UPDATE: Hey dips$&%s. I’m always tweaking and revising things based on feedback. Yeah, I actually DO listen to people. So, if you check The Angry GM’s Pile of S$&%, you can find a document containing a summary of all the current Raragon Rules. You can also grab a revised copy of Kurn and Targ.
Time for a quick trip down memory lane. Five years ago this month, I launched this f$&%ing website with a series of articles about building awesomely climactic boss fights in Dungeons & Dragons, 4th Edition that made up for the shortfalls in 4E’s solo monster system. And my how things have changed. We have a new edition of D&D. We have a new edition of my website. And now all of the problems that solo monsters had in 4E (and every other freaking edition of D&D) are completely gone forever because of 5E. Hahaha. But seriously. Solo monsters still suck. So, let’s celebrate my Fifth Anniversary by doing the same thing all over again.
If you want to get totally technical, and I know you do, solo monsters were a construct specific to 4E. Unlike 3E’s “one monster per group” assumption, 4E combat design was based around the idea that each PC needed a dance partner. Basically, five PCs get five monsters. Or thereabouts. Where 3E needed a complicated and confusing system to equate groups of monsters to single monsters, 4E needed a system of equating single monsters to groups. Hence the CR system in 3E and solo monsters in 4E.
As near as I can tell, 5E is attempting to split the difference. Though it is hard to be sure. It seems like the 5E combat system works best for pairs of monsters or small groups. Sure, the challenge/XP system is based around lone monsters, but the numbers actually seem to line up best with about two or three baddies against a party of four or five.
The thing is, even with the 3E “one monster per party” assumption, lone monsters never really worked great. Fights were too static, too focused on dogpile strategies where the party would surround the enemy, keep it pinned down, and hammer away until it was dead. The action economy just worked against the monsters. 4E struggled through its entire lifespan to find a good solution to that problem. Solos changed numerous times and relied more and more heavily on off-turn actions that were too f$&%ing easy to overlook and slowed fights to a crawl.
Now, I don’t want to be too overly critical…
Bwahahahaha. Okay, that’s a total lie. I LOVE being overly critical. This whole website is built on being overcritical.
5E seems have combined the worst of both worlds. Most monsters are designed to stand on their own against the party, but they have the 3E problem: the fights are static, monsters are easily surrounded, and they don’t have enough actions. The frequent use of multiattack ensures monsters have a good damage output, but it doesn’t do much else. Sure, monsters are threatening thanks to their damage output, but there’s no excitement to be had to in five-on-one fights. Especially as monster hit points rapidly increase with CR and mean the fights take longer.
But 5E does provide a solution. Sort of. They’re called legendary creatures. Those things are a little bit more like 4E solos. They get a few extra actions between turns to keep the fight more dynamic. The problem is, just like the solos of 4E, those extra actions don’t do enough. There are few enough of the legendary creatures in the Monster Manual and the variety of legendary actions is actually very limited when you look at what the actions actually do. Lair actions make things a little more interesting, but not by much. And lair and legendary actions are, just like reactions and interrupts in 4E, easy to overlook and slow down the flow of the game. Which is probably why 5E worked so hard to reduce the number of off-turn actions to begin with.
I’ll be completely honest, though, legendary creatures with lair actions aren’t terrible. They work well enough, especially with 5E’s faster, more decisive battles. But then, solo monsters weren’t terrible either. But still, I’m disappointed. And I’ll you why.
I Want Boss Fights, Dammit!
Let’s be honest: D&D is a combat focused game. You can’t argue that. And you’d be stupid to try. You can stay away from combat if you want, but you can’t pretend it isn’t designed around a pretty damned cool combat engine. And the basic structure of the game is a string of mostly action-oriented encounters (including combats) that ultimately resolve a problem or achieve a goal. And, at the end of that string of encounters, we expect something big and climatic. And if we’ve spent most of the game fighting, we expect a big, climactic fight. Boss fights are cool. They are a great way to end an action-oriented game.
I’m not saying we have to expect every dungeon or adventure to end with a big set-piece encounter with some sort of mastermind or giant monster or villain or commander or warchief of whatever, but we do. We really do. In a sense, the final encounter of every adventure, the one that ends the problem or achieves the goal is symbolic of everything that you’ve been working toward and everything working against you. And I totally dig that.
I want my God of War boss fights and my Shadow of the Colossus boss fights and my Dark Demon Souls boss fights and my The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Ocarina of Majora’s Twilight Wind Sword boss fights. I’m a video gamer too. So shoot me. And no matter how deep and intriguing my stories are, I want the battles with the major baddies to feel big and grand and epic and powerful. And different.
But, I also wanted something kind of simple. See, I don’t want to only have dragons as bosses. Or vampires. Whatever. I kind of want to be able to pull a bog-standard kobold out of the book, slap a few modifications on it, and call it Killer Kobby the Kobold Kween. And I wanted something versatile. I wanted to be able to pull off different tricks with my monsters. I want monsters that change forms and change tactics. I want monsters with heads you can sever. I want monsters with body parts you can target to limit its abilities. And I wanted a simple framework to contain it all.
You know what? I think I’ve got it. Ultimately, I came up with a few simple modifications that you can make to a stat block in D&D 5E (and also, with some tweaks, in Pathfinder) that allow you to layer on all sorts of different boss features. I fully admit it is no more or less complicated than legendary monsters with lair actions, but using the XP/encounter building system and a bunch of simple traits you can drop into a stat block, you can easily grab any creature out of the book and make a compelling boss fight out of it. Or a miniboss.
Now, I’m going to start simple and boring. Sorry. We’ve got to lay the groundwork before we build up. What I show you today won’t SEEM that exciting. But you have to understand it’s just the boring Lego pieces. The straight pieces that form the walls. We’ll start adding all the neat Lego pieces in future articles. Canopies and spoilers and things with stickers on them and those translucent pieces that look like lights.
But more importantly, we’re going to dig down to the nuts and bolts of encounter building building in 5E for a few minutes and figure out WHY this system works.
A Tale of Two Snakes
Let’s start with a tale of two snakes. Actually,it is just one snake. And I drove Twitter bonkers with it. A few months ago, while I was working on the basics of this system, I Tweeted something like the following.
“Working on a new creature: the two-headed, two-tailed, bifurcated snake. It’s a snake with two heads, two tails, and two completely separate, independent bodies.”
And Twitter lost it’s f$&%ing mind. Or rather, Twitter thought I had lost my f$&%ing mind. Everyone insisted I had created TWO snakes. But I hadn’t. It was one snake that was two snakes. And the difference is EVERYTHING when it comes to trying to make a good boss monster.
By the way, here’s the stat block I slapped together for the two-headed, two-tailed, bifurcated snake and some of my design notes.
“Do the two halves have to stay close to each other?”
“Are the snakes psychically connected?”
“Do they share a single pool of hit points?”
“So, you invented two snakes?”
“What the f$&% is wrong with you? That’s just two snakes!”
“How is that not just two snakes you f$&%ing lunatic?”
“Why don’t you just die of bowel cancer?”
“But seriously, you’re f$&%ing with us, right? It’s just two snakes. Right?”
And I answered them all with complete clueless stubborness. To the whole world, I had invented two snakes and was insisting they were one. To the world, I was a moron.
But I wasn’t. I was a genius. I was actually thinking long and hard about a serious question: what is the difference between one monster and two monsters? That might seem like it has an obvious answer, but the obvious answer is not very helpful. The non-obvious f$&%ing with Twitter answer is.
Assuming two monsters have the same statistics, the difference between one monster and two monsters is that two monsters have two pools of hit points, two turns in each round of combat, occupy two different positions, and cannot be affected simultaneously except by certain specific effects.
Why are we asking this question? Because 4E taught us that a boss monster needs to do the job of multiple monsters. So, we need to find a way to let one monster have those benefits. And you’ll notice, the two-headed, two-tailed, bifurcated snake actually does exactly that. It has twice as many hit points, but they are split between two different positions. It has two complete turns in combat. And both snakes can’t be affected simultaneously by the same effect.
So, can we accomplish the same things with just ONE monster? Absolutely. Well, mostly.
All you need to do, first and foremost, is to give the monster double the hit points. BUT you also need to put a wall between those hit points. See, if there are two orcs and each one has 5 HP remaining, and I kill one with 12 points of damage, the spillover is lost. It doesn’t magically transfer to the other one.
Secondly, you need to give the creature two turns in combat, right? BUT you also need a way to remove those turns. See, if there are two orcs, and I kill one, the orcs are down one complete set of actions.
Fourthly (we’re skipping thirdly for a moment), you need to ensure that ongoing conditions and effects don’t drag down down the whole creature. Basically, when one half of the creature is dead, you need to end everything that currently affects that creature, for better or for worse.
Thirdly is the two different positions thing. Simply put, there’s no way to pull this off with one creature (unless you make a splitting creature or cloning monster or duplicate, which is one of the neat Lego bricks we’ll add later). But frankly, it doesn’t matter so much. D&D 5E is a little less position oriented and a little less opportunity attack happy. Yeah, those things do have an impact, but the impact is mostly circumstantial. And it isn’t too serious. So I’m willing to drop it. Especially because, by giving one creature multiple turns in combat, you make it a little cheaper to spend extra movement to get a good position or what have you. Once a creature has the opportunity to move two or three times in a round, he can run circles around the melee line. So the position thing is the least important thing and I’m willing to lose it.
A Paragon of Monstrosity
So, let’s talk about paragon monsters. Yup, that’s what I’m calling them. Because legendary was already taken, Mythic isn’t quite what I’m going for, and bada$% is a bit two anachronistic. The basics of a paragon monster boil down to four simple changes: HP, CR, Paragon Hit Points, and Paragon Actions. Take a look at my Orcish Psychopath, Kurn. Kurn started life as a simple Berserker (MM 344) with the orc racial traits applied (DMG 282) and a quick double check to make sure the CR was the same (DMG 274). And then I turned him into a paragon.
Every Paragon begins life as a base creature (or two or three or four) pulled from the Monster Manual or created according to the Dungeon Master’s Guide rules. They are just like every other creature. And then we apply the changes to turn them into a paragon.
Notice I added the word “paragon” right into the type/subtype line. That’s in case I ever want to create any effects specific to paragons. Who knows.
A normal orc berserker has 67 (9d8 + 27) hp. But Kurn is twice the orc other orcs are. He gets two pools, each the same. Yeah, he’s got a whopping 134 hp. But he IS two orcs.
This is where things get a little weird. In order to make this mesh with the D&D 5E encounter building system, I had to do a couple of things. First, Kurn is two orcs, so he is worth twice as many XP. His Challenge Rating is the same because all of his individual stats yield a CR 2 and thus give him a Proficiency Bonus of +2. But that CR 2 is no longer the whole story for encounter building.
Remember, when you build an encounter in 5E, you multiply the XP of all the monsters by a multiplier based on the number of monsters to determine how challenging the encounter actually is. Since Kurn really is two creatures in one body, he counts as two creatures when you’re counting how many creatures are in an encounter. So, if you have the party go up against Kurn by himself, he’s worth 900 XP, but the XP is multiplied by 1.5 for the purpose of determining difficulty. Because he counts as two creatures. Thus Kurn is 1,350 XP worth of challenge. He’s a good challenge for a party of four or five heroes at level 4 or 5. They still only gain 900 XP for beating him. But he’s worth more because he’s effectively two creatures. Don’t blame me for this part. This is the encounter building in D&D 5E at work. I’m just cramming two monsters into one body.
Just by way of example, let’s say you want to add two normal orcs to the mix. Each orc (MM 246) is CR 1/2 (100 XP). The encounter has 1,100 XP of creatures, but because there’s FOUR creatures (Kurn counts as two), the difficulty is counted as 2,200 XP. Which means you now want a level 5 or level 6 party.
As to how it’s calculated, you leave the CR of the base creature alone and list that after the word Paragon (Paragon 2 shows Kurn started as a CR 2 creature). Multiply the base creature’s XP by the number of hit point pools (450 x 2 = 900). And then list the number of effective creatures which is, again, just the number of hit point pools.
Thankfully, this is the most complicated step. But now we get into the real magic of the system. The two traits that lay the basic groundwork for some true awesomeness.
Paragon Hit Points
Paragon Hit Points is the first of two traits to create a basic Paragon Monster. It lays the groundwork by defining the rules for hit point pools. By itself, it just gives the creature extra staying power. I purposely wanted this to be self-contained so I could drop it on a creature with minimal explanation.
Paragon Hit Points. The creature has multiple pools of hit points, each of which is tracked separately. All damage and healing must be completely applied only to one pool of hit points. One pool of hit points must be completely reduced to zero hit points before any damage is applied to another pool. When a pool of hit points is reduced to zero, all ongoing conditions and effects affecting the creature end immediately. After a pool of hit points has been reduced to zero, it cannot receive any healing until after a long rest. If all pools of hit points have been reduced to zero hit points, the creature is killed.
Note the block of text accomplishes everything we already talked about. Multiple hit point pools, puts a wall between the pools, ends conditions, and also prevents a pool from being “resurrected” by healing. In essence, this block crams one creature inside of another to pop out like a birthday party stripper when the first one dies.
The second trait, Paragon Actions, is what provides the extra turns for a monster. Again, it’s written to be self-contained and gives all the rules necessary to give a creature multiple actions. It works with Paragon Hit Points, but I want it to be self contained.
Paragon Actions. The creature gains one complete turn in each combat round, including one reaction between each turn, for each pool of hit points it has above zero. When a pool of hit points has been reduced to zero, the creature loses one turn each round thereafter.
Kurn’s Pet, Targ
First, I make it a paragon beast.
Second, we give it three hit point pools. This is one tough wolf. Each hit point pool is equal to the hit point total of the base creature.
Third, the CR remains unchanged at 1/4, but there’s three wolves inside that wolf (no comment), so the XP changes to (150 XP). And because there’s three wolves, Targ is three creatures for encounter building math. That means, a single Targ is worth 300 XP of challenge. He could take on a level 4 party.
And that’s it.
Just to make sure the encounter math is completely clear, though, let’s do a quick example. Imagine we want a fight with Kurn and Targ.
Kurn is worth 900 XP, Targ is worth 150 XP, for a total of 1,050 XP. But they are, together, a total of five creatures, meaning they are effectively 2,100 XP worth of challenge. Assuming a party of four PCs, the table on DMG 82 tells us they are a medium to hard challenge for level 5 PCs.
You might notice this is the same answer you’d get if you put the PCs against two berserkers and three wolves. Fancy that.
Just the Beginning
Now, Kurn and Targ will provide a hell of a fight. I don’t deny that. But they don’t do anything exciting. They just keep doing the same things, round after round. Sure, the extra actions and the exhaustion effect of having the party whittle away their turns do make for an exciting fight. But what if we could do more.
What if, for example, each pool of hit points represented a different form of the creature? Or if the creature had multiple body parts that could be targeted differently? Or if the creature could split into parts and recombine like an ooze or a swarm? Or if a creature could use it’s life energy to animate and reanimate shadow versions of itself? We’re going to do all sorts of things like that.
And the thing is, it’s almost entirely doable with Traits. The whole Paragon system builds on top of the existing 5E stat block system. There’s a few minor changes to the stat blocks themselves, but most of the rules are in the traits themselves. In theory, you could actually hand a reasonably experienced 5E DM Targ and Kurn stat blocks and they could run the fight. I know. I basically gave a very small secret cabal of DMs a couple of stat blocks without any explanation and asked them if they could tell me how the creature works.
So keep coming back. We’re going to keep playing with paragon monsters and see what other things we can cram into one body. And eventually, we’ll hit the pièce de résistance and the reason I called this whole endeavor “Project Hydra” in the first place. Oh, yeah.