Challenging Epic Heroes — High Level 5E Monster Design from Monster Mastermind Ryan Servis
Hey there readers! Ryan from 2CGaming here, and I’m an expert in Tier 3 & 4 play for fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons. It’s a tough area of the game to play in. The players are likely wielding characters of obscene power and your monsters are struggling to keep pace. Everything is more complicated and the hours you just spent carefully constructing your arch-lich villain got smashed to smithereens by a paladin scoring a lucky critical hit on turn one. These problems are hard to overcome and are omnipresent in high level 5E. But fear not, for these obstacles are not insurmountable. It’s totally worth the effort too, as high-level games are uniquely spectacular when run well. I’m here to share with you a process by which we make Tier 3 & 4 games some of the most exciting experiences at your game table by showcasing how we at 2CGaming approach monster design.
In here you will find an overview of all the lessons we learned from running a ridiculous number of hours in high level 5E (seriously, thousands of hours), and designing monsters for that arena of play. You can see the proof of our approach in the critically acclaimed Total Party Kill Bestiary Volume 1, and its in-development successor, the TPK Bestiary Vol 2. It took us a long time to get good at this, so our hope is that with this information you can benefit from the many lessons we learned and mistakes we made along the way. So, let’s get started!
Setting design goals
Before you begin, let’s outline what your design is trying to accomplish. These are the foundations the average high-level monster requires to achieve resounding success. These goals of your monster designs are as follows, in order of importance.
- Originality. A key component of challenging high-level heroes is newness. The average 5th Edition player has 3 or more years of experience at this point, and 10th level heroes are veterans of considerable skill. If your design features a bunch of traits and actions stitched together from other monsters like an RPG Frankenstein, it won’t offer powerful heroes much to be surprised about. Originality can be explored in the following ways.
- Mechanics. Unique mechanics are always a winner. Think about ways your monster can attack characters in ways more than just chunking hit points. Maybe your monster steals loot, is just a figment of the PC’s imagination to be disbelieved, or something even wackier. Doing stuff like this is hard, and requires you design new rules that feel appropriate for 5th Edition. Referencing other PRG systems is very helpful here, as they likely have a strong ruleset already in place from which to gain precedence for your design. Consider exploring more obscure mechanics as well. Suffocating, drowning, mounted combat, jumping, diseases, poisons, curses, magical items, exploration. There are lots of little corners in 5th Edition that are barely explored, ripe with mechanics the average Player is unfamiliar with. Use them!
- Theme/Style. High level creatures need to be more than powerhouses waiting around for strong characters to challenge them. They are epic in every sense of the word, and the presentation should reflect that. Make them about something important: tied to cosmological forces, endowed with great purpose, or burdened by history. They need to feel like more than a tough punching bag that hits back.
- Playability. 5th Edition is, above all else, a very clean system. Your monster should not feel overwhelming or too complicated to play, using the most efficient and direct tools to accomplish its design. If its too tough to use, it is at best cool reading material. Not a disaster, but not desirable either. Avoid giving your monsters features because it “makes sense they should have them.” This is D&D 3.5 logic, where monsters had OODLES of abilities because lore wise it made sense they should. If you give your monster a feature or trait, it is with the expectation the monster has a high likelihood of using it when encountered (not necessarily fought). Remember, these monsters aren’t just foes to smash. Playability can be explored in the following ways:
- Clean Stat Blocks. Many features (especially traits) can make a stat block feel very bloated. Remember, a Game Master needs to look at the stat block for key information as to how the monster needs to behave when encountering players. Story stuff can go somewhere else.
To Legendary or Not To Legendary
A very common tactic for high level 5E monster design is to make your creature Legendary (giving it legendary actions, resistances, etc.). This is a very easy way to make your monster play better, as it gets more counter play options each round through its legendary actions (instead of being a punching bag for 4 turns then getting to act). However, that doesn’t mean all your monsters should be legendary. Quite the opposite. This is because legendary monsters are less usable than non-legendary ones. The justification for this is twofold.
Fighting an endless parade of legendary monsters is very boring and makes high level 5E feel less exciting to play. If every monster in your game session is legendary, none of them are.
Legendary monsters can’t ally with other monsters easily. Their action economies are very advanced, meaning DMs can get easily overwhelmed trying to manage the legendary creature and half a dozen others. Two legendary monsters in the same fight is a fustercluck of epic proportions.
- Stay Focused. Remember, most monsters are very good at a specific strategy. Lean into that. Make it really great at a few different things rather than decent at fifteen million things. The “jack of all trades, master of none” approach sounds cool in theory, but leads to a monster that feels unimpactful, uninteresting, or overcomplicated.
- Difficulty. 5E characters are tough, and 10th level and up ones very much so. You may be familiar with the rules for building monsters in 5E in both the Monster Manual (pg 6 – 11) and Dungeon Master’s Guide (pg 273 – 275). We recommend using these guidelines to get started but take them with a grain of salt. The official 5E guidelines were intended for players relatively new to 5th Edition, characters with none or a few magic items, and no gameplay variants (such as feats or multiclassing)
While those are very reasonable for the core of 5E, the game has evolved, and most people play it differently than as detailed above. For this reason, we recommend assuming the following when building your high CR monsters: Players are experienced 5th Edition gamers, characters have several magical items (and likely many more), and, at minimum, either feats or multiclassing variants are in play (and likely both).
This means your monsters need some juice when compared to the standard 5E models. More hit points, stronger attacks, bigger damage. The works. If you are using comparative design, assume every monster from official 5E sources is about 2 – 4 CR lower than it ought to be. This gets extremely true past the CR 20 range. Remember, your monster doesn’t have to have a crazy high CR to be difficult, and as a general rule the lower CR your creature, the easier its design will be. Difficulty can be explored in the following ways.
- Death Is Impermanent. Revivify is a 3rd level spell. At 10th level, the average 5th Edition group can either easily bring a character back from the dead, or find the means of doing so without derailing the adventure. Considering a “deadly” encounter in 5E is one where a PC likely dies, this means that by 5th Edition’s logic high level characters can’t ever be challenged using standard encounter building tools. A medium encounter (one where four characters of a level equal to your monster’s CR) face off against your monster should be one where one of them could definitely die if they make a serious mistake or get cocky. A “deadly” encounter should threaten a Total Party Kill.
- Lethality and Difficulty are not the same thing. Instead of attacking the PC’s hit points, it may be prudent to target other aspects of a character. Time and agency are precious to high level characters, and the reason death is so often feared in RPGs is because it deprives characters of both. However, a monster that inflicts debilitating curses, steals items, or otherwise foils the PCs and their goals can be considered very difficult indeed. It also gets really boring to be constantly assaulted by damage, so making players feel threatened in other ways goes a long way toward making your monster more interesting.
Building your monster
We have identified three categories of features your monster’s statistics block can (and should!) possess: Defensive, Offensive, and Utility Features. Keep these in mind as you put your monster together, and you will see your creation deliver on its design goals in spades.
Defensive Features. A creature’s defenses define its survivability — hit points, resistances, immunities, traits, and actions that provide self protection. Consider how effective your creature’s defenses will be based on the offensive abilities of characters. These can be mundane defenses such as damage resistances or immunities, condition immunities, or legendary resistances. They can also be extraordinary in nature: reflecting countered spells back at their source, moving away from threats at impossible speeds, or an aura that forces those who damage it to take an equal amount of damage. A creature’s defenses can be defined by the following levels:
- Weak. Low AC, a poor saving throw bonus, or limited vision can be exploited by clever characters to great success. All but the most powerful creatures have at least a few of these defenses. In extreme cases, these defenses can be vulnerabilities that players can target for tremendous advantage. Building vulnerabilities into a creature is risky, so consider giving the encounter plenty of strong and medium defenses to compensate.
- Medium. Medium defenses are the standard array of damage resistances and saving throw proficiencies. Medium defenses should take some effort or resources for a party of adventurers to overcome, but they aren’t perfect. The average high-level creature possesses many of these defenses.
- Strong. Strong defenses make a creature nearly impervious against certain methods of attack. An absurdly high saving throw bonus, damage immunities, or an AC in the stratosphere are all examples of strong defenses. These defenses almost never fail and discourage players from trying to surpass them. A high CR creature should almost never have more than a handful of these defenses.
Offensive Features. High CR creatures pull no punches and characters should never feel safe during an encounter with one. Even a well-prepared party sheathed in magical protections should struggle in combat. Creature cans have overwhelming offensive power and a diversity of effects. However, your players need to feel like they have a chance of victory, so avoid creating features that afford no opportunity for interactivity and decision making. A feature that instantly kills a character in the first round of combat makes the creature formidable, but it’s hardly fair or interesting. A creature’s offensive features typically fall into three categories, detailed as follows.
- Manageable. Manageable features are those your players can overcome with some quick thinking or strong defenses of their own. A fighter who invested heavily in AC and damage resistance should have a chance to feel invincible, even if it’s just for one round. Your creature should always have at least one manageable offensive feature to make your players feel like something is going well before they are torn to shreds.
- Dangerous. A dangerous offensive feature needs to hit hard enough to make high level characters flinch, but not enough to put them on death’s door with every use. These features give your creature a sense of perpetual threat. Every creature should have a number of such abilities, and they should make up the majority of the creature’s average round of combat. Aim for diversity in the ways the creature harms the characters. Forcing the party to attempt saving throws, avoid attacks, and spend movement to stay alive keeps your encounter feeling fresh and allows each character a chance to shine.
- Overpowering. There should be no foolproof defense against an overpowering attack, spell, or other effect. If the party gets wiped out by an overpowering offensive feature, it should be because they made a major mistake in how they strategically approached the encounter. Overpowering offensive features with durations must be cured or dispelled rather than endured. Fleeting or instantaneous offensive effects of this strength should be predictable and require preparation to survive. A high-level creature must have at least one overwhelming offensive feature, but its use should be limited. Using them every round is just cruel.
Utility Features. Unless your creature is literally a giant death robot built specifically to kill, it probably has some things it likes to do in its spare time. These features should align with your creature’s theme and bring out its personality and behavior. Skills, forms of movement, languages, vision, environmental manipulation, and magic all give your creature the means to influence the world. The best kind of utility features are those that have an interesting interaction both in and out of combat, allowing players to observe its capabilities and gain a strategic advantage before doing battle.
Phew, you made it to the end! I could honestly keep going for hours about how to make monsters, but what you just read is my best attempt at condensing a lot of knowledge and experience. Best of luck in your monster designs, and if you haven’t had a chance to dive into high level 5E, I hope this helps you take the plunge!