Monsters are one of the cornerstones of DnD, they represent one of the most powerful tools a GM has at their disposal. They can be used to instill fear, excitement, joy, or even pity in our players' hearts. So how can we make sure that we get them right?
Your time is precious, so let’s jump into it:
Here is the 3 and half step process I use in my games after my many years as a GM and content creator for the game.
Step 1. Monster Ideation
This is the 1st step, where we use our knowledge about the party, and where they are in the world to plan the encounter. Basically, how challenging do we want things to be, and what monsters would make sense to use in this particular scenario.
Once you’ve decided if you want an encounter that is going to be fairly easy, or something that’s meant to put the fear of God in them, or anything in between, choose the type of monster.
Let’s say the party is trudging through sewers, oozes would make a lot of sense there, minotaurs not so much. To be fair, most monsters can be used in most locations, but it’s nice to narrow things down. Alternatively use monsters that are linked to the current villain the party is facing or will face. If it’s a lich, use lots of undead, if it’s a dragon, use all kinds of kobolds and draconic foes, and so on.
Talking about epic encounters, this is a sea dragon from my Guide to the Abyssal Depths, that I used with great success to terrify my players
Regarding the difficulty, The DMG has a table for how much XP an encounter will give for Easy, Medium, Hard, and Deadly difficulty. The book says to run 6-8 encounters a day, to spread the player’s resources and offer a legitimate challenge. I think that’s BS.
Most games I’ve run, and people I’ve talked to, often only have 2-3 encounters max per day (day as in per DnD session). So I usually do 1 Medium, 1 Hard, and 1 Deadly encounter, because I like tough games, but you can go 1 Medium 2 Hard and still offer a fun challenge.
If you don’t want to bother with the Tables of the DMG, because they are quite time-consuming, we have a Free Encounter Builder on our website that you can use (and there are many others like it that you can find online.)
Now that you know what sort of DnD monster you want, now is the time to give it some stats. When creating a monster it’s always easier to start from a template. You can use the Monsters provided in the MM or any other book of your choice as your base and alter them for your game. Or you can use the next (optional) step.
Optional Step: Monster Creation / Modification
So you chose a monster, but you’re not satisfied with the stats, because it doesn’t fit your game properly. Well time to alter that stat block or to create one from scratch. Although the latter usually takes more time, it’s often more rewarding to unleash on the players, I’ll let you make the call on this one.
1. Monster Creation
In the DMG page 283, there are charts to calculate the Challenge Rating of the monsters you create, but thanks to the advent of technology, no need to complete the tables by hand, instead there is this very neat free website created by Reddit user u/itsadndmonsternow, which makes the calculations for you, the Balance Calculator.
Couple of things to note about the calculator:
First, you need to fill in 3 rounds of damage output, not 3 turns, meaning that if your monster has legendary actions they can use during a round, count them in the damage
Second when calculating AoE effects like a dragon's breath the DMG p. 280's guidelines say to assume that it hits 2 targets that fail their save to calculate average damage. Unless your effect has a massive range, bigger than that of an ancient dragon's breath (90 feet cone), use that to calculate average damage.
Note: The 2 links above are softwares made for computers, the display may look strange on mobile.
2. Monster Modification
Now if you don’t want to go through the process of altering stat blocks but still want to surprise your veteran players who know all the monsters in the manual, (or if you suspect them of looking up stat blocks) a simple thing you can do is this:
- “You are now facing a Death Dog, it’s going to use its web attack. - But Monkey, death dogs don’t have web attacks! - It’s a special death dog ;)”
How did I do that? Super simple, I used the Death dog’s description for my players, but in reality, I used the Ettercap’s stat block. This took me 2 seconds to do. Simply look up another monster of the same CR and swap the stat blocks, and your players will stay on their toes. Is it lazy? Kind of. Does it work? Absolutely.
3. Stealing Monsters
Alternatively, you can also just scour the depths of the internet for monster stat blocks custom-made for DnD. On this very website you’ll find plenty of them for free, and even more fun ones on my Patreon, they are all playtested beforehand to make ensure the proper balance. It’s rare for players to have seen those, so it gives you a nice element of surprise. I know, because a lot of supporters have told me so.
Step 2. Strategy Layout
A monster is more than just the stat block it has.
It needs to be considered in the context in which you will use it. Is this monster supposed to create a full villain arc, like a Dragon or Vampire, or is it going to be used as fodder in battle, or something in between?
I go into more details on how to create villains that will stay in your player’s mind long after the session is over in this free guide right here, as well as give you additional strategies for your encounters to be memorable.
Usually, in the stat block and lore, there are indications of how the monster is used. For example, the good ol’ zombie is made to be fodder, and that's alright. A werewolf on the other hand, with proficiency in stealth and immunity to non-silvered weapons, is made to be an ambusher that will jump on the unexpecting wizard at the back of the party whilst the party is traveling through the forest.
Make sure to implement a proper strategy for your monsters and to use the environment, it doesn’t take much time to come up with one, and really adds to the challenge and fun of the game. (Dark Souls is fun because it’s challenging in a good way, we want to replicate that sort of engagement). Not every encounter needs to be blood curling, but your players need to know that if they are not careful it will come back to bite them in the butt. This way you keep the engagement at maximum, nothing to keep someone engaged like fear of death ;)
Step 3. Executing the plan
Now that you’ve prepared your encounter, your strategy, now is the time where you get your moment and unleash hell on your players, or at least a fun encounter!
Final Note: What I recommend doing is having a set of encounters planned, around 1-3 of them, depending on how sure you are of the party going through the route you have intended (cause players have a knack for derailing stories, don't they ;)) You can easily create them, just follow the guide, and whenever the need for a battle arises, just pull out one of the encounters.
There you go, these are my 3 and a half steps to creating more fun encounters! If you want to get even more information on how to create kickass encounters and villains for your games, to turn your fights into stories your players will talk about for weeks, check out our Guide to Creating Memorable Fights Until then, take care!
- Evan | MonkeyDM