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Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition: The Hit List part 3, the Monster Manual

Posted by Andrew on

I've got the Monster Manual in my grubby little paws, and I'm going to write an entry about the biggest issue I've had with D&D to this date; the feasibility of level one adventures that contain a satisfying narrative. I'll be referencing the five-act structure quite a bit here, if you haven't read the plot entry I'd recommend you do so. It's storytelling 101, but still worth a refresher.

Challenge rating means something very different in the new edition of D&D. It's taking me some time to wrap my head around this, as I continue running games the need to remind myself of the new definition keeps popping up. CR no longer means “this is a good challenge for a party of this level, assuming you have four characters,” it now means “this monster probably won't kill someone off in a single combat round. Probably.” In one game I'm running my players are at the mighty level of two, and now have the durability of dry paper rather than wet. I used a griffon against them, which is now a CR 2 monster. The monk dropped from a single barrage of beak and claw attacks in one turn, the fighter could have easily been next had the sorcerer and fighter utilized their limited use abilities to chew through the creatures hit points. By the rules as written, the monk wasn't unconscious. She was dead. The player, having crafted a back story and placed some serious love into the character, would have been required to roll up a new PC had I been using the instant death rule. I still don't like it, I don't feel it fits the tropes of D&D, so I don't use it. Nyah.

After diving into this weighty manual like Scrooge MacDuck into his money bin, some of my complaints have been assuaged. With the new definition of CR and the low survivability at level one, I'm not comfortable using monsters above CR ¼ in any meaningful number in an introductory adventure. By 4th edition I limited myself to enemies of level 3 and below while avoiding elites like Irontooth, in 3rd I would use CR 1 sparingly but CR ½ frequently. This means that as a DM who wants a long lasting campaign with players who won't get frustrated after dying a few times getting access to fireballs, I need monsters with a CR of ¼ or lower. Here's a quick inventory of which monsters in the 5e Monster Manual fit this bill. I won't include the normal bill of mundane animals, something about going into the wilds to slay the menacing draft horses doesn't sit right with me.

CR 0: Awakened Shrub (?), commoner, crawling claw, homonculus, lemure, myconid sprout

CR 1/8: Bandit, cultist, flumph (!), guard, kobold, manes, merfolk, monodrone, noble, slaad tadpole, stirge, tribal warrior, twig blight

CR ¼: Aracokra, acolyte, axe beak, blink dog, bullywug, dretch, drow, duodrone, flying sword, giant (lots of animals, taking the place of dire animals), goblin, grimlock, kenku, kuo-toa, mud mephit, needle blight, pixie, pseudodragon, pteranadon, skeleton, smoke mephit, sprite, steam mephit, troglodyte, winked kobold, zombie

That's a lot of monsters. Plenty of them fall into the humanoid category, but quite a few don't. This appears to be a step in the right direction. Overall I've noticed a pretty huge downshift of monsters in CR, probably to accommodate this new paradigm of what the term means. If you're DMing a game of 5e, be very cautious of throwing a monster at your players with a CR higher than their level. That previously mentioned griffon will kill half your party in a flash, probably the whole thing by the end of the encounter.

Overall I really like the new Monster Manual. There's a lot of setting information, fantastic elements thrown in about regional effects for particularly powerful monsters, interactions between different monster back stories, and fantastic art. I've seen a few things I'd prefer when it comes to formatting, like placing the description, stat block, and art of specific devils and demons on the same page as well as including a brief description of what a monsters spells do, but I'm very happy with the final result. You can't make the book perfect for everybody. If I don't accept design decisions that go against my personal preferences then I'll never play a game again.

Getting back to my original point about narratively satisfying adventures, there's still one thing I'm having difficulty doing. The low-CR monsters make great acts 1-3. Act 4, our climax, is tricky at level one. The traditional “boss monster” encounter requires the encounter to be challenging, but not instantly deadly to the whole party. This puts monsters of CR ½ out unless fielded in numbers, in which case the boss will drop very quickly to more than one hit from the PCs, and monsters of CR 2 and above immediately wipe the party. Griffons and ogres are bad ideas at level 1 unless you give a pretty significant advantage to the PCs to help them out, which typically makes a climactic encounter feel rather anti-climactic. There are a good number of CR 1 creatures, but not very many make for a good boss monster. This means that crafting a climax to a level one adventure becomes a storytelling challenge rather than a mechanical one. That single CR ½ or CR 1 creature with some backup from the 1/4s or 1/8s needs some spice to feel like a climax. For veteran DMs this is not too much of a challenge at all, having the villain taunt the players the whole time, adding some hostages, putting the whole thing in a burning building, making a chase, the ways to turn a humdrum encounter into a splash-page style climax abound. Newbies may struggle with it.

Rambling nitpicks, I know, but I figured it's worth talking about. Now my grubby hands thirst for the DungeonMasters Guide. This thirst can never be satisfied.

Until next time, keep gaming.

Mojo, out.