

Some gamers suspect that the designers aim to create a game that works better online. After all, One D&D includes a Digital Play Experience that “will be a virtual play space that allows Dungeon Masters to create truly immersive campaigns and players to enjoy a D&D experience where we offload a lot of the rules referencing.” Offloading “referencing” could mean nothing more than what players gain from D&D Beyond, but a virtual tabletop would probably add automation like attack buttons that roll to hit and total damage. A few playtest rules would prove easier to automate. For example, the Hide action simplifies sneaking to just a DC 15 Dexterity Check (Stealth). That rule’s programmer can take an early lunch.

Still, just as many playtest rules replace a rule easy for computers with one easier for humans. For example, the Special Speeds rule eliminates the math of mixing flying and climbing with regular movement. No computer struggles with the old math. The Jump action seems designed to free designer Jeremy Crawford from explaining how to include a jump in a Move action. Computers could handle the original rule effortlessly. I see no signs that the revision systematically favors play on a VTT. It systematically favors sparing Jeremy from answering the same damn questions about sneaking. Some changes match the game rules to the way players misunderstand the 2014 rules. This category includes changes like eliminating critical hits for attack spells and making Heroic Inspiration a re-roll.

Lead designer Jeremy Crawford says he keeps a list of pain points and sources of confusion in D&D. Likely the aggressive One D&D update stems from that list and similar lists from other designers. None of this makes the 2014 edition a bad game, but 8 years of play surfaces ample opportunities for improvement. Happily, based on the playtest, the designers’ lists match most of the pain points I would include in a list of my own—or in my 10 years of blog posts.

So just two playtest packets include improvements to exhaustion, dual-weapon fighting, Hunter’s Mark, Guidance, and much more. All these updates replace rules in the 2014 Player’s Handbook without breaking any of the game’s existing adventures or subsequent character options.

The One D&D team promises new core books compatible with the other fifth edition books. Second edition’s most important goal was “to make sure the game was still the one you knew and enjoyed,” and that goal applies to One D&D too. Still, if your definition of “compatible” means new classes and character features that equal the power of the 2014 versions, then One D&D will disappoint you. On average, One D&D characters and feats bring more power, but surely not as much power as some characters optimized for the 2014 rules. When I changed my human fighter with Great Weapon Fighter and Polearm Master to the playtest rules, his power plunged.

So, most of the playtest changes come from 4 goals, listed by importance from the essential number 1 to a number 4 that makes the D&D Sage’s life easier.

  • Make D&D as welcoming and inclusive as possible.
  • Keep One D&D compatible with existing adventures and new class options.
  • Fix pain points revealed by 8 years of play.
  • Avoid common questions and points of confusion prompted by the current rules.

The playtest rules show one more goal that I rate as the least important, but with One D&D opening the door to other, vital changes, the designers gain cover for working a fifth goal:

  • Adjust the game to the tastes of the current design team and how they read the tastes of D&D players

For example, the 2014 design team sought to make new characters as simple as possible. This returned to D&D’s 1974 roots. Now, the idea of pairing backgrounds with feats and mechanical benefits clearly enchants Jeremy Crawford. “I’m super excited about this whole approach that we’re taking with backgrounds,” he explains. “It’s all about building your character’s story and making certain meaningful game-mechanic choices that reflect the story you have in mind for your character.” Background-based feats appear in the playtest, but make no mistake, recent D&D products show that this change is already set.

Also, the 2014 design team felt comfortable making 1st-level characters as fragile as soap bubbles. After all, players have little investment in new characters. But today’s players more often lavish creative energy on the background and personality of characters, so the playtest offered a rule making new characters a bit harder to kill by preventing monsters from scoring critical hits. I suspect this critical hit rule tested poorly, so look for different tweaks that make new characters more durable.

I suspect the rules for awarding heroic inspiration on 5% of d20 rolls fits goal 5, although I’m unable to explain what the designers hope to achieve. Perhaps the inspiration rule takes us closer to a game where characters just show off their abilities on the way to easy success. Over 8 years, the design team has shown less and less appetite for letting characters fail.

Perhaps I could do without goal number 5, but the D&D team would say that if a change fails to match the tastes of D&D players, then playtest feedback will block it.

Ten Insights into the One D&D Playtest of Expert Classes

The Dungeons & Dragons team released the second One D&D playtest document, which focuses on the Bard, Ranger, and Rogue classes. Like the first packet, the changes in this release convince me that the update remains in good hands. Nonetheless, many changes deserve attention. This post avoids repeating things lead designer Jeremy Crawford mentioned during his video commentaries on the release.

1. Hubris and power level. The D&D team runs public playtests to measure players’ enthusiasm for rules and game elements, rather than to measure power levels. So each packet begins with friendly reassurance that power levels may change. “Don’t worry about broken features,” the note seems to suggest. “Count on us to set the power levels ourselves.” But from Sharpshooter, to healing spirit, to twilight domain clerics, the team keeps releasing features with busted power levels, so I feel unconvinced. Still, during his video, Jeremy Crawford says that future playtest packets will revisit the successful elements, enabling fine tuning.

2. Rules that give the Sage some rest. Even though the D&D team hasn’t shown an unerring sense of power levels, I’m certain the team boasts a hard-won understanding of the rules that raise questions and cause confusion. Jeremy logs D&D’s common misunderstandings and pain points. Exhibit A: The playtest changes Armor Proficiency to Armor Training, so folks learning the game can stop wondering where to put the proficiency bonus when they wear armor. I’ve seen proficiency bonuses mistakenly added to AC, creating bulletproof characters.

I suspect Jeremy never wants to explain how jumping fits with movement either. How else can we explain the playtest separating jump into an action? At that price, no one will ever jump again.

Credit—or blame—the playtest’s careful rules for hiding, influence, and searching on a matching drive to add rigor to certain common tasks. During the fifth edition design, the team opted to favor a dungeon master’s judgement to handle such actions. Rodney Thompson described the goal. “We want a system that makes it easy to be the DM, and at the same time trusts the DM to make the right call for any particular situation, rather than create many highly specific chunks of rules text in an attempt to cover every possible situation.”

The 2014 rules for Stealth and Perception, for example, left room for a lengthy Sage Advice discussion. The playtest rules work to pave over the DM’s judgment and the monsters’ passive perception in favor of a roll against a close-enough DC of 15.

Apparently the D&D team also listens to complaints about a lack of social interaction rules. The playtest moves some social interaction guidelines from the Dungeon Master’s Guide to a place where the table’s rules lawyer can more easily cite them at the table as the reason Vecna must cooperate based on a strong persuasion check. I’m all for helping tables handle social interaction, but leave DMs room to work.

3. Class groups. The playtest recalls the Warrior, Mage, Priest, and Rogue class groups introduced in 2nd edition by putting classes into similar sets. “A Class Group has no rules in itself, but prerequisites and other rules can refer to these groups.”

I imagine a design meeting where the team matched classes to groups, and then faced a jumble of leftovers like Bard, Ranger, and Rogue that defied an obvious group name. What did these classes share in common? They all rate as the most knowledgeable and skilled in their province, whether a tavern, a back alley, or the wild. Designing each class around Expertise and calling the group Experts builds on that trait.

The Expertise feature doubles a character’s proficiency bonus, so at higher levels an expert can succeed at nearly impossible tasks and routinely accomplish merely difficult ones. D&D tests use a d20 roll, and the 1-20 random swing can overwhelm the relatively small bonus delivered by proficiency and ability scores. Even the most talented and skilled characters often fail, creating a system that often fails to reward competence. Expertise delivers enough of a bonus to reward masters of a skill with a reliable chance of success.

Meanwhile, the playtest’s jump rule seems designed to enable a gross range of possible outcomes. An average, untrained person making a running jump for maximum distance can leap between 5 and 20 feet. If this rule had reached print in the 80s, Space Gamer magazine’s Murphy’s Rules cartoon would skewer it for laughs. Basketball games in D&D worlds must be something to see.

4. Inspiration works the way most players think it works. In the last playtest, Jeremy Crawford championed some changes that matched the game rules to the way players incorrectly assumed the game worked. That goal makes this playtest’s change to inspiration inevitable. Players can use inspiration to re-roll after rolling a d20 test. This makes inspiration more valuable, but under the old inspiration rules, few DMs awarded much inspiration, so the house rule’s bigger benefit hardly mattered. My earlier post discussed the merits of giving inspiration for 5% of d20 tests, and how that generosity tilts a game already stacked in the players’ favor. Won’t someone think of the monsters?

5. Bards stay busy every moment. The playtest class descriptions feature numerous small changes that improve play. For example, the Bardic Inspiration and the Cutting Words features include changes that improve the Bard’s agency and remove a source of friction. Now instead of giving another player a Bardic Inspiration die to control and often forget, bards can use their Reaction to add an inspiration roll to a failed d20 Test.

The new design eliminates the requirement that players choose to use a Bardic Inspiration die after they make their rolls, but before the DM determines whether the attack roll or ability check succeeds or fails. That requirement interrupted than natural flow of the game. For Bardic Inspiration, the requirement also blocked the DM’s option to reveal DCs and ACs despite the advantages of transparency. Now in the game fiction, the bard sees a companion falter and gives a magic boost that might win success.

6. Hunters mark gets a fix. The 2104 ranger class suffered from an need to concentrate on the hunter’s mark spell, which underpins the ranger’s flavor as someone who targets prey and pursues it to the finish. With a duration marked in hours, hunter’s mark seems meant to last through a ranger’s daily adventures. But the spell requires concentration, so 2014 rangers who cast another concentration spell lose their mark and what feels like a key feature. Also, 2014 rangers who aimed to enter melee suffered an outsized risk of losing their mark. The playtest version of the ranger no longer needs to concentrate on hunter’s mark. In the last 8 years, would that errata have proved too much?

6. Playing a spellcaster becomes less daunting. Jeremy Crawford says the need to pick spells means that “sometimes playing a spellcaster can be a little daunting.” So the playtest classes add recommended spells to prepare. Good idea. I created a list of recommended spells for wizards, but 2014 spellcasters can prepare different numbers of spells based on an ability score, and that variable added complication to my lists. The playtest rules cut the formulas for number of spells prepared in favor of letting characters prepare spells equal to their spell slots. I’m happy to never again search the class descriptions for the formulas that I never remember.

7. Free hands and spellcasting. D&D’s rules for spellcasting components aim to reinforce the classic flavor of the game’s classes while adding the dash of balance that comes from, say, not letting Wizards equip shields. The simplest measure of these rules’ success comes from 4 tests.

  • Do the rules encourage Wizards to carry an arcane focus in one hand while leaving the other hand free?
  • Do the rules prevent exploits like letting you equip a shield between turns to maximize AC, and then stow a shield on your turn to cast spells? (DMs can say no, but we like the rules to back us up.)
  • Do the rules enable Clerics to equip a shield, carry a weapon, and still cast spells?
  • Do the rules enable Rangers to have two weapons or just a sword and shield, and to cast spells without any juggling?

Rules as written, fifth edition passes the first 2 tests, complicates the third test by requiring a cleric to free a hand to cast cure wounds (see the first question answered on page 16 of the Sage Advice Compendium), and botches the fourth test. Sure, a dual-wielding ranger can use their free, manipulate-an-object action on one turn to sheath a sword, and then on next turn use another free action to get out their components, and players can keep track from turn to turn, but few players see that as a fun enhancement to the heroic action. Ranger players could take War Caster, but the rules shouldn’t impose a feat tax just to allow the things we expect of rangers. Also, letting rangers do their thing hardly overpowers the class.

To be fair, the playtest makes a change that eases some of the friction. Now the attack action allows characters to “equip or unequip one Weapon before or after any attack you make as part of this Action.” I like how this enables characters to switch weapons in a single turn without dropping one, but the measure fails to let rangers be rangers without a juggling act.

8. Class capstone abilities come sooner so they get used. The 2014 classes rewarded players who reached level 20 with capstone features that often seemed almost too good. But level 20 represents the end of a character’s career, so players seldom flaunted those wahoo abilities for more than a session. The playtest classes move the capstone features to level 18, so players gain more time to savor them. Levels 19 and 20 now gain more ordinary-feeling rewards. For some players, this change makes the capstones feel less like an aspirational target to seek as the crowning achievement of a character. I say level 18 rates as enough of an achievement to reap these rewards.

9. Why would anyone take the Ability Score Improvement feat? The designers of the 2014 version of fifth edition made feats an optional system that groups could skip in favor of a simpler game. So the 2014 team tried to design feats that matched the power of a +2 ability score increase. Clearly, the One D&D team sees little point to keeping feats optional. Who can blame the team for this conclusion? I never saw a table choose not to use feats.

When Jeremy Crawford touts the playtest’s feats, he boasts that nearly all increase the power of the older versions. They achieved this using the highly technical design technique of packaging every 4th-level feat with an extra +1 ability score boost. Many feats nearly match the 2014 versions that the designers judged as powerful as a +2 ability score bonus, except now boosted by an extra +1, making them as good as a +3. Someone please check my math.

With One D&D awarding feats at level 1, and offering boosted feats at level 4, characters keep getting candy. I hope the monsters get some help keeping up. Won’t someone think of the monsters?

Does anyone else consider feats that bundle a +1 ability score bonus a nuisance? Odd numbered ability scores deliver no bonuses, so without planning, those +1 increases can feel wasted. For new players, the wasted +1 feels like a gotcha. For lazy players like me who rarely plan a character’s career, same.

The monsters and I applaud one change: The designers fixed the worst thing in D&D, the Sharpshooter feat, by removing the +10 damage option. I have just one note: Find a different benefit than bypassing cover.

Erasing the effect of cover means ranged characters can mostly ignore tactics, making combat less interesting for their players. Meanwhile, as a DM, I can counter sharpshooters by having monsters move out of total cover to attack before moving back to total cover. If sharpshooters cope by readying attacks, they lose their extra attacks and bonus action attacks. Unless you relish tactical crunch, none of this tit-for-tat brings much fun, so I would rather just play monsters benefiting from partial cover.

10. Can guidance be saved? The 2014 version of guidance rates as the game’s most useful cantrip and its biggest nuisance. Simply by interjecting “I cast guidance” before every single skill check, the cleric gets to improve d20 rolls by an average of 2.5. This proves both useful and tiresome. Frequently in play, someone blows a check, the cleric remembers forgetting the guidance mantra, and the game halts while players plead to add retroactive guidance. Forgetting guidance creates a feel-bad, gotcha moment. I’ve seen some tables bypass the I-cast-guidance spam by just adding a d4 to every skill check. I assume the DM secretly raises every DC by 3. Should we drop guidance from D&D and call it a win? In the cantrip’s favor, priests praying for divine guidance reinforces these classes’ flavor.

The playtest includes a new version of guidance that makes the spell less spammy. Plus the new version’s limit that characters can only benefit once per day might weaken the spell to extinction. I’m okay with that.

Just Because a Dungeon Numbers Every Room Doesn’t Mean Players Have To Explore Room-by-Room

If I had run Expedition to the Barrier Peaks when it reached me in 1980, the first session might have ended in frustration. Barrier Peaks includes lots of empty rooms. Of the 100 or so rooms on the first level, fewer than 20 contain anything of interest. I would have dutifully let the players poke through 80 rooms of “jumbled furniture and rotting goods,” gaining “only bits of rag or odd pieces of junk.” Two hours into that grind, my players would suddenly remember that their moms wanted them home.

Level 1 of Expedition to the Barrier Peaks

In 1980, we ran every dungeon room at the same speed: The pace where players describe their movement and actions in careful detail because if they fail to look under the bed, they might overlook the coins, and if they never mention checking the door, they die in its trap.

Some dungeon masters then and a few now would say that dutifully running level 1 as a room-by-room crawl builds tension. Besides, Barrier Peaks includes wandering monsters to add excitement. Then as now, the pacing of dungeon exploration depends on players. Some enjoy a more methodical pace while others grow impatient for action. But even players who favor careful play will appreciate skipping the slow parts. After the players poke through three or four rooms full of rubbish, dungeon masters can summarize groups of similar rooms by saying they hold nothing of interest.

Even though modern adventures seldom contain sprawls of empty rooms, they often include locations best summarized. For example, Dragon of Icespire peak includes Butterskull Ranch, a 10 location manor occupied by orcs. Once my players defeated the orcs and nothing threatened them, I summarized their characters’ search of the house instead of forcing a room-by-room waste of play time. When players defeat the main threat in a dungeon and erase most of the peril, they lose patience for careful exploration. You can just summarize the loot and discoveries that remain.

Any site that merits numbered locations can mix areas that deserve different paces of play from square-by-square attention to cutting to the next scene.

As you pace the game at such a site, choose between methodical exploration and a summary based on the novelty, peril, and choices ahead of the players. When players first enter a dungeon, they face all three elements. A new dungeon starts with novelty because players know little about the threats and discoveries ahead. Even with all those empty rooms, the crashed spaceship at Barrier Peaks starts with unprecedented novelty. If a dungeon lacks peril, then its just an archaeological site; summarize the discoveries. Dungeons tend to start with key choices over marching order, light, and strategy. Does the party plan to explore carefully or rush ahead to stop the midnight ritual? Will they listen at doors or check for traps? Does someone scout?

Once these choices set a pattern and the dungeon starts to seem familiar, DMs can summarize the exploration until the situation changes.

Especially when you run a big dungeon like Barrier Peaks, you can switch your pace between methodical exploration and summary many times during a session. In the areas with nothing new to discover and no threats to face, take the shortcut of summarizing. Then when the players encounter something new, slow to a pace that lets them account for every action. “What do you want to do?”

For More Entertaining D&D Battles, Stop Players From Focusing Fire

In combat, tactically-minded Dungeons & Dragons players focus their characters’ attacks on one monster. By concentrating damage and eliminating enemies, they zero each monster’s hit points as quickly as possible, reducing the number of monsters able to counterattack. The fourth-edition Player’s Strategy Guide included a figure that showed the benefits of this tactic. Focusing fire offers the simplest and most effective tactic in the game. However, the tactic can make combat a little less fun.

The advantages of focused fire: 17 attacks or 27 attacks

When adventurers focus fire, battle scenes sputter out as monsters fall until the battle ends with outnumbered foes near full hit points mobbed by the entire party. Players won’t spend any resources on a fight that seems won, so they chip away with cantrips and basic attacks. The battle wears on even while the outcome seems obvious. (For help with this predicament, see How to End Combat Encounters Before They Become a Grind.)

More exciting fights leave many monsters standing until the last round, when most of the monsters fall in a turning tide of battle. So hindering the players’ ability to focus fire not only helps keep more monsters fighting, it also helps keep combat interesting to the end.

To avoid becoming the next to die, monsters chosen as targets for focused fire typically have two options:

  • Dodge. If a monster dodges, its attackers can either try to hit while suffering disadvantage or move to another target, sometimes facing an opportunity attack.
  • Move. Monsters getting targeted can move to a safer position, even at the price of disengaging or taking an opportunity attack. Often a creature can avoid focused melee attacks by moving past the front line to attack the spellcasters and ranged attackers further back. Give the wizard a taste.

Such tactics count as common sense rather than genius. Even the most bloodthirsty monster who takes a beating at the front will play defense or maneuver to let fresher fighters come forward.

As a dungeon master, while I know the advantage of preventing focused fire, I always feel hesitant to let my creatures dodge or move. I blame loss aversion and I should know better. Creatures that dodge or disengage may lose a turn when they could attack, but dead creatures lose all their attacks. Creatures who suffer an opportunity attack sometimes die to a free attack, but just as often they live longer. Also, against characters with multiple attacks, taking a single opportunity attack hurts less. If the free attack does finish the monster, so what? You have unlimited monsters. Besides, players love when that killing blow comes free.

Related:
4 Simple Tactics that Make Cunning D&D Foes Seem More Dangerous

D&D Locations and Tactics that Encourage Dynamic Combat Scenes

The One D&D Playtest: Big and Small Surprises and Why I Like the Controversial Critical Hit Rule

Fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons started as a game with a strong foundation, strong enough that when I imagined changes that would best improve the game, I just wished for replacements for the annoying spells, overpowered feats, and toothless monsters—the game’s features atop the foundation.

The D&D team agrees. “We did a smart thing with fifth edition by listening to the fans and what came out of that process was a system that is stable, that is well loved, that incorporates the best elements of earlier editions.” Designer Chris Perkins says. “Now that we have that, we are no longer in a position where we think of D&D as an edition. It’s just D&D.”

The D&D team started fixing trouble spots years ago. For example, newer books like Xanathar’s Guide To Everything revisits the rules for downtime with a more evolved take. Tasha’s Cauldon of Everything includes the most updates, with a new way to assign ability score bonuses, alternatives to game-stopping summoning spells, and new beast master companions that strengthen the ranger archetype. The changes improve the game without invalidating anything in the 2014 Player’s Handbook. (See D&D‘s Ongoing Updates and How a Priority Could Lead to New Core Books.)

In 2024, the D&D team will release new core books, making that 2014 Player’s Handbook obsolete. In a way, this 2024 update resembles the jump between first edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and second edition. In the 80s when designers started work on second edition, copies of first edition adventures and books like Oriental Adventures were staying in print and selling well for years. TSR management wanted to keep those evergreen products earning, so they required that second edition remain broadly compatible with first. Second edition’s most important goal was “to make sure the game was still the one you knew and enjoyed.” Of course, first edition had already seen changes and new options would continue to evolve second edition. (See The Dungeons & Dragons Books that Secretly Previewed Each New Edition.)

For the next 12 to 18 months, the D&D design team plans to release monthly playtest packets, enabling gamers to sample and provide feedback on the game’s 2024 release. “You’re going to be able to use all of these playtest docs with your existing core books,” says designer Jeremy Crawford. “We’ve designed these docs so you can take each one, and other than the places where we tell you here’s an update, all of this material works with the core books you already have.”

The D&D team emphasizes how the new release will just build on the game we play today. Their claim and my feeling that the game’s foundation is good leads to the playtest package’s biggest surprise: The document makes changes to rules such as critical hits and conditions—changes at D&Ds foundation. Make no mistake: I’m fine with these changes and the package convinces me that the designers will improve the game.

The changes to D&D’s foundation hide in the packet’s unremarkable sounding “Rules Glossary.” Roleplaying game design often means making choices between the benefits and drawbacks of a particular choice. To weigh the choices revealed by the playtest, I like looking at both sides of this equation. My listing of the drawbacks of a choice doesn’t mean I wouldn’t choose the same.

Critical Hits rate as the candy of D&D. No one ever accused D&D co-creator Gary Gygax of giving players too much candy, and he hated crits. (See page 61 of the original Dungeon Masters Guide.) Like candy, crits give joy, but they’re also bad for us, and especially bad for our new characters. Forget bugbears and goblins; blame most new character deaths on a natural 20. First-level characters lack enough hit points to survive the extra damage. D&D’s designers aim for a game that makes players feel like characters can die while rarely actually killing them. (Some gamers enjoy a more dangerous game, but fifth edition needs optional rules to cater to that taste.) Removing crits helps D&D avoid wasting new characters, but we love our candy, so the test rules allow only player characters to score crits—a change that would have appalled Gary. I like it.

As a DM who speeds play by using average monster damage, monster crits add extra friction. That 20 interrupts my flow and forces me to hunt for damage dice to roll and total. (Yeah, I know I could find a short cut.) A crit and a miss deal less damage than two hits, so the slowdown adds little to play.

Some folks complain that not letting monsters crit makes them too weak, and I’m sympathetic because D&D’s mid- and high-level monsters are too weak, and I’ve complained as much as anyone. But the fix comes from much more damage than the occasional critical hit delivers. Hopefully, the 2024 Monster Manual will deliver the power bump foes need.

The test critical hit rule also affects players. Spell attacks no longer deal crits. This just brings the rule in line with what new players expect: Only weapon attacks and unarmed strikes crit. We D&D enthusiasts can master this change.

The new critical rule also changes the damage formula: Only weapon damage dice get doubled. The designers probably aimed to weaken characters designed to farm criticals with feats like Elven Accuracy. The new formula hinders paladins and rogues by eliminating doubled smite and sneak attack damage. Paladins rate as one of the game’s strongest classes, so this change helps bring them down to Oerth. Rogues suffer more from losing a double sneak attack damage.

Still, in D&D specific rules beat a general rule. The critical rule works like this in general, but a class like rogue might gain a feature that adds additional damage to crits. If that feature worked for melee attacks and not ranged attacks, then it would help make up for the inferiority of melee-focused rogues. A guy can dream.

Rolling a 20. Another change deals monsters a more serious blow than losing critical hits. Based on the new rules for rolling a 20 and inspiration, characters will rarely fail saving throws. Now players gain inspiration whenever they roll 20 on an ability check, saving throw, or an attack roll. Players gain more fun candy for their high rolls. If you already have inspiration, you can pass the award to another character. “We wanted a way to feed people inspiration through the system itself. What the system is intentionally doing is encouraging you to use the inspiration.” Dream on. Inspiration proves so much more valuable for saving throws that I plan to continue hoarding it until I need to make a save. I suspect this will bring my characters closer to never failing a save. When I run games, players like me who hoard inspiration make monsters much less fun to run because characters rarely fail a save and so many monster abilities amount to “Action: Waste a turn while every single character laughs off your biggest threat.” At tables using the widespread house rule that lets players spend inspiration to re-roll, the heroes’ edge grows even stronger.

Instead of the players fighting ice cold dice who could use a lift, the inspiration-on-a-20 mechanic awards more success to the character already rolling 20s. Perhaps if a 20 let you inspire another character in the party, the rule would feel better.

Nonetheless, I have mixed feelings about the inspiration-on-a-20 rule. As a player, I love rolling natural 20s and hate failing saves. But even more, I love challenges that press my characters to the limit.

Ability score bonuses. The playtest’s update to ability score improvements rates at the playtest’s least surprising change. Now instead of pairing each race with set of ability score bonuses that reinforce a fantasy archetype, every player chooses where to put a +2 and a +1 bonus, or alternately three +1 bonuses.

Since first edition AD&D, each race has gained ability score modifiers that match the fantasy archetypes of robust dwarves, agile elves, and so on. This started back when everyone rolled characters at random and when good play meant making the most of whatever the dice gave you.

Now most players build characters to match their tastes, so ability score bonuses limit freedom to create capable characters who defy stereotypes. Also, for many, such adjustments raise troubling reminders of how real ethnic groups can suffer from racist stereotypes that paint people as lacking certain aptitudes. Sure, elves, dwarves, and half-orcs are imaginary species, but they become relatable reflections of us in the game world. After all, imaginary halflings, I mean hobbits, just started as Tolkien’s stand-ins for ordinary folks.

Setting ability scores should require just one step: Assign the scores you want to suit your character. Instead, the current design asks players to assign scores and add bonuses as separate steps, likely adding some back-and-forth friction as players find the right values. I would like to see a process that folds the two steps into one. That would work easiest if the game simply offered a few standard arrays of scores with the ability score bonuses included.

Feats at first level. Originally, the fifth-edition designers sought to make new characters as simple as possible. This returned to D&D’s 1974 roots. Then, characters just started with 6 ability scores and a class. Characters developed in play. Those simple characters proved especially easy for new players. You could immerse yourself in your role and play without knowing the rules. If you’re a hero with a sword and a monster charges, then you know your options: talk fast, hit it, or run. Now text like “a number of times equal to your proficiency bonus” weighs races, 1st-level feats, and classes. If you’re coaching a new player, prepare to explain “proficiency bonus.”

The playtest rules make a new character’s history feel more important by bolstering it with mechanics. “I’m super excited about this whole approach that we’re taking with backgrounds,” says Jeremy Crawford. “It’s all about building your character’s story and making certain meaningful game-mechanic choices that reflect the story you have in mind for your character.” Or instead, you can take the Lucky feat.

For new players, the added “game-mechanic choices” risk making the game feel overwhelming. Maybe that’s fine. New players confronted with a pregenerated character always find it overwhelming, but the end of the session, they typically feel comfortable with the basics.

The designers seem enchanted by the phrase “a number of times equal to your proficiency bonus,” but I wish fewer feats added things to track.

The playtest feats include a change that strike me as ingenious. Each feat includes a level. “One of the ways to make sure that feat selection is not overwhelming is to break feats up into smaller groups, and one of the ways that were doing that is with levels.” Credit Pathfinder second edition for adding this innovation first.

Grappling. The playtest changes the rules for grappling. Now, if your Unarmed Strike hits versus AC, then you can grapple the target. Likely this change aims to make grappling for characters work like all the monsters that grapple by hitting a target. Starting a grapple with an attack strikes me as odd because it defies a fifth edition design principle.

Fifth-edition designer Mike Mearls once explained that to determine whether to use an attack roll or a save, designers asked, “Would a suit of plate mail protect from this?” Armor protects against darts, scythes, and so on, so traps using such hazards make attacks. Poisonous fumes, lightning, and mind blasts all ignore armor, so targets make saves. Attacks to grapple fail this test. Surely though, rules for saves to avoid a grapple would add more complexity than the designers want. Besides, D&D hardly needs another reason to favor Dexterity over Strength.

6 Things to Include in a 1st-Level D&D Adventure

The best 1st-level adventures make a great first impression. To start a campaign, we want 1st-level adventures that excite players and leave them eager for the adventures to come. More importantly, new players typically get introduced to Dungeons & Dragons with 1st-level adventures. That’s good because starting at 1st level makes a better impression than a plunge into the deep end with a higher-level character sporting a bewildering array of abilities.

As an introduction to D&D, I favor starting adventures that offer a sampler of all the game offers. Even at first level, I prefer adventures with a feeling of risk and with something at stake. I like to feel like a daring hero at all levels, and nothing feels so brave and scary as playing a new character risking their life to become a hero. But starting adventures need to avoid a big downer: dead characters.

By tradition, new D&D characters start as fragile as soap bubbles. The fifth edition design team felt comfortable sticking to this tradition because players lose very little play-time investment when their new character dies. Just write a new name on the sheet and play the deceased’s twin! Still, plenty of players invest creative energy in their new character’s personality and background. Even without that emotional attachment, losing a character feels like a loss. Nobody likes to lose.

If you’re reading this, then you probably qualify as a D&D fan, and I know the game hooked some of us despite new characters who died minutes after creation, but I suspect the potential fans scared away by a quick loss outnumber us. I want to win new fans to the game, not to haze potential fans with casualties.

Many starter adventures, even recent ones from the D&D team, seem to welcome the likelihood of dead characters. Lost Mine of Phandelver starts with a deadly ambush. Dragon of Icespire Peak can pit 1st-level characters against a manticore powerful enough to rout the party.

When I want to make a deadly starting adventure a little safer for new players, I contrive a way to give their characters the benefit of and aid spell. Have the priest reward a good deed by giving the party a boost. Or perhaps returning a holy symbol to the chapel earns divine favor. Five extra hit points makes 1st-level characters almost twice as durable.

Aside from such tricks, a 1st-level adventure can spare characters by including the right foes. See number 2 of my list of 6 things to include in a starting adventure.

A place to explore. The game starts with dungeons, and I like delivering what new players expect with a tiny dungeon. A size of 3 to 4 rooms leaves time for play outside the dungeon, showing new players that the modern game offers much more than gilded holes.

Weak foes in multiples to fight. Many new players will look at the spells and attacks listed on their character sheets and feel eager to test them in battle. Even long-time players like me like to see a fight or two. The ideal starting foes prove easy to hit and kill, rarely deal enough damage to one-shot the mage, and never had parents.

“Never had parents” depends on the players, but I choose foes younger players will feel happy to fight. Think undead, constructs, and plants. Spiders, insects, and the like also work, although they don’t technically qualify. These foes avoid second thoughts about what to kill.

Sadly, the fifth edition bestiary includes almost no weak creatures that qualify. Twig blights rate as best. Skeletons work well enough, especially if players learn and prepare for their vulnerability to bludgeoning, or with lower hit point versions as, say, snake or lizard skeletons. No one tries to befriend a twig blight or to capture a skeleton for questioning. You can easily reskin both types of creatures, so turn twig blights into animated furniture that deal bludgeoning damage.

A reluctant ally to win. A roleplaying scene makes an essential ingredient to adventure, but if players don’t enter the scene with a goal, then they often don’t know what to do. If the scene lacks an obstacle, then it lacks interest. Gaining help from someone who seems reluctant or even hostile feels like a win and adds an upward beat to the adventure’s drama.

See Avoiding the Awkward D&D Moment When a Priest, a Wizard, and a Dwarf Enter a Bar and Nothing Happens and Improve Roleplaying Investigation Scenes With These 23 Reasons an NPC Won’t Cooperate

Something to figure out. Players love to figure things out. The process makes them feel smart and capable. It reveals hidden order in the (game) world, and we love finding order in a jumble. In D&D, this joy of figuring things out can come from various sources: mysteries, puzzles, and objects with unknown functions like traps and magic. For a new adventure, make the thing to figure out very easy. Just figuring out that the holy idol belongs back in the indentation of the altar qualifies. If the adventure includes a trap, make the trap obvious and the challenge figuring out how to avoid it.

See The Fun Thing D&D Players Love that No One Mentions and that the Game Almost Lost

Something magical and fantastic. Sometimes low-level adventures falter by sticking close to the mud and the mundane. If the rats-in-the-basement adventure rose above cliché, then it still rates as bad because it lacks any magic or wonder. D&D brings the fantastic to our lives, and new players deserve a taste of it. So if the villager has trouble in the cellar, make it from a gate to hell that needs closing. Bonus: Manes and lemures make suitable monsters. (Kids will have no trouble destroying fiends, but watch out for concerned parents.)

A secret that hooks the next adventure. A starting adventure should leave players with a clear path to their next outing, even if that simply means a treasure map leading to a magic sword. Just avoid hooking the second episode too early. You might lead the party away from the current goals.

The Right Monster for the Job: D&D Monsters Listed by Function

The idea for this post comes from my son Evan, who DMs a weekly game for his friends. He noticed that the gem stalker from Fizban’s Treasury of Dragons has a Protective Link feature that enables the creature to absorb damage meant for another target. The ability means that a challenge rating 5 gem stalker can serve a protective role much like a CR 7 shield guardian. DMs writing adventures with a part for a less-powerful bodyguard could cast a gem stalker in place of a shield guardian. Evan suggested an article listing different creatures, at different power levels, able to fill the same game role.

Gem StalkerThis led me to think of other monster jobs that a dungeon master could fill for a particular adventure. Many campaigns need masterminds to plot evil schemes, guards to defend hoards, and perhaps assassins to attack when the meddling do-gooders become a nuisance. DMs creating dungeons often need undying foes that can survive a vault for a 1,000 years until foolhardy treasure hunters invade.

These lists come from the Monster Manual and  Monsters of the Multiverse and all the categories that I thought would prove useful. But I consider them a work in progress. What other jobs deserve lists? Each monster includes a short list of aspects, including types, terrain, and typical allegiances.  For now, I’ve omitted most humanoid type monsters.

Agents

Creatures that carry messages or conduct strikes and other missions for masterminds and other leaders.

CR Creature
0 Homunculus (Construct wizard)
1/4 Pseudodragon (Dragon wizard)
1/2 Jackalwere (Shapechanger lamia Graz’zt)
1/2 Magmin (Elemental fire)
1 Imp (Devil)
1 Quasit (Demon)
2 Spined devil (Devil)
3 Deep Scion (Monstrosity aquatic)
3 Redcap (Fey hags mages)
3 Wight (Undead)
4 Deathlock (Undead warlock)
4 Succubus/Incubus (Fiend shapechanger)
5 Banderhobb (Monstrosity hags)
5 Cambion (Fiend)
5 Mindwitness (Aberration telepathic)
7 Draegloth (Demon Lolth)
7 Oni (Giant)
9 Hydroloth (Yugoloth aquatic)
10 Yochlol (Demon Lolth)
12 Boneclaw (Undead)
12 Death Knight (Undead)
13 Devourer (Undead Orcus)
13 Narzugon (Devil)
17 Dragon Turtle (Dragon aquatic)

Ambushers

Creatures that attack from hiding to gain surprise.

CR Creature
1/2 Darkmantle (Monstrosity Subterranean Shadowfell)
1/2 Piercer (Monstrosity Subterranean)
1 Choker (Aberration)
2 Ankheg (Monstrosity)
2 Mimic (Monstrosity)
3 Cave Fisher (Monstrosity Subterranean)
3 Grell (Aberration Subterranean)
3 Trapper (Monstrosity)
5 Bulette (Monstrosity)
5 Otyugh (Aberration Garbage)
5 Roper (Monstrosity Subterranean)
5 Shambling Mound (Plant Forst Swamp)
11 Remorhaz (Monstrosity Cold)

Bodyguards

Protectors of other creatures.

CR Creature
2 Shadow Mastiff (Monstrosity)
3 Displacer Beast (Monstrosity)
4 Clockwork Stone Defender (Construct)
4 Flameskull (Undead)
5 Gem Stalker (Monstrosity Gem Dragon)
5 Unicorn (Celestial Forest)
7 Shield Guardian (Construct)
12 Gray Render (Monstrosity)

Collectors of secrets and lore

Creatures that find and hoard secrets and magical lore.

CR Creature
2 Berbalang (Aberration)
2 Nothic (Aberration)
4 Bone Naga (Undead)
8 Spirit Naga (Monstrosity)
10 Guardian Naga (Monstrosity)
11 Gynosphinx (Monstrosity)
17 Blue Abishai (Devil Tiamat)
17 Androsphinx (Monstrosity)
17 Nagpa (Monstrosity)
18 Sibriex (Demon)
20 Morkoth (Aberration)

Commanders

Creatures that lead groups into battle.

CR Creature
3 Chordrith (Monstrosity Lolth)
5 Wraith (Undead)
7 Mind Flayer (Aberration Illithid)
9 Flind (Fiend Gnoll)
9 Drow House Captain (Humanoid Lolth)
12 Death Knight (Undead)
13 Nalfeshnee (Demon)
14 Ice Devil (Devil)
16 Marilith (Demon)
18 Aminzu (Devil),
19 Balor (Demon)
19 Red Abishai (Devil Tiamat)
20 Pit Fiend (Devil)

Controllers

Creatures that support other fighters with tricks or magic.

CR Creature
1/4 Kobold Inventer (Dragon)
1/4 Kobold Scale Sorcerer (Dragon)
1 Firenewt Warlock Of Imix (Elemental Imix)
5 Kraken Priest (Monstrosity Aquatic Kraken)
8 Green Slaad (Aberration)
9 Gray Slaad (Aberration)
10 Death Slaad (Aberration)
12 Arcanaloth (Yugoloth)
12 Oinoloth (Yugoloth)
15 Skull Lord (Undead)

Enforcers

Brutish thugs and enforcers for masterminds and other leaders.

CR Creature
6 Chasme (Demon)
7 Elemental Myrmidons (Elemental)
8 Chain Devil (Devil)
9 Bone Devil (Devil)
14 Cadaver Collector (Construct)

Friends, guides, and patrons

Creatures likely to help or guide adventurers.

CR Creature
1/8 Flumph (Aberration Underdark)
1/4 Pixie (Fey Forest)
1/4 Sprite (Fey Forest)
2 Centaur (Monstrosity)
2 Pegasus (Celestial)
3 Dolphin Delighter (Fey Aquatic)
4 Couatl (Celestial)
5 Unicorn (Celestial Forest)
5 Werebear (Shapechanger Forest)
9 Treant (Plant Forest)
10 Deva (Celestial)
10 Guardian Naga (Monstrosity)
10 Stone Giant Dreamwalker (Giant)
11 Gynosphinx (Monstrosity)
12 Ki-Rin (Celestial)
16 Planetar (Celestial)
17 Androsphinx (Monstrosity)
21 Solar (Celestial)
23 Empyrean (Celestial)

Guards

Protectors of treasure or locations.

CR Creature
0 Shrieker (Plant Underdark)
1/4 Flying Sword (Construct)
1/4 Skeleton (Undead)
1/4 Zombie (Undead)
1 Animated Armor (Construct)
1 Scarecrow (Construct)
1 Stone Cursed (Construct)
2 Gargoyle (Elemental)
2 Guard Drake (Dragon)
2 Rug Of Smothering (Construct)
2 Shadow Mastiff (Monstrosity)
3 Basilisk (Monstrosity)
3 Displacer Beast (Monstrosity)
3 Hell Hound (Fiend Fire)
3 Owlbear (Monstrosity)
3 Spectator (Aberration)
3 Water Wierd (Elemental)
3 Wight (Undead)
4 Chuul (Aberration Aquatic)
4 Clockwork Iron Cobra (Construct)
4 Flameskull (Undead)
4 Girallon (Monstrosity)
4 Helmed Horror (Construct)
5 Barbed Devil (Devil)
5+ Golem (Construct)
5 Clockwork Oaken Bolter (Construct)
6 Galub Duhr (Elemental)
8 Canoloth (Yugoloth)
10 Guardian Naga (Monstrosity)
10 Yochlol (Demon Lolth)
11 Gynosphinx (Monstrosity)
12 Eidolon (Undead)
16 Stone Giant Quintessent (Giant)
17 Androsphinx (Monstrosity)
18 Demilich (Undead Tomb)

Haunts and corruptions

Creatures that bring chaos or corruption to locations and people.

CR Creature
1/8 Boggle (Fey)
1/2 Skulk (Monstosity Shadowfell)
4 Dybbuk (Demon)
4 Succubus/Incubus (Fiend Shapechanger)
5 Allip (Undead)
7 Bheur Hag (Fey)
6 Annis Hag (Fey)
9 Glabrezu (Demon)
11 Alkilith (Demon)
11 Balhannoth (Abberation)
13 Wastrilith (Demon Aquatic)

Impersonators

Creatures that can disguise to infiltrate.

CR Creature
3 Doppelganger (Monstrosity)
4 Succubus/Incubus (Fiend Shapechanger)
7 Maurezhi (Demon Gnoll)
7 Oni (Giant)
8 Green Slaad (Aberration)
9 Gray Slaad (Aberration)
10 Death Slaad (Aberration)
10 Yochlol (Demon Lolth)
13 Rakshasa (Fiend)
15 Green Abishai (Devil Tiamat)

Masterminds and arch-villians

Creatures that lead and plot, often while avoiding direct action.

CR Creature
2 Sea Hag (Fey Aquatic)
4 Deathlock Mastermind (Undead Warlock)
4 Lamia (Monstrosity Desert Graz’Zt)
5 Night Hag (Fiend Planes)
7 Mind Flayer (Aberration Illithid)
7 Oni (Giant)
8 Spirit Naga (Monstrosity)
10 Aboleth (Aberration)
10 Alhoon (Aberration Illithid Wizard)
10 Death Slaad (Aberration)
11 Genie (Elemental)
12 Death Knight (Undead)
13 Beholder (Aberration)
13 Rakshasa (Fiend)
13 Vampire (Undead)
13 Ultoloth (Yugoloth)
14 Death Tyrant (Undead)
14 Elder Brain (Aberration Illithid)
15 Mummy Lord (Undead Tomb)
15 Skull Lord (Undead)
17 Nagpa (Monstrosity)
18 Sibriex (Demon)
19 Balor (Demon)
20 Pit Fiend (Devil)
21 Lich (Undead Wizard)
23 Empyrean (Celestial)
23 Kraken (Monstrosity)
V Dracolich (Undead Wizard)
V Dragon (Dragon)

Mounts

CR Creature
1 Hippogriff (Monstrosity)
1 Steeder (Monstrosity)
2 Griffon (Monstrosity Cliffs)
2 Pegasus (Celestial)
3 Nightmare (Fiend)
6 Wyvern (Dragon)
11 Roc (Monstrosity Mountain)

Protectors of nature

Creatures that defend natural places.

CR Creature
1/4 Sprite (Fey Forest)
1 Dryad (Fey Forest)
5 Unicorn (Celestial Forest)
5 Wood Woad (Plant Forest)
9 Treant (Plant Forest)

Soldiers

Creatures who follow orders to fight in number.

CR Creature
1/4 Skeleton (Undead)
1/2 Chitine (Monstrosity Loth)
1/2 Nupperibo (Devil)
1/4 Zombie (Undead)
1 Firenewt Warrior (Elemental Imix)
1 Sea Spawn (Monstrosity Aquatic)
3 Bearded Devil (Devil)
3 Bulezau (Demon)
3 Wight (Undead)
4 Merregon (Devil)
5 Barlgura (Demon)
5 Mezzoloth (Yugoloth)
5 Red Slaad (Aberration)
5 Salamander (Elemental Fire Efreet)
5 Tanarukk (Demon)
6 White Abishai (Devil Tiamat)
7 Armanite (Demon)
7 Blue Slaad (Aberration)
7 Dhergoloth (Yugoloth)
8 Hezrou (Demon)
8 Howler (Fiend)
11 Horned Devil (Devil)
14 Fire Giant Dreadnought (Giant)
V Giant (Giant)

Spies and assassins

Creatures that spy or assassinate using stealth.

CR Creature
0 Cranium Rat (Aberration Illithid)
0 Homunculus (Construct)
1/4 Pseudodragon (Dragon Wizard)
1/2 Darkling (Fey)
1 Clockwork Bronze Scout (Construct)
1 Imp (Devil)
1 Quasit (Demon)
2 Darkling Elder (Fey)
5 Cambion (Fiend)
5 Oblex Adult (Ooze Illithid)
7 Black Abishai (Devil Tiamat)
10 Oblex Elder (Ooze Illithid)

Support soldiers

Creatures that typically augment other troops.

CR Creature
1 Half-Ogre (Giant)
2 Ogre (Giant)
2 Ogre Bolt Launcher (Giant)
2 Ogre Howday (Giant)
2 Ogre Zombie (Undead)
3 Hell Hound (Fiend Fire)
3 Manticore (Monstrosity)
3 Ogre Chain Brute (Giant)
4 Ogre Battering Ram (Giant)
5 Troll (Giant)
8 Shoosuva (Demon)
9 Nycaloth (Yugoloth)
11 Horned Devil (Devil)
12 Erinyes (Devil)
17 Goristro (Demon)

Stalkers

Creatures that seek targets for termination.

CR Creature
3 Slithering Tracker (Ooze)
4 Yeth Hound (Fey)
5 Revenant (Undead)
6 Chasme (Demon)
6 Invisible Stalker (Elemental)
8 Canoloth (Yugoloth)
10 Orthon (Devil)
14 Retriever (Construct Lolth)
16 Steel Predator (Construct)

Story creatures

Creatures that work better as story elements than as combat foes.

CR Creature
1/2 Gas Spore (Plant)
2 Nothic (Aberration)
4 Ghost (Undead)
25 Marut (Construct Inevitable)

Threats, subterranean

Dangers that lair underground.

CR Creature
1/4 Grimlock (Humanoid Illithid)
1/2 Gray Ooze (Ooze)
2 Quaggoth (Humanoid Lolth)
3 Hook Horror (Monstrosity)
4 Black Pudding (Ooze)
5 Umber Hulk (Monstrosity)

Threats, undying

Creatures that can perpetually survive in a location until disturbed

CR Creature
1/4 Mephit (Elemental)
1/4 Skeleton (Undead)
1/2 Shadow (Undead)
1 Specter (Undead)
2 Gibbering Mouther (Aberration)
2 Will-O’-Wisp (Undead Desolation)
3 Deathlock Wight (Undead Warlock)
3 Mummy (Undead Tomb)
4 Banshee (Undead)
4 Shadow Demon (Demon)
5 Spawn Of Kyuss (Undead Aquatic)
5 Wraith (Undead)
6 Medusa (Monstrosity Ruins)
8 Sword Wraith Warrior (Undead)
6 Bodak (Undead Orcus)
8 Sword Wraith Commander (Undead)
14 Cadaver Collector (Construct)

Threats, urban

Creatures typically met in cities.

CR Creature
2 Wererat (Shapechanger)

Threats, wandering or hunting

Creatures that roam, often seeking to slake their hunger.

CR Creature
1/2 Jackalwere (Shapechanger Lamia Graz’Zt)
1/2 Rust Monster (Monstrosity Subterranean)
1 Ghoul (Undead)
1 Meazel (Monstrosity)
1 Vargouille (Fiend)
2 Carrion Crawler (Monstrosity)
2 Gelatinous Cube (Ooze Subterranean)
2 Intellect Devourer (Aberration Subterranean Illithid)
2 Ochre Jelly (Ooze Subterranean)
2 Ogre (Giant)
2 Meenlock (Fey)
2 Merrow (Monstrosity Shore Aquatic)
2 Rutterkin (Demon Abyss)
3 Displacer Beast (Monstrosity)
3 Flail Snail (Elemental)
3 Vampiric Mist (Undead)
3 Yeti (Monstrosity Cold)
5 Xorn (Elemental Subterranean)
5 Tlincalli (Monstrosity Desert)
6 Drider (Monstrosity Underdark Spider)
6 Vrock (Demon)
8 Cloaker (Aberration Subterranean)
8 Hydra (Monstrosity Shore Aquatic)
9 Abominable Yeti (Monstrosity Cold)
10 Death Kiss (Aberration)
11 Roc (Monstrosity Mountain)
13 Devourer (Undead Orcus)
13 Neothelid (Aberration Subterranean)
15 Nabassu (Demon)
15 Purple Worm (Monstrosity Subterranean Mountain)
17 Dragon Turtle (Dragon Aquatic)
20 Leviathan (Elemental Aquatic)
20 Nightwalker (Undead)

Threats, wild

Dangers that appear in wild places often in or near a lair.

CR Creature
1/8 Stirge (Beast)
1/2 Cockatrice (Monstrosity)
1 Harpy (Monstrosity Cliffs)
1 Hippogriff (Monstrosity)
2 Ettercap (Monstrosity Spider)
2 Giffon (Monstrosity Cliffs)
2 Merrow (Monstrosity Shore Aquatic)
2 Peryton (Monstrosity Mountain)
3 Basilisk (Monstrosity)
3 Manticore (Monstrosity Pack)
3 Owlbear (Monstrosity)
3 Werewolf (Shapechanger Pack)
4 Wereboar (Shapechanger Orc)
4 Ettin (Giant Solo)
4 Girallon (Monstrosity)
4 Weretiger (Shapechanger Jungle)
5 Catoblepas (Monstrosity Swamp)
5 Gorgon (Monstrosity)
5 Troll (Giant)
6 Chimera (Monstrosity)
6 Wyvern (Dragon)
8 Corpse Flower (Plant)
9 Frost Salamander (Elemental Cold)
10 Froghemoth (Monstrosity Swamp)
11 Behir (Monstrosity)
11 Remorhaz (Monstrosity Cold)

Creatures that cause cataclysms

Creatures that cause unnatural disasters.

CR Creature
16 Phoenix (Elemental)
23 Elder Tempest (Elemental)
23 Kraken (Monstrosity)
30 Tarrasque (Monstrosity)

Tricksters and troublemakers

Creatures that favor mischief over battle.

CR Creature
1/8 Boggle (Fey)
1/4 Pixie (Fey Forest)
1/4 Mephit (Elemental)
1/2 Satyr (Fey)
1 Quickling (Fey)
1+ Faerie Dragon (Dragon)
2 Will-O’-Wisp (Undead Desolation)

D&D’s Best Monsters for Fun and Utility

I love beholders and I know most Dungeons & Dragons fans share my affection, but fights against beholders tend to fizzle into disappointment. At first, the eye beams incapacitate a character or two, so the monster feels threatening even if fear or paralysis idles a couple of players who stop having fun. But beholders can’t damage reliably enough to threaten level-appropriate foes, so the battle turns into a series of rolls to see if bad luck kills a character who suffers random disintegration.

At the table, beholders disappoint, but some less glamorous monsters prove more better than they seem at a glance. The lowly twig blight offers my favorite example. As foes for new characters, blights boast several advantages:

  • They’re creepy.
  • They’re supernatural, unlike the mundane foes that tend to appear a low-levels.
  • Even new characters can fight several.
  • Needle blights and vine blights team to ranged and special attacks.
  • No one worries about their families.
  • Not rats.

Blights may lack flash, but they make useful foes.

For similar reasons, I love giants. Aside from giants, the D&D monster toolkit includes few foes able to challenge higher-level characters without complicating battles with a bunch of special attacks and abilities. Plus giants logically appear in groups that hardly make sense for beholders, dragons, or other more exotic monsters. The simplicity of giants isn’t a bug; it’s a feature.

Gith boast similar virtues: They logically appear in numbers, threaten higher level characters than other humanoids, and don’t slow fights with complexity. Geoff Hogan writes, “I always present them as being friendly but with a culture and history that is hard to understand, so players are always scared of breaking a taboo.” Plus, elite types of Gith give DMs more options for adventures.

When I asked D&D enthusiasts to name their favorites, John touted animated armor as simple troops. “Their blindsight makes them good guards, but as programmed automatons with Intelligence 1, players might invent fun tricks to avoid battle.”

“I love ghouls because they’re dangerous for many levels,” writes Eric Stephen. The ghoul’s appearance in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide example of play “scared the shit” out of him at age 12. “You see a sickly gray arm strike the gnome as he’s working on the spike, the gnome utters a muffled cry, and then a shadowy form drags him out of sight. What are you others going to do?” I love describing ghouls with milky eyes and ragged dagger nails, scuttling to tear and feast on living flesh.

Dave Clark recommends wyverns as a lower-level alternative to dragons. Wyverns give a taste, but save a real dragon showdown for later in a campaign. When a wyvern stings and players learn the high damage total, I love the fear and surprise at the table. Does that make me a mean DM?

Other surprisingly scary monsters include shadows and skulks. Marty Walser favors shadows. “Players start crapping their pants after losing several points of Strength, which is basically the new dump stat in 5e since few people go with Strength fighters.” “I think skulks are great as terrifying tier 1 foes, and they scale well into tier 2 in large numbers because of invisibility and advantage,” writes Graham Ward. Graham notes that players who research and prepare for skulks can overcome their invisibility and prevail. That adds a rewarding story thread.

Of course many monsters shine because they feature special attacks and abilities that, unlike the beholder’s eye rays, tend to create fun battles. I’ve run several entertaining fights against bulettes. Their burrow speed lets them hit and run, leaving worried players to wonder where the land shark will next erupt from the ground and crash down.

Ropers gained recommendations. Ropers grab and reel characters, while players worry about the nearing maw and try to decide how best to escape. “Every roper encounter is hilarious,” writes ThinkDM.

Creatures that swallow characters usually create fun encounters. When characters get swallowed and then cut their way out, players feel badass and love it. Teos Abadia’s list includes froghemoths, behirs, and giant toads. Teos also favors creatures that deal damage on contact, making a remorhaz a double win.

Jeffrey S. Mueller recommends manticores for challenging, low-level fights. “A few of them can really create a lot of fun scenarios for an encounter other than the usual stand and bang it out fights.”

Some monsters flop when miscast in a typical, three-round D&D combat, but they excel in other roles. Arithmancer Ken suggests hobgoblin iron shadows as spies able to cast charm person and disguise self. If caught, powers like Shadow Jaunt and the silent image spell give them a good chance of escaping.

Eric Menge casts doppelgangers for similar roles. “They make great spies, thieves, and grifters.” He also takes a page from the Fantastic Four comics where one of Doctor Doom’s robot doubles takes the fall. “You killed the villain! Oh no! It’s just a doppelganger! Wahwah!”

As mere combat foes, nothics never live up to their creepy appearance, but as story pieces they excel. Before running a nothic, read the advice from Keith Ammann in The Monsters Know What They’re Doing. Eric Menge also likes nothics as patrols. “They’re better watchdogs than serious threats. Use them in creepy search parties or in patrols around objectives to give PCs a challenge.”

One More Inspiration: Why I Made Color Maps for Battle Walker From the Abyss

At Winter Fantasy in 2018, Teos Abadia and I landed at a table run by DM Luke Reid, who wowed us with this skill as a dungeon master and his hand-drawn color maps. Luke created such an impression that Lysa Penrose interviewed him for a post that shared his mapmaking tips.

Map by Luke Reid

Map by Luke Reid

Inspired by Luke and eager to give life to some of my fantastic locations, decided to draw color maps of my own. After all, I took all the art classes in high school. Also, I wanted to try drawing on my iPad with a stylus. Ultimately, creating the maps took far more time than I imagined. Still, I’m pleased with the results. And for me, drawing feels relaxing and meditative. My adventure Battle Walker From the Abyss features a couple of climactic battles includes my maps for your VTT or for printing.

Shedaklah in the Abyss

Shedaklah in the Abyss (partial map)

Grand Abyss bridge

Grand Abyss bridges (partial map)

Iron fortress partial map

Iron fortress (partial map)