There’s no such thing as something that is ALL bad. Everything has some redeeming value or utility. I often find myself screaming that at critics or at the backs of ex-girlfriends. Usually to no avail. But it’s true. There’s value in everything. You just have to find it. The problem is that sometimes it’s not worth the work.
Let me make a controversial statement: 4th Edition is absolutely the best edition of Dungeons & Dragons that I have absolutely no desire to play. 4E did so many things right and it did so many interesting and revolutionary things. But it also did a few things wrong. Well, several things. And those several things got in the way of my enjoyment of the game. But, a lot of them did eventually get fixed. It’s just that they didn’t get fixed fast enough. Major issues in monster design were finally resolved by the Monster Manual 3. Major class design problems got resolved in the Essentials line. But also in numerous splat books. The thing about 4E was that it was willing to experiment. That it broke far more new ground than any other edition of D&D except the first one. I mean, you can argue that 3E was pretty revolutionary too. And it was. But 3E did not begin by throwing away bunches of assumptions from previous editions. Instead, it sought a way to mechanically streamline and build upon the assumptions of the past. 4E was closer to a teardown and rebuild. And, you can argue that it didn’t work for YOU as an existing gamer, because, among various other problems, it didn’t FEEL like D&D. I feel you there. But it was extremely popular among neophyte gamers. 4E was far more approachable than any other edition. And, by every account, it did draw a LOT of new players into the hobby.
Why am I back to discussing 4E? Well, I think the greatest mistake 5E ever made was to simply roll back and try to retcon 4E mostly out of existence. Because putting aside all of the crap in 4E, there were a few evolutions in game design that have just been discarded. Or seemingly discarded. And that’s really sad. Because they were very useful evolutions.
Today, for my penultimate post of this crappy, crappy year, I’ve decided to get a little high minded. I’m going to look at two design principles from 4E and I’m going to play with them a little bit. This article isn’t some vital lesson for new or inexperienced GMs to learn to run better games with. This isn’t an article about some new, brilliant system to bring into your game. This is just a fun little reflection on a useful idea from a previous edition that wasn’t recognized as a diamond in the rough. And a little bit of thought about how to build on it. How to keep it in your head when you create new content. Let’s talk about “design rationale” and “transparency of design.”
Doesn’t that SOUND fun? Well, it does to me!
Rational Design with Design Rationale
I have a question for you: what is a class in D&D. Let’s say in 5E. Go ahead. Define it. Don’t look at the book. Just tell me what you think it is. Except don’t. I don’t care. You’re wrong. And the reason you’re wrong is because no one knows what a class is in D&D anymore. No one. Not even the game designers. And that is abundantly clear from the class list.
You could argue that a class is a profession. Or at least a set of professional skills. And that might seem to make sense, until you really start to look at things. Soldier is a profession. And it includes a set of skills. But so is fighter. And fighters can be soldiers. But not all soldiers are fighters. Some are rangers. Some are clerics. Some might even be wizards. You could argue that a class is a set of combat skills. And there, you’d be a lot closer. And some classes are focused on combat. Looking at you, fighter. But other classes get huge piles of noncombat abilities. And thanks to a recent variant monk published by WotC, you can now play an ACTION RPG with a COMBAT FOCUS as a PACIFIST MONK. Because that makes sense. Why is there always some f$&%ing moron who wants to bring a pacifist to a knife fight?!
One by one, every definition you might come up with for a class gets shot down by some other class or some other aspect of the design. Because some of the classes appear to be designed to very different purposes than others. And that’s because the oldest of classes, fighter, cleric, wizard, and rogue were designed to be broad and inclusive. And they were designed in an era where class abilities actually didn’t mean a whole lot. And where there weren’t even many abilities in the game. And when only one character had to be dedicated to fighting because combat avoidance was as big a part of the game as combat win-nance. But the class list started to expand as the game grew to allow for more possibilities. Classes got added by magazine articles, third party publications, first party optional publications, and new editions. Often, new editions would incorporate the best of all the past editions and publications. And then the process would start again. The biggest explosion of new classes came in 3rd Edition and has continued in Pathfinder.
Now, here’s the thing: a class is just an adventuring archetype. If you break down the sort of characters who go on fantasy adventures by the TYPE of character, you have a class. For example, Indiana Jones, Nathan Drake, Lara Croft, Benjamin Franklin Gates? There’s a pattern those guys follow. They are all explorers, archaeologists, treasure hunters. They are not particularly strong, but they are athletic. They are clever, but not great at planning ahead and prefer to improvise. They are charismatic, but sarcastic. They are knowledgeable, but only about specific fields. They are worldly and can be suave, but they also lack some social grace because they prefer to be out in the field. See? There’s an archetype there. You would argue that Jones, Drake, Croft, and Gates are all members of the same class.
But HERE’S the problem: archetypes are actually pretty nebulous. They are gut-feeling type things. And every character that’s added to an archetype’s umbrella fuzzies the definition a little more. But more importantly, archetypes are also a narrative concept. They are a storytelling concept. They are a shorthand label for the sorts of characters in stories. Which is just fine because D&D is an interactive storytelling game. But you can’t forget that second part. It’s an interactive storytelling GAME. A story archetype is a good starting point for character creation, but ultimately the archetype also has to serve a design purpose.
Let me give you a good example of what I mean. Let’s look at the fighter. The fighter was a fine class when the archetypes were very broad. It encompassed several archetypes: the marksman, the knight, and the barbarian. Half the cast of Lord of the Rings could end up in the fighter class. And there was plenty of space in the class for them because class didn’t mean a whole lot. And the fighter was also a fine class when not every class had to be equally good at fighting.
But now, when the class list includes the monk, the barbarian, the ranger, and the paladin, and every class has fighting skill, what is the fighter still doing in the roster? “Best at fighting” isn’t a strong enough definition when most of the archtypes that once fit under that definition are now classes on their own. Round about the time we decided barbarian and ranger were good ideas for classes, that’s also the same time the fighter should have changed to something like soldier or knight. It’s archetype should have been tightened up. The heavily armored melee dude or dudette.
For another example, take a look at the thief. I mean the rogue. That subtle name change speaks volumes. Because the idea of a thief doesn’t really fit the modern conception of the game. It USED TO be a good archetype. But the problem is that players took that name, thief, and ran with it. They ran with it in ways that broke the game for other players. So, thief was out and rogue was in. But rogue still has this sort of negative connotation. And lots of things that make a rogue a rogue are the secondary skills the rogue chooses. Burglars, acrobats, archaeologists, explorers, tomb breakers, those can all be made as rogues with the right combination of secondary skills.
And that brings us to another problem that entered the idea of classes round about the 3rd Edition. There isn’t really as good a structure to classes as you might think. Sure, every class has a hit die, base attack bonus, good saves, bad saves, and so on. Every class has an experience table. And every class has a class skill list. But those are minor elements of the class. What really defines a class is the pile of “class abilities,” a set of special rules that give the class it’s class. And those have no structure. Some are combat related skills, others are noncombat utility skills. Some are complex piles of mechanics and resources, others are simple bonuses. Some are optional ways to tweak a character, others are tightly structured to make all members of a class the same. Even the things that look kind of the same, like spellcasting, vary heavily from class to class to class.
And so, with no structure to any of that, you have some classes like the fighter that are very purely focused on one thing (bonus feats) and other classes that have piles of unrelated abilities like the monk or the ranger trying to build a very specific imitation of a character archetype. And, in a lot of cases, those character archtypes are pretty damned unclear. What the hell even is a ranger anymore? Or a monk?
And this has led to a terrible, terrible problem. See, the mechanical structure of classes is a huge hodgepodge of a mess. If you want to make a class, you can do everything from giving it a few bonus feats or a spellcasting progression to inventing an entirely new pile of mechanics and resources for that class to manage. And the class-as-archetype idea has gotten lost in the shuffle so that it’s not REALLY clear what a class is, but it sort of is if you look. So, as classes have become more and more specific, people have started inventing their own pile of VERY SPECIFIC classes with complex gimmick mechanics. Pathfinder has enough classes now to choke a tarrasque. So much so that the gimmicky specific classes have totally overshadowed the core classes.
Okay, so what did 4E do differently and what can we learn from it? Well, they weren’t brave enough to dump the NAMES of specific classes. The fighter in 4E should have been renamed the knight. And the rogue in 4E should have been renamed the swashbuckler. And, honestly, I don’t blame them. People would have a f$&%ing aneurism. What 4E did was say “okay, it’s all well and good to say a class is a narrative archetype, but it also has to serve a specific game purpose.” And that game purpose came down to the idea of roles and power sources. When you designed a new class, you had to come up with three things: an archetype for what the class WAS in the story, the power source from which the class derived it’s abilities, and the role that the character would play in combat. Power sources, by the by, included martial, divine, arcane, primal, and psionic. The fighter, the rogue, the warlord, and the ranger? Those were martial classes. They derived their abilities from training and raw physical and mental talent. No magic. No gods. No natural spirits. No psychic abilities. Just pure mundane muggle awesome.
They decided that classes were all about combat roles. Outside of combat, you could choose skills, use ritual magic, or just use ability checks to do all the things you might want to do. When you chose a class, what you were primarily choosing was what your character did on the battlefield. And that came out of another decision: let’s just admit that most people who play D&D like combat. Battles are a thing that WILL happen. Combat is an intrinsic part of D&D. Which was also fine.
From those decisions, they created a structure for the resources of the game that every class could follow. Instead of piles of abilities handed out at this level or that or whatever, classes gained specific types of abilities at specific intervals. In order to function, classes needed specific resources. And those became part of the structure of a class. And those specific resources built toward specific strategies based around the class’ combat role. You had defenders who specialized in locking down enemies and absorbing damage to protect their allies, strikers who specialized in dealing high damage to the most opportune of enemy targets, leaders who specialized in enhancing their allies’ abilities, and controllers who specialized on limiting the enemies’ options and controlling the battlefield.
So, the fighter in 4E wasn’t really like any fighter before it. It had a very specific role: using only mundane abilities and talents, the fighter would absorb damage and protect his allies. The rogue also had a specific role: using only mundane abilities and talents, the rogue would outmaneuver the enemy to deal high damage to priority targets.
And when you wanted to design a new class, you would decide on an archetype, a power source, and a role, and then you would design new abilities to that. When it came time to design the bard, for example, instead of the “jack of all trades, master of none” approach that lead to a hodgepodge of weak garbage in previous editions, the bard was an arcane leader. Using the magic of song and story and inspiration, the bard magically enhanced his allies’ abilities, providing combat support and healing.
And THAT is the power of “design rationale.” Design rationale is the reason why you’re creating something AND a basic idea of what it should look like when you’re done. A design rationale focuses the design. It lets you evaluate ideas and decide whether they fit. It tells you what you have to design. What questions you have to answer. And it helps ensure that your design serves its purpose when all is said and done. It also helps you economize. It helps you discard things that don’t fit into the design, things that take up too much space.
Evaluated from that standpoint, every one of the classes in 4E was designed well. That is, every class had an archetype – a strong story reason for existing – and every classes fulfilled a specific role utilizing a specific power source. Sure, it wasn’t perfect. Some classes were better than others. But the design approach was solid as f$&%. And that’s where we get into the difference between design and execution.
Why 4E Classes Didn’t Work for Everyone
Now, I didn’t intend for this to be a discussion about 4E classes. 4E classes just provide ONE EXAMPLE of a very important design philosophy in 4E that got rejected out of hand. But, I KNOW that I’m going to have some people flipping the f$&% out because I said “the classes in 4E were uniformly well-designed.” And people are going to scream their fool heads off. So, it is important to talk about why they didn’t work. Especially because the designers pretty much threw out EVERYTHING about 4E class design and, quite frankly, a lot of the 4E design philosophy in general. And I think that’s to D&D’s great disadvantage.
Look, 4E didn’t work for existing fans of the D&D franchise. I’m not discounting that. Hell, it didn’t work for me. But the sad thing is that a lot of the problems in the INITIAL design were being corrected. The design was being iterated.
The problem with 4E class design was that they went a little too far with the whole design rationale thing. Firstly, all of the classes were designed in exactly identical ways. There was no variation in mechanics from one class to the next. Every class had the same collection of resources: two at-will powers, four encounter powers, four daily powers, and seven utility powers. This was in addition to specific class features that were doled out at specific levels. The same specific levels for every class. Now, technically, that isn’t a PROBLEM. There’s nothing WRONG with uniform design except that it’s not what people expected. People expected wizards and fighters and rogues and clerics to all play a little differently. Martial classes should be less focused, for example, on resources with arbitrary limits. There is no need for a fighter to have a specific maneuver that could only be used once every twenty-four hours. But that was fine for wizards. In addition, each class focused on specific maneuvers, specific actions, rather than on broader talents. The fighter wasn’t focused so much on having versatile weapon proficiencies and feat progressions that created lots of options during combat. Instead, the fighter favored one weapon and a very specific set of individual moves. Likewise, the rogue still had options for upping their damage with sneak attack, but everything after that was specific moves with arbitrary limits on how often they could be used. These two factors together led to the complaint by some that “all the classes are wizards.” And that ISN’T an unfair complaint. It is true that the classes core mechanics all boiled down to having a very specific list of tricks that could be performed an arbitrary number of times per day.
Secondly, there wasn’t a lot of versatility. As I noted above, when you picked a fighter, you were picking a very specific role in combat. And nothing else. The classes were so tightly designed around their roles that there was no wiggle room. Again, that isn’t TECHNICALLY a PROBLEM. It just means you had to be smarter about the class you wanted to play. If you wanted a lightly armored skirmish fighter, you wanted a rogue, not a fighter. The name of the class was far more arbitrary than ever before. Honestly, had they dropped class names altogether and gone with “Martial Defender” or “Arcane Striker” as the class names, they might have gotten away with it.
But there was a bigger issue with lack of versatility. It meant that you couldn’t adjust on the fly. In the past, if a fighter had to switch to a different weapon to deal with a specific foe or if the wizard had to stop using his favorite damage type to deal with a specific foe, they could still be effective. But the classes were so tightly designed, they lost their ability to adapt to different situations. You had a very specific job to do it and if you couldn’t do it, you were VERY hamstrung by the lack of anything else to do. Now, D&D did its best to avoid those sorts of situations, but they still existed. And, even if you never HAD TO change your strategy, you still FELT that you were stuck with one job to do.
And the lack of versatility and wiggle room and adaptability led to the complaint by some that the classes were “pigeonholed.”
I will also note, just briefly, that the designers overstreamlined the non-combat portions of the game. The skill system was greatly cut down and offered far fewer options than the preceding edition and the variety of non-combat magical abilities was also pretty limited. This led to the complaint that the game was “all about combat.”
Now, what’s interesting is that the design of 4E did start to evolve. First of all, the roles became a bit better designed as new classes and new options were released. It actually took a while for them to really figure that what made a striker a striker wasn’t JUST extra damage, but also about mobility or targeting. After they did hone their definitions of the roles, they next thing they did was start building solid secondary roles into the classes. They played that idea lip service from the beginning, but the design only started becoming refined enough to see it in the second Players Handbook. There, you started to see the idea that you chose a class and got a primary role, but then, based on the powers, you also got a secondary role. And what that really meant was that you did your role by way of another role. For example, you could be a defender in a controllery way by using your powers to lock an opponent to you. Or you could be a defender in a leadery way by using your powers to undo attacks done to allies.
By the Players Handbook 3, with the introduction of psionic powers, they started to experiment with classes that were mechanically different. Psionic characters played differently from martial, arcane, divine, and primal characters. And that was a really cool idea. It unified the classes across a specific power source. And by the time Essentials came out, they moved that idea into the rewrites for the other classes. At that point, you saw that martial characters focused on abilities that modified their basic attacks, such as stances or specific maneuvers that enhanced attacks. And those things could be used over and over. But arcane and divine characters focused on specific magical effects with in-built limits on the number of times they could be used.
Ultimately, the ghost of what could have been is obvious. A class’ power source defined the resource game and broad mechanics it operated under. And every power source could be different. A class’ role defined its primary strategy. But specific choices of abilities would define a secondary strategy. And all of them could be tied to a flavorful archetype. For the combat side of the classes, that would have been a really cool and useful way to design a game. It might not feel like D&D, but quite frankly, I’m not sure that should even be the goal anymore.
But the designers chucked all of that out in favor of rolling back the clock to the random hodgepodge approach to characters in 5E. And if you watched the open playtests of 5E and all the various iterations of the classes, you could see they were taking a spaghetti approach to figuring some of this s$&% out. Throw things at the wall, see what sticks. You can still see them struggling to figure out what the hell a ranger or monk actually should be. And the fighter is basically a huge pile of options that come down to “f$&% if we know, play whatever fighter you want.” The class design is all over the place. And, personally, I feel the game suffers for it. I think some massively good ideas got thrown away because too many “established gamers” didn’t like how the new design approach felt and they prioritized existing fans over new players and an approachable game.
Crystal Clear Transparency
Now, apart from the idea of sitting down and deciding just what the hell you are actually designing and why you are designing it before you start designing it, one of the other things that 4E did more than any other edition of D&D is to TELL THE F$&%ING PLAYERS WHAT WAS WHAT. See, 4E put their design rationales front and center. Notice how the fact that classes had specific roles and power sources had absolutely NO game impact at all. That is, once you started playing, it didn’t matter that your character was a martial defender. Your specific abilities defined what you could do and how you could do it. There was literally no need to tell the players they were playing a martial defender. The abilities, powers, and everything made how to play the class obvious.
But they did. They wore their design rationales on their sleeves. Everything was clearly labeled with what it was and why. And in the days leading up to the release of 4E, the designers were remarkably transparent. They even released TWO books of essays about the design process of 4E. That’s two more than they EVER RELEASED BEFORE. And, as someone who participated in both open and closed playtests of 5E, I can tell you they weren’t even as transparent in the playtests of 5E as they were in the FINISHED PRODUCT of 4E.
Now, I do think a great deal of the reason for that is that the spaghetti approach doesn’t lend itself to transparency. They couldn’t explain the design rationale behind the ranger because they literally didn’t themselves know it. They were just designing different rangers to see which one came out good and that one got in the game, regardless of how well it fit alongside the other classes.
Transparency is actually extremely important, especially for a product that relies on a creative community. The ironic thing is that 4E had the tightest, most restrictive rules about who could publish and design for it. And yet, it was the easiest edition to design anything for. It spelled everything out. Very clearly and concisely. And the designers had clearly used the same tools to design the game that they were now explaining to the fans. And considering every game master has to function occasionally as an impromptu game designer just to keep the game running, let alone to design new stuff, that’s extremely helpful.
D&D 4E was a delight to design stuff for. Hell, if it weren’t, this blog wouldn’t even exist. This blog only came into being because I could look deep under the hood of monster design in 4E and come up with a better way to handle solo monsters within the same ruleset without breaking the game. It was just a matter of using the elements of the design.
Monster design – one of the favorite past-times for any creator GM – is a perfect example of solid transparency in 4E. Not only were all the rules for the mechanics of monster design mentioned, because 5E does that as well, 4E did something that no other edition did. It also provided a set of guidelines for how to design the monster as a game entity. That is, the conceptual stage of the design. 4E instructed you with how to come up with a design rationale.
Like PCs, monsters also had roles in combat. Soldiers were designed to absorb hits and protect other monsters. Skirmishers were mobile and specialized in dealing damage to priority targets. Brutes powered through PC defenses. Artillery monsters used ranged attacks to damage priority targets while limiting their own risk. Controllers limited PC options through battlefield control, zoning, and area effects. Lurkers specialized in swift attacks and then removing themselves as targets from the battlefield. And leaders made other monsters better. Yeah, those are very similar to PC roles. But, unlike PCs, it didn’t matter so much whether the monsters were versatile. If the PCs shut down their strategy, they lost the battle and that was what was supposed to happen.
The monster roles made monster design easier, but it also made it more fun. You started with a concept about what the monster was. Then, you chose a role. Then, you built specific mechanics so the monster could fill its role. It was much easier than trying to go from concept to mechanics. Moreover, it prevented gimmicky monsters that had one “neat trick” and were otherwise very generic. A skirmisher might only have one neat movement power, sure, but it would also have the right set of defenses and hit points and attacks to match that type of strategy and you would give it a higher movement speed. And you’d often add a trait or a rider on another power just to keep it as skirmishy as possible. It put you in the mindset of thinking about monsters in terms of combat strategy. And that was good for design.
But, that design, the idea of monster roles, also played into the hands-down BEST system for encounter building in the entire history of D&D. 4E assumed that the party would be facing multiple-monster forces most of the time and it encouraged you to vary the monster roles on the enemy team. Hell, there were pages and pages in the DMG that talked about how to design interesting combat encounters based on mixing and matches roles and terrain and creating synergy. Encounter templates were scattered throughout the DMG and the Monster Manual. The combination of design rationale and transparency made encounter building in 4E approachable and fun.
See, you can argue that combats in 4E took a little too long. And that, again, it took a while for them to hit a sweet spot in terms of monster design. But this was all untrod ground. They had never designed monsters and encounters like this before. And they never would again either. And THAT makes me sad. See, I’ll let you in on a secret: a lot of my own encounter building techniques, the ones I’ve written about, come from one book. It was released for D&D 3.5 in February of 2007, right around the same time we started hearing murmurings about 4th Edition. And that probably isn’t accidental. It’s an open secret that WotC (and TSR before it) often use supplements for one edition to test ideas for the next edition. The Players Option: Combat and Tactics book released for AD&D 2E was very clearly a testbed for many of the ideas that ended up as core parts of the D&D 3E combat engine. And The Book of Nine Swords for D&D 3.5 ended up testing the idea of warriors using limited powers and specific attacks like wizards that became the central mechanic for class design in the initial 4E release.
Dungeonscape introduced a whole new way of building combat encounters. It focused on building fights with groups of monsters with complementary strategies and designing terrain to suit the battle. And it introduced the idea of monster roles. Sure, it was done pretty clumsily. It included eleven loosely defined monster strategies and a few examples of which already published monsters would fit into which roles. Most people missed it. Me? I was designing 4E encounters a year before 4E was released. And I’m still designing 4E encounters. My 5E encounters focus on groups of foes on interesting battlefields. And to accommodate that, I end up making a lot of monsters.
Or I would if my 5E games hadn’t fallen apart here in this crap city. But soon, soon I’ll have a 5E game going again.
And THAT brings me what inspired this whole pontification. And the useful bit you can take away from this article.
How Monsters Role
The whole “role” thing for monsters and the encounter building tools and techniques that orbited around it? Of all the stuff in 4E that I actually felt was a good step, those were the ones I really wanted to see back in 5E. I really wanted to see the next iteration of that. Monster design had been getting better and better throughout the entire run of 4E products using those design rationales. The first MM for 4E remains one of my favorite core monster manuals across all of D&D in terms of actually being interesting, innovative, and game-focused. The designs of 5E are too bland and unfocussed again and the write-ups are far too much wordy purple prose considering most of that information will never, ever be seen by anyone except the GM and will never be more than world-building trivia. But the third 4E Monster Manual and the Monster Vault: Threats to the Nentir Vale? Those are the apex of 4E monster design.
The point is, I end up redesigning or tweaking a lot of monsters in 5E. The generic humanoids are bland and boring by themselves. The rest of the monsters are either gimmicky or unfocussed. There’s nothing strategically meaty in most of the designs. And, when I design monsters, I tend to keep the roles from 4E in my mind. Not consciously. It’s just that those roles have sort of infected my thinking.
See, the roles from 4E weren’t THAT great. They were sort of fuzzy. And over time, they changed. It took WotC a while to refine the definitions. Lurkers and controllers specifically went through a lot of subtle changes over the years. And, because those roles were created as TEAM positions for monsters, they aren’t always useful when looking at individual monsters.
But the thing is, the value of a transparent design rationale can’t be overstated. Well, that’s ridiculous. Of course it CAN be overstated. I could say that without transparent design rationales, the moon will crash into the Earth. THAT would be overstatement. But they are valuable things. And if there is a nice, systematic way to approach design rationales, much the better. 4E was systematic. It gave you simple classifications for each monster that you could build around.
Ultimately, I don’t have anything I would call “done” though. That’s why this is more of a fun pontification. But I can least talk a little bit about the lines I’ve been thinking along.
Basically, the design rationale for a monster comes down to a strategy, how it behaves in combat to challenge the players. Notice how the goal of a monster is not to achieve victory though. Oh, sure, the monster’s IN-GAME goal is to win. But the mechanical goal of a monster is to present a challenge to players. To give them something to defeat.
First of all, monsters can function in a group, alone, or both. Monsters that fight alone need to be able to adapt their strategies or fill multiple roles. Monsters that only function in a group can be more specialized. They can do a specific job as part of a team. Most of the roles in 4E weren’t suitable for lone monsters because they relied too heavily on other monsters.
Second of all, monsters can really adopt one of two basic strategies. Offensive monsters are monsters that attempt to overcome the PC’s defenses to deal damage. Defensive monsters are monsters that attempt to minimize the damage that the players deal to the monsters. Now, it’s important to note that both offensive and defensive monsters need to able to deal damage. They need to a be a threat. But offensive monsters focus on killing the PCs quickly and efficiently. Defensive monsters deal less damage overall and rely on defensive abilities to outlast the PCs.
Now, the offense/defense dichotomy works particularly well in D&D 5E because of its reliance on Offensive and Defensive CR as part of monster design. Deciding that a monster is offensive or defensive already tells you something about how to set its stats. But it also tells you something about the sort of battle you’re setting up. See, offensive monsters will tend to hit hard and fast, trying to end the fight before their own defenses get overwhelmed. Defensive monsters will tend to establish their defenses and fight for the long haul. Assuming that most PC parties will have a mix of offensive and defensive options, all things being equal, fights against defensive monsters will be longer, slower, and they will require the party to be proactive. The party will have to find a way to overcome the enemy defensive, but they can do so at their own pace. Fights against offensive monsters will be faster, more frantic, and they will for the party to be reactive. Of course, a mixed party of offensive and defensive monsters will provide a nice, middle-of-the road fight that allows the PCs to either take a proactive or defensive role.
But where the strategy thing really shines is in designing mechanics: traits, attacks, reactions, and so forth. Once you’ve decided that you have an offensive group monster, the particular strategy you choose will help you design interesting mechanics for that monster that wouldn’t suit, say, a defensive lone monster.
Further, you can increase the complexity of a monster without much changing its CR simply by adding strategies to a monster. If you want a monster that works best in a small group, you can choose two different strategies, for example. You can use the “primary strategy by way of secondary strategy” approach that became the go-to for 4E classes. Or you can ensure that a monster just has traits or attacks for two different strategies. If those strategies are exclusive (the monster can either use THIS trait OR that trait, THIS attack OR that attack), the CR of the monster will be unaffected because the CR is concerned with the round-by-round output of the monster’s BEST options. And when you create a lone monster, it is all but essential to give the thing at least two separate strategies to allow it enough versatility to fill the combat by itself.
I’ve toyed around with a lot of different systematic approaches to strategies in combat. I was toying with the idea of different dichotomies. For example, direct vs. indirect and offense vs. defense, so that you get a direct offense strategy. But none of the things I tried really felt right. Ultimately, instead, I started playing around with different potential strategies and trying to come up with a list.
Now, it’s a work in progress. It’s not an all inclusive list. And I might not ever even do anything with it other than keep it in my head as a starting point for monster design. But I am hoping to build a more systematic list in time. Either way, I’ll share the basic eight strategies I tend to use in monster design: four offensive and four defensive. And what’s interesting is that there is already a rock-paper-scissors element appearing in that some offensive strategies appear to be particularly effective against some defensive strategies. So, if I were, say, designing feats or combat spells or whatever for a totally different role-playing game, I could draw on the same list. But, ha, ha, ha, why would I ever do that?
Anyway, my eight strategies so far.
Bruisers are offensive monsters that overpower PC defenses. They have some way of punching through defenses, either by boosting their attack roll or by boosting their damage roll. A lone bruiser is the sort of monster that sets up a combo action. For example, a creature that relies on an ambush attack (which grants bonus damage) is a good example of a bruiser. Group bruisers might be the sorts of creatures that get a bonus to attacks or damage or both when they team up with adjacent allies. Or they might be the sort of monster that grants allies bonuses to attack and damage. That would also be a bruiser strategy, since it is increasing the overall damage of the enemy party to overpower PC defenses. Notice, though, that bruisers aren’t simply creatures with high attack rolls and/or high damage. That’s not a strategy. It’s a stat. And besides, there is nothing interesting about a monster whose only trick is “dealing damage.” That said, of all the offensive monsters, bruisers probably deal the most damage with their basic attacks.
Snipers and Skirmishers are closely related offensive monsters that specialize in putting damage right where they want it. Snipers rely on ranged attacks which allow them to target distant enemies. Skirmishers are able to avoid, outmaneuver, or disengage from PCs in order to reach priority targets. Both rely on taking out soft or dangerous targets, like squishy PC wizards, healers, or ranged attackers. Lone snipers and skirmishers NEED a defensive strategy to survive long.
Sappers are offensive monsters that focus on reducing enemy defenses somehow. They might spit acid that destroys armor or they might curse someone to reduce their saving throws. Lone sappers would probably be combo monsters. They would use one action to knock down a foe, for example, and then the next action would take advantage of the prone foe’s reduced defenses. In fact, lone sappers would be ideal for a second offensive strategy. Set them up then knock them down.
Healers should only be used rarely. Healers are defensive monsters that specialize in undoing the progress that the PCs have made. And THAT sucks. Seriously. Given the choice between overcoming 5 HP of damage reduction and watching a monster heal 5 HP of damage, most players would prefer the damage reduction. Healing feels like you’re robbing them of progress. Still, it is a viable strategy for a particularly hateful monster and it does drive strategic thinking (take out the healer first). Healing can include self-healing, regeneration, life drain, or clerical magic. Healers are basically the opposite of Bruisers.
Zoners and Blockers are bother closely related and exist in the opposite space as Skirmishers and Snipers. Both essentially exist to remove offensive options. Zoners can control movement. They can lock foes down, push them around, slow them down, or create areas of dangerous or difficulty terrain in order to keep the PCs from reaching the prime targets or from escaping the most dangerous offensive monsters. Blockers hamper or control enemy targeting. They might absorb attacks for adjacent allies, they might impose penalties on attacking certain targets, they might use taunts, oaths, or other forced targeting mechanics, and so on.
Finally, Buffers serve as the counterpoint to Sappers. Buffers increase their own or their allies’ defenses in some way. They might grant armor bonuses to adjacent allies, they might give temporary hit points (which aren’t the same as healing), or they might grant resistances to specific types of damage, or they might somehow provide cover.
Anyway, that’s just a working list I’ve been playing with. And there’s a lot of design space in it and a lot more still left untapped. But I’ve been finding, so far, that with enough creative interpretation, I can fit almost anything into one or more of those eight strategies. And, sure, sometimes lines blur. For example, suppose a monster can cast a spell on an ally that gives disadvantage on attacks. That could be Buffing OR it could be considered Blocking. After all, Blocking and Zoning are about creating incentives and disincentives for the enemy to take specific actions. But the fact that the borders are a little fuzzy means things are working as intended. After all, a single mechanical move is not the same as a strategy. The fact that different moves can fill different roles for different monsters is a good thing.
In conclusion, I don’t know. I really don’t. This is one of those weird articles that I invented the category of Random Bulls$&% specifically for. It isn’t meaty, it isn’t really game mastery, it’s more sort of game-design adjacent. The idea of strategies for monsters AND for PC abilities is one that I think has a LOT of value, at the game design level AND the adventure design level AND even the level of running the game. So, conceptually, that’s handy. But the larger lesson about having a design rationale and being transparent about it? That, I think, is the real gold.
Anyway, look, it’s about to be the New Year. And right now, I’m feeling reflective. So this is a good second-to-last post of the year. Think of this one as the sort of reflective, naval gazey, out-with-the-old style post that is appropriate to December 30. And tomorrow, December 31, you can have the “in with the new.” Cool? Good.