To Take the Next Step Toward Memorable Combats, Take a Step Back in Edition
“It’s too much like a video game.”
“It’s not real D&D.”
“It’s too complex and over the top.”
These are just a few of the complaints I commonly hear about Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition, the more tactical older brother to the current 5th edition of the World’s Greatest Roleplaying Game. While 4e has its fans and detractors, one of the things it did right is an exciting and vibrant take on monsters. When I think of 4e's monsters, this Back to the Future scene comes to mind:
Don’t believe me? Take a look at the lauded mythic encounters seen in Mythic Odysseys of Theros. Mythic traits key off when the monster hits zero hit points, just like significant/boss monsters in 4e shift modes and attacks when bloodied. If WotC designers can borrow from the past, you bet you can, too.
Modifications like these give you an easy way to up the ante on monsters, especially ones from the original D&D 5e Monster Manual. Creatures from that original book are particularly vanilla and often underpowered above CR 10 or so. Compare them to some of the more exciting and challenging monsters from newer books and you'll see what I mean. Also, as we're entering our sixth year of D&D 5th edition, it's likely that both players and DMs are looking for new ways to spice up your combat encounters.
For home games, this only takes a few simple steps to give your monsters a makeover. As an example, let me show you how I did just that with gnolls, including the base and gnoll pack leader monsters:
Check Out the Monster’s 4e Version
First, I head to the D&D Essentials Monster Vault, which has six pages of gnolls. That’s a lot of furry terror, so I glance over each to see what they have in common. It turns out 4e gnolls have pack attack: they deal five more damage to targets that have two of their allies adjacent. Pack attack makes gnolls more deadly and narratively boosts the importance of their cultural background of using teamwork to take down threats.
Add 4e Powers
I start by adding pack attack, and then I come across another power I like for my leader: pack cackle. Pack cackle is a minor action in 4e (we’ll call it a bonus action in 5e) that allows allies within 25 feet to move 10 feet without provoking attacks of opportunity. This ability’s similarity with the Glamour Bard’s mantle of inspiration makes it seem justifiable that I’ll add in some temporary hit points to make it more like that ability. In 4e, the power’s on a recharge roll (which means you roll a d6 at the start of the creature’s turn to check if you get to use it again), but I’d prefer that the pack leaders can do it twice per short rest. I’ll use it once early to close the distance and then again when the fight is underway. The new ability goes well with the incite rampage ability, giving the pack leaders two battlefield control abilities to make them formidable and organized foes.
Add Conditional Effects
Looking over gnolls, a lot of them have triggers that they deal more damage when bloodied. I like that, but rather than adding another +1 or +2 here or there as 4e did, I grant them an extra die of whatever the damage type is to show how much more dangerous they are when low on health. To make that simpler
Finally, almost all the gnolls in 4e have a speed of 40 feet, so I give that to my gnolls. Being the ruthless, aggressive attackers they are, the boost of speed will help them close the distance on PCs and the civilians, adding pressure to the encounter.
And you’re done. In my prep, I often put key monster info and powers on a notecard. For memory aid, I make sure to mark the notecard with the bloodied threshold for each monster to know when their damage boost kicks in, and I make checkboxes for the pack lords’ pack cackle, and I’m good to go. If you run off of D&D Beyond, here’s a link to my updated gnoll pack lord.
Are you interested in giving this a whirl? I suggest starting with the D&D Essentials Monster Vault. The essentials line is refined from the earlier versions of 4e (some consider it to be a 4.5 edition) series and makes for a great starting point. Much as the monsters in Volo’s Guide to Monsters, Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica, and Mythic Odysseys of Theros have more interesting monsters as they’ve had time to learn more about the system, you’ll generally get more refreshing ideas from the later 4e supplements.